Travel Diary: Zanzibar on a Budget

Tanzania’s tropical island Zanzibar might be known as a luxurious honeymoon destination. But our week on the island in January proves that even two backpackers travelling on a shoestring can get by just fine.

Many travellers might shy away from Zanzibar because of the hoards of tourists that flock to what was once quite the secluded paradise. However, with the right attitude Zanzibar is still a great destination with plenty to offer.  For those wishing to learn and understand more about the history of the slave trade, Stone Town is the place to be.

Here’s a post about our week on Zanzibar – the final stop of our five-week Tanzanian odyssey before heading back home to Finland.

Getting to Zanzibar Budget Style

Taking the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar
Weather allowing I highly recommend sitting outside during your ferry ride. You’ll get a great view and an exciting experience. Travel tip: the wind is extremely strong so pants might be a better choice of clothing than a skirt if you’re planning on sitting outside.

You can sometimes get very cheap plane tickets from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. So choosing to travel by ferry might not necessarily mean you’ll save bucketloads of money. However, I’d still definitely recommend taking the ferry – if only for the adventure and experience you’ll get.

As most tourists fly to Zanzibar, this is also more of a local experience. So remember to dress accordingly and don’t wear short skirts or revealing tops.

Arriving by ferry, you’ll have a great view of the island slowly emerging on the horizon. You’ll disembark near the centre of Stone Town and it’s easy to walk to many of the centrally located hostels and hotels.

We stayed at Top Ten Hostel. Service was a bit odd at times, but the location was perfect. We had shared bathroom, but as breakfast and A/C were included in our room that cost 32 euros a night it seemed like a good deal.

Stone Town Had Me at Hello

Stone Town harbour
Stepping off the ferry in Stone Town, I think this was the first picture I took on Zanzibar. As Stone Town is on Zanzibar’s west side this is a great place to watch the sunset.

Heading over to Zanzibar I was feeling very prejudiced. I’d heard so many people say the island has become a nightmare due to mass tourism. We were close to cutting Zanzibar off our itinerary altogether.

However I’m glad we didn’t. And the reason is Stone Town.

If you’ve followed me for a while you know I’m a history geek. Everything about Stone Town oozes history and I could sense that the minute we set foot on the island (more on history later). I instantly fell in love! Not even the hoards of tourists or the constant shouting from vendors could make me dislike Stone Town.

After Dar es Salaam Stone Town also felt surprisingly clean.

We originally decided on two nights in Stone Town, but ended up cutting our beach stay short for an extra night in Stone Town before heading back to Finland.

Sunset Downers, Smoothies and Other Delicious Delights

Sunset cocktails at Africa House in Stone Town
Cheers to the perfect sunset! We struggled finding Africa House, but once we did we could see why it’s such a great place for sundowners – the view was perfect.

As I prefer to eat as little meat as possible, my diet had been quite one-sided for the past week. While hiking I relied mostly on chapatis (kind of like crepes), rice, nuts and digestive cookies. Needless to say, arriving on Zanzibar – Tanzania’s flavour capital – I was pretty stoked.

I think I gained several kilos during our week on Zanzibar consuming delicious smoothies, spice coffee, Zanzibar pizzas, seafood treats and some excellent Indian food. Completely worth it though!

And let’s not forget the odd drink. After over a week of more or less no alcohol that darwa gin lime cocktail with limejuice and honey our first night in Stone Town sure tasted good!

Forodhani Garden Night Market Zanzibar
We dined at Forodhani Garden’s Night Market on a couple of occasions. It’s not the budget meal spot is once used to be, but a great place to try out different local cuisine as you can select whatever you like from different stalls. Just watch out for those greedy cats, ready to steal your food as soon as you look the other way.

Spice Island Tour and Spa Time

Spice tour on Zanzibar
Where pepper grows. Did you know that different coloured peppers come from the same plant? The colour just depends on when it’s been harvested.

Our first full day on Zanzibar we decided to do the perhaps most touristy thing possible – a Spice Island tour. Albeit touristy, I recommend it. Besides slavery, spice trade is one of the things that has shaped the history of the island the most. So if you’re visiting Zanzibar it seems almost wrong not doing a spice tour.

There are so many spices we use in Finland every day, but obviously our climate means we don’t have the chance to see how these spices grow. So I definitely learned a lot. During our tour we also got to taste plenty of different fruit.

Lunch at a spice plantation on Zanzibar
Excellent lunch at the spice plantation we visited consisting of pilau rice, spinach and banana. And some chili as well of course. Yummy!

After a week of hardcore hiking (including bucket showers and dirty clothes) I was feeling in need of some pampering and getting in touch with my feminine side. I’d come across a really nice-looking spa in one of the alleys of Stone Town and decided to head there.

I ended up spending a total of around 100 USD for both a body treatment consisting of a massage and body scrub as well as a hair and scalp treatment. Perhaps not the most budget-friendly activity to do, but to me it felt like a bargain. All those lovely flowery scents and the silky, smooth skin I got made me feel wonderful!

Mrembo Spa in Stone Town
Singo treatment is a traditional scrub a Zanzibar girl undergoes before getting married. It includes a massage and body scrub. Mrembo Spa offers this lovely treatment for around 55 USD.

Getting Lost in Stone Town

Stone Town's narrow alleys
You never know what awaits around the next corner in Stone Town.

Stone Town’s endless maze of narrow alleys – my favourite and least favourite thing about Stone Town.

Wandering along those super narrow alleys never gets old. Around every corner there’s just so much to see. Those famous wooden doors, admiring the marks different historical eras have left in the architecture and soaking up the ambience is all part of the charm.

Beautiful wooden door in Stone Town
One of Stone Town’s many beautiful wooden doors.

However, if you’re trying to get from point A to B in a hurry and you don’t have the inexplicably accurate sense of direction my brother has, then getting lost in Stone Town is inevitable. I’ve always thought I’m good at finding the right way in new places. Well I don’t think that anymore, that’s for sure!

We both struggled trying to find the locations of some of the sights we wanted to see. For example on our last day in Stone Town we spent ages looking for Tippu Tip’s door.

So if you’re going to Stone Town and planning on exploring independently by foot, just make sure you reserve enough time.

Jaws Corner Zanzibar
Jaws Corner in Stone Town offers plenty of action in the afternoon.

Learning About the Slave Trade

Slave Trade Monument in Stone Town
The Slave Trade Monument on the former slave trade site in Stone Town, reminding visitors of the atrocities that once took place here. It’s estimated that around 50.000 slaves passed through Zanzibar every year during 19th century and around 80.000 died on the way to the island.

Few things have had such a significant (and awful) impact on the history of humankind as slavery. For the benefit of a few cruel and greedy people entire cultures have been violently ripped from their roots and transported to the other side of the world. How different would the world be if slavery had never existed?

Given its location, Zanzibar became a hub spot for the slave trade. People captured on the mainland were transported to Zanzibar where they were later auctioned and then shipped away to the other side of the world.

The slave trade is one of humankind’s history’s most atrocious and appalling chapters. The least we can do is to learn from it and make sure this never happens again (and try to end the slavery that still unfortunately exists today). So if you’re in Zanzibar, a visit to Stone Town’s old slave market and the Slave Trade Exhibit is a must.

It’s far from a cheerful excursion, but definitely eye-opening and informative. At 5 USD this is suitable even for those on a very tight budget.

Slave Trade Exhibit in Stone Town
Especially gruesome was seeing the dingy cells were slaves were kept before being auctioned. A tiny dark cellar where up to 75 slaves would be crammed in and chained. It’s hard to understand how humans could do this to other humans.

Laid-Back Vibes of Jambiani

Sunrise on Jambiani beach on Zanzibar
Sunrises on Jambiani beach were always worth waking up early for. As this beach isn’t a fenced-off resort property you’ll share it with both local humans and local animals, like these guys taking a morning stroll.

After two nights in Stone Town we headed towards Jambiani, a tiny town on the Southeast coast of Zanzibar. We’d found this nice-looking beach-front bungalow that was a bit of a stretch budget-wise, but worth it getting that ocean view and location right on the beach.

As Zanzibar has continued to gain popularity most of the island seems to be either super exclusive, fenced-off all-inclusive resorts or touristy party beaches with happy hour deals and non-stop hassle from vendors.

But there are exceptions, like Jambiani for instance. In Jambiani you’ll share the beach with locals whilst still getting that paradise island vibe. The downside is that there are fewer choices when it comes to for example budget-friendly activities and restaurants. And being one of the few undeveloped spots on a super popular tourist destination there’s a lot of construction work going on.

Mango Beach House Jambiani
We stayed at Mango Beach House for 70 USD a night for a large ocean view room. It’s a lovely place with a super friendly and helpful owner.

Failing to Relax

One of the activities we did in Jambiani was going sailing in a traditional dhow sailing boat. This was a fun experience and worth trying out if you’re ever in the region.

What I quickly realised, was that while the location was great in the sense that it was calm and peaceful, fewer other tourists meant higher prices when it came to activities.

This surprised me, as I’d somehow just assumed that being closer to different sights would mean activities would cost less. In hindsight, this was silly of me. Obviously the number of people joining on a tour is going to be what ultimately affects the price. That’s why tours tend to be cheaper departing from for example Stone Town as there are plenty of people sharing the costs of the tour.

So why not just relax and take it easy after travelling across Tanzania for five weeks? Somehow, I just wasn’t able to. Maybe we’d been travelling for too long, but I failed miserably attempting to just chill. We quickly decided to cut our stay on the beach short. In true budget travel style we travelled back to Stone Town on a dala dala bus (local bus) for one last night and day.

Jambiani Beach on Zanzibar
The turquoise water of Zanzibar is something magical. Jambiani Beach offers a very relaxed and quiet vibe, best suited for those really looking to just relax and take it easy.

Snorkelling and Tight Schedules

Snorkelling on Mnemba Atoll
Snorkelling on Mnemba Atoll included beautiful corals and marine life, but way too many other tourists to make the experience enjoyable.

One of the activities I really wanted to do was go snorkelling. I wanted to see how the marine life on Zanzibar compared to that of Mafia Island. Call me crazy, but I crammed in a snorkelling adventure on our very last day.

I’d been promised I’d be back at the hostel by 1pm – 2pm at the latest. As we had to leave for the airport at around 3.30 pm I figured this would be just fine. Well turns out island time really is island time and I think I got back to Stone Town at around 3pm so the day ended up being incredibly stressful. But I did make it in time though.

Either way – here’s my verdict on the snorkelling. The marine life really was fantastic and there was a lot to see. However, the amount of people was awful. I’ve never seen so many snorkelers crammed into one spot – tourist soup is what it felt like.

So I can’t say I recommend it. Although the corals on Zanzibar were more beautiful I’d pick Mafia Island any day for a more enjoyable snorkelling experience.

So What Did I Think of Zanzibar?

Sunset in Stone Town
Last night in Stone Town offered a beautiful sunset.

I’m happy we visited Zanzibar, but to be honest, I don’t think I’d visit again. Unfortunately, many of the things we’d heard in advance were true and it made me sad to see what tourism has done to the island. Let’s just say, Zanzibar is no longer a paradise for everybody.

Sure, if you have money and travel in five-star luxury you can always buy your peace and quiet, but the cost of that is endless walls, isolating locals from their own beaches. There are still some exceptions, like Jambiani, but the amount of construction work going on tells me these exceptions might not stay this way for long.

Still, the UNESCO world heritage site Stone Town really is an endlessly fascinating place to visit and I really genuinely loved it!

I guess my advice for anyone dreaming about visiting the island is just to perhaps prepare yourself and try to arrive with the right attitude. If you expect a quiet paradise island you might be disappointed. But as long as you accept the fact you won’t be the only tourist there and try to adopt an understanding attitude towards the sometimes almost aggressive touts you might really genuinely enjoy yourself.

Waving Goodbye to Zanzibar and Tanzania

Views over Zanzibar's archipelago are amazing
Views over Zanzibar’s archipelago from the sky are incredible! One of the most amazing airplane views I’ve ever seen.

After the snorkelling adventure it was time to leave Zanzibar. This time we opted for a flight, just to make 100 percent sure we make our international flight from Dar to Amsterdam later that night.

Our flight was quite significantly delayed, but as we’d made sure there was a lot of time between our flights we had no problem making our long-haul flight.

Nostalgic and Home-Sick

Sitting at the airport in Dar felt both like a relief and kind of sad at the same time. The past five weeks I’d experienced more than I ever thought was possible in such a short time. I’d seen so many incredible animals, beautiful views and learned so much. Even though we did have the odd argument I also loved being able to spend so much quality time with my brother.

On the other hand I felt I’d had enough adventure to last me at least until I hit forty. In my early twenties these five weeks would have been nothing. But after turning thirty and growing accustomed to a certain standard of comfort (I know this makes me sound obnoxious), well…let’s just say my whole body was telling me this was enough travelling for a while.

And there’s something quite tiring about constantly being on the go – we seemed moving to a new place almost every day.

Another reason I was feeling anxious to get home was of course that I was really missing my man back home. We’d never been apart for such a long period of time, so I was more than happy to get back home to him again.

All in all – what a trip we had!


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