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Your Guide to Visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve

by Cris Puscas

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A large expanse of gently rolling grassland. From place to place, a flat-topped acacia tree dots the scenery. Zebras and wildebeest graze undisturbed.

This is what dreams of Africa are made of. And Masai Mara lives up to its reputation.

Ask anyone who plans a safari in Africa and chances are they want to witness the Great Migration in Masai Mara.

But the road from daydreaming to planning can be quite bumpy. This is why, here, we’ve compiled all the information you need to plan a great safari in Masai Mara National Reserve.


Where is Masai Mara National Reserve

The Masai Mara and the adjoining Loita Plans form the northern part of the Serengeti-Masai Mara eco-system, located in the Great Rift Valley.

Spanning over about 1530 sq km/ 591 sq mi, the Masai Mara National Reserve is bordered by the Serengeti National Park to the south, Oloololo escarpment to the west, and Masai pastoral ranches to the north, east, and west.


How to Get to Masai Mara National Reserve

Masai Mara National Reserve is located 270km/167mi northwest of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The road needs more than just a bit of maintenance and offers a really bumpy ride, so most people choose to fly into one of the reserve’s airstrips.

Most international visitors arrive by way of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO), located just 15km/9mi from the capital of Nairobi.

The domestic flights into the reserve’s airstrips leave from Wilson Airport (WIL), just 6km/4mi from Nairobi. Air Kenya and Safarilink operate flights between this airport and Masai Mara.

Please make sure to check with your safari operator whether they include airport transfer and if they do not, ask which the closest airstrip to the camp / lodge is.

Should you decide to drive, kindly note that the drive time from the international airport to Masai Mara is about 5 hours. Is also possible to drive here from Lake Nakuru National Park, but the 235km/150mi takes about 6 hours to be covered by car.


Masai Mara National Reserve Fees

The entrance fees to Masai Mara National Reserve depends on the location of camps and lodges you are staying at.

Should you choose accommodation within the reserve, the entrance fee is 70 USD for an adult, non-resident, per 24 hours, and 40 USD for a child under 12 years old.

For those staying outside of the reserve, the entrance fee is 80 USD for an adult per 24 hours and 45 USD for a child.


Best Time to Visit Masai Mara National Reserve

zebras in the masai mara

Fortunately for the visitors, the Masai Mara National Reserve offers good wildlife viewing year-round.

However, during the rainy months (March, April, November, December) the wildlife is harder to spot, and the roads are more difficult cu navigate.

Therefore, it is recommended to visit the reserve during the driest months (late June to October) which are the best for wildlife viewing. The vegetation is thinner, and the animals congregate around rivers and water holes.

If you want to visit Masai Mara for the wildebeest migration kindly note that, although it’s difficult to predict, your best chance to witness this great show is in late September and October.

Please note that the high travel season lasts from June to October and December to March, when the reserve gets crowded and the prices tend to be on the higher side.


Masai Mara National Reserve History

From 1888 to 1962, Kenya was a British colony where wild animals would be allowed to live in their natural habitat.

In 1961, an area of 520 sq km/200 sq mi was recognized as a wildlife sanctuary. Soon it was extended as a game reserve.

When Kenya received its independence in 1963, it also realized that tourism could be a primary source of revenue. Thus, in 1974 Masai Mara was declared a National Game Reserve.

After repeated outcries from the displaced tribes, some land was returned to them in 1976.


Going on a Safari in Masai Mara National Reserve

elephants in masai mara

Photo credit: Explorers Wild Adventures

The Masai Mara is particularly known for the Great Migration, which passes through the reserve giving you the chance to witness thousands of animals crossing the Mara River.

But the reserve offers plenty of other great things to do.

The most popular way to witness the wildlife in the reserve is during a game drive. They are included in all safari experiences, but you may want to book something specialized, such as a night drive (organized by lodges from private conservancies).

Hot air balloon safaris, a bucket list item for anyone visiting the Masai Mare, are once in a lifetime experiences that will remain in your hearts forever.

Should you plan to get up close and personal with the animals, please note that walking safaris and nature hikes are only available in conservancies outside of the main reserve. All the while, horseback safaris are available in the larger Mara ecosystem.

For those looking for a romantic experience, a bush meal & sundowner at a scenic spot or a candlelit dinner are excellent choices. And if you want to understand the culture of the Maasai people, you can visit a traditional Maasai manyatta village.

Regardless of what type of safari you choose, please make sure to read through the park’s rules:

  • The speed limit is 50kmph/31mph on graded roads and 30kmph/18.6mph on all others.
  • Off roading is not allowed in the High Use & River Zones.
  • Off roading in the Low Use Zone is allowed to view the big cats.
  • Keep a distance of at least 25m/82ft from the animals.
  • No more than 5 vehicles are allowed at wildlife sightings.
  • Don’t stand or sit on the vehicle’s roof.
  • Don’t shout, cheer, or clap.
  • Don’t block the river crossing during migration time.
  • Don’t chase, follow, or harass the animals.
  • Don’t litter.
  • Be in the camp/lodge or leave the park by 7 pm.

Failure to comply will result in fines and/or being expelled from the park.

Want to visit the Masai Mara during the Great Migration? Read our article about where and when to go on a migration safari!


Wildlife in Masai Mara National Reserve

wildebeest in masai mara

The vast plains covered with tall grass and scattered acacia trees, the rolling hills covered in short grass, the patches of woodland, extensive marshes, and the Mara river with its riverine forest offer excellent an habitat for a variety of wildlife. 

The animals roam in complete freedom here, without fences and other obstacles.

One of the best parks in Africa and Kenya’s flagship, the Masai Mara National Reserve is an excellent choice if you want to spot the Big Five. Sightings of the famous African elephant, rhino, lion, Cape buffalo, and leopard are pretty much guaranteed, although the black rhino is more elusive.

It is also one of the best parks to see the big cats. Cheetahs and lions are common, while occasionally you may also spot a leopard. Smaller predators such as the bat-eared fox, spotted hyena, and black-backed jackal are also rewarding.

There are many antelopes to see here – impala, reedbuck, eland, topi, and Thomson’s gazelle. Giraffes are common, too.

Where to stay in Masai Mara National Reserve

tent in masai mara

Photo credit: Jossec Tours and Safaris

Despite the wilderness that characterizes the reserve, the choice of accommodation is endless and ranges from affordable to luxury tents, as well as lodges for all budgets. For an amazing experience, choose a tent or a lodge overlooking the Mara River.

There are both private conservancies and the public reserve that host the accommodation.

The private conservancies offer a more extensive range of activities than it is allowed in the reserve, such as nigh game drives, walking safaris, and off-road drives. Also, the number of in-camp guests are limited so it won’t feel so crowded and the animals engage in more natural behaviors. Choosing a private conservancy usually means that you will pay a higher price than if you were to stay in the reserve.


What Should I Pack?

While you may already rock the packing list for a city break, packing for a safari in Masai Mara is quite a different story. But worry not, here is a list of essentials for a worry-free holiday:

  • Good light-weight walking boots (for hiking) or sturdy, comfy walking shoes (for leisure walks)
  • Light-weight jacket or jumper
  • Swimwear (if the lodge has a pool)
  • Hat and sunscreen
  • Long trousers in natural colors
  • Over the counter medication (such as ibuprofen, anti-diarrhea pills, and anti-histamines, motion sickness pills)
  • Small waterproof day pack
  • Water bottle
  • Camera, lenses, extra cards, charger.


Visa Policies to Enter Kenya

Most visitors to Kenya require a visa to enter the country. Thankfully, most of them – including American and British citizens, can obtain an eVisa (online). Simply register, apply, and pay online. Once approved, you’ll be sent a PDF visa document to print out, which you need to present at the entry point.

Visas on arrival can still be obtained directly at the airport but the plan is to end visas upon arrival in the future.

The fee for a single entry visa, valid for 90 days, is 51 USD.

Your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months after the date you exit the country. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required.


Cash Withdrawals and Cards Use Within Masai Mara National Reserve

All banks change US Dollars, British Pounds, and Euros into Kenyan shillings. ATMs can be found in medium-sized towns.

Most ATMs accept international debit and credit cards. And although you can withdraw money abroad don’t assume it would always work. Make sure to have cash at hand. And don’t forget to inform your bank that you’d be in Kenya so that your transactions aren’t flagged.

Top-end hotels and restaurants have no issues accepting Visa and Mastercard debit and credit cards. You may check with the camp / lodge you are staying at and ask if they accept cards. 

Ready to explore the vastness of the Masai Mara? Then why not book a jeep safari and enjoy the best of Kenya’s wildlife.

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