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Watamu and Malinda

Africa's best authentic tailor-made safaris

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Watamu and Malinda

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By Matthys van Aswegen

Safari Travel Planner

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Like Mombasa, Malindi is an ancient Swahili trading port that fell under Portuguese influence in the 16th century. It is far smaller and more low-rise than Mombasa and has a less conspicuous sense of antiquity, though the old town is scattered with a few important historical landmarks.

These days, Malindi, more than any other comparably large town in Kenya, functions mainly as a beach resort. It offers a good choice of midrange lodges aimed at the European package market, as well as a lively beachfront restaurant scene and a host of other urban distractions, from nightclubs to supermarkets.

Marafa Depression (Hell's Kitchen canyon) with red cliffs and rocks in afteroon sunset light. Malindi, Kenya
Marafa Depression (Hell’s Kitchen canyon) with red cliffs and rocks in afteroon sunset light. Malindi, Kenya

Separated from Malindi by 15km (9,3mi) of Indian Ocean frontage, Watamu feels less like a resort town than an overgrown fishing village and is all the better for it.

Boasting arguably the most gorgeous beach in Kenya, Watamu also offers superb offshore snorkeling in the calm, transparent waters of Turtle Bay. It stands practically within walking distance of the jungle-bound ruined medieval city of Gedi and forest wildlife of Arabuko-Sokoke National Park.

Highlights of Watamu and Malinda

The most significant monuments in Malindi Old Town are a pair of 15th-century pillar tombs standing in front of the seafront Friday Mosque and a small thatched chapel built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.

The limestone Da Gama Cross, erected by the pioneering Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama after he landed at Malindi in 1499, stands on a windswept coral peninsula a short walk south of the town center.

Pillar malindi mosque
Pillar malindi mosque

The National Museum of Malindi is housed in the three-story waterfront ‘House of Columns’ built by an Indian trader circa 1890. Displays include a stuffed 77kg (170lb) coelacanth and a collection of engraved Gohu burial totems.

Malindi and Watamu have good sandy swimming beaches, but the latter’s Turtle Bay stands out scenically, thanks to a distinctive forest of ragged coral formations that rise out of the preposterously clear water like giant mushrooms.

Africa’s oldest marine reserve, Malindi Marine National Reserve, protects 213km2 (82 square miles) of offshore reefs and open water, running south from Malindi to Mida Creek. It offers some of East Africa’s finest marine wildlife viewing, with the tranquil coral gardens of Watamu’s Turtle Bay ideal for snorkeling, while diving is usually undertaken on the more extensive barrier reefs further out to sea.

Turtle on the shores of Matamu
Turtle on the shores of Matamu

Separated from the open sea by the Watamu Peninsula, Mida Creek is an essential marine bird-watching site that can be explored on a stilted boardwalk and small hide constructed as part of a community-based ecotourism project.

A vital wintering site for Palaearctic migrants such as Crab plover and Grey plover, it is also a good place for Mangrove kingfisher and Greater flamingo. The surrounding coastal scrub hosts the less striking, but very rare, Sokoke pipit.

The 420km2 (162 square mile) Arabuko-Sokoke National Park protects East Africa’s largest remaining tract of coastal forest and a host of globally threatened and near-endemic mammals and birds, including Ader’s duiker, Sokoke dog mongoose, Yellow-rumped elephant-shrew, Chestnut-fronted helmetshrike, Clarke’s weaver and Sokoke scops owl.

Cute little Duiker eating some plants
Cute little Duiker eating some plants

Large fresh paths often seen on the park’s extensive network of roads and walking trails serve to remind that it’s also home to a furtive and seldom-seen population of 120 elephants.

The most impressive and atmospheric of the many medieval ruins along the Kenyan coast, Gedi National Monument protects the remains of a 20-hectare walled Swahili city-state that flourished as a cabinet of maritime trade between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Gedi National Monument in Kenya
Gedi National Monument in Kenya

The museum displays artifacts found on site but manufactured from as far afield as India, Egypt, Arabia, and Spain, and the jungle-bound ruins include a 900m2 (9,688 square foot) Sultan’s Palace and eight mosques. A birdwatching platform high in a baobab tree between the palace and the largest mosque offers a superb monkey’s-eye overview of the site.

Also known as Hell’s Kitchen, the Marafa Depression, 35km (22mi) northwest of Malindi, is studded with spectacular sandstone pillars that stand up to 30m (98ft) tall and come across like a miniature version of the Grand Canyon. It is most impressive in the early morning when the layered columns glow pink.

Practical Advice for Watamu and Malinda in Kenya
  • Watamu and Malindi lie about a 90-minute drive north of Mombasa. There are also scheduled flights from Mombasa, Lamu, and Nairobi to Malindi, whose airport lies 3km (1,9mi) from the town centre and less than 20km (12mi) from Watamu.
  • Both towns have plenty of accommodation. Malindi is stronger on package hotels and budget accommodations aimed at backpackers, while Watamu’s hotels tend to have a more individualistic feel.
  • Any hotel or local operator can set up diving and snorkeling excursions or day trips to Gedi, Arabuko-Sokoke, or the Marafa Depression.

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