Mozambique is not a country as popular as other more touristic African destinations. It doesn’t really have the same huge safari areas Tanzania has, nor the sandy white beaches of Kenya, for instance; even though you can actually find both things. And after this year’s two strong cyclones, it might sounds an even less interesting place to visit.
But in this off the beaten path country I’ve found at least one marvelous place: Mozambique Island.
Officially Ilha De Mozambique, this small island is 3km long and 500m wide and it’s connected with the mainland through a one lane bridge. It’s been declared UNESCO World Heritage site for its multiple buildings built during Portuguese colonialism in XV-XIX century.
Tourist here are mainly rich Mozambicans or foreign immigrants taking few days off work.
Or us: 2 volunteers in the health field and me, visiting one of them, on an African road trip.
History of Mozambique Island
Archeology says that Mozambique Island was already used as a harbor by Arab merchants in the X-XIV centuries. Thanks to its strategic position for trading with India, it’s been claimed by Portuguese at the beginning of 1500, when Vasco De Gama landed on its shores.
Few decades later, with the construction of Fort San Sebastian, the settlement became permanent and Mozambique Island was made capital of East Africa.
The island was a major harbor and the Portuguese built for themselves beautiful palaces, gardens and churches.
Around the end of the XIX century, after the opening of Suez Channel in 1869, Mozambique Island has slowly lost its importance and in 1898 the capital of Mozambique was moved to Maputo.
The look of buildings on this island is different from most of the rest of the country. Here there can be found Arabic and Portuguese influences, European and also Indian. Buildings in the north of the Island are made with stones and lime, with flat rooftops and colourful tiles to decorate the walls. Now-days they are mostly in ruins or left heavily to decay. Few investors have bought some of these buildings and renewed them (following the UNESCO rules to maintain the original look of each of them), opening bars, guest houses and shops. Some of the touristic attractions are sadly not really taken care of.
To see and to do
Sea and beaches
The beaches are on both sides of the island, generally sandy and fairly small, with a big tide change to take in consideration if you want to go swimming. The water is clean but the seabed is often covered by seaweeds, which makes impossible knowing what you’re stepping on.
Many of these beaches are used by fishermen cleaning their nets and preparing the sails to go fishing. There are also a lot of children around. It can happen that they stand close by staring at you. Or they silently sit down next to you and start playing with your weird straight hair, making braids, without asking for permission, as if you were a doll. Seems quite cute, but be careful. If you make the mistake of sharing fruits with them, you’ll be followed by thousands of them for the next 3 days. Leaving them behind is impossible.
Sailing tour to other islands
There are many half a day / day sailing trip from Mozambique Island. The most beautiful things to see are the little uninhabited island of Goa and Sena. Our sailing boat left us a short swim away from Goa Island, with time to explore the white sandy beach and do some snorkeling.
The sea here is full with colourful fish and corals. There are plenty of sea urchins and I’ve seen the consequences of stepping on them. Always wearing water shoes is very necessary!
It’s also important to make a clear deal about price, length of the trip and places of visit before boarding the boat.
Fort San Sebastian
Fort São Sebastião was built by the Portuguese in the XVI century and can be visited at a small price. From a touristic point of view, there are no information signs, no directions or any kind of explanation. It is possible to hire one of those guides that surround you when you approach the entrance, though.
We thought to walk around it alone, and we were free to wander for as long as we pleased. The courtyard inside the walls is probably not been taken care of in a very long time, giving you the thrills when crossing it. We went inside and outside different buildings, we found ourselves on rooftops without any handrail, in dead end alleys, in small rooms with smelly recent human activity and very steep staircases suspiciously unmaintained. Fun time!
Chapel of Our Lady of Baluarte
Nossa Senhora de Baluarte Chapel is been built by the Portuguese in 1522 and it’s considered the oldest European still standing building of the Austral hemisphere. With some luck, you have access to the chapel from San Sebastian Fort. I say “with some luck” because in the North East corner of the fort there’s a gate that leads you to the chapel. Sometimes it’s open. Sometimes it’s closed. And it also happens that someone closes it behind you without you noticing, forcing you to either wait for the next tourist to open it, or to leave the place through the only other way out: the rocks facing sea, during low tide. Genius.
The governor palace
The Governor Palace was first a religious building, Companhia de Jesus College college, and it only later on became the governor’s residence. The story goes that the governor himself opened it up as a museum, when he saw that some furniture was breaking down, without proper care.
The visit includes some chambers of the palace, the maritime museum and São Paulo church.
In the palace you can see some furniture, Persian carpets, photograph and every day life tools and objects from the Portuguese colonialism. In the museum there are archeological finds, objects from shipwrecks, chinaware and other historical pieces. A third part is dedicated to sacred art, with sculptures, paintings and religious ornaments. Saint Paul church is small, with a pretty pulpit and a balcony from which the governor could privately attend mess.
Generally speaking, the Governor Palace is probably the best kept building on the entire island.
Last but not least, we had read that the hospital had been for years the most important one in the entire Sub-Saharan African. Descriptions said a beautiful neoclassical Portuguese building from the 1977, with a garden decorated with fountains and ponds. Being a doctor and a nurse, my two friends were curious to see this architectural jewel. We took a quick and discreet tour from the main entrance to the back yard, in the open air areas. I obviously have no pictures of the inside of it, but let’s say that the garden with the water standpipe has not been what impressed us the most…
To eat and to sleep
There are many guest houses, b&b and other accommodation on the island.
We stayed at Casa do Gabriel, in a huge room with mosquito nets over the beds and good services. Every room is decorated in a different way and there’s a swimming pool in the inner court of the building. Breakfast is served in a pretty terrace with a view over the fish market and a beach where fishermen work.
There are plenty of choices to eat and drink. Rickshaws Pousada e Café offer an amazing sunset view from its terrace, facing the mainland. Restaurant Karibu prepares (or prepared) an octopus dish that I haven’t found since. Reliquias has a beautiful outdoor area, which we sadly couldn’t use because it was raining. And Floor de Rosa Fooftop has a (you guessed it!) rooftop with barbeque and interesting cocktails. The local street food it’s another good option. With few euros you can get an abundant dinner served on a charming plastic table, sitting on old plastic chairs, surrounded by locals. A good one is close to the municipal market.
Contrast of Island of Mozambique
Even though tourism has brought a good deal of work and money on Island of Mozambique, the Southern half of the Island is still sadly occupied by huts and the economical and sanitary situation is not much different from the one of the rest of the country.
It’s an hybrid between economical development and poverty that leaves you with a bitter taste.
But it’s not easy to do serious reasoning after 3 days melting in the sun, enjoying good fish and wonderful sunset! For now, it’s better focus on the sunset that comes down slowly, on the beautiful red ground of Africa.