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Malawi is famously known as the “warm heart of Africa” but it’s frequently looked over in favour of neighbours such as Tanzania and Kenya. This is a shame, because it’s a truly beautiful country with much to offer. Undoubtedly, backpacking in Malawi is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’d recommend to any intrepid traveller.
In fact, visiting Malawi was one of the highlights of my time overlanding in East Africa. Well, that is except for the night that our romantic, cozy cabin turned out to be infested with spiders. Luckily, Tom tells me that my agility in killing them while yielding a flip-flop made him fall madly in love.
So, if you’re looking for a destination that is off the beaten path yet welcoming, which is relaxing yet filled with interesting things to do, then I’d highly recommend backpacking in Malawi. Here, I’ll share some of my top travel tips for visiting Malawi on a budget.
Backpacking in Malawi – the basics
I recently read Malawi described as “Africa for beginners”, which was frankly one of the dumbest things I’ve heard in a long time. I am not sure what is meant by that, exactly – every country in Africa is unique, and Malawi is no exception.
The jewel in Malawi’s crown is certainly Lake Malawi, truly one of the most amazing natural phenomenon in the world. Some say that it was discovered by David Livingstone some 150 years ago — although you might have to tell that to the locals who have known about it for millennia!
It’s the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world (and the largest in Africa), and home to a huge percentage of the world’s tropical fish.
However, there’s much more to Malawi – think enchanting cities as well as diverse and beautiful national parks. Undoubtedly within Africa, Malawi is a true treat!
Language and currency in Malawi
The Malawian currency is the Kwacha. Although there are some ATMs around the place (especially in Lilongwe), I’d recommend bringing most money in cash while you’re backpacking in Malawi. Many budget operators like campsites and local restaurants don’t take cards.
The bigger money exchangers – such as those at the airport – can swap over pretty much any currency. However, smaller exchangers usually only have more common currencies including Tanzanian Shillings, Kenyan Shillings, Euro, Pounds, South African Rand and USD. Therefore if you’re coming from somewhere like Australia, I’d recommend bringing at least some USD or Pounds, just in case.
Malawi is a great destination for budget travel. You’ll find your kwacha stretches pretty far, and there are a lot of good budget options including campsites where you can cook your own food. On the other hand, you’ll find simple lodges, restaurants and guesthouses which offer amazing value for money.
The language in Malawi is Chichewan, however, English is widely spoken. Learning Chichewan is not necessary, but it’s a fairly phonetic language and your efforts will certainly be appreciated!
Safety in Malawi
I found Malawi to be a safe destination, even in the “big” cities (which aren’t that big in Malawi!). That said, it’s still a good idea to exercise normal common sense and keep your personal belongings close and leave your valuables at home. Pickpocketing does happen, but violent muggings and the like are very rare.
In Lilongwe, the “sell” can be quite hard in the markets – I’d recommend you only start bargaining for things you really want as once you’ve expressed interest in something, it’s hard to get away without it!
Probably the biggest risk to your safety in Malawi is, sadly, Lake Malawi. Although it’s super tempting to jump into the river, it’s known to have lots of bugs and other health risks. You definitely shouldn’t drink the water, and avoid swimming in the lake if you have any open cuts or sores. Some countries advise you avoid swimming in Lake Malawi all together – talk to your doctor (not a travel blogger) if you want more advice.
How long to go backpacking in Malawi
For a relatively small country, Malawi really packs a punch when it comes to things to do and see. It’s also a country that is best explored slowly: firstly, because the infrastructure can be a bit of a challenge, and secondly, because that’s just the way of life in Malawi!
Many overland trucks do a lightning quick stop in Malawi of just a couple of days. In this time, you can see a couple of highlights including Lake Malawi and perhaps one of the beaches.
If you can, I’d definitely recommend a longer stay. A week is a good amount of time to spend backpacking in Malawi, as it will allow you to explore the cities as well as the lake and do a safari as well.
With two weeks, you’d be able to see most of the major attractions in Malawi, and get to know a bit more about the country. Honestly, it may not be the most action-packed fortnight however more time will allow you to really scratch the surface ofthe country.
How to get around Malawi on a budget
I personally visited Malawi with Oasis Overland, which is one of the big overland truck companies that traverse the fairly well-travelled route between Nairobi and Cape Town. It’s a very budget friendly way to see numerous African countries, and you can also do smaller “legs” if there are only a couple of countries you’d like to see.
If I was to return to Malawi, I’d really like to travel independently as, to be honest, I don’t always play well with other children and I got a bit annoyed about the lack of flexibility.
There are plenty of car hire companies including big names like Avis and Hertz, however, I would not really recommend driving in Malawi unless you’re experienced driving on very bumpy roads!
This is especially because there are many buses that travel pretty much all over the country. They’re efficient and relatively comfortable, and travelling in one is quite the experience! There’s not really a set timetable for the most part, so it’s best to ask around about where and when to catch the bus. Typically, the buses wait until they are full of passengers before taking off, so you’ll probably only get a rough idea of when you can expect to arrive.
Where to go in Malawi
There are a number of great places to go when backpacking in Malawi. Here are some of the best options!
Lilongwe (the capital)
Lilongwe was probably the sleepiest capital I visited during my time in East Africa, and this is what made it my favourite! It is a laidback, peaceful place however as the capital, there are plenty of shops and markets, restaurants and cafes too – although they’re mostly not fancy!
Another highlight of Lilongwe is the Lilongwe Wildlife Sanctuary for animals that have been injured or mistreated. It’s a great place to see many local animals including monkeys, elephants and crocodiles. Do watch out for the monkeys, as they’re very cheeky!
Another interesting sight in Lilongwe is the glitzy 21st century palace which was built through foreign investment from China. It sticks out amongst the otherwise humble capital, and is quite the landmark!
Nkhata Bay (Lake Malawi)
Ahhh the sight of the great spider killing incident! Nkhata Bay has a special place in my heart, not only due to it being the site of the spider carnage, but also because it’s just so beautiful and picturesque.
We stayed in a lovely campsite right on the banks of Nkhata Bay, and it was so laidback and peaceful. Aside from a few kids playing soccer and a couple of people selling wares like sunglasses and cool drinks, it was almost entirely deserted. Aside from just relaxing on the shores, there were also plenty of watersports available.
I didn’t get to try it, sadly, but apparently, it is one of the best places to go horse riding in Malawi.
For me, one highlight was going on a boat cruise that was organised by the campsite. We took an esky full of local beer and soft drinks, and enjoyed a great afternoon out on the water. One of the biggest highlights was stopping at a little cove, where a local man let us borrow his wooden canoe, and laughed hysterically as we constantly tipped it over!
Canoeing and kayaking is definitely a great way to get around the lake. There’s also excellent diving and snorkelling although I am a definitely a land baby, so I kept my feet on solid ground as much as possible! I definitely highly recommend a visit to Nkhata Bay while backpacking in Malawi
Stay… at Mayoka Village. It’s not the cheapest option in Nkhata Bay, but you can rent paddleboards, kayaks and more, and has beautiful views! It’s best to contact them on Whatsapp.
Not far from Nkhata Bay is Mzuzu, which is a modest city that is the largest in northern Malawi, and the third largest in the country.
It’s not a particularly picturesque place, but it’s a good place to stop for supplies before heading on to Nkhata Bay. There’s also a couple of local bars, which are frequented by students at the local college and university as well as others. They’re a bit of fun to stop in and have a chat about life in Mzuzu!
There’s also a number of travel agents and safari operators who can arrange trips around the north, and especially to the nearby Nyika National Park.
I didn’t actually get a chance to visit Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city and the financial hub. To be 100% honest, it doesn’t look entirely to my tastes anyway – given what I loved about Lilongwe was the absence of high rise buildings!
That’s not to say you won’t love it, though! It’s said to have many beautiful colonial buildings, and be a very clean and efficient city. One odd claim to fame of Blantyre is that it is believed to have some of the best Fanta in the world – yep, in blind tastings organised by the University of Western Australia, 77% of participants chose the Fanta bottled in Malawi (and specificaly, Blantyre) over the Australian and South African alternatives.
Blantyre is also well placed if you want to visit Mount Malunje, arguably Malawi’s most impressive mountain range. It’s about 65 kilometres from Blantyre, and hikes can easily be arranged.
There’s also a number of laid back bars and shops to enjoy as well. So, if you like your cities a little more lively than Lilongwe, you may just love Blantyre!
Malawi actually has two inhabited islands off of its coast: Likoma and Chizumulu. Likoma Island is slightly easier to reach and there are numerous boat trips that go from Nkhata Bay over to Likoma. I’d recommend going across just for a day trip, rather than actually staying overnight as there’s not heaps to do, and Nkhata Bay is just as pretty.
To be fair, there is a luxurious resort on the island which looks pretty sweet – but it’s a bit beyond the budget of most backpackers in Malawi!
The main claim to fame of Likoma Island is its huge cathedral which rivals some of the bigger English cathedrals in size! There’s also plenty to be said for exploring such an unknown and unspoiled island.
This amazing UNESCO World Heritage site is also located right on the edge of the Lake Malawi National Park, so is an absolute must for any nature lovers. Here, you can admire the dazzlingly clear water while also spotting monkeys playing in the trees.
As well as the incredible natural beauty, Cape Maclear also offers a number of laidback bars and friendly restaurants to enjoy. Best of all, nearly all of them are near the water’s edge, so you can take in the amazing views as you enjoy the laidback atmosphere.
Okay so this might be cheating, but for such a tiny country, Malawi has more than its fair share of national parks! Whether you’re looking for somewhere to enjoy peaceful hikes or to spot the Big 5, there are plenty of options in Malawi. Here are some of the best:
- Liwonde National Park – considered the best and most well-known national park in Malawi, Liwonde National Park is the place to go to spot animals including zebra, hippos and crocodiles.
- Majete National Park – just south of Blantyre, a lot of effort has been put into rejuvenating this 70,000 hectare park. Here, you can see animals including Black Rhino, Elephant, Buffalo and Zebra.
- Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve – one of the quieter parks in Malawi is also one of the best for on-foot safaris. It’s located near the border with Zambia, so is perfect for stopping over in if you’re travelling into Malawi from Zambia.