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.
You might also want to check out my other Tanzania guides:
- Tanzania Itinerary & budget
- Visiting Zanzibar on a budget
- The top things to do in Tanzania
- Tanzania safari guide
Getting there and around on a budget;
You will firstly need to get an international flight into Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. From here, the easiest and quickest way to get to Mafia Island is to fly. You then have 2 options to get to Mafia Island, either flight or ferry.
Flying to Mafia Island
The flights leave from Dar es Salaam and cost roughly $140 in advance (with either Coastal 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 (apparently they will give you the local price if you book in person within 2 weeks of the flight, although I’m not sure how true this is). I have also been told that if you can be flexible, it is possible to haggle an even cheaper last-minute deal.
For the cheapest flight booked in advance, speak to Afro Whale Shark who is able to offer reduced discounts on the flights as he works directly with the airline.
How to get a ferry to Mafia Island
Another option is to take the local ferry (MV Bacara) costing 16,000 TSH (roughly $8 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.
The ferry to Mafia leaves from the mainland at Nyamasati. You can catch a bus here from Dar es Salaam Bagala bus station. The bus takes about 4 hours (but can take longer with traffic) and leaves regularly throughout the day. The last bus is at around 5pm, but it is best to leave by 2pm.
The ferry leaves Nyamasati ferry dock at 3am in the morning every day. Tickets can be bought when you arrive at the ferry dock.
There is a guest house in the village or you can wait (like most people do) overnight at the ferry dock.
The ferry ride can be pretty bumpy and isn’t the most comfortable so is a little adventurous. Don’t expect to be getting much sleep. It usually takes 4 hours to arrive but like most things in Tanzania, although delays are common!
Getting around on Mafia Island
Mafia Island is very small. If you are staying in Kilindoni, everything is within walking distance. In the centre is the 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.
There are Tuk-Tuks on the island and this is the most common way to get around. A 10-minute tuk-tuk ride is usually in the region of 5,000TSH (roughly $2.5).
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.
My honest opinion on the budget options on Mafia:
Whale Shark Lodge
Stay in traditional bungalows in a really fantastic setting at Whale Shark Lodge. Rooms are very large and have an en-suite bathroom. There is a fan in each room and large bed with a mosquito net.
The hangout area in Whale Shark lodge really is its biggest draw. The setting is beautiful and overlooks the sea where you can sometimes even spot the whale sharks. The staff here are great and the atmosphere relaxed and quiet. There is a mangrove beach a short walk from the lodge.
Killiondoni is about a 20-25 minute walk away or a 5-minute tuktuk.
At the time of writing, whale shark lodge was roughly $25 per person per night.
The downside to Whale Shark Lodge is the cost of the food. Lunch is $10 and dinner $15. Although the meals are 3 courses this is very pricey. There are cheap local restaurants nearby where you can pick up a meal for just a couple of dollars or you can try negotiating for a full-board deal.
Another option is Ibizza Inn costing around $30 per person per night (including breakfast). It’s really hard for me to recomend this place over the other options in this price range.
Firstly the good points – the rooms are spotless, you get a king size bed with mosquito net, an en-suite and (the best draw) air conditioning!!
Killidoni is on your doorstep with the market just outside.
The restaurant sits in a treetop setting. The view is nice and sometimes you can see interesting wildlife. However, we had a number of problems staying here. Firstly the loud music from the bar (which is right by the rooms) and the drunk locals that use the bar regularly for football nights. Twice we came back to find our door wide open with all our stuff on view and no-one in sight because the cleaning staff had left it like this.
The restaurant offers meals at around $5 but I don’t have a good word to say about the food. Service is painfully slow (sometimes up to 3.5 hours!) and on lots of occasions, we found hair and bugs in the food which really wasn’t pleasant.
Be wary of booking your whale shark tour with Ibizza Inn as well. Their boat is small, has canoes attached to the side making them impossible to get in and out (kind of essential when swimming with sharks!) and I really don’t think it is safe or seaworthy. Be adamant and very clear if you want to book with another tour company as they will sometimes say they have and will then stick you on the small boat!
Afro Beach Bungalows
There is also Afro Beach Bungalows. They are basic but on a beautiful stretch of beach making this place great value for money. At the time writing a beach bungalow cost around $30 per person per night (including breakfast).
Killiondoni is about a 20-25 minute walk away or a 5-minute tuktuk.
The bungalows are basic and smaller than Whale Shark lodge but you do get a large bed with mosquito net and an en-suite bathroom. Just a few steps from your door, you are on the beach where you can swim at high tide and sometimes spot whale sharks.
The staff are really lovely here but a little inexperienced with customer service making them a bit shy. But the place is quiet and relaxed and the nightly sunsets memorable.
On a really tight budget??
Afro also offers camping options. For $5 per person with your own tent or $10 per person using their tent. This includes breakfast.
There are also some Airbnb options, some involving renting a room with a local. This is a very affordable option and a great way to get to know the Islanders. If you decide to stay in an Airbnb, click on this link to get £25 off your first booking.
Other Mafia Island budget accommodation options
I haven’t seen or stayed in these places but there is also:
- 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
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).
Want a bit more luxury?
If you are willing to stretch to $50 per person per night, you can stay at Bustani B&B. Bustani is in a relaxed location about an 8-minute tuktuk ride from Kilindoni, although can feel a little out the way.
The rooms are airconditioned and very clean and comfortable. You get a great pool. You can also get access to their sister hotel, Butiyama, which sits on the other side of Kilindoni on the beach and oozes luxury!
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.
- After the whale sharks, my next favourite activity was visiting the Lagoon in Marine Park. It really is spectacular. You can swim and see the upside down jelly fish.
- 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 ideas, check out: 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.
- The island also has hippos!! You can’t get particularly close to them as they are wild but it’s pretty weird seeing them in an island setting. It’s a 30-minute drive from Killindoni to get to the hippo lake. Some locals say there are only about 7 left and they are a little elusive so sightings aren’t guaranteed. A taxi there cost us about $15.
Where to eat on Mafia Island on a budget
Note that restaurants on the island are SLOW! It’s not unusual to wait 2 hours for food to arrive. I got into the habit of ordering my meals at breakfast time!!
Ibizza Inn has a restaurant that offers western interpretations if you are bored of the local food. I find it hard to recommend them as I found hair and bugs in the food more than once and service was beyond ridiculous sometimes! Meals are roughly 10,000TSH ($5). They have a great bar/restaurant area sat in the forest overlooking palm trees and the surrounding wildlife. It’s also a great place to grab a beer costing 3000TSH (roughly $1.50). Soda costs 1000TSH (roughly $0.50). Ask to eat in the garden by candlelight where you have a good chance at spotting the bushbabies!
Afro Beach Bungalows also serves food. Prices are a little higher but still reasonable and can eat on the beach by candlelight. It is very beautiful so worth splashing out for a romantic night on the beach!
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 1,500-2,000TSH (roughly $0.75-$1). 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
- I felt very safe on the Island and never had any issues with people being aggressive or hassling me, even at night.
- If you catch a flight over from Dar es Salaam, 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 Salaam 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. There are ATM’s on the Island but I heard of tourists having issues withdrawing money.
- 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!
Visiting Mafia Island on a budget
Have any questions or words of inspiration? Post in the comments box below.
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