But thanks to a number of successful conservation and wildlife reintroduction programs, Malawi is fast developing a reputation as an up-and-coming safari destination, and tourists are slowly cottoning on to the wealth of other offerings to be found in the so-called warm heart of Africa.
Malawi currently has nine national parks and wildlife reserves, six of which are especially recommended for visitors. There are also many attractive and accessible forest reserves. All the parks and reserves are uncrowded and give visitors an excellent experience of unspoiled wilderness. In 2012, lions were reintroduced into Majete Wildlife Reserve after a 30-year absence, which means Malawi is once again home to the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino).
As well as iconic African wildlife, Malawi also boasts diverse scenery, including deep valleys, evergreen forests and waterfalls, all presided over by the dramatic peaks of Mount Mulanje and the rugged and regal Zomba Plateau in the south.
Outdoor activities are central to any visit to Malawi. You can trek, mountain bike or horse ride in entirely natural surroundings or climb peaks and plateaus. But the vast Lake Malawi remains the shimmering jewel in Malawi’s crown.
Cut into the Great Rift Valley and stretching from the northern tip of the country to Mangochi in the south, Lake Malawi is Africa’s third largest lake. Some of the world’s rarest tropical fish are found here, not to mention myriad bird species. It’s a dream destination for twitching, scuba diving and kayaking, or simply relaxing by the beach.
Though Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa, unlike some its neighbours it is an inherently peaceful place. And what it lacks in economic capital, it more than makes up for with its natural riches and ubiquitous kindness.
Things to see and do
See the Anglican Cathedral, built by missionaries over 100 years ago, on Likoma Island. Located on the east side of the lake, near the Mozambique shore, the island also offers excellent swimming.
See Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital and largest town, established at the end of the 19th century. It is really two towns: Blantyre and Limbe, joined by a development corridor. Sights include the National Museum, St Michael and All Angels Church (associated with Dr David Livingstone) and Mandala House (the oldest European building in Malawi).
Cycle through Nyika, Luwawa Forest and along the lakeshore.
Freshwater national park
Visit the world's first freshwater national park and its renowned settings and attractions. Lake Malawi National Park, close to Monkey Bay, lies towards the southern extremity of the lake. Snorkelling or scuba-diving reveals tropical fish and further inland klipspringer, bushbuck and vervet monkeys can be seen.
Go fishing on the southern lakeshore north of Mangochi and at Senga Bay. There are opportunities to fish for yellow fish, lake salmon and lake tiger. Angling for trout is easily arranged at Chelinda on Nyika Plateau and on Zomba Plateau.
Ride a horse on the Nyika Plateau, where safaris on horseback are popular, and on Zomba Plateau, where there is a dressage school.
Kasungu National Park
Look for elephants during the early mornings and evenings in Kasungu National Park, where they appear to drink from dambos (river channels). The grasslands support large herds of buffalo and some varieties of antelope, such as kudu and reedbuck.
See the 24,000 sq km (15,000 sq miles) lake that lies in the deep, trough-like rift valley, running the length of the country. Lake Malawi contains more fish than any other lake in the world and some of the rarest tropical fish are unique to it. Lake Malawi National Park was created in 1980 as the world's first freshwater national park. It can be found on the southern shore of Lake Malawi.
The park encompasses a wide variety of scenery, ranging from the wooded rocky mountains sloping down to the shores of the lake, to sandy coves and beaches. The lush vegetation is home to a range of wildlife including many species of bird and fish. The clear blue waters of the lake are popular for snorkelling and scuba diving, as well as sailing, kayaking and swimming. Within the park, visitors can stay at lodges to enjoy traditional Malawian hospitality and fresh fish from the lake.
Explore Lilongwe, Malawi's capital. Alongside the traditional Old Town, with its interesting markets, is the modern city and seat of government with its imaginative architecture in a garden setting.
Lower Shire Valley
Spot the difference in the Lower Shire Valley. Because it is low lying, hotter and dominated by the great river which drains Lake Malawi, this part of the country looks and feels different. There are also vast sugar plantations to see at Sucoma.
Behold the magnificent Mulanje Massif. The highest point of this huge block of mountains, which cover more than 640 sq km (250 sq miles) and rise to over 3,000m (10,000ft), can be see at Sapitwa.
Discover Mzuzu, the capital of the northern region. There are two game areas in the region: the beautiful and unique plateau of Nyika National Park and the Vwasa Marsh Wildlife Reserve. The famous Livingstonia Mission, with its interesting museum, is nearby.
View the many markets, including Nkhotakota, on the central lake shore, which is one of Africa's oldest market towns and was once a centre of the slave trade. Further north is Nkhata Bay, a busy port and market and a favourite stopping place for visitors.
Hike the Nyika Plateau, a popular attraction for trekking and walking. There is excellent walking on the Zomba and Viphya Plateaux and climbing on Mount Mulanje, which, at 3,000m (9,850ft), is the highest mountain in central Africa. Dedza, Michiru, Ndirande and Chiradzulu also offer challenging slopes.
North of Blantyre, be mesmerised by the stunning views at the top of the 2,100m (6,890ft) Zomba Plateau. Its vast forests and waterfalls tower above Zomba, a university town and the former capital.
Watch traditional dance, which plays a part in most ceremonies in Malawi. The Gule Wamkulu (performed by the Chewa and Mang'anja), with its heavily carved masks, feathers and skin paint, is an important dance in Malawian culture.
Try out the range of watersports available along the length of Lake Malawi. Snorkelling and scuba-diving are increasingly popular here because of the attraction of seeing the brilliantly coloured fish, the mbuna. Swimming, waterskiing, sailing and kayaking are all available along the lakeshore.
Wildlife and game viewing
Go wildlife and game viewing in the national parks, without the tarred roads filled with convoys of 4-wheel drive vehicles. Top parks and reserves include Nyika, Vwasa Marsh, Liwonde and Lengwe. Due to its unspoilt environment and prolific game, Liwonde National Park is generally regarded as the best game reserve in Malawi.
It covers 550 sq kilometres (212 sq miles) of mopane and savanna woodland on the floodplains of the River Shire and Lake Malombe in the south of the country. Wildlife includes large herds of elephant, hippos, crocodiles, antelope, zebra, warthogs, bushback and sable. Visitors can also see lions and leopards, and the river plains are home to many species of bird.