Malawi: 1 week in Nkhata Bay, Mumbo Island and Lilongwe
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
1 week road trip from Zambia to Malawi
We spent the majority of our time at the lake, starting in the north, Nkhata bay, then went south to Cape Maclear, Mumbo Island, and ended our time in the capital city of Lilongwe. Our itinerary involved a lot of driving which all in all was amazing to see so much of the country and a good portion of Zambia in just 1 week!
If you’ve been to Zambia, Malawi is similar culturally. The landscape is full of the magnificent lake Malawi and mountains. Did you know that Malawi has 1,433 named mountains? The people are lovely, dynamic and friendly. The tribes and languages are in common to Zambia’s Eastern and Southern provinces. When telling Malawians that we came from Zambia, many of them smiled and said, "ahhhh we are the same."
I have wanted to go here for years! It's close enough to drive from Zambia and it is known for it's incredible scenery and of course, Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa). I had a 2 week delay at work that would eat away from our next 2 weeks of vacation so I decided to move around what I hoped to do in February for my 30th birthday and make it happen this week instead! Serendipitously, a friend of mine knew 2 other friends who were traveling to Malawi the same days that I was looking to travel, and they invited us to join in on their already planned trip! We all love to share about our travel adventures so it was fun to be brought together!
Nkhata Bay - 3 nights, 2 days
Mumbo Island - 1 night, 1 day
Lilongwe - 3 nights, 2 days
(plus 2 extra days and 2 nights with travel from Ndola - Lusaka)
Best time of year to go
Similar to Zambia’s climate, the best time of year to visit Malawi would be after rainy season when everything is green and lush and no rain will disturb your plans, so between April-October.
We went in January which is during the rainy season. It rained and stormed everyday but not all day long. Thankfully, it rained hard during the nights and driving days so our excursions were full of dry weather, mostly cloudy with the sun peaking through.
Recommended amount of time to go
One week. I would recommend planning more time if you want to relax and slowly experience each location, and even more time if you want to get to more locations and hike any of the mountains.
Our road trip experience to 3 different destinations and a food and travel guide through Malawi
Drive through Eastern Zambia
Drive from Lusaka to the border will take you through a beautiful landscape of eastern province and right up to the Mafinga hills/mountains which create the border between Zambia and Malawi.
Zambia-Malawi Land border crossing experience
Using own vehicle
There are a number of documents needed to drive your car across the border and it took us almost 2 hours to process all and there were a few different costs than what was said online. There is an option to do the insurance in advance online which is definitely advised. (Though the insurance part took the least amount of time of all of it, so no guarantee to speed up the process.)
U.S. passport holder experience
In my experience, the border officers were unwelcoming and lacked consistency or truth. I was first told that I could not get a visa upon arrival and was denied entry. After showing them their own government website with information of paying for a visa upon arrival, they continued to deny entry. After speaking to the head officer, they eventually just said that it’s fine and allowed me to pay for the entry visa. I would advise to try in advance or otherwise just stand your ground for the correct procedures.
A PCR and vaccination card is required, but always check any updated requirements.
Border to Nkhata Bay drive
Despite the distance and time, we decided to still continue on all the way to Nkhata Bay to wake up in paradise. I can imagine the incredible views through mountains along the way, but sadly we were driving in the dark. The roads were impeccably smooth with no pot holes so it was safe, just a with a number of bends in the narrow roads and no road lights. Google maps says 5-6 hours but it took us much longer. We also hit a heavy rain storm and some places covered in fog, almost like a cloud forest. This is definitely a drive to do in the light!
Nkhata bay is a small port town on the Northwestern shores of Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa). If looking for a fancy place, there are limited but available options.
We stayed at Butterfly space which is an ecolodge backpackers with a fun vibe and gorgeous views. It is also a non-profit that runs a number of programs and empowers community members. It feels similar to a safari lodge but with more of a hippy, hostel, chilled vibe. Very affordable, well worth the money for the experience. For an idea of how affordable it is - $35 for 3 nights lodging, $11 for 3 meals, $13 for drinks, $25 excursion and dinner making it very doable for less than $100 for 3 nights and 2 days stay.
The bay excursion
Amazing. A return boat trip, fantastic service, cliff climbing and jumping, feeding of fish eagle, snorkeling and a delicious local butterfish and 3 sides beach bbq. BYOB. $25 per person for all combined activities, food and transportation, about half day excursion. Beyond worth the money for the experience. Just book with butterfly space - they do not make profits from this and instead all goes to the local man who runs it!
Aqua Africa scuba diving
Wonderful. Thorough training and information in a gorgeous setting. I highly recommend this experience especially for new divers and if you want to see malawian cichlid. Did you know lake malawi is known to have the most fish species of any lake in the world? Over 1,000 species and nothing that is off limits to touch such as coral reef or anything dangerous - a perfect place for scuba diving! Check them out here.
Kaya papaya restaurant
After scuba diving, they set us up with some lovely popcorn and tea with a lovely view over the lake while we debriefed the experience. We were famished so they recommended a Dutch restaurant right nearby and especially spoke of their chicken burgers, nachos and bitterballen. I went for the bitterballen and babaghanoush dishes and everyone else loved their chicken burgers. It is a very cute, family owned restaurant and bar with an upper deck, in town view of the market and trees, near the lake.
On our way back, we stopped by the oldest lodge in the area. Here you will find an incredible panoramic view overlooking the bay. The white washed style has an elegant look if it were to be kept up well. The rooms are good and similar pricing to the area so it would be another place to check out for accommodation!
Drive from Nkhata Bay to Cape Maclear
The drive was full of breathtaking views, small villages and towns with minimal development. Well paved but narrow and some windy roads with a number of single lane bridges, a few pot holes, patched parts that are very drivable at a fast past. This drive is long - at least the 6 hours as estimated on google maps but more like 8 hours, no stops, if going closer to the speed limit.
Don’t let the name fool you, this is a quaint little village with markets and a few handy stores but no paved roads, supermarkets, etc. There may or may not be fuel available depending on the time so good idea to fill up in advance. Salima is the last place with decent supermarkets and there is one last puma gas station about 1.5hrs from Cape Maclear.
Private feel, absolutely gorgeous, unique experience in Lake Malawi National Park. The boat ride alone is an incredible experience with unmatched views. Very nice upkeep and service. This place is totally off grid - no or very little reception. Outdoor bathrooms detached from the rooms, no electricity, outlets (only in kitchen) or lighting. They do provide 1 small light to each person. A lot of bugs and bush, and nice activities that each come at a cost. It is like glamping in a gorgeous remote place! It’s hard to keep costs below $100 for 1 night. $90 lakeview or $60 forest/jungle pppn. $30 boat return, $15 chef or $60 per person for 3 meals, activities range from $5-20 per activity. They have an honor system bar with limited options so I definitely recommend BYOB and the chef option worked out spectacularly for us!
We brought our basics for 3 meals from a grocery store in Salima and the market in Cape Maclear had most of the fresh vegetables we wanted. The chef organized freshly caught Kompongo fish for lunch. His presentation and execution of the meals was excellent!
A lovely town that reminded us somewhat of the towns on the Copperbelt Province, Zambia. It's population is just slightly larger than Ndola and it is similarly laid out and spaced out in some ways. They do have more development, activities and diversity of restaurants, stores and hotels, as it is the capital city.
If you have been to latitude 15 in Lusaka, you will recognize this high end, rustic chic hotel. The decor is creative and brings about a wonderful ambiance. We stayed in a suite/apartment style set up with 2 bedrooms, living room and kitchen. Breakfast was included and was quite delicious! The pool and aesthetics were simply blissful.
The Jazz at Four Seasons
Four Seasons is a beautiful complex with gardens and a number of bars, restaurants, an ice cream shop and boutique. It is absolutely worth a visit and we were lucky enough to be there on Sunday when they have live music. This was an incredible vibe that really showcased the feel of Malawian culture. We enjoyed gin drinks and I had a traditional chicken stew with plantains for dinner and loved it.
Just as the name suggests, a Mexican restaurant! Delicious food and spectacular ambiance. We definitely recommend a night out here. I loved their burritos and everything else we tried was good with a tex-mex kind of taste, of course don't get your hopes up for authentic Mexican food. Their margaritas were truly amazing!
Malawi uses Malawian kwacha. One place accepted our Zambian kwacha and most tourist destinations priced in and accepted American dollars. ATMs and card machines were available in Nkhata Bay and metropolitan areas, but otherwise it is best to carry cash on hand or ask about payment options in advance.
Our first 2 locations had no wifi available so I decided to purchase a data roaming bundle via mtn which hardly worked due poor service. The girls using airtel roaming had a much better experience. Latitude hotel has wifi.
Generally speaking, Malawi is much more affordable than Zambia so that alone made it very budget friendly when buying food and drinks. Our first accommodation was very budget travel inclined whereas the others were not, but they were still a good rate for what they offered.
Amazing! Highly recommend and absolutely loved the experience. Malawi is absolutely worth visiting and especially if you live in Zambia as a neighboring country! Our trip was somewhat budget luxury within an African great lake and jungle glamping context. It was also so fun to meet and travel with other like minded adventurers!
I hope this will help you to have an even better understanding and experience to gleam what you’ll make of your very own Malawi trip!
If this has piqued your interest in anyway, please comment and share! I love that you are here reading along with all the adventures that living abroad brings, thank you.
Here's the book I finished on vacation and would definitely recommend it.
P.S. This was my 30th country before my 30th birthday! #30countriesbefore30
Cheers to that and follow along for more!