This article is a creation of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Many travellers are drawn to Kenya by the allure of its premier wildlife viewing destination, the Maasai Mara. Its vast plains — radiant and neat in the dry season, lush and aromatic after rainfall — sprawl over hundreds of miles. Known for its abundance of big cats and the spectacle of the Great Migration, it’s the perfect spot to cultivate a deep fascination for safari experiences.
The Great Migration, a period between July and September when massive herds of wildebeest and zebras gather nervously by the riverbanks to cross, is a highlight for Kenya. The trepidation these animals display is well-founded: predatory crocodiles await their opportunity in the waters. Observing these dramas unfold can be an unforgettable experience for visitors. However, the Mara is also a captivating destination throughout the rest of the year, and post-migration, prices significantly drop.
The Mara, being partly council-administered and partly community-owned, is a collection of several parks. While certain camps may demand a hefty sum for a comprehensive, air-transported adventure in a private conservancy, more budget-friendly options are available too. You could consider a group tour or a hired 4×4 vehicle, with or without a chauffeur, and head west to the serene, less crowded Mara Triangle. Here, you can camp at a public site and immerse yourself in the wilderness.
The villages of Sekenani or Talek, located on the outskirts of the main reserve, also offer economical accommodations. They are conveniently reachable by matatu (public minibus) or shared taxi from Narok, which is accessible by bus from Nairobi, the capital. Affordable camps and guesthouses in these villages organize group excursions into the reserve. Although many provide a fantastic experience, there’s an unaddressed issue: the Mara on the Narok side is teetering on the edge of overtourism, with drivers sometimes breaking rules around speed limits and wildlife disturbance. The Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association is an excellent resource for finding a responsible guide.
The golden hour at Meru National Park is one of Kenya’s most enchanting spectacles.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NIELS VAN GIJN/JOHN WARBURTON-LEE PHOTOGRAPHY LTD
How to go about it
Public campsites in the Mara Triangle are priced at US$30 (£25) per person, plus a Mara Conservancy entry fee of US$70/24hrs (£64). Greenwood Safari Camp, Talek (00 254 710 546 458) offers two-person tents starting at US$40 (£32) and trips from US$38 (£30) per person. The entry fees for the National Reserve are US$70 (£64).
Budget-friendly alternatives beyond the Mara
Accommodations in Kenya’s state-run parks provide an economical, close-to-nature experience and occupy the same territory as the luxury lodges.
Ideal for: a brief introduction
No African capital is as fortunate as Nairobi, which houses a national park right on its doorstep that also functions as a center for ecological learning and research, boasting an exceptional record in rhino conservation. You can spot giraffes, hyenas, and even lions here. The Kenya Wildlife Service does not provide lodging in the park, but day trips are easily arranged from budget hotels in the city or its outskirts. How to do it: The park entry fee is US$43 (£35) per day. Swara Acacia offers half-board doubles from US$94 (£75).
- Tsavo West
Ideal for: lion sightings
Located halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa in the far south of Kenya, Tsavo West National Park is a haven for elephants, leopards, and rhinos. But the main attraction here is the lions — descendants of maneless males who once plagued construction workers. How to do it: The park entry fee is US$52 (£42) per day. Campsites managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service are priced at US$20 (£16) per person. Bandas (self-catering cottages) start from US$50 (£40) per person.
Ideal for: elephant lovers
Under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro lie the acacia-studded plains of Amboseli, a national park situated to the south of Nairobi. Since 1972, the park has been the site of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project — the longest ongoing study of wild elephant behavior. How to do it: The park entry fee is US$70 (£55) per day. Campsites managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service are priced at US$30 (£24) per person. Bandas start from US$90 (£71) per person.
Ideal for: unique landscapes
If you’re seeking an escape from the tourist throngs, consider Meru. One of the country’s most underrated national parks, it is located roughly five hours northeast of Nairobi. Cooled by rushing streams, it’s a haven for hippos and unique East African species like the long-necked gerenuk antelopes. How to do it: The park entry fee is US$52 (£42) per day. Campsites managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service are priced at US$20 (£16) per person. Bandas start from US$80 (£64) per person.
This piece was first published in the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Budget-friendly safaris in Kenya
When is the best time to visit the Maasai Mara in Kenya for the Great Migration?
The Great Migration usually occurs between July and September. This is when vast herds of wildebeest and zebras cross the river, providing an unforgettable spectacle for visitors.
Are there budget-friendly options for safari experiences in Maasai Mara?
Yes, there are more economical alternatives available. You can consider a group tour or a hired 4×4 vehicle and head west to the serene, less crowded Mara Triangle. Public campsites in this area cost around US$30 per person, plus a Mara Conservancy entry fee of US$70 for 24 hours. Affordable camps and guesthouses are also available in nearby villages like Sekenani and Talek.
Can I visit the Mara reserve outside of the Great Migration period?
Yes, the Maasai Mara is a captivating destination throughout the year. Moreover, prices significantly drop after the Great Migration period.
What are some budget-friendly alternatives to the Maasai Mara?
Kenya’s state-run parks such as Nairobi National Park, Tsavo West National Park, Amboseli National Park, and Meru National Park provide economical, close-to-nature experiences and can serve as budget-friendly alternatives to the Maasai Mara.
How can I avoid contributing to overtourism in the Maasai Mara?
To avoid contributing to overtourism, you can consider using services of guides listed with the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association. These guides are likely to respect wildlife and avoid practices that cause disturbance.