If you are a backpacker, independent traveller or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation options for your next visit to Kenya. This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks. The answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” – in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is. My recommendation is to stay outside the park but close to the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of being at the park.
For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” can often mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide the best place to stay. Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be lower than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to factor in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park. Sometimes camping is preferable to dingy local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but at most parks in Kenya there are campsites close to the park gates that have good amenities (including cold beer) for around US$6-10 per person per night.
Aside from cost, there are more experiential definitions of “better” to decide where to stay. Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it can be a very good experience. You have more freedom to explore when you are close to the action. You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals. Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.
To counter these positive aspects, there are some things to consider. Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite noisy at night, especially if there is a big football game on. They also may not have the quality of facilities that we might expect at home. While the overall cleanliness might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking. Many local establishments have squat toilets or even just a hole in the ground. If there is a toilet, there is often not a toilet seat. On the coast you will be hard-pressed to find a hot water shower and inland the hot water showers are electric (so you have to remember to flick the switch to get hot water). If mosquito nets are provided, they often have holes in them. Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to be prepared to be stared at as you will be a novelty (especially women).
If your priority for visiting that area is to see the wildlife in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just outside the gate, rather than in a nearby town. Realistically, the closest towns are just not that close – for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over half an hour away.
If you do want to stay in a local guesthouse then I suggest doing as much research as you can. Sites like Trip Advisor may not be so useful for small local places, so you are probably better asking people who have been before – perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to travel to that area for work. It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it geared towards business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i.e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).
Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often easier to go with a tour operator who can cater to your budget and needs. Your safety and security is much higher with an operator and their knowledge of the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you. But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with more awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodation options.
Have you stayed in local guesthouses in Kenya? What has been your experience? And what is your recommendation for fellow travelers in choosing their accommodation?