UPDATE OCTOBER 2017: I ended up getting bilharzia in Malawi. While this should not deter you from visiting this incredible destination, it is best to be prepared. First, know that many visitors to the lake end up getting the parasite. If caught early (you’ll probably know), it’s harmless. Be sure to purchase praziquantel at a local pharmacy before leaving. $2 in Malawi or hundreds in most Western countries. Take it 6 weeks after you’ve left Malawi, whether you have symptoms or not.
Malawi was a nice break from having constant activities every day since I started my trip. While I’ve loved doing so much and seeing so much, chilling out on the beach was a nice way to slow down, relax, and catch my breath.
I spent a little over a week in Malawi, based in the absolutely beautiful Cape Maclear on the southern part of Lake Malawi. While I didn’t do a ton that I can write about, there are plenty of tips I can provide when it comes to Malawi travel.
First, I can briefly explain what I did while I was in Malawi. Of course, Lake Malawi offers beautiful beaches, relaxing sunbathing, stunning sunsets, and warm waters to swim in.
Besides these things, I did take snorkel gear out one day. I tried to swim to Thumbi Island from the beach my lodge was situated on, about a 1 kilometer swim. Apparently I’m not as in shape as I thought I was, because I made it about 3/4 of the way there and thought “I don’t want to have to do this again” so I turned around and swam back. However, Lake Malawi has the highest diversity of fish species for any water body on earth of comparable size, so putting together a more organized trip is recommended!
Another day I took a kayak out, again – why do I think I’m so in shape? I kayaked about 5 kilometers to the point between the peak of the cape and a larger island, got out of the kayak and swam a bit, tried my first underwater shoot (only semi-successful), and kayaked back. While I didn’t give up for this trip, I was SORE the next day. I believe it was about 10 kilometers of kayaking (I’m probably being generous to myself) and that was a lot.
Other than that, I sat back and relaxed and enjoyed my time on the beach.
However, some tips – if you go to Cape Maclear, be sure to take a lot of cash! There are absolutely ZERO ATMs in the town, with the closest one about 20 kilometers away in Monkey Bay which, according to gossip, only works about 10% of the time. After that, the next closest is in Mangochi 70 kilometers away from Cape Maclear. I lucked out with the Monkey Bay one, thank god, don’t ask for a receipt from the ATM because that apparently helps.
Despite not having any ATMs, the town operates almost exclusively on cash. Only a couple places take card, including Thumbi View Lodge and the Funky Cichlid. Thankfully I was staying at Thumbi View and could put all my meals and drinks on a tab and pay it off with card at the end, and the Funky Cichlid is where you can purchase wifi access (similar to data in this case).
Also, getting to Cape Maclear can be EXPENSIVE. There are buses to Mangochi and Monkey Bay, but they leave at very early hours in the morning and are apparently quite uncomfortable. You also have to take a taxi from Mangochi or Monkey Bay to get to Cape Maclear. I’m not totally sure the price of these options, as I didn’t do them, but I hear they’re fairly affordable. However, in typical leather backpacker fashion, I opted to take a private car both ways (although the way back I split it with a couple I met at the lodge). The car from Lilongwe to Cape Maclear was about $130, however given that it was 4 hours in a cab that really isn’t that bad when you think about it. On the way back, split, I spent about $30.
My final tip is when you go look for souvenirs, you can bargain the price down. Typically, I was offering about 1/3 to 1/2 of the price they initially offered me and then met somewhere in the middle. If you have questions, ask the staff at your lodge. There were also a few times I just gave them their starting price. Was I ripped off? Probably, yeah. But Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and I have the luxury of backpacking around the world, so I guess it just comes with perspective. It also sounds like so much money when you hand over thousands of kwacha for a little sculpture or a pair of swim trunks but $1 = 750 kwacha (as of July 2017) so it’s not too bad.