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UNESCO estimates that more than 4,500 paintings are preserved in the Tsodilo Hills of northwestern Botswana, providing clues to early human settlements there. (Photograph by Stock Photo)

Budget Botswana: Four Great Adventures

Botswana is renowned for delivering stand-out safari experiences and some of the most spectacular—and extravagant—ecolodges on Earth.

Less well-known is the affordable side of exploring this iconic Southern African republic, also praised for its friendly and welcoming people, democratically elected government, decades of political stability, and safety.

I experienced this for myself on a recent trip to Botswana, in search of wildlife and cultural encounters that fit my travel check-list—authentic, meaningful, and fun—without blowing my budget for the year.

Here are four unique adventures in Botswana that will have you coming back for more.

> Hike Tsodilo Hills:

Unlike some celebrated UNESCO World Heritage sites that are choked with charter buses and guides waving red flags to shepherd their tourist flocks (think Cambodia’s Angkor Wat), you might just have Tsodilo Hills all to yourself.

Held sacred by the San and Hambukushu peoples, this dramatically beautiful wild and windy landscape in northwestern Botswana has been inhabited for some 100,000 years. Dubbed “the Louvre of the Desert,” the massive quartzite formations contain one of the highest concentrations of rock art on the planet and provide insight into early human life in the Kalahari.

Start your adventure with an overnight stay at the Okavango River Lodge in Maun, Botswana’s dusty safari capital, then set out by car for Tsodilo. This country of “road trip” lovers—locals and visitors alike—makes it ideal for renting a vehicle and self-driving the six-hour route over mostly paved roads.

Pack a cooler with food and drink, bring a tent and sleeping bags—both items are available for rent or purchase in Maun—and make camp beneath a towering acacia tree at the Tsodilo visitors center. Then hook up with a local guide on one of more than a dozen trails through the scrubby bush to discover why the San believe the hills bring positive energy to all who encounter them.

> Spend Time Among the Baobabs:

Planet Baobab is named for the famous succulent trees that define the surrounding desert landscape. These towering giants can live for more than 1,000 years and have trunks so thick explorers used them as navigational landmarks as they made their way across the flat, featureless terrain that makes up most of Botswana.

At this funky Afro-chic outpost, you can stay in two different styles of huts (mud or grass) reflecting the traditional building methods of the original inhabitants of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans or pitch your own tent in a shaded camp site.

Rates start at about $135 a night, a bargain in a country where many safari lodges cost upwards of a grand.

But the best part of a stay at Planet Baobab: you can mix and match any number of cool experiences—from guided nature walks and quad bike excursions to a morning spent observing frolicking meerkats and more—from an a la carte safari menu. 

> Learn about Africa’s Oldest Living Culture:

Dqae Qare San Lodge is remote even by Botswana standards. It’s also one of the few authentic places where members of the San community teach visitors about their ancient culture on their own terms.

A stay at Dqae Qare not only offers insights into the San way of life—including firemaking, wild-food foraging, storytelling, and traditional dancing—it helps protect their unique cultural heritage for generations to come.

The lodge is owned and operated by the San and set up as a social enterprise project to benefit the local San D’Kar community; as a guest, you are supporting the villagers that keep the property running and organize all activities.

Get acquainted with the natural landscapes that have shaped their unique way of life on the 18,500 acres of private land surrounding Dqae Qare, home to giraffe, eland, kudu, gemsbok, and zebra, as well as predators such as cheetah, leopard, and brown hyena.

> Kayak in the Okavango Delta:

The Okavango Delta of northwestern Botswana is among the world’s top safari destinations, and many veterans of the African bush are quick to single it out as the best wildlife experience on the planet.

Though Lelobu Safaris is known for its state-of-the-art backpacker tours, the company delivers tours of the “Delta,” as it is locally known, that fit more down-to-earth budgets.

Join one of their scheduled journeys or book your own private trip. For those with a passion for real adventure, consider kayaking the Okavango’s waterways under your own paddle power—Lelobu will arrange everything. Then it’s up to you to navigate your way around the hippos, elephants, and crocodiles—Oh, my!—encountered along the way.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.