When in Kenya, Trust the Locals

When people think of inexpensive vacations, Kenya doesn't usually come to mind.

The country sports world-class wildlife safaris and some of the world's best beaches, but most travelers think they have to shell out thousands of dollars to have the true Kenyan experience.

In these hard economic times, people may shy away from traveling to Kenya. But they shouldn't. Deals can be had here -- if you are willing to stop thinking like an ''mzungu," the Swahili word for foreigner (usually white), and veer off the beaten track.

Contrary to what movies and travel books illustrate, you don't have to stay in a luxury safari lodge to enjoy the wildlife.

As a cheap alternative, travelers can opt for do-it-yourself safaris.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, the government agency in charge of all of Kenya's national parks, offers a campinglike option called Sleep in the Wild With the Wild.

Within some of Kenya's best-known national parks, tourists can stay in the wildlife service's self-service guest houses, or "bandas," huts with beds inside of them, for $20 to $30 per night, including park entrance fees.

Tourists must provide their own food and way around the park but, conversely, a typical all-inclusive luxury lodge can cost anywhere from $200 to $600 per night.

Justine Petty, a 24-year-old Canadian student studying in the capital of Nairobi, says that in many ways camping out in a wildlife service banda park provides an even better experience than staying in a lodge. Tourists don't have to drive long distances to see the wildlife and aren't married to the lodge's schedule and rules.

"You can just walk outside and see the animals all day," she said.

To de-stress for less, head to the Kenyan coast, where, amid the well-known and expensive resorts, restaurants and big hotels, peace and tranquility can be found for less than tourists might imagine.

Petty's mother, Barbara Petty, has been coming to Kenya from Vancouver, Canada, for more than seven years. She and her husband recently relocated to Nairobi for his business, but she says that all the years of traveling as a tourist have made her savvy.

Barbara Petty says that she has found that people are overly concerned about Kenya's reputation for crime and con artists and that in the end fear drives them to pay "phenomenal prices" for good services that are available for much less.

Trust the Locals

The first step to getting a good deal, she says, is "to trust the locals."

On the coast, for example, big hotels and resorts offer tourist massages that can range anywhere from $50 to $200 an hour. But walk along the beach and tourists will find a different scenario: a one-room hut, with a padded bench and a woman trained and licensed to give massages, who charges about $8 for an hourlong massage.

"It's a great deal," Petty said. "At a large resort you might be able to afford having one or two massages in a week's vacation, but on the beach you can have one every day."

She admits that the setting is a bit more "rustic" than at a hotel spa. A bench isn't a proper massage table, and the massage oil they use is usually a mix of Vaseline and water. But, Petty says, a beach massage offers an experience hotels can't: the ultimate tranquil experience.

"Where else can you lie on the beach and watch the waves come in while getting a proper massage?" she said. "And for less than $10?"

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