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Epic Guide To Backpacking In Malawi

Backpacking in Malawi offers a unique adventure through the “Warm Heart of Africa,” where you can explore stunning landscapes, vibrant cultures, and welcoming locals.

This is a travel guide showing the main places to visit and practical advice to help you plan your backpacking trip to Malawi.


Backpacking In Malawi

Personally, I went backpacking in Malawi when travelling overland from Ethiopia to South Africa and loved my time there, in particular taking the sleeper ferry across Lake Malawi (more on that in the post).

First I will go through the best places to visit in Malawi on your backpacking trip and then give some practical travel advice at the end of the article.

Top tip: Get a copy of the Malawi (Bradt Travel Guide) as it’s easily the best guidebook for Malawi and written by an expert on travel in Africa. I use Bradt Travel Guides for planning all my trips in Africa and find them much more detailed than other guidebook companies.


Top Destinations

If you’re coming down from Tanzania overland, like I did, then you will stop first at Karonga, although there is not much to do there so it’s better to continue down to Nkhata Bay which is much more relaxed.

From Nkhata Bay you can take the ferry over to Likoma Island and then continue to the furthest point south, Monkey Bay. After the Monkey Bay area, head over to the capital Lilongwe.

Lilongwe is not that exciting so don’t plan to stay long there, just a night or two while you plan the next part of your trip, or maybe it’s the end of the trip.

If you plan to leave Malawi and head into Zambia if you’re going overland then that’s easy to do, or if you have more time or are just concentrating on backpacking in Malawi, then you have other good places to visit, such as Liwonde National Park.

If you’re starting in Lilongwe then I recommend just doing this itinerary in reverse.


Lake Malawi

Without a doubt, Lake Malawi is one of the main reasons to visit the country as far as places to visit go. It’s the true life of the country there. Explore the pristine beaches and visit traditional fishing villages along the shores of Africa’s third-largest lake.

One of the absolute best things to do in Malawi is to take the Ilala Ferry across Lake Malawi from the north to the south of the country (or vice-versa). Just be aware this is in no way a “luxury cruise”, it’s a very basic ferry that locals use to get around on.

On top of the Ilala Ferry.

The Ilala Ferry has been in service in Malawi since 1951 and it travels along the length of Lake Malawi, covering approximately 365 miles from Monkey Bay in the south to Chilumba in the north.

It takes approximately three days from Nkhata Bay to Monkey Bay in the south. The ferry stops at several ports and islands along the way, including Mangochi, Nkhata Bay, Likoma Island, and Chizumulu Island.

There are a few different classes for sleeping options, but if you can manage to get the space take a private cabin as it’s much more comfortable. On a very tight budget? Sleep out in the open on the top! Yes, the accommodation options vary from basic deck space for sleeping under the stars to private cabins with beds.

Tickets for the Ilala Ferry can be purchased at the ticket office in the port of your departure. It’s advisable to book tickets in advance, especially during peak travel seasons, as the ferry can fill up quickly.

You should arrive at the port well in advance of departure time to ensure a smooth boarding process.

When I did this from Nkhata Bay I actually had to wade in water waste deep carrying my backpack over my head to get to the boat! But don’t worry they will have small rowing boats if necessary to help out if it comes to that. I had a small light backpack which is why I waded as it was so busy to wait for the smaller boats.

Sunset on the Ilala Ferry on Lake Malawi.

Keep in mind that schedules and ports of call may change due to weather conditions or other factors, so be prepared for unexpected delays or adjustments to your travel plans.

The Ilala Ferry offers you a unique and memorable way to experience the beauty of Lake Malawi and explore the lakeshore communities of Malawi.


Nkhata Bay

Experience laid-back beach vibes and vibrant nightlife in this popular backpacker hub on the northern shores of Lake Malawi. Relax on the sandy beaches, soak up the sun, and enjoy breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding landscapes.

This is the perfect base to get yourself set up for your Malawi backpacking adventure if you’re coming from the north. It’s also where you can take the Ilala Ferry from.

Visit local markets, interact with friendly villagers, and learn about the culture and traditions of the local Tonga people.

There are several budget-friendly guesthouses and backpacker hostels offering basic amenities and dormitory-style accommodation.


Likoma Island

Likoma Island offers a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural heritage, and laid-back charm, making it an ideal destination for travellers seeking an off-the-beaten-path experience in Malawi.

Relax on this idyllic island in the middle of Lake Malawi, known for its tranquil beaches, historic cathedral, and vibrant local culture. It’s a great stopover on the way across Lake Malawi on the ferry if you have the time.

If you’re short on time or don’t care to much about beaches then give this a miss as you can have beaches at Monkey Bay on the mainland as well.


Monkey Bay

The Ilala Ferry is docked by Monkey Bay.

Monkey Bay is a charming lakeside town located on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, offering a laid-back atmosphere, beautiful beaches, and access to stunning natural attractions.

This is where I get off from the Ilala Ferry. There are several pristine beaches along the shores of Lake Malawi, where you can relax, swim, and enjoy kayaking and snorkelling.

You can explore the local villages and communities surrounding Monkey Bay, gaining insights into the traditional customs, crafts, and way of life of the Chewa and Yao people.

Monkey Bay offers a range of accommodation options to suit different budgets and preferences, including guesthouses, lodges, and campsites.

As you’re reading a backpacking in Malawi post I will assume you will want budget-friendly guesthouses and backpacker hostels which you can easily find there.


Liwonde National Park

Embark on a safari to spot elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and a variety of bird species in scenic Liwonde National Park.

Liwonde National Park is located in the southern region of Malawi, along the Shire River. The park is easily accessible from major cities like Blantyre and Lilongwe, making it easy to get to.

Liwonde National Park is renowned for its abundant wildlife, including large populations of elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and antelopes. If you’re lucky you can see predators such as lions, leopards, and hyenas, as well as a variety of bird species, including African fish eagles, kingfishers, and herons.

Naturally, elephants are easy to spot!

The park’s diverse habitats, including woodlands, floodplains, and grasslands, support a rich array of plant and animal life.

The park offers a range of accommodation options to suit different preferences and budgets, including lodges, tented camps, and campsites. Options include luxury lodges overlooking the river, comfortable tented camps nestled in the bush, and basic campsites for self-sufficient travellers.

If you’re not planning on visiting other wildlife safari destinations in East Africa on your trip then definitely try to get to Liwonde National Park for a wildlife experience on your travels in Africa.

If you are planning a safari in neighbouring Tanzania or Zambia, for example, have a look at my guide to the best safaris in East Africa.


Mount Mulanje

Ok, I’ll be totally honest with this and say that I personally didn’t get to hike around Mount Mulanje as I was heading into Zambia from Lilongwe but I did meet some travellers that hiked to the summit of Malawi’s highest peak where they said they had breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape and the unique flora and fauna.

Mount Mulanje is one of the most iconic and breathtaking destinations in Malawi, offering a haven for nature enthusiasts and adventurers alike.

This is the link to the Mountain Club of Malawi where they have excellent information on doing this hike if you want to do it.


Cultural Etiquette

Respect local customs and traditions, including dressing modestly, especially in rural areas and when visiting religious sites.

Learn a few words in Chichewa, the most widely spoken language in Malawi, to communicate with locals and show respect for their culture.


Budget

Malawi is one of the more affordable destinations in Africa, with backpackers able to find accommodation, meals, and transportation at reasonable prices.

Budget around $20 to $40 per day for basic expenses, including accommodation, meals, and local transport.


Best Time to Visit

Malawi enjoys a moderate climate year-round, but the best time to visit is during the dry season, which typically runs from May to October.

The rainy season, from November to April, brings lush greenery but can make travel more challenging due to muddy roads and increased humidity.


Visa Requirements

Many nationalities can obtain a visa upon arrival at the airport or border crossing, but it’s essential to check the latest requirements before your trip.

Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your intended departure date.


Health and Safety

Consult a healthcare professional for advice on necessary vaccinations before backpacking in Malawi.

Malaria is prevalent in Malawi, so take appropriate precautions such as using mosquito nets and repellent.

Tap water is not safe to drink; stick to bottled or purified water.

Exercise caution when swimming in freshwater lakes due to the risk of bilharzia (schistosomiasis) infections.


Getting Around

Public transport options in Malawi include minibuses, known as “matolas,” which are the most common and affordable way to travel between cities and towns.

Motorcycle taxis, locally called “Kabaza,” are prevalent for shorter journeys within towns.

Renting a car gives you more flexibility, but roads may be challenging to navigate, especially in rural areas.


Accommodation

Malawi offers a range of accommodation options suitable for backpackers, including hostels, guesthouses, campsites, and budget hotels.

Hostels and guesthouses are prevalent in major tourist destinations like Lilongwe, Blantyre, and along the shores of Lake Malawi.

Camping is a popular and budget-friendly option, with numerous campsites offering basic facilities.


Malawi

Backpacking in Malawi promises unforgettable experiences, from exploring stunning natural landscapes to immersing yourself in vibrant local cultures. By following this travel guide and embracing the warmth and hospitality of the Malawian people, you’re sure to create memories that will last a lifetime.

When I was backpacking in Malawi I had a great time and met many friendly people. The highlight of my trip was easily spending a few days travelling down Lake Malawi.

For more on the region have a look at my guide for backpacking in Tanzania, one of Malawi’s neighbouring countries and also my guide to backpacking in Zambia.

I recommend using SafetyWing Travel Insurance as backpacking travel insurance for your trip, just in case, it’s best to be prepared.

Again a top tip: Get a copy of the Malawi (Bradt Travel Guide) as it’s easily the best guidebook for Malawi and written by an expert on travel in Africa. I use Bradt Travel Guides for planning all my trips in Africa and find them much more detailed than other guidebook companies.


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