How to do a safari in Masai Mara on a budget

Cover Image for How to do a safari in Masai Mara on a budget
Lisa & Pol
by Lisa & Pol
This post is linked to the following video :
Youtube thumbnail
Best african safari : how to make it on a budget (Masai Mara, Kenya)

Filmed on : december 2023

Filmed in : Masai Mara, Kenya

africakenyamasai maranairobinaroktalek

We are backpacking through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. Our journey brings us to Kenya where we stayed just over 5 weeks. As our adventure is gonna take us to many countries with great wildlife, we originally thought that we would skip Masai Mara, it looked very expensive and the time of the year wasn't the best. However, after speaking with other travellers who had visited it, we decided that we would try to make it, while keeping the costs as low as possible.

Sunrise at Crocodile Camp over Masai Mara
Sunrise at Crocodile Camp over Masai Mara

Our safari took place on the 9th of December 2023. Prices and information are accurate at the time of writing but they may change in the future. The general idea will stay relevant though, and we hope that it can help you in your planning. We are travelling as a couple, so the prices mentioned are written with this in mind.

How to keep the costs low

We had heard that some tour agencies offered a 3-day safari from Nairobi for about 300$, with 2 mornings and 2 afternoons game drive. It seemed like the best prices, but yet was too expensive for us.

Our reasoning was that we wouldn't need a multi day safari, a full day should be enough as Masai Mara is one of the parks with the most chance of spotting the big five. So the plan would be to get to the park by public transportation, stock up on food to avoid to overpay once there, find the cheapest accommodation outside the park, figure out a last minute car sharing tour for the next day as we would arrive at our camp, do the full day safari and get back as we came.

On Google Maps, filtering on the hotels, it looked like the cheapest option was about 75$/night. With our full day safari, we would need 2 nights and 150$ for the two of us seemed a bit steep as we're used to much cheaper accommodations otherwise. On one of these accommodations page, a review mentioned that they had camped there for about 10$ a night. That's the moment where we realized that camping would probably be the cheapest option.

We first looked into renting camping gear as we didn't travel with any, and found one or two places in Nairobi offering the service, but the prices were quite high (over 35$/night for a tent, mats and sleeping bag if we remember correctly). It seemed like a lot of hassle to save just a few dollars so we started looking into cheap equipment to buy.

At the Two River mall in Nairobi, you can find a Decathlon sports shop with all the items usually found in its stores all over the world. They have a nice camping section with much choice and we were very satisfied with our purchase, the cheapest 2-person tent, 2 sleeping mats (the rolled silver mats) and a sleeping bag, all for 100$.

Trying out our tent in the hotel room in preparation for Masai Mara
Trying out our tent in the hotel room in preparation for Masai Mara

To be honest we had hoped to spend a little bit less than that but we figured that we would be very happy to have a tent for the continuation of our trip and so we saw it as an investment.

Getting to Masai Mara by public transportation

With the camping gear we are seriously overpacked
With the camping gear we are seriously overpacked

We were following the guidelines laid out by the great blog Against the Compass, and even though it was written a few years ago and the prices didn't quite match, the journey was very similar to his.

In Nairobi, grab a matatu headed to Narok. The price is 800ksh (5$) per person. As always, it leaves when it's full. We got there at 7:30am and we're lucky to be almost the last passengers to fill the minibus. Many people around try to help you find your matatu, as long as you make sure to pay 800ksh only, you can use their help.

The matatu is at the intersection of Price Road and Cross Lane. (-1.2833900, 36.8301328)

The journey takes approx 3h. It's important to let the driver know as you're getting closer to drop you at the bus station otherwise they might stop much further on the road (happened to us). There, you can enjoy a coffee at Sahara Coffee, which features a beautiful peaceful garden and very affordable prices.

Stocking up on food before heading to Masai Mara
Stocking up on food before heading to Masai Mara

Walk 5min from the bus station, or the intersection with the petrol station to Naivas Supermarket. Buy some groceries there if you want to save the most money. Opposite, you'll find the matatus and shared taxi. Locals will help you (and fight between each other) and guide you to the appropriate car. For us, we were headed to Talek and told them about our camp, to which they would drop us.

The station is here, opposite Naivas. (-1.0884635, 35.8699862)

Again, price is 800ksh/person. The car is particularly overpacked with people and goods so stretch your legs as much as you can before boarding. We waited approx 1h before finding the last passengers willing to squeeze in with us.

The journey takes 2h and crosses the national park. At the entrance gate, the officials tried to make us pay (or more likely intimidating us for a bribe), but we stood firm and insisted that there was no way we would pay anything just to get to our camp, outside the park. Pretty easily we were waved in, and from that packed taxi we already witnessed zebras, antelopes and giraffes, prepping us for the next day. It seemed very weird to us that the main road goes through the park and there is actually quite some traffic, going as speed...

Around 4pm, we made it to our camp and the first part of the journey was complete, for just 10$/person.

Enjoying the view from Crocodile camp
Enjoying the view from Crocodile camp

Crocodile camp and booking the safari

On our way to Talek, we were still comparing the different campsites, and we decided to go with Crocodile Camp, as the reviews were great and it was quite cheap at 1000ksh/night/person (7$) for camping.

We were allowed to shower and use the restrooms of the nearby tent
We were allowed to shower and use the restrooms of the nearby tent
The hippos having fun in the river
The hippos having fun in the river

We were along in the camp (mid December) and felt very welcomed and well taken care of. We could use the shower of the built tents and choose the menu of the dinner. We had bought food for lunches and breakfasts, and decided that dinners we would purchase. The food (1500ksh/person(10$) for the dinner) is overpriced and not good, however the quantities are enormous. The view from the camp is amazing, directly on the Masai Mara and in between a river full of hippos and crocodiles that you can observe from the deck.

We were the only ones at the camp for the night
We were the only ones at the camp for the night
Dinner at crocodile camp
Dinner at crocodile camp

As soon as we arrived at the camp, we asked if they had any tours for the next day and as we were alone they said that they would ensure to the nearby camps.

In the end, they didn't find a group that would want to have us onboard so we booked with them an entire car just for us for 160$ in total, with driver, binoculars and lunch included. The scheduled pick up was the next day at 6am. From our understanding, it's always possible to book a driver from one day to the other (at least in low season).

Our private car for the Masai Mara safari
Our private car for the Masai Mara safari

The driver came a bit late, we were stuck at the exit gate of the camp, then we had to refuel and finally get our ticket for the national park. Price at the time is 80$/person and 45$/student if you have a isic card. We paid by credit card. In the end, we entered the park at 7am in our open vehicle with a driver that we felt was not so enthusiastic, at least in the morning.

One day safari in Masai Mara in December

It was our first ever safari and we didn't quite know what to expect. Also we had read that December was not the best time as the grass can be tall. We were a bit annoyed to have entered the park so late as the sun was already much alive and we knew that the best moments for spotting animals would be early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

The journey starts with all the balloons flying above us and offering a magnificent view over the plains of the park.

Soon, the radio is turned on and we understand that the drivers exchange tips on where to go and what they find in order to deliver the most value to their clients. For the first hour, we didn't see much and we felt like we were going in circles without goal, with the driver stopping, speaking in Swahili or Masai to his friends, and not translating to us. By the way, it was quite chilly in the morning, make sure to pack a jacket.

Elephants were the first animals we saw in Masai Mara
Elephants were the first animals we saw in Masai Mara

We eventually spotted a family of elephants and watched them for some time, it was great because we were the only car there. Also the animals are incredible and we were already very happy.

We then spotted a sleeping lion that eventually woke up and looked up for a few seconds before continuing his rest. We met there multiple cars, with some not having an opening at all, and we felt very privileged with our open car, offering little obstacle for pictures and for the feeling of immersion.

Quite happy our driver started going full speed to a spot with at least 15 cars in circle. There was a cheetah eating some hunted animal. As we were there, a small antelope was casually running unaware of the danger, and we witnessed the cheetah catching it !

It felt uncomfortable to be so many cars around the lone cheetah and this was not a highlight of the day. Also, the drivers tend to go very close to the animals (too close) and drive away in a hurry when the rangers come.

We continued to a distant spot with 10 cars or so, circling a group of female lions, hiding in the shade. The sun was already quite strong, it was around 11am and we started having lunch looking at the lions. Slowly all the other cars left and we were left alone with them, this was great. We took a nap for a couple of hours as anyway many animals are hiding at that time.

A lion family napping in the shade
A lion family napping in the shade

We woke up and the lions were just there, a few meters away, it was unbelievable. We got a call on the radio, a friend was stuck in the mud, so we headed away to pull him. After that incident, we got a tip about a cheetah, and we joined a single other car, and enjoyed for a good 30 minutes the spectacle of a cheetah eating its prey.

Observing the cheetah with our binoculars
Observing the cheetah with our binoculars

This was very intense, we were hearing the sound of the bones cracking and we were very close. With the binoculars we could see all the details and it felt like being in national geographic.

Observing the animals from our open car, with binoculars
Observing the animals from our open car, with binoculars

The driver proposed to head back to the camp (it was around 3:30pm), but we wanted to stay as long as possible as anyway that was the plan and we had just a day here. We found some ostriches, warthogs, buffalos.

Water buffalos through the binoculars
Water buffalos through the binoculars

As Pol was a bit frustrated with not having seen any giraffes, we made a detour just before exiting to go spot them, and found a group of 10 with babies.

A giraffe eating from a short bush
A giraffe eating from a short bush

Just before exiting, at 6:30, we got this magical view of the sunset with many antelopes. The driver was very nice at the end of the day and he did really try his best to show us as much as possible.

Sunset after a full day in Masai Mara
Sunset after a full day in Masai Mara

We were very tired at night, but so happy. It was so worth it, we saw 3 out of the big 5, missing leopard and rhinos, but to us it was a complete success. Having the car just for us was such a luxury, plus the car was great and open, so we were glad in the end that we didn't share it, although it would have been even cheaper.

Conclusion, cost and final thoughts

At night, we arranged for a matatu pick up for the next day at 8am. Once again, we crossed the park and arrived in Narok without difficulties. From there, we headed to Homabay but the matatus going back to Nairobi are waiting at the matatus station.

Accommodation

We definitely recommend Crocodile Camp, as the staff was extremely helpful, it's cheap for camping, the location is perfect and they organized the car for us. Down sides is the food, so maybe plan for more groceries or visit another camp for dinner. Our second option would have been Greenwood Camp which looked great as well.

1000ksh/night/person for camping : 7$

Transport

Very straight forward, no way to mess it up, cheap, there is no reason to be scared of trying it out on your own. Everyone was helpful along the way. It is true though that the comfort on the last stretch is precarious so one way might be to buy an extra seat to feel more comfortable and to go sooner.

1600ksh/person one way : 10$

Safari

The nice car just for us, with lunch included, binoculars, booked last minute : 160$ + tip

Entrance to Masai Mara : 80$/person

Is one day enough ? To us, yes definitely!

Is December a good time ? It is true that the grass is tall, but all the big cats we've spotted were anyway laying down in spots were you could see them. We were very happy with the quantity and diversity of the animals we saw.

Total cost

So, in preparation of this trip we bought a tent, so should we count it or no in the total budget ? We let you decide, for us it's an investment and as of writing these lines we've already used it again, saving us money.

Per person, on the basis of 2 people sharing a tent, for a 1-day safari in December 2023, from Nairobi :

800ksh (matatu from Nairobi)

800ksh (matatu from Narok)

1000ksh*2 (2 nights camping)

160$/2 (private car + driver for the day)

80$ (entrance national park)

800ksh (matatu to Narok)

800ksh (matatu to Nairobi)

Total : 195$

In addition, you can add the groceries, the meals taken at the camp, the tip for the driver.

If you don't have a tent, in low season you could probably get a rate around 50$/night for 2, bringing the total at 230$.

If you're luckier than us and are willing to share a car, you will pay less as the price for the car is fixed and divided among the passengers.

Very happy with the purchase of the tent, ready for new adventures with it
Very happy with the purchase of the tent, ready for new adventures with it

In the end

Even though this experience was quite expensive compared to our usual daily spendings on the road, we are delighted and proud to have made it on our own for a price that we consider reasonable considering Masai Mara is world famous and the images we have in our head are a lifetime memory.

We shared many pictures and further tips on our instagram @lisaandpol, so feel free to check it our and contact us there is you have questions about this journey.

Edit :

We've heard from other backpackers that in the town of Talek, there are more options for accommodation and food than we thought. It should be possible to find an affordable room directly in the town (not necessarily on Google), to buy simples groceries or to eat out. The town is not far from most accommodations in the area. Also, a car hire for the day might be negotiable for 150$, a bit better than what we did.

Lisa & Pol
Lisa & Pol
We're a Slovak-French couple in our twenties currently backpacking across Africa for a year. One of our goals is to inspire travellers to go explore this often forgotten continent. On this blog we're focusing on providing up to date info about prices and itineraries, especially geared towards backpackers on a budget. We also create content on Youtube and Insta if you prefer a more visual approach 😉
Some links on this site are affiliate links. We may earn a commission from your clicks, at no extra cost to you.
Did you like this article ? Consider sharing it or getting us a coffee !