To the northwest, the Mara ecosystem is bounded by the Esoit Oloololo Escarpment, and here -- in a part of the park watered by the Mara River -- is the Mara's most scenic and game-rich terrain. This area can be difficult to traverse during the rainy seasons (Apr-May and Nov), and the swampy ground generally becomes impassable after heavy showers. Many of the upmarket lodges are located here, too. Because of its accessibility from Nairobi, the eastern part of the Mara is generally associated with mass tourism lodges, meaning that it's where you see a considerable number of crammed minibuses. The most remote and unhindered part of the region is the southeastern corner of the Reserve (and beyond its borders), where the Sand River prevents minibuses from venturing at all.
Shameless development in and around the Mara has meant that there's an ongoing rise in the number of available beds. Although this means there is more to choose from, it also means that there are more vehicles within the Reserve and an ever-growing number of off-road tracks grafted into the landscape by undisciplined drivers. Depending on your priorities, your first concern may very well be finding lodging as far from the masses as possible -- although, with the exception of Cottar's in the far south of the Mara and a few more isolated spots in the private concessions, you have very little chance of not meeting up with other vehicles while out on game drives. That might be one problem you'll battle to overcome (unless you insist that your driver steers you far away from the maddening crowds), but you can stave off the effect of crowded lodgings by selecting smaller, more intimate accommodations (the best of which are reviewed below). With no fences or manmade barriers, wildlife can move freely throughout this "dispersal area" -- essential for sustaining a vast transnational conservation zone -- so game viewing is pretty good no matter where you choose to bed down.
Accommodations range from too-basic-to-recommend campsites with zero facilities to palatial tents with all the trimmings and tip-top service straight out of some fantasy colonial heyday. If you're after a peaceful bush experience that leaves the crowds behind, then you'll definitely consider the significance of staying in an eight-tent camp as opposed to a lodge with 70 or 80 bedrooms. You came here to commune with nature and wildlife, but it's inevitable that at the larger, blander, resort-style lodges you'll be inundated by homo sapiens. If you value privacy and a true wilderness experience, don't think twice about paying a little extra for more exclusive accommodations -- you'll be rewarded with memories that are unforgettable for the right reasons (as opposed to wishing your fellow guests would quiet down). Also, be aware that "exclusivity" out in the bush doesn't always translate to luxury in the same sense of a city hotel or resort. If nonstop power, permanent hot water, and a full-on spa are requisites when you go on holiday, here you may find yourself sharing those "luxuries" with large groups. However, this doesn't mean that some of the intimate camps don't pull out all the stops, too.
Just about every lodge and tented camp organizes game drives in the early morning and late afternoon -- traditionally the cooler times of the day when the wildlife is most active -- but at the larger establishments, this pattern can quickly become a numbing routine. Many of the smaller places emphasize individually tailored programs so you can determine not only when you wish to go game viewing, but also what format you'd prefer this to take. So rather than spend each and every day bouncing along in a 4X4, there'll be opportunities for bush walks, too. Or, during the Migration, you can happily pack a picnic and stay out for the entire day.
Central Mara -- Although far less exclusive, the larger lodges in and around the Mara Reserve will definitely put a smaller dent in your wallet. If you can overlook the potential intrusiveness of having up to 200 fellow guests sharing your interaction with the wilderness, then by all means consider the sprawling Masai Mara Sopa Lodge (tel. 020/375-0235; www.sopalodges.com), which consists of rondawels designed in approximation of a rural village. The drawback, of course, is that there will inevitably be more guests than you'll find in a typical Kenyan village. Nestling in the not-too-shabby Oloolaimutia Valley, not too far from the Ngama Hills where some of the Mara's best rhino sightings happen, there are 100 rooms, a pool, and three different bars, making it feel more like a budget resort than a safari getaway. Still, if you cleverly redirect your expenditure toward renting a private vehicle and skilled driver-guide, you could get away from the human traffic for most of your stay. Doubles here start at $245, including all meals (everything else is extra, including all safari activities), and you're usually able to secure one of the family-size suites at no additional cost. Considering that the property is fenced in, this can be a very good option if you're traveling with children. (There are no restrictions on age here, which may not be the case at many of the more intimate camps.)
Within the Reserve, or Without?
Baffling bureaucracy plagues the Mara's management, such that it's virtually impossible for mere visitors to figure out when they are inside the National Reserve (which, notoriously, is under the control of corrupt county councils) or have crossed the boundary and entered a privately managed conservancy where different park fees (and rules) apply. The one noticeable difference within the Reserve itself is the absence of Maasai cattle herding, and the only signs of human development should be the safari lodges and camps (and a handful of airstrip). The Reserve also attracts the lion's share of visitors, so when you hear bad press about overcrowding in the Mara, this is where it's actually happening. If you stay in a camp or lodge outside the Reserve, you'll probably have little cause to ever venture away from the private concession on which you're based. Generally, the conservancies offer a more exclusive experience, since vehicles based in the Reserve won't have traversing rights for the private lands where numbers tend to be limited. It's also worth noting that the conservation fees paid while staying in areas outside the Reserve go directly to the landowners and local communities. By contrast, park fees paid within the Reserve go to the county councils, and that inevitably means that the money goes directly into the pockets of a few well-placed politicians. So it's actually a lot more community-friendly to stay in areas outside the National Reserve.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.