The thing that I love the most about travel is new discovery and finding experiences that leave an indelible mark on me and on the people I meet. On my most recent adventure, I visited Mafia Island. Though similar in some ways to Zanzibar with its Arab influence and history as a major trading post, Mafia has managed to keep over development at bay and maintain its unique character.
Discovering Mafia Island
About a year ago, while searching for destinations to add to my ever growing list of places to travel to for eco-friendly experiences, I discovered this small island off the coast of Tanzania, not far from Zanzibar and the capital, Dar Es Salaam. The idyllic images of swaying palm trees, miles of undisturbed beaches, crystal clear water evokes a feeling of pure bliss and I knew that Mafia Island was a place that needed to go on my list.
It sits in the shadow of it’s more famous sibling, Zanzibar, so this means that it’s a place yet to be discovered by the majority of tourists or large hotels. Unless you’re an avid diver, live in Tanzania or do a specific search like I did, you won’t know about Mafia Island. And unlike Zanzibar, which is accessible by boat from Dar Es Salaam, Mafia is only accessible by air from Dar Es Salaam, making it a little more isolated and undisturbed. Booking these flights is easy through several commercial providers including Coastal Aviation, Tropical Air and Auric Air.
The island is located in the Indian Ocean about 134 km (83.26 mi) southeast of Dar Es Salaam, so the flight was only about 40 minutes. Taking off and flying over the countryside, then the city, then over turquoise blue water dotted with small islands on such a small plane, you’ll feel as though you’re soaring without the aid of a plane and you will almost feel the wind in your face when you close your eyes.
Reasons to visit Mafia Island
There are many great reasons to visit this hidden gem, but here are a few that top my list:
Staying at one-of-a-kind locally built and run lodges that reflect the personality and culture of the island. Culture is expressed in many ways and one of them is through architecture. The lodges on the island are not only unique to each individual operator, but also the local vernacular of Mafia Island and gives you an experience you’ll only find there. Each one works to respect and preserve the environment, lessening their impact on the precious resources that draw many travelers to the island by using local materials, design and construction techniques.
Lounging on pristine, powdery, white sand beaches with coconut palms gently swaying in the ocean breeze are not only idyllic scenes from movies, but something that everyone can enjoy while on Mafia. The beaches, sunsets, sunrises and calming waters make it easy to truly be in the moment, taking in the beauty of your surroundings and the luxury of doing nothing at all.
Eating some of the best, fresh caught seafood is another awesome reason to visit Mafia. The waters surrounding the island provide some of the best seafood you’ll find in that part of the country. The chefs at each lodge that I visited serve the catch of the day by preparing it in the simplest way to highlight its freshness and bring out the best flavors.
Nature lovers will not be disappointed by Mafia. Whether you’re an avid bird watcher, diver or falling somewhere in between, you’ll find plenty of ways to enjoy the various flora, fauna and sea life of the island and the surrounding waters. With over 139 species of birds, protected forests, mangroves, numerous species of fish, rays and of course, the star of the show, the graceful whale shark there are endless ways to enjoy nature.
Last, but certainly not least, Mafia Island also has a rich trading history, similar to Zanzibar, and evidence of that history is scattered around the island, as well as the smaller islands of Juani and Chole. Mafia Island was once an important stop for ancient ships from Egypt, Greece, Rome and Portugal. Enjoying your beach holiday while learning about the people who first inhabited the islands adds yet another layer to the rich experiences that are all around.
Popular activities to try while on Mafia Island
The east side of Mafia Island, which includes Chole Bay, lies within a protected marine park that provides the perfect environment for exploring reefs that teem with fish and other sea life. For this reason, it’s a divers paradise. Because the island still exists in relative anonymity and is unknown to the majority of tourists, the reefs surrounding the islands thrive with over 50 types of coral and 400 species of fish. If you’re new to diving and are looking to get certified, there are dive shops that offer you the chance to get the training you need to enjoy the depths.
Snorkeling with whale sharks is another incredible way to enjoy your time on Mafia. These enormous, graceful creatures migrate to the waters surrounding the islands every year to mate and feed. The experience is carefully orchestrated by the local guides, care is taken to protect them and make your interactions with them as safe as possible. Though these giants are sharks, they only feed on plankton as they gently make their way through the waters. The sharks are not fed nor are they lured into the area, as is done in some countries, making your experience even more special because you’re not guaranteed to see them. If your guides do manage to spot them, into the water you go for a side by side swim with these amazing creatures.
Have you ever wanted to swim in the Blue Lagoon? Yes, it’s a real place and it exists on Juani Island. Accessible by a 15 minute boat ride from Mafia Island, the lagoon is a secret treasure within a treasure. The side of the island where the lagoon is accessed comes into sight after passing through the clear, shallow waters between Chole and Juani. Once on the small beach where your boat will anchor, it’s an easy 3 minute climb up through the brush, to the top of the island. A clearing reveals a hidden swimming lagoon roughly 12 ft (3.5 m) below with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. Your guides will help you climb down into the water for one the most unbelieveable swims, second only to the whale sharks of course.
The islands of Mafia, Juani and Chole all have histories mired in trade. The remnants of that history are scattered around each of the islands and provide an opportunity to step back into time, allowing your imagination to see and hear the bustling of days past as you make your way through the ruins. The tiny island of Chole and larger Juani, are both about 10-15 minute rides across Chole Bay from Mafia Island by dhow, a traditional wooden boat built by craftsmen on the island. Guides take you on walks around each island where you’ll learn about some of the people who ruled and inhabited those areas. Some of the most popular are the Kua Ruins on Juani Island, which date back to the 12th century. These tours are not only interesting, but help to give you a better understanding of how the people in the region lived long ago and the traditions that live on today.
One thing to note when walking around on tours or exploring the islands outside of the lodge grounds and beaches, is that the majority of inhabitants are Muslim and appropriate dress is required. This means modest clothing for both men and women, no exposed shoulders, chests or knees. Shorts to the knee for men, skirts below the knee for women and shirts that cover the shoulders and chest areas for both are required. Though there are no written rules on the type of swimsuits allowed at the lodges, locals do use the beaches to access boats going between the islands, for fishing and everyday life. To be respectful of the local culture, leave your skimpiest bikinis at home.
Beautiful bungalows and beach accommodations
There are several options for accommodations, from budget to boutique. Butiama Beach is closest to the airport, less than a 10 minute ride, and offers beautiful bungalows that are gently sprinkled around the property to give maximum privacy and to take advantage of beach views. Each one has a very large sitting area outside complete with sofa, table and chairs for morning coffee and, of course, a hammock. No need to worry about dodging the sun because the sitting area is underneath coconut palm thatched roof, typical of the island. Each of the 12 bungalows are light, airy and designed to catch each breeze from the sea so there’s no need for air-con. The price is around 250 USD (543,797.45 TZS) per night and includes food, non-alcoholic drinks plus all the sun and beach lounging you could ever want.
They also have a dive shop called Big Blu where all of the excursions take place from. If you’re just going to Mafia for the diving, Big Blu offers accommodation right on site, otherwise it’s about a 15 minute drive to and from the lodge for all excursions. If you just want to stay at the lodge, they also offer kayaking, a pool with beach view, lounge space at the bar or a walk up the beach to see the local fisherman pulling in their catch of the day. Operated by Maura and her husband Moes, this is a great choice if you want to be near the airport.
Another accommodation option is Meremeta Lodge. This lodge had the most unique story because the owner, the lodge’s namesake, built it on his family’s land and his mother still lives in the house that he was born in further back on the property. Meremeta is a budget accommodation with 8 rooms, for around 50 USD (108,759.49 TZS) per night, the owner and staff make you feel like you’re staying with friends. The property is filled with beautiful gardens and each room has a comfortable sitting area at the front, shaded by the coconut palm thatched roof that’s typical of the island. The lodge is not on the beach, but they arrange all excursions from diving and snorkeling with the whale sharks to island tours and bike rides. Meremeta’s brother, Ali, also offers deep sea fishing excursions, catch and release of course.
A third option is Mafia Lodge, the largest of the accommodations that I visited with 28 rooms and also has a very relaxed and comfortable vibe to it. The large dining/lounge area is huge and open with few walls, allowing the sea breeze to make its way into the lodge from the beach. The rooms are laid out in a more traditional hotel style manner, not the bungalow style of the smaller lodges. The rooms are quite comfortable; I stayed in a room with twin beds. They each have air-conditioning and a ceiling fan for maximum comfort. Iris and her husband Juliano were perfect hosts. At around 100 USD (217,518.98 TZS) per night, it's the perfect middle ground.
Though you won’t need to worry about cash while at the lodges, if you plan to go into town to buy souvenirs, for tips or anything else outside of the lodges, you’ll need to carry some Tanzanian shillings with you. This is the local currency and there is a bank with an ATM in Kilindoni where you can stop on your way to your lodge as you leave the airport.
Planning your trip
The best time to visit Mafia Island depends on why you’re going. Mafia lies just south of the equator and there aren’t drastic swings in the temperature to worry about as there would be with places further south. The temperatures are pretty consistent year round, about 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius), it’s the humidity and the rains that will determine whether you’ll be able to make the most of your time there. The humidity and temperatures are highest from about November until April, falling in May through August and starting their climb again in September.
As far as activities are concerned, diving is something that can pretty much be enjoyed year round, except when the lodges are closed during the rainiest months of April and May. If swimming with whale sharks is what you’re going for, November to March is the best time to spot them. Leisurely beach time, tours, swimming and any other activities can be enjoyed year round, except of course during the rainy months. Since there aren’t the crowds that you’ll find on Zanzibar, the weather will likely be the main determining factor in when you visit the island.
Mafia Island truly surprised me because it was so easy to get to and easy to get around once there. Most of the unique eco-friendly resorts that I’ve been to have required planes, boats, automobiles and hours of time getting there, once I was in country! Having experienced the friendliness of the locals, great food, awesome activities and undeniable natural beauty, it’s a place that I’ll continue visit for many years to come.