How to get to Karatu
Karatu is within the Arusha District. It is best reached by car or bus from Arusha. The 150 km on a decent road will take just over two hours. The international airport for Arusha is Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO), about 45 minutes away from the city.
A cheaper option is to take a bus or dala dala. This can take up to three hours and should be between 5000-7000 Tsh. These can often get crowded and for the cheap price you often miss out on comfort. It is generally advisable to take a bus that arrives before night falls for safety reasons.
If you are willing to splurge a bit more money, a small plane to the Lake Manyara airstrip is also recommendable. Coastal Aviation and Air Excel both fly from Arusha to Manyara for around 100 US$ as a stopover on their way to the Serengeti. Watch out because this flight is most likely leaving from Arusha Airport, a small local airport, rather than Kilimanjaro Airport, which you might have arrived from via an international flight. From the Manyara airstrip, it is about a 30 minute drive to Karatu, either by taxi or through a transfer arranged by us.
When to visit Karatu
Karatu can be visited all year around, but as you will normally be visiting Karatu in combination or as as a base for safaris in the adjacent National Parks, it is best to stick to the dry season from June to October. Due to the Ngorongoro Crater’s special geography, animal sighting is good all year around but from June to October the grass is shorter, making it easier to spot animals. This is also true for Lake Manyara, although both parks become beautifully luscious and green in the wet season. Especially Ngorongoro Crater can get very crowded in the dry season, so you might find it a bit nicer in the wet season. Some roads can get too muddy and thus unpassable in the wet season but this should not overall take away from your safari experience.
Activities in and around Karatu
Karatu is often just seen as a junction between the big safari parks of the Northern Circuit, but there is actually many things to do in and around Karatu that are worth a visit. The busting little town center itself has lots of opportunities for cultural tourism - why don’t shop for some souvenirs in the market, visit a coffee farm or even try brewing your own beer? Two organisations specialise in cultural tourism in Karatu, and along with your hotels, these are best able to set up activities for you. The Ganako Cultural Tourism Program organises sustainable tours in and around Karatu, donating proceeds to a local charity. Iraqw Karatu also organises various activities, offering fascinating insights into the local tribe’s culture. You can discover some of these places, like the market, on your own, but with most of cultural tourism it is often best to stick to an organised tour, where a guide can teach you about local customs and ensure an appropriate approach to the population. Check out our section down below for responsible tourism in Karatu to find out more. Here are some of the activities we recommend:
- Experience the Karatu Market - on the 7th and 25th of each month, local traders will come to Karatu for a big market, offering you the possibility to view beautifully crafted items, buy some souvenirs, and put your haggling skills to good use. The market on the 25th is a bit smaller, but even if none of these dates overlap with your itinerary, there is a daily small market in the town centre as well.
- Visit a Coffee Farm - Tanzania has excellent coffee and the farming of the plant is especially popular in the North of the country. There are several beautiful coffee farms for you to visit or even stay on (see our Where to stay section), learn about coffee making and drink the coffee while enjoying the beautiful countryside.
- Beer Brewing - Ganako is able to organise a trip to a local beer brewing facility, giving you a taste of a self brewed beer and a truly cultural experience.
- Brick Making - This craft is an important industry in the area and constitutes the livelihood for much of its population.
- Enjoy the local street food or a traditional Iraqw meal (organised both by Ganako and Iraqw Karatu) - whether it is ugali (maize porridge), chips mayai (fries with eggs) or cassava, the street food is bound to give you a good introduction into Tanzanian life. If you decide to do this on your own, stick to cooked food to prevent any tummy issues.
- Homestays or visits to traditional homesteads - Ganako and Iraqw are both able to organise this opportunity to see how local Tanzanians are living and even stay with them for a night.
- Biking Trips - there are many pathways around Karatu that are perfect for exploring the area by bike.
- Visit developmental and eco projects in the area to see how communities and NGOs interact to create more sustainable livelihoods in the area.
Day trips from Karatu
Other than as a stopover for the big national parks, Karatu is also perfect as a base for making day trips to local attractions. Ganako and Iraqw Karatu offer hikes to Mlima Nyoka (Snake Hill) for a wide reaching view of the surrounding landscape, the Rift Valley, as well as day trips to the old German settlement Oldean to learn about the country’s colonial past and the stunning Lake Eyasi. The latter is still unknown to most tourists and thus offers secluded enjoyment of the beautiful lake and flora and fauna. At Lake Eyasi, you can also visit the Hadzabe Bushmen, one of the last remaining hunting and gathering people of East Africa and even go hunting with them.
The dominant tribe in Karatu are the Iraqw, a predominantly Christian people. Their language is linguistically specific as it has its origins in Ethiopia. They are agricultural people and benefit from selling cultural products such as pottery to tourists in the Ngorongoro area.
The Hadzabe Bushmen live around Lake Eyasi and are one of the last remaining hunting and gathering people in East Africa. Only around 1000 still live around the Lake, as the Tanzanian government is slowly encroaching on their terrain. A visit to the Hadzabe feels like a jump back in time. Their language is called Hadzane and relies on click sounds.
The Datoga also live close to Lake Eyasi and are agriculturalists and craftsmen. They have a warrior reputation and are most known for the circular tattoos on their faces. They are extremely isolated and only 5% speak Swahili, Tanzania’s national language. Literacy and education rates are extremely low. Their language has Ethiopian and South Sudanese roots and they are believed to have migrated south thousands of years ago.
Where to stay in Karatu
Karatu is perfect for a few days to visit surrounding national parks, Lake Eyasi and learn more about the local cultures. Many tourists choose to stay in Karatu as it can be cheaper than staying within the National Parks. Accommodation in Karatu can be cheaper than in the national parks, and thus many people opt for staying in the town. If you are strapped for time, this means however that you will need to do more driving everyday, possibly being quite tiring for you. We recommend to consider whether the reduced driving and time this consumes is not worth staying in a lodge on the crater directly. Karatu has excellent accommodations for all budgets. These are some of our favorite recommendations:
- High-end options: Plantation Lodge and the boutique hotel Oldeani Safari Lodge are definitely pricier but the beautiful ground and colonial style architecture is sure to make your stay worthwhile.
- Medium-priced options: Karatu Simba Lodge and Octagon Lodge still offer comfortable lodgings as well as beautiful gardens around your cottages.
- For a more unique experience, stay on a coffee farm: Gregg’s Farm and the Shangri La estate of Kifaru Coffee are two exceptional possibilities of staying on a coffee farm, experiencing the business first hand and enjoying beautiful views and the opportunity to relax in the tranquil lodges. Gregg’s Farm is a high-end option, offering luxury and a spa, while the Shangri La estate is much more budget friendly but only has a few rooms to offer. If you are interested in staying here, make sure to book ahead!