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Welcome to Mafia Island, Tanzania! Here, time stands still, the turquoise Indian Ocean offers the best diving and snorkeling in Eastern Africa, and palm-fringed beaches remain deserted. Mafia is a well-kept secret, a classic paradise island, where very few tourists are lucky to experience the life on the Swahili Coast like it used to be hundreds of years ago. Still, Mafia Island offers unique boutique hotels, diving and snorkeling tours, delicious food and tropical cocktails fulfilling the promises of a relaxing island getaway after East African safari. Read on to catch the best things to do and see in Mafia Archipelago together with further tips for finding the best hotel and tours to match your preferences!
This article has been thoroughly updated in April 2019
What to Expect From a Beach Holiday in Mafia Island, Tanzania
Mafia Island offers pure relaxation, incredible biodiversity, and world-class diving and snorkeling. Clear waters of the Indian Ocean reveal an unparalleled marine life, yet for some reason, tiny Mafia Island remains blissfully isolated from the crowds. The paradise comes spiced with an intriguing history and framed by coconut-fringed beaches.
You should like beaches, water activities, and relaxing island getaways if you visit Mafia Island: At least one of them should the reason for coming here, otherwise search for other destinations. That said, there are also many exciting things to do in the inland of Mafia, which compliment your beach holiday.
What to Know Before Visiting Mafia Island
Simple life throws tourists back to the old days in the Swahili Coast. The pace of life is slow. The main source of income is still fishing, combined with agriculture and weaving. The positives: You don’t need shoes or a watch. The negatives: There are no big resorts with fancy luxury suites nor shopping options.
Mafia is remote, sleepy and tranquil. Don’t expect any nightlife, craft beer pubs, or fancy cocktail bars. Most tourists stay at their hotels for dinners and cocktails. An all-inclusive boutique hotel is a wise choice, as there aren’t many services around.
The population of Mafia archipelago is mostly Islamic with some Christians. Tourists should dress modestly outside hotel areas, women preferably covering their knees and shoulders.
Snorkeling by Kinasi Pass Islets in Chole Bay, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN MAFIA ISLAND, TANZANIA
The seductively laid-back Mafia 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 dwarf hippos.
Mafia’s neighboring islands Chole, Juani, and Jibondo are really a separate story – and would each deserve at least a day tour. 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 serve as a perfect hideaway from modern civilization.
Check out the best things to do in Mafia Island, Tanzania!
1. Go Snorkeling or Diving in Mafia Island Marine Park
Snorkeling and diving are deservingly the best things to do in Mafia Island, as most tourists come here to explore the world-famous underwater world.
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.Check here our tips for snorkeling in Chole Bay, Mafia Island Marine Park.
Chole Bay snorkeling trips cost only $20: It’s a real bargain for what you get!
Diving prices start at $40 for shore dive and $50 for single dive and Discover Scuba Diving package for $110. We went with Big Blu Mafia Island Diving Center: Check out their website and further pricing here.
2. See Whale Sharks Passing Mafia Island
Whale shark season in Mafia Island runs from November to February. If your trip coincides with the whale shark season, please don’t skip the chance to swim with the giants!
We’ve been swimming with whale sharks on Holbox Island in Mexico: It’s an otherworldly experience and among the best adventures of our life.
The best spot to see whale sharks is off Kilindoni harbor: Book a tour to guarantee sightings. Whale shark tours are the priciest in Mafia and can cost up to $100.
3. Witness Humpback Whale Migration in Mafia Island
Magnificent humpback whale migration passes the southern Mafia Island every year between August and September. Take a guided tour to meet these gorgeous giants, who can weight up to 40 tonnes! Hearing the songs of humpback whales and seeing the whales breaching is high on any nature lover’s bucket list: Don’t miss the unique opportunity if you’re visiting Mafia during the whale season!
Humpback whale tours in Mafia cost around $70-150.
Snorkeling in Chole Wall, Mafia Island Marine Park, Tanzania
4. Witness Turtle Hatching – Or Swim With Turtles
The summer months (usually from June to August) are the best time to witness Green Sea Turtle hatching on Juani Island. But don’t worry if your dates won’t match the season: You can always swim with the turtles! The best bet is a guided snorkeling tour in Mafia Island Marine Park.
Turtle hatching tours in Mafia Island cost around $35.
5. Meet the Comoros Flying Foxes of Mafia Island
Surprisingly enough, Mafia Island 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 dinner in Mafia Island when the night falls. Watching tiny bats gliding over you makes a sunset drink even more special event. In addition to Mafia archipelago, the lesser fruit bats are found only in Comoros, Seychelles, and Madagascar.
Ask from your hotel – or locals – the best places in Mafia Island to watch Comoros flying foxes.
6. Take Nature Walks to Explore the Inland of Mafia Island – And Its Incredible Biodiversity
Independent nature walks in Mafia Island are exciting – and free! After all water activities, it’s well worth venturing in the lush inland to experience the other face of Mafia Island.
Mafia archipelago’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, antelopes, vervet monkeys and elusive hippos that locals call dwarf or pygmy hippos due to their size: Tick off the next thing to do in Mafia to find the hippos!
7. Find the Elusive Dwarf Hippos of Mafia Island
Some claim that the famous dwarf hippos of Mafia have 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.
Ask from your hotel – or locals – where to find “hippo man”: He lives by a lake where hippos like to roam. “The hippo lake” is about 30-minute drive from Kilindoni: Taxis know the place. There are also guided hippo tours available.
Walking at the Utende beach, Mafia Island, Tanzania
8. Paddle to Uninhabited Inlets and Atolls
Many hotels rent kayaks (or rates include free use of kayaks), which lets you paddle to small coves, uninhabited inlets, and sandbanks. There are also guided tours available.
The History of Mafia Islands, Tanzania
Mafia archipelago consists of a bunch of habited islands along with some deserted coral atolls. The other prominent islands after Mafia Island – Chole, Juani, 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.
9. Unforgettable Sunset Cruises from Mafia Island
Searching for the most romantic thing to do in Mafia Island? Book a sunset cruise to admire a legendary African sunset – and breathtaking views – from the sea while sipping sparkling wine or the drink of your choice. Sunset cruises sail on the western side of Mafia Island and can take you to Marimbani sandbank inside Chole Bay – or further to the sea. Watching the sun dip under the horizon is always mesmerizing. Ask the availability for a private moonlit cruise for a special treat.
Sunset cruises in traditional wooden boats start at $25.
10. Explore Mafia’s Kilindoni Market
Mafia Island’s humble capital called Kilindoni is just a dusty market town but opens a fascinating view of 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 the form of chaotic stacks of shoes and shirts laid on blankets. Wooden stands sell coconuts, bananas, mangoes, and cashews representing the main plant resources of the island.
Explore the market of Kilindoni, grab a drink and find unique souvenirs to take back home! Kilindoni’s morning market is best for shopping and photography. Come back in the evening to mingle with locals, when the stalls sell cheap street food!
Deserted beaches of Mafia Island, Tanzania
11. Visit Mafia Island’s Lighthouse For the Best Views – And the Best Beaches in Mafia Island!
Well-preserved lighthouse at the northern tip of Mafia Island doesn’t see many tourists, which makes it even more compelling sight. Take a taxi, tuk-tuk, or motorbike through the green inland for an independent lighthouse tour. Solely the stunning view from the lighthouse would make the trip worth the effort.
Explore the deserted beaches of northern Mafia on your way back. Many locals claim that the untouched coves in the north are the best beaches in Mafia Island!
12. Take a Picnic Cruise to Marimbani Sandbank
If you’re not in the mood of kayaking independently to the sandbanks (check the 8th thing to do in Mafia), join a picnic cruise to one of the sandbanks! If you’re adventurous, you can also try to negotiate with local fishermen for an independent tour.
Most tours go to Marimbani sandbank inside Chole Bay (in Mafia Island Marine Park). Marimbani sandbank is a tidal treat: It appears for around 4 hours each day before sliding under the water again. Marimbani sandbank tours include BBQ lunch, which is prepared while you can soak in the sun a cold drink in the hand, snorkel, or wander around the sandbank searching for sea urchins and starfish.
Marimbani sandbank tours cost around $25.
The Ruins of Mafia Archipelago
There are some splendidly overgrown ruins on Chole and Juani, whereas the ruins of Mafia Island are practically washed away by rising sea levels. Much of the history remains in mystery though – and is disputed. Some excavations have even shed 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.
13. Visit Chole Island For Ruins, Nature, and Fruit Bats
Chole Island deserves a day – or two – of its own. You can experience the unique nature and culture of Chole Island even on a day tour, which reveals the overgrown ruins of Chole, the sleeping Comoros flying foxes, the art and craft of building traditional wooden boats, dhows. If your itinerary allows, plan on staying one night at a charming Chole Mjini Lodge.
Chole Island tours start at $10 + $4 community fee to support locals.
View to Mafia Island from the Chole Bay
14. Swim in Juani Lagoon With Upside Down Jellyfish
Take Juani Lagoon excursion to explore the clear water of the blue lagoon, that can only be visited by a boat for a couple of hours each day. The natural swimming pool is also called “jellyfish pool” because of upside down jellyfish population.
Juani Lagoon tours cost around $30.
15. Explore Kua Ruins in Juani Island
Visiting Kua ruins on Juani Island is among the most rewarding things to do in Mafia Archipelago. Kua used to be an important trading post, where Arabs and Shirazi people lived in peace.
The overgrown ruins of Kua date back to the early 12th century. You can explore the eerie ruins of mosques, palace, cemetery, and school without other tourists in sight. Boats can access the site only during high tide. You can read more on Kua ruins here.
Kua ruins tours start at $25. You can also haggle a ride with local fishers.
16. Visit Mange Sandbank – And Spot Dolphins On the Way!
If you’re looking for the most luxurious thing to do in Mafia Island, book Mange sandbank tour! This tidal sandbank is far off the Indian Ocean, between Mafia Island and the mainland of Tanzania.
Basically, you’re lost in the middle of the turquoise Indian Ocean, on your private sandbank, which disappears under the water before the darkness falls. Your guide sets up a shaded oasis on the sandbank where you can rest with a cold drink in the hand while he prepares a delicious BBQ lunch.
Reaching Mange reef and sandbank takes around 1,5 hours by a traditional boat (dhow), but the sailing trips are usually rewarding, as it’s possible to spot dolphins, and even swim with them!
Mange tours include snorkeling or diving and cost around $60.
17. Explore the Mangroves of Mafia Island
Tanzania is known for one of the largest mangrove systems in the world. You can opt to explore the mangroves of Mafia Island either on your own or on a guided tour. If you’d like to do an independent mangrove walk, ask directions from your lodge and plan on exploring the beach during the low tide.
It’s even possible to snorkel in the mangroves during the high tide (for the best experience, book a guided tour).
18. Try Coconut Beer
Drinking coconut beer is probably the most local thing to do in Mafia Island. Personally, I cannot really recommend the homebrew for its taste, but the experience is still worth the cheap price ($0.50).
19. Go Barefoot and Breath Deep at Butiama Beach
In my opinion, the best thing about Mafia Island is its overall laid-back island vibe. There’s no need for watch or shoes, as time stands still and sand feels velvety under your feet. We lazed around in our lovely villa at Butiama Beach, amidst bending palm trees and a lush garden. It was among the best beach holidays we’ve ever had. Here you can check the rates and best deals of Butiama Beach.
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. Butiama Beach 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.
What Else to Do in Mafia Island?
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 day trip. There’s even a tiny village if the beach doesn’t keep you entertained. At least camping is possible, but I don’t know if they offer home-stays.
Where to Stay in Mafia Island and Costs
There are two villages and thus areas where to stay in Mafia Island: the capital Kilindoni and Utende.
The Best Luxury Hotels in Mafia Island
As praised above, our personal hotel pick from Mafia Island is Butiama Beach: a luxurious yet affordable boutique hotel with private villas. Butiama Beach is very near Kilindoni, meaning that you can even walk to the village to visit the market and maybe grab something to eat. Their Italian restaurant is the best restaurant in Mafia Island, which is convenient as prices are all-inclusive. Rates for 2019-2020 are $160 per person per night (including private villa with patio, breakfast and a 3-course dinner, airport transfers, and free use of kayaks).
Butiama also organizes snorkeling and diving tours at several locations inside Mafia Island Marine Park, together with picnic cruises, whale watching and whale shark snorkeling trips.
Please note that when you stay in Kilindoni area (like in Butiama Beach), you don’t have to pay daily Marine Park fees. When you stay in hotels located in Utende, you have to pay daily $20 per person as Marine Park fee. So, choosing a hotel in Kilindoni means saving money!
If you still want to stay in Utende, we recommend luxurious Kinasi Lodge (from $300 per room per night, all-inclusive).
For non-divers, our budget bungalow pick is Juani Beach Bungalows in Kilindoni ($50 per bungalow per night, no Marine Park fees).
Mafia Island or Zanzibar: Which Tanzanian Island is Best for You?
We’ve visited Zanzibar: intriguing Stone Town and the far-flung paradise beaches. While most Tanzanian safari itineraries include a beach holiday in Zanzibar, we’d recommend swapping it to Mafia Island, if you’d need to choose just one island.
Why? Mafia feels more authentic than overly-touristic Zanzibar. Of course, it’s still possible to find secluded coves in Zanzibar, but it requires more legwork and patience. In Mafia, you don’t need to search for peace and quiet, you can just breath deep and enjoy your beach holiday at its fullest.
How To Add Mafia Island to Tanzanian Safari Itinerary
There’s a simple reason why Mafia Island isn’t featured in safari itineraries as heavily as Zanzibar. Most safari tour companies don’t have lodge partners on Mafia Island since Mafia lacks huge resorts. Of course, you can always book a safari and beach holiday separately: It’s easy to find and book the best hotels in Mafia Island independently.
If your safari company cannot arrange a beach holiday in Mafia Island, maybe it tells something about the company and their capabilities to go out the extra mile for you. Check out our article on how to choose a safari company in Tanzania if you’re still comparing tour operators and would like to know our insider tips!
What Does Mafia Mean? Is There Mafia on Mafia Island?
Let’s get things straight: Mafia Island has nothing to do with Italian mafia.
Mafia Island’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, I’m with the Swahili here.
Sailing through Chole Bay in Mafia Island Marine Park
Getting to Mafia Island
Flights to Mafia Island from Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar, Tanzania
Getting to Mafia Island requires a scenic, short flight from either the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, or Zanzibar.
Most tourists grab the cheapest 30-minute flights between Dar es Salaam and Mafia. The local flight price is around $75 one-way. You can usually book the flights at local prices at the airport within 2 weeks of your travel dates. We booked our return flights online a month before our trip and still managed to get the same price.
When you step out of a 9-seat plane on the tiny runway on Mafia Island, you’ve already left the mundane behind. The flight itself is an exciting experience that takes you to a relaxed vacation mode. On the way, you’ll across uninhabited slices of sand amidst all the shades of turquoise and blue.
Tips for Flying to Mafia Island (And Taking Internal Flights in Tanzania)
Check the internal flight prices from all the Tanzanian carriers: currently both Auric Air and Coastal Aviation fly to Mafia. We flew with Auric Air.
You can also browse connection flights to Mafia Island from Arusha/Kilimanjaro and Selous. We flew from Kilimanjaro.
Most airlines limit the checked baggage weight to 15 kg: Pack light!
International flights arrive at Dar Es Salaam’s Terminal 2. Flights to Mafia Island, together with other short internal flights, leave from Terminal 1. The distance between Terminal 1 and 2 is about 20-minutes by foot, but you don’t want to walk with the luggage. At daytime, the shuttles connect the terminals; during the night, you need an airport taxi. Allow enough time to switch terminals.
Leave enough time between your flights. Flights to Dar Es Salaam are constantly delayed.
Ferry to Mafia Island, Tanzania
We don’t recommend the ferry service to Mafia Island. Ferries in Tanzania are unreliable and slow. But they are also cheaper than internal flights: The ferry trip to Mafia Island costs under $10. Please note that ferries are frequently canceled and the small boats replacing the ferries are not safe. Also, taking the ferry requires getting to Nyasamati, which is a 4-hour bus trip away from Dar es Salaam.
Our Verdict: Best Island in Tanzania
We’re not hiding our opinion: Mafia Island is among the best tropical islands that we’ve ever visited – and it’s certainly the best island in Tanzania. When compared to Zanzibar and Pemba, Mafia remains off the beaten path. It’s an authentic and serene island paradise.
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 Mafia Island someday – too many stories were left unfolded.
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