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Your Tanzania Itinerary–Planning The Perfect Safari
I had high expectations for my trip to Tanzania, and yet they were all exceeded.
I could not have imagined how many animals we would see. Over the course of our seven day safari we watched as lions mated, a mother cheetah relaxed with her cubs, thousands of wildebeests swam across the Mara river, and herds of elephants grazed right next to our vehicle.
But there were many small delights along the way as well. I toured a coffee plantation and learned exactly how my favorite morning beverage is grown, harvested, and roasted. Each evening we gathered after our game drives to enjoy a glass of wine and watch the sunset. And I met so many kind, helpful, and interesting Tanzanians along the way.
This was my third trip to East Africa (I had previously visited Rwanda and Uganda), and I’ve fallen in love with this part of the world. There are few chain stores or restaurants, people aren’t glued to their phones, and time is far more flexible.
This is the ten day Tanzania itinerary that I recently experienced, and would highly recommend to others.
Before visiting any new country, it’s helpful to have a bit of information.
The official languages of Tanzania are Swahili and English. Arusha’s economy is driven by tourism, so everyone employed in this industry does speak excellent English.
But it’s always nice to have a few words of the local language, so here are a few I recommend learning.
Hello–jambo (occasionally mambo)
Thank you–asante (a-san-tay)
You are welcome–Karibu (Ka-ree-boo)
The official currency is the Tanzanian Shilling. I recommend getting some local currency at the ATM at the airport. However, most businesses in Arusha do accept dollars as well. And many of the businesses accept credit cards.
Modes of transportation
Most residents of Arusha get around on minibuses also called daladala. They also avail themselves of small taxis known as bajaj moto taxis which are three wheeled vehicles. You’ll see these very colorful vehicles everywhere in town.
However, most visitors arrange for private cars to get around Arusha. This isn’t cheap, but typically you have the driver for a dedicated period of time while you explore or enjoy a meal. This can be arranged with your hotel at any time.
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Food and water safety
Visitors will be advised to drink only bottled or filtered water during their time in Tanzania. Hotel rooms will have a filtered water tank for drinking water and to brush your teeth.
If you’re staying at the hotels dedicated to safari travelers, then everything will be prepared in a safe manner and all fruits and vegetables are washed with filtered water. During our stay, no one in our group of 13 had any ill effects from the food, water, or any other beverages.
When venturing out to local restaurants, it’s not advised to eat raw fruits or vegetables unless they’ve been peeled. If ever in doubt, it’s better to eat cooked items. All meats are served grilled or stewed and should be safe.
Tanzania is generally considered safe and so is the region of Arusha. It’s not advised to walk around at night, and as in all places, watch out for petty crime. All hotels will provide a safe which should be used for any valuables and your passport.
Choosing The Best Safari In Tanzania
For this trip we worked with African Portfolio, a travel agency based in the United States. I can not recommend them enough. On the ground in Tanzania, everything was handled by Ranger Safaris, the second largest safari company in the country. They were also excellent.
Since this was my second successful safari, here are a few tips for selecting the right company.
- This will be a major expense, so any company should be willing to patiently answer all of your questions before your book. If the company isn’t responsive, walk away.
- Read online reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Trust Pilot. It’s rare that any company has perfect reviews, but you’re looking for at least four stars.
- After selecting the dates, destination, duration, and level of accommodations, the company should be able to give you an inclusive cost. Read this estimate carefully and again ask any questions.
- The payment plan should be clearly detailed. Typically you’ll make a deposit upon booking with the balance due a few months prior to your trip.
- The process for refunds or rebooking should be clearly spelled out–if this is even an option.
- If you need any special accommodations for dietary restrictions, be sure to specify this in advance.
Day One–Arriving In Arusha
Before departing for Tanzania, you may require a visa depending on your home country. Be sure to apply for this online about three weeks before your trip. Having it will speed up your arrival. Currently the price of this visa is $100.
You’ll arrive in Arusha at the Kilimanjaro International Airport (airport code JRO). Your safari company will provide airport transfers which is a blessing. After thirty hours of travel, it was so nice to walk outside the airport and see my driver, Dhosi, waiting for me. The drive into the city is about an hour.
My first two nights–and my final night–were spent at the African Tulip Hotel. It’s a lovely property with large, clean rooms, a nice restaurant, and an outdoor pool. I chose to arrive early and pay for the extra nights so that I could have more time to adjust to the local time zone. I’ve learned from my previous trips to Eastern Africa that it takes me five nights to fully adjust.
After checking in at the hotel, I took a nap, read, had dinner, and relaxed. I was so grateful not to be in a moving vehicle of any sort.
Day Two–Things To Do In Arusha
On my second day in Arusha I woke up eager to explore. I arranged a half day private tour and headed out to see the town.
Cultural Heritage Center
I admit to watching YouTube videos of the Cultural Heritage Center prior to my trip and not being impressed. But I went anyway and was pleasantly surprised. It’s a combination art gallery and local shopping augmented with live demonstrations, a coffee shop, and a restaurant. Just walking the grounds is fun with large sculptures of animals everywhere.
I began in the shopping area that sells locally made jewelry, baskets, carvings, clothing, and much more. There is no haggling here, which I prefer, so that you can walk around browsing without being accosted. On the flip side, you might be able to find these types of souvenirs elsewhere for less money.
The larger building holds several floors of fine art including paintings, photography, sculptures, and textiles. I especially enjoyed the photography.
I’d recommend at least one hour to explore the Cultural Heritage Center.
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Arusha Coffee Lodge
The Arusha Coffee Lodge is actually a resort, but it’s also a great destination for a few hours. You’ll find a restaurant, coffee shop, and plenty of places to sit and relax.
I began with a tour of Shanga, an organization that employs local disabled and deaf artisans. There’s glass blowing, weaving, and jewelry making. At the end of the tour is a lovely gift shop selling their wares. The prices are reasonable and I came home with a few pieces of jewelry.
As the name suggestions, the lodge is set in the middle of a working coffee plantation. I took the one hour tour of the plantation which also included a roasting demonstration and coffee tasting. There’s no signage about the tour, so head to the concierge desk for information about times and pricing.
I ended my time with lunch in an outdoor restaurant shaded by giant trees. The food was delicious and service friendly. I would happily return here.
I spent a total of three hours at the Arusha Coffee Lodge.
Visitors to Arusha will see Maasai beaded jewelry everywhere. It’s typically made with plastic beads in primary colors. And while it is all handmade, after a while it all looks the same.
Sidai Designs set out to bring modern aesthetics to a time honored craft. They pay Maasai women to bead with traditional designs, but with glass beads in colors more appealing to Western buyers. Some Maasai women are employed full-time in the business while others sell their work by the piece so they can remain employed in other family businesses.
I didn’t visit this business until my final day in Tanzania, so I had unfortunately acquired many souvenirs–some of which I no longer wanted. In the future, I’d come here first and do most of my shopping.
Allow at least 30 minutes for a visit to Sidai Designs. This business is not as well known as the ones above, so be sure to have the address ready for your driver or guide.
Day Three–Lake Manyara National Park
The excitement of our group was palatable the first morning of our safari. And while none of us even knew what Lake Manyara was, we were eager to see it. First we were given a briefing by Naomi, a representative of Ranger Safaris. Then she introduced us to the guides, David and Joseph, who we would get to know well over the course of seven days. Our group of thirteen divided ourselves between two vehicles and off we went.
We soon became familiar with the process of entering a national park in Tanzania. David and Joseph would park outside the entrance and go to the office to purchase a permit (the cost of this is included in your safari). Then our group had the chance to use the restroom, grab a snack or cup of coffee, and do a bit of shopping in the gift shop.
Shortly after we entered the park we saw a small herd of elephants in the forest. As our first animal sighting, we were ecstatic and immediately began shooting photos with cameras and phones. As would happen with any sighting, our guide would provide information on the animal spotted. Today we learned that elephants can have a dominant tusk–left or right–which you can spot based on which one is more worn down. That’s the side they prefer to use.
As our guides drove us to a scenic spot for our picnic lunch, we saw baboons, vervet monkeys, and a variety of birds. After lunch we continued driving through the park searching for more animals. We didn’t see many more, so we headed to our first lodge.
As we arrived at Kitela Lodge we were welcomed with a selection of beverages and snacks. Most of us chose the champagne and then headed into the lodge to appreciate the view. We were given a briefing and then escorted to our rooms.
Our room was large, with a comfortable seating area and outside deck overlooking a coffee plantation. The bathroom featured large windows also overlooking the plantation, but also included a full sized tub.
After settling in our room, we all returned to the lodge to enjoy drinks and snacks and then dinner. This became our routine for six nights. Freshen-up after the game drives, head to the lodge for some wine or beer, watch the sunset, and then enjoy a buffet or family style dinner. Our conversation often focused on the highlights of the day.
Day Four–Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Most days started before sunrise with breakfast in the lodge between 6 and 7 a.m. Then we loaded into our safari vehicles for the game drives. Sometimes we returned to the lodge for lunch, while other days we brought along a sack lunch.
Today we headed for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The primary feature of this area is the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest intact caldera in the world. It’s home to thousands of animals attracted to the basin of the caldera for grazing.
Five minutes after entering the crater we were surrounded by hundreds of wildebeest and zebras. They were crossing the road, some quickly, others leisurely, and many came quite close to our vehicles. Once again our guides shared information about both animals. After spotting a few zebra fouls we learned that their strips appear more brown than black and their fur is not yet shiny and smooth–that will come later as they mature.
Then we were off in search of lions. The guides use their radio to communicate with other guides about significant sightings. Today we learned that two mating lions had been spotted. We arrived to a gathering of dozens of vehicles, all observing as a lion and lioness mated. When done, they strolled off into the grass. Lions mate over the course of six to seven days, often every fifteen minutes.
Our lunch spot was located on the edge of a pond where hippos gathered. We watched them rise and submerge over and over, and eventually realized that a baby was among them.
Over the course of eight hours we spotted buffalo, gazelle, and many more wildebeest and zebras. After exiting the crater, we stopped along the rim to appreciate the view.
Our day ended back at the lodge. We were tired, but exhilarated by all we had seen.
Day Five–Travel To Central Serengeti National Park
This would be our longest day on the road. We departed early in the morning from Kitela Lodge, drove around the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater and headed to the Central Serengeti. We did have three stops to break-up the drive.
Olduvai Gorge Musuem
First we stopped at the Olduvai Gorge Museum. If you remember your history classes, the Olduvai Gorge is where the earliest evidence was found of our human ancestors. It’s here that Louis and Mary Leakey spent decades of their lives excavating stone tools and human bones. Many of their discoveries were significant and changed what we thought of early humans and their capabilities. The museum traces the history of the area and was definitely worth the stop.
Next we stopped at Shifting Sands, a sand dune made of magnetized volcanic ash that moves slowly across the desert. Gentle winds don’t move the sand because it sticks together, but stronger winds are able to move it slowly over time.
Visit To A Maasai Village
Our final stop was probably the least successful one of our trip. Not on our original itinerary, we asked our guides if we could stop at a Maasai village. The fact that our guides seemed reluctant should have been a clue. After paying our entry fee of $50 per vehicle, we watched as Maasai men and women sang and danced. This part of the experience I enjoyed and happily joined in when invited.
Next we were invited to see the inside of the homes. Each was very small and dark. Then we were invited to purchase goods made by the men and women of the tribe including jewelry, carvings, and other beaded items. At this point I became suspicious of the experience. While the tribe’s chief claimed there was no pressure to buy, we all felt quite a bit of pressure to do just that. In addition, the prices for the items were exorbitant.
At the end we were all ushered into a small school house and listened to children sing. When they were done we were asked for donations to the school. I don’t regret this visit, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. It felt like a money grab instead of a cultural experience.
Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge
Finally we arrived at our accommodations for the next two nights, Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge. We were greeted with drinks and snacks and given a briefing. Since we were now in the heart of the Serengeti National Park, we would not be allowed to walk through the property at night alone. Instead we would be accompanied by a Maasai man with a spear. And as it turns out, we regularly saw buffalo strolling through the grounds, so I was happy to be protected.
Our accommodations looked like tents, but had all the amenities of a five star hotel. The rooms had balconies overlooking the Serengeti, a view I enjoyed over and over. The bathroom featured an outdoor shower that also included a spectacular view.
Day Six–Explore Central Serengeti National Park
Today we started our exploration of Serengeti National Park, something that felt surreal. I remember being a kid and watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and seeing hundreds of animals roaming the African savannah. I was actually here.
Early in the day our guides spotted a mother cheetah with her three cubs. We were all so enthralled with the scene that we spent almost thirty minutes watching it. Later we watched as a lioness began to hunt and even used our vehicles as a temporary hiding spot. Just down the road were three more lionesses resting in the sun. The morning unfolded with dozens of elephants and zebras, hundreds of gazelles, and a few giraffes.
We returned to our lodge for lunch and I opted to skip the afternoon game drive. Instead I relaxed in our tent reading a book and had a massage at the spa.
Day Seven And Eight–The Great Migration And The Northern Serengeti
It was time to head to the Northern Serengeti with the possibility of seeing massive numbers of wildebeests cross the Mara River, also known as the great migration.
Just a little background. The journey of the great migration starts in the Southern Serengeti where wildebeests give birth to their young between January and March. As the grasses become dry in the south, the herds move North beginning in May and eventually cross the Mara River. This can happen anytime between June and July, but sometimes extends into August. It’s estimated that 1.5 million wildebeests make this journey each year.
Whether or not visitors to the Serengeti get to see the migration is a crapshoot. They are wild animals who cross when they are good and ready. So safari vehicles gather near the river on a ridge and wait patiently for the herds to head into the water. As soon as animals enter the water all the vehicles rush to the river’s edge for a better view. It’s a wild ride and an adrenaline filled experience. Inside the vehicle everyone jockeys for position to get the best possible photos and videos.
Our first day in Northern Serengeti we were fortunate to watch a herd of hundreds of wildebeests–accompanied by a dozen or so zebras–crossed the river. And as expected, one of them was caught by a crocodile. With about 3,000 crocodiles in the Mara River, this is a harrowing journey.
The next day we witnessed an even larger herd cross at a different point along the river. This time we estimated there were over a thousand wildebeests and fortunately all made it across without becoming the crocs lunch.
Seeing the migration was certainly a highlight of our two days in the Northern Serengeti, but that wasn’t all we saw. We also came upon a lioness and her recent kill, a topai. The fur around her mouth was stained pink from the blood of her prey. Nearby was another lioness resting in the shade with a very full belly. Our guide estimated she had eaten well in the last day or so.
Mara Mara Tented Lodge
Our two final nights on safari were spent at the Mara Mara Tented Lodge. Like the previous accommodations, it was a lovely place with great service and delicious food. Our room was large and once again we had an outdoor shower. This time instead of a balcony there was a large wrap-around terrace where I read my book for several hours. Instead of wandering buffaloes we encountered wildebeests and zebras, so again it was required that we were escorted after dark to and from our rooms.
Day Nine–Return To Arusha
It was finally time to head back to Arusha. But not without one final game drive on our way to the airstrip. A herd of elephants gathered at the river’s edge providing us with the perfect final photos of our safari.
At the airstrip we said an emotional goodbye to David and Joseph and presented them with our tip money. Our experience with both men was so impressive that I increased the amount I had planned to tip, as I imagine many in our group did.
The twelve passenger plane that we boarded was the smallest plane I’ve ever flown. And unfortunately at the end of the flight I felt sick thanks to some turbulence. In hindsight, I should have taken some motion sickness medication in advance or worn my sea bands. But I did survive and arrived safely in Arusha where I spent one more night at the African Tulip Hotel.
Day Ten–Return Home
My flight to Los Angeles did not depart until the evening, so I relaxed at the hotel most of the day. A safari is both an amazing experience and a tiring one, so I was happy to have some time out of a vehicle today.
The safari company will provide return transportation to the airport. My driver, Franklin, arrived and we chatted throughout our journey. Once at Kilimanjaro International Airport I checked in and cleared customs and then waited for my flight in the lounge. It would be almost thirty hours of travel time to Los Angeles, but it was worth it. This was an amazing trip that I’d happily do again or recommend to anyone.