Now is the time to visit Mafia Island, while it remains relatively hidden. On this small island you will find beautiful beaches, a slow pace of life and friendly, shy locals. Depending on the season, you can swim with whale sharks, spot humpback whales and see Turtles nesting. This island is the definition of relaxation and completely doable for budget backpackers.
Getting there and around on a budget
You will firstly need to get an international flight into Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salam. From here, the easiest and quickest way to get to Mafia Island is to fly. The flights leave from Dar es Salam and cost roughly $140 in advance (with either Costal Air, Tropical Air or Auric Air). We booked directly with the agent at the airport the day before and were charged the local rate, $75 one way. I have also been told that if you can be flexible, it is possible to haggle an even cheaper last minute deal.
Another option is to take the local ferry (MV Bacara) costing 15,000 TSH (roughly $7.5 one way). It is not uncommon for the ferry to be grounded for repair and, although there are smaller private boats that do the crossing, it is not advised to take these as they have no safety measures on board. To get to the ferry port, you will also need to travel 4 hours from Dar es Salam to Nyamisati via dala-dala. Accidents on these boats are frequent and the journey is long. My recomendation is to fly.
Mafia Island is very small. If you are staying in Kilindoni, everything is within walking distance. In the centre is a main road and a market. From here, the airport is 5 minutes (walk), the port 5 minutes and a swimmable beach 15 minutes, with all restaurants and bars sat in between. To travel to the marine park, on the other side of the Island, it takes half an hour and you will need a taxi, although if you do a tour a transfer will be included. Most of the accommodation on the island will also come and pick you up from the airport if you ask.
Cheap accommodation on Mafia Island
If you visit (or stay) in the Mafia Island Marine Park you need to pay a fee of $20 per person per day, not ideal for budget backpackers. To avoid the fees, stay in Kilindoni, the capital of the island. Note that everything in Kilindoni is very ‘local’ and there are barely any western food options or hotel bar/restaurants. I only saw 1 other tourist in the area on my 1 week stay. I loved it and staying here will allow you to experience the real side of Mafia Island.
In the centre, is a decent sized market and a handful of local restaurants and bars. Behind the main street are lots of residential areas with food and drink options – I felt very safe wandering these areas and looking at the wooden houses. All excursions and activities on the Island are easy to get to from this location and the Marine Park is easy to access so I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
While on Mafia Island I stayed at Ibizza Inn (WhatsApp +255658653160) – 2 people sharing a double room cost roughly $30 a night. Honestly, this place is fantastic, the owner is a very sweet guy and offers incredible value. There may be room for negotiation if you are staying longer.
I really enjoyed my stay here – perfect location, beautiful setting, clean rooms with air-con, free wifi, breakfast included and the staff were beyond helpful and friendly. The place also has a great bar and restaurant surrounded by a palm tree forest.
There are very few other options in the area. Currently, they include:
- New Lizu, $40 a night based on 2 sharing a double (note I have heard mixed reviews online)
- Moams Hotel, $50 a night based on 2 sharing a double
- Whale Shark Lodge, $50 a night based on 2 sharing a double. Camping is possible here, price on demand (also has mixed reviews online)
- (coming soon) Afro Whale Shark Beach Camp, offering camping and beach bungalow options
If you want to stay in the Marine Park, Mafia Beach Bungalows cost $46 a night based on 2 sharing a double (don’t forget to add $20 per person per night marine park fee though).
Things to do on Mafia Island
For all the activities below, I can fully recommend using Afro Whale Sharks. He offers some of the best prices on Mafia Island for activities. Afro, the founder and a local on the Island, is extremely helpful and organised everything that we wanted to do. This included arranging our accommodation and coming to meet us off the plane. Although you can book things in advance, it is quite easy to organise activities when you arrive. You will get a discount if you book multiple tours.
- If you are in season (October – February), you must go snorkelling with the whale sharks. It was an amazing experience. Swimming with these creatures is a humbling and surreal experience. It was one of the most memorable things I have ever done. Afro Safari Tours cost $60 per person which includes transfers, gear, water and snacks.
- The Island also offer Turtle Hatching tours and boat trips to try and spot the Humpback Whales during certain months.
- Although we stayed outside the Marine Park to avoid the $20 per person per day fees, it is worth a visit. At least 1 day to relax on the beach and 1 day to enjoy the activities on offer. The best can be seen on a day tour. Near the Marine Park is an even smaller Island called Chole. We headed there in a traditional Dhow boat and stopped at the reefs along the way for snorkelling. (Costing $25 each for transport, gear and water).
- After snorkelling, for lunch, stop on Marimbani, which is a sandbank that only appears for a few hours each day. Our guide set up some shade and we ate lunch (cost depending on what you order), entirely alone except for the dozens of crabs that were scuttling about. It was bliss!
- Following lunch, we went to Chole. We saw where the dhow boats are made and also an area where hundreds of Flying Fox Fruit Bats, the world’s largest bats, are nesting. It was amazing to see. Getting there also involves walking through the village and you get to see traditional life for Tanzanians.
Diving is another popular activity, although quite pricey. Big Blu Diving are one of the cheapest and, as is often the case with diving, the more you do the better the deal you will get. Big Blu Diving also offer accommodation (with high-end budget options) and diving packages if you are coming to the Island just to dive.
For more on activities on the Island, check out my blog: Top 10 things to do on Mafia Island
Free and cheap things to do on Mafia Island
- The Island is really small so don’t come here expecting to do a lot. Really, this is the perfect destination for relaxation.
- If you stay in Kilindoni, there are a number of deserted beaches (except maybe the occasional local) you can get to either by walking or by taking a local taxi. Both Afro and the staff at Ibizza Inn helped with directions and showing me hidden spots on Mafia Island.
- Spend a morning or afternoon wandering Kilindoni market. Be sure to try out some of the sweet fruit that the stall holders sell and, of course, a coconut. There are a number of ‘restaurants’ where you can stop for a drink. The locals are welcoming, accepting and good humoured – spend time chatting with people you meet. There are some local bars but they are hard to find so you will need to ask for directions.
- The port is about a 10 minute walk from the centre of Kilindoni where you can watch the fishermen coming and going in their dhow boats and sitting around fixing their nets. If you are friendly enough, you might even be able to blag a ride with them for a few hours (check they have life jackets). DOn’t forget to buy them a drink or lunch to say thank you, most of the fisherman live a hand to mouth existence.
- Go to a local bar to try a Coconut Beer. This naturally fermented drink is an acquired taste but the locals like it and it is exceptionally cheap at 1000TSH for a bottle (roughly $0.50). 1 bottle is more than enough for 2 to get quite drunk!
- We were lucky enough to be on the Island for New Years eve where we had a memorable night partying with the locals around a bonfire on the beach. The capital has a couple of local clubs that get lively on the weekends. Occasionally there are parties on the beach, especially for big occasions. Expect lots of attention if you are women or a group of women travelling without men.
Where to eat on Mafia Island on a budget
Ibizza Inn has a nice restaurant. Although you will pay considerably more that the local restaurants, the food is to a higher standard and there is more variety. Plus they have a great bar/restaurant area sat in the forrest overlooking palm trees and the surrounding wildlife. They can be slow to serve so be patient or order in advance (especially if you want western food). It’s also a great place to grab a beer costing 2,500TSH (roughly $1.25)
Kilindoni has a number of local restaurants. I call them restaurants but really they are women who set up a small table and a couple of chairs in the market around lunch and dinner time. They only serve 1 meal (usually rice, chapatti, beans, chicken and sometimes chips). For a vegetarian meal I was charged 1,500TSH (roughly $0.75). I’m sure that this was the tourist price! Costing only 100TSH, chapatis make a tasty and cheap snack (roughly $0.05).
The market is a great place to pick up fruit and snacks. From mangos, pineapples, coconuts and bananas. I never paid more than 100TSH (roughly $0.50) and they will cut it up for you so you can eat it straight away. From time to time you might also be able to find Samosa and cakes in the market.
The only other places to eat are in the hotels and lodges where you can expect high prices.
Top Tips for visiting Mafia Island
- If you catch a flight over from Dar es Salam, ask the pilot if you can sit in the front. The airline sells the co pilot seat as a ticket. This means that you can get a great front row seat of the Island as you fly in.
- Flight delays into Dar es Salam are extremely common. I met around 10 other travellers, myself included, who missed their connecting flight to the island due to delays. If this happens, you might be able to wrangle moving your flight with just a fee to pay, although I ended up losing the full cost. Stay a night in Dar to be sure this doesn’t happen. Equally, losing bags is common (as I found out the hard way as well! It took a week to be returned with my luggage). Keep medication, chargers and a change of clothes in your hand luggage – just in case!
- There is very little available on the Island so bring all the toiletries and items that you need with you.
- Bring all the cash you will need with you. Get yourself a Source money belt to carry and hide the money comfortably
- Sea urchins are plentiful here so be wary when swimming from the shore. Bring a pair of sandals or beach shoes with you that you can wear in the sea.
- Afro is a local guide who is well worth getting in touch with. He specialises in budget travel on the Island (and is currently building a camp site on the beach). He can organise any trip that you want to do and will meet you from the airport, book your accommodation and take you out partying if that is your scene. If you book multiple tours through him, you can haggle a package price. He also accepts supply donations if you would like to give some pens or books to the local school.
- Spend time getting to know the locals…it will be a highlight of your trip!
If you are planning a visit to Mafia Island, you might want to check out: Top 10 Things to do on Mafia Island.