275km (171 miles) SW of Nairobi

Cynics will tell you that the Mara has been spoiled by years of overdevelopment, that its reputation as one of the richest game-viewing regions in Africa -- in the world, in fact -- is overblown. While its detractors revile the heavy tourist numbers and corrupt management of the National Reserve at the Mara's core, none of that can really take away from the startling reality -- an iconic African wilderness teeming with game, prowled by predators, and plump with impossible-to-miss Big Five action; this is epic animal-viewing terrain. Come during its busiest seasons, particularly when the thrilling Great Migration, widely considered the largest terrestrial wildlife spectacle on Earth, hits Kenya, and you'll be spotting camera-clicking homo sapiens almost as readily as the breathtaking teams of wildebeest, zebra, impala, topi, and gazelle being stalked and hunted by extraordinary numbers of lion.

And with regularly spotted cheetah, loping hyena, and shyer carnivores also out to up their protein intake, the Mara is a priority destination for observing animated and furious interactions between predators and their prey. If lion kills and cheetah chases aren't your thing, there's always plenty of mellower hippo and croc action down at the river. Or simply take in the endlessly compelling sight of elephant herds cruising the wilderness, tan-colored topi standing sentinel atop termite mounds, or groups of sullen-faced buffalo giving you the once-over. And backing up all this animal magic is an enduring, ever-enchanting landscape. With its vast acacia-dotted plains cut by the life-giving waters of the Mara and Talek rivers and its western flank overlooked by the spectacular Siria Escarpment, the Mara's classic vistas are the stuff that Out of Africa dreams are made of. This is Hollywood's African idyll -- grass plains interspersed with migunga and croton thickets, rolling hills and small islandlike kopjes.

Thrown into the mix is the opportunity to rub shoulders with the Maasai. Kenya's most famous group of people is a tribe of tall, elegant pastoralists who -- despite encroaching modernity -- have somehow managed to sustain many of their traditional ways. You'll see young Maasai boys herding hundreds of cattle or shepherding goats across the land, or come across the legendary Maasai warriors (morani) -- dressed in their bright red shukas and long-lasting sandals made from recycled rubber tires -- who have long stirred the imagination of visitors to East Africa. If you're lucky, these men will be the guides and drivers assigned to take you through the Mara wilderness.

Established in 1961 on lands owned by the Maasai and once hunted by wealthy Brits, the Mara is part of a huge conservation area that stretches into neighboring Tanzania and that, thanks to the establishment of new community-owned conservancies around the edges of the Mara National Reserve, is actually expanding. A promising sign, one would hope . . .

Yet, as with so many of the world's great wonders, there are disturbing consequences, too, and the Mara's fame is not without its drawbacks. Many consider the park -- the Mara's core area, under the control of local Maasai councils -- overexploited, poorly managed, and simply too packed with tourists, many of them charging around in ubiquitous white minibuses that environmentalists generally consider the scourge of the Mara's thriving safari market. A National Geographic report recently confirmed that mass tourism is degrading the area. Having long run the risk of overdeveloping, authorities claim there are new plans in place to try to prevent the damage that's been caused by poorly managed game-drive vehicles and excessive numbers of lodges and tented camps. But by all reasonable accounts -- despite claims that the Mara is entering a period of renaissance with a more considerate form of low-impact and sustainable tourism emerging -- the building of new, large lodges continues apace.

That's no reason to be put off, though. For the first-time traveler to East Africa, the Mara -- a comparatively tiny portion of the expansive game-rich wilds known as the Serengeti just across the border in Tanzania -- is indispensable, considered the ultimate opportunity to view wildlife in all its untamed, theatrical glory. If the literature is to be believed, the Mara boasts the highest concentration of terrestrial wildlife on Earth. And, yes, the Great Migration -- an awesome, rollicking natural cycle when hundreds of thousands of wildebeest attempt dangerous, frequently foolhardy river crossings as part of their annual biorhythmic round-trip exodus from Tanzania into Kenya -- really is as spectacular and mesmerizing as the wildlife documentaries would have you believe. Those astounding images of thousands of seemingly hypnotized animals flopping, diving, and tripping into crocodile-infested rivers are the stuff of every wildlife enthusiast's dreams, and it is reckoned that this particular migration -- one of numerous animal treks that happen around the world throughout the year -- is best witnessed here in the Masai Mara, where the massive animal numbers are compressed into a relatively small area. Imagine 2 1/2 million visiting animals cluttering the plains and clogging the rivers as they squeeze into an area that covers just more than 1,500 sq. km (585 sq. miles). It's one of nature's must-see dramas -- although, with its high death toll, not necessarily for the squeamish (and the sight of Bambi being mauled to death by lions is sure to traumatize the kids).

Even if you don't make it in time to see the Migration, you'll be treated to one of the richest and most diverse animal kingdoms in the world. And if you choose carefully, you'll be staying in intimate, luxurious surrounds, far from the maddening crowd.

What's in a Name? -- The Mara -- a Maa (or Maasai) word meaning "Mottled" -- is a visually evocative reference to the patchy landscape in this region. Not only does the Mara's acacia-speckled terrain make sense of this name, but when the land fills up with wildlife, the name is surely imbued with new meaning, as the plains are suddenly speckled with living beasts. You'll hear different explanations for the name, depending on who you talk to, so it's often a useful point of departure for conversation.