Mafia Island, Tanzania: The Complete Guide

Aerial photo of a traditional dhow on the beach on Mafia Island, Tanzania

Moiz Husein / Getty Images

Located southeast of Dar es Salaam off Tanzania’s Swahili Coast, Mafia Island is a relatively undeveloped haven for divers, nature lovers and adventurous spirits. It fulfils all the requirements of a tropical paradise, with white sand beaches, turquoise waters and a lush green interior intersected by unpaved roads. Locals get around by bicycle and tuk-tuk, and unlike nearby Zanzibar, there are no rowdy nightclubs or hustling beach vendors. Instead, the island is famous for its protected underwater reefs which make it one of the best scuba destinations in Africa.

It also boasts a handful of fascinating ruins and several idyllic luxury lodges. 

History & Geography

From the 8th century onwards, Mafia served as an important stop on the trade route between East Asia and the Swahili coastline. During medieval times, it was part of the powerful Kilwa Sultanate and vendors came to sell products from the Tanzanian mainland and the neighboring islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Comoros and Madagascar to buyers from across the Arabian Sea. At various times throughout its history, Mafia has been occupied by foreign invaders including the Arabs, the Omanis, the Portuguese, the Germans and the British.

It is a small island, measuring just 30 miles (50 kilometers) in length and 10 miles (15 kilometers) across at its widest point. The main town, Kilindoni, is located on the northwest shore and is connected by road to two other settlements: Utende in the southeast and Bweni in the far north. Most visitors spend their time in Utende, which is the jumping off point for Chole Bay, the Mafia Island Marine Park and the ruins on nearby Chole and Juani islands. The majority of Mafia’s luxury resorts and dive centers are located there, including Mafia Island Diving and Big Blu.

 

The Top Things to Do on Mafia Island

Scuba Diving: Scuba diving is the most popular activity on Mafia. Nearly half of the coastline is protected under the auspices of the Mafia Island Marine Park and aquatic life abounds. Highlights include more than 460 species of tropical fish, five species of turtle, the elusive dugong and a profusion of hard and soft corals. From September to March, whale sharks arrive in Mafia’s waters on their annual migration and can often be seen feeding on plankton upwellings in large numbers. Responsible operators like Kitu Kiblu offer the chance to swim alongside the world’s largest fish.

 

Fishing & Other Watersports: Mafia’s rich marine life also attracts deep sea fishermen. Charter trips to the reefs, atolls and seamounts beyond the marine park provide the opportunity to catch a wide variety of species including sailfish, wahoo, tuna and giant trevallies. You can also enjoy any number of other watersports. Shallow reef sites are great for snorkeling, while the island’s tidal mangrove forests are best explored by sea kayak. Many of Mafia’s lodges and resorts also offer dhow cruises and tours to the archipelago’s uninhabited islands and sandbanks.

 

Wildlife Viewing: The island’s verdant interior is home to a diverse array of habitats including tracts of coastal high forest and lowland rainforest. Explore these untamed wildernesses on foot and come face-to-face with indigenous monkeys, squirrels, flying foxes and lizards; not to mention over 120 bird species. Much of Mafia’s birdlife is found at the coast, foraging for food on the tidal flats. In September and August, humpback whales can be spotted on their migration past the island; while baby turtles hatch on Juani Island’s eastern beach between June and September.

 

Historic Ruins & Culture Tours: Evidence of Mafia’s trading past can be found in ruined settlements across the archipelago. On Juani Island, Kua Ruins was once a thriving medieval trading post, with Swahili residences, mosques and a sultan’s palace. Now, many of the ruins are overrun by fig roots, giving you the sense of having stumbled upon a lost civilization. Chole Island also has Arabic ruins that date back to the 12th century and German ruins left over from colonial occupation during the First World War.

Combine trips to Chole’s ruins with a visit to the island’s contemporary boat-building communities. 

Climate & When to Go

Mafia's tropical climate is defined by two distinct rainy seasons. The short rains last from November to December, while the long rains last from March to May. If diving is your top priority, try to avoid traveling during the rainy seasons when underwater visibility is reduced. Some lodges close for the duration of the long rains. For sunny, dry weather, plan to visit from August to October (slightly cooler) or from late December to mid March (hotter and more humid). June and July are generally cool and dry but can be windy, affecting sea conditions.

September to March is whale shark season. 

Getting There & Getting Around

The easiest way to get to Mafia Island is on a plane. Coastal Aviation and Auric Air both offer multiple daily flights from Dar es Salaam, which take approximately 30 minutes. Budget travelers can also opt to travel to Mafia by ferry. There is only one, which departs from Nyamisati village on the mainland and leaves at 4 a.m. It takes around four hours and costs only 16,000 Tanzanian shillings (around US$7). However, the ferry is notoriously overcrowded and poorly maintained, and there have been several capsizing incidents making flying the safer option.

 

Once you get to Mafia, you can explore the island on local shared taxis known as dalla-dallas. These connect Kilindoni (where the airport and the port are located) with both Utende and Bweni. The trip to Utende takes 30 minutes and costs 1,000 Tanzanian shillings while the trip to Bweni takes between four and five hours and costs 4,000 Tanzanian shillings. You can also get around by tuk-tuk or rental bicycle. Most resorts include transfers from Kilindoni, and hotels and dive centers in Utende are usually able to arrange boat trips to Chole and Juani islands.

 

Where to Stay

Most of the accommodation on Mafia is located either in Kilindoni (the best bet for backpackers) or Utende (best for luxury lodges and divers). Because Utende is part of the Mafia Island Marine Park, you will need to pay a daily conservation fee of US$20 if you choose to stay there. Top Utende accommodation options include Eco Shamba Kilole Lodge and Kinasi Lodge. The former is Mafia’s first certified eco-lodge with just six rooms and an organic restaurant. The latter offers 5-star, colonial-style rooms overlooking Chole Bay.

It also has a spa, two restaurants, and a PADI dive center. 

If you’re traveling on a budget, Ibizza Inn is an affordable bed and breakfast located in Kilindoni, with clean en-suite rooms, air-conditioning, mosquito nets and a lively treetop bar. Alternatively, consider Chole Foxes Lodge, a unique, locally run option located on Chole Island. Its self-contained chalets enjoy a spectacular location on a remote mangrove beach and the resident chef serves up mouthwatering local specialties in the simple restaurant. 

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