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Africa > East Africa > Kenya > Coastal Kenya > Lamu

Lamu

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Lamu Fort

Lamu is a town in Coastal Kenya. Its old town is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Lamu
Shella, Lamu Island
Lamu dhow

Understand[edit]

This is the main town on Lamu Island which is in turn part of the Lamu Archipelago.

Lamu is vastly different from most cities in Kenya, most particularly due to the almost complete lack of motor vehicles and corresponding traffic. Culturally Lamu also differs from interior of the country as it has retained its historic character as the oldest continually inhabited town in the country and one of the most important Swahili settlements. Lamu's religious history as an Islamic center is also immediately evident as most residents wear traditional robes and headscarves along with the dozens of mosques that broadcast the call to prayer throughout the day.

The Old Town is located on Lamu's North-Eastern shore. The Southern coast of Lamu is a 12 km long sand beach called "Shela Beach". About 3 km South of the Old Town, at the Eastern end of Shela beach, you will find "Shela Village"; an area with plenty of hotels and restaurants.

Talk[edit]

Locals involved in the tourism industry speak English, however Swahili is the dominant language of the town. The local Bajuni dialect differs noticeably from standard Swahili, but all locals will understand and can speak the standard variety as well. Learning basic Swahili phrases and traditional Muslim greetings will help show respect and interest in the local culture.

Get in[edit]

  • Lamu town on Lamu island is best reached by air at Manda Airport, either directly from Nairobi (Jambojet and Fly 540 from Jomo Kenyatta airport; Safarilink and Air Kenya fly from Wilson Airport), Mombasa (Mombasa Safari Air), or Malindi (Jambojet and Fly 540). The airport is on Manda Island opposite the main village necessitating a short five minute boat ride. This short trip should not cost more than Ksh 200.
  • For those on a tighter budget a daily bus service does run from Mombasa via Malindi. This route was notorious for attacks by Somali bandits and buses have in the past been stopped and robbed. The trip from Mombasa to Lamu (Mokowe on the mainland) takes 5-7 hours depending on road conditions. The last part from Garsen to Mokowe is a mud road and can be rough. Get a seat in the front of the bus (book in advance) to get a pleasant trip. Several bus companies operate the route but few are express (no unnecessary stops). Two express buses are Tawakal and Najaah. To get to Lamu from Mokowe on the mainland you must take a slow and crowded ferry, a shared speed boat, or hire your own speed boat. All options will take you to Lamu Town. You can usually negotiate to be taken to Shela if this is your final destination.
  • It's also possible but expensive to hire a car from Mombasa or Malindi.

Get around[edit]

There are no options for transport apart from boat or donkey, though everything is within walking distance. Donkeys create an unfortunate mess on the main streets as they are the primary form of heavy transport on the island and are allowed to go to the bathroom wherever they want. As such be cautious about where you are walking as you may accidentally step in something you wish you hadn't.

It should also be noted that lighting at night of the narrow streets is very minimal. A flashlight is a recommended accessory for walking around at night. If you don't bring one with you, many of the tiny shops sell cheap lighters that come with small built in LED flashlights.

See[edit]

The main attraction is the old town ((UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2001) with its old traditional houses, its winkling streets and the special atmosphere

  • 1 Lamu Fort, Kenyatta Rd. Constructed between 1813 and 1821 by the sultans of Pate, with Omani assistance. It was used as a military fortress until 1910 when the British colonial government reorganized it as a prison. It remained a prison until 1984 when it was restored and reorganized into a library and a museum of environmental conservation. Lamu Fort on Wikipedia Lamu Fort (Q17068502) on Wikidata
  • 2 Lamu Museum, Kenyatta Rd. Built in 1891, the Lamu Museum was the former residence of the British Governors during the colonial era. Here, you will experience and learn about the rich Swahili culture that is ever so evident in Lamu Town. Lamu Museum (Q15036545) on Wikidata
  • 3 Covered Market. The covered market in the old town offers a wide range of vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. Very photogenic but not easy to find in the maze of streets.
TakwaBuilding
  • 4 Takwa Ruins. The Takwa settlement is situated on the south side of Manda Island. Takwa was never a large place. It was founded around 1500, and probably abandoned around 1700. It is reported that when Takwa was abandoned, its inhabitants settled just across the bay at Shela on Lamu Island. Twice a year the people of Shela come to the Pillar Tomb in Takwa to pray for rain. The Takwa Ruins were designated a Kenyan National Monument in 1982. It's an official museum, so you pay a 500 kes entrance fee, as a non-Kenyan. There is a guide there to show you around. Not a busy place but worth a visit, Especially because of the neighboring beach. You can also combine the excursion with a visit to the island Manda Toto. Only during high tide the ruins can be reached by boat trips from Shela at around KSh 5000 per boat (up to 4 people) Takwa Milinga Ruins (Q42530688) on Wikidata

Do[edit]

  • Dhow sailing. You can explore the Lamu archipelago by dhow. A dhow is a traditional Arab sailing vessel with one or more lateen sails. It is primarily used along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, India, and East Africa. Dhow trips are relatively inexpensive and you can go as far as Manda Island, Takwa Ruins or Matondoni. Kiwayu is the most pristine of the islands and it is in a biosphere reserve. Several companies specialize in trips to Kiwayu but it's nice to patronize the local captains, who know the islands and the villages best (not to mention the sea!). Tour guides are licensed on Lamu and they will show you their license on request and they have a well-organized association and work together cooperatively. Another company, [1] Sailkenya, also runs three-day trips. The dhow captains of Lamu, however, recently organized themselves into a professional organization, called Promise/Ahadi. They offer excellent services and their knowledge of the ocean and the island is impressive. These young men really made an effort to improve the tourist experience in Lamu, while also trying to empower themselves. You can find more information on their website (www.lamutrips.com), visit their booking office (close to the German Post Office Museums) or look for them along the Lamu Seafront wearing bright blue T-Shirts and badges of their organization. Dhow trips are also available at any hotel, including Peponi in Shela and Lamu House. Recently, several local captains have fallen in love with Mozambique dhows, which are wider and more comfortable than the traditional Lamu boats.
  • Kite surfing. Lamu is a hotspot for kite surfers

Beaches[edit]

On Lamu Island:

  • 1 Shela Beach. On the South end of the Lamu island is a beautiful stretch of white sand and tiny broken sea shells. The walk from main Lamu town is only about a mile and a half and well worth it due to the locals you meet on the way. Watch for the young boys selling homemade samosas on the beach. They are delicious!
  • 2 Kipungani Beach. Lonely secluded beach on Lamu, which is accessible by boat or by a longer beach walk

On Manda Island: Interesting lonely beaches, but difficult to reach, partly naturist suitable

  • 3 Manda Beach. Long, wide and quiet white sand beach. Ideal for walking, but also kitesurfing, snorkelling and other water sports offered. Popular for watching sunset
  • 4 Takwa Beach. Long lonely sandy beach on the island of Manda with the idyllic dune landscape.
  • 5 Manda Bay. Very nice and lonely beach with white sand, good for snorkeling
  • 6 Manda Toto. Small uninhabited island with lonely dream beaches, very good for snorkeling. Take along provisions and water. Arrival from Lamu by private chartered boat, approx. 30 min. At low tide you can cross over from Manda Island

Eat[edit]

waterfront

The seafront restaurants in Lamu Town offer excellent seafood at reasonable prices. Delve further back from the dock for more traditional Swahili fare. Traditionally, the food is eaten with your fingers. Sometimes it is good to bring your own utensils, otherwise you will find yourself trying to eat oil-soaked rice with your fingers - not the easiest task. All better restaurants provide cutlery, if you want. In the streets around the covered market you will find many stalls with cheap and delicious street food

  • 1 Labanda (At the seafront), +254 726 724884. Medium standard restaurant, but with the best sea view. Good selection of local and continental, also Italian dishes and also with license to sell beer and wine. Not all restaurants have that because Lamu is predominantly Muslim and alcohol is banned both in the public and at home.
  • 2 Umalila. This very basic restaurant offers delicious authentic Swahili food. They offer what they have just prepared, but it is always delicious, especially the crispy fries, grilled fish and the fresh juice are a real recommendation. If you want to try something special, ask the chef and he can prepare it for you the next day!
  • 3 Peponi Hotel Restaurant (In Shela Village), +254 42 633421.
  • 4 The Seafront Cafe, Corniche Path, +254 728 711832. Is an excellent value and the locals eat there. Try the garlic crab or crab soup.
  • 5 Whispers Café, Kenyatta Rd, +254 42 4632024. Good coffee and cakes

Drink[edit]

The nightlife is rather quiet, also because in a Muslim place only in licensed places alcohol are sold.

  • Petleys. Meet up and drink beer with fellow travellers,at 'Petleys' one of the few bars in the town.
  • Lamu Palace hotel. You can also enjoy a Tusker at the Lamu Palace hotel, but this is more expensive than Petley's, and very quiet, but OK if you want to hear the waves crash against the sea wall and read a book.
  • Social Club. However, the cheapest beer on the island is at the Social Club, hidden away in the bush, down the coast after the power station. This is where all the locals go, and thus has the best music and cheapest beer and pool table. Definitely go to the social club on a Saturday night for boogie boogie disco! - A mixture of traditional African and reggae. Everyone screams and goes crazy when Bob Marley is played! When you find the music too hot and loud, go round the side and enjoy a game of 8 ball pool. The locals willingly play winner stays on, but you might have to pay for their game too, but at 50c a game who cares! There will be a pool attendant to keep you cue well chalked and to set up the table for you (buy him a couple of Tusker for his trouble!). The walk to the social club can seem a bit daunting especially as the sea wall isn't lit too well, but basically just walk away from the town centre towards Shela keeping the sea on your left, go past the hospital, past the power station, and keep going until you see a sand path through the mangroves into the bush on your right, and a few dim lights at the end of it. On a Sat night you will definitely hear the music before you arrive. If you are still concerned about taking the walk, ask one of the local beach boys to show you the way just buy them a beer for their trouble. Make sure that they realise that you are only buying them 1 beer otherwise they will keep asking for more!
  • Floating Bar. Very busy bar on Friday and Saturday evenings. Floating between Manda and Lamu islands. They have an alcohol license.
  • Whispers Coffeeshop. In the middle of the turbulent old town Lamus a wonderful place to relax with good coffee and great cake.

Sleep[edit]

When choosing accommodation that is listed and rated in the most popular Internet hotel booking sites, you can book either in Lamu City, Shela Beach or the beach in Kipungani at the end of the island. Depending on whether you prefer more peace and quiet or the life in the city. Especially Kipungani is quite remote, but also very romantic.

Most of the year, it's possible to simply show up and book through a tour guide, if you're willing to spend the first day of your trip tromping around in the heat.

in Lamu town:

in Shela:

Kipungani area: very quiet but also very romantic places

Go next[edit]

Weblinks[edit]

Video of Lamu

This city travel guide to Lamu is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.