Machame vs Rongai: Which Kilimanjaro Route is Right for You?
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But planning such an adventure can quickly get overwhelming as you decide which tour operator and route to choose, what gear you need and how you’re going to train. I’ve already covered the daunting Kilimanjaro packing list and shared my beginner training plan so today I’m going to compare two of the seven Kilimanjaro routes, Machame and Rongai. Hopefully this will help you, my dear readers, make a more informed decision about which Kilimanjaro route to take.
Disclaimer: I hiked the Machame and Rongai routes during the same week (March 2-10) in 2016 and 2019. While my experience has only been with those two routes the Machame, Lemosho and Shira routes share much of the same trail and itinerary. Likewise the Rongai route shares the same descending trail as the Marangu route. Some of the comparisons in this post can be applied to those routes as well.
Best for Acclimatization: Machame
I should point out that I took Diamox medication for both of my trips and acclimatized well. However, the best hiking practice for acclimatizing, regardless of whether you take Diamox, is to “climb high, sleep low”. This means reaching a higher altitude on the trail, then descending a little before camping for the night. The Machame route offers this as you climb to Lava Tower on the third day, reaching 15,000 feet, before descending to Barranco Camp at 13,000 feet.
The Rongai route is more gradual and therefore does not have this type of scenario. The Curvy Kili Crew, however, tweaked our itinerary a little and slept 2 nights at Third Cave at 13,000 feet. Then we took an acclimatization hike to roughly 15,000 feet, the equivalent of hiking to Lava Tower. This helped immensely with our acclimatization but it’s not the standard itinerary for Rongai. If you wish to try something like this then ask your tour operator for more information.
Best for Beginners: Rongai
I’m sure this is mostly my personal opinion, but compared to the Machame route Rongai was pretty dang easy. The first day is short and pleasant compared to the steep hike through the sweltering rainforest on the Machame route. Having an easy first day on the mountain was a great morale booster as well. There was also less scrambling (no Barranco Wall!) and less stairs on the Rongai route. And while there were plenty of times where I felt I might slip and fall from the loose rocks on the trail it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the sections on the Machame route where I felt I could fall off a cliff and seriously injure myself.
Best for Staying in Touch: Machame
If you follow the Curvy Kili Crew or WHOA Travel on Instagram you’ll know that we had no cell phone reception during our climb. Zip, zero, zilch. There wasn’t even Wifi at our cottages the night before the trek. So naturally our family and friends back home were panicking, wondering how we were doing and if everyone was safe. WHOA was able to pass along updates to the employees back in the states via their satellite phone but aside from that our technology was useless until the last day of our trek.
I suppose this makes sense. The Rongai route ascends from the north side of the mountain, close to the Kenya border. Since Kenya doesn’t profit from the tourism that Kilimanjaro brings there’s no incentive for them to have cell phone towers close by. So if staying in touch with folks back home is important to you don’t choose the Rongai route.
Best for Scenery: Toss Up
Everyone says the Machame route is the most scenic and the views were truly stunning. But the Rongai route also has amazing scenery with sweeping views of Kenya as far as the eye can see. You’ve also got excellent views of Mawenzi Peak and Kilimanjaro on almost every day of your trek. Unfortunately the glaciers at the peak of Kilimanjaro are only visible from the Machame side. The Machame Route also has its own peak views of Mount Meru, though Mawenzi looks much more rugged and breathtaking.
As far as sunrises go I think the prettiest ones I saw were from the Machame side but both sides had excellent views of the Milky Way (if you travel when it’s not a full moon). Whatever route you take on Kilimanjaro you’re going to have some amazing views.
Best for Low Crowds: Rongai
The crowds on the Rongai route were nothing compared to the crowds on Machame. Narrow trails like those leading up the Barranco Wall can get jam packed with hikers which makes for a slow and frustrating climb. On the Rongai route our group of 25 made up over half of the hikers who were sharing the trail with us. If you’re seeking solitude for your Kilimanjaro climb then the Rongai route is definitely for you.
Best for Wildlife: Rongai
I saw wildlife on both trails but the Rongai route has the best opportunity for seeing a more diverse group of animals. It’s possible (but not likely) to get a glimpse of a buffalo or giraffe on the first day of the Rongai route. Our guide even pointed out the feces of a jackal on Day 3 of our hike, almost 13,000 feet above sea level! Monkeys are common on both trails but I saw more on the Rongai route, and smaller animals such as chameleons and butterflies can be seen from both side of the mountain.
No matter which of the Kilimanjaro routes you choose you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience. But having a good idea of the pros and cons of each route (not just the Machame and Rongai!) can help set you up for a more successful climb.