Lake Manyara National Park stretches across the Great Rift Valley south of Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater. It is one of Tanzania's safari parks that's easily overlooked and underrated. Even famous explorers were amazed by its untamed wilderness. When he stood across the 2,000-foot-high Rift Vally escarpment that dominates the park, Ernest Hemingway called it the loveliest place he had ever seen in Africa. This safari planning guide will help you plan your first safari in Tanzania's Lake Manyara National Park.
Exploring Lake Manyara
The park is small but packs an abundance of biodiversity. It has a range of ecosystems at different elevations making for exotic scenery. At one moment, you would be walking through a fairy-tale forest of tumbling, crystal-clear streams, rivers, waterfalls, and prehistoric trees. The next, you're whacking over flat, grassy plains that bound the usually unsightly lake, pink with clouds of flamingos.
One of the eerie experiences you should not miss when in Manyara is walking on the 18-metre-high treetop walkway near the park gate. The 1,312-foot walkway takes you through a series of suspension bridges that weave through the forest canopy. Here you get a bird's-eye view of Manyara's wilderness endowment.
Manyara's deep forest features giant figs, tamarind, baobabs, and mahogany trees that shelter roaming old tuskers and tree-swinging blue monkeys.
In the evenings, as specks of dusty sunlight dance in the setting sun, there's an excellent chance of spotting troops of olive baboons sitting on the road, grooming each other, chatting, and dozing. At the same time, dozens of naughty babies play around them, and old granddaddies look on with knowing eyes.
The thick, tangled evergreen forest eventually fades into woodlands with flat-top acacias and finally to open plains. Hundreds of elephants, buffalo, and antelope roam here, along with dark Masai giraffes that look like they jumped out of a giant bowl of chocolate.
Manyara National Park is an excellent place in Tanzania to see hippos close as they lie on the banks of the lake or begin to forage as dusk approaches.
The park is famous among tourists for its tree-climbing lions. The bewildering cats are incredibly rare to find when you find them; the sight is one to behold. There are only two places in East Africa where you can watch the big cats engaged in this unusual phenomenon, and the second one is the Ishasha Sector of Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.
If planning your first bird-watching trip in Tanzania, you must have Lake Manyara National Park on your must-visit list. Because of the varied habitats, more than 400 species make the park their home.
As you drive through the forest, a series of gradually growing 'toot' notes that climax with a mad cackling laugh will wash your eardrums. Those are sounds from silvery-cheeked hornbills long before you see them. The woodland birds flap noisily in small groups among the massive trees, loudly roaring as they fly.
Lake Manyara's edges and its calm surface attract all manner of water birds, large and small. You'll see massive pink flamingo clouds drifting along the reed-fringed lakeshore. White-backed pelicans float across as the ubiquitous African fish eagles soar overhead. More water birds of all kinds congregate—waders, storks, ducks, egrets, geese, spoonbills, and herons.
Watch out for Nubian woodpeckers and the pretty silver birds (flycatchers) at the base of the dramatically-steeped red escarpment thickets overlooking the lake. The place whirls with superb, ashy, and Hildebrand's starlings, trilling cisticolas, yellow wagtails, Peter's twin spots, red-cheeked cordon bleus, blue-necked mousebirds, and every cuckoo imaginable. You'll also find the red-and-yellow barbet, aka bed-and-breakfast bird, known for living in termite mounds where it eats.
Lake Manyara National Park is also a raptor's paradise. A keen birder can spot up to 51 daytime species, including dozens of augur buzzards, small hawks, and harriers. Deep in the Manyara forest, you might be fortunate to see Africa's most powerful eagle, the crowned eagle. The bird is so strong as to snatch young antelope and unwary monkeys.
Six different kinds of owls, including the giant eagle owl and the diminutive but very loud African Scops owl, echo the night air with an eerie repertoire of clucks, whines, screeches, whistles, and laughs. By day they sit voicelessly and cast their long shadows.
- Best place to view relaxed elephants up closes
- Stunning wilderness and landscape scenery
- The forest and lake offer super bird-watching
- Easy to access from Arusha, and it's en route to Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park
- There are also canoe safaris, night game drives and a treetop walkway for canopy adventures
- It's rarely crowded in the morning hours
- It gets crowded in the afternoons during peak seasons of June to July and October to April.
Getting There & Around
You can get to Lake Manyara National Park by road, charter, or scheduled flights from Arusha. The park is en route to Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater-part of the northern Tanzania safari circuit. The park entrance gate is 2 hours (126 km / 80 miles) west of Arusha along a well-surfaced road. There are daily-scheduled flights 20 minutes from Arusha, and your tour operator or lodge will usually organise your airport transfers.
When To Go
The best time for a Lake Manyara National Park safari trip is during the dry season of June to October. It's easier to spot the larger mammals and track their movements because there's less foliage during the dry season. The wet season of November to April is also an excellent time for bird-watching, glimpsing jaw-dropping waterfalls, and canoeing on Lake Manyara.
SAFARI LODGES & CAMPS - BEST PICKS
Isoitok Camp Manyara*
Rooms from $215 pp, all-inclusive (our top choice) In the morning, when the Maasai head out of their bomas along with the Losimingorti mountain range, you'll hear the gentle clanking of their cattle's bells from your accommodations at this very authentic camp. Pros: staff are lovely, and food is plentiful and excellent; well-positioned camp with beautiful views towards the Rift Valley; great community and ecologically sensitive camp policy. Cons: some tents at the back of the camp have partial views; evening mosquitoes are rampant, keep your tent zipped; an ever-so-slightly-bumpy ride from the main road.
Lake Manyara Tree Lodge*
Rooms from $875 pp, all-inclusive (our top choice) The forest-floor-level entrance is flanked by an array of upturned wooden canoes guests pass before going up to the main areas under age-old tree branches with flowers and wilderness charm. Pros: charming, luxury rooms high in the trees; tranquil, quiet southern location; the ride from (and to) the airstrip is a free game drive, so keep your eyes open. Cons: located 35 km (22 miles) into the park, which requires a drive on very bumpy and dusty roads; rooms do not have views over the lake; not suitable for people with mobility issues.
Lake Manyara Serena Lodge
Rooms from $276, all meals The lodge presents a cluster of clean, furnished, en suite, double-story rondavels with breathtaking views over Lake Manyara. It sits on the edge of the rift valley escarpment. Pros: lovely infinity pool with views over the lake; gazebo bar by the pool is fantastic for sundowners; close to the airstrip. Cons: the lodge can feel impersonal; not all rooms have views, and a request will not necessarily mean you will get a room with a view; mass dining.
Kirurumu Manyara Lodge.
Rooms from $308, all meals This intimate camp sprouts among indigenous bush high on the escarpment. The lodge gives guests a more authentic Africa than some bigger lodges. Pros: there's plenty of room for families; lovely view over the Rift Valley and Lake Manyara; coffee-making facilities in the rooms. Cons: it can get scorching in the tents and around the camp in summer; some tents have no views; drinks are expensive.
Migunga Tented Camp
Rooms from $350, all meals Apart from its reasonable price, the main attraction of this secluded bush camp is its location in an indigenous forest just 2 km (1.2 miles) from the town of Mto wa Mbu and only five minutes from the "entrance to Lake Manyara National Park. Pros: secluded and quiet inside a beautiful acacia tree forest; close to the park entrance; camping is $15 per person. Cons: camp is near the village; views are only of the forest; monkeys can raid the tents if you leave them open.