Visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve
The Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kenya and of the whole of Africa, a perfect spot for those who want to have a complete safari experience surrounded by wild nature and abundant wildlife. Established in 1961, the Reserve is located within the Great Rift Valley, in the southern part of Kenya (5 hours drive from Nairobi). It lies at an altitude between 1500 meters and 2000 meters asl, forming a single ecosystem with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania with which it is bordering. The Reserve owes its name to the indigenous Masai (or Maasai) population of Kenya who called this land “Mara”, which means “spotted” (spotted land) because of the way the acacia trees and wildlife dotting the plains. The Masai Mara NR is mainly dominated by grassland savannah, with acacia woodland, riparian forest and rolling green hills that intersperse the plains. The Reserve has the largest concentration of African lions, including the black-maned lions. It also features leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, black rhinos (rare), giraffes and big herds of buffalos, elephants, zebras, gnu, wildebeest, gazelles, antelopes, hippos and crocodiles. It boasts over 500 species of birds, including 16 species of eagle, many hawks and falcons, 6 species of vultures, 8 species of storks, Kori bustard, Rufous-bellied heron, Sooty chat, Secretary bird and Usambiro barbet. The Masai Mara is also famous for the “great migration“, a true wonder of nature where millions of wildebeest move through its expanses searching for fresh grass, coming from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
What to do in Masai Mara
1. Game safari
The best way to enjoy the wildlife is by the vehicles with a hatch rooftop guided by a professional guide that will lead you around beautiful wilderness tracks and loops of the Reserve, providing closer encounters and spectacular photographic opportunities. These vehicles are also equipped with a radio to keep in touch and instantly communicate the most exciting sightings. We spotted an incredible number of animals during our safari, including many lions with cubs, a leopard, several cheetahs and hyenas. The best way to arrange a safari is to book a tour with a local agency. Almost all national parks in Kenya, except for Hell’s Gate National Park, prohibit walking safari and bushwalk inside them.
2. Great migration
The great migration is one of the most spectacular events of the whole of Africa. It consists of the movement of 1.5 million of the Serengeti’s wildebeest to Masai Mara National Reserve (and back) in search of green pasture, accompanied by a large number of zebras, Grant’s gazelles, Thomson’s gazelles, elands and impalas. The exact timing of the Serengeti wildebeest migration is entirely dependent upon the rainfall. A local guide told us that the migration in Masai Mara takes place in July and August when millions of wildebeests cross the Mara river with many predators such as lions, cheetahs and crocodiles ready to catch their preys. We visited the Reserve the first week of October when, unfortunately, the migration was already over. Being a unique event in the world, during the months of Mara River crossing, be prepared to share the park with hundreds of other vehicles.
3. Mara Triangle
The Mara Triangle covers 510 km² (one-third of the total area), and it’s located in the northwestern part of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The unique feature of the Mara Triangle is the Oloololo Escarpment, the Mara River and the International boundary with Tanzania, which forms a triangular shape. It is managed by the Mara Conservancy’s non-profit organisation and boasts one of the highest densities of wildlife in the world. The Mara Triangle is less visited and less crowded than Masai Mara NR. It is effortless to spot all the big five during a safari and cheetah, Wildebeest, Zebra, giraffe, rock hyrax, and many more. The Mara Triangle is also the entry point for the wildebeest migration that arrives from the Serengeti; therefore, it’s one of the most strategic locations for a safari, especially during the migratory season. The entrance fee is 80 USD (non-resident; 70 USD if you sleep inside) and lasts 24 hours. Inside its boundaries, you will find only an expensive, exclusive lodge (the Mara Serena Lodge) and a tented camp (the Little Governors). However, there are several accommodations outside the perimeter, such as lodges, tented camps and public campsites where you can sleep with your own equipment. Three public and eight private campsites are managed directly by the Mara Conservancy. Public campsites do not require reservations and cost USD 30 per day. The more expensive private ones require a reservation. Mara Conservancy also has 3 campsites available for the more adventurous – called “special private campsites” – which are located in a much wilder area for the exclusive use of campers, and it’s possible to do a game drive and a walking safari. The Mara Triangle also has two small airstrips (Serena and Kichwa Tembo) connected with daily flights to the main cities of Kenya.
4. Hot air balloon Tour and Masai Village walk
If you want to try an exciting experience and enjoy the Reserve and its wildlife from the sky, you shouldn’t miss a ride on the hot air balloon. It lasts about 1 hour and a half, rising before dawn and taking off at sunrise. Another interesting activity is visiting a Masai Village where you can interact with locals and know about their culture and traditions. You can locally arrange both activities through your accommodation. The hot air balloon costs around 400 USD, while the Masai village walking prices around 30 USD.
Need to know about Masai Mara
- When to visit Masai Mara
It’s possible to visit the Reserve throughout the year. Anyway, during the rainy season (March – April, November – December), some roads are difficult to drive, and wildlife might be more challenging to spot due to the high grass. The rain could even interfere with your planned activities.
The best time to visit Masai Mara is during the driest months (from June to October) when the vegetation is thinner and animals gather around rivers and water holes. Even though the wildebeest migration and especially the river crossing are difficult to time precisely, July and August are the best months. During the dry season, the park gets very crowded, and good sightings always attract many vehicles. Just think that during one of our safaris in early October, during a leopard sighting above a tree, we were surrounded by at least 20 other vehicles. However, it was a fantastic experience.
- How to reach Masai Mara
The Reserve has several access gates (four + one of the Mara Triangle), and the distance from Nairobi is about 260 km. Unfortunately, the road is not in good condition and the time to reach it is about 5 hours. Many tourists prefer to avoid the long journey by taking a domestic flight. There are nine small airstrips inside and outside the park that serve the different lodges. Domestic flights to the Masai Mara typically operate from Wilson Airport (WIL), 6 km south of Nairobi.
- How to arrange the visit of Masai Mara NR
The best way to enjoy the country and its amazing Parks is to book a tour with a local tour operator (private or shared). Some of them also offer budget safari sleeping in guest houses and tented camps. We booked our private budget safari with Africa Vision safari tour and travel. You can also try Explorer Kenya Safaris, Centurion Safari, Big Time safaris, Masikio safari, Wildtouch safari, Safari Trails, Karibu Safari, Olive Safaris, Pollman’s Tour and Safari. Alternatively, you can look for your tour on safari booking .com, which offers a wide range of safari managed by local tour operators.
Self-drive: if you rent a vehicle and self-drive, be careful and drive safe because the roads are very dangerous. The traffic out of the city is dense and full of lorries and trucks. Safety aside, in our opinion it’s not a great choice for practical reasons. A local driver knows the Parks very well, knows the best areas to spot the animals, and has a vehicle equipped with a radio to receive information on current sightings. If you want to rent a 4×4 vehicle with a hatch rooftop, you can have a look at Explorer Kenya Safaris.
- Masai Mara entrance fee
If your accommodation is inside the reserve, the entrance fee is USD 70 per 24 hours (USD 40 per child under 12 years of age), while for accommodations outside the Reserve, the entry fee rises to USD 80 per 24 hours. Click here for more information.
- Where to sleep
The Reserve area offers a wide choice of accommodations, from public campsites or tented camps to expensive lodges (inside and outside the Park). The best areas to stay in are the village of Ololaimutiek, near the Ololaimutiek gate, the village of Sekenani, near the Sekenani gate, and the village of Talek near the Talek gate. We slept at Mara Sidai camp (full board), a budget accommodation a few minutes drive from the Ololaimutiek entrance gate.
Remember that security conditions change every day worldwide; always do your research through the official websites and contact the embassy of your country in Kenya. Also, it is highly recommended to consult a travel medicine specialist to assess travel-related risks and have information to ensure your health and safety. We highly recommended taking out travel insurance during a trip, even if you go for a few days. Especially to cover the medical expenses because, in case you need, they could be very high. We always do our travel insurance with Worldnomad.com. Remember to read the terms and conditions to make sure that the policy covers your needs. Getting an estimate from World Nomads.com is simple; click the image “Get a quote” below and fill out the necessary info!