Having already been to Mafia Island, and traveling extensively through Zanzibar, it was time to complete the tri-fecta by visiting Tanzania’s third and most remote island in Pemba. Not to be confused with the city of Pemba, Mozambique which I visited during my trip to the Quirimbas, the Tanzania Pemba is a large island just north of Zanzibar. In reality, the Zanzibar Archipelago encompasses Pemba Island and Unguja Island (which is what we know as Zanzibar).
Pemba is perhaps what Zanzibar was like 50 years ago before the big resorts and mass tourism hit. In Pemba, life remains as it ever was which gives it that allure of stepping back in time a bit. Pemba is a stunning beautiful as it is quiet with some of the most pristine beaches you’ll ever see. It reminds me a bit of my time visiting the Quirimbas Archipelago in Mozambique in just how remote it was and how stunning the natural scenery was.
Beaches in Pemba are devoid of tourists, and thereby devoid of the beachboys that have become synonymous with Zanzibar. You won’t see much here besides the big smiles of the local Pemba people working on their seaweed farms.
The diving here is also superb with some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. The marine ecosystem is vibrant and healthy. Having visited Mafia Island and Zanzibar, I would say Pemba is somewhere in between. It offers superb diving like Mafia Island but you’ll also find incredible turquoise beaches that Mafia lacks. In addition, make sure to read my comprehensive guide on traveling Zanzibar if you are planning to visit Pemba’s big sister island!
Description of Pemba
Known as Al Jazeera Al Khadra (the green island, in Arabic), Pemba was first settled by Omani traders at the start of the 10th century. The cultural influences here differ from the rest of Tanzania due to its unique history. People here are fervently against the ruling party of Tanzania and I suspect some people even feel like they would rather be on their own if it weren’t for economic disincentives.
While the main island receives the lion’s share of tourists, Pemba’s pace remains refreshingly languid. The fertile countryside is a patchwork of fertile valleys and forests interspersed with rolling hills of verdant green. Coconut palms dominate the landscape, along with mango, breadfruit, banana and no fewer than 3 million clove trees.
I thought Zanzibar was the clove capital of Tanzania but I was mistaken. Pemba produces many times more cloves than Zanzibar, which has given the island prosperity unseen by the mainland. The island has over 400,000 people with the majority of them settled around its capital of Chake Chake. I didn’t visit the capital on my trip mainly as the diving is located way out of the city. Also, Chake Chake doesn’t offer the same type of architectural and cultural wonders as Stone Town (or so I was told).
Pemba is not a cheap place
Africa in general is not a cheap budget destination. Pemba is no exception. Being as remote as it is, you can imagine just how arduous it is to import everything. The costs of traveling to Pemba are quite high so if you’re expecting to get by on $50 a day, think twice.
The cheapest accommodations are probably $40-50 a night and you will pay at least $10 for a meal. Of course, if you eat mishkaki at the local villages you’ll be paying next to nothing. However, the question is how are you going to get to the villages from the resorts in the north.
Pemba Island vs Zanzibar Island
If you’re thinking of visiting Pemba, it’s likely you’ve also visited Zanzibar or are contemplating visiting Zanzibar. If you’re debating between the two islands, know that they are two completely different places.
Zanzibar is entirely developed. This means almost every meter of beautiful coastline has been developed by big hotels, b&bs, boutique hotels, etc. While the beaches are extremely beautiful in many parts of the island like Nungwi or Paje, you can also expect to find the mass tourism to go along with it. If you’re into socializing, meeting random people, and having a few parties, then Zanzibar is probably more your vibe. There is definitely more energy happening in Zanzibar.
If you’re looking for complete unspoiled natural beauty, then Pemba is your place. The beaches here are very stunning like Zanzibar, but there are little to no people. You won’t find any bars bumping house music, or throngs of different restaurants catering to tourists. If you’re visiting Pemba, you are after stunning nature and undisturbed silence. Also, the diving in Pemba is much better! More on that later.
Getting to Pemba Island
Pemba island is located in the Tanzania Indian ocean northeast of Dar Es Salaam. It is located about 100km north of Zanzibar.
Of the three Tanzanian islands, Pemba is the least touristy island by far. Of course it has picked up steam in recent years, but it still remains one of those beautiful hidden gems for people in the know. It’s nothing remotely close to what Zanzibar is like. Even Mafia Island which attracts avid divers feels like an amusement park compared to Pemba Island.
If you want the best diving in Tanzania, go to Mafia Island. If you want amazing diving but also amazing beaches and a Robinson Cruesoe type of vibe, come to Pemba!
Zanzibar to Pemba Flight
To get to Pemba Island, you will need to book a flight from Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar, or Tanga. Pemba is much better serviced than say Mafia Island which literally only had one or two flights a day from Dar Es Salaam. The airplanes used to make this flight are the small turboprop jets that carry 12 passengers.
Multiple airlines fly this route. As of 2020, Auric Air, As Salaam, Coastal Aviation, and ZanAir all make this flight. The flights tend to book up as there are only 12 seats on each plane. Some people told me to just show up at the airport and book a ticket. I would highly recommend against this. It’s mostly locals that take these flights and you don’t want to show up and have them be booked out which will happen.
The flight is 30 minutes from Zanzibar and one hour from Dar Es Salaam. The view is breathtaking as you get to see Zanzibar’s northeast side in Matemwe, a view of the Mnemba Atoll, and finally an aerial view of what Pemba looks like.
How much is the flight to Pemba Island
The cost of a flight to Pemba island is around $100 per person for a one way flight from Zanzibar. Residents can get this flight for half price. I met a British guy in Mafia Island that booked the resident fare, showed up, and had zero questions asked to him. I’ve heard if you show up the airport the day before, sometimes they may be inclined to sell you the residents rate.
From Dar Es Salaam to Pemba Island, it will be around $150 for a one way flight.
Ferry to Pemba Island
If you are on a budget, then there is the option of taking the ferry from Zanzibar to Pemba Island. I did not take this ferry but heard that it runs multiple times a week (not daily). It departs Zanzibar around 8am, and arrives in Pemba Island six hours later.
Ferry connection to Zanzibar City happen 4 times per week (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday 8 am – 6 hours), while there’s also a weekly ferry to Tanga (Sunday 3 pm – 3 hours), on the Tanzanian Mainland.
Fares are 30/35/40USD respectively for Economy (outdoor deck), 1st Class (indoor deck, faint AC), VIP (comfortable chairs, cool AC). Fares are the same for Zanzibar – Pemba and Pemba – Tanga.
There are also two ferry connections per week from Zanzibar City to Wete, in the north of the island (near the major diving sites). Thursday 7:30 am and Sunday 10:30 am – this is though a very long journey, about 10/12 hours.
Where to stay in Pemba Island
Pemba island is quite a large island with lots of room to cover. There are not many accommodation options however as it is nothing like what Zanzibar has become. Virgin beaches without the dance parties are the norm and not the exception in Pemba.
If you’re coming to dive like me, then you’ll want to stay in the far north. In fact, even if you are not diving, it’s likely you’ll be staying in the far north as that is where most of the accommodations are.
Staying in Pemba’s far north
I think in all of Pemba, there may be 10 places to stay that is within Western standards. In the far north are the majority of them. Here are the resorts located in the far north of Pemba.
- The Manta Resort: Beautiful 4* property with amazing beaches and the world famous underwater villa (more on this later).
- The Aiyana Resort: The only 5* luxury property on the island. It’s located right next to the Aiyana and also where I stayed for two nights.
- Pemba Paradise: A 3* hotel a way south of Aiyana
- Gecko Nature Lodge: I stayed here for four nights and it is further south of Pemba Paradise. Swahili divers also belongs to the resort
- Verani: A more budget accommodation south of Gecko Lodge
All of the hotels in the north are located on the beach and it’s just a matter of what your budget allows for you to handle.
Staying at the Fundu Lagoon
While I did not stay here, this is another popular option among tourists. Located in the central part on the western side of the island, this luxury boutique hotel is located by itself without any other resorts around. It is still well positioned enough that you can dive at the best sites as well.
How to get around Pemba Island
Pemba island is big so the only way to really get around is my car. Taxis are not cheap in Pemba so be prepared to pay. The local dala dala transportation options are much cheaper but be prepared to spend significantly more time to get to your destination.
To get from the airport to the far north by dala dala will require you to take a taxi into the main town of Chake Chake, and then Dala dala’s to the very north.
From the airport to the far north of Pemba by taxi will take roughly 1.5 hours. The roads in Pemba are in fantastic condition but visiting the far north will require you to take dirt roads near the end. This will be bumpy and time consuming but it will all be worth it once you see what’s on the other side.
Staying at Gecko Eco Lodge – Swahili Divers
I spent the first part of my trip on the Marine Park side of the island. I knew I wanted to be close to the beach where the boats leave for the dives.
After doing as much research as I could, I found really only three dive shops on the entire island: Swahili Divers, Afro Divers, and Manta Lodge. Manta lodge which is famous for its underwater villa seemed like a great option for those that want a little bit of luxury in their dive resort. However, due to COVID, it was closed.
I found Swahili divers next, whatsapped the owners, and I was on my way. They arranged all my transportations and advised on the flights to take from Zanzibar. They were incredibly helpful along the way.
Gecko Eco Lodge is located in the far north of Pemba and is near to Pemba Paradise, the Aiyana, and the Manta Resort. From Gecko Eco Lodge, you can walk to the Aiyana hotel in one hour via the beach. You can also rent a bike and take the inland road there through the local villages.
The lodge itself is quite rustic. Staying true to their eco lodge name, it embraces all elements of the surrounding nature. The trees in the area have not been touched allowing you the full experience immersing yourself with the animals around you. This includes the bush babies at night, which terrified me the first time I heard as it sounds like they’re literally laughing at you.
The rooms are thoughtfully decorated and spacious. This is an eco-lodge so expect to find some of natures insects in the room with you. If this scares you, this may be a tough place to stay in!
Otherwise, the food was exceptional and I absolutely loved the curries. We even met some fisherman on my first day of diving that were selling fresh octopus. I bought one and they cooked it for me at dinner! Delicious.
Overall, I loved grabbing a beer and watching the sunset from their beach-side deck with couches facing west.
Staying at the Aiyana Lodge
After spending four nights in the eco lodge at Swahili Divers, I thought I would treat myself and see what the rest of the island has to offer. As it was during Coronavirus times, I decided to stay at the Aiyana since they were offering some crazy deals.
The Aiyana is an absolutely stunning property. Modeled with African, Asian, and Mediterranean vibes, this place is the culmination of the dreams of a famous artist from Mauritius. The property, built in all white stone reminiscent of the houses I saw while traveling the Greek Cyclades, is what your 5 star dreams are made of.
The hotel does not have a private beach (no hotels are allowed to in Pemba) so you can actually walk here from another hotel and pay for a nice drink at their resort. I think you can also dine a la carte when it’s not busy.
Visiting the underwater villa at Manta Resort
One of Pemba’s claims to fame might be their underwater villa that belongs to the Manta Resort. Unlike the overwater villas in the Maldives, this place is by itself, floating on the water suspended by thick slabs of stone deep down in the ocean floor.
It’s completely surrounded by water with no connection to land besides a boat that would take you there. Best of all? the bedroom is fully submerged underwater. Schools of fish swim around the glass encapsulated bedroom allowing you to fall asleep with the fish at night.
It’s an incredible feat of architecture to say the least. In normal times when Manta Resort is open, this room goes for a cool $1,800 per night! However, because they were closed and I was staying next door at the Aiyana resort, I swam out to the villa to check it out. In normal times, this for sure would not be possible as it has been dubbed a marine park and is heavily patrolled.
I swam here to get a look myself (about 400m from the shore) and it was as unique as described! There was nothing at the villa when I visited but I was able to get some amazing drone photos and underwater Gopro footage!
Diving in Pemba Island
Pemba Island is famous for its diving. With so few tourists and resorts, the marine ecosystem here has remained healthy and undisturbed compared to dive spots in Zanzibar for example. The corals are in spectacular conditions and schools of fish are a common occurrence.
While I still think Mafia Island is the best diving in the three islands, Pemba offers comparable diving but with breathtaking beaches.
The Different dive shops on Pemba
As Pemba is not that developed for tourism, the main dive shops of the island are mostly associated with hotels. The place to be is the far north where all the accommodations and dive sites are. I only found three dive shops in Pemba: Afro Divers, Swahili Divers, and the Manta Resort. There may be others elsewhere but from what I gathered, the best diving is all in this area.
I went with Swahili Divers which was the first dive shop on the island. Prices here aren’t very cheap but you can expect to pay more for such a remote destination. Dives go out in the mornings depending on the tides and we were in a small motored boat the entire time. I miss my dhow boats from Mafia Island!
All in all, I found them to be very professional and enjoyed my dives. I did 8 dives in total which I thought was enough.
What you see while diving in Pemba
Diving in this region is characterized by exceptionally clear, blue water drop-off’s and vibrantly healthy shallow reefs. Hard and soft coral gardens support a proliferation of reef and pelagic fish and other marine life. The visibility in Pemba is insane. On all of my dives, I had crystal clear visibility of at least 40 meters. On sandy bottom dives, I felt like I was swimming through an underwater freeway from how far I could see.
There’s an incredible amount of macro life in Pemba as well. While not as amazing as say in Komodo, Indonesia, I saw so many nudibranches and flat worms on each dive.
The corals here are also famously healthy. Compared to Zanzibar which has been mostly bleached to hell, Pemba has remained a very healthy ecosystem. The hard corals in particular are some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. The wall dive at Fundu gap put this on full display.
I dove along a huge wall that was just completely covered in hard corals. The variety, colors, and general health of these hard corals along the wall was something I’ve never seen before. It was like everywhere you looked, there was another piece of coral to see. Sadly, I’m not good enough of a photographer to really fully capture how stunning this was.
I heard from talking to various people that the diving here used to be even more incredible. Manta Resort after all is named Mantas because they used to have Manta rays here! Apparently mantas and sharks were regular residents of the area. However, due to overfishing, mantas are no longer seen in the area. Such a shame because this would have really elevated the experience to something else.
Pemba diving vs Mafia Island diving
If you’re an avid diver, then you probably are asking yourself where do I go between Pemba Island and Mafia Island? That’s a very good question. Pemba and Mafia offer the best diving in Tanzania. Both are much better than Zanzibar in my opinion (except for the part outside of the Zawadi Resort).
I will keep this brief in saying that I think overall, Mafia Island has better diving. The fish life in the Marine Park is incomparable. There’s a crazy amount of schooling fish in Mafia, abundant macro life, healthy corals, and more. On Mafia Island, you can also swim with the whale sharks when it’s in the season. This isn’t diving per se, but offers you something else to do!
Pemba does however offer insane water visibility. I was blown away by how clear it was which made the dives more enjoyable. Pemba does offer more varieties of soft and hard coral, both of which are in incredible conditions. While Mafia Island’s diving is done inside a bay, Pemba has huge walls that drop down into the abyss giving it a more of a wild side.
Pemba has much more stunning and secluded beaches than Mafia. Mafia Island didn’t really have any picturesque blue beaches with the exception of visiting the Mange sandbank which blew my mind.
Visiting the sandbank in Pemba
Nothing gets me going more than a beautiful sandbank. Pemba has its very own in the very northern tip of the island next to the lighthouse.
This sandbank is larger than others and can be reached by foot from the mainland during low tide. All the hotels and resorts in the area do day trips up to this sandbank for a fixed price. I actually came here as part of my day of diving and stayed at the sandbank for the surface interval.
This sandbank is absolutely breathtaking. It has some of the bluest waters and whites sand I’ve seen. It reminded me of the Maldives with how far out the shallow reefs stretch giving you that beautiful and intense blue colors.
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