Every year, travelers from around the world make the long trek to Africa to embark on the safari adventure of their dreams. From Tanzania to Kenya to Namibia to South Africa, tourists scatter all over the continent in hopes of spotting the legendary Big Five. An African safari is undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating experiences for first-timers, families, and safari purists alike.
Upon doing your safari research, you have likely discovered that Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Masai Mara in Kenya are two of Africa’s top safari destinations. The only dilemma is, how do you pick? Should you go to Serengeti or Masai Mara?
Because of the costs and logistics associated with going on an African safari, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for most. With this in mind, it’s important to weigh your options and choose a safari destination that best suits your needs, budget, and travel goals.
Today, our safari experts are revealing everything you need to know about Serengeti and Masai Mara to help you decide which popular safari spot is right for you. Stay tuned to find out what to expect, when to visit, and how to choose between the two parks.
Serengeti National Park – Breakdown
Where is Serengeti National Park?
Serengeti National Park is a massive region spanning over 30,000 square kilometers in northern Tanzania. To put things into perspective, the park is roughly the size of Texas and would take around two days to drive through. Because the park covers so much land, the territory encompasses several landscapes and habitats.
While much of Serengeti consists of rolling plains and vast grasslands, you can also find deciduous woodlands, riverine forests, swamps, and kopjes. If you’re looking to escape the crowded feel that comes with a smaller park, Serengeti is a solid choice. However, with the game reserves spread over more land, it can be more challenging to spot wildlife as you cannot go off-road or on night game drives in the Serengeti.
When to Visit Serengeti National Park
The best time to visit Serengeti National Park is during the dry season from June and October or December and March. For premier wildlife viewing and decent weather, it’s best to avoid the rainy seasons of April to May and November to December.
If you want to catch the highlight of the Great Migration and come home with some breathtaking photos, do yourself a favor and book your trip for June or July when the migrant herds cross the Grumeti River. The Northern Serengeti is packed with action from July to early August as the herds approach the Kenyan border. With peak season comes peak prices, but visiting during this time of year guarantees incredible wildlife sightings.
Why Visit Serengeti National Park?
The Serengeti ecosystem is home to vast numbers of lions, hyenas, leopards, wildebeests, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, and warthogs. If you’re hoping to bear witness to a predator-prey interaction, the Serengeti is highly likely to yield results.
During Africa’s Great Migration, millions of wildebeests and other herbivores trek northwards in search of food and water. The animals travel in a clockwise direction beginning in Tanzania in late April to May before arriving in Kenya, then back to Tanzania in late October to prepare for calving season.
How to Get to Serengeti National Park
Kilimanjaro International Airport is the closest international airport to Serengeti and is located approximately 300 kilometers from the park, which is around an eight-hour drive. Luckily, it’s a beautiful drive which plenty of natural beauty and wildlife to see. If you’re crunched for time, a quicker option would be to fly from Kilimanjaro International Airport to Arusha Airport, then from Arusha to one of the airstrips located in the park.
Masai Mara National Reserve – Breakdown
Where is Masai Mara National Reserve?
Masai Mara National Reserve is located along the Tanzanian border in southwestern Kenya. Compared to the Serengeti, the Masai Mara is significantly smaller at just 1,510 square kilometers, making it roughly the size of New York. If you wanted to drive from one end to the other, you could accomplish this in around five hours.
Unlike the Serengeti which consists of mainly flat grasslands, the Masai Mara boasts greener landscapes and rolling hills. Many travelers find that the park’s smaller size makes it easier to spot wildlife.
When to Visit Masai Mara National Reserve
While you can enjoy wildlife sightings in any season, the best time to visit Masai Mara National Reserve is between July and October during the legendary Great Migration. Millions of animals cross the Mara and Talek Rivers in search of food and water between late July and August in what is truly a spectacular sight, making this the most popular time to visit the Masai Mara. With survival as the guiding primordial instinct, the Great Migration is the 2nd largest movement of animals on the planet!
Why Visit Masai Mara National Reserve
Masai Mara is home to far more private concessions than the Serengeti, which is something to consider if you’re looking to add unique excursions like night game drives, horseback safaris, or walking safaris to your travel itinerary. National parks generally don’t allow these types of activities, while private reserves don’t have these limitations.
While many types of wildlife (including the Big Five) can be spotted in both parks, the Masai Mara exhibits plenty of animals that are unique to the region. Common sightings include jackals, bat-eared foxes, and spotted hyenas.
The most unique aspect of a safari in the Masai Mara during the Great Migration is the sheer volume of herbivores and predators moving north into the Mara. The earth literally shakes as animals thunder and scramble across rivers hoping to escape the waiting jaws of crocodiles and get across safely.
How to Get to Masai Mara National Reserve
Getting to the Masai Mara is considered to be easier than getting to the Serengeti. The best way to get to the park is to fly into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and then catch a domestic flight from Wilson Airport directly into the park. While it’s possible to drive the five hours from Nairobi to Masai Mara National Reserve, the road is notoriously unpleasant and makes for a bumpy ride. It’s easiest (and safest) to fly.
Serengeti vs. Masai Mara: Accommodation Options
Both parks offer a wide variety of accommodation options, from high-end camps to no-frills lodges and adventure camps. In some locations, there are larger hotel-style lodges too. When deciding where to stay, it really comes down to whether you want:
- An intimate, small camp feel;
- A larger, budget-oriented larger game lodge;
- A no-frills but wildlife-centric adventure experience;
- A white-glove-service camp that combines both exceptional wildlife and luxury
Pricing varies depending on location, infrastructure, amenities, and the quality of the safari guides. There are both budget-friendly and luxury options and everything in between at either park. When deciding where to stay, it’s most important to consider the camp location, infrastructure, and guide quality. The medium to high-end camps offer a great balance and are the most desirable in either park. If you want to stay at a premium camp, travel expert Harsh Patil recommends booking at least 8-9 months in advance.
While luxury amenities or pinching the budget are appealing for obvious reasons, your top priority should be choosing a good location where the guides are experienced and knowledgeable. The advantage of opting for luxury Kenya and Tanzania safari camps is that you are in the heart of wildlife action with highly trained safari guides. The quality of your guide, could easily make or break your safari trip, so be sure to do your research before booking your stay.
What to Consider When Choosing a Safari Destination – Serengeti or Masai Mara
When deciding between Serengeti and Masai Mara, it’s important to consider what you want to get out of the trip. If you’re hoping to see the Big Five during your African safari, you could potentially spot them in either park. Likewise, you can experience incredible excursions like hot air balloon safari rides in either park.
However, if you want to escape the crowds (during migration in Mara) and aren’t super concerned about the cost of your trip, then the Serengeti is a fantastic option. On the other hand, if you have a smaller pocketbook to work with and less time on your hands, the Masai Mara is an equally stellar choice.
We can’t emphasize enough that it comes down to the timing of your visit. If late July to late September is your timeframe, then hands down the Masai Mara Reserve or a combination of the Northern Serengeti and Mara Reserve is the optimal destination.
If you want to witness the Great Migration spectacle at its peak, then the choice is clear – Masai Mara. During that peak season, you may experience larger groups of people, especially along the river crossings. Though sometimes unavoidable, the crossings are the crowning glory. If the migration animal volume is not the driver of your safari adventure, then visiting the Serengeti is a great option, as you can choose remote camps in the Central & Northern Serengeti while avoiding the higher cost of the Mara during peak season.
If there’s one essential piece of advice you take from this guide – don’t avoid the dry season in the Serengeti to pinch pennies. And if you only plan to go on safari once, visiting during the Great Migration is an absolute must. No matter which park you choose, a journey to the unspoiled natural beauty of Kenya or Tanzania will kindle your soul for a lifetime.
Consult with travel planner Harsh Patil to customize your incredible African Safari Adventure.