Malawi for independent travelers. Useful info.

We visited Malawi in February 2015, during a complete trip,
8 months, through Southern and Eastern Africa.

               MALAWI  AT  A  GLANCE               

Malawi is a compact country, half of it, it´s the Lake Nyassa.
Like most of the tourists, we were on route between Zambia and Tanzania, and we chose a few places to relax on the lake. That´s all. So our trip was quite limited to a few places.

Travelling in Malawi is safe

It´s quite easy to move around, many vans and minibuses everywhere, short distances and quite cheap, and you can find cheap basic camps

Keep in mind that if travelling by public transport, some lodges and camps on the lake or mountains can be a few km from the main road or the bus stop and not always too much local public transport around. Important, specially if travelling on a budget, maybe limited options.


The bad point is food, outside of the lodges (quite expensive, but the camps are another galaxy) no options, no street food just a few snacks… and not to many things to buy around in small towns, supermarkets are quite limited, quite expensive and not so well supplied. 

Malawi is really a poor country, compared with its neighbors.

 Malawi is getting popular, specially during Christmas and june to august, with yougn travelers, most of them from South Africa, but still authentic.
Everything is basic, the country is still very undeveloped.
It´s a good place to see everyday´s Africa life, very rural and the lake´s activities.

After our trip, 8 months in 12 countries, we don´t think it´s the most interesting place in southern Africa, even not the cheaper, and not so good for “beginners”.



   WEATHER IN MALAWI   

November to April is the rainy season. Specially heavy in January-february. It´s the low season, few travellers, a few places can be closed. So also possible to negotiate prices.
Maybe not the best time if going to parks or mountains or remote places… or do camping.
In January and february 2015, we had some rain but also sunny days, rain was heavy at night; and South Malawi was having floodings, people died.


   MOVING AROUND MALAWI   

ROADS IN MALAWI
Main roads in Malawi are tarred and in quite good conditions. Not always too wide but fine, little traffic.
Petrol prices: 785 K/l diesel and 760 K/l for unleaded.
Entering Malawi by car you have to pay a tax fee.
You don´t really need a 4WD to cross the country, except if going to remote places.
Rent a car in Malawi: not very popular as it´s expensive. Only in Lilongwe and Blantyre. Expect to pay at least 60 €/day for a small car.


PUBLIC TRANSPORTS IN MALAWI
  • Minibuses and vans in Malawi:
Vans (Toyota small vans mainly) departure when full, on almost all the main roads.The over-loading is normal, they fill the vans more thanwhat you could believe. Expect many stops to pick up more people, incredible, but be patient.
Prices are around 1.000 K for a 2 hours trip, 2 €, for around 100 km. Still OK. But prices tend to go up, local people complain a lot about the price charged. Sometimes they try to charge tourists a bit more, ask in advance other travellers about the price...
Only on the most transited roads there a minibuses (more confortable) too, not only vans. Like Lilongwe to Salima.
We mainly traveled by van.

  • Buses in Malawi:
Not too many buses. AXA is the main company, with old buses but correct (usually cheaper than vans) and AC coaches too (more expensive). Fixed departures, mostly on the Lilongwe- Mzuzu road and Lilongwe- Blantyre. Less on other roads.
We only used them once, heading north from Salima.

Also international coaches, going from Lilongwe/Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Johannesburg, Harare, Lusaka. Long hours!
This for example the Intercape company route (one of the biggest companies from South Africa), there are many more:

  • Local transport in Malawi towns:
Quite limited. Vans in the big cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu), and a few taxis.
Around villages you also find taxis and specially many bicycle-taxis (just a cushion on a bike, hard job).

 
 
  • Boats on Lake Malawi:
The main ports and routes are:
Chilumba - Nkhata Bay - Likoma - Nkhotakota - Chipoka - Monkey Bay.

The ferry and boats are:
- Ilala ferry
- Chilembwe
- Chambo boat
- Malungu boat
- Mwande boat
Prices are quite cheap, even if they try to charge more to foreigners, but tend to go higher, specially when travelling with the new ferry Chilembwe.

Only Ilala and Chilembwe (new ferry) are quite big steal boats, the other ones are wooden boats. Less confortable and safe.
Not daily departures. Usually it´s once a week up the lake and once down. 

You can find some information on internet about Ilala, but not always updated. Sur the webs and forums, travellers keep updating or contact camps in Malawi.

Last january, Ilala was not working, under repair. This seams to be quite usual.

Don´t worry, there´s usually at least one boat working.
For the tourists, the main point of using boats is to go to Likoma Island close to the Mozambique shore, from Nkhata Bay. Otherwise, there are always vans...even if longer specially for Monkey Bay...

During the rainy season, the lake can get quite rough!
We didn´t use them.
  • Trains in Malawi:
We saw rail tracks near Lilongwe, but it seems that Malawi trains are not working anymore.
 
  • Fights in Malawi:
Lilonge´s airport is the main and international airport in Malawi. But not many flights, prices are quite expensive. It´s better to use Tanzania´s or Zambia´s airports. 
You can always check with Skyscanner.


   CHEAP ACCOMODATION IN MALAWI   

On the lake, there are backpackers and camps, mostly in Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear, where the offer is bigger, but also in Senga Bay and other ones spread out all over the lake. Also a few in the main towns (Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu) and other tourist spots like mountain areas of Zomba and Dedza or in Liwonde National Park.
Sometimes on the main commercial towns you find local lodges (correct rooms and cheap) as we did in Nkhotakota or Karonga

So you can manage to find cheap accommodation, even if price are increasing year by year, all camps are focus on foreigners. Camping is always the cheapest option.
The owners are often South Africans or white people.

  • Prices for affordable accommodation in Malawi:
The prices start from :
- Camping: 4 € /pp.
- Dormitories, around 7 - 9 € / bed
- Rooms in tourist places: 15 - 20 €.
- Rooms in towns: 10 €.
So bring a tent if you want to save money, and camp.

The quality of the camps/lodges is basic, more or less maintened and clean. Hot showers, toilet paper, kitchen.
In towns on the main roads, you find local and cheap lodges, mostly correct (10 euros/room). But there are also “love hotels”, not always the best places for the travellers or dirty places.

 Rooms at a standar local lodge

Note: Christmas and june-august are crowded. But in low season, you can get discounts… maybe get a room or dorm for the price of camping. For example, we got a room for 10 Euros/2p in Nkhata and dorms (alone) in Senga. Try!.

Couchsurfing in Malawi:
In Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, you find a limited active community. Not too many people in other places.
Mainly foreigners.
We did couchsurfing in Lilongwe with a local family. Good.


   MONEY IN MALAWI   

The currency it´s the Malawi Kwachas.
You will find banks and ATMs for international cards in the main towns, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, in banks like Standart. Maximum amount 40.000 K around 100 $ (you can withdraw 5 times/day). 
ATMs in Malawi give a very bad exchange rate, there´s a hidden exra comission! It would be better to change money!

Warning: in smaller towns, there are banks and ATMs but international cards not always working (more lucky if Visa) and if they do, very limited amount, so carry enough cash!
Many travelers get out of money... and you will need to head to Lilingwe or Mzuzu to get cash at an ATM! 
Payment by card is not avalaible usually, except in some places in the 3 main towns.


US$ are widely used in the tourist camps (the prices are often in $), so bringing US$ in Malawi can be useful too.

In January 2015, the exchange rate was 1€ = 550 Kwachas, but with ATM only 492,40 K!
And 1$=475 Kwachas.

   TELECOMS IN MALAWI   

Buying a SIM card is easy in Malawi and cheap (less than 1€), 3G or E net in the main towns. 
Airtel, TNM and MTL are the main companies. Easy to find airtime everywhere (100 K, 0.1 € minimum).
Not too many wifi spots, out of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu (if working) and not many internet shops either.
The backpackers usually have WiFi but the internet doesn´t work. Connected to wifi but nothing. Funny.


   FOOD IN MALAWI   

Not the best in Malawi, real limited options
For us, food was the worst point when traveling across Malawi. Cause we don´t like to eat at the lodges, expensive "spaghetti tomato"! And near the lake where tourists stay there are mainly small villages, no commercial towns.

In the main towns, Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, you will find big supermarkets, so buy all you need before heading to the lake. True, quite expensive, compared specially with Tanzania or South Africa.
Outside these 3 big towns, only basic supermarkets (most of them People´s brand), markets (not too many things there in small towns) and shops. If the place at the lake is small, really limited offer.
Difficult to find fresh meat. You can get fresh fish if fishermen around, like chambo like in Senga Bay.



We usually prepared our own food. But not all the backpackers and lodges have stoves and kitchen avalaible (charcoal is mainly used in Malawi), but they always helped us.

Like in other southern Africa countries, the main dish is always “nshima” (pap in South Africa, “sadza” in Zimbabwe), a maize dish.
Some snacks on the markets and roads. 
Hard to find small local restaurants near the lake (they are “dark” and too much beer around). Only the lodges´restaurants for foreigners (quite expensive).
You will find a few local restaurants near the bus stations in big towns, correct!
Water is safe to drink in most of the places, but always ask.
Carlsberg is the local beer, sold in the supermarkets (400 K/33cl, almost 1 $), a bit more in the lodges.
Also local alcoholic drinks, Chibuku and shake shake.

   NATIONAL PARKS IN MALAWI   

Malawi is not famous for its game parks even if they are improving the conditions and the wild life is increasing there.
So if heading to another neighbour country (Tanzania, Zambia), you will probably find more wild life there. Save that money in Malawi.
Majete Wildlife Reserve (near Blantyre) has now the “big five” (fees are 20 $/pp+4 $/car). 
Liwonde National Park in the south is one of the most famous parks, Malawi standarts, (10 $/pp) with elephants, crocodiles, hippos, etc. and a river (boats).
Prices: A safari drive costs around 25 $, a walking safari 20 $, a boat safari 40 $.
We didn´t visited any. More information in  www.malawitourism.com


   LANGUAGES IN MALAWI   

The main language is chichewa.
English is widely spoken, but many people can´t speak English and have a very limited understanding. People who work at the lodges, drivers, etc. can speak English correctly, usually communication is not a problem.

   SAFETY IN MALAWI   

We always felt safe in Malawi, specially in small villages.
Towns get empty when dark, so avoid going out at that time.
Always be careful around crowded bus stations in the main towns and much more in Lilongwe!

   HEALTH IN MALAWI  

Lower places in Malawi (near the lake shores) are specially sensitive with malaria, and more in the rainy season. Ask around to see how is the situation.
It´s the only country traveling in Africa where local people told us: "be careful". Even in Lilongwe, Senga, Nhkata... and in Karonga the lady of the lodge was just recovering from Maleria.
Don´t take risks! 
Most of the rooms have mosquito nets.
In the supermarkets, you will find mosquito coils and insecticides but not easy to find repellents (except maybe in the big towns and big supermarkets). So don´t forget to bring enough before going to the lake!

Like in all Africa, malaria controls are quickly done at the health centers, easy to get the medicine. In the towns, you find basic health centers.

The Malawi Lake has bilharzia problem (small snails, parasites), specially in the northern part. Always ask around. You can find the medicine in the pharmacies (just in towns), cheap. It seems that norther part of the lake is better. We saw tourists swimming in Nkhata and only locals in Senga (water was brown cause rain).
Water is most of the times safe to drink, but ask, specially during rainy season.
Hygiene conditions are quite limited in Malawi. But we were never sick!
Big AIDS rate.

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