Traveller's Guide to Lamu
Lamu is the name of one of the districts of Kenya's Coastal Provinces; the name is also given to the archipelago, one of its islands and to the largest town on the island. The inhabitants of the town call it Amu and from this the name of one of the three major Swahili dialects, Ki-Amu, is derived. The more popular version of the name, Lamu, may be a corruption of Al-Lamu.
The majority of the islands are uninhabited; but there are a number of settlements on the mainland along the coast.
The island of Lamu is the most important in the archipelago; it has an excellent natural harbour and is fringed along the west, north and north-east by mangrove forests. To the south of the island is a sandy beach rising to a height of twenty metres at the estuary of Lamu Bay. The sand dunes of Shela are formed by the north-east monsoon which blows between November and February.
As the largest and oldest settlement in the archipelago, the many winding narrow passageways of Lamu Town are rich in history and culture. The town, once a center for the slave trade, has been indelibly marked by centuries of Arab, African, Asian and European influences. With no motor vehicles on the islands you're most likely to encounter bumper to bumper donkey traffic.
A 25-minute seaside stroll or 10-minute boat ride from Lamu Town, Shela (or Shella) is now occupied by both locals and Europeans alike. The village is probably over five hundred years old and reached its zenith in the middle of the 19th century. You will find many exquisitely restored houses lining the charming narrow lanes of the seaside village.
Map of Shela Village [Download Enlarged Map (600kb) JPG]
(1) Papaya House
(18) White House
(35) Banana House
Kipungani and Matondoni Villages
On the other side of Lamu Island is the small village of Kipungani, from which a navigable channel runs parallel to the shore to the fishing village of Matondoni and continues in a southerly direction towards Lamu Town about two miles north of the open sea. Matandoni offers to visitors unique insight into the century-old tradition of dhow making in Lamu. More Destinations and Activities
This island, with few inhabitants, but a growing number of beachfront luxury resorts and hotels was once the site of three towns including that of the oldest known Swahili settlement. Excavations have revealed a prosperous 9th century civilization and evidence of 9th and 10th century trade with Iran.
|(1) Blue Empire (Manda Dream)
(2) Equator (Manda Dream)
(3) Majlis Resort, Bar & Restaurant
|(4) Baobab House
(5) Diamond Beach Village, Restaurant & Blue Moon Bar
Faza Island/Pate Town
The largest island in the archipelago, Faza has a number of townships and smaller settlements. The most important of them, Pate Town, dates back to the 14th century when the Nabahani, a clan of the Arab tribe that ruled Oman for two and a half centuries established their sultanate on the island.Pate Island features magnificent ruins dating back to the 8th century. Out of the mangroves rise majestic old homes and if you make it all the way to Siyu there is an abandoned Portuguese fort with the canons still in place. It is very hot and the walks are long, but the rewards are incredible as you feel like stepping out of this world and into another world from another time. The now abandoned villages used to house grand civilizations and cities of 20,000+ inhabitants only a few hundred years ago. More Destinations and Activities
This remote paradise location is at the eastern end of the Lamu archipelago within the Kiunga National Marine Reserve. An exclusive hideaway, Kiwayu features breathtaking beaches, stunning tidal pools and excellent snorkelling and diving.
Arriving in Lamu
It is possible to fly to Lamu from Nairobi (both Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Wilson Airport), Mombasa, and Malindi. There are several daily flights but note that the flights get booked well in advance - even out of season if you are unlucky. Planes land on Manda Island just across from Lamu town and there are always numerous options to go to either Lamu or Shela. Most of the big hotels have boats waiting at the airport at every arrival to take guests. If you already know where you are staying most hotels include airport transfer. Otherwise, exit the airport, go to the jetty and simply ask for someone going your direction. Lamu is full of friendly people eager to help you. Beware that you negotiate any price before leaving to avoid awkward situations. A boat ride can range from 200-1,000 shilling/person depending on how full the boat is and where you are going.
||Nairobi Wilson||Jomo Kenyatta
|Departure from Nairobi||14:00||13:45||10:40 (Mon-Sat)
|Arrival in Lamu||15:10||15:30||12:40 (Mon-Sat)
|Departure from Lamu||15:40||16:00||12:55 (Mon-Sat)
|Arrival in Nairobi||17:25||17:45||14:55 (Mon-Sat)
|via||Malindi on Return||Malindi|
|Luggage allowance (includes carry-on)
|Contact||+254 020 501601
|+254 020 600777
|+254 020 4453252
There are several buses going up from Mombasa and Nairobi. The trips are a neat experience if you don’t mind the lack of luxury. It is typically between 400 and 800 shillings per person and there are several departures from both Malindi and Mombasa every day. Try to get a seat as far in the front as possible. The roads are not paved for the latter half of the trip and it is very bumpy in the back. The bus routes end in Mokowe, which is a few kilometers from Lamu. Since there are no roads on Lamu Island, you will have to catch a boat for the last stretch our your trip. There are always communal boats leaving, but if you hire a private boat be ready to pay up to 3,000 shillings. Tawakal (phone number) is a reliable bus service that even includes boat transfer from Mokowe to Lamu. It is a well known company and most cab driver will know how to locate their ticket offices in Mombasa and Malindi.
If you want to drive yourself to Lamu, you will have to leave your car at Mokowe town on the mainland. Speak to the locals to arrange for parking (400 shillings/day).
Where to Stay
Our Lamu accommodation guide provides unbiased and reliable advice and the best rates for Lamu hotels and house rentals to traveller's from all around the world visiting Lamu.
Where to Eat
Our Lamu restaurants guide offers a quick overview of the dining options available in Lamu and the surrounding islands.
Wine, Beer & Spirits
Being a muslim community finding alcohol outside of bars & restaurants on Lamu Island is limited to the Police Canteen located between Lamu Town and Shela Village. The selection of beer, wine and spirits is decent including even some luxury items such as champagne and cognac but be ready to pay a small premium. If visiting for only a short period it is preferable to bring your alcohol from Nairobi or abroad.
There are more and more internet cafes shooting up in Lamu and Shela. There are several in Lamu town (one at the Fort) and in Shela (wifi is available at the Sea Suq Cafe).
Another option is to buy the mobile internet “dongles”. Both Safaricom and Orange have service in Lamu and offer this option. Prices are roughly the same. The 3g dongles are purchased for a few thousand KES and after that you simply “top up” with prepaid cards from either carrier. The dongles can be bought in Lamu town (cell phone shop to the right of the Fort on the central square) and the prepaid cards can be purchased in most small and large shops throughout the island. Ask for help to transfer the phone credit into data credit - it will save you a lot! The dongles work with both MAC and PC and only require a USB port.
The currency in Kenya is the Kenyan Shilling. There are not restrictions on the currency and it can be traded freely at all major banks.
In Lamu Town you will find a KCB (Kenya Commercial Bank) and a Gulf Africa Bank. Both banks have ATMs that accept VISA cards. The KCB will change cash and traveller's cheques.
There is a KCB ATM at the main jetty on the Lamu seafront and further down the seafront toward Shela there is a Gulf Africa Bank ATM. Be careful when taking out money - do not allow anyone to see your pin. If someone offers to help you use the ATM kindly, but firmly, reject the offer and let the person know that you do not need any assistance.
The post office is in the building right in front of the Fort in Lamu Town - on the backside of the Telecom office. However, to enter, you have to slide through the alley and enter from the seaside. Ask a friendly old face on the square for “posta”. Mail is slow but also very cheap.
Lamu District Hospital is situated between Shela and Lamu Town. The hospital has 2 doctors and several nurses and they can take care of any immediate health matters. There is a health centre near the Lamu Palace Hotel on the waterfront in Lamu Town. For life threatening situations and serious illnesses it is advised to travel to either Mombasa or Nairobi.
There is malaria in the Lamu area. It is, however, very, very rare that tourists get it. As long as you are careful with mosquito repellent and mosquito nets at night, you should be OK.
The people in Lamu are very friendly and the majority of people are well meaning and helpful. However, there are also a few who have made it a habit to hassle tourists. Some hang out in Lamu town around the main jetty where tourists come in on boats. They can be very aggressive and insist on offering you all sorts of help that you probably don’t need. They will offer to show you directions, carry your things, sell you small items, etc. They may abuse your openness toward the local culture and insist that they are your friend and that they are just helping to be nice. When you reach your destination they may insist that you give them something “brother to brother” or “sister to brother” for their effort. They will often charge you large amounts for their efforts and they will be very bullish if you refuse to pay. To stay safe, kindly, but firmly, refuse anyone approaching you on the jetty with any sort of offer. It is often a good strategy to stop and say once with determination “No, thank you”. If there is something you need, it is probably best to approach people that do not use these tactics.
Safety and Security
Lamu and the surrounding villages and islands are surprisingly safe relative to other Kenyan destinations and while petty theft may occur from time to time simply use common sense and remember that you are still visiting a sub-saharan developing country. Do not leave valuables lying around, avoid the beach after dark and lock your house/hotel room whenever possible. The police station (042 633120) is at the southern end of Lamu town and the tourist helpline is (020) 604767.
In late 2011 two separate tragic events sparked intense media attention questioning the safety of tourism in the Lamu archipelago. While these are the first tragic incidents targeting residents and tourists in Lamu over the past 3 decades, travel advisories have been issued for areas within 150km of the Somali border.
Despite government advisories based on exaggerated media coverage, Lamu.org maintains that visitors to Lamu are likely to face far less risk of violent crime, theft and kidnapping than in almost any other area of Kenya and many major tourist destinations worldwide. While it is too early for embassies to lift their travel advisories given the Kenyan military's incursion into Somalia no threats or major incidents have taken place since early October 2011 to suggest that there is a continued security threat.
The Kenyan police and tourism authority have taken the incidents very seriously and have closed marine borders with Somalia. In addition to a navy base in Shela Village, two police posts on either side of the Lamu channel have been added and discreet armed police patrols by land and sea and helicopter support at Manda airport are some of the additional measures being taken to ensure that tourists in Lamu continue to remain safe. Residents and tourists in Shela Village, Lamu Town and Manda Beach continue to feel very safe.
The tides in Lamu are very prominent and the currents are deceivingly strong. Be sure to tell people if you plan on going swimming. Be sure to discuss tides with the local fishermen. Try to avoid going swimming on Shela beach when the tide is going out. Keep an eye out for each other and make sure that people on the beach know that you are swimming. Have fun but do not underestimate the forces of nature. Accidents happen too frequently when tourists forget to pay attention to not so obvious dangers.