Clear waters of the Indian Ocean reveal an unparalleled marine life, yet for some reason tiny Mafia Island remains blissfully isolated from the crowds. Simple life throws tourists back to the old days. The paradise comes spiced with an intriguing history and framed by coconut-fringed beaches.

When you step out of a 9-seat plane on the tiny runway, you’ve already left the mundane behind. Arriving to Mafia requires 30 minutes scenic flight from the capital of Tanzania, Dar Es Salaam. On the way you’ll across uninhabited slices of sand amidst all the shades of turquoise and blue.

Mafia’s name has roots in Swahili expression “mahali pa afya” meaning a healthy dwelling place. Though some claim though that Moorish “morfiyeh”, a group or archipelago, might be the origin, but I’m with the Swahili here. This seductively laid-back island has it all: on top of the underwater wonderland there are lush rice patties and large coconut groves, stunning baobabs and mangroves, weird flying foxes and legendary mini hippos. And did I already mention all those deserted beaches?

Relish in the charm of the old Swahili coast

Mafia Island remains as a remnant of a time when life was still simple and pure at the Swahili coast. The main source of income is still fishing, combined with agriculture and weaving. The population is mostly Islamic with some Christians. Tourists should dress modestly outside hotel areas, women preferably covering their knees and shoulders.

A humble capital called Kilindoni is just a dusty market town, but opens a fascinating view into traditional life. Women wrapped in colorful kangas dresses pass by carrying heavy packages upon their head. Clothing shops, or more likely kiosks, present their selection in form of chaotic stacks of shoes and shirts. Wooden stands sell coconuts, bananas, mangoes, and cashews representing the main plant resources of the island.

Mafia archipelago consists of a bunch of habited islands along with some deserted coral atolls. The other prominent islands – CholeJuani and Jibondo – are located close to Mafia, and each of them has a significant role in the history of the archipelago. Ras Kisimani at the western tip of Mafia became a significant Shirazi trading post between the 12th and 14th century, to be followed by Kua on Juani. After cannibalistic Madagascans sacked Kua in the 19th century, the capital was switched to the tiny island of Chole, where the seat remained until the 1960s.

There are some splendidly overgrown ruins on Chole and Juani, whereas the ruins on Mafia are practically washed away by rising sea levels. Much of the history remains in mystery though, and is disputed. Some excavations have even shed a new light on the history of East Africa. The latest excavations on Juani Island suggest that the people of Mafia archipelago have been trading with Indians, Egyptians and Greeks already a thousand years earlier than the Arabs even found their way here.

From underworld creatures to flying foxes and dwarf hippos

There’s something primal about plunging into the middle of the clouds of colorful fish and floating above giant corals. I absolutely adore snorkeling, and in Mafia Island Marine Park the experience was better than anywhere else we’ve been before. After the most unbelievable safari experience it felt that we were suddenly swimming amidst an underwater migration. You can read our recap of the snorkeling in Chole Bay here.

Surprisingly enough, Mafia is also home to Comoros flying foxes. These rare fruit bats spend their days hanging upside down on the island of Chole, just to take off for a dinner to Mafia when the night falls. Watching tiny bats gliding over you makes a sunset drink even more special event. In addition to Mafia, the lesser fruit bats are found only in Comoros, Seychelles, and Madagascar.

Mafia’s biodiversity is beyond incredible. More than 460 species of fish and 50 genera of hard coral are supplemented with over 160 species of birds. Six of the plant species are probably found only on Mafia. Then there are bushbabies, antilopes. vervet monkeys and elusive hippos that locals call dwarf or pygmy hippos due to their size. Some claim that they’ve been washed to the island with floods from the mainland, while the others say that the tides might have made it possible to cross the bay in the old days. Sightings are rare, which makes me wonder if they really exist – we have to get back to check them out!

Go barefoot and breath deep at Butiama Beach

In my opinion, the best thing about Mafia is its overall laid-back vibe. There’s no need for watch or shoes, as time stands still and sand feels like velvet under your feet. We lazed around in our lovely villa at Butiama Beach, amidst bending palm trees and a lush garden. There’s even a word in Swahili for the feeling Butiama creates: lala. Literally it means sleep, but here the boundaries bend more towards holistic relaxation. Beach is pristine, and you can walk in the sand for miles. They can arrange tours to nearby islands, sandbanks or places of interest on Mafia, including snorkeling trips to Mafia Island Marine Park. Don’t miss deliberate evening drinks at their wave-lapped beach bar while waiting for the 3-course Italian dinner.

Venture to uninhabited atolls and abandoned ruins

Our days on Mafia went by just taking it easy after a quite exhausting 10-day safari. If you end up spending more time on Mafia than we did, consider making a few excursions. During our return flight we got a glimpse of the stunningly sand-fringed Bwejuu island that can be reached from Mafia by boat in 3 hours. Solely two kilometers long and 200 meters wide Bwejuu must make a perfect castaway daytrip. There’s even a tiny village, if beach don’t keep you entertained. At least camping is possible, but I don’t know if they offer home-stays.

Neighboring islands Chole, Juani and Jibondo are really a separate story, and would deserve another visit from us as well. Both Juani and Chole have vegetation covered ancient ruins, Jibondo at its turn is famous through East-Africa for traditional shipbuilding. These sparsely populated tropical islands would serve as a perfect hideaway from the modern civilization.

When hopping on our return plane, I felt like a Robinson Crusoe who was forced to leave his newly found home. But somehow I felt that we would return some day – too many stories were left unfolded.

*Disclaimer: Our stay at Mafia Island was hosted by Butiama Beach, but all the opinions remain entirely our own.

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Tanzania's Mafia Island is home to the best corals in the Indian Ocean, Comoros flying foxes, and barefoot boutique hotels. #Tanzania #MafiaIsland

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