Kenya, here I come!
January 22, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

[Travel Filter] Safe to explore Nairobi alone as an american, caucasian female?

I have a wonderful opportunity to travel to Nairobi through my job (in March). My boss has encouraged me to take a few extra days to explore, if I so desire. I can't possibly say no.

I've read the current US State Department travel warnings and some random blogs and boards all with varying degrees of concern. I know that often they err on the side of caution. Also as with any foreign place, paying attention to your surroundings is generally sufficient.

Has anyone been there recently? Should I forget exploring Nairobi, pay the extra money and go on safari or some other guided exploration? It's a region that is completely unfamiliar to me (though i'm reading up like crazy now). I will only have 3 days max.

Any suggestions are appreciated. Thanks Mefites.
posted by getmetoSF to Travel & Transportation around Kenya (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Kenya is a pretty difficult place at the moment. Crime is fairly rampant, and the travel warnings regarding African countries are generally ones the ones I play the closest attention to. Yes, the State Department errs on the side of caution in a great majority of cases, but Kenya is a place i'd take special care in. Theft is probably the biggest concern.

Were I in your shoes I would take extra care to make sure someone knows where you are and are going at all times, I wouldn't travel alone, and I would take great care with your personal security. What this means varies to different people, but to me it means no obvious valuables, no flashy clothing, know your escape routes and personal defense, and be assiduously cautious.

I'd think about a local guide if you're determined.
posted by arimathea at 5:22 PM on January 22, 2010

If you have 3 days of free time, you should get out of Nairobi. Nairobi Wilson airport offers easy access to domestic flights. In about an hour, you could head to to coast (Lamu or Mombasa) or on safari (Lewa, Masai Mara, Amboseli). If you must stay close to Nairobi, then I recommend Giraffe Manor or something in the Karen neighborhood.

The Nairobi image that has stuck was the Kibera slum. Devastating and enduring at the same time.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 6:53 PM on January 22, 2010

Best answer: Lamu or Mombassa offer a rich but very different experience than Nairobi. We went to Mombassa for a few days last year and loved it, but it was HOT! Humid hot! And I would not go there on my own without a tour group. Way too busy.

My husband and I were in Nairobi last February and are also going back this March.
We found it to be safe, but we were really outside the city, in Karen, with people who live there. The tension of the election violence was fresh in their minds and enthusiasm for Obama’s victory was surprising. I do wonder what the atmosphere will be like now with the recent protests and scattered violence in the city.

If you will be in the city for a few weeks then you may have the opportunity to see all you want during your weekdays or weekend. Try to get to Amani ya Ju (which is somewhere among the streets where many embassies are headquartered). Here you can buy wonderful handmade items and eat a nice lunch in the lovely courtyard. Do ask for a tour of the center!

If you don’t want to go on a safari (we do!) but want to get a taste of wildlife then head to the outskirts of the city. We loved the David Kendrick Elephant Orphanage

We also saw lots of zebra, some giraffe, warthogs, lots of “deer-like” animals and more as we drove through the Nairobi National Park (safari with city view) that also has an animal orphanage.

Not too far away you can visit the Karen Blixen museum (Out of Africa fame) and the nearby workshop/factory for Kazuri Beads, another women’s craft project.

I’m sure you could stay in the city and get day tours by bus to these places and discover more interesting sites as well. If you are with a tour group for the day you might feel safer and have less stress in planning your travels than renting a car and managing on your own.

Have a wonderful time!
posted by LilBit at 7:36 PM on January 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

wow lilbit that was a fantastic post.
posted by carlh at 12:42 PM on January 23, 2010

Here's another answer I gave on more or less the same topic and may be useful (though from a while ago). To follow up, I made another trip about 10 months later (it was just after the riots, I think). This time, I went to Masai Mara National Park and it was fantastic, the best of the various safari things I have done in Africa. Saw heaps of animals and stayed in quite a pleasant and comfortable camp. Much more enjoyable than anything I did in Nairobi itself and I would recommend it, especially if you haven't done a safari before.

I didn't feel great about walking around in Nairobi, but was ok with taxiing about (see my old post for things I did). I still recommend Muthaiga Travel for anything you need to organise, and still recommend the Fairview for a hotel (or their sister property next door, the Country Lodge, if you need cheaper digs). I initially couldn't get into the Fairview last time and was booked into a mid-range hotel. I wanted to check out as soon as I got there.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:04 PM on January 23, 2010

Best answer: I have an apartment in Nairobi (Westlands) that I don't get to stay in nearly as much as I'd like - its spacious and we have a guest room if you get hard up for a place to stay - just me-mail me. No idea where I'll be in March but probably mostly in Malawi.

I love living in Nairobi, when I'm not traveling for work. I love seeing giraffe from the airport road upon arrival (be looking out the left side of the car upon leaving the airport and making the big right turn towards where you pay for parking). I love it when I arrive at an odd hour and don't have to sit in horrendous traffic on Mombasa Rd / Uhuru Highway. I love that when I do catch the traffic, you can buy The Economist from a street hawker and read while you wait. I love getting home and finding my apartment clean and quiet and waiting for me to shower, change, and head out.

I love the food options available: Japanese (Onami in Westgate, or the sushi at Phoenecian), Chinese (there's a couple China Plate's - not very good, though), Indian (tons of options, all good, my roommate loves the vegetarian one called Chow Patty), Ethiopian (DEFINITELY go to Habesha on Argwings Khodek road near YaYa center), Steak (Sierra Brewery's restaurant in YaYa center, or Fogo Gaucho for a Brazilian Steak experience), burgers (Tamambo's, in Village Market), bruuuuuuunch (Le Rustique, just behind Westgate, or About Thyme, around the corner), Italian (Mediterrano), coffee / breakfast (Java House's various locations). Avoid ArtCaffe cause their service sucks, but they do have some of the best bread. And definitely try the ostrich philly cheese steak sandwich at Prime Cuts in Village Market. Oh, and Diamond Plaza's food market is a must-see.

I love seeing my friends (local and expat) who live there and catching up over a beer and maybe some shisha (for them, not me) at Casablanca, or Klub House, or Tamambo's for a live show, or over some blackjack at Millionaires (Westgate).

I love shopping at Nakumatt and cleaning them out of any of my favorite western treats when they happen to have them, and I love hitting up the commissary when visiting my embassy friends.

I love playing softball and ultimate frisbee with my friends at Rosslyn Academy (near the US embassy) and on the UN Rec Center fields.

I guess I could go on and on.

But Nairobi, no - she ain't safe. I try to walk around as little as possible on the streets, although when I do it in the daytime in most places I feel fairly safe (I'm a rough and tumble white male, fwiw). I would not walk anywhere at night, period. When you drive, you need to have the windows up, always. Its just not safe - I have a friend who was stopped in traffic at the circle in front of Triangle Market in Westgate (near Sarit shopping center) and had a knife to his throat in broad daylight for his cell phone. Carjackings and other robberies happen regularly - the schemes are always changing but typical ones include rear-ending you and waiting for you to stop and get out of your car, or dudes acting drunk walking into traffic and then jacking you when you stop. Home invasion robberies are also frequent, and if Nairobi's finest happen to be tipped off before hand, you might get treated to a real live gun battle on the streets outside your very apartment.

Don't ever get in a matatu (taxi minivans) as that is just asking for trouble. And try to be off the roads by sundown - driving in Kenya is unsafe enough as it is. Never drive anywhere without a charged cell phone, plenty of water, and at least half a tank of gas.

You could EASILY blow 3 days in Masai Mara trying to track down the Big 5. I self-drive and camp outside the park these days, but you can hop a flight and be landing in the park in an hour, and stay inside it at a lodge too, depending on your budget. There are plenty of other smaller parks where you'll feel you have the whole park almost to yourself, which are great as well - my favorite is Meru. You could just as easily blow 3 days on the beach / in the pool in Malindi, or Lamu. Any of those would be great options - you could even squeeze a day of safari in on your way through Tsavo as you head out to Malindi, best of both worlds. Want to see the slums? Organize a safe tour guide to take you through Kibera (my roommate does photo shoots there often, I could get you in touch with her).

Long story short, Nairobi's great for living in if you can get saavy with the dangers to be navigated, but with 3 days, there's plenty of other things to see and do in Kenya, depending on what your interest is. Hope that helps, just get in touch if I can be of more help.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:58 AM on February 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Jambo! I just returned from my trip and wanted to put my thoughts in for future reference.

Overall, I loved the trip. I have only travelled in the US and in Europe, so this was truly a unique experience for me.

The worst parts of my trip were the flights to and from (JFK to DBX, DBX to NBO) and crappy hotel food. Oh and being an amateur photographer, feeling like I couldn't whip out my DSLR and get snap happy in Nairobi. OH and the malarone. I will be skipping that part in the future (took it for safari portion of trip - but suffered from side effects so I stopped).

I stayed in the Silver Springs Hotel (arrangements made by work) though I did eat one evening at the Fairview and my boss stayed at the Country Lodge next door. Our office happens to be between the Silver Springs hotel and the Fairview, so I didn't pick any of these places - pure conicidence they were mentioned here.

I was there for a work conference and therefore saw very little of Nairobi. We were fortunate enough to have a security briefing when we arrived. This included the many ways to avoid theft, muggings, and carjackings. We worked hard for 5 days straight and the first two evenings I was too jetlagged to do anything but go to bed early.

There was some protesting/tear gas in front of the parliament while we were there. So tensions are still a little high regarding the current politics. They also still love Obama and are upset he hasn't paid a visit to the country (heard this from 5 different kenyans I spoke to). And all view 2008 as one of the worst years in Kenyan history between the violence and the drought. All of this of course gleaned from my brief experience in the country so grain of salt...

Breakfast we had at the hotel each morning with a big buffet style spread. Lunch was included with our conference, we had the same thing for lunch for 5 days straight. Not very exciting. I have a new found love for samosa's though.

We ate at Carnivore one evening which was a meat bonanza - as promised. We had chicken, pork, beef, turkey, lamb, ostrich, camel, and crocodile. I think I was most pleased with the coffee and dessert and just being able to escape the office and hotel.

The next evening we ate at a restaurant called, uh, the Mayflower I think. It was really nice and the food was pretty good. This trip I had a knack for picking the saltiest things on the menu or perhaps the Kenyans just love their salt. The atmosphere alone was worth it. There was a very heavy downpour when we arrived that lasted nearly an hour. We were sitting outside under a large tented area which seems common for all the parts of kenya that I saw. They had a tiny stage and live jazz that started about halfway through our meal. When we finished dinner, my boss and I sat and warmed by the large fireplace at the entrance while we waited for our taxi to arrive.

I had booked myself a two and half day safari split between Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha. I probably paid too much, but I had pop-up minibus and driver/guide all to myself. I was fortunate to have a really awesome guide as well (maybe they all are who knows). He was an older gentleman who knew alot about all the birds and animals we saw.

I stayed at the Flamingo Hill Tented Camp which was by far the highlight of my trip. I love to camp and this mix of camping and luxury wowed me. I had tent #1 so I was close to the fence that kept the animals out. While I was sitting on my 'porch' just enjoying the sounds and fresh air, the zebras came to graze just on the other side. Very exciting. The staff there was awesome too and the atmosphere very relaxed.

Lake Nakuru is gorgeous. I highly recommend it. We saw tons of animals and were lucky to see a leopard. Apparently that's rare and I guess that makes sense since they are largely nocturnal. I snapped away with my crappy zoom lens as the guide pointed stuff out around us that I would have missed normally.

Lake Naivasha was a rush. I missed the original lodge booking because I waited too long to make up my mind and I wish I could have stayed there. I ended up staying at the Sopa Lodge at Naivasha and while it had its perks, it had a super touristy feel to it.

My last day there the driver took me to the place I was supposed to stay at for the boat ride over to Crescent Island. I had to walk past the hippos (in the water) jump in the motor boat. Once on the island, I did a walking tour (safari technically) and walked amongst wildebeast, zebra, water buck, buffalo, gazelles, dik-diks (rather dik dik ran in horror) and the giraffes. I was probably 50ft from two mom and baby giraffes. Pure awesomeness.

Anyway, it seems like it might not be my last trip to Kenya for work, so hopefully I will see more of Nairobi and the countryside.

Notes: Tusker (beer) is cheaper than a bottle of water. Take binoculars!! Learn how to negotiate! If you aren't african, get used to being gawked at and last, but not least, sloooooow down the pace.
posted by getmetoSF at 7:08 AM on April 3, 2010

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