Named one of the top 10 places to go in 2014 by Lonely Planet, Malawi is one of the lesser known destinations on the travel guide’s annual list, which includes Brazil, Sweden and the Seychelles. The country is touted for its wildlife and beaches and was made famous by Madonna’s controversial adoption of her son.

But there’s more to Malawi than animal parks, warm sands and Madonna’s adoptions.

malawian-people03IT’S THE WARM HEART OF AFRICA: Malawi didn’t get its nickname with difficulty. Everywhere you go, curious kids will come by and say hi, see what’s happening and dish the dirt with you. Basics of the local language are easy to pick up, and if you try, you’ll be rewarded with a big smile. Now, overt friendliness often arouses suspicion in the world traveler, especially when someone’s trying to sell you tchotckes, there’s hardly any hawking or selling of tacky souvenirs in Malawi — the people are genuinely friendly. The actually mean it when they ask about your family, your home and your interests.

Fun fact, founded in 1964, Malawi has never experienced a civil war.

WHAT CROWDS? Most of the travelers you’ll likely encounter in Malawi are tobacco businessmen or NGO workers — nary a tourist in sight. Even the capital of Lilongwe has the relaxed vibe of a garden. There are very few cars and you can walk to places without feeling overwhelmed or fearful of getting run over. (The country’s commercial capital of Blantyre is much busier).

You can enjoy the pristine views of massive Lake Malawi — known locally as Lake Nyasa, it’s the ninth largest lake in the world — without having your perfect day wrecked by a bunch of vacationers blasting horrible music. Instead, you’ll hear restaurants jamming 1990s pop music such as the Backstreet Boys — otherwise known as “agnsty teen pop from my high school years”.

131216061921-lake-malawi-story-topBECAUSE LAKE MALAWI: This is a legitimate reason. Lake Malawi is simply stunning. Although the country is landlocked, its giant, freshwater lake is its life blood. The sunny beaches are golden and the waters are nearly empty except for a few boats. Lake Malawi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s home to the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world, thought to be between 500 and 1,000, according to UNESCO. It’s perfect for freshwater snorkeling and diving in clear water. The lake draws in a variety of bird species, as well as hippos, warthogs, baboons and occasional elephants. Not bad company to enjoy the water with (maybe not the hippos).

FULLY REHABILITATED GAME PARKS & RESERVES: “Malawi is not a wildlife destination, it’s not Masai Mara, but that’s changing,” says Rob McConaghy of Ulendo, a travel group operating in Malawi. “Majete National Park is run as a private park and has reintroduced so much game, you can see the Big Five now.”

Hippos

Tour companies offer safaris in parks and reserves that include eco-friendly trips, mountain biking, horseback riding and traditional housing stays. One of the best known parks is Majete Wildlife Reserve, which became a target for poaching that continued into the 1990s. By the 2000s, thanks to a partnership between the government and a non-profit organization, the park was repopulated and rehabilitated.

ITS JUST THE VIBE OF THE PLACE: Malawi is, in large part, a place of peace and quiet, without the traffic jams and hassles of city life. The country is largely rural; only 15.7% of the population live in urban areas. Clear skies and bright stars make it thrilling for star gazers. The trend is toward self-drive holidays — visitors rent cars and drive themselves through the country. “As a country, people perceive Malawi being safe, stable and peaceful,” says McConaghy. “It gives an impression of a nice, warm friendly country to travel in.”

Have you been to Malawi? What were your impressions? If you haven’t been, would you like to go?

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ZIMENE MUMAKONDA

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