Updated: Jan 7, 2020
The truth about Zanzibar island!
From the outside, Zanzibar gives the impression of being the perfect exotic holiday destination. The truth is that it is just an impression, and with the same amount of money you could go to so many islands in the Indian Ocean that are so much better.
Now you are probably asking: but why ?
Well, there are several reasons such as the beaches, the water clarity, the ability to snorkel, the accommodation, the food, the prices and the people in general. Yeah, pretty much everything!
But, before going into details, we`ll just give you some general information about Zanzibar.
And for those of you who still want to go there we`ll just try to give you as many tips and tricks in order you make your holiday as smooth as possible.
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. It is composed of the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean, 25–50 kilometers off the coast of the mainland and consists of many small islands and two large ones: Unguja (the main island, referred to informally as Zanzibar) and Pemba Island. The capital is Zanzibar city, located on the island of Unguja. Its historic centre is Stone Town, which is a World Heritage Site.
Zanzibar's population is estimated to be 1.3 millions and is almost entirely Muslim with a small Christian minority.
Unguja island is pretty big: around 70 km in length and 20-25 km in width.
There are 4 main areas: Stone town, South - East ( Jambiani ), South - West ( Matemwe and Pongwe ) and North ( Nungwi ).
There are hotels and accommodations in the other areas as well but they are not so important.
Stone Town is nice for a day trip, there are few nice shops and it is the only place where you can find ATMs. Be careful though, as all of them have a daily restriction on the withdrawal amount.
Always bring enough cash with you as there are so many places that don`t accept credit card!
We have never been to Pemba Island, but from what we`ve heard from the locals, it might a bit nicer and less touristy.
As well as the mainland, a visit to Zanzibar requires some vaccines. The recommended ones are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rabies, typhoid, yellow fever as well as boosters for tetanus, diphtheria and measles.But you should consult your doctor prior to this.
Bear in mind that for most of them there is a buffer period so you should plan having them as least
15 - 20 days before your arrival.
Malaria is also present in Zanzibar as well but to a lesser extent than on the mainland. There is the regular anti-malaria treatment available and we mentioned these in our article about the mainland.
If you don`t want to take any pills you can use the same prevention methods as we used on the mainland: a lot of DEET ( 40%- 50% ) spray and wear long sleeves during dawn and dusk.
To be honest, there are much less mosquitoes on the island than on the mainland.
There are two ways of getting there: by air or by ferry.
There are several airlines that fly directly into Zanzibar ( such as Qatar Airways ) and there are a lot of airlines that fly to Dar Es Salaam and from there you could book a domestic flight to the island. The domestic flight takes about an hour and they usually have reasonable prices.
The only place you can take the ferry to the island is Dar Es Salaam. There is a regular service going to Zanzibar provided by Azam Marine which takes about 2 hours one way. The price is about 35 USD per person. The ferry itself is clean and civilized and they provide both economy and business class.
We tried them both, went by ferry and returned by plane.
Tips: if you are planning on staying in Dar Es Salaam for a day or so before your trip, take the ferry as it`s easier to go to the port than to the airport.
If you are planning on landing in Dar Es Salaam and then heading straight to the island, just book a domestic flight as the travel time from the airport to the port can be ridiculously long during rush hours and most of the times the taxi drives will try to cheat you so you will be wasting a lot of time and just paying just a bit less in the end.
Being such a touristy place, the main problem over there is people trying to cheat you not matter which way of transportation you choose.
Once in Stone Town, you will find a lot of taxi drivers offering to take you wherever you want, but as there are no taxi meters they can basically do whatever they want.
However, there are few options which can be more reliable:
If you are not planning on going too much around the island, you could just ask your hotel to come pick you up. Depending on the hotel location, this can be quite expensive but comfortable.We took the hotel shuttle from Jambiani to the airport and the service was pretty good.
Dala-Dala or local bus
Dala - Dalas are the local open air mini buses in Zanzibar. They are extremely cheap but not really reliable as they won`t leave until the bus is full. There are a lot of them going throughout the island but we suggest on checking maybe Trip Advisor or asking your hotel to know which one to take.
We took a Dala - Dala to Jambiani after checking Trip Advisor. Our experience was not the best as the local people tried to cheat us, even for few dollars, but at least we got to taste a bit the local flavor of Zanzibar. ☺
Tips: if the car is not full, try to take the front seat, next to the driver.
For us, this was the best option as we wanted to explore the island as well.
Actually, we got to Jambiani by Dala - Dala, but once over there we realized the beaches weren`t as we expected, therefore we went in the search for those Photoshoped Google beaches, which of course we never found, but that`s another story. ☺
So, I was writing about scooter rental, right? Actually, we rented a scooter from Paje for about 15-20 USD a day, as far as we remember.
The problem with the scooter is that there are many police checks and a lot of them are asking for bribe. Make sure the rental company will give you the approval letter to drive in Zanzibar as a tourist and ask for good helmets.
We had few arguments with some policemen but we got out of the trouble without having to bribe them. So it`s manageable. ☺
Therefore, if you are not planning to take a lot of luggage, renting a scooter in Stone Town and keeping it for the duration of your stay might be a good solution.
Driving at night is also safe.
So, unless you are into kite surfing, beaches are the main reason of a person`s wish to go to Zanzibar, right?
Well, the truth is that beaches are going to disappoint you big time, as they are nothing compared to Maldives or Mauritius, the other sisters from Indian Ocean.
Apparently, the best season to go to Zanzibar is from from June to October during the cool, dry months of spring. Another popular time to visit this tropical island is from December to February when it's hot and dry.
We went there in February and the weather was good but the seaweed.. was literally everywhere.
And wherever we could find a tiny little spot without seaweed there was of course, a lot of garbage. So, big NO for the beaches.
If, however, you are still going there, here are some tips:
The whole Eastern coast has a lot of tide variations in 24 hrs, from beach to no beach at all.
Jambiani is the place to go for kite surfing as it has a long beach with very shallow water.
Unfortunately, if you are a kite surfing beginner, there are plenty of sea urchins in the water, so if you are unlucky, you might end up into one of them. ☹
North - East, Matemwe and Pongwe are mainly for sun bathing but the tide varies over there as well and we could see a lot of sea weed.
The Northern part, Nungwi, has the least tide variation and the most turquoise water.
However, the water is not really crystal clear anywhere.
Close to Nungwi there another island, Mnemba, which was indeed beautiful but, guess what? Is is a private island!
We did a day trip to that island but unfortunately we couldn`t go to the shore. We stayed on the boat few hundred meters away and tried to do some snorkeling from there. But the water was super cold and there were a lot of tiny little jellyfish that were stinging. So, what an experience again!
Snorkeling was not possible anywhere on the main island either due to the lack of fauna and corals, due to seaweed or the water not being clear.
By the way, the reason why some of the pictures I am posting here look nice is that, as you can see, far away from the beach, the water does look turquoise, but what`s the point if you cannot get to it?
Also, we have noticed that usually when the tide goes low the water tends to be clearer and the whole scenery looks nicer.
Having seen the scenery in Jambiani, we rented that scooter and we went in the search for those perfect beaches. We did almost 400 km on the scooter in 3 days and still didn`t managed to find what we looked for.
However, in summary, we noticed that beaches in the North and especially Nungwi tend to be better. Kite surfing, as mentioned before is better to be done in Jambiani and Eastern coast in general.
Well, unless you are willing to pay loads of money for a resort, accommodation is pretty bad and the service is bad as well.
For a decent room in a lodge you need to pay at least 150 USD per night which is A LOT. For example, for half of this you would get a very clean room on an inhabited island in Maldives with much better standards.
Here, for about 70 USD per night, you would get a not so clean room with perhaps,no door in between the room and the bathroom and maybe some termites as well. Or, at least, this is what we got. The service, anyway, is very basic and very expensive for how basic it is! That`s the truth!
We stayed one night in Nungwi as well and it was pretty much the same story.
And this impression comes from 2 people who didn`t mind washing in a bucket on the mainland!
Tips: if you are interested in Jambiani, there is a nice lodge to stay in which also has a cosy restaurant and plenty of activities. We met the owners at Mambo Viewpoint Eco Lodge in the Usambaras and then we came to their lodge in Zanzibar. The mood was very nice and they have different evenings with live music or different themes. Red monkey Lodge is the name and you can have a look on their website or on Booking.com.
Also, don`t be fooled by the nice pictures all the hotels have for advertising. The reality is totally different in most of the cases and some of them don`t even have a proper beach.
Try to avoid Mbuyuni Beach Village as they literally have no beach.
Oh well! To start with, just make sure you take anti diarrhea tablets with you.
Breakfast: even though on booking they always state "fabulous breakfast", the reality is that you will get a tiny little one egg omelette plus three types of fruits. The three types of fruits meaning a mini banana, a tiny piece of watermelon and a tiny piece of pineapple. Together with some instant coffee, of course.
The trouble is that there is no buffet and you cannot really choose what to eat first. So they will bring you the fruits first and most probably you will eat them first. Well... try these for few days in a row and... you`ll loose some kilos,if you know what me mean. ☺
Lunch and dinner: because you`re on an island you will probably want to eat some fish or sea food,right? Cuz it should be fresh. Well, bad news, most of the fish served in restaurants is actually frozen fish. So fish gets out of the list. There is no other local food so you`ll be probably eating pasta, pizza, salads, sandwiches.. whatever you can find.
Of course, there are all those five star resorts around and you could solve the food problem by paying 100 euros for a small but normal meal... but we guess this is not the point.
Tip: there are locals selling loads of fresh fruits on the side of the road, so you could just buy some of them and have a healthy and organic fruits meal. This is what we did and probably was the best thing we had! ☺
If you want an exotic destination with crystal clear turquoise water, white sand and lots of corals and Nemo fish to snorkel around, just don`t go to Zanzibar! For half of what you pay in Zanzibar you could go to Maldives and see one of the most amazing places on Earth. You can check out our article about Maldives here.
If you are going to Tanzania anyway, or you just wanna go kite surfing, it might be ok to go and make your own impression about Zanzibar. However, we wouldn`t recommend more than few days.
Also, contrary to one`s expectations, Africa in general and Zanzibar in particular are very very expensive! A lot of people coming from South East Asia expect the same service and prices over here as well and they get shocked. This is much more expensive and the service is much worse. So bear this in mind if you come here.
The local people in Zanzibar are much worse than on the mainland. Being used to so many tourists, they just try to cheat and fool you to make an extra dollar. There are a lot of fake gigolo Masaai on the beaches as well, but just don`t trust them. They just dress as Masaai but they have nothing to do with the real ones.
Policemen are very corrupt as well and instead of encouraging tourists they just try to get some bribe or "presents". This is just pathetic! We have been to so many poor countries and no one behaved in this way, ever!
After reading this article you might think that we are some posh, pretentious people. But we are not! We went all over Tanzania for three weeks, washed in buckets, showered with cold water or didn`t shower at all. And we didn`t mind that because we didn`t pay a lot and didn`t expect a lot either.
That being said, here are some of our photos made in some carefully picked locations and carefully picked day moments ( waiting for the tide etc ).
We couldn`t find any spot on Matemwe to inspire us.
Gear used: Samsung NX-1 ( 16-55s mm ) and Olympus OM-D M5 ( 25 mm and 75 mm ).