The Best of the (Not Always) Best
These Kenya hidden gems are part of our 4-Part Kickin’ it in Kenya Series. Don’t miss the rest: The Ups and Downs of Backpacking in Kenya, Action-Packed 24-Hour Nairobi Itinerary, 3 Awesome Days of Things to Do in Lamu.
Over the course of three weeks, we traveled like maniacs through Kenya trying to do, see, experience, and taste as much as we could possibly manage. It wasn’t easy and we had a lot of ups and downs, but it was certainly unforgettable.
Now that we’re on the plane and heading back to the relative sanity Canada, we’re reflecting on it all and what stood out as our absolute favorites.
Here’s what we’ve whittled it down to, the seven Kenya hidden gem things to do we most strongly recommend and the seven food and drink-related we most enjoyed tasting.
Kenya Hidden Gems: 7 Unique Things to Do
1. Hang Out with Captain Jawad in Lamu
Our time in Lamu was probably the highlight of our Kenya trip, and hanging out with Jawad was probably the highlight of our time in Lamu.
Jawad is the most everything of any Kenyan I met:
- The coolest. The ultimate rasta Kenyan, he’s always got a smile on his face and is friends with everybody everywhere.
- The most athletic. The guy works out every day and can do advanced gymnastic moves like a press to handstand, or the splits with ease. All self-taught. Amazing.
- The hardest working. He’ll sometimes work until 3 am, then wake up again at 5 to get the morning rush. Amazingly, this doesn’t affect his previous two qualities.
Trust me, Jawad will make your trip in Lamu twice as good as it would otherwise be. He’ll take you on whatever sunset or snorkeling cruise you want at a guaranteed fair price (Lamu is full of rip-off artists), introduce you to everyone you’d possibly want to meet, invite you to join him and other friends and tourists on early-morning swims or yoga sessions, and quickly become your friend too.
Look out for Jawad and his boat, Maqoub, when you’re in Lamu or Shela, give him a call at 07 97 937 411 or connect with him on Instagram. Mention The Unconventional Route and he’ll give you a 1000 KSh discount.
2. Look Out for Wildlife in Unexpected Places
Yes, seeing all the wildlife on safaris in the national parks like Maasai Mara, Amboseli, and Hell’s Gate was incredible—even better than we had expected—but the real thrill was seeing wildlife outside of the parks.
Nothing beat spotting a giraffe (our favorite of the African fauna) or ostrich from our car while driving down some muddy back road in the middle of nowhere.
3. Risk It in Nairobi
Not many of our favorite things to do in Kenya were in Nairobi. That’s why we nicknamed it Nai-boring.
One exception was riding a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to the West African market.
Riding a boda boda is like being in a real-life Grand Theft Auto video game. The only difference is you only have one life. Do it once, and never again.
And the West African Market, a downtown apartment block where each room is occupied by a vendor selling a crazy collection of curios from various different African countries, is an unexpectedly unusual shopping experience.
The boda boda ride is incredibly dangerous and the dark stairway up to to the West African Market is sketchy, but both are worth the risk.
Find out more about both in our action-packed 24-hour itinerary of things to do in Nairobi.
4. Hunt for Maasai Wine
Everywhere I go, I try to get a taste of the local alcoholic drink. In Kenya, I was told that was Maasai wine, some sort of fermented concoction of roots and fruit or honey.
The problem was finding it. In touristy places and cities, nobody could help and told me I was crazy for even trying.
I finally succeeded on the day we tried and failed to get off the beaten path. That day we befriended a local guy named Amos in the town of Narosura, went for a hike with him, then set out for some Maasai wine as a post-hike refreshment.
On our drive back from the hike, Amos told me to pull over so he could ask a farmer where we might find some. Instead of giving us directions, the farmer gave us his son!
The 12-year-old got in our Jeep and guided us to a tiny Maasai village, all the while in complete amazement to be in such a fancy a new car sitting beside a pretty mzungu (white person), Kim.
Once at the village, another young man led us into a hut the size of a backyard greenhouse. We heard sloshing in the back room, and then a big glass of Maasai wine materialized from the darkness. We tasted the strange milky sour concoction, poured the rest in my water bottle for later, paid 60 cents for the liter, and walked outside.
To our surprise, the entrance to world’s cheapest microbrewery was now surrounded by over 15 villagers curious to see what was going on!
While the taste of the Maasai wine taste maybe wasn’t worth the effort, the experience of the hunt for it certainly was.
5. Make Your Own Tour in Kilifi
Many travelers who go to Kilifi (especially those we met at Distant Relatives) seem get sucked into the vortex of relaxation and contently do nothing but lounge around at the pools and beaches—often for months on end.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but for a memorable trip we recommend you resist the urge and do something more than that.
Better yet, make something more of it by making your own tour. That’s how Kim and I ended up on an unforgettable private tour of an upstart cashew farm.
After a fruitless search for an opportunity to visit a moringa farm (if you’re going to Watamu, definitely look into this), we were told to try cashews instead, so we hired a motorcycle driver to take us to one.
The first couple of factories we passed by were closed, but then our driver took us by a new factory that had just started up a month ago. There, we had the fortune to meet Abdul, the young manager. He graciously gave us the full run-through of the facility, treating us as if we were visiting dignitaries and not grungy backpackers and happily answering every one of my incessant questions.
We were fascinated to learn how difficult it is to prepare each and every individual cashew nut. The warehouse was packed with 150 women (and two men) working away, cashew-by-cashew, at the ten different steps it takes to make each nut fit to sell. I’ll never look at a cashew the same way again.
I’m not sure Abdul wants to get into the tourism business, but I am sure that if you make your own tour in Kilifi you too can have a similarly unforgettable experience.
6. Jambo House in Lamu
We didn’t think much of Jambo House at first and Arnold, the quirky owner, was slow to warm up on us (and vice versa), but by the end we were sad to say goodbye. Arnold turned out to be a amazing host who did everything he could to ensure we enjoyed our stay in Lamu.
The beds aren’t super comfortable, and it can get hot even with the fan on, but the price, about 2000 KSh ($20 US) a night for a private room and private bathroom, made it a steal. The breakfast of coffee and tea, fresh pressed juice, fruit, and your choice of omelet, french toast, and a couple other things, was an added bonus.
7. We4Kenya in Amboseli
We4Kenya is a can’t miss choice for anyone looking for an affordable, authentic, and friendly safari camp.
Located just outside of Amboseli, it’s a quiet, comfortable, and well-maintained place run by Evelyn, who’s Dutch, her husband, Wilson, who’s Maasai, and their incredibly fantastic and friendly staff. (Really, the staff are amazing.)
The location provides an authentic rural Kenyan experience. We’ll never forget hearing at night the distant cries of farmers yelling at elephants trying to break into their crops.
Compared to every other safari camp in Kenya, the price, something like $50 US per person a night including dinner, was a steal. Our cabin was perfect for us, the dinner by the fireplace was delicious, and they even organized an evening show for us.
As an added bonus, they’re consistently busy—so busy they haven’t needed to translate their Dutch website into English to attract more guests—so you’ve got a high chance of hooking up with others to split the extravagant cost of hiring a guide and truck to take you on a game drive through Amboseli.
Kenya Hidden Gems: 7 Exceptional Foods and Drinks
1. Bofa Beach BBQ in Kalifi
While walking along the scorching soft sands of Bofa Beach hopelessly looking for octopus in the tidal flats, a local named Charlie seduced Kim up to his shack for a bottle of cool water.
I warily followed.
Once we got to his shack, he successfully sold us on a fresh BBQ seafood lunch. It wasn’t hard. We were hungry, the price was right, and the location was perfect.
Charlie ran down to the fishermen who were just returning from their morning foray, picked out a couple fish (a red snapper and another called tafi), showed them to us, and barbecued them to perfection. We ate it under the cover of his beachfront shack along with some chapati, coconut rice, boiled greens, kachumbari salad, and a beer. Even better, it only cost $10 for the both of us.
You won’t find Charlie’s shack on Google maps, but you can call him at 07 12 363 492 to arrange a similar budget beachfront feast for yourself.
2. Nyama Mama Restaurant in Nairobi
Nyama Mama’s Kenyan dishes with a modern twist was a much-needed respite from the monotony of the traditional dishes we normally ate.
In fact, it was such a treat we returned for a second visit. You’ve got to try the ugali fries, even if you don’t like ugali.
3. Crave Kitchen in Kikuyu
Smack dab in the middle of an otherwise ramshackle town not far outside of Nairobi on the way to Lake Naivasha, Crave Kitchen was a complete surprise. Clean, spacious, delicious, and with a well-designed interior, it was a hipster café/restaurant at local Kenyan prices. It’s a definite must-visit if you’re passing by.
Those who are adventurous and looking for something local might want to try the gikuyu pudding, a fermented porridge of some sort with some spices. One spoonful was enough for Kim, but I polished off the enormous bowl with pleasure.
Otherwise, there are plenty of other, less adventurous and potentially tastier treats to try.
4. Seafood Feast in Lamu
For the best (and most budget) seafood meal ever, pick up a bottle of wine from the AP Canteen, order a seafood pizza from Olympic Restaurant, and complement it with some freshly grilled lobster, octopus, or fish from the town’s number one fisherman.
Previously located on Lamu Town’s seafront, now Olympic Restaurant is now only a humble table inside of the owners’ house around their corner. Don’t judge this place by its cover though, Olympic Restaurant is worth seeking out. (Call Areef, the owner, if you need directions: 07 17 296 441.)
The seafood pizza isn’t super cheap ($10), but it’s worth it. The delicious homemade, chapati-like crust is loaded with freshly cooked fish and cheese, served with some delicious sauces.
Plus, who’d have thunk the owners, multi-generational Kenyans of Indian descent were, for eighteen months, our neighbors in Vancouver? Small world!
5. Balozi Beer
Balozi was our go-to beer throughout our Kenya trip because it comes in a big bottle (like Tusker and White Cap) but also is sugar-free (like Tusker Light).
Plus it’s the cheapest.
Since all the super light Kenyan beers taste the same, that’s a win-win-win.
(As a back-up beer, get Summit.)
6. Camel Milk from Alma Restaurant in Kilifi
Upon arriving in Kilifi from Watamu, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Alma tha’s located right across the street from Kilifi’s main matatu/bus terminal.
Alma’s menu had all the typical Kenyan stuff and one thing I’d never seen before: camel milk. Out of curiosity, and because it only cost a dollar, I ordered it.
I assumed it would have a strong taste like goat milk but weirder and stronger, so when the waiter brought out what looked to be a 1-liter glass of the stuff, I feared I wouldn’t finish it.
I needn’t have worried.
The camel milk was the best milk I’d ever tasted in my life.
7. Spiced Coffee in Lamu
On each of the five evenings we spent in Lamu, we never missed enjoying a 10-to-30-cent (depending on the size) ginger-spiced coffee from our favorite vendor right on the seaside. Paradoxically, it was a great way to cool down and relax in the early evening.
Kim also delighted in the little sweet cookies he sold to go with the bitter coffee. He had a collection of sesame, peanut, or chocolate, priced at just 10 cents each.
More Tips on Kenya Hidden Gems
For more location-specific tips on unusual and adventurous Kenya hidden gems, complete our 4-part Kickin’ it in Kenya Series with these helpful guides: