Kakamega Forest: One Of The Truly Offbeat Places To Visit In Kenya

On a global map, there’s no place worse represented than Africa – a continent ten times the size of Greenland but barely ever drawn to its true size. 

The enormity of Africa and the countries that encompass it became obvious to us when I moved to the town of Kisumu in Kenya (Western Kenya to be more precise) for a project in October 2018. Going by the list of places to visit in Kenya, we’d only heard of Kenya’s popular safaris and its blue waters of Mombasa.

Walking in Kakamega Forest
Only if the sound of the jungle could be captured

As we began exploring Kisumu and its surrounding regions, we unlocked a secret called Western Kenya that remains far from the drama of chasing big 5 in national parks or dancing with the Masai tribe. Never added to the list of places to visit in Kenya, is an absolute gem – the Kakamega Rainforest.

Kakamega is the last remnant of the Guinea-Congo rainforest system that was once prevalent in the region. A wonderful addition to the places to visit in Kenya, the rainforest of Kakamega plays host to some of the country’s oldest trees, indigenous birds, various types of primates, and snakes among others. As we stepped off the busy highway in the densely populated Kakamega town, the noise disappeared in an instant bringing us to a world that rarely feature in Instagram pictures or tourism brochures.

The green ponds in a rainforest
Who knows what lives under that swamp!

Experiences In Kakamega

Unlike other places to visit in Kenya that start and end with the search of the big 5, walks in Kakamega are different. They are accompanied by the (very)loud music of birds and squeaking of the endangered colobus monkeys. Fig trees as old as 700+ years, strangler tees as old as 400 years dot the forests. This is not the Amazon but one wouldn’t fault you for feeling so.

Kakamega Rainforest Guide Tourists
The only people in the jungle at the time!

Bird lovers are in for a delight, especially during early morning hikes. More than 300 species of birds thrive here with around thirty of them found nowhere else in East Africa. African grey parrots, greenbulls, Ross’ turacos, crowned eagles are some of the show stoppers in this fashion parade of birds.

There are loads of hiking trails, both short and long, that suit fitness levels of all kinds. The short trails take no longer than an hour to cover, taking through the dense jungle of Kakamega with just the native blue monkey for company. The long trails called the Isiuku trails, on the other hand, can be up to 12 km long running along the banks of the Yala river.

The trees in Kakamega r=Rainforest
Those waves that you see are the tree’s roots!
The dense green rainforest
The dense green rainforest feel at Kakamega

Our favourite experience though was the view from Lirhanda lookout point. While we didn’t make it here for sunrise or sunset (the locals say the orange glow over the forest is a sight to behold), the sheer magnanimity of the forest reserve becomes evident here.

View point at Kakamega Forest
Green as far as the eye can see.

The Kakamega County is also home to the bullfighting scene of Kenya, one that is barely known to the world. Unlike in Spain where a matador tames a bull, two bulls fight against each other in this tradition upheld by the Luhiya tribe of the region. The government even built a stadium solely for the purpose.

Also Read: To Judge Or Not To – Bullfighting In Spain

How to reach the Kakamega Forest?

Kakamega doesn’t really fall on the route of popular places to visit in Kenya. You can get here by taking a cab from Kisumu and/or renting a car in Kisumu which is best done through local contacts (or via Avis if you’re willing to shell out a big sum).

If you’re coming from Nairobi, there are plenty of flights to Kisumu offered by Safarilink, Jambojet, Silverstone, and Kenya Airways from both the Wilson and Kenyatta airports. Most airlines are reliable and fly on-time. The journey is under 30 mins from Nairobi.

If you’re on a tight budget, you could take a bus (day/overnight) from Nairobi. Guardian and Modern Coast operate on this route and the journey takes under 6 hours.  

Inside the forest, you could use a car, rent a bicycle or walk the entire distance. The cost to take the car inside is an extra 3 USD (200 INR).

Strangler Tree
The host tree being consumed by another tree. Nature, I tell you!

Where to stay in Kakamega?

While Kakamega is doable on a day trip, it takes time to fully appreciate its uniqueness. Considering that Kakamega is a rainforest, it rains almost every day during the wet season. A minimum of a night’s overnight stay is recommended although the more you stay, the more magic you’ll witness.

A range of options is available, from budget (by East African standards) to comfort.

  • Udo’s Campsite: The most basic among the various options, Udo bandas and campsite is situated in the northern side of the forest. Bring your own sleeping bag and materials to live here under thatched roofs or on the ground outside. Bucket showers and “pit latrines” are available. One night per person costs USD 40 (INR 2900).
  • Isukuti Guesthouse: Located near to the Udo’s site, this is a concrete and neat guesthouse with self-catering facilities. If you’re a group, this option works perfectly to cook together and sleep together in moderately comfortable surroundings. This can sleep up to 12 people and costs USD 50 (INR 3700) per person per night. 
  • Rondo Retreat: If you’re in the mood to spoil yourself and live comfortable in a lovely colonial-style building, Rondo Retreat is a great option. Rondo can also arrange for all forest activities, making it a good option for those who want to leave the thinking work to others.
Sunlight coming through a tree
The tiny spaces for the sunlight to seep in

Budgets (And Tips To Handle It)

Let me say this loud and clear – most places to visit in Kenya are freakishly expensive. What makes it borderline frustrating is that the high prices barely ever deliver value. You’ve to rip through your pockets to get a service that can truly be considered world class.

Also Read: How To Travel South Africa On A Budget.

Having said that, you’re likely to be in the remotest places to visit in Kenya for the magnificence of its nature as opposed to a luxurious holiday. But, nonetheless, nothing comes cheap here.

Our local host visiting Kakamega for the first time.

A 2-day trip to Kakamega for a couple involves the following prices:

  • A gate entrance fee of USD 22 per adult if you’re a non-resident
  • A vehicle entrance fee if you’re getting your vehicle inside (3 USD)
  • A guide fee to each ‘sub-site’ within the park (4 USD per person per site); Without a guide, you would be lost, clueless, and make no sense of the park. So, goes without saying that you better get one!
  • An accommodation amount of 200 USD per night for the retreat (100-120 USD for basic guest houses)
  • Around 60-70 USD per day for cab/ car rental
  • Meals at 5 USD per person per meal, at the minimum
Prices at Kakamega Forest
This rate card is precious! It’s impossible to find this information online.

Price card at Kakamega Forest Reserve

We’re talking of a grand total of 500 USD (INR 35,000) for a 2-day trip per couple if you go for the comfort option and a total of around 375 USD if you live in guest-houses, self-cater your meals, self-drive via local agencies, and avoid booking any “tours”. We recommend just getting to the gate, renting a guide, living in guest houses, and experiencing it by yourself.

Budget-Saving Pro Tip: Do not book anything online, whether accommodation or experience. Write or call directly to get a cheaper offer. For eg, Rondo Retreat offered a price of 130 USD for two of us instead of the 200 USD they advertise online.

Who should visit the Kakamega Forest?

  • If you are a bird watcher, run to this place.
  • If you like the idea of being the only tourist in a 238 square kilometer jungle.
  • If you love listening to the animals than “spotting” them or capturing them on your camera.
  • If you need jungle like isolation to write, paint, draw, trust me you need to head here now.
Kakamega is one of the places to visit in Kenya
The few huts outside the forest occupied by the locals

Beyond dancing with the Masai tribe or watching majestic lions in the wild, there’s a whole lot of places to visit in Kenya that are raw and rough – a world that includes blue headed bee-eaters and the very rare De Brazza monkeys.

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