It’s well known that Kenya is one of of the best spots in the world to take a safari. But did you know that it is also rife with topographical diversity? I’m talking about glacial mountains, Rift Valley volcanoes, coral reefs and desert escapes. Sounds pretty amazing, right? I thought so too, which is why I reached out to three travel experts–Jason Florio, of FlorioPhoto.com, Marcello Arrambide, of Wandering Trader, and Matt Gross, editor of BonAppetit.com and the author of The Turk Who Loved Apples–to get some of their best tips for traveling through this eclectic East African country.
What is your must-try food or beverage in Kenya? And why?
JF: I would go for a Somali lamb stew in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, which is also known as Little Mogadishu. Why have this in Kenya? Because you don’t need six armed guards as your dining companions, which you would need if you went out to eat it in (Big) Mogadishu. As for drinks, I hate to be cliche, but it has to be the national brew, Tusker.
MA: The food I would say that everyone has to try are samosas and chapatis. Both are inspired by Indian cuisine but are found commonly throughout Kenya. They’ve become a common staple of Kenyan cuisine.
Samosas are what some may call an African version of an empanada. They are triangular in shape and deep fried, which creates an outer coating that is crispy brown. Inside you’ll find a tasty filling of spicy meat or even veggies. You can find them alongside the endless number of street carts in the country (especially Nairobi). Samosas are one of my favorite things to eat while on the road in Kenya. Chapatis, on the other hand, can be compared to a pita flat bread. No matter where I ordered this dish it was always the right texture and taste. Just soft enough to allow you to roll it into a pita and just hard enough to have with coffee or tea. It’s a great snack.
MG: I guess you have to eat ugali, which is sort of like the Kenyan version of polenta. They eat a lot a maize and corn there, and grind it up with flour to create this polenta-like semi-solid porridge that everybody eats at every meal. The other thing that’s pretty good is sukuma wiki. It’s a braised kale dish.
In your opinion, what’s an important “do this” or “don’t do that” when it comes to traveling in Kenya?
JF: Do learn how to paddle a tiny balsa wood canoe on Lake Baringo with the charming Njemp fisherman, and watch the fish eagles snatch fish from the lake around you–mind the hippos though.
Do not try and take pictures of the ferry crossing in Mombasa. The local security has come up with a neat little shakedown if they see you taking pictures. They have no authority and there are no clear signs about not photographing, but they will threaten you with police action. It cost me a $5 bribe and left a bad taste in my mouth–but that was soon washed out with a Tusker.
MA: When in Kenya interactions with the animals are a must. Outside of the common safari, I would highly recommend a visit to some of the orphanages and nonprofit organizations that allow tourists to get close to the animals. You can feed giraffes at the Giraffe Centre and even have breakfast with them at the Giraffe Manor. Another exciting up close encounter would be the Elephant Orphanage where a massive family of elephants comes out for a feeding and to interact with the keepers. And then just outside of Nairobi the adventurous tourist is able to ride ostriches at a local ostrich farm. Tourists are even allowed to order ostrich for lunch as well.
MG: Do say hello to everyone–people you pass on the street, people you meet anywhere. Be happy, friendly and polite, because in Kenya people are friendly. They want to meet you, talk to you and hear about what’s going on. I got invitations to have dinner at random people’s houses because I was running past.
Don’t try to rush things. It’s a big country. It’s a bit messy and rough in places. You can’t assume that just because it is 30 miles from point A to point B that you should be able to get there in half an hour or that everything will be ready. You must be patient. You must also plan a lot of free time to account for the fact that things do not move as smoothly as they do in North America. But that can be enjoyable. It gives you more time to say hello to everybody.
Jason, what was one of the biggest challenges you, as a photographer, encountered while shooting in Kenya for the AFAR story, Runner’s High?
JF: Thinking I could make photographs of athletes sprinting along side giraffes.
Marcello, you saw the Big 5 on your first Kenyan safari, so I’m curious what your best tip is for someone going on their first African safari?
MA: I’d recommend that someone spends more time on a safari. The cheapest safari available is a three day safari where one drives all day to the reserve and a small drive is taken during the end of the day. The following day is a full day of safari and then an early departure the third and last day. There are so many unique opportunities that can happen at a moments notice that one day just isn’t enough. Also, make sure to have a good enough camera with a great zoom, even if you have to rent one. Safaris are a once in a lifetime experience and it would be shame if you couldn’t take pictures.
And finally, Matt, you spent two weeks running in the town of Iten for the AFAR story, Runner’s High, so what is your best advice for travelers who would like to go to Kenya to run?
MG: The thing is not to be intimidated. I was one of the slowest people for hundreds of miles around, but I ran twice a day and people recognized that. I remember coming back from one run, just like an afternoon/evening run that was like 10 miles, and, as everyone does, someone asked me, ‘How far did you run this afternoon?’ And I said, ‘10 miles.’ And they said, ‘Oh, oh, that’s nice.’ They were one of those professional Kenyan or British runners. And they were impressed that I did 10 miles after already having done five or seven in the morning. Forget all about your self-consciousness and just run, you’ll get respect for that.