Further north into Mozambique are the untouched, pristine islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago. A forty minute plane ride or five hour car ride from Pemba town, this group of islands is the stuff of dreams. It’s the beach that all other beaches wish they could be. Look no further than this archipelago for the most picturesque, dramatic, and beautiful beaches in the world.
Pemba Town and getting there
Having spent a few days in Ilha De Mozambique, it was time to leave that magical town lost in time and make my way to Mozambique’s ultimate beaches. I learnt about the Quirimbas after reading through various blogs and the pictures I saw were so incredible, I knew I couldn’t leave Africa without a visit. Aside from a few blogs however, doing any research on this place was near impossible.
The Quirimbas is an archipelago, not easily accessible by the mainland. The nearest major town is Pemba, once a sleepy port town is now a fast developing and booming ex-pat town. The reason for all this? The largest natural gas reserves in the world were discovered here a few years back. Foreign investment has flooded into this region. New roads have been built, hundreds of apartments/hotels have come up, and general costs of the region have likely quadrupled in the past few years.
Chappa from Ilha De Mozambique to Pemba
From Ilha De Mozambique, reaching Pemba can be done easily by chappa (public transport), one from Ilha to Namiolo, and then to Pemba. Chappas will drive all around Ilha in the early morning picking up people along the way. The people at my hostel in Ilha told me to walk outside with my bags, sit on a bench, and someone would come pick me up. What?? Are they for reals?
I walked out of my hostel a little before 4am and within 5 minutes, a chappa with five people stopped. The driver asked me where I was going, and told me to get in. Wow. That was it. Who would have thought the public transportation of Mozambique was such a highly efficient, organized, operation.
We drove around the island for another half hour, picking up more people, before finally departing with a jam packed van full of locals, and me, the only foreigner. An hour later, the driver dropped me off on the side of the road in Namiolo and told me to wait for a chappa going towards Pemba.
Hitch-hiking to Pemba
Now I was just on the side of the highway, where the locals were setting up their stands for the day. I wanted some breakfast, and not speaking a word of Portuguese, I handed 10 mets (30 cents) to some ladies selling pao (delicious, slightly sweetened bread), not knowing how many I would receive. She handed me three huge pieces! With another 20 mts, I handed it to a guy selling bananas, not knowing what I’d get. I was expecting 2-3 bananas, but received at least twenty. I ended up giving most of them back to random locals walking on the street. I was the star attraction by this point and everyone was looking over at me. Good times.
Half hour goes by and no chappa is in sight. I’m a bit worried at this point but a pick up truck stops, and I recognize the driver, a guy I had met in Ilha de Mozambique while eating coconuts! Turns out, he lived in Pemba and was headed back after a weekend trip to Ilha. Score! Another hitch-hiking experience to add to the list!
Pemba town is not that nice
I had originally planned to stay in Pemba for a few nights to do some diving, but upon arrival, there was nowhere to stay near Wimbe Beach, the most scenic area of Pemba town. Russell’s Place was my first option, and having not made any reservations ahead of time, I was told all their dorm rooms were full. Searching around Pemba, there were no cheap options left.
Hotels have become so price inflated by all the natural gas money, with prices well over 3000 mts a night ($100). Pemba Dive and Bush camp was the only option left but they’re far away from the beach, with still relatively expensive rooms, and NO longer has diving. To top it all off, Pemba is not that nice of a place. Perhaps once upon a time, it was a lost beach getaway but it has been so built up by the discovery of gas that it just feels like an industrial town now.
Thankfully, I bumped into the couple I had met in Ilha de Mozambique and they were flying to Ibo Island, gateway to the Quirimbas, in an hour. I had just spent a few hours walking around Pemba trying to find a place to stay, but perhaps it was a sign that there was no reason to spend any time in Pemba.
Getting to the Quirimbas
Getting to the the Quirimbas Archipelago is no easy feat. Most visits to the Quirimbas will begin on Ibo Island, a quiet, sleepy village north of Pemba. From Ibo, one can take dhows to visit the surrounding islands. There are essentially three options to get to Ibo:
Chappas regularly run from Pemba, and head to Quissinga, where ferries are waiting to take people to Ibo Island. A chappa to Quissinga is ~200mts (~6$). I’ve heard from people the drive from Pemba to Quissinga is pot-hole ridden, and incredibly uncomfortable.
Taxis can be arranged from Pemba to Quissinga for around ~$200-300, with a ferry then taking you to Ibo. These can usually be arranged with the guesthouse/hotel in Ibo.
From Pemba airport, there are a few private airlines that fly from Pemba to the Quirimbas. These planes are mostly meant for the high rollers that stay on the private island resorts (like Medjumbe and Vazimba) and most backpackers would never consider this.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t so keen to spend 5 hours on a bumpy road, nor did I feel like spending even a single night in Pemba so I ended up paying about $200 for a one way flight to Ibo Island.
Ibo Island Guide
Located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, in the Quirimbas Archipelago, Ibo Island is one of the most ancient settlements in Mozambique with a history dating back as early as 600AD when Arab merchants set up trading posts here for gold, ivory and slaves to be shipped to the Arab world. Those days ended when Vasco da Gama arrived, marking the Portuguese colonization of the island in the early 1600′s and ending in 1974 when they abruptly left.
Ibo Island is like a smaller version of Ilha De Mozambique; it’s deserted, untouched by time, and hauntingly beautiful. One can walk the length of the island in a half hour, stopping to admire the decaying colonial buildings and colorful mangroves.
The locals are not accustomed to seeing tourists, but will always wave hello and smile. People here are just as relaxed as the tourists that come here seeking relaxation. Pictures don’t do this place justice, as it just makes this place look like a crumbling village. One really needs to visit this place in person to appreciate how unique it is.
Where to stay in the Quirimbas
Being likely the most desolate, and undeveloped place I’ve ever visited, there aren’t many places to stay. Ibo Island is about as rustic as any beach destination gets. However, be warned that this is NOT a cheap destination. There are no $5 hostels here and no cheap restaurants. In fact, I’m not sure if there are any restaurants on this island not affiliated with a hotel/guesthouse. Be prepared to spend money! I spent a week in this place and I only saw three options:
A quaint little guesthouse with dorm rooms and bedrooms near the ocean. Their dorms go for 800 mts a night and this is probably the cheapest option on the island.
Medium sized guesthouse with nice, well-maintained bedrooms. Rooms start at $65 a night. I ended up staying here all nights except the last.
Ibo Island Lodge:
The high end option on the island, this is a luxury lodge with luxury prices. It has beautiful rooms, pool, and ocean view. Rooms are close to $500 a night but the trick here is to make a reservation by walk-in. I ended up staying a night for $120 (for 1 person) just to treat myself on my last day.
Feel like a high roller? There are private islands in the Quirimbas meant for the ultra-luxurious beach paradise getaway. Medjumbe, Vamizi, and Quilalea are all private resorts with the $1000+ per person per night price tags. These islands are not near Ibo Island, but require a private plane to reach.
Edit June, 2015:
So while I did not discover any budget options on my visit to the Quirimbas, Lucie, the owner of Baobibo, emailed and informed me of other budget options; homestays, small guesthouses etc. that are available all over Ibo Island. Most of these options are run by locals, and likely the reason there’s zero information about them on TripAdvisor or anywhere on the internet. So for fellow backpackers that are thinking twice about visiting the Quirimbas because of expensive lodging costs, there are other options!
Where to Eat on Ibo
@ Benjamin – in Benji’s own courtyard, Rituto – nice large servings of local improved food such as matapa, shrimps, fish, etc… order same morning latest as Benjamin is often busy with guiding in the day. Port/English speaking. 150-200 Mts
@ Mariamo – in Mariamo’s own courtyard, Kumuamba – one table, unique community experience, delicious food. Order day before, only Portuguese speaking. 200-250 Mts
@ James & Flo – new little place recently opened by ibo-longtimers on the marginale. Creative cooks, varied buffet, best deal in town. Order one-two days in advance as will try to combine with other guests. 300-350 Mts
@ Ana’s Azukari & Munhi – good cook but need to reserve in the morning to be sure of portions. Best to ask what is available. 250-350 Mts
@ Archipelago – on beach next to the jetty. Specialty grilled calamari and chicken.
As Ibo Island welcomes more tourism, and I assure everyone, that the day will come when Ibo becomes a tourist hotspot, real restaurants and more hotels will open up. Until then, enjoy this place for what it is now, because there aren’t many places like it in the world.
Diving on Ibo Island
Diving in this part of the world is something special. The corals are so colorful and there is an abundance of fish. The dive sites here do not get many visitors so the conditions are still pristine. Ibo Island Lodge is the only dive shop on the island and while it is the most expensive diving I’ve ever done ($75 for one dive), it was totally worth it. Lorrayne, perhaps the only divemaster on the island, is one of the best and most enthusiastic DMs I’ve ever had the pleasure of diving with.
Although there are no big fish to see in this part of the country, the intense colors and schools of different types of fish are more than enough reason to go. This is likely some of the best diving Ive ever done. The best diving in the world, is still hands down Komodo, Indonesia. It’s a shame I was only able to dive once! I could have dived the same site we did for a week without being bored.
Sailing the Quirimbas Archipelago
The highlight of my trip to Mozambique was sailing through the Quirimbas Archipelago. We chartered a motored dhow from our hotel Miti Mwiri for a 2 day/1 night adventure, sailing from Ibo Island to Rolas Island, and Matemo for $200. Thankfully, there were others staying at the hotel to split the cost with.
I think in years past, one could just walk up to the local fisherman and could have done a similar trip for a fraction of the price but Mozambique has become far more expensive in recent years due to its gas discovery. Nevertheless, it is a small price to pay to see the Quirimbas.
Our day started early, as we packed all our stuff into the dhow for the night ahead. We set sail first for Rolas Island, a small island 2 hours north of Ibo Island by boat, home to a handful of fisherman. We sail next to schools of dolphins before finally reaching our lunch stop. Rolas Island is known for its coconut crabs, the largest crabs in the world. Sadly, we didn’t get to see any.
The most beautiful beaches in the world!
Wow. Just wow. The beaches are blindingly white and the impossibly turquoise waters are crystal clear. We chilled here, taking some pictures, and snorkeling before turning our attention to the fisherman sorting through their catch of fresh octopus. This place is so untouched by tourism that even offering to buy the octopus from them drew confused looks. They were so bewildered and so not worried about making a quick buck that we literally had to write “100” (100 mts= 3$) in the sand before they realized we wanted to buy octopus from them. It would be our dinner later that night.
We left Rolas after three or four hours (far too short in my opinion) to sail to Matemo Island where we would stay the night. Matemo is a large island that used to have a ultra-luxury lodge (the remnants still exist on the island) but is now only home to locals. One of these locals set up a campsite for adventure seeking tourists like us to stay on the island. It’s nothing fancy at all, but there’s a mattress, mosquito net, and they cooked dinner for all of us, including the five octopus we bought from the fisherman on Rolas!
Walking around Matemo Island
The next morning, I woke with the sunrise and walked around the island. If the locals on Ibo Island weren’t used to seeing tourists, Matemo was even more so this way. Everyone looked at me with baffled faces but as I waved hello, smiles and waves back are all I received in return. We walked to the beach and watched as the tide came in.
Matemo island is a large atoll, and high/low tide can be a few kilometers. Watching the tide come in and the dramatic colors that come with it, along with picturesque dhows sailing in the distance is just incredible.
The beach on Matemo is a long stretch of soft sand, overlooking the clearest and bluest waters I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen plenty of nice beaches in my day but the beaches in the Quirimbas are on another level. These are the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen. We were the only people on the beach as well, impossible to find in this day and age.
We hung out here for most of the day, taking pictures and snorkeling, and just reveling in how unbelievably beautiful this place is. There may be other beaches in the world with comparable conditions, but it’ll be near impossible to find a place so secluded, so untouched by the world.
Quirimba Island Mangrove Tour
Quirimba Island, not to be confused with the Quirimbas Archipelago is one of the many islands in the archipelago (Ibo, Matemo, Vamizi, Rolas etc.). From Ibo Island, there is a popular day trip walking through the giant mangrove forest during low tide to Quirimba, and sailing back during the afternoon high tide.
It’s a full day trip and timing is crucial as low/high tides are so extreme in this place. We had to start our hike no later than 8:30am towards Quirimba island. The walking paths were mostly dry at this point but within a few hours, we’d have to swim.
Desert in the Ocean
I wasn’t sure what this day trip was about or what there was to see on Quirimba island, I just tagged along to give me something to do for a day. Turns out, after the long and somewhat arduous hour long hike through the mangroves, we came upon the beach linking Ibo and Quirimba island. During low tide, it’s as if the two islands are one! There is blindingly white sand for miles and miles and it felt like I was in the salt pan of the Etosha. It’s crazy to think that within a few hours, this beach we were standing on would be a few meters deep in water.
There’s not much to do on this island besides walk around the village and hang out on the beach. The intensity of the colors here are just as dramatic as the island hopping safari we did a few ago to Matemo and Rolas.
We ended up visiting a coconut plantation started by a few Germans after World War I. Coconut trees are as common in Mozambique as mosquitoes and this plantation provided me with long sought after answers like why do some coconuts have a thin soft skin with a lot of juice, while others have little water with thick, oily skin.
After our tour of the coconut plantation, we caught a dhow home during high tide, re-tracing the hike through the mangroves we did earlier but this time the water was a few meters high.
Sunset at Ibo Lodge
Sunsets are pretty spectacular here and the best spot on Ibo Island is at the Ibo Island Lodge rooftop bar. I ended up coming here every day during my time at Ibo, drinking my favorite 2M beer, and enjoying the view as the sun set over the mangroves. My time spent on Ibo Island and the Quirimbas mark the end of all my travels around Sub Saharan Africa and what a great way to end them!
Ultra Luxury in the Quirimbas
Given its undiscovered frontier, accommodation in the Quirimbas is limited and broken down into affordable and ultra expensive. While I focus only on budget travel, the luxury options offered in the Quirimbas are on a whole different level. For those that have the money, there are private islands in the Quirimbas completely isolated from what is already a sparsely populated society. with ultra luxury and ultra expensive resorts that will impress even the pickiest of luxury travelers or honeymooners. Check out the following resorts:
Anantara Medjumbe Island Resort: $800+/night
Azura Quilalea Resort: $1000+/night
andBeyond Vamizi Island Resort: $800/night