1. Take the train from Nairobi to Mombasa
Don’t waste your time. Nairobi is a huge city and you can try to fool it with its colorful buses and its loudspeaker music. Go to the train station and buy a ticket for the next train to Mombasa. If they tell you the bus is faster, don’t listen. If they try to convince you that the price is cheaper, neither. Keep in mind that you are about to embark on a historic train and that there are magics that people do not like to share.
Make sure you get to the station on time. It’s very likely the train will be delayed, but that doesn’t matter. Order a chai at the platform bar, and enjoy feeling like a traveler from another era. Once on top of the wagon, take some time to walk the train, inspect the other passengers, and let the waiter make your bed. The ticket will say that this will be your home for the next ten hours, but don’t trust it: you’re more likely to spend a full day there than to arrive on time. Don’t be discouraged either, remember that you’re likely to see zebras or impalas through the window, that food on board is included, and that the train is a journey in itself (and it’s beautiful).
2. Walk (by day) through the historic center of Mombasa
It is likely that you will arrive in the city at night, so I recommend that you get a hotel as soon as you can. Get some rest. If your room faces the street, be prepared to wake up in the morning to the noise of the bikes and trucks that like to get up early. When you get up, mentalize yourself to make your legs work. Get a map, and if not, ask. Spend a full day walking through the streets of the old town. Go into antique stores. Ask questions. If you have a large budget, you can visit the fort. If not, you can be content to see the sea from the walls. Contain the temptation to take the wreckage of demolitions that you will find there: the doors and windows do not fit in the suitcases.
If Mombasa reminds you of Cartagena de Indias, don’t despair: come in. If you want to squeeze the juice out of the city, hire a guide. If not, Lonely Planet has a fairly detailed circuit of buildings that is worth looking at. But whatever you do, take lots of pictures. Don’t miss the details. Talk to the people.
Notice with curiosity the interesting mix of cultures. Listen to the singing of the mosque, walk into a clothing store, browse local fashion. Visit a mandir. Walk through the shopping streets. You’ll see African people selling fruit on the street, Muslim women covered up to their noses and Hindu women in glowing saris showing off their bellies. Don’t get upset, living together in Mombasa is normal.
3. See face to face with the beach
If you don’t put up with the anxiety and want to get in the water as soon as possible, don’t worry: you are a completely normal person. Spend a day at Diani Beach. Surprise yourself with the camels sunbathing in the sand, kindly turn away the street vendors, get plenty of suns. If you go in summer, know that the coast will be full of leaves and algae. It’s a little annoying, but it’s a natural phenomenon. You will see that if you go into the sea, with the color and temperature of the water, any discomfort will be diminished.
4. Hitchhike along the coast
Cheer up, the Kenyans are very supportive and will not hesitate to give you a lift. Think of what public transportation has as cheap, uncomfortable and overcrowded. If a Turkish gentleman slows you down and invites you to stay at home, know that you have an imitation beach pool that you will love, but that at night the man drinks hard and likes to talk about Allah very much, so it can get intense. If a Kenyan woman offers to buy him chapatis, accept: they are greasy but irresistible.
5. Whatever you do, brake on Kilifi.
Know that the moment you cross the bridge is the right time to stop. It doesn’t matter if they told you about Malindi or any other beach nearby. Take my advice: stop at Kilifi. When you get out of the car or bus, stop to look at the sea under the bridge. Take your time. Take your time. Take a deep breath. Take off your sunglasses and look again: you won’t see a landscape like this all along the coast.
If you are hungry, go to Village Dishes immediately. If you don’t see it, ask: everyone knows it. Order an octopus dish and a bean dish. Grease your mouth. Enjoy yourself.
If you are thirsty, look for the juice stand next to the bus company offices. Order a fresh bottle of passion fruit juice. Sit down and drink in the shade. Enjoy yourself.