The beaches of Mozambique’s Bazaruto Islands are a playground for the very rich, but chartering a local sailboat for day trips makes them a vacation destination almost anyone can afford
OF THE THREE BOATS anchored 10 miles off Mozambique’s southern coast, there could be little doubt which had gate-crashed the millionaire’s party. Next to the others—sleek, carbon-fiber vessels crewed by men in blue polo shirts—our craft was a relic, a creaking timber dhow with flaking paint. Yet as we keeled overboard to join the other snorkelers at the kaleidoscopic coral gardens of Two-Mile Reef, we all shared the exact same view.
At first glance, Mozambique’s rarefied Bazaruto Islands might seem an unlikely spot for a budget holiday. The brutal civil war sparked by the end of Portuguese rule in 1975 has long since ended, and as tourism returned to Mozambique’s alluring 1,500 miles of southeast African coastline, this chain of five sandy islands, 440 miles northeast of the capital, Maputo, went decidedly upmarket. Luxury lodges catering to jet-setters and break-the-bank honeymooners sprang up on its empty shores, offering exclusivity and driftwood-chic furnishings for more than a thousand bucks a day.
It’s the sort of high-end place that can stick in the throat, when you consider that these few, mostly foreign-owned lodges may charge as much a night as most Mozambicans earn in a year. But the authorities’ policy of granting concessions only to luxury, low-impact ventures also makes sense from a conservation standpoint. Spared the ravages of mass tourism, the archipelago—home to a treasure-chest of marine mega-fauna and 180 bird species—remains what it has always been: the quintessential tropical paradise.
Which is all very well. But if, like me, you arrive in Vilankulo, the quiet town that is the islands’ jumping-off point, on a far humbler budget, how can you ever contrive to reach them? My partner, Lucy, and I saw the answer pitching on the turquoise rollers just off Vilankulo’s beach.
Introduced to Africa by Arab traders, the isosceles sails of the lateen-rigged dhows are a millennium-old feature of the continent’s Indian Ocean coast. Here, the vessels can be hired to take you to the islands on day trips. By opting for these so-called “dhow safaris” during the day and overnighting in one of Vilankulo’s laid-back guesthouses or small hotels, budget-conscious visitors can explore the archipelago for as little as $50-80 a day.
It was a cloudless morning when we lit out for our first foray to the islands with our skipper, Alex, a gravel-voiced local, steering us through the sandbars. Even with the khaki spinnaker bulging, an old outboard engine provided most of the propulsion—the seven-mile channel takes too long to traverse by wind alone. But the motor’s thrum was a minor irritation on an otherwise dazzling morning. Egrets drifted overhead in perfect chevrons. The dhows of fishermen bobbed on the swells and each time they threw a net they sent flying-fish skittering over the water in bursts of silver.
An hour out of Vilankulo, we puttered into a natural anchorage and waded onto the northern shore of Magaruque, a mile-wide islet that is the most popular destination for the dhow-safaris. “This is our shade, this is our table,” Alex said, gesturing toward a reed shelter poking out among stunted palms. “You can walk wherever you want.”
We spent six hours on Magaruque that day, paddling in coral shallows and strolling barefoot around the headlands, with a midday break for a seafood banquet of calamari curry and boiled crabs that Alex grilled over coals in the dhow’s stern.
I won’t pretend that I was delighted to leave, but camping is prohibited and staying into the late afternoon would have meant a night marooned by the low-tide and a hefty fine for the operator. So we soaked up what we could before heading back, watching and whimpering as the island receded behind us.