Tanzania’s Unsung Treasure - Mafia Island (No Sicilian Connection!)

Hidden among the Indian Ocean's popular islands is Mafia Island, a lush slice of green with deserted white sandy beaches. No, no...the name has nothing to do with the name of a renowned Sicilian crime empire! On the contrary, Mafia is one of the safest places in East Africa with friendly and welcoming islanders, and a seductively laid-back atmosphere. Be warned though, when you dare to walk in the dark, you might run into the kids with open arms who can't wait to give you the warmest hug ever, accompanied by bright smiles and shiny eyes.

Few know about this Robinson Crusoe Island. Fewer have been. Mafia is often described as Zanzibar 30 years ago: few tourists, few hotels, no restaurants, no shops, no night life, no electricity (only solar energy and diesel-run generators for certain hours of a day), no ATMs, no hustlers to spoil a holiday, no frequent connections to/from mainland, thus no mainstream tourism.

As soon as you step out of a 14-seater Cessna Caravan on the tiny runway, you'll already have left the tourist herds behind. It is virtually guaranteed that you won't see again any other Mzungu roaming around as they disappear in one of the few island lodges. If you leave your comfort zone and walk around, you will only meet shy but curious locals. Some may dare to wave a timid hi, others may mumble a 'Karibu' (welcome). And when you respond with an 'Asante' (thanks), you ― yes, YOU the Swahili-speaking Mzungu :)  instantly crack them up. A pity that your Swahili is not good enough to keep the conversation going, but hey laughter is universally understood and you all have had great fun.

These pure islanders make you already fall in love with the likewise unspoiled island.

As you continue exploring Mafia's unlimited charm in peace and quiet, you'll notice that the island blissfully remains immune to densely packed beach chairs, thanks to its protected unkempt coastline. The wild beaches are littered with floral debris and mangrove roots as pristine as when they were first discovered.

Latest by now you won't be able to resist the urge to play Robinson Crusoe: shut up, sit down and stare at the horizon...

The paradise itself is a haven for both fauna and flora...a natural botanical garden framed by coconut palms, paw-paw, passion-fruit, mango, cashew, papaya and banana trees, all being a hideout for a variety of animals such as bush babies (little loud night monkeys) and fruit bats (flying foxes).

Mafia is dotted with tiny villages characterized by thatched huts scattered along the single-track pathways. 

Mafia is raw. But precisely this wildness has granted Mafia its authenticity. And that's why you are here: to experience something more authentic.

No, I haven't been to Zanzibar to testify the contrast, but my week on Mafia Island felt like a time travel back when there was none of those modern life blessings. Back to a time when the life was much simpler, less stressful, still pure and in a more natural state.

While the simplicity of life here will keep you quite busy for some days, there are also loads of activities to select from, especially when you get away from the shore. After all, Mafia is not famous for its beaches, but its incredible marine life beneath the turquoise waters.

A Dhow: traditional Swahili fishing boat


The activities on Mafia and the neighboring islands are abundant as the marine life itself, ranging from deep sea fishing to dhow sailing and cultural excursions to the nearby fishing villages. Below I'll only mention the ones I personally experienced during my stay.

1. Swimming with the Whale Sharks

If you are in Mafia between October and March, the most breathtaking activity of all is swimming with the whale sharks. These gentle giants visit the waters to the west of Kilindoni town every year, from where the boat safaris depart. ‘Papa Shilingi’ is what locals call them –  translating as “shark covered in shillings”. Makes quite sense given the design of its back, right?

Read on the details of this once-in-a-lifetime activity here.

2. Diving and Snorkeling

The diving off Mafia is awe-inspiring due to the protection of the Mafia Island Marine Park, marked out along the island’s eastern and southern shore. The pristine reefs are rich in soft corals, sea anemones and sponges, and attract plenty of marine critters. A little delight on top is that you'll be competing with few other divers. Mafia is said to be the "Red Sea" of East Africa minus the crowds, and with reason.

Most dive sites are located inside the Chole Bay and the diving is very easy. Outside of the Chole Bay, the sea might get a bit choppy and you may experience light currents, but nothing to worry about. Most of the Mafia's diving is at depths less than 30 meters, making it accessible for beginners.

Of course, the snorkeling is wonderful too (best spot being the 'Pinnacle'). According to Tom, it is as good as or at some spots even better than Sharm El Sheikh and Belize - his favorite places thus far. So there is no reason to miss out on the underwater action.

Pink soft corals and sea goldies at Jena Wall, located outside of Chole Bay (photo by seaunseen.com)

3. Picnic on the Sandbanks

The sea around Mafia is peppered with stunning little gems of sandbanks where you can swim, sunbath, picnic, snorkel, or just continue playing Robinson Crusoe. Anything I write would not do its beauty justice. For that, I will let the pictures be worth at least a thousand words.

Barbecuing fish on the sandbank, Mafia island, Tanzania


Arriving to Mafia requires 30 minutes scenic flight from the capital of Tanzania, Dar Es Salaam. Coastal Aviation is the only airline serving Mafia Island, also with same-day connecting flights to Zanzibar and Arusha (as of October 2015). There are usually a couple of flights per day. If you are a bit flexible, FastJet would be the more economical option for onward journeys from Dar Es Salaam.

Transfers from the Mafia airstrip to your accommodation are organized by the lodges.

Accommodation options on Mafia are limited and not really budget friendly. You can stay within the marine park, either on Chole Island or around Utende in one of the upscale lodges, but on top of the already insanely high rates (from $260 upwards), you must add $20 per day per person marine park fee. 

There are a few backpacker-friendly places in Kilindoni and Utende, and after extensive research and calculations we ended up staying at Meremeta Lodge in Utende Village ($50 per double), located just outside the Marine Park Gate. This way we were able to save the marine park fee on some days, like when going on a whale shark safari departing from Kilindoni outside the marine park.
Meremeta's (Abdulkadir) place might lack the sea view, but he employs the best cook on the island well actually the best in all of Tanzania Ismail, and the most attentive waiter, Kasim. Besides, thanks to the good connections of Meremeta himself, we were able to enjoy the amenities of Kinasi Lodge, which has the best view and the beach on the island, and also in my opinion the best dive center. Meremeta bends over backwards to make your stay comfortable and to help you organize the excursions on and around the island. If you’re looking for a comfortable stay in Mafia without breaking the bank, Meremeta Lodge is an excellent choice. I can highly recommend staying at this place. 

View from Kinasi Lodge

For diving and snorkeling, we used the Kinasi Lodge Dive Center and can absolutely recommend them. There are only 3-4 divers on a boat, as they normally don't accept divers not staying at the lodge, unlike other operators. Their dive boats are the traditional dhows, as such sailing back to the lodge is always on the agenda. Enjoying their stunning view from the bar after the dives is also priceless. You can also have dinner/lunch even if you are not staying here (menu 20-25 USD pP). They accept credit card.

There are no ATMs on Mafia, so ensure you have enough cash (carry a mix of USD or EUR and Tanzanian Shillings).

Last but not least, go visit now before the face of this paradise changes forever. Immunity is finite.

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About Maho

Nature lover, diving and travel enthusiast, Asian looking, Russian sounding, Turkish raised, Munich based stranger on Earth.


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