Beautiful Mafia Island, lapped by the Indian Ocean off the south coast of Tanzania, attracts a fraction of the tourists who flock to its northern neighbor Zanzibar. But if you’re looking for quality beach time to round off a Tanzanian safari, this remote tropical island is a great off-the-beaten-track option. The beaches are idyllic, the diving in Mafia Island Marine Park is stupendous, and there are few better places to see a whale shark, the world’s largest fish, in its natural habitat. Best of all, tranquil Mafia retains a down-to-earth, unpackaged atmosphere that makes it feel like a true undiscovered gem.

Mafia Island Packages

 

Which Are the Best Beaches To Stay At?

Palm-lined beach on Mafia Island Palm-lined beach on Mafia Island

The most popular beach on Mafia Island is Utende in the far southeast. This palm-lined slice of oceanfront paradise lies at the southern tip of Chole Bay. It faces a calm, narrow channel that separates it from the smaller islands of Chole and Juani. Utende is home to most of Mafia’s top lodges. This is partly because of the lovely beach, but also because it is perfectly positioned for diving and snorkeling in Chole Bay, and visits to other islands in the Mafia Archipelago.

If your focus is solely on beach time rather than marine activities, an uncrowded and very beautiful alternative to Utende is Bweni, on the northwest coast. Be aware, however, that options for accommodations in Bweni are limited and fall on the rustic side of mid-range.

Another option is Butiama Beach, which stands on the southwest coast on the outskirts of Kilindoni, the small low-rise town that serves as the island’s administrative capital. Butiama is particularly well suited to independent budget-conscious travelers, as it is only 3km/2mi from Mafia Airport and has a row of relatively affordable beach camps.

 

What Can I See in Mafia Island Marine Park?

Whale shark with pilot fish around its mouth, Mafia Island Whale shark with pilot fish around its mouth, Mafia Island

Mafia Island Marine Park is widely regarded to be East Africa’s best diving destination. Extending for 822km²/317mi² off the island’s south coast, the park provides an excellent introduction to the diverse marine life of the Indian Ocean. The most famous of its many world-class diving sites is Kinasi Pass in Chole Bay. This unspoiled reef supports such underwater heavyweights as giant grouper, potato cod, eagle ray, moray eel, bull shark and guitarfish. Elsewhere in the park are shallower snorkel-friendly coral gardens notable for their abundance of colorful reef fish.

Mafia Island Marine Park is famous for its resident population of whale sharks, giant plankton-eaters that can measure up to 18m/60ft from snout to tail tip. Boat safaris to look for whale sharks (and if conditions permit, swim with them) are most productive between October and March, when the success rate stands at around 90%. Other frequently seen marine wildlife includes various types of dolphin and giant turtle, along with humpback whales, which migrate through the area from August to October.

 

What Else Can I Do on Mafia Island?

Hippos in the water on Mafia Island Hippos in the water on Mafia Island

Although the beaches and offshore reefs are Mafia’s main attractions, many visitors also enjoy exploring the island on a day trip. Highlights of this driving excursion include a small freshwater lake inhabited by hippos, a brightly painted 19th-century lighthouse at Ras Mkumbi and the bustling fresh produce market in Kilindoni town.

Chole, a small palm-covered island separated from Mafia by a narrow channel, is home to the substantial ruins of Chole Mjini. This was the Mafia Archipelago’s most important town for most of the 19th century, and the ruins include a German customs house, a Hindu temple and several Omani mansions. Chole is famed for its roosting colony of Seychelles flying fox, a giant fruit bat that occurs nowhere else in East Africa.

Farther afield, it’s well worth checking out the ruined city of Kua, which extends across 6 hectares (15 acres) on Juani Island and served as the capital of the Mafia Archipelago from medieval times until the early 19th century.

 

How Does Mafia Island Compare With Zanzibar?

Kanga Beach on Mafia Island Kanga Beach on Mafia Island

The most obvious difference between the two islands is their levels of tourist development. Zanzibar is a busy and very popular beach destination with many hundreds of options for accommodations, ranging from large all-inclusive resorts to simple backpacker hostels. By contrast, Mafia remains largely untouched by mass tourism and its lodges and resorts are mostly small and exclusive with something of a boutique feel.

Another key difference between the two islands is that Mafia does not have a settlement with a historic character and urban buzz comparable to Zanzibar’s atmospheric old Stone Town. That said, Mafia has a definite edge over Zanzibar when it comes to marine activities such as diving and snorkeling. Beaches on Mafia are far more tranquil and hassle-free than those on Zanzibar, where sometimes it feels like it’s difficult to walk more than a few paces without somebody trying to sell you something.

 

Can I Combine Mafia Island With a Tanzania Safari?

Mangrove swamp at Kanga Beach on Mafia Island Mangrove swamp at Kanga Beach on Mafia Island

Absolutely. Because it lies off the south coast, Mafia Island combines particularly well with the Southern safari circuit, which includes Tanzania’s two largest national parks: Nyerere National Park (formerly Selous Game Reserve) and Ruaha National Park. But Mafia is also easily combined with Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and elsewhere on the more popular Northern safari circuit.

With careful planning, it should be possible to fly between your safari destination of choice and Mafia Island in one day. If that doesn’t work out, however, you may need to spend a night in transit in Dar es Salaam or (coming from the north) Arusha.

Tanzania Safaris & Mafia Island

 

How Much Does It Cost To Visit Mafia Island?

Boat at sunset on Mafia Island Boat at sunset on Mafia Island

The cost of a safari package to Mafia Island will depend greatly on your choice of accommodations and what proportion of your time you spend doing relatively costly marine activities such as diving and boat safaris. Generally speaking, though, you should be looking at a base price of US$300 to US$400 per person per day for a mid-range package that includes flights, accommodations, meals and some activities. Luxury packages or those focused mainly on diving will cost more. It is also possible to cut costs by visiting Mafia independently and staying in budget accommodations, but even then you will need to pay for flights, which are relatively costly.

 

What Is the Best Time To Visit Mafia Island?

Sandy beach on Mafia Island Sandy beach on Mafia Island

Mafia can be visited enjoyably at any time of year. The island’s tropical Indian Ocean location means that temperatures are always warm to hot, but usually tempered by a soft sea breeze. In terms of rainfall, the best time to visit is between June and October, which is the Dry season, but also when tourist numbers peak. March to May are by far the wettest months, and usually avoided for that reason. A good compromise is the shoulder season of November to February, which is less rainy than March to May but falls outside of the peak season.

 

How Do You Get to Mafia Island?

Utende Beach on Mafia Island Utende Beach on Mafia Island

Most visitors to Mafia Island fly from Dar es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport, which is serviced by a good network of domestic, regional and international flights. The only carriers offering scheduled fights between Dar es Salaam and Mafia Island are Coastal Air and Auric Air, both of which also operate connecting flights to most other major tourist hubs in Tanzania. The flight from Dar es Salaam to Mafia only takes 30 minutes and the fare is usually around US$150 one-way.

The only alternative to flying is an unreliable government ferry service from Dar es Salaam. This cannot be recommended except to flexible independent travelers with plenty of time on their hands.

 

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By Philip Briggs
South Africa ZA

Philip is a renowned Africa expert and author of the Bradt guidebook to Tanzania.

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