10 of the most underrated vacation destinations in Africa
Africa has a wealth of underrated destinations spread across its 54 countries, and the continent offers so much more beyond your typical Nile River cruise in Egypt or a safari in South Africa.
If you’re in the market for adventure, there’s plenty to do and see, no matter if you want to soak up the sun on the beach, trek through the desert or embark on a safari.
Here are some of the most underrated destinations on the continent for your next African vacation.
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Lake Malawi, Malawi
Although Malawi is landlocked, you can still sunbathe on the golden sands of Lake Malawi. The landmark waterhole borders Malawi, Tanzania and Mozambique, and it's home to a unique collection of endemic flora and fauna (especially birds) that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Visitors can snorkel in the clear lake waters to see diverse fish species, lock eyes on the Big Five (lions, leopards, black rhinos, elephants and African buffalo) at nearby spots like Majete Wildlife Reserve or hop on a boat safari along the Shire River through Liwonde National Park.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Hoping to see endangered species like the black rhinoceros, African lion, white rhinoceros and cheetah? Head to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The UNESCO World Heritage site is an expansive ecosystem of lagoons that visitors can explore on foot, by boat or mokoro (a traditional canoe), in a vehicle or even via balloon or helicopter.
Travelers can also enjoy safaris in the Moremi Game Reserve, which sits on the eastern edge of the Okavango Delta. Just note that this game reserve (along with most others in Botswana) isn’t fenced in and wildlife roams free, so you can't go wandering around your safari lodge alone at night.
Related: Under-the-radar African safari: Botswana
Travelers in search of African winter sun should head to the sands of Saly — just more than an hour’s drive from the bustling music and market scene of Dakar. This area is ideal for those who want to relax, play golf, dine and just enjoy a low-key holiday at an affordable hotel or home rental.
If you’re itching for more action, take a daytrip to the nearby Lake Retba, which emits a pinkish hue thanks to special salina algae in its waters. Or, head to the Somone Lagoon, a mangrove and beach area known for its water bird species and blissed-out reggae beach haunts.
Nyerere National Park, Tanzania
Tanzania’s most popular spots, like the famed Serengeti or the exotic sands of Zanzibar, are what usually call international travelers to the country. However, those looking to connect with nature should visit Nyerere National Park, one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in East Africa, which features close to 12,000 square miles of protected space.
Besides the 440 bird species in the park, visitors can usually spot elephants, rhinos, lions, buffaloes, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes and hippos during a three-day safari.
Related: Dreaming of an African safari: How I’ll book my bucket list trip to Tanzania on miles and points
Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
For an exotic ocean adventure, head to the Bazaruto Archipelago, a group of pristine islands located off the coast of Mozambique. You’ll feel as if you’re in the Caribbean, lounging on white sands and swimming in sparkling turquoise waters.
There’s plenty to see, too, especially underwater — including one of the largest populations of dugongs (a cousin of the manatee) left in the Indian Ocean. Bazaruto Archipelago National Park consists of five islands (three inhabited) amid crystal-clear waters, home to species like sharks, whales, dolphins, manta rays, turtles and hundreds of coral and fish species. It’s a true paradise for divers, and snorkelers can access many of these marine delights at low tide.
Namib Desert, Namibia
The vast ochre sands of the Namib Desert have a surprising number of endemic plants and other species despite the arid climate. The rolling stretches of sand are best viewed from above via a hot air balloon. Two of the most iconic sites to see are Sossusvlei and Deadvlei — salt and clay pans flanked by sandy, reddish dunes which form part of Namib-Naukluft National Park.
If you want to climb the dunes, Big Mama Dune, Big Daddy Dune and Dune 45 are some of the tallest. Note: The slippery, hot sand is tough to manage. Visiting early in the morning means the sand is less scalding and will be easier to climb.
Related: The coolest expedition lodges on every continent
Felicite Island, Seychelles
With more than 100 islands in the magical paradise of Seychelles, it can be tough to decide exactly which to visit. The three main islands, Mahe, Praslin and La Digue, are each special in their own right. However, Felicite Island, just a few miles east of La Digue, is truly a wonder.
Large boulders peek out of dense tropical foliage fringed by white sands and azure waters. The catch? This paradise comes with a price — the only accommodation option is the Six Senses Zil Pasyon, where the opulent, seafront villas can cost more than $2,000 per night. Budget travelers, don’t worry: There are plenty of affordable ($100-$200) spots on the nearby island of La Digue, from which you can boat over to Felicite and spend the day.
Related: Miles away: A trip to the Seychelles, Africa's tropical paradise
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
There are only a few places in the world to see mountain gorillas in the wild, and the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda are home to one of the largest populations left. Because the gorilla population is nearly extinct, it’s not easy to see these gentle giants — only 80 permits are issued per day in Volcanoes National Park, and permits cost almost $1,500 per person. (Budget travelers take note: Permits cost just more than $680 per person in the neighboring country of Uganda).
Volcanoes National Park offers other outdoor activities besides gorilla trekking. Hike a volcano such as the towering Karisimbi, trek to Bisoke’s crater lake or visit the twin lakes of Ruhondo and Bulera.
Related: 11 architecturally spectacular wildlife lodges around the world
Lower Zambezi National Park, Zambia
Safaris in Zambia are often overlooked in favor of visits to neighboring countries such as Tanzania or Botswana. However, Zambia safaris are just as magical (and often more affordable) than those in other African destinations. Our top pick is Lower Zambezi National Park, which sits on the fringes of Mana Pools National Park.
This particular park is best experienced by canoe or boat, paddling along the Zambezi River, where large elephant herds (more than 100!) hang out along the river’s edge. Once you’re in Zambia, you should also add a stop at the famous Victoria Falls, one of the most impressive waterfalls in the world.
Related: 9 incredible luxury family safari lodges for the ultimate African adventure
Santo Antao, Cape Verde
Although Sal and Boa Vista are the most popular Cape Verde islands, those looking for an adventurous hiking vacation should consider Santo Antao — a lush island of undulating fertile peaks and valleys. With charming villages perched on cliffs and vertigo-inducing trails, hikers should head to the northeast of the island for the best treks.
The island has no airport, which means you’ll have to arrive by ferry from the island of Sao Vicente. Because the island is so remote (it’s the most westerly of the Cape Verde archipelago), it’s relatively untouched by mass tourism, so it's the ideal spot for interacting with locals and getting off the beaten path.
Africa is a gigantic continent with much to do and see in more than 50 different countries. With destinations to suit every taste and budget, it can be overwhelming to decide where to go. If you’re in the market for an adventure and hoping to experience something a bit different, lesser-known or more out of the way than the most typical or iconic spots, head to one of these locations for a dose of more remote, underrated travel fun.