An island paradise that gave its name to a country, Ilha de Moçambique is one of the most extraordinary places we’ve ever visited. At only 3km by 500m the island, known simply as “Ilha,” might be small but it packs a punch when it comes to historical and cultural significance.
For four centuries Ilha was the capital of Portuguese East Africa, where cargoes of gold, ivory and slaves were traded for the spices, fabrics and spirits that came from India and Arabia. After the capital was moved to Maputo in early 1898, Ilha started to move at a slightly different pace. Fortunes waned as businesses started to leave and it wasn't long before the island became a sleepy backwater, half-forgotten by the outside world.
In 1991 Ilha was recognised as a World Heritage Site, but it took another 25 years before tourism really started to take its place. Quite bizarrely it is still overlooked by most tourists, but that is undoubtably part of its allure. Wandering through the warren of semi-ruined, semi-restored colonial buildings and hanging out with the locals is the absolute highlight of any visit, and to top it off you rarely bump into other tourists.
The most enjoyable part of travelling for us is the people we meet, and Ilha, with its African, Portuguese, Swahili, French and Goan influences, has quite the melting pot of ridiculously friendly people. The island is split in two, with Stone Town on one side and Makuti Town on the other. Stone Town might be the prettier of the two but Makuti Town, where most the population live, is by far the life and soul of the island.
The first time we visited Ilha was at the start of 2018. We spent a week exploring the island and every day we'd wander to new and unexplored spot; however, no matter where we wandered we inevitably bumped into similar groups of students walking to class or street vendors with their baskets of colourful fruit balanced effortlessly on their heads. “EHALI?!” we'd shout (a polite greeting in the local Makua language) and they’d respond swiftly with a “SALAMA!” (the appropriate Makua response) followed by a massive grin. Our second visit to Ilha came at the start of November 2019, although it was a short trip we still found ourselves falling slowly in love with island once again. We're now hoping it'll be an annual trip, but it isn't the easiest of places to get to!
Aside from the wonderful locals that inhabit Ilha, it’s a magnificently beautiful place in an equally beautiful location. The reefs surrounding the island sit in the bluest waters we've ever seen and the food there is second to none. If you’re planning on visiting then make sure you try the local “Matapa de Siri Siri,” a local vegetarian dish made with coconut milk, and pay a visit to Ilha de Goa, a neighbouring island with a spectacularly white beach.
How to get there?
Situated just off the North Coast of Mozambique and connected to the mainland by a 3km long bridge, Ilha is fairly simple to get to, but it can sometimes be a bit of a mission due to the lack of infrastructure in the province.
International and domestic flights will get you to the two nearest airports in Nacala and Nampula. It is then a two and a half hour drive to Ilha; however, if you’re taking a local bus/minivan (aka “chapa”) it can take up to 6 hours to do the same route.
Things to note, domestic flights can be severely delayed in Mozambique. Over the years the national airline with the acronym “LAM” is now lamentably known as “Late And Maybe.” Fortunately as of March 2018, there are a few other airlines that have started some routes.
Where to stay?
Your choices for accommodation on Ilha aren’t extensive but there is a decent range from luxury to basic. There are a couple of up market boutique hotels (Coral Lodge & Villa Sands) as well as a mid range options (Rickshaw Pousada & Cafe Central). There’s also some very basic options best found by walking round the Island, but many of these don’t have an online presence.
Other useful tips?
Ilha is a predominantly Muslim island, with the oldest mosque in Moçambique. Be respectful and aware of local customs, particularly around religious holidays.
When booking accommodation make sure you either have a fan or air con. Temperatures drop slightly at night but without a breeze in your room, it’ll make for a sweaty nights sleep.
There are only a couple of ATMs on the island, and at times they have sizeable queues. Take some extra cash with you just as a backup. Many of the more upmarket restaurants, tourism agencies and hotels do accept card. They almost all accept USD as well, but they’ll likely give you change in MZN.