Travel Malawi: The Best Backpacking Destination You’ve Never Even Heard Of

Michael Catford

Australia

Malawi is one of those countries that a perfectly educated and worldly person can get through their entire life having never thought about. It’s fair to say that this landlocked African nation hasn’t exactly got a lead role on the global stage. If anything, it’s the kid in class who has to play background tree #1 because the teacher forgot to cast them.

When the 195 nations of earth are ranked from richest to poorest, Malawi is inevitably found in the bottom 3. But, unlike the war-torn dictatorships that surround it on such lists, Malawi is perfectly safe and enjoys a stable government. It’s also blessed with stunning nature, super interesting people, and sights, sounds and experiences that you won’t find anywhere else, making Malawi travel some of the best around.

Malawi deserves more than its current role of background shrubbery. So allow me to place it firmly in the limelight and tell you why this modest, humble, and understated country is one of the best I’ve ever backpacked in.

It’s got a big old lake

Fishing boats, Lake Malawi, Malawi

Malawi is most famous for its namesake stretch of water. Making up between a third and a fifth of the country’s landmass (depending on where you draw the ever-disputed borders), Lake Malawi is the fourth-largest in the world by volume, and is home to more species of fish than any other lake on the planet.

‘So it’s got a big lake,’ I hear you say, ‘but what’s so good about that?’ Well, doubting Thomas, sort of everything?

Snorkeler exploring underwater world of Lake Malawi, Malawi.

One of the reasons that Malawi is so low on the GDP is because the bulk of the population is rural and have one of two jobs: farmer or fisherman. Watching the hordes of anglers jump in their rustic boats and head off for a day on the water is spectacular, and the fish they bring back is the freshest of the fresh. Then you’ve got the more recreational side of the lake — a place like Cape Maclear gives you the opportunity to swim, water ski, and dive in this gorgeously warm patch of water, and even enjoy a stunning sunset.

It’s got oddly amazing hostels

Deck at Mushroom Farm hostel, Livingstonia, Malawi. instagram.com/antjesoasis

Hostels aren’t much of a thing in Africa. Sure, there’s always a sprinkling in the tourist hot spots of the more developed nations, but away from the well-trodden tourist trail, a backpacker must choose between distinctly local hotels and a night under the stars. It’s slightly odd then that the world’s third poorest country, in the middle of a continent that isn’t entirely aware that hostels exist, is home to some of the best shared accommodation I’ve ever experienced.

Malawi travel: Lake Malawi
Beach huts by Lake Malawi, Malawi.

In fact, the Malawi travel hostel situation is so good that I’d suggest it’s perhaps the number one reason to visit. Check out the following establishments if you’re that rare type of person who enjoys an awesome time.

  • Pakachere Backpackers, Zomba: A combination creative center and backpacker lodge, Pakachere sees that you are enveloped by all things Malawian, with art and culture workshops held regularly for travelers. It also sits at the base of the spectacular Zomba Nature Reserve, covering a stunning flat top mountain that’s a hiker’s wet dream.
  • Mayoka Village, Nkhata Bay: Waterfront? Check. Perfectly private? Check. Amazing food and drink? Check. Free activities? You betcha. Mayoka Village is a luxury resort with backpacker prices. This place screams relaxation, and when visitors get sick of lounging around, they are free to use any of the boards, boats, and snorkel/diving gear, or join a complimentary excursion.
  • Mushroom Farm, Livingstonia: Perhaps the pick of an incredible bunch, Mushroom Farm is a Malawi travel destination all its own. That’s not artistic license — it’s in the middle of nowhere, and an absolute pain in the ass to get to (you’ll need to hitchhike). But you need to get there. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s famously friendly

Malawian locals gathering, Malawi. Oxford Media Library/ shutterstock.com

Malawi has a reputation as the friendliest of all the African nations — it’s known as ‘the Warm Heart of Africa,’ and as soon as you get there, you’ll see why. The people are warm, welcoming, and overflowing with kindness; they don’t have much, but what little they do have is quickly offered up to anyone who graces their doorstep.

A sense of community is deeply ingrained in the Malawian culture, and it seems to apply to everyone, even those whose home is half a world away. Expect to be called neighbor, brother, or friend by the taxi driver, the store clerk, and the stranger on the street. Expect to be offered up meal after meal, and don’t be shy in accepting the invitation (although there’s only so much nsima, a cornmeal porridge, one western stomach can take.)

It’s cheap

Backpackers walk across the wide plateau of the Mulanje Massif, Malawi.

The perk of being one of the poorest nations on earth? Things are cheap. And what self-respecting backpacker can say no to that? You can expect your Malawi travel budget to stretch further here than almost anywhere else on the continent.

Malawi is unique. In many ways, the lack of material wealth is part of the country’s charm — life is simpler here, as seen in the broad smiles that greet you at every turn.

But the simple life has its drawbacks. Things like life expectancy and education rates are worryingly low, and government spending is the only real solution. Tourism is likely to be key to the nation’s economic development, and now more than ever, backpackers find themselves on the front line, charged with breaking in the tourist trail for the less hardy traveler.

Friendly locals, Malawi, Africa. instagram.com/guivarella

Malawi travel. It’s welcoming, fun, gorgeous, cheap, and deserves far more than its current non-speaking role as foliage on the global stage. Backpackers, let’s give this place the attention it so richly deserves.