The following information is idiosyncratic and I’ve tried to include the sorts of things a researcher or long-term visitor would find useful. It focuses on the places in Tanzania and Kenya where I was for my research, with an emphasis on places on the Tanzanian coast and regions around Lake Victoria.
In terms of moving around in the region, planes are increasingly becoming a viable option, at least for getting to big cities. A new discount airline (as if a regular African airline wasn’t frightening enough), called Fly540 has started working in the region. They have a very convenient and inexpensive flight between Nairobi-Mombasa-Zanzibar, and also daily flights between Nairobi and Kisumu.
For those who are traveling between Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam regularly, I can say this: avoid the overnight “cheap” boats. (Unless, of course, you prefer to save $10 and lose your breakfast while bobbing in the open ocean.) Over the past five years, the best boats are run by the Azam Marine Company and Fast Ferries. If you’re a resident, it’s often worth paying for a first class ticket. Schedules change constantly, so you’ll have to go to the port to buy tickets. Whatever you do, don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t work in an “official” office and certainly don’t believe what anyone tells you about “cancelled” boats! As many travel guides will tell you, only buy tickets from workers inside offices, and beware of pickpockets at the ports in both Zanzibar and Dar.
A final word of warning about the ferries: there have been a number of tragedies over the past few years with ferries between Zanzibar-Dar and Zanzibar-Pemba sinking because they are over crowded, poorly maintained, or met rough seas. Use good judgement in deciding which boat to travel on. This is NOT the right place to try to save a few dollars. If you are unsure about which boat to take, ask workers at higher-end Zanzibari hotels (like the Serena, for instance) for their recommendation. Do not get on boats that look over crowded. And it might not be a bad idea to pay attention to where (if) there are life vests or life rafts available on the boats. As another reason for why the night ferries are a bad idea, should anything happen, your chances for rescue will be greater during daylight hours.
Internet & Connections
In the past few years, internet has been revolutionized in East Africa. When I lived there in 2003, getting a stable internet connection was virtually impossible. Now nearly the whole region is internet-connected if you have the right technology. It’s possible to use USB modems that connect to the internet through the cell phone towers/companies. In Tanzania, Vodacom, Celtel and Zantel all sell modems. In Kenya, Safaricom is the obvious choice. Anyplace that you can get a cell phone signal (with that particular company) you can get the internet.
Before you purchase a modem, make sure to consider the company. Coverage in various parts of the region varies widely. Zantel has excellent coverage and cheap rates in Zanzibar, but is virtually useless in the mainland. Also, although Vodacom and Safaricom are partners in East Africa, a modem purchased in Tanzania won’t work in Kenya. Also, be leery of bringing “unlocked” modems from Europe since these also often have problems. In any case, the cell phone and internet scene is changing quickly, and you’ll want to spend some time investigating the best deals once you arrive. A Vodacom or Safaricom office is a good place to start.
In some places in East Africa, including Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Mwanza, there is actually 3G internet. This is fast enough to be able to talk through internet calling programs like Skype. I was amazed to find that in 2008, I had a faster internet connection in Mwanza, Tanzania than I did in Boston.
It’s now possible to send money through cell phones in East Africa. Companies like Vodacom, Safaricom, Zantel, Celtel--nearly all companies now--allow clients to “store” money on their phones using virtual accounts. With those bank accounts on your phone, it’s possible to virtually “send” money to someone in another part of the country. I can’t say enough about how well this system works. In places where there are no banks, ATMS, and where you don’t want to carry hundreds of dollars at a time, using M-Pesa (Vodacom) or Z-Pesa (Zantel) can be an ideal choice.
The system works something like this: you first open an account by going to a Vodacom office, say in Zanzibar. You deposit money with a cashier there, and you get a message on your phone telling you how much money is in your account. You then travel to another part of the country, like Mwanza. In Mwanza you go to not only just a Vodacom office, but to any little store that has a Vodacom M-Pesa Sign (and there are many). You access your account through your phone, type in the numeric location of the store where you are, and the store gets a text message allowing them to distribute you money. The system has allowed for micro-banks to be created in thousands of places across the countryside.
Mobile money can also be an excellent way for a researcher to “carry” large amounts of money without the money actually being on her. Especially if you’re conversant in Swahili, I would highly recommend this as a way to store money safely while traveling through the region.
Dar es Salaam
There is not much that I like about Dar. I find it crowded, dirty and hot, and I’ve had bad luck there with theft. A few words of advice, though.
• If you’re going to be staying somewhere cheap, such as the YMCA or YWCA, keep all valuables on your body at all times! The locks are easy to pick, criminals are around, and items do get stolen. This means if you have a laptop, bring it to the toilet with you.
• If you’re looking for a cheap hotel, I would recommend Econolodge at Kisutu Corner. It used to run about 20,000 Tsh for a single, and includes a very sad breakfast. Rooms have fans or AC, hot water, and are clean and safe. A good deal for downtown Dar.
•If you stay near Kisutu Corner,the best place to eat is at the Al Basha Cafe, which serves Lebanese food. It’s on the corner of Morogoro and Indira Ghandi Road. The lavash is amazing.
•If you’re willing to spend a bit more, the Swiss Garden Hotel will set you back between $90-$100 per night. But, you get a good Swiss breakfast, modern rooms, nice garden grounds and--most hard to find in Dar--peace and quiet to sleep. This is also a great place to meet international development workers, academic researchers, and other professionals working in the region.
Tanga is a nice, quiet town. There’s not much to do there, but it’s a good place to spend a night if you’re traveling further inland.
•By far the best hotel option in town: Mbuyu Kendarun by the Lutheran church. It is on the grounds of a former German mission station and includes large grounds with overgrown trees and monkeys. The rooms are clean, the staff are extremely trustworthy, and while the restaurant isn’t great, there is street food available nearby. The hotel is on the start of the peninsula (Ras kazone). It is within walking distance to Bombo Hospital, and a few nice places to eat. Rates were formally between $15-$20 per night. Call Mwanga at 0784 507111 for reservations.
•The Indian Swim Club is straight down the street from the Mbuyu Kenda hotel. They serve good Indian food and you can also swim there (although there is no beach). You’ll be surrounded by old Indian men and may be offered a stick to brush your teeth with.
•The Mkonge Hotel is less than a 10-minute walk from Mbuyu Kenda. The rooms were running about $60 per night, and are uninspired and sterile feeling. They do have nice grounds with outdoor tables where you can drink, eat, and watch the water. Don’t order the white wine, it’s watered down.
If you thought there was little to do in Tanga, there is even less to do in Muheza. If you do end up here for a night on the way to Amani, be sure to stay at the AM Guesthouse, which is run by a very nice man named Ali. The hotel is new, the rooms are clean, and run about $10 per night (and include an attached bathroom). Call Ali at 0754 622 637 or 0264 1404 for reservations.
Amani is a beautiful place to visit. For all of those people who want to go to Lushoto to hike and see nature, you actually want to go to Amani. This lush, rain-forested area has become the vacation hide-out of Swiss ex-pats, who know good hiking. There are few tourists and plenty of trails through dense, damp, impressive forests.
•Getting to Amani can be a challenge if you don’t have your own 4-WD vehicle. There is a bus that runs most days from Muheza to Amani Center. The bus leaves at around 2.30 each afternoon, and it is usually in sorry shape. Tickets will cost about $3, and the trip can take 3-4 hours. In the rainy season, wear walking shoes since the bus normally gets bogged down and passengers walk portions while the bus is dug out. The other option is to hire a taxi in Muheza. Prices can range from $30-$50 one way.
•The best place to stay in Amani is at the NIMR (National Institute of Medical Research) guesthouse. For approximately $30 per person you will receive a clean room and three hearty meals. The guesthouse is rarely full, but it is still best to call ahead so they can prepare a room and order food. Contact the manager, Mr Bendera at 0784 938 234, 0786 152 671, or 027 264 0303 for reservations and directions.
•The other available hotel is run by the park service, and is just a 5 minute walk from the NIMR guesthouse. While the building has a nice patio looking out into the forest, the rooms are ugly with plastic linoleum.
I really like Mwanza. It’s a city, but one that feels less raw than Dar es Salaam. There is a vibrant market and downtown area, and it really is a hub for East Africa, with boats, planes and trucks passing through and delivering goods. If you’re here, it’s easy to move around to other parts of the lake.
•There are daily flights from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza on Air Tanzania and Coastal Airlines
•I highly recommend the Christmas Tree Hotel, which has extremely clean rooms, mildly hot water, safe grounds, a good restaurant, and a fantastic staff. The rooms run about $16 a night, and are a great deal.
•Make sure you go have a coffee at the Tilapia hotel. Good espressos are only about 1,500 Tsh, but avoid the cakes since they are old and dry. Food portions at the restaurant are generous and almost match the prices. The pizza is also better than the one being offered at the official “pizzeria”--Kuleana--downtown. The other selling point is that there is wireless internet available there.
Bukoba is a small, sleepy town. Since I went there to take a rest from my own research, I can’t say much about activities. But, for taking a rest, it’s a great place.
•Getting to Bukoba from Mwanza is not difficult. There are ferry boats that run from Mwanza three times a week (Tues, Thurs, Sun) leaving at 9 pm and arriving at around 6 am the following morning. The first class cabins include two bunks, a sink, a locking door and a small window. For about $30, I found it a very enjoyable ride. There are also charter flights going twice daily for approximately $75 one-way. Check any of the downtown travel agents in Mwanza for tickets.
•In Bukoba, I can recommend the Walkgard Annex, which is in town. The food was good, the rooms clean and the water pretty hot. Additionally, there are nice outdoor patios that are very pleasant places to work, eat meals and chat. Rooms are approximately $18 a night.
•It is easy to reach Ukerewe from Mwanza. A comfortable ferry boat leaves twice a day, and on at least one of the boats there is a nice first class area with a patio and lounge. You can purchase tickets at the Mwanza port, behind the police station, and they cost about $6. The ride takes about 3 hours and if the weather is calm expect an easy and enjoyable trip to Ukerewe. (They may also be serving lunch on board.)
•There is a new hotel in Ukerewe that is clean and quite nice. It’s not right in town, but has one of the nicest beds I slept in in all of East Africa with amazingly fluffy pillows. The food is also surprisingly good. I can’t remember the name, but it is outside of the downtown area, and is parallel to the hospital.
•There is a ferry boat from Ukerewe to Ukara island that leaves twice a day (usually) from the north part of the island. That village can be reached for a few dollars by way of shared taxi/ minibus leaving from the center of town. The ferry to Ukara takes anywhere from 1-3 hours, and is often overcrowded. Be prepared to stand in the sun.
Ukara is most famous for it’s “dancing rocks” that a local medicine man can command to “dance” forpaying visitors. It is possible to make a day trip from Ukerewe--arriving in the morning, going to see the rocks, and then departing in the afternoon.
•The boat from Ukerewe will drop you in Ukara’s port town of Bwisya. It is the largest of the few villages on the island. There are very few cars and motorbikes to move around. I stayed at one of the only guesthouses in town, and a room was about 5000 Tsh per night.
•There are a few food options in town, all grouped near the market. Bwana Yetu Cafe (Our Lord Cafe) gave me severe stomach problems, but I never got a chance to try the cleverly namedMaisha ni Mlima (Life is a Mountain) cafe.
If you haven’t been to Nairobi before, or you haven’t been in a few years, prepare to be shocked. Nairobi looks like nothing else in East Africa. I arrived expecting to find a larger version of Dar es Salaam. Ban all such ideas. Nairobi is cosmopolitan, urban, and hugely unequal. You’ll find bags of organic baby spinach and camel milk for sale in the upscale supermarkets, while in other parts of town, there are still perpetual water shortages. The incongruities are both fascinating and uncomfortable. I could never live in Nairobi, but it was a great place to visit.
There is also increasing questions about safety in Kenya, especially on the Coast. I would advise travelers to check the State Department warnings, and be cautious.
•Despite what guidebooks say, I’d not recommend the YMCA. The rooms were dirty, the food was terrible, and it did not feel particularly safe. (To wit, a 2 am yelling match between a prostitute and hotel guest.)
•I found the Terminal Hotel to be a good value. The rooms were clean, and there were plenty of food options nearby. Taxis congregate outside. Be aware that the hotel backs up to a street that is the haunt of prostitutes and their clients. I was awoken a few mornings to yelling matches about appropriate prices. Bring earplugs.
•For those working in city center or at the National Archives, walking straight up Moi Avenue has a host of good food options. I really liked the Swahili Cafe (I think that was the name--it’s just a few blocks up from the archives). They had good approximations of coastal food, including chappatis, coconut based curries, and fried fish.
•There are an abundance of bookstores in Nairobi. Not only are there book sections inside some of the larger supermarkets (like Nakumatt) but there are also stores dotted throughout the City Center and suburban malls. For those working in other book-starved parts of East Africa, Kenya is an excellent place to stock up on reading material.
There are cheap flights on Fly540 between Nairobi and Kisumu. The train also makes twice weekly trips back and forth. I would highly recommend the “upper class” cabins, which include 2 bunks, bedding, and dinner and breakfast for less than $40. Just make sure you wake up early enough on the trip from Kisumu back to Nairobi that you don’t miss all of the scenery.