Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania must be one of the Indian Ocean's best hidden gems.
With white sandy beaches, dazzling aquamarine waters and refreshingly few tourists, Mafia is often described as Zanzibar 30 years ago: a laid-back eco-alternative with no tarmac roads, few hotels, no shops, no ATMs (credit cards are accepted at the up-market lodges) which is not geared for mainstream tourism. But be warned, if you want fancy shops and a wild night-life, Mafia isn’t for you!
There are six lodges on Mafia, five (Chole Mjini , Kinasi Lodge, Mafia, Pole Pole and Shamba Kilole) clustered closely together within Chole Bay and one, the Ras Mbisi Lodge, on the western side of the island . There is a handful of backpacker ‘hotels’ in Kilindoni, the main town (the port and airstrip are here).
Hopefully Mafia Island will not become the ‘next destination’ but remain an eco-friendly niche. There are about 3,000 to 4,000 over-night stays annually on the island.
Whale sharks and humpback whales can be found in the waters surrounding Mafia Island, as can turtles and reportedly dugongs.
There are two airlines with regular service from Dar es Salam to Mafia's Kilindoni airport and flights take about 30 minutes.
- Coastal Aviation - operates two daily flights from Dar es Salam and one "on-demand" from Kilwa, their largest plane is a 13-seated Cessna, flights cost USD110/person.
- Tropical Air - based in Zanzibar, flights to Mafia originate in Dar es Salaam.
There are only a few offroad cars owned by the resorts or lodge. You can hire a rickety Land Rover with driver near the market in the center of Kilindoni. The streets are all still murran, so it could be really fun to wonder about walking and get a bit lost along the main street where you will meet all the locals working, interacting, bicycling, playing, etc. If you are more adventurous you can rent a bike from the place you are staying. The price should be USD8-15/day.
The most fun activity is to take a typical sailing boat (dhow) which here do also bus services. They have a wonderful structure, are made of wood and usually full of residents with dresses and pots of different bright colors. Almost all diving centers and lodges will offer you also excursions around the Island.
- Ras Kisimani. The far western cape of the main island, facing the Rufiji Delta. Kisimani Mafia, just north-east of the Cape is KiSwahili for “the place of the well”. An old town dating to the 12th century has been drowned by rising sea levels and a collapsing foreshore for over 100 years. The Kinasi library contains a full account of the archaeology of these ruins, once the most important town on Mafia, especially from the 12th to 14th centuries. It was founded by Bashat, one of the sons of the first Sultan of Kilwa, and extended the control of the Sultan to Mafia. The power and wealth of the Sultan of Kilwa was based upon gold, ivory and customs tariffs on all goods traded on the southern coast. In its time it was far more important the Zanzibar but its economic influence waned upon the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century. There is little left of the town now, but visitors can easily find many beautiful potsherds and coins in the ruins and on the beautiful palm-fringed beach. The circular rock weights used to confine slaves at night can also be found here. Due to erosion the old well from which the town took its name now stands on the beach. The whole area is now a protected core zone of the Mafia Island Marine Park.
- Bwejuu Island. Sits between Ras Kisimani and the Rufiji Delta and is a sand-fringed, palm-covered island surrounded by sand bars and snorkelling reefs. These are all-day excursions by boat from Kilindoni for beach-lovers and those looking for a castaway experience. Beautiful beaches and fabulous swimming along the edge of the Ras Kisimani point and off the reefs and sand bars of Bwejuu.
- The Lighthouse at Ras Mkumbi. A visit to the lighthouse will allow you to see far to the south over the Mlola Forest, protected for its vegetation and wildlife, including Sykes monkeys. There are magnificent baobabs in the north of Mafia, especially at Ras Mkumbi (the northern tip of the island, just beyond Bweni village).
- Jibondo. Mafia's best-known fishing village. The island is about 30 minutes away by boat. Over-fishing resulted in a decline in shark populations but the people still harvest a great deal of octopus. Seaweed farming is becoming an important business. The Jibondo people are famous throughout the Swahili-speaking world as boat-builders.Unlike Chole, Jibondo island is almost entirely coral rock (ancient Porites coral) so no crops can grow in the shallow soil. There is always a water shortage and many of the younger people spend a great deal of time carrying water from sources on the main island.
Diving, snorkeling. Some resorts and lodge have dive centers. The only independent one is The Big Blu [dead link].
- Blue World Diving, Utende, ☏ . Offers diving for advanced and novice divers in safety under professional instruction. The centre is managed by Kinasi resident dive instructors. They have been assisting marine research for over six years.
- Mafia Island Diving, Utende, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Directly across the strait to Chole. Offers customised diving (tide-dependent) which are operated from authentic dhows which sail out to the dive site. Excellent safety record and equipment. Also offers excursions and activities (i.e. mangrove walks, tours of Chole Island, sea-turtle hatchouts via Sea Sense (Jun-Aug), and Whale Watching (Oct-Feb)).
- North Mafia Island, Bweni. Beautiful beaches (3 km) and in contrast the Chole Bay side of Mafia is superb for diving and snorkelling. Completely different part that is quite another world of vegetation, beaches and activities. Complete isolation from any other tourist facility or commercial activity of any kind.
- Sea Turtle Hatchout with Sea Sense. During June, July, and August, it is possible to do a 45-minute hike across Juani island to watch baby sea turtles hatch and scamper across the beach into the surf. If you are not very sure-footed, bring closed-toed shoes, as the hike is over some sharp and somewhat treacherous rocks. Cost is approximately USD45.
- Kinasi Shop, Utende, ☏ . Mafia Island local handicraft decorative & clothes.
Almost all resorts and lodges have their own restaurant and usually the prices are full board, so tourists rarely go around to find different places.
- Kinasi Lodge Restaurant, Utende. There is a cocktail bar offering a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and a wine cellar of specially selected wines. Good cuisine and each year they send their local chefs abroad for training. Lunch USD20, Dinner USD25.
You can find whatever you want but if you look for something typical in Tanzania you can drink the coconut water (madafu) made from real coconuts, the soda called Stoney Tangawizi (with ginger taste) and some Tanzanian good beers such as Kilimanjaro. You can also find wines from South Africa.
- Top Life, Utende. Local bar with cold beer, gin and soft drinks. Features local DJs during the weekends and Taarabu music during the week.
- Sunset Bar, Bweni. The bar is limited to a few excellent reds and whites and the usual damaging toxins like gin, vodka, whisky, brandy, and anything special if you let us know in advance. All the soft drinks and mixers are available and lots of ice.
- Kinasi Bar, Utende. 17:00-23:00. Open to public this bar features a incredible view from Chole Bay. A wine cellar full of African wines combined with sea food bittings and a great variety of spirits. Beers around USD2.
- Mapenzi, Utende. Local bar with nice atmosphere. Price for the beer is around USD1.
- Kinasi Lodge, Utende, ☏ . Kinasi Lodge is a boutique hotel. A short ride across the island from the airport and the main town of Kilindoni, the lodge overlooks Chole Bay in Mafia Island Marine Park. This resort, situated in an old cashew and coconut plantation, provides a luxury stay. Only 14 rooms are available. Each room is in a private bungalow with large veranda and ensuite bathroom. The rooms have ceiling fans and mosquito nets. average rate USD140, full board.
- [dead link] Lua Cheia, Bweni, ☏ . Located at Bweni Village near the northern tip of Mafia is called Ras Bweni. “Ras” stands for peninsula, and from here one has fine views of the sweeping bay and palm-fringed beaches, superb sunsets over the Rufiji Delta and the moon rising over the Indian Ocean. This part of Mafia is where the beautiful beaches have been formed.
- Mafia Island Lodge, Utende. Next to the beach. Rooms can be a little pricey.
- Ras Mbisi, 255 (0)754 663739. Built from local sustainable coco-wood by local artisans, the accommodation comprises nine spacious ‘open tent’ bandas/rooms which are only metres from the white powder beach. The design erases boundaries between the lodge and the natural splendour of Ras Mbisi.
- Eco Shamba Kilole Lodge (Former Shamba Kilole Lodge), Utende Kiegeani (Opposite the gate of the Marine Park.), ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. It consists of a plot of five hectares with secular trees and a spectacular view of Kilole Bay and the islands of Chole, Juani and Jibondo. This lodge is also a PADI resort.
Mange is an atoll on the far western edge of the archipelago and lying in the Mafia Channel. It is a stunning place with a sand island – cay – exposed at low tide and an excellent coral reef for snorkelling and good diving on the deeper channel side.
This is a full-day excursion on the dhow “Papara” with picnic lunch and barbecued fish on the beach. A sun shade canopy is erected to protect travelers and cold drinks are included, which is very useful in the hot environment and on the homeward journey when sundowners are "mandatory".