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5 things you must do while in Africa's heart – Kenya

Kenija
Photo taken by Mykolas Vadišis.  Kenija

Kenya – one of the closest equatorial African countries to Europe. Its stunning natural diversity, interesting people and great climate draw hardened adventure-seekers from all over the world. I'm now editing the travel news from this fascinating country for Travel On Spot. Kenya is my second home, and I offer travellers to the country five tips for what they should not miss out on while they're here.

1. Prepare for the safari

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Photo taken by Indrė Pepcevičiūtė.  DSC_0017.JPG

There are over 40 private and national parks in Kenya. All of them stun with their natural diversity, wild animals and varied landscapes. Many tourists to Kenya come for exactly that reason – to spend a week or two in the nature reserves and watch animals. To see and elephant striding by you in its natural habitat, to stroke a hippopotamus, or get a kiss from a giraffe at one of the animal reserves is a truly indescribable feeling.

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Photo taken by Mykolas Vadišis.  DSC_0744.JPG

But don't overdo it with the parks, as staying and travelling through them is very expensive, especially if you spend the night in huts or tents among the lions and antelope. The safari truck, driver and park taxes aren't exactly cheap, either. For a ticket to the park, you pay between $20 and $100 a day. There are many other things to do in Kenya well worth your attention besides the nature reserves, and many of them are either much cheaper, or even entirely free.

2. Dive in the Indian Ocean

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Photo taken by Mykolas Vadišis.  DSC_0781.JPG

In the highlands the air is thin, and the climate is similar to a Northern European summer or even autumn, however if you travel a little to the side, you're met with palm-studded tropical desert. Many tourists from Europe travel to the coast, where there are plenty of nice hotels and a well-developed tourist industry. On the other hand, Mombasa and the surrounding towns has the scent of Arabia, spices and the salty Indian Ocean. On the Kenyan coast you can eat shrimp, squid, octopus and other seafood fairly cheaply, and even lobster isn't too pricey, at about $20 USD for a kilogram – and all fresh from local fishing boats.

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Photo taken by Mykolas Vadišis.  DSC_0755.JPG

What's more, you can agree with local fishermen to take you snorkelling in the surrounding coral reefs, or even go fishing yourself. If you dig a little deeper and book a tour, you'll be taken to the national marine parks, where corals and fish will enchant you with their colours. If you're feeling too relaxed to go to the bother of organising this, don't be put off – all the conditions can be arranged right there under the palm trees.

3. Go for a walk around the tea and coffee plantations

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Photo taken by Indrė Pepcevičiūtė.  DSC_0360.JPG

Kenya is famous for its coffee and tea, although, while travelling there, you'll barely be able to get a good cup of decently brewed coffee anywhere. Kenyans got into the British habit of drinking tea with milk, and they export all the coffee they grow. This is Kenya's black gold, that's why the plantations are well protected, as the business has been marred with theft and other rackets. Again, however, if you agree with the farmers beforehand, you'll have a unique chance to see the coffee farmers' everyday lives.

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Photo taken by Mykolas Vadišis.  DSC_0359.JPG

The situation with tea is a little easier. It's been growing on Kenya's ever-green hills for over one hundred years. And even though forests have been cleared to make way for the plantations, the large carpets of tea plants are a calming environment. Around 60,000 people work in the Kericho valley's tea plantations. Here you can pick tea, learn about how it's grown, purchase freshly-picked tea leaves, and try a cup of the hot beverage in a veranda reminiscent of colonial times. A moment of peace and relaxation, necessary between safaris.

4. Buy fruit and meat at the local market

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Photo taken by Indrė Pepcevičiūtė.  DSC_0058.JPG

Markets in every culture have a colourful and distinct environment, and Kenya's are no exception. Although it's a rather dirty, noisy and sometimes even dangerous place for a white tourist, it's a place where you'll have the chance to speak with the locals. As long as you know the prices beforehand, you'll manage just fine. Most vendors in the country are not aggressive – they try to raise the price, but if they see that you know the real value of the product in the local currency, they acquiesce.

Here you can find delicious mangos, papayas, oranges, watermelons, passion fruits, pineapples, coconuts, many different kinds of bananas, and other exotic fruits. There are also lots of fresh vegetables, from aubergines to onions and green beans.

The meat is separate from the rest of the market. Although it looks unhygienic, the goat's meat or beef stewed with vegetables simply melts in the mouth – and costs a mere $4 per kilogram. Kenya is a place where it really pays off to buy the fresh ingredients and prepare dinner for yourself.

5. Have dinner at home with a local family

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Photo taken by Indrė Pepcevičiūtė.  DSC_0426.JPG

The most rewarding thing about travelling in Kenya is meeting the Kenyan people. Many tourists to Kenya travel through the national parks, stay in the nice hotels on the coast, or perhaps in the native tribes, such as the Maasai and Pokot tribes (which tends to be more for show), whose leaders, women and children collect money for their hand-made garments and souvenirs, and for showcasing their primitive way of life to visitors.

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Photo taken by Indrė Pepcevičiūtė.  DSC_0429.JPG

However the real Kenyan way of life thrives in the cities and villages, where people farm land, trade goods and services, go to banks, hospitals and shopping centres, do sport and train for marathons. That's exactly why, when joining a Kalenjin, Kikuyu or Luo family for dinner, you'll get a first-hand glimpse of their traditions, myths, prejudices, problems and joys.You'll try their traditional dishes: corn porridge; vegetables and stewed chicken; African nightshade (a leafy vegetable locally known as managu) and onion stew; and local mursik (a kind of fermented kefir). You'll learn a few words in Swahili or the local tribal language. Many Kenyan families in the highlands have at least one marathon runner in it – perhaps even several. That's a great opportunity to learn about their training routine and other subtleties, or even to join the world's best marathon runners for a morning cross-country run.

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