Punctured by the Rift Valley, which is part of the great geological fracture that runs from Syria through the Red Sea and East Africa to southern Africa, Kenya's diverse landscapes are its major attraction. Sitting astride the equator, Kenya has a low-lying Indian Ocean coast of white-sand beaches fringed with coral reefs and islands, while across the central plateau the savanna and acacia-studded bush is the favorite habitat for a full range of African animals harbored in a number of national parks and game reserves. To the north is an area of inhospitable desert, where Lake Turkana cuts a bright blue swath across the stony landscape. In the west are lush, agricultural highlands of sleek green coffee and tea plantations that give rise to the lofty mountains of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, and Mount Elgon.
Over the centuries Kenya was settled by a vast number of tribes from all over Africa, as well as traders from Persia and Arabia who lent a distinctly Eastern atmosphere to the coast. This gave rise to the Swahili culture and language, a mix of various traditions, religions, and local beliefs influenced by 2,000 years of trade with the East. With its old fort and ancient harbor, Mombasa is the capital of the coast, and today is in the center of a long string of beachside vacation resorts. Inland, Kenya's principal city of Nairobi is a melting pot of cultures where red -- robed Masai warriors stroll among the skyscrapers alongside be-suited business people.
But the real draw to Kenya is going on safari (meaning "journey" in KiSwahili), in the numerous national parks and game reserves. Kenya is home to the Big Five -- elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino -- which were once the favorite trophies for game hunters but are now some of the more popular animals to watch on a game drive. One-tenth of Kenya is occupied by parks and reserves, and in the ocean aquatic life is protected in a number of marine parks.