Vilankulos and the Bazaruto Archipelago

This was my second time visiting Vilankulos and our main objective was diving…..which sadly got derailed immediately. We were devastated to find that Odyssea, the main dive center in town, is closed in Feb and early March! There is only one other dive center, Dive Bazaruto, which would only agree to do a trip if at least 4 people signed up. We finally found two other divers but then he said the tides were too dangerous to go out. However, all the snorkel trips were going out to the same areas with no problem…..ugh. Since diving wasn’t an option, we decided to cut our stay to only 2 days in Vilankulos.

On the first day we planned to do a boat trip to Bazaruto Island, but at breakfast a Chilean couple told us about their trip to Santa Carolina island. It is the farthest island you can visit in the archipelago and everyone raves about how nice it is. The trip is harder to do because companies won’t organize it unless you have at least 8 people. The couple really persuaded us to come with them, so we changed our plans at the last minute to join.

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the main beach in vilankulos is always studded with dhows (a traditional swahili style boats)

We could immediately tell that it was a bit of a shady undertaking because the price for this far island trip was less than our short day trip. The boat also looked pretty dinky. We couldn’t even tell if this was an actual company or just some guys with a boat. They said Sailfish Dhow Safaris was the name of their company. We already had too many people on board when an older german couple approached the boat thinking we were their ride to Bazaruto Island. After a lot of phone calls and confusion, they found out their trip was cancelled so they were advised to join ours. At that point we had 12 guests and 3 crew on a boat that should only hold a max of 8 people…..not a good idea!

We had an hour boat ride ahead of us. Right from the start we were chewing through fuel and moving very slowly due to the extra weight of all the passengers. Pretty early on I started to count the number of fuel containers and wondered if we had enough on board to get home. We asked the crew ….and they said it was fine…so what could we do but trust them?

We made it to the island with no problems. Santa Carolina is a small coral island not far off the main coast, but about an hour by boat north of Vilankulos. The beach and the water were pristine. The island itself was pretty but nothing too spectacular (as people had lead us to believe). We were joined by two other groups on the same beach. They were with fancy companies who set out big shade canopies with bean bags, formal table settings, and wine in chiller buckets. We had to sit in the sand with no shade…..feeling like total bums compared to the high rollers next door!

Our guide took us for a walk around the island. Not too much to see except an abandoned hotel project from the 70s. Then we went out by boat to snorkel. I had high hopes for this because I assumed the further away island would have a better reef (and this is what I read online). However, the reef was pretty non existent! I don’t know if they took us to the wrong spot but there was little coral and a very small amount of fish life.

IMG_20180304_132906.jpgAfter snorkeling we had lunch – and this was the best part of the trip. A young local chef came along who made grilled fish, crab, rice, a tomato-based gravy and then a large plate of fruit. It was great!

Shortly after eating, we were told we needed to head back early because of a storm. There was no indication of a storm in the surrounding sky so we figured they just wanted to leave early because they knew it was going to take them longer than expected to get back!

The wind and waves had picked up so the trip back was much worse. We were slamming on the water every few minutes and hitting the waves at bad angles. I was pretty scared we were going to flip due to how unstable the boat was from all the extra weight. We made it about 75% of the way when, as predicted, we ran out of fuel. In typical African style – this came as a complete shock to the crew despite the fact that we warned them.

Luckily we were close to the shore so they could call their boss to organize a fuel delivery. This is no easy feat in Mozambique – there are no real roads connected to the coastline in this area. He would have to drive a crappy dirt road and then hike the fuel down to the beach. It took about 45 minutes for the fuel to arrive.

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we entertained ourselves by watching local kids play while we waited for fuel

When we tried to start back up again the boat just wasn’t able to clear the water and get on plane. The boat started to take on water and people were freaking out. Everyone demanded that they stop and take us to the shore so we could get off. Chaos ensued….the other guests were really upset and making a huge fuss. We really didn’t have anywhere we needed to be so we just kind of sat back and watched it all like a reality TV show. I knew we would get back somehow so I wasn’t worried. We were not in a dangerous area and worst case we could get picked up by road.

We felt like the primary problem was that too many people were on the boat making it impossible to drive properly. So if half the people got off, we were confident it would again function. So it worked out well that the majority of the group refused to get back on the boat. Garrett and I and two Norwegian guys decided to try our luck at making the last bit of the trip home by water.

However, it was soon clear that the boat had bigger issues than just the weight. It was still not able to get out of the water and having a lot of trouble handling the waves. It was pretty tenuous. We were moving really slow but hitting the waves really hard. It took about 30 minutes to get back to the first hotel on the main beach. We didn’t want to press our luck so we got out at our friend’s hotel – Casa Rex.

The rest of the group who refused to get back on the boat ended up having to wade through a swamp to get to the road. They walked through a swamp and spotted some crocodiles in the area causing massive panic. They were then piled into the back of a pick up truck and made a 30 minute ride on a really rough road. Man were they pissed! They refused to pay full price, but the tour guide refused to accept anything less….so no one paid anything that night.

We ended up staying and hanging out with our new friends at Casa Rex for the whole night. We had drinks and then dinner on the porch. Case Rex has one of the best restaurants in town so this was an easy decision. Although the whole thing was such a mess, I thought it was a fun adventure and I really enjoyed the new friends we made!

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the view from the top of Bazaruto’s sand dune

The next day we went on the original boat trip we had planned to Bazaruto Island with Sunset Dhow Safaris. It was like night and day compared to the day before. They had a much bigger nicer boat, more professional guides and were overall very well organized.

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Bazaruto is my favorite island in the archipelago because it is made up of a giant sand dune which swirls outward into the crystal blue water making endlessly changing patterns. You can climb to the top of the dune and get spectacular views over the archipelago. The snorkeling options are much better too. You can take a short trip over to Two Mile Reef which has excellent coral and a wide variety of marine life. On the way back you are also able to visit Bengurra island which is much less impressive but nice for comparison. If you are pressed for time in Vilankulos, I would definitely recommend just doing the Bazaruto trip!

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Where to stay? We stayed at Baobab Beach Backpackers which is an excellent budget choice. We ended up camping for all three nights which was about $20 a night. They also have really affordable thatch roofed ethnic huts which sit right above the beach. The lodge is right next to Odyssea Dive so it is a great place to stay if you are diving. Baobab Beach was also the first place we have stayed in Moz with functional wifi ! I also loved the vibe of their central restaurant and hang out area which backs up onto the beach for great views.

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our campsite at Baobab Beach Backpackers

The other budget option I would recommend is Zombie Cucumber but the location is a little less convenient. For more upscale hotels – there are many choices. I like Casa Cabana and Casa Rex. For even more upscale check out Bahia Mar. And if you really have a lot of money to throw around, you can actually stay on Bazaruto Island. There are a few crazy expensive lodges including ones run by &Beyond which have a series of 5 star lodges all over Moz.

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Where to eat/drink? The best restaurant by far is at Casa Rex, but it is definitely more expensive and you need to make reservations. Bahia Mar also has good food and offers  great views while you eat. Fruti de Mar is an awesome budget option for seafood and has a great deck for watching the sunset. The most popular hang out spot is the Casbah restaurant at Casa Cabana. It is perfectly located on a beautiful stretch of the beach making it a great refuge for drinks and snacks during hot days on the beach. It is also the most lively bar at night. The food is decent but overpriced.

Overall, I don’t like Vilankulos as much as Tofo or Ponta. Things are more spread out so you don’t have a sense of community or much of a nightlife. People tend to just stay at their resorts. There is also not really a centralized market – just sporadic small craft stands. I feel like what they sell is not as good as what you can find in Tofo and definitely more expensive. And of course, the diving in Tofo is better. Vilankulos offers a lot more diversity of coral life but less chance to see the big pelagics. So if we go back to Moz again we will likely skip Vilankulos!

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