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How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

Screenshot (9)

Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Valle de la Luna: San Pedro de Atacama Day 4

Valle de la Luna: San Pedro de Atacama Day 4

The Valle de la Luna (or Valley of the Moon) is San Pedro’s most famous attraction. The valley gets its name because of its terrain, which is said to be the closest thing to a lunar landscape on the planet. It’s also fairly close to town so, instead of a tour, we opted to rent bikes and get there on our own.

Bike to Valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

The ride was about 15km with ups and downs and nice scenery.

Biking to valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

The Valle de la Luna is part of a mountain range made almost entirely of salt. The first feature you see when you arrive are the salt caves.

valle de la luna salt caves san pedro de atacama

Looking close, you can see the salt crystals more clearly.

valle de la luna salt caves san pedro de atacama

At parts, you need to contort to get through. And other parts (no pics) are completely dark.

salt caves in San pedro de atacama valle de la luna

When you emerge from the caves, you find a unique landscape. That white stuff is salt, not snow.

valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

Some parts inside the valley are too steep to bike.

biking to valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

Some places you see sand.

valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

Other parts are powdered with salt.

valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

And some parts just seem to say, “Peace, man.”

valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

To prepare for sunset, we climbed to the top of the great dune,

san pedro de atacama valley of the moon great dune

and ate the avocado sandwiches we brought for dinner.

great dune in valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

The view from up there was pretty great.

valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

Eventually the sun began to set.

valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

And we soaked it in.

sunset at valle de la luna san pedro de atacama

sunset valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

But the thing about biking and staying til after sunset, is that the ride back is completely dark.

biking back fro valley of the moon san pedro de atacama

The ride was both cool and nerve racking. Cool because we were alone in this wild place and the stars were bright and clear enough to see the milky way. Nerve racking because, well, it was pitch dark in a crazy place and we were miles away from town.

Eventually we watched the moon rise over the Andes and that brought enough light to see. We returned 2 hours later than we said and much more exhausted than we anticipated, but the evening was a perfect finish to our week in San Pedro de Atacama.

This day was a clear highlight of our trip so far.

Will & Elizabeth

Cathedrals of Salt – San Pedro de Atacama Day 3

Cathedrals of Salt – San Pedro de Atacama Day 3

On our third day in San Pedro de Atacama, we headed toward the Cathedrals of Salt. The journey took us into the Andes, across the world’s largest extinct volcano crater, past a number of volcanic rock features, and around several high altitude lagoons.

But first we had to drive toward the mountains. All of the peaks in the distance here are volcanoes.

San Pedro de Atacama Andes

We stopped to eat a breakfast of bread and cheese on the side of the road.

San Pedro de Atacama Andes breakfast

Eventually we passed by the volcanoes we had seen on the horizon.

San Pedro de Atacama volcano travel

We stopped at a lagoon.

San PEdro de Atacama lagoon

Where we played,

San Pedr de Atacama lagoon

and danced on the ice.

San Pedro de Atacama lagoon

Later we approached rocks made of volcanic ash that have been eroded into surprising formations.

San Pedro de Atacama monks

Can you make me out lounging in the shade of this one?

San Pedro de Atacama monks

Here it is a bit closer up.

San Pedro de Atacama monks

We were encouraged to use the shade and crannies of these rocks as our Pachamama (mother earth) toilet.

San Pedro de Atacama pachmama

Next we drove into the largest extinct crated in the world. Everything until the mountains is a crater and there’s as much space on the other side. The specs of black are pieces of obsidian that have been resting there for millions of years. (we were encouraged to take some home and we obliged)

San Pedro de Atacama volcano crater obsidian

Nearby we found the ‘White Monks.” The two distinct lines that run across these rocks, mark the 3 different eruptions that created them.

San Pedro de Atacama white monks

It’s cool to wander around them.

San Pedro de Atacama white monks

San Pedro de Atacama white monks

Eventually we arrived at the Cathedrals of Salt.

San Pedro de Atacama catedrales de sal

It’s a great place to stroll.

San Pedro de Atacama catedrales de sal

Or meditate.

San Pedro de Atacama catedrales de sal travel

Eventually we ended up at this lagoon.

San Pedro de Atacama lagoon

Where we watched vicuna. (an endangered species)

San Pedro de Atacama Vicuna

Our guide was the one who popularized this tour a few years ago. He told legends about the family relationships between the volcanoes. All in all it was a surprising and incredible day.

San Pedro de Atacama catedrales de sal travel

Check out our other San Pedro de Atacama Galleries:

Day 1 Petroglyphs and Rainbow Valley

Day 2 Piedras Rojas and Atacama Salt Flats

Day 4 Valle de la Luna

Will & Elizabeth