Looking for important travel information while backpacking in Malawi? Here you will find information on working in Malawi, entry visas, Malawi hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
- Facts About Malawi
- Things to do in Malawi
- Entry Visas Requirements for Malawi
- Foreigner Work Permits and Backpacker Jobs in Malawi
- Malawi Hostels
Facts About Malawi
Malawi came under democratic leadership in 1993 which brought with it a new era of stability after the dictatorial rule of Malawi’s first independent prime minister and president, Dr Hastings Banda. Historically a key country on the slave trade routes, Malawi was visited by the explorer David Livingstone in the 1850s and his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade is noted by Livingstone memorials in many of Malawi’s towns and villages.
Nicknamed ‘the warm heart of Africa’, Malawians are well known for their friendliness towards visitors. The beautiful country is scenically varied with spectacular mountain ranges, vast nature reserves and national parks to explore, making it an ideal destination for backpackers. While the official language of Malawi is English, for most Malawians it is not a mother tongue. The most common language is Chichewa.
Climate in Malawi
When deciding the best time to visit Malawi, weather should play a big role.
Malawi has a tropical climate with its dry season lasting from April until October.
The dry season brings with it unbearable heat, particularly in the southern lowlands of the country, but the conditions are less oppressive from May to July. This means wildlife is less frequently spotted around the visible watering holes of the national parks. On the other hand, toward the end of the dry season, wildlife is easier to spot since the vegetation has withered by then. Temperatures vary between the highlands and lowlands with high humidity in the lowland regions and nighttime temperatures below freezing point in the highlands.
Things to do in Malawi
Lilongwe (population 1 million) has been Malawi’s capital city since 1975 when President Banda, born just north of the city, gave it its name. Visitors can experience traditional African life in the busy streets of the old town whilst there is a range of western facilities and luxury hotels in the modernized city center. Interesting sites include the Statehouse which is today host to Malawi’s parliament, a small nature reserve and the colorful scenes of Malawi’s busy street markets.
With a population of more than 800,000, Blantyre is Malawi’s second-largest city and the country’s center of commerce. Whilst the city is surrounded by sprawling suburbs, there are several sites of historic interest in the city center including Mandala House, which dates to 1882 and was the headquarters for the African Lakes company; the Museum of Malawi; the Carlsberg Brewery; and St Michael and All Angels Church (1888-1891).
Situated forty miles north of Blantyre lies Zomba, which served as Malawi’s capital city before Lilongwe took the title in 1975. The town is marked by remnants of its colonial past: for example, a World War I memorial clocktower, the residence of the town’s former commissioner, and the Cobbe Barracks which is home to the famous Malawi Rifles.
Also worth visiting are the botanical gardens and the Old Parliament Building. More somberly, the Mikuyu Jail saw the death of many political prisoners during the turbulent reign of President Banda. It still serves as a prison to this day.
Lake Malawi is a huge expanse of water covering a fifth of the country’s total area. Home to over 600 species of freshwater fish including the mouth-breathing cichlids that are unique to this lake, Lake Malawi is one of Malawi’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites for its endemic species and its natural beauty.
At the same time, Lake Malawi is an important part of the country’s economy. Its banks are lined with little fishing villages as well as many hotels. Lake Malawi is a popular tourist attraction offering boat trips and a range of watersports and, with depths of up to 700m, it is renowned as one of the best freshwater diving sites in the world.
National Parks and Game Reserves
Malawi boasts nine national parks and game reserves which lie across spectacularly varying terrain. In the remote north is the highland Nyika Plateau and the marshy Vwasa Reserve. Nyika resembles the Scottish Highlands, dotted with antelope and zebra herds. Vwasa’s marshy terrain is a great place to spot hippos and water birds.
In the central region are the Kasungu and Nkhotakota game parks, both of which are home to lions, leopard, buffalo, elephant and many species of antelopes. They’re also both great for bird-watching. Nkhotakota’s location along the lake makes it ideal to combine with time on the beach. Kasungu and Nkhotakota are remarkable in that while they have had severe issues with poaching in the past, a concerted effort in recent years is restoring their natural wildlife numbers. In particular, hundreds of elephants were transported from parks in the south to repopulate both parks.
Further south in the Shire Lowlands are several places to see wildlife. Lengwe National Park is particularly well-known for its rare species of antelopes: nyala and kudu. Majete Wildlife Reserve is a success story in terms of restoration of wildlife and habitat: 14 species have been reintroduced, including the “big five” (lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and black rhinos), giraffes and several species of antelopes. Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve is harder to visit and is mostly about experiencing a true natural landscape, as its mammal population is rather low. The most popular park in Malawi is probably Liwonde National Park. Because of its location on the Shire River, safaris can take place in 4×4 vehicles or by boat and a wide range of species thrive there: lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, many sorts of antelopes, and many species of birds.
Additionally, to the east of Lake Malawi lies Cape Maclear, the world’s first freshwater game reserve. It’s a great place to do some snorkeling or diving or just to enjoy the beach.
There are numerous tour companies based in Lilongwe and Blantyre that offer safaris to the various wildlife reserves by boat, 4×4 and even horseback.
To get a sense of Malawi’s colonial period, a trip to Livingstonia is a must. Set in a dramatic location high above Lake Malawi and the Great Rift Valley, the town boasts a number of houses, a hospital and a church built by Scottish missionaries at the turn of the 20th century. It combines well with a visit to Nyika Plateau and Vwaza Reserve.
One of Malawi’s most spectacular sites is the bare rock mountain of Mount Mulanje which, at 3000m, towers over the country’s eastern region. There are marked routes up the mountain and explorer huts situated at notable points. Several tour companies offer guided camping treks up the mountain either by a strenuous rock climb or a more gentle walking route.
Visitors to the mountain will witness a range of vegetation and wildlife such as antelopes, klipspringer and various species of birds as well as some of the most stunning views in Africa.
Unique Activities in Malawi
Since popular places in Malawi can get crowded during tourist season, it is wise to reserve tickets and activities ahead of time. GetYourGuide sells entrance tickets to museums and landmarks at face value so you can avoid the lines and save that precious time for more exploring.
Viator is another popular travel website that helps you book things to do in Malawi. They work directly with local tour operators in Malawi, so you won’t have to scour the internet or roam around town trying to find the best deal.
Backpacking Tours in Malawi
Though part of the fun of backpacking Malawi is exploring on your own, there are situations, especially when venturing off the tourist trail, when it does make sense to go with a guide or a small group.
G Adventures is a great option for organized travel with a smaller group. It’s a great choice for anyone backpacking Malawi alone who would like to meet up with like-minded travellers. It’s also a practical option for exploring places where you need an experienced guide, like a long hiking adventure or visiting a place well off the beaten path. You can choose from different styles of small group tours like active, wellness, hiking trips, 18-30somethings, and more. Their most popular trips in Malawi are their 20-day Serengeti to Victoria Falls Adventure including Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia.
How to Find Cheap Flights to Malawi
Malawi has two major airports, Lilongwe International Airport 26km north of the city, and Chileka Airport which is 13km outside of Blantyre. A number of international airlines offer service to Malawi: Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, and South African Airways are your best bets.
In order to find the best flights to Malawi we recommend using a few well-known flight comparison search engines. These websites offer powerful search options, like entering flexible dates and airports in order to find the cheapest flight to Malawi.
Our go-to flight search engine is Skyscanner, which we love for its extremely flexible search options. Our favorite way to get travel inspiration is their “Everywhere” feature. Simply enter “Everywhere” as a destination, and it will then list all available flights from your departure city in order of price. This also works when entering the entire country of Malawi as your destination. Skyscanner will search all possible airports in the country in order to find the cheapest option.
Kiwi is another new favorite flight search engine among savvy travelers. Kiwi works by combining flights from different carriers in order to get the best deal. Also, if there is a better ground or ferry option for the route you’re searching, Kiwi will include that in the search results. On average, we have found the cheapest flights to Malawi with them compared to the other websites out there.
Visitors can also reach the country by road, either from Tanzania, Zambia, or Mozambique.
How to Travel Around Malawi on a Budget
Malawi has a pretty good bus network connecting the different regions. Keep in mind that some of the roads are still unpaved, so travel isn’t always comfortable.
There are also small minibusses called matola, which are cheap and fast but can be uncomfortable because the operators will often cram them full of passengers to make as much money as possible. The minibusses are operated by a driver and conductor who will collect your money before you board.
Some visitors choose to hire a driver to explore the country.
Our favorite part about Malawi is that many locals like to get around via bike. If you’ll be spending a few days in one part, it is worth trying to find a bike rental and join in. Or, within a city, you can hire a bike taxi, sitting behind the “driver” and hanging on for dear life!
Health and Safety in Malawi
Compared to most other African countries, Malawi is considered a relatively safe country and violence against tourists is uncommon. It is advised that visitors are immunized against polio, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis, and covid, and take malaria tablets prior to and during travel.
As in most African countries, AIDS is one of the country’s most destructive diseases and although Malawi has organizations that deal well with HIV-positive citizens, visitors are warned to be cautious if coming into contact with blood or bodily fluids.
There are two large public hospitals in Blantyre and Lilongwe and private hospitals in Lilongwe and Mzuzu.
As with travel to all other countries abroad, it is vital that you get travel insurance before you leave for Malawi. Even for short trips, our go-to travel insurance provider is World Nomads, which is also recommended by Lonely Planet, HostelWorld, and other major travel companies.
Entry visa requirements for Malawi
For citizens of most countries, visas are required and should be obtained in advance electronically. Visa requirements for Malawi can vary widely depending on your country of origin and can change over time. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to check the latest visa requirements while you’re still planning your trip.
Foreigner work permits and backpacker jobs in Malawi
There are very few paid working opportunities for backpackers in Malawi and, given that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is best to leave paid employment to the local people. Many visitors opt to join a voluntary scheme, many of which offer accommodation and the chance to experience the country in its truest sense. Read this article before you choose a volunteer position.
Malawi Hostels and Budget Accommodation
Malawi is one of Africa’s most visited countries and as a result, there is plenty of accommodation in the main cities, particularly in Blantyre and Lilongwe, and along the banks of Lake Malawi. Accommodation ranges from luxury hotels to hostels and traditional self-catering lodges surrounding all the main tourist sites. In most of the game reserves, there are campsites that also offer various self-catering and catered accommodation options.
We have had good experiences finding hostels in Malawi on HostelWorld. They have the largest inventory of hostels worldwide, and with over 10 million reviews and ratings from other travelers, you know exactly what to expect.
Another good way to find accommodation in Malawi is by checking booking.com. You’ll find hotels, homestays, hostels, and other unique accommodations. They have the most reviews and advanced filtering of any accommodation-booking site, so you’ll be sure to find a great place in your budget. Many of the places on booking.com also offer free cancellation, which takes the pressure off the planning phase of your trip to Malawi.
If you are backpacking with another travel companion, we highly recommend booking a rental via VRBO. With a vacation rental in Malawi, you’ll have more space, your own kitchen, and you’ll get a better feel for how the locals live. Plus, the cost of a vacation rental can be split among your group, oftentimes making it cheaper than doing individual hotel rooms.
If you’re looking to save even more money while backpacking in Malawi, there are plenty of creative ways to get free accommodation in exchange for work. For example, one of our favorite ways to stay in amazing locations for free is by signing up as a petsitter with Trusted Housesitters. The site connects responsible animal lovers with petsitting opportunities in Malawi and all over the world. It’s a win-win for both sides – travelers can stay in amazing locations for free, and homeowners can rest easy knowing that someone is watching over their place.
And lastly, CouchSurfing is a great community that connects travelers with local hosts in Malawi. You can stay for free with verified hosts, who will usually take some time to show you around the local spots.
Keep in mind that mosquitoes are a problem at night in Malawi, and they carry malaria. Since no malaria pill gives full protection, it is important to take precautions at night to prevent getting stung by mosquitoes. Bring a mosquito net if your accommodations do not provide one. Wear long sleeves, long pants, and socks, and use repellent containing DEET on all exposed skin. Burning a mosquito coil at night can also help.
Useful Links for Backpacking in Malawi
- Kiwi and Skyscanner – Flight comparison search engines to find the cheapest flights to Malawi and within the country
- GetYourGuide and Viator – a collection of local tours and things to do in Malawi. Also offers Skip the Line tickets for crowded attractions
- GAdventures – guided backpacking tours in Malawi, great for solo travelers or for those interested in a more adventurous trip that would require a guide
- HostelWorld – #1 hostel search website to find budget accommodation in Malawi. Thousands of hostels and millions of reviews from fellow travelers
- Booking.com – a commonly used accommodation booking site in Malawi. Hostels, hotels, and other unique accommodations with advanced filtering and millions of reviews
- World Nomads Travel Insurance – Comprehensive travel insurance for long and short trips when backpacking Malawi
There you have it, the ultimate Malawi backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around Malawi.
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This guide was written with help from Rachel Heller, a writer and blogger living in Groningen, the Netherlands. Her blog, Rachel’s Ruminations, focuses on independent travel to historical sites as well as offering travel advice and commentary on living abroad. Her second website, still under construction, will eventually include information for travel to every UNESCO World Heritage site in the world.