So you want to go backpacking in Malawi do you? Good choice my adorable little panda cub. It is beautiful country with very friendly people. In fact, Malawi is known for its friendliness – even to depraved souls such as myself. The first thing anyone in Southern Africa says when you mention you might venture to Malawi is, ‘Oh, they are really friendly there’.
But why else should you visit Malawi? What are the best places to see in Malawi? How do you get around and don’t end up with an old man’s broken back, like you – Turner? It can’t be all just ice cream cones and friendliness all day. This isn’t summer time at grandma’s house after all. True. In addition to friendly people and a unique view of Africa, Malawi is home to one of Africa’s largest and clearest lakes. It is crystal clear and there aren’t many motorized boats on it, so it is peaceful. Likewise, Malawi is also home to some incredible nature, mountains, and is less often visited than some of its neighbors, and the cherry on top is there aren’t any jihadi groups running around carrying tourists away in rut sacks to make Youtube stars out of. Win. Malawi is a terrific country to visit and easy to backpack. It also has the nicest people I met on my entire trip through Africa.
So without further adieu, here are some details to get you started backpacking in Malawi.
Best places to see in Malawi
If you are coming from the South or the Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, this might be your first contact with Lake Malawi. It is an easy place to get to and spend several days lazying around. You can snorkel, kayak, and scuba dive in freshwater with near perfect condition – great for beginners who want to get some more scuba experience or if ever wanted to know what it is like to scuba in a bathtub. Cape Vegas, as the locals call it, has a little town with one or two general stores, a few little bars, a couple of local spots, and is just a peaceful little situation to find yourself in.
Not as nice as Cape MaClear. Sorry, not sorry. But it is nice to get a different perspective of the lake. It also has more stores and commercial stuff. There is however, a guest house / hostel there that has some pretty kick ass food. Monkey Bay, while not as peaceful as Cape MaClear did offer some different scenery with boats and wrecks to see. It is also right next to the slowest ferry on Earth if you wish to travel Malawi by water.
I make sad faces to this day when I think of Mt. Mulanje. I didn’t get to hike it. I heard it is one of the best hikes you can do in Africa. I was there in November and it was the start of the rainy season transition. So half of the people I met made it up, the other half were there and it got rained out. Check the seasons for the best time. You can hire guides who will carry all your gear like sherpas. They know the terrain and how now to wander off the trail and be eaten by a mountain goat.
My oh my. I had heard through the travel grapevine that this island, a stop over by the ferry, was the most beautiful place in Malawi. I think they were right. It is a small island that one can cross in a couple of hours walk or 20 minutes or so car ride. They have a couple of luxury resorts and a hostel that is owned by ones of the resorts. It is the ultimate chill out spot. The only ‘attraction’ on the island to see is a massive church that was built by Scottish missionaries. The church, however, is kind of a pilgrimage site for religious people around Malawi. While a big ass church doesn’t sound really interesting especially if you are coming from Europe, it is impressive to see in relation to all the shanty villages around it. The people that go get serious jazz hands. Like an African version of a Southern Baptist revival. Amen.
Nkhata Bay, whose name I still can’t pronounce to this day, is also a sweet spot that rests on a bay on Lake Malawi. All this lake time may have you wondering if you will get bored of lake? No, not really my little otter pop. Nkhata Bay has more of a vibe going on than any of the other locations, so if you are feeling lonely for some social interaction, well, you might just scratch an itch here. There are are a lot of places that offer everything from kayaking to yoga retreats – so if you are on a spiritual quest of healing, this might be your jam.
Livingstonia is probably the last or first major, and by major I still mean ridiculously small – it’s Malawi, spot to drop off and check out. It is a town up on the hill overlooking Lake Malawi. So as you can probably guess, it is great for hiking and if you want to get a different perspective of Malawi. Random enough, they also have a boxing club, so if you want to see what Malawian boxing looks like, well, this is your bucket list chance tiger.
Where to Stay in Malawi
My favorite way to travel, if possible, is to book my own apartment, room, or homes stay through AirBnb. I use this method because you get more value usually where you go and can find some pretty sweet pads in great areas. You seem more like a local or regular traveler too, rather than just some tourist when you meet people. If you haven’t signed up with them, you can get a free $40 credit here to do so.
If you don’t want to go the Airbnb route, I usually opt for booking.com as they have a huge selection of places in various price ranges, and you can sometimes just reserve without paying in advance.
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?|
|Cape Maclear||Funky Cichlid||The most popular hostel on Cape Maclear, it is social yet laid back. All the activities you could hope for.|
|Mgoza Lodge||Nice rooms waterfront, this lodge also has large pool and is full service.|
|Monkey Bay||Monkey Bay Beach Lodge||Cool decor and amazing food. S. African owner knows cuisine.|
|Mufasa Eco Lodge||No frills, but social and has own private cove on Monkey bay|
|Nkhata Bay||Mayoka Village||Perfect blend of social and atmosphere. Live music and large menu. All activities, private rooms with views.|
|Aqua Africa||Privacy with Pool|
|Likoma||Mango Drift||Perfect private beach and even better vibe. Kayaks, volleyball.|
|Livingstonia||Mushroom Farm||Huge plates of fresh vegetarian made on premises. Sweeping view of Lake Malawi.|
How Backpack Around Malawi: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
If you just arrived in Malawi from a far away land with halfway decent transport, you might be thinking it is a bit rough getting around. However, if you are coming from Mozambique, Malawi is a dream. Overall it is pretty straightforward. Like many African countries, the beloved chapa (a minibus that has 16 seats, that they cram 25 people in) is the cheapest way to get around. However, it seems that in Malawi these are used more on major routes in the cities, as such, a lot of your chapas are more like cars that actually have seats for everyone.
Most of the time, I was in shared taxis, which are smaller than a chapa and more comfortable. Maybe not quite as cheap, but still inexpensive and not horrifically uncomfortable like a chapa. Your back will thank you.
Pretty self explanatory here. Your hotel or guest house can call you one. They are the most direct but they are way more expensive.
Everyone talks about the ferry boat that goes up and down the lake twice weekly. Some say it made their trip, others it was kind of a meh. I took the ferry. It was interesting, but my God, it was slow. It took like 2 days to get 100 kilometers. It is pretty dirty and is not like some pleasure cruiser. If you can, try to reserve a room at the ferry office about a week or more out. It will make your life infinitely better. I did not have a room, so I slept on the deck, which would have been alright but for the thundershowers, and wind. I used a bin full of life vests to make a bed and my own little fortress of wonder.
Other Travel Advice for Malawi
Notable Things to Do in Malawi
-Scuba dive in Lake Malawi…the ‘Bath tub’ of diving experiences
-Go kayaking on Lake Malawi
-Hike Mt. Mulanje or Livingstonia for a smaller trip
-Hang out with locals and chat about how local life
-Try eating Nsima (ground corn made into a dough like ball), the most popular food . Malawians are NUTs for the stuff. I have asked several people if they could have any meal in the world, and all of them said: “Nsima”.
-Take the overnight ferry across Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi Parasites
If you went swimming in Lake Malawi, which I don’t know how you wouldn’t it is so crystal clear it is impossible to resist. Then you need to take some antibiotics to knock out a potential parasite in Lake Malawi – Bilhazaria – growing in your belly. Yes, it sounds gross, because it is gross, but it is also not a big deal. People in Malawi take pills every few months. No problem. Just pop into a pharmacy or health clinic and you can pick some up for a couple of dollars. The clinic doctor recommended to take them 90 days after your last swim, so if there is something growing inside you that is not a human or burrito from lunch, it will be at full size and get the whole thing at once. Odd advice. But doctors’ orders.
If you are going backpacking in Malawi, I would recommend picking up some Travel Insurance. The hospital situation there can be sketchy, so pay a little to have the piece of mind. I recommend World Nomads – as that is what I got for all of the countries I visited in Africa. They have all kinds of different coverage options. There are other companies online if you don’t want to go with World Nomads, but I do recommend you get something so you can sleep like a baby panda cub at night.
Basically Malawi is a gem of a country in Africa. It is quite different than most. It has the friendliest people and one of the cleanest lakes, as such, it is an incredible chill out spot that doesn’t require quite as much travel time due to its small size.