watamu beach marine life kenya

Watamu: Kenya’s Little Italy

I have spent the past 2 weeks in the Kenyan beach town of Kilifi in a gorgeous villa surrounded by tropical plants and with an endless view over the sparkling creek. But, it’s not all piña coladas and sunsets. Well, maybe just a little bit. My boyfriend and I are halfway through a self-imposed one-month‘ work retreat’ with the eloquent goal to simply ‘get shit done’. 

On a late-night Google Maps perusal, we found a hidden eco-camp on the edges of the Arabuko Sokoke National Park in the UNESCO-protected region of Mida Creek, about 45 minutes north of us. We booked 2 nights in the most luxurious hut. At around $15 p/p/n, we figured we could splurge. 

Little more planning went into our weekend away, but our landlord recommended we visit the beach town of Watamu, which is a 20-minute drive from the eco-camp.

watamu beach kenya
The main street of Watamu with an Italian restaurant on the left.

Within seconds of getting out of the car, we were standing in front of an Italian grocery store and kids that would normally wave at us yelling ‘Jambo!’ were calling out ‘ciao’s’ instead. Just metres ahead were trattorias and gelaterias galore, and hustlers were hustling us in Italian. Where were we?!

Later on, we discovered that a few Italians bought up land that was previously owned by locals and Germans. Since then, they have set up businesses and bring all their friends over for the holidays. 

So, if you like pizza and tiny coffee cups — this is your place.

watamu beach kenya

But, besides the surprising culture shock, Watamu was a true hidden paradise. I’ve always dreamt of going to Zanzibar (just a short distance down the coast, but not that easy to get to), and the beaches in Watamu were as I pictured Zanzibar’s to be — soft bright, white sand and clear, calm water with picture-perfect fishing boats and rugged shacks offering cold drinks lining the shore. 

The Beaches

There are three main bays in Watamu (separated by land that can only be passed in low tide) and we inadvertently visited them all. The first we came across was the main section of the beach, and the furthest north, which was the most Italian-influenced of them all. Toasted men in tight Speedos and groups of energetic, chatty women with fabulous hair. There were a number of bars and restaurants — mostly serving pizza. 

watamu beach kenya
One of the many beach cafes you will find. This one is Coconut Beach Cafe.

Based on another recommendation from our landlord, we visited Ocean Sports Resort. Although we try to avoid tourist hotspots for a more local experience, having sweated out our body weight in water over the past few hours and forgetting our swimwear, we just wanted some modern luxuries aka. air conditioning and of course, a piña colada. While they didn’t offer the former, they didn’t need to — the outdoor deck had the most wonderful breeze and incredible views over a quieter bay with just a few luxury resorts along it. Had it not been for the dozens of moray eels that were roaming up and down the shoreline, I’d say this was almost the most perfect beach I’ve ever seen. 

ocean sports resort watamu kenya
The view from Ocean Sports Resort’s deck.

The bar/restaurant was full of British people, so we assume this side of town caters for them. Prices were just right — about 900 KES ($9) for a pizza and 550 ($5.50) for a pina colada. After a few drinks in luxury, let’s just say we weren’t in a hurry to leave for the eco-camp.

The final bay had the most authentic feeling, with local restaurants and fishing boats. This is where we did our guided reef walk…

IMPROMPTU Guided Reef Walk 

After our two nights at the eco-camp (which I’ll write about in a separate post), we went back to Watamu to pick up some leather shoes that Philipp had made-to-order in his abnormally large size. We were quoted multiple prices (there are multiple shoemakers along the main street), but 1200 KES ($12) seemed to be the most common price. Anywho, we headed to the more hidden part of Watamu Beach and were initially disappointed by the low tide (it was around 10.30 am), but it turned out to be the best part of the trip.

watamu beach kenya starfish
The most starfish-looking starfish I’ve ever seen!

We started walking along the reef and a man approached us and told us to look out for a poisonous type of sea urchin, which he showed us. Just as I was getting ready to abort this adventure and head back to shore, he started to guide us along the reef showing us crazy creatures from pufferfish and moray eels to the ‘Michael Jackson’ starfish and a nest of crab eggs. While we didn’t ask him for the tour, he was great — the pictures we got were fantastic (see below) — and we gave him 600 KES at the end, which he seemed happy with.

As the tide started to come back in and block off our route back to the beach, we waded back for a cold beer and some lunch. We ate at a small community-run restaurant hidden in the far north of the beach called One Love. I had read about it on Google Maps, and while we were the only ones there, we had a wonderful fresh Kingfish fillet with rice 850 KES ($8.50). They also do seafood platters. Highly recommended for a place off-the-beaten-track that supports the locals… and isn’t pizza.

One Love restaurant, Watamu Beach
Our view from inside One Love restaurant.

Having expected a weekend of bugs and mangroves at the eco-camp, the discovery of Watamu’s beach area was one of those wonderful surprises you sometimes get when travelling, and we will certainly remember it.

Thinking of visiting Watamu? Here are a few tips.

  • Tuk-tuks are the best and cheapest way to get around. Always agree the price before getting in — we have had a wide range of prices when we’ve forgotten to do so. We’ve found that if we just name the price at the beginning they generally say yes. To give you an idea, 150-200 KES ($1.50-2) is an acceptable price for a short journey of around 10 minutes. 
  • If you need a break from the intense heat while shopping along the main street, check out Wasafi Swahili Dishes Cafe. It’s on the corner, you can’t miss it. But, head upstairs to the terrace. The breeze is fantastic and it’s full of locals, so you know the price is right.
  • If people approach you on the beach and start talking to you, they are probably a boat captain. They are very friendly, but if you want to save your time (and theirs), simply tell them at the start you are not interested (if you’re not). We decided to stop being so polite after the second 10-minute conversation about where we’re from etc… 🙂
  • Having said this, while on the reef we had a guy give us an impromptu nature walk, which was fantastic (see above). We saw a couple of other groups doing a similar walk, so I don’t think a guide would be hard to find. Of course, it needs to be low tide.

Thank you to the amazing Philipp for his photography skills when I’m too lazy to take out my camera 🙂

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