Independent since the mid-twentieth century, the landlocked Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries but nonetheless, one of the easiest to travel in and one of the most interesting for backpackers. It is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, and it's primarily an agricultural country that survives in very large part thanks to foreign aid. It has, however, a lot of very good budget accommodation choices and the cost of living is very low for this part of the world, making it ideal for backpackers.
Malawi is bordered in the north by Tanzania; to the west by Zambia; and to the east, south, and southwest by Mozambique. The country is dominated by Lake Malawi, which forms around three-quarters of the eastern border and is more than three-hundred-sixty-five miles long. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in Africa, at just over seven hundred metres deep in places. The tourist hot spots in Malawi are Cape Maclear, Nkhata Bay, Zomba, and Livingstonia, all of which are well serviced by Malawi hostels. There are also a number of reserves and national parks in the more remote regions that are great to visit if you have the time and transport to do so.
Public transport is primarily by minibuses that leave when full and traveling in the morning is the best bet. The Livingstonia plateau is accessed from the village of Chitimba on the main north-south highway M1, but the dirt road is rough and very steep, so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is essential. Very occasional public pickups make this trip in the mornings. More mountainous scenery can be had in Zomba, where the plateau is more easily accessed by taxi or motorbike taxi along a tarred road and there are some lovely walks here. Nkhata Bay is a well-grooved backpackers' stop and a pleasant place to laze by the lakeside and do a bit of snorkeling.
Travelers do somewhat overestimate the practicalities of getting around in Malawi. Although transport is plentiful, most of it travels in the mornings and the vehicles go when full. If there are not enough passengers later in the day, come back tomorrow! A useful stopover on the way to Nkhata Bay, if you don’t make it all the way, is Mzuzu. This is the major crossroads town that you change transport in to get to Nkhata Bay and It’s also a useful place to stock up on cash at the ATMs and do a supermarket shop before you go to Nkhata Bay where the choice is somewhat limited.
Curiously, for a landlocked country, Malawi is known for its beaches. Cape Maclear, on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, is a backpackers’ magnet. A beautiful, long, sweeping beach and dry scrubby hills inhabited by monkeys frame this fishing village. There are a number of Malawi hostels here and it is very popular with travelers and volunteers alike. Snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat trips to the outlying islands are some of the activities that can be organized here, or you can just laze on the beach.
Malawi is a great place for independent travelers, as there is a pretty good selection of backpackers' hostels in Malawi in all the places mentioned here, which provide dorm accommodation for the budget traveler. Facilities at the backpacker hostels in Malawi are fairly basic but clean and they are very cheap compared with other countries in the region. Don’t expect the free Wi-Fi, DSTV, or kitchen facilities that you might find in other countries in the region but on the whole Malawi hostels are clean and friendly and great places to meet other travelers with information for your onward journey. If you want to get online, it’s best to buy a local SIM card (and dongle for your laptop), which you can load with airtime or data quite cheaply at any of the ubiquitous roadside stalls. There is a very large community of volunteers in Malawi too, that use Malawi hostels, and these are excellent sources of information for getting off the beaten track, as most volunteers are working in rural areas.
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