It may be paradise, but the king lion reigns supreme. With safari 101, the best time of year to go, where to stay, and tips on how to talk to the locals, check out why Maasai Mara National Reserve should be high on your bucket list.
The iconic African lion.
They call it a jungle and paradise where the king lion reigns supreme, but for the locals, it is simply Mara. The mention of Maasai Mara National Reserve evokes imaginations of spectacular scenes of a vast jungle inhabited by vicious predators hunting down their prey.
An elephant herd is seen grazing on the road from Keekorak Air Strip, Kenya.
Any time of the year, Maasai Mara is a magical place to visit. Upon your first moments arriving, the reserve provides a splendid scenic view of endless rolling plains, like a carpet spreading beyond the horizons. It’s after getting deep into the plains that you realize the kind of a paradise Maasai Mara is as it is land where animals roam freely without restriction.
Maasai warriors demonstrate their jumping dance for tourists
Maasai Mara National Reserve is known for the famous game drives, popularly known as safari. Due to its vastness and a huge population of game animals, a safari in Maasai Mara is the only way for tourists to get the best out of this scenic ecosystem.
The word "safari" is widely used to describe African game drives in East Africa. It is a Swahili term for "travel" or a "journey." In this context, safari is an expedition to observe game animals in their natural habitat.
Open-top 4x4 vehicles. The hatch top is on the left with a more traditional safari 4x4 on the right.
The most common way to travel within a safari is in a car, as you can get much closer to animals than any other way. A vehicle full of people is perceived by dangerous animals, like a lion or hippo, as one large "thing." Alternatively, a human by him or herself is preceived as a small "thing." Common sense tells us we want to be seen as large, not small. In additon to the safety of viewing such large and wild animals in a car, it also enables the tourists to view different types of game animals in a shorter period of time.
The safaris drives are usually done using the popular open 4x4 safari vehicles that can accommodate up to eight occupants. These vehicles do not have a roof to offer a face to face encounter with nature.
However, there are also other options for safari vehicles such as hatch top safari 4x4 vehicles, designed with a pop-up roof and are an excellent alternative while traveling for long distance, and minivans, which are a good alternative if a 4x4 may not be necessary.
Have you ever changed a flat tire with lions nearby? It may be a good idea to leave it to the experts. Hiring a guide in Maasai Mara National Reserve can be a good investment for safety, logistics, and sight-seeing reasons.
The Mara ecosystem is so vast that you can barely get through it in a couple of days. So, how do you get the best out of your safari in such a limited time? Hire a tour guide. They help:
- Provide the right vehicle for your trip
- Taking care of necessary permits
- Keep you safe by knowing the best protocols in approaching such large and wild animals
- Be prepared for the worst-case scenario by having access to a firearm and communication
- Find the wildlife you'd like to prioritize seeing first and do what they can to get you to them. Whether it’s lions, elephants, or wildebeest, these animals are found in different areas of the game reserve
- With communication, as they usually have radio communications on them at all times
- Know who to contact in case of an emergency
- Make the most of your trip
Why Maasai Mara National Reserve should be your safari pick
Maasai Mara National Reserve is more than just any another game reserve; it is a gem for not only Africa but the world as a whole. Located in Narok County, Kenya, East Africa, it is contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region, Tanzania. Established in 1961, it is only a fraction of the Greater Mara Ecosystem, which includes the Siana, Olkinyei, Koiyaki, Lemek, Ol Derkesi, Ol Chorro Oirowua, Maji Moto, Naikara, Kerinkani, Oloirien, and Kimintet group ranches.
A mother cheetah (seen off-camera) teaches her juvenile cub how to hunt. On a safari, a good guide will help you find the animals that interest you most but being flexible and taking advantage of nature around you can lead to unexpected surprises.
If you're planning an African safari, why should Maasai Mara National Reserve be high on your list?
It's easy to get to
At only 139 miles from Nairobi, it's accessible from almost anywhere in the world. You can easily get to Nairobi from most major airports (connecting through cities such as London, Amsterdam, or Zürich) and can take a short flight to the Mara or you can even drive there.
It has the "big five" animals
A mid-morning swim in Maasai Mara National Reserve, this hippo and her baby calf put on a show for a nearby safari. She may not be one of Africa's "big five" game animals, but the hippo is responsible for over 2,900 deaths on the African continent per year.
The reserve has a vast number of game animals including the great BIG FIVE in their natural habitat:
- Rhinoceros (both black and white species), although the black rhino is listed by the WWF as critically endangered
- Cape Buffalo
Being able to see all five in one trip truly makes this a bucket list trip. The cost of flying from the United States to the continent of Africa is time-consuming and expensive. Making the most of your investment by giving you the highest likelihood of seeing these large and majestic creatures.
The best time to be in Maasai Mara
Mara National Reserve offers fantastic wildlife experience all year-round. But, some months provides more magnificent wildlife viewing than others.
A heard of zebra at dusk in Maasai Mara National Reserve.
- The dry season (June to October) is the best time for wildlife viewing. During this period, the great wildebeest migration will be ending with more than one and half million animals, including zebras and Gramp’s gazelles, making their move to Maasai Mara from Serengeti, Tanzania. The coming of these animals in the open fields pulls the predators such as lion, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards out of the bush. You can also see the giant Nile crocodiles in the Mara River. During this time of the year, wildlife is easily spotted since the bush is less dense and most animals gather around rivers and waterholes
- But if you want to see the big cats hunting, then January to March is the perfect season to be in Maasai Mara. It is also referred to as the Lion Season. Most of the big game animals, such as zebras and wildebeests, are giving birth to their young ones. This provides the lions with an excellent chance to prey on the vulnerable calves.
- March to May is the wet season and not the best time to plan a safari in Mara, due to the accessibility of areas due to mud and flooding. Some of the camps and lodges close down during this period. If you do plan a trip during these green months, it's worth it to do your due diligence to ensure you will have a successful trip
Where to stay
Accommodations are not a problem in Maasai Mara. There are plenty camps and lodges to choose, but we strongly suggest that you select the most reputable ones
The entrance to Sarova Mara Game Camp.
Among the prominent companies that you pick is the Sarova Mara Game Camp. The company has some of the best camps that you can find in Mara and other parks around Kenya. The company has their camps situated strategically in the park for a one of a kind safari experience.
Most camps are all inclusive. But, you'll get access to beautifuld displays of local and international cuisine.
Apart from just a comfortable place to sleep, Sarova Mara also offers safari drives, and you can hire their tour guides for a thrilling safari experience. Other reputable game camp lodges include:
Turn down service at Sarova Mara Game Camp.
The Maasai culture
The Maasai people, from whom the park get its name from, are a critical part of the Maasai Mara ecosystem. They are pastoralists, which are sheep and cattle farmers, and seem to seamlessly coexist with the wildlife inside the game reserve. The community has maintained their cultural practices that have been observed for ages, thus adding allure to the Maasai Mara. From the way they dress, their lifestyle, and everything about their culture is fascinating.
A Maasai warrior shows off his amazing jumping ability before inviting tourists to join in on the experience.
They keep huge herds of cattle but live a very humble lifestyle. They are polygamous, which means there are multiple wives in a single family, and mostly live in clans. The community is ruled by a council of elders (senior men) who make decisions on matters affecting the community. Friendly to tourists, they have a tall and lean build, have a very dark East African skin tone and although some speak English, the speak Swahili and have a native Maa dialect.
Estimated costs to travel
Going on an African safari is a bucket list trip for a reason. Let's just say, it isn't cheap.
Airplane leaving Keekorok Airstrip in Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Like any other bucket list trip, we'll tell you that it is worth it. Here is a high-level cost break down so you can plan accordingly.
- $3,000 // Airfare to and from Nairobi, Kenya
- Depending on where you're located, this can be upwards of $3,000 USD per person
- Consider applying for a credit card (and using it responsibility) to use points to get this cost to < $100 USD in fees. A great resource for this is ThePointsGuy.com
- $51 // Visa to Kenya
- Good for a 3-month tourist visa
- Price changes, so be sure to check with the Kenyan government prior to travel
- $300 // Flight to Mara
- $80 // Park entry fees
- For non-East African residents, you must pay the $80 USD fee per person, and $30 USD for children
- $600 // Per person, per night
- All-inclusive price for most camps, including 3 meals per day
- Look for for off-season deals to offset this price
- Can also be cheaper for families sharing accomodations
- $250-$400 // Safari ride
- Can be shared with other occupants, making this $50-$100 per person
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is in the heart of Maasai land. It is more of a community park, with local families living in the space together.
As part of a safari experience, you will often get to interact with the local Maasai communities that live and work within Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Here are culture tips that will help you interact with the community and make your safari a positive experience:
- Locals are very sensitive to visitors but are generally friendly to respectful tourists. Taking the time to learn basic conversational words in Swahili can go a long way. Greeting a local with "Jambo" (Swahili for "Hi") is a good way to get off on the right foot
- Don’t take pictures of the Maasai without their consent
- If you want to take pictures, consider exchanging a small amount of cash or purchasing some of their goods first
- In everything you do, do it out of respect for their home and culture
- If you ask for a picture or to touch something and they say no, respect their no
- The Maasai value cattle very much as it is their livelihood. If you are driving, hiking, walking, etc. and you meet a herd, slow down or stop to let them pass
- The Maasai are a unique people group, but are also like any other person living in the twentieth century. Many have cell phones and travel to Europe or the United States to complete higher education degrees. As you interact with them, don't assume that they don't have the same cultural knowledge you do
Maasai Mara National Reserve is a paradise that you cannot miss. The game reserve has plenty to offer, and a going on a safari can be a way to disconnect from the hustle of everyday life, while offering you much-needed perspective on how you live, what you value, and how other cultures live life differently. Seeing a lion just a few feet away can reconnect you with nature while offering a good amount of humility.