All About Malawi: 10 Helpful Things You Must Know Before Visiting

Table of Contents

Introduction

Malawi truly is the heart of Africa and completely stole our own hearts when we visited. We had planned to stay two weeks there, ended up there for nearly a month and could have stayed a lot longer besides this. There were so many things that really shocked us (often in a good way!), which is why we wanted to put together a useful guide for visiting and tell you all about Malawi.

Before visiting, we didn’t really know much about it, but we were so surprised when we were there to find out that it’s a country that honestly kind of has it all! The wildlife is really spectacular, the people are lovely, the hiking is amazing and the scenery superb: it even has beautiful beaches (which is pretty impressive for a landlocked country!

If you’re thinking of visiting Malawi, we say: DO IT. Here are 10 things you need to know before booking that flight.

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All about Malawi: Things You Need To Know

A beach on the edge of a lake. There is a small fishing boat and a fisherman is mooring it to the shore.
Pretty much the vibe in the smaller towns in Malawi!

1. Amenities are not readily available outside of big cities

By amenities, we mean: large supermarkets (the kind where you can get international food, i.e. typical backpacking snacks like well-known crisp and chocolate brands), pharmacies, hospitals and medication, ATMs, petrol stations (though you will get some), or things like large tech shops. Malawi has two major cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe. Both are bustling, thriving metropolitan spaces with plenty of the above amenities everywhere. There are also a few tourist towns, such as Zomba, Mangochi and Nkhotakota, which have some (but not all) of the above.

The rest of Malawi is composed of fairly small, sleepy little lake towns, which really don’t have much. There will be shops but these are local shopus (/dukas for those who’ve visited Swahili speaking countries!). They are essentially small permanent stalls, usually run by one person or a family, selling local snacks (often homemade), and effectively ‘bits and bobs’. Some might sell clothes, some might be a brick-a-brack or a hardware/electronics store, but they usually only have what they’ve been able to source locally.

In really remote places (for example, the lake islands such as Likoma), there may be supply packages once a week or so, but the destinations will probably be short on supplies before then. If you’re going to have a few days outside of a major township, it’s probably best to stock up – we really did not realise how much we’d miss crisps!

A cat in the Mushroom Farm in Malawi. It's tortoiseshell and asleep and looks very cute.
Even the cats are nice!

2. People are so friendly

Having come from Mozambique, where honestly, we really struggled with constantly being let down in terms of service (and embarrassingly, got scammed a lot), Malawi was a real shock to the system for us. We genuinely could not believe it that every time we agreed a price with someone* for a service, not only would the service be provided (kind of standard you’d hope!) but they would go so far above and beyond for us that we’d always end up feeling guilt for not having paid more!

Some examples of this service: we’d book an Airbnb and the owner would end up coming to pick us up half an hour out of their way, we’d get in a taxi and they would never leave until they’d taken us right up to the door of our accommodation AND made sure we were inside, we’d have a place booked with breakfast, but they’d insist on making us dinner as well at no extra cost – the list goes on!

*As a note on this: we’ve read in a few places that haggling isn’t really a thing in Malawi, but in our experience, it definitely was. We always try to haggle when it’s prevalent in a culture to avoid pushing up prices for the locals. If you’re interested to know more about this, we suggest to check the below articles, which give more clarity on the ethics of haggling:

How to haggle ethically
Ethical tipping and haggling

Safety in Malawi

Of course we always say on here that safety is subjective depending on who and where exactly you are, but we actually found Malawi to be one of the safest countries we had yet visited in Africa. People generally are extremely respectful of tourists and eager to show the best of Malawi. We barely encountered any rudeness, we never got ripped off or scammed, and we didn’t even feel unsafe in most places at night (though we probably would have not ventured outside alone in big cities).

There is one thing we will add caution for though: you need to keep your belongings close in big cities. Obviously this is fairly standard, but we really suggest taking note in Blantyre in particular. We noticed on buses that people would be peering in windows from outside ready to snatch things through the window if they could. This is not a problem when you exercise caution – keep your values secure and stowed away, and don’t be flashy when out and about.

Insurance for travelling through Africa

It’s natural to hope that everything will always go right when we travel, but we should prepare for things to go wrong too, and make sure we have great travel insurance in place. We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and we really like how clear they are and easy to use.

You can check prices for your trip below.

3. You might be surprised by the public transport

If you’re not going to be backpacking through Malawi or will have your own transport, then this point probably won’t be as relevant, but as two backpackers who were often needing to take long bus journeys, the public transport in Malawi was quite the revelation to us! Malawi does have large, coach-style buses, and they go between main cities, such as Blantyre and Lilongwe but, as we mentioned above, large towns aren’t really in abundance in Malawi. Therefore they’re not very common. So you do have a few options instead:

Matolas

Otherwise known as minibuses. These are really common in most countries in Africa and Malawi is no exception. Much like dala dalas in Tanzania and chapas in Mozambique, matolas are the TARDIS of the transport world and it’s sometimes hard to believe how many people, bags, animals, boxes (you name it) can be stuffed into such a tiny vehicle. In Malawi, you’d better believe, they’re not going to leave the depot UNTIL they’re full, so if you have any interest in getting somewhere quickly, your better option is to wait on the side of the road in the direction you need to go and wait for one to pick you up.

Of course, the downside to this is that you might end up squished on the edge of someone else’s chair or hanging out of the door (whereas usually you’ll get a seat if you hop on at a depot), so it depends on your priorities. Personally, we tried to break our journey up into smaller chunks where possible and, as matolas are not known for their reliability, we’d always try and get on ones that looked sturdy enough!

Views from Mount Mulanje. You can see Zomba plateau and the larger mountains in the background.
Malawi is literally beautiful

Taxi buses

Also called matolas, interestingly enough, but a different form of vehicle. These are usually standard sized cars or people carriers, into which (you guessed it!) the drivers/conductors stuff as many people as they can into it – I think our record was 7 adults and 2 babies in one standard 5-seater car!!

These vehicles tend to do smaller journeys between very small towns, and you might need to move between one car and another. It being Malawi, you can usually tell your driver where your end destination will be, and pay one price, and they will get you there one way or another without you having to pay more. Usually the first driver will just pay your money forward and they figure it out between them.

Boda Bodas

These are motorbike taxis! These are a cheaper form of standard taxis, and haggling is absolutely key here. We’ll also refer you back to our section on safety. Of course motorbiking is generally not the safest of activities but personally we have taken these taxis all around Africa without any huge issues. Importantly, never feel shy to ask the drivers to slow down, and always choose reliable-looking bikes, and drivers who seem friendly so that you can communicate clearly with them.

Lastly, there are private taxis available, but we would say these are usually in larger cities. Outside of large cities, most taxis will be shared.

4. Some places in Malawi are only accessible by ferry

As a country built on the ninth largest lake in the world, there are some areas and islands in Malawi, which can only be reached by water. Besides the islands on the lake, there are also small fishing villages on the coast of the lake, which require smaller boats for access.

For longer journeys, there are a few major ferry lines which service the country, the most famous of which is the Ilala. The Ilala makes for an interesting experience. Some say it is a must while in Malawi, others that it should be avoided like the plague. Personally, we don’t really have a strong opinion either way – it was pretty much a means of getting around for us! We booked a cabin, which we’d definitely recommend doing, unless you’re on a super strict budget. Our full Ilala guide is here and we highly recommend reading it before taking the Ilala anywhere.

By the way, we found the most up to date version of the Ilala timetable almost impossible to find during our research, so to save you some time, it’s here, but it’s also on the link we shared above.

A view of a small harbour, framed by the bodywork of a ship. You can see cloudy mountains in the background and colourful fishing boats in the foreground.
Views from the Ilala

5. Everyone does speak English… but you should learn some Chichewa

We normally hate the phrase ‘everyone speaks English’, but in Malawi, English is one of the official languages, and so naturally, everyone is really good at it. We didn’t struggle the whole time we were there and more than that, we didn’t come across a single person who couldn’t speak English, despite going to some pretty remote areas of the country.

That being said, Malawian people really appreciate it when you try to speak Chichewa, like a LOT. The favourite thing of most Malawian people seems to be greeting other people, which can take up around 50% of any conversation if done right! The quickest way to say hello is ‘bo‘, which is their version of ‘hi’. It’s pretty hard to find any apps to learn Chichewa (not like it’s on Duo Lingo or anything!) but there is a good beginner’s list of phrases here.

In our opinion, speaking the local language is a super important part of being a responsible traveller, and even speaking a few words can help give an impression that you really care about the culture and want to know more.

6. Timekeeping in Malawi is totally pointless

OK, so those of you who have previously travelled in Africa (and more so those of you who’ve travelled in East Africa) are already going to be saying ‘yeah we know, Africa time – classic!’. Guys, you don’t know the half of it. As someone who lived in Tanzania and has now travelled over 20 countries in Africa, I can confidently say: Malawi is next level.

The people we met in Malawi really had zero regard for punctuality and didn’t even seem to follow the usual East African standards of trying to aim for within two hours of the originally agreed time. Particularly on local buses, this was a killer. We were regularly waiting 2+ hours for buses to fill up so we could even get started on the journey – add to that the inevitable delays from traffic and extra stops, and we were regularly ending up 4+ hours late for wherever we needed to be. The Ilala ferry is equally tardy and rarely leaves at its scheduled times.

On a day to day, this is bearable/manageable, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you take any tours or need to meet someone at a certain time: expect delays.

Small colourful fish called cichlids in Lake Malawi.
The cichlids in Lake Malawi

7. Swimming in Lake Malawi is really cool BUT not without issues

SO, before we went to Malawi, we spoke with a doctor friend of mine, who kind of put us off going in the lake (OK she put us off quite a lot), so we were really hesitant to swim in Malawi. The reason was that the lake is home to a parasite known as a trematode worm, which can cause schistosomiasis, which is a super infectious, BUT preventable disease.

When we came back, she told us that it’s actually incredibly curable and recommended we take praziquantel which, if we didn’t have the parasite would do us no harm and, if we did, would sort it out straight away. Let’s say right off the bat that we’re not recommending taking ANY medication without talking to your doctor, nor do we endorse taking courses of anti-biotics if they’re not 100% necessary, so please seek medical advice before doing any of this.

All this to say, we were really happy we decided to swim in Lake Malawi in the end. Swimming in Lake Malawi was one of the coolest things we did during our time there, and we’re so glad we took the risk and did it, but you should definitely consult a doctor before and after doing so. Snorkelling with the cichlids is an experience you really can’t get in many other places in the world, and is totally different from any snorkelling we’ve done anywhere else. Make an informed choice and speak to a doctor both before and after going – you also need to visit a doctor to get anti-malarials and vaccinations before your trip.

Emma and Murray, a white heterosexual couple, are standing in a field looking very muddy. The photo is a selfie and Emma is wearing a wet anorak with the hood up - the anorak has puppies on it and she looks fed up. Murray is wearing a hoodie and carrying and umbrella and looks dry and chilled out.
The umbrella Murray took everywhere with him

8. When it rains in Malawi, it REALLY rains

You know when people tell you that you shouldn’t go somewhere in rainy season and you think… ‘ah, how bad can it be!’. Well it turns out, it can be pretty bad! Listen, we’re not here to put anybody off travelling off-season. We did it, we loved it and we even climbed a mountain in it. That being said, preparation never hurt anyone. Here are some quick facts:

When is rainy season in Malawi? November – April. We went in February and it was exceptionally rainy. We heard (and saw from the terrible landslides in the news) that it was much worse in March and April, so extreme caution is advised for those months.

Important information: It’s quieter (as in, there are literally no tourists at all) during this time. In some ways this is quite nice, as you really have the places you visit to yourself and you also can be certain you are making a difference and contributing tourism income to the economy. That being said, a lot of places (museums etc) will fully close during this season. We also were unable to visit any tea farms in Thyolo because they had all closed to tourists (though the poor staff were still working).

As responsible tourists, we will note that it’s definitely better for the locals to go off-season. Those in the tourism industry really struggle for work at this time, so you are helping out the economy enormously.

A view of the lake in Malawi. You can see small green islands in the background.
You can see the lake everywhere you go!

9. Load shedding is an enormous pain

If you haven’t heard of load shedding and you’re planning a trip to Africa, then it’s something you probably should know about… basically it’s a method used by some countries to regulate excessive electricity usage that their systems cannot cope with. In places like South Africa, it’s really common to have an hour or two of no power (country-wide) to regulate power usage. It’s usually public knowledge when this power gap will take place, and it’s fairly easy to plan your day around it, to make sure you won’t be too badly affected. In Malawi, that’s not exactly the case.

Load shedding in Malawi tends to take place at random, normally when you least expect it and can last several hours or most of the day (the record amount of time we had was 11 hours, but thankfully this was overnight!). There are ways around it – if you’re staying in a nicer hotel for example, they might have a generator to bypass the power outages, but honestly most of the country just kind of gets on with it!

For that reason, we found our solar phone chargers especially useful in Malawi. We had one for power storage (which we used to charge our phones overnight) and one for solar charging, which we used in the sun during the day. They were both extremely useful and we were really happy we had them.

A brick cathedral.
Probably the last place we expected to see a cathedral – a tiny island in Malawi!

10. Malawi is a very easy country for backpackers

As you may have even noticed from these points, Malawi is actually a really easy country to get around and perfect for backpackers. If you’re not convinced, let us try and change your mind with this post on backpacking as an eco-conscious traveller.

Let us just say here that 1) it’s super easy to get around (as long as you don’t mind waiting a while to get going), communication is easy with English being a commonly spoken language, ATMs and other facilities work and are readily available in large cities, and visas for most countries can be arranged on arrival. It’s also seriously cheap, pretty safe and really friendly… honestly we can’t think of much more a backpacker would want!

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    Post written by Emma

    Emma

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