Lake Malawi is one of Africa’s Great Lakes of the Rift Valley. It lies between three countries, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. This guide is designed to help you plan your trip to this spectacular lake. First I’ll explain, step-by-step, how to travel to Lake Malawi from each country. Next, I’ll list some of the best things to do at the lake. Finally, I’ll outline a couple of dangers at the lake and how to avoid them. Hopefully, this guide makes your visit to Lake Malawi a bit smoother and easier.
A Bit of Information About Lake Malawi
Nestled within the Great Rift Valley, Lake Malawi is a true gem of Africa. Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Niassa in Mozambique and Lake Nyasa in Tanzania, has been supplying the surrounding villages with fish for thousands of years.
Also known as the ‘Calendar Lake’, Lake Malawi stretches over 365 miles long (580 kilometers), approximately from north to south, and is about 52 miles wide (75 kilometers) at its widest point. Located between Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique, it ranks as the ninth-largest lake in the world. It is the third-largest and second-deepest in Africa, after Lake Tanganyika. It is the southernmost lake in the East African Rift system.
Lake Malawi is globally renowned for its biodiversity. This freshwater lake is home to more fish species than any other lake on Earth. This includes a myriad of colorful, indigenous cichlids, known locally as “mbuna”, making it a paradise for snorkelers and divers. There are hundreds of mbuna species living in the lake.
When planning your African adventure, a visit to Lake Malawi offers a unique blend of tranquility, adventure, and wildlife. It’s more than just a lake, it’s a vibrant ecosystem, a hub of local culture, and an essential part of the region’s rich heritage. Whether you’re a birder, an angler, a scuba diver, a hiker, or simply a nature lover, Lake Malawi will enthrall you with its mesmerizing beauty and abundant biodiversity.
When to Visit Lake Malawi
Because temperatures are always pleasant, Lake Malawi is an excellent place to visit year-round. With that being said, the best time to visit the lake is in the dry season between May and July. Temperatures will also be cooler at this time as it is winter in the southern hemisphere. The wet season runs from October through March.
How to Get to Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi can be accessed from three countries, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Most tourists visit the lake from Malawi. The southern shore in Malawi is the most popular part of the lake to visit because it is the easiest to access. It also has the best tourist infrastructure. Below, I outline how to access the lake from each country.
Visiting Lake Malawi from Lilongwe
Transportation infrastructure is pretty poor in Malawi. Coaches run along the main highway between major cities such as Karonga, Mzuzu, Lilongwe, and Blantyre. When visiting the lake, you’ll have to take minibusses to get around. For more information on bus travel, check out my Ultimate African Bus Guide.
How to Travel from Lilongwe to Cape Maclear or Monkey Bay by Bus
The most popular destinations on the lake in Malawi are Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear. There are two bus options to get there:
- Direct coach- There is a direct bus running from Lilongwe to Monkey Bay. There is no schedule. The bus just leaves when it’s full. While it is more convenient that you don’t have to change buses, the direct bus is very slow. You may also have to wait around for a few hours for it to fill up and leaves Lilongwe.
- Minibus- To get to Monkey Bay, you’ll have to take a series of minibusses from Lilongwe. Depending on the route, this could be 4-5 different buses. Each driver will pass you off to the next bus going in your direction. You won’t get lost. They know that, as a tourist, you are headed to the lake. Even though it is a hassle to transfer so many times, the minibus turns out to be faster and more reliable as there are many buses operating the route each day.
How to travel to Monkey Bay by Minibus
- First, head down to the main bus station near Devil Street. The bus station is located at 2Q4G+7R Lilongwe, Malawi. (This address is a plus code. Click the link or paste it into Google maps to view the exact location of the bus station.)
- Once you arrive at the station, ask around for a bus to Monkey Bay. Here, you can see what is available. I recommend the minibus. If you get lucky and a big direct bus is almost full and about to leave, take it. It will be slower but much less stressful.
- After you find your bus, you will pay for a ticket. I don’t remember exactly what it cost. I think around $3. Even though you won’t be on the same bus the whole way, you will pay the full amount to the first bus driver. This covers your fare all the way to the Monkey Bay. It seems scammy because they won’t’ tell you that you’ll have to transfer. The drivers have some kind of deal where you pay one the full amount and they sort out the transfer payments among themselves.
- You may be asked to pay again by a shady driver. Just tell them that you already paid the last driver. They are just trying to scam you for more money. Again, your previous driver should sort out the transfer for you.
- After 4-5 transfers, you will arrive in Monkey Bay.
How to Travel from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear
Most travelers choose to stay in Cape Maclear. It is a small, quiet fishing village right on the shore of the lake. Several budget hotels and hostels can be found on the shore of the lake. To get there, you must take a motorcycle taxi from Monkey Bay. The taxi costs $2-$4 and takes about 15-20 minutes depending on how fast your driver goes.
This ride takes you through some beautiful hills and jungle on your way to the lake. It was one of my favorite parts of the visit except for the fact that the driver was going dangerously fast the whole way, racing his friend all the way.
How to Travel to Likoma or Chizumulu Island
Likoma and nearby Chizumulu are two small islands in Lake Malawi which belong to Malawi but are located in Mozambique waters. These tiny, remote islands have a few small villages and some beautiful beaches. There are no paved roads on the islands. Electricity is available at night and is provided by a generator.
The MV Ilala Ferry
Also known as the Ilala II, the MV Ilala is a World War II era boat which carries people and goods across the lake. It is often out of service and doesn’t always run on time.
The islands can be accessed from two ports in Malawi
- Nkhata Bay- The Ilala ferry leaves at 8 pm on Tuesday nights and heads South to Likoma Island. It arrives early in the morning on Wednesday.
- Cape Maclear- The Ilala ferry leaves on Saturday and arrives on Likoma Island on Sunday.
For more info on the Ilala Ferry, check out the extensive guide: The Ilala Ferry Malawi- My Best Worst Journey Ever from Helen in Wonderlust. It includes pretty much everything you could ever want to know about the ferry.
Accommodation on Likoma Island
As Likoma island is a tourist destination, there are a few options. A few budget guesthouses and hostels can be found on the island along with a couple of higher end lodges catering to ecotourist.
How to Visit Lake Malawi (Lake Nyasa) From Tanzania
The Tanzania side of the lake is probably the least popular among tourists. It is remote, difficult to access, and has the least tourist infrastructure. All the more reason to visit! Tanzania has two lakeside towns that you can visit.
Visiting Matema, Tanzania
Matema is the only town on the north shore of Lake Malawi with tourist infrastructure. Several resorts and campsites can be found along the beach. This would be a convenient place to stopover while traveling from Tanzania to Malawi overland. From the town of Kylea, which you will pass through on your way to Matema, you are just a short distance to the Songwe border crossing to Malawi.
How to get to Matema from Dar es Salaam
- From Dar es Salaam, the easiest way to get to Matema is to first take a coach to Mbeya. You can buy tickets at Ubungo bus station. For step-by-step instructions to this bus route, check out my guide: How to Travel from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Lilongwe, Malawi by Bus. It includes information on tickets, bus times, station locations, and more.
- From the small town of Mbeya, head to the bus station and catch a minibus to the town of Kylea. This ride takes about 2.5 hours.
- From Kylea you will have to catch a shared taxi to Matema. This ride takes about 1.5 hours.
- Ask the driver to drop you off at the hospital. It is located in the center of town within short walking distance of several budget accommodation options.
Visiting Mbamba Bay, Tanzania
Mbamba Bay is a small fishing village on the Eastern shore of Lake Malawi. The town has a few small budget hotels to choose from. Just outside of town there are a couple of lodges. I haven’t been to Mbamba Bay but I’ve heard that it is pretty basic. It’s much less touristy than Matema.
To get to Mbamba Bay from Dar es Salaam
- In Dar es Salaam, head down to Ubungo Bus Station and buy a ticket to Songea. You will want to buy your tickets at least a day in advance. I believe there is a daily bus operating this route.
- From the town of Songea, catch a shared taxi or minibus to Mbamba Bay.
This is a long journey. Depending on the timing of the bus, you may need to spend the night in Songea. You may want to stay there anyway to break the trip up a bit. This is a pretty remote part of Tanzania where not many tourists venture.
Visiting Lake Malawi (Lago Niassa) From Mozambique
Mozambique is a big country. Traveling to Lake Malawi from the capital, Maputo, will require at least two days by bus. The easiest way to reach the Mozambique side of Lake Malawi is by ferry from Malawi. There are three lake towns that you can visit in Mozambique. Most travelers crossing the lake by ferry will choose to stop on Likoma or Chizumulu Island.
Visiting Cobue, Mozambique
From Likoma Island (Malawi), it is a 3km ferry ride to the town of Cobue, Mozambique. The ferry operates twice per week. Here, you can go through immigration and customs to enter Mozambique. This small port town that is only connected to the rest of the country through an old dirt road. If you plan to travel further into Mozambique, you can catch a ferry headed down the lake to the town of Metangula. I believe minibusses also make this trip.
Visiting Metangula, Mozambique
From Likoma Island (Malawi), a ferry runs twice per week to Metangula, Mozambique. Here, you can pass through immigration and customs to enter Mozambique. From Metangula, you can connect to the rest of the country by bus.
Accommodation options in Metangula are limited. I believe a couple of budget hotel options are available. There are also a couple of higher end lodges on the lake.
Visiting Meponda, Mozambique
Meponda can be accessed by a weekly ferry from Metangula, Mozambique. It is also connected by bus with the rest of the country.
Accommodation options in Meponda are limited. I believe a couple of budget hotel options are available as well as a higher end lodge located in.
A Note on Visas
Mozambique- I have heard conflicting information on whether or not visas are available at the ports and land borders. It would be best to have your visa before crossing into Mozambique. Visas should be available in every Mozambique embassy in countries bordering Mozambique. Depending on the country, they may be laxer or more strict about visa requirements. The easiest place to get a Mozambique visa is South Africa. If you are passing through there first, consider picking up a visa while you’re there.
I was told that you can get a special one day or ten day visa to visit lakeside towns from Malawi but I’m not sure if that really exists or not.
Please comment below with your Mozambique visa findings. I’d be interested to hear about the process.
Tanzania- The visa is available on arrival at the border. The cost is $50 for most nationalities and $100 for Americans.
Malawi-The visa is available on arrival at the border. Unfortunately, Malawi just recently started charging for visas about a year ago. The cost is $75 for most nationalities.
For more info on visas, check out my African Visa Guide.
What to do at Lake Malawi
Visit Lake Malawi National Park
Established in 1980 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Lake Malawi National Park is the world’s first freshwater national park. Covering about 94 square kilometers, the park encompasses the southern end of the lake around Cape Maclear.
Lake Malawi National Park is a sanctuary for diverse wildlife. It is known for its unique freshwater fish diversity. With over 1,000 tropical fish species, many of which are endemic to Lake Malawi, it is a haven for snorkeling and scuba diving enthusiasts.
For those seeking an eco-friendly stay, numerous eco-lodges within the park offer a harmonious blend of comfort and sustainability. Kayaking along the lake’s tranquil waters is another popular activity. There are also sandy beaches, lagoons, swamps, and wooded areas to explore.
Visit Liwonde National Park and the Shire River
Just south of Lake Malawi, lies the magnificent Shire River, the largest river in the country. The Shire River is the only outlet of Lake Malawi. It flows into the Zambezi River in Mozambique. This impressive waterway courses its way through the heart of Liwonde National Park, Malawi’s premier wildlife reserve.
Covering an area of about 340 square miles (548 square kilometers), Liwonde National Park is home to a diverse range of ecosystems from riverine swamps and woodland areas to grassland plains. The park boasts a rich variety of wildlife including large herds of elephants, the endangered black rhino, and a multitude of bird species.
One of the best ways to explore the park is by embarking on a boat safari along the Shire River. This offers a unique vantage point for viewing hippos, crocodiles, and a wide array of water birds. Guided walking safaris and game drives are also popular activities, providing opportunities to observe the park’s terrestrial wildlife up close.
Because of the warm climate, the water feels great year around. You should know that Lake Malawi is contaminated with the Bilharzia parasite. Whether or not you want to take the risk is up to you. You can read more about that in the following section.
Go to the Beach
Absolutely beautiful sandy beaches surround the lake. It looks like the sea in many parts because you can’t see across. Lake Malawi is a great place to sit out in the sun, read a book, or just relax.
I found this particularly interesting. Locals use the lake for cleaning every day. Watch them wash dishes, do laundry, and bathe in the lake. Many people here still live a traditional lifestyle. A human population has lived around Lake Malawi for tens of thousands of years.
Go for a Boat Ride
You can rent kayaks or canoes at many places around the lake. This is a great way to get some exercise and explore the area under your own power.
If you prefer not to row, you can also go on a motorboat tour of the area. Tour guides will find you. Be sure to negotiate hard as they like to overcharge tourists.
Other Water Sports
Paddleboarding and water skiing are also available on Lake Malawi. You can rent paddleboards on the lake shore. Water skiing tour can be organized through your hotel or one of the tour guides working on the beach. Be sure to negotiate hard for rentals and tours.
Eat Some Fish
People have been fishing in Lake Malawi for thousands of years. The lake provides the people of the region with a significant portion of their diet. Try the fish. Low-cost barbecue fish restaurants can be found all around the lake.
Go for a Walk or Hike
The area around the lake is pretty quiet. Most lakeside villages don’t even have paved roads. Wondering through the trails and hills outside of town can make for a nice afternoon. Low traffic makes walking around safe.
Go Snorkeling or Scuba Diving
Malawi is known for having some of the best freshwater diving in the world. The most popular places for diving are Nkhata Bay and Cape Maclear, Malawi. Several dive shops operate in both cities. They can set you up with rental gear and tours to the best dive spots. If you prefer, snorkeling is also an option.
This is a great place for all divers from beginner to advanced. Because it is a lake, there are no dangerous currents or waves to deal with. Water temperatures are comfortable year around. Visibility is generally very good in the lake.
The biggest draw for divers in Lake Malawi is the 700 Cichlid species living in the lake. These brightly colored fish are popular with aquarium owners. These African cichlids are native to Lake Malawi.
For more info on diving in Malawi, check out this article from the PADI website.
Remember that the lake is contaminated with the bilharzia parasite. I will talk more about that in the safety section below.
Lake Malawi is an excellent palace to go sailing. Because it is a lake, there are no dangerous currents or swells to worry about. The water is calm, the wind is gentle, and the weather is pleasant year around.
Many lodges offer sailing tours or yacht rentals. For the most options, head to Cape Maclear. Check out Danforth Lodge or Chembe Eagles Nest for sailing tours.
Have Some Drinks at a Beach Bar
Chill out and watch the sunset over a couple of cold Castel beers. You can also try out some local Malawi distilled spirits.
For millennia, people have fished Lake Malawi. The lake itself, as well as surrounding river and streams, have some excellent fishing. You can rent gear near the lake and try your luck. For the best chance of catching anything, you may want to consider hiring a local guide to show you the best fishing spots.
Before throwing in a line, make sure you have the proper licensing. Overfishing is a problem in the lake so you may want to consider catch-and-release fishing.
If you do catch a keeper, take it to one of the lakeside restaurants and have them grill it up for you.
Go on a Safari and See the Big 5
Just southwest of Lake Malawi, you’ll find the Majete Wildlife Reserve. Spanning 700 square kilometers, this is the country’s only official ‘Big 5’ reserve. Here, elephants, leopards, lions, buffalo, and the rare black rhino roam freely, along with numerous other species. Visitors to Majete Wildlife Reserve can indulge in game drives and walking safaris to encounter the Big 5 in their natural habitat.
Watch the Sunset
The sunset over Lake Malawi is one of the most spectacular that I’ve ever seen.
Spend an afternoon laying around. You can read, sleep, or just enjoy the beauty of the lake in comfort. Many hotels and beach bars have hammocks or chaise lounges that you can use.
Staying Safe at Lake Malawi
Lake Malawi is a peaceful, relaxing place. The biggest danger here is tropical disease.
Bilharzia in Lake Malawi
Unfortunately, when swimming in Lake Malawi, you must be careful of the parasite Bilharzia. This disease is caused by nasty little parasitic worms that enter the body through the skin. That’s right, even if you don’t ingest the water, they can burrow right through the skin. Once they are in the body, they begin laying eggs. This is when you begin feeling symptoms of the disease. To avoid infection with Bilharzia at Lake Malawi:
- Do not stay in potentially contaminated water for more than 5 minutes.
- Shower off with clean water right after getting out of the lake.
- Towell off thoroughly after getting out of the water
- Don’t swim in the lake- This is the only surefire way to avoid infection
Shortly after infection, you may get a rash or itchy skin. This will disappear after about a week and you may feel fine but you are still infected. After one to two months, you will begin seeing more severe symptoms including:
- Blood in urine or stool
- Stomach pain
If you think you have Bilharzia, go to a clinic. It is relatively simple and inexpensive to treat. Several medications can be used to treat the disease.
For more information on Bilharzia, check out the article: What is Bilharzia and How Can it be Avoided? From tripsavvy.com. It includes everything you need to know about avoiding the disease.
For more information disease in Africa, check out my article: Is Africa Safe? Avoiding Crime, Disease, Injury, and Scams.
Malaria at Lake Malawi
For whatever reason, the Lake Malawi region is a hotbed for malaria. Infection rates are high. Check out The Travelers Guide to Malaria Prevention, Treatment, and Tablets in Africa for my complete guide to malaria.
While traveling here, you will want to take every precaution to avoid the disease including:
- Anti-malaria drugs- Doxycycline, Lariam, or Malarone are all effective in this region. Check out my article for a list of pros and cons of each.
- Wear DEET mosquito repellent- I use Repel 100 Insect Repellent. I hate putting chemicals on my skin but it’s better than the alternative. This stuff has 98.11% DEET and is effective for up to 10 hours.
- Sleep under a mosquito net- I like the Dimples Excel Mosquito Net because it only requires one mount making it faster and easier to set up than others I have tried. It is also fairly compact. If you are using a net provided by a hotel, check for holes before going to bed. Mosquitoes find their way in. I always carry a sewing kit so I can quickly sew up torn nets before I go to bed.
- Cover up during peak mosquito times- Wear long sleeves and long pants during evening hours. Wear long socks to cover your ankles.
If you begin to feel symptoms, go to a clinic to get tested. A malaria test only costs a couple of dollars. The earlier you catch it, the faster you will recover. Every town will have a clinic that is capable of treating malaria. It is a common disease there and they know what they are doing. Symptoms of malaria include:
For more general information on safety in Africa, check out my article: Is Travel in Africa Safe? Avoiding Crime, Disease, Injury, and Scams.
My Experience Visiting Lake Malawi
I visited Lake Malawi while traveling from Ethiopia to Cape Town. I traveled to Lake Malawi from Lilongwe by public transport. The trip was a bit of a hassle. I had to take 4 or 5 different minibusses on the way there and the way back. The direct bus either wasn’t running or had already left. The drivers kept passing me from bus to bus. When I finally arrived at Monkey Bay, I had to take a motorcycle taxi to my hotel in Cape Maclear.
The trip was absolutely worth it. I arrived in time to catch one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed a fresh fish dinner that night. The following day, I wandered along the shore of the lake. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot. I only spent a few days on the lake before moving on to my next destination. Lake Malawi is definitely a place I would like to return to.
I also briefly visited Lake Malawi from Karonga in Northern Malawi before I headed to the capital. I spent a day in Karonga before heading south to Mzuzu and Lilongwe. This section of the lake was also beautiful but seemed a little less developed.
I have only visited the Malawi side of the lake. In the future, I hope to visit the Mozambique side. I haven’t traveled to Mozambique yet.
Final Thoughts About Visiting Lake Malawi
Visiting Lake Malawi, a gem of the African Great Lakes, promises natural beauty, rich biodiversity, and vibrant cultural experiences. From the remarkable wildlife of Lake Malawi National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve, and Liwonde National Park to the serene waters of the Shire River, every corner of this region invites exploration and adventure. Whether you choose to snorkel amongst colorful cichlids, embark on a safari, or simply relax in an eco-lodge on the shore, your trip to Lake Malawi is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.
If you’re traveling in Southeastern Africa, definitely make the trip out to Lake Malawi. This African great lake is an excellent place to relax and enjoy the slow, lakeside lifestyle. If you have the time, consider visiting some of the more remote sections of the lake in Mozambique and Tanzania.
Have you visited Lake Malawi recently? Share your experience in the comments below!
Saturday 21st of March 2020
Hi Zac, Great to hear your views about Lake Malawi. I am a Malawian and gladly encourage anyone who has not yet visited lake Malawi to plan to do so.
Do get in touch next time you visit Malawi. There are many other lovely and unique attractions to see such as the magnificent Nyika National Park with its unparalleled beauty of the elegant Mulanje Mountain Massif, thé highest in Central Africa, or the incredible and majestic Majete “Big 5” Game Reserve where you can see Lions, Elephants, Buffalos, Leopards and Hippos, besides the smaller but nonetheless stunning wildlife comprising the zebras, kudus, antelopes, warthogs, and even crocs in the Shire river. And of course, any visitor will be warmly welcomed by Malawians with smiles in this Warm Heart of Africa.
Safe travels in your upcoming adventures!
Sunday 22nd of March 2020
Hi Victor, I would love to return to Malawi to explore more of the country someday. It's a very welcoming and friendly place. When I was there, I really only had the chance to visit the lake and a couple of cities. Mulanje Mountain Massif looks beautiful in photos. Looks like a great place to do some hiking. Anyway, thanks for reading. -Zac