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Malawi - Eating and sleeping
The staple diet in Malawi is nsima, a stiff porridge made from pounded maize meal boiled in water. Few travellers develop a taste for nsima, so it is fortunate that most local restaurants also serve rice and potato chips (or occasionally cassava or sweet potato chips).
Fish drying in the sun near Lake Malawi © Dana Allen, Central African Wilderness Safaris
At tourist-class hotels and restaurants in the major towns, you can eat food to international standards at a very reasonable price – there are few upmarket restaurants in Malawi where you can’t eat well for under US$10 for a main course (though better restaurants in Lilongwe and Blantyre might be more like US$15). Local restaurants tend to serve a predictable and somewhat dull menu of beef (nyama ngombe), chicken (mkuku) or fish (nsomba) with chips or rice or nsima, but are very reasonably priced at anything from US$2 to US$4 for a starch-heaped plate, often accompanied by a sharp-tasting dollop of stewed cassava or pumpkin leaves (chisisito), or a heap of stewed beans. Popular fish include chambo (a type of tilapia), kampango (a type of catfish) and mpasa (a large cichlid with dark flesh that is often referred to as lake salmon). The most widely available fish in Malawi is usipa, a tiny fish that is generally sun-dried after it is caught.
Cooking for yourself
If you want to put together your own meal, you’ll find that the variety of foodstuffs available varies from season to season and from town to town, and sudden shortages of commonplace items are to be expected. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bananas, sugarcane and some citrus fruits are available in most markets around the country. In larger towns and in agricultural areas a much wider selection of fruits and vegetables might include avocados, peas and beans, paw-paws, mangoes, coconuts and pineapples.
For hikers, packet soups are about the only dehydrated meals available throughout Malawi. Dried staples such as rice, maize meal and pasta can be bought in supermarkets and markets.
Brand-name soft drinks such as Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Fanta are widely available in Malawi and cheap by international standards. If the fizzy stuff doesn’t appeal, you can buy imported South African fruit juices at most large supermarkets. Frozen fruit squashes are sold everywhere in Malawi for a few kwacha; they’re very sweet but otherwise quite refreshing on long walks and bus trips. Tap water is generally safe to drink in towns, providing the chlorine hasn’t run out, but bottled mineral water is available if you prefer not to take the risk.
Traditional African beer is made of fermented maize or millet. It is brewed in villages for private consumption, and also brewed commercially to be sold in litre cartons. The most popular brand of traditional beer is the wonderfully titled Chibuku Shake-Shake (the latter half of the name refers to the need to shake the carton before opening), and special Chibuku bars can be found in most towns and villages. A carton of Chibuku is very cheap and, despite its gruel-like texture, surprisingly rich in nutrients when compared with most alcoholic drinks. Unfortunately, African beer is something of an acquired taste: most travellers can’t stand it.
Wines are widely available in hotels, bars and supermarkets at high import prices. Spirits such as cane, brandy and gin are manufactured locally, while a good variety of imported spirits is available in supermarkets and better bars. The Malawi Gin is well loved, so much so that the manufacturers can’t always keep up with demand, and bars will periodically run short of it. It may not be quite what you’re used to, but is well worth trying, and closing the day at least once with a sunset and an MGT – Malawi Gin & Tonic, that is – is practically mandatory.
Accommodation in Malawi ranges from luxury to shoestring. The luxury category embraces a handful of international four- and five-star luxury hotels, as well as a few select smaller lodges and resorts notable less for their luxury than for offering a genuinely exclusive experience. Rates are typically upwards of US$300 for a double room. Upmarket accommodation includes most Western-style hotels, lodges and resorts that cater mainly to international tourist or business travellers and would typically be accorded a two- to three-star ranking elsewhere. Rates are typically around US$100–200 for a double. Most package tours and privately booked safaris use accommodation in this range.
Accommodation on Likoma Island © Malawi Tourism
In Malawi, as in many African countries, there is often a wide gap in price and standard between the cheapest hotels geared primarily towards tourists and the best hotels geared primarily towards local and budget travellers. For this reason, a moderate rating is the most nebulous of the categories, essentially consisting of hotels which, for one or other reason, couldn’t really be classified as upmarket, but are also a notch or two above the budget category in terms of price and/or quality. Expect unpretentious en-suite accommodation with hot water and possibly television, a decent restaurant and efficient English-speaking staff. Prices for moderate city and beach hotels are generally in the US$50–80 range for a double. This is the category to look at if you are travelling privately on a limited or low budget and expect a reasonably high but not luxurious standard of accommodation.
Budget accommodation falls into two broad types. There are hotels aimed largely at the local market that don’t approach international standards, but are still reasonably clean and comfortable, with a decent restaurant attached, and en-suite rooms with running cold or possibly hot water. Then there are the more Westernised but equally affordable backpacker hostels and beach resorts that form the accommodation mainstay for many independent travellers to Malawi. Expect to pay around US$20–50 for a double, depending on the location, or less to pitch a tent or stay in a dorm. This is the category to look at if you are on a limited budget, but want to avoid total squalor!
Shoestring is the very bottom end of the market, usually small local guesthouses with simple rooms and common showers and toilets. Hotels in this category typically
cost around US$10–20 for a room. It is the category for those for whom keeping down costs is the main imperative. Additionally, almost every national park, backpackers’ hostel and lakeshore resort in Malawi allows camping, typically at a cost of around US$5–12 per person.