How To Plan The Best Route for Sustainable Backpacking in Malawi

Table of Contents

Introduction to backpacking in Malawi

Malawi is one of the easiest and most beautiful countries to visit! A fact which means that we’re constantly surprised that more people don’t go there. Because it’s a place that remains comparatively untouched by tourism, it’s really important that as tourists start to trickle in, we keep tourism in Malawi as sustainable as possible, for the local people, the environment and for future tourists. That’s why we put together this route for sustainable backpacking in Malawi.

Before visiting Malawi, we really didn’t have any idea what to expect. We’d heard some vague information from friends who’d been years ago that it was ‘touristy’ (it’s definitely not, but they can be forgiven since they went from a super remote area of Tanzania to one of Malawi’s main beach towns). Otherwise, all we had were some preconceptions from various news stories we’d seen over the years. Blogs we read told us Malawi was a friendly country, which it absolutely is, but didn’t really tell us what there is to do there, or how easy it is to travel around.

Having come from Mozambique, which we did not find easy to travel at all, this was a welcome relief, and really got us thinking that we wished more people knew, as Malawi would make a great destination for backpackers. More than that, it’s actually a destination for sustainable travellers! All this led us to put together this easy to follow route, which we think encompasses the easiest stops for tourists to get to, and the best places for sustainable travellers to visit. Of course, as a responsible travel blog, we’re also going to include some more ‘off-the-beaten track’ destinations so you can try to spread out the influx of tourism and spread the income around.

First thing’s first, if you don’t know too much about Malawi, we suggest heading over to our post: 10 Helpful Things You Must Know Before Visiting Malawi. But to cover some of the basics:

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Likoma Island, Malawi

Rainy Season in Malawi: When To Visit

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. You provide valuable income for people who would not get work otherwise.

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 normal and natural to hope nothing will go wrong when you travel but, unfortunately, sometimes it does. Therefore, we always recommend taking out great travel insurance. We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and love them for how easy they are to use.

You can check the prices for your trip below.

Getting Around Malawi

You have a few options for getting around Malawi – of course there’s always car hire, but as a backpacker, you’re far more likely to be looking at public transport, so you have two main options:

Matola

A.k.a. a minibus. Though large coach-style buses do exist in Malawi, they only really operate between main cities such as Blantyre and Lilongwe, and don’t run very often. Since most journeys are not very long, it’s much easier as a backpacker to use a matola. A matola is basically a small 12 seater car (usually a Toyota Hiace), into which the drivers will cram as many people as possible.

They will run continuously between major stopping points – all you need do as a rider is head to a depot and ask a local which bus you need, or stand on the road in the direction you need to travel and flag down any bus heading the right way. Though you will have to wait while they fill up, matolas are a really useful, easy and cheap form of transport that help Malawi gain its reputation in our book as an easy backpacking destination.

We have never had any safety concerns with matolas but they do have a reputation for being a little unsafe, so choose a sturdy-looking vehicle and get off and flag down the next one if the driver is behaving recklessly.

Our top tip for motola travel: don’t ask the price before getting on, watch the locals pay when the conductor is asking for money and pay the same amount as them – otherwise unfortunately you are quite likely to be overcharged as a tourist.

The lake is literally everywhere in Malawi

Ferries

As you can see from the map below, a large part of Malawi is essentially water. Lake Malawi runs the length of the country and is not only dotted with small inhabited islands, but also the gateway to most of the towns up and down it. Nowadays, there are a few ferry companies operated in Malawi but we always used the Ilala, as it is widely recognised as the most reliable. Even then, it is quite the experience… you can read our full guide here.

The timetables can be hard to find and change relatively regularly, so we recommend checking with your accommodation host for the most up to date schedule, which you can use to book tickets on the day of travel.

You might also experience boda bodas, which are motorbike taxis. You might need to take these in more remote areas on inaccessible paths, as some areas of Malawi don’t have main roads. Most of the drivers are fairly safe and will be cautious if driving with tourists, but don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down if you’re not comfortable.

Malawians, like our friend Harry, are seriously lovely people!

Know before you go

Communication: Chichewa is the main language of Malawi, but English is more commonly spoken than in any other country we visited in East Africa. Of course, as with anywhere, it’s a good idea to learn a couple of phrases in the local language, especially greetings (which are a big deal in Malawi!)

Currency: The Malawian Kwacha. One thing that backpackers should bear in mind is that there are not ATMs in smaller towns (such as the towns up and down the lake), so it is best to get out enough currency in cities such as Lilongwe or Blantyre. USD are also eagerly accepted in most areas (of course they need to be exchanged but the rate is very favourable).

Food: Is typical of East Africa and really good. There are plenty of meat dishes, but also lots of vegan/vegetarian dishes (more than just beans and rice!) since they have a strong cultural influence from India and South Asia, and plenty of gluten free options and rice dishes.

Timing: This route Blantyre – Livingstonia (minus Mulanje) would suit a two week trip (13 nights – we’ll give rough timings below)

What makes Malawi a good choice for sustainable travel?

As a country that is still in the very formative stages of welcoming tourists, it’s super important that tourists who decide to go to Malawi start off right. The first tourists to visit a country can set the pace for what a country believes other tourists want to see, and lead by example of behaviours the country expects to see from other tourists.

Overtourism and tourists who share images irresponsibly to social media* can have a really negative impact on a destination. Places that were once completely unknown to tourists can now because oversaturated very quickly, meaning locals need to figure out a coping mechanism in record time, which can sometimes lead to unsustainable shortcuts, such as poor waste management and large international hotel chains cropping up all over the place to cope with the influx.

(*By the way, on this note – we’re not saying don’t share images to social media, but be mindful of the impact it can have. For example, if it’s a place completely in nature, maybe skip the geotagging. There are plenty of other ways to share a place mindfully and encourage responsible tourism.)

On the circuit we’re about to delve into, we were pleasantly surprised by how many eco-lodges seem to have sprung up already in Malawi, and how many places are already trying to get things right. We’re really impressed by how the locals are already managed the tourism they get and hope that will continue.

Firstly, there are barely any chain hotels, so it’s very easy to stay in locally-run places. Secondly, there are genuine eco lodges here with a real commitment to zero waste living, vegan food and amazing initiatives like compost toilets (honestly had no idea this was a thing before Malawi!!). We were very impressed and are excited to see what else this beautiful country comes up with in terms of sustainability.

Mountains in Malawi

Malawi Backpacking Route

Here is a visual representation of a route we think is an easy starting point for Malawi:

You can do this North to South if entering from Tanzania, but if this is a self contained trip, we’d recommend starting South to North and beginning in Blantyre (or Lilongwe, but we haven’t included that in this route).

Here’s a breakdown of each place we’ve recommended with hostel suggestions…

Blantyre

Blantyre is a cool city! It has a nice art scene, some great restaurants, cool museums and fantastic hiking nearby. We’d definitely recommend staying here a few nights, first to get your bearings, and secondly to take some time to stock up on any supplies you may need, such as familiar snacks, medication and cash (all of which are not readily available in many other places).

Where we stayed: Delight Lodge
Rating: 5/5 – great little place! It’s not super sociable but this may have been on us! They have nice common outdoor areas where you can speak to other people, some outdoor spaces and a nice breakfast area. We met the manager, who is a local guy called Peter, and he’s lovely. Also good food – something different for breakfast every day and nice rooms, all private. It’s more of a B&B than a hostel.

Suggested duration in Blantyre: 3 nights

Zomba is a seriously beautiful part of Malawi

Zomba

Zomba is awesome. For one thing it’s a super cool little town to wander round with some really friendly people and some beautiful surrounding scenery. It’s a town that has really latched onto the idea of backpacking tourism and therefore has some great amenities, which you don’t see in much of the rest of Malawi, such as great supermarkets and gift shops. The main appeal is the hiking, particularly around Zomba plateau.

Where we stayed: Blend Lodge and Kitchen (Was known as Pakachere Hostel)
Rating: 5/5 – Pakachere is THE place to be in Zomba, it’s super sociable and we made loads of friends there straight away. There are loads of common areas both in and outdoors, and the staff are fantastic. We were actually lucky enough to go the week they changed owners, so we met both sets of management, and they both seemed great! We had a brilliant experiences with the new owners and would highly recommend this place.

Suggested duration: 2 nights at least, especially if hiking, as the plateau takes a full day

Climbing Mount Mulanje

Optional after Zomba: Mulanje

Mount Mulanje is a true hidden gem. No one seems to know about this mountain and we have no idea why, but we’re thrilled we discovered it when it wasn’t yet popular! You really do need 3 days (and a day either side for travel) to hike it in full, but for those staying longer, this is absolutely not to be missed and will surely be one of the best things you do in Malawi. You could also sub this in after Zomba or Cape Maclear instead of going up to Nkhata Bay. Personally we do think this would be the better choice, but of course it’s not as accessible for everyone if you’re not a climber!

To read more about climbing Mount Mulanje, check out our full guide here.

The stunning National Park and viewpoint, Otter Point, in Cape Maclear

Cape Maclear

Cape Maclear is an adorable little lake town that we truly wish we’d been able to stay in longer! What sets Cape Maclear apart from the rest of these little lake towns is the fact that it’s still pretty undiscovered but has very easy access to some of the lake islands, which you can get to as part of a day trip. Supermarkets are non-existent here yet, so take snacks and supplies – you can buy fruits, vegetables and local snacks from vendors but choice is limited to what is in season (which, of course, we love). There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for eating out.

Where we stayed: we actually stayed in this Airbnb, which is unusual for us! We wanted our own space and it was also really cheap. We didn’t mean the woman who runs it but the housekeeper was super lovely. Right next to it was Thumbi View Lodge, which looked little more expensive but had a great pool area and lovely coffee which we had every day. They also had a nice common area and some cute dogs!

Rating (for the Airbnb): 4/5 – it was lovely and the location was awesome (they even had a barbecue in the garden)! The only problem was that we got a lot of people coming round asking for money and things, which was a little frustrating, and once one person came round, we suddenly got loads more. They did stop once we spoke to the housekeeper, who must have had a word for us!

Suggested duration: 3 nights, only because it takes a while to get there on the bus (you have to go first to Monkey Bay and then take a shared taxi to Cape Maclear) so it’s good to have time to chill

Nkhotakata

We didn’t actually stay in Nkhotakata, but we heard of a lot of people who did, and it makes sense as a stop in between Monkey Bay/Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay. Apparently there is not a huge amount there but it makes a good way point. Instead we went across to Likoma Island, which is a lovely relaxing place to stop but a little tricky on a two week backpacking route, since the ferry there only runs once a week in each direction (twice if the weather is good).

Nkhata Bay from the Butterfly Space

Nkhata Bay

Nkhata Bay is a welcome change from a lot of the other lake towns in Malawi! For one thing, it actually does have supermarkets and is a town pretty much set up for backpackers (a little like Zomba), though it still doesn’t get too many. It’s basic a sweet little market town, set up for relaxing on the beach (yes Malawi has beaches, even though its inland – actually a lot of them!), snorkelling and exploring the local culture.

Where we stayed: Butterfly Space – A non-profit Eco-Lodge

Rating: 5/5 – this is honestly the only hotel we’d recommend staying in in Nkhata Bay. It’s awesome. They really are going above and beyond in terms of sustainability (one of two lodges in Malawi we stayed in that have compost toilets!) and reuse literally any waste that comes their way. The food is all locally sourced and a lot of vegan/vegetarian options. It’s also really sociable with lots of areas to relax in and outside. The only caution we’d give is that it’s down a very steep hill and you really want to have help if you’re carrying big bags. If you let the hotel know you’re coming they are generally very accommodating. Shared and private rooms.

Suggested duration: 2 nights – it’s nice to relax but you don’t need too much longer, unless you’re tired and need a break!!

After Nkhata Bay, you can make your way to Lilongwe (or meander your way to Blantyre) to fly home or you can add on…

Likoma Island views

Optional add-on after Nkhata Bay: Likoma Island

You can reach Likoma from Monkey Bay (near Cape Maclear) or Nkhata Bay on the Ilala Ferry. This add-on will only be suitable for long-term travellers or backpackers with a bit more time, as the ferry schedules on board the Ilala are… let’s just say ‘flexible’! Plans may need to adapt to account for delays, and there are a lot of days when the ferry just doesn’t run.

If you are a long-term traveller however, Likoma Island is a lovely option to catch your breath. It’s a very sleepy little island which doesn’t have much going on at all, so you can really just relax and enjoy the week away. You can read our full guide to Likoma here.

Views from the Mushroom Farm near Livingstonia

Alternative add-on: Livingstonia

If you don’t have the time to give to Likoma Island but still want to see more, Livingstonia is a good choice.

Livingstonia itself is a strange town that was the old colonial capital of Malawi. Apart from a huge Mission church in the middle of town, there’s not much to see here and not really many restaurants or places to stay. The real draw of the town is the nearby well known Mushroom Farm Malawi. OK, so maybe a mushroom farm doesn’t sound that appealing to you guys, but this place is AWESOME. Firstly, it is actually a self-sustaining farm on the edge of the lake.

The owners are not Malawian but their staff are all local people, the sustainability is next level (more compost toilets! And a pretty much zero waste concept throughout the lodge with locally grown food served in the restaurant) and the views are to die for. You can stay in a variety of different room types, most of which have views out over the lake (they are gorgeous), and you can choose from shared or private. It also really has that hostel feel, with everyone chatting in the common areas, making friends and discussing onward travel plans!

Where we stayed: where else?! The Mushroom Farm of course.
Rating: 5/5 – an easy 5/5! This place is also affiliated to the Butterfly Space Lodge, no wonder they have so much in common!

Suggested duration: 2 nights – you won’t need much more… but you might fall in love and not want to leave! The lodge also offer hikes and local culture tours. Also make sure you don’t skip their forest bath time – it is amazing!!

For a round trip, head back from Nkhata Bay to Lilongwe and fly out from there

l breakdown of our stay in The Mushroom Farm!

How can you make your time in Malawi more sustainable and responsible?

  • Always wear reef-safe suncream and bug spray, even if you are not planning to swim in Lake Malawi. All showers and drains hook up to the lake so this is the best way to avoid chemicals entering the lake (which local people bathe in and drink from) and harming any local wildlife. Remember the term ‘reef-safe’ is not protected so any company can use it, even those who are not reef safe. In order to guarantee your sunscreen is not causing harm, cross check with the chemicals on Save The Reef. We use Amazinc sunscreen and Incognito bug spray. Both are great and better, in our opinion, than their more typical counterparts.
  • Try to eat local food that is in season – most local places will only serve in-season food but it’s important to remember this and research food that is in season if eating in more touristy places
  • If buying souvenirs, try to buy from local people and haggle to make sure you are not paying inflated tourist rates and pushing prices up for the locals
  • Research wildlife encounters thoroughly to make sure they’re completely no-contact
  • Use zero waste cosmetics, such as Ethique shampoo and conditioner bars (believe us, we’ve tried them all, Ethique are the best!)
  • Take a filtered water bottle – water in Malawi isn’t generally safe to drink, but you’ll be fine with either water tablets or a filtered water bottle. Only follow those links if you don’t already have one you can use – remember reusing what you have first is key!

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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