I’m not a big planner when it comes to travel. I tend to have a couple things in mind, but for the most part, I wing it. Usually this works out. Every now and again it doesn’t. The later was true when I spent a weekend in Nairobi.
For some reason on this particular trip, we made a lot on wrong decisions. Maybe I should have done a little more research.
Here are ten things you should know before you go:
1. Bring US dollars to purchase your entry visa into Kenya
They do not take any other currency, even their own. We luckily remembered to do this at the last minute, but nearly forgot. Entry was $50 for Americans and Canadians, but check the fees for your country beforehand.
2. Don’t miss the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
I actually got this right. This is one activity I would recommend to everyone, even if you’re short on time. Totally worth it.
The orphanage rescues baby elephants after being separated from their mothers -usually due to poaching. Here, they are taken care of until the age of 3 and then released back into the wild. Sometimes I am leery about animal attractions, but I was very impressed with this organization. The elephants’ well-being seems to be top priority in everything they do.
They only allow visitors for 1 hour per day between 11-12pm. The elephants look happy and aren’t forced to entertain – this is their normal feeding and playtime. A heavy emphasis is placed on sharing the elephants’ backstories and education on poaching practices. During this hour you really get a chance to see several elephants up close and witness their playful personalities. I mean, there were elephants rolling around all over the place!
The entry fee is inexpensive, just a 500 shilling donation ($6 USD).
3. The Giraffe Center can be visited in about 15 minutes
Here is another opportunity to get up close & personal with animals, but this time with giraffes. Upon entry you walk up a set of steps placing you face to face with giraffes. From here you can feed them, but when you’re done, that is pretty much it. I thought it was slightly gimmicky. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the elephant center…but how can you not like seeing this face?
Be warned! These guys have crazy long tongues. And they feel so gross! I swear I could still feel a phantom tongue on my hand another hour after I left. Most of the other tourists didn’t seem to mind and were practically making out with them. There was spit flying everywhere!
The entry fee is 1,000 shillings ($12 USD), a little high considering the short experience. On the positive side, it is a non-profit organization trying to raise conservation awareness for school children in Kenya. I only wish they had done a little better job communicating their message with visitors at the center.
4. Go to the Karen Blixen Museum if you’ve read the book Out of Africa, or watched the movie somewhat recently
This museum was home to the famous Dutch author whose book, (and later movie), is a true account of her life while living here. Her story is fascinating as she was a pretty gutsy broad for the early 1900′s – I just wished I had a more recent memory of it prior to visiting. So read or watch before you go.
The entry fee was 1,600 shillings ($13 USD).
5. If you are short on time, don’t spend too much time in Downtown
We planned to spend a whole afternoon hanging out in downtown. We walked around, had lunch, and walked around some more. Honestly, it wasn’t too exciting and not one of my favorite downtown areas. Instead of spending a whole afternoon here, we should have visited the Nairobi National Museum, and then just popped into downtown for about an hour. A couple guys from our hostel said the museum was really interesting and worth checking out.
The entry fee to the museum is 2,000 shillings ($16-17 USD).
6. Get recommendations on places to eat
Food here can be hit or miss, and almost every place we went turned out to be a dud. We should have taken the time to pull recommendations versus randomly picking places. Randomly picking works sometimes, but not here. Most travelers will probably want to eat local food, but because Kenyan food is so similar to Tanzanian, we were looking for something different. That said:
- Nairobi was where I discovered my love for Ethiopian food…who knew? If you aren’t familiar, I would say it’s most similar to Indian, but with different spices and a spongy bread called injera instead of naan. If you haven’t had it, give it a try. I can’t wait to have more!
- Speaking of Indian, I’ve heard they they do it well here, but with one caveat: We saw several restaurants serving Indian and Chinese cuisine. An Indian-Chinese restaurant? This is weird, and in my opinion, can’t be trusted.
- Never, I mean never, eat Thai food in Kenya. It could be the worst thing I’ve ever had. I should have known better, it just sounded so good at the time.
7. Nairobi has a popular nightlife scene but watch out for prostitutes
We just went to a couple bars, but Nairobi has a big club scene if you’re a “club” person – I’m not. Ether way, as a tourist, you’ll probably want to go to an area called the Westlands for your nightlife options. For men: Take note that prostitutes are mainstream so you may get more attention than usual from the ladies. Be careful whom you reciprocate attention to…unless you’re into that sort of thing.
8. If you’re on a budget, learn how to use Matatus for transportation
Matatus are mini buses and Nairobi’s answer to public transportation. They have a similar system in Tanzania called Dala Dalas, but using them in a big sprawled out city is a little harder to navigate. We should have sucked it up and figured it out. They are really cheap, under $1 USD. If you aren’t on a budget, skip this tip and just take cabs. They are a lot more convenient and comfortable! Unfortunately, we were on a budget and spent a ton of money on transportation.
9. If you stay in a hostel, research the amenities and lock up your valuables
To me a good hostel is clean, provides free internet, free breakfast, has a good common area, a place to lock valuables, is in a convenient location, and has a helpful front desk staff who provide recommendations. But, those hostels are not as abundant in this part of the world. You may need to adjust your standards a bit. When researching a place to stay, determine the 3-4 things most important to you and start there. This way you won’t spend too much time searching for the perfect spot and you won’t be disappointed.
We stayed at the Upper Hill Campsite. In addition to camping, they also have a variety of indoor accommodations. We stayed in the dorm and the price was really great, 1,000 Kenyan shillings per night ($11 USD).
Upper Hill only had about half of my hostel requirements. It was clean, comfortable, and had a nice atmosphere. But I thought the prices for internet, food, drinks, etc. was a bit high for hostel standards. They provided a locker, but I left my iPod out and it was stolen. This was my own fault, however, it was the first time I’ve come across theft in a dorm room.
10. For the ladies: Don’t believe everything a guy tells you in a bar (a tip not limited to Nairobi!)
We met this guy at a Cuban bar who was from London and lived in Nairobi. Let me list all the red flags:
- Within the first 10-15 minutes he told us he sells weapons for a living, always carries a gun and the week before he was car-jacked. He got shot in the leg and in turn had to kill the carjacker. Really? Nice to meet you too. I lawyered him when I questioned he got shot in the leg the week prior, yet didn’t have bandages or a limp. Weird.
- I’m not a big fan of guys who are flashy about money or who try to convince you what a nice guy they are. He did both…blah. After all the bragging about himself, he offered to pay for our upcoming trip to Zanzibar. Airfare, accommodations, the whole shabang. But “would we mind sharing a room between the three of us?” I mean, it would just be out of convenience…
- Also “convenient”, he lived in the same neighborhood as our hotel and could give us a ride home. Tempting, however, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to ride home with the guy who always carries a gun, shot someone last week, and already wants to share a hotel room.
For me, he was just another ridiculous guy in a bar. But it also makes me think about how many young ladies out there may have taken him up on one of his many offers. Free drinks are nice, a free trip sounds cool, and a free ride home is convenient – but in the end, nothing is really free. Be careful!
I didn’t love Nairobi and didn’t feel it was a city for me. The vibe wasn’t there. But as with all travel, even the less enjoyable trips still leave you with an experience you’ll talk about later. And that’s the beauty of it.