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 There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated.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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!