Vilankulo, Mozambique: African Paradise

I’ve visited Mozambique dozens of times on scuba trips. Time and budget has always limited me to Ponta Do Ouro, the most southerly village closest to the South African border. It’s a long 10 hour drive from Johannesburg. It’s fairly safe, barring the occasional pothole, donkey or dung-beetle in the road! When you cross the border at Kosi Bay, it’s like stepping into a different world.  That sounds ignorant because it is a different country! But you assume because of its proximity to SA things will be the same! It is amazing how 1 meter can demarcate language, customs, currency and attitude.

IMG_4739
SA Airlink and LAM airlines fly to Mozambique.

Across the SA border tar roads become sand tracks, computers are replaced with paperwork, English with Portuguese, and Rands with Metical. Even the beer labels are different.  Trade relations between SA and Mozambique are on good terms, but Mozambique has a proud manufacturing history and there is little evidence of South African dominance in the stores.

Boring history lesson!

The Portuguese influence is unmistakable.  The colonial exit of Portugal in 1974 did not end their rule of flavours and taste!  Piri-Piri chicken (Galinha), prego and my favourite, the custard tartlet called Pasteis de Nata are as ubiquitous as the mosquito!    Mozambique is one of those places the travel books have little to report on, owing to the fact that the civil war post-independence raged for 20 years until 1994.  Despite peace being achieved, the relationship between the 2 political parties has been anything but stable.  Their fragile democracy caught a speed wobble in 2013, and the recent discovery of LP gas in the Rovuma Basin has resulted in a renewed scramble for power and greed. All this instability has made Mozambique relatively untouched. If you’re prepared to handle the risk, then you will discover one of the world’s last, untouched paradises.   A coast line of 2470km means you’ve got a lot of space to work with!   And even less humans to fuck things up!

a modern'ish airport awaits
a modern’ish airport awaits

Amidst the chaos, there are several tourist-friendly spots along the coast.  Small airports catering for both rustic accommodation and luxury lodges have been developed.   Inhambane (& Tofo), Vilankulo (& Bazaruto), and further north, Pemba, are all serviced by SA Airlink and LAM airlines.  A tropical vacation takes no longer than a 2-hour flight (from Jhb) to achieve, and in winter, the climate is a balmy 27 degrees by day.

In July, my wife and I needed an escape from the cold, dry winter of Johannesburg.  Our work schedule allowed us both to take 4 days off from the rat-race so we took the plunge and bought tickets to Vilankulo.  We honey-mooned in Inhambane in 2011, so Vilankulo was the next town to tick off our list.

It’s not impossible to drive from SA to Vilankulo, but why risk the bribery and corruption of the 20 hour drive when you can fly hassle free in 2?

Flying into Vilankulo the terrain below is bizarre.  Grass tries its best to grow on the white sand flats, and large, concentric areas are flooded with greenish water, creating the illusion of pitted-elephant skin.  Weird!  The skin makes way to sprawling human settlements and Vilankulo’s airport, with its runway parallel to the blue Indian Ocean.  Paradise found!  Bring on the pina coladas!

Bizarre Landscape
Bizarre Landscape over central Mozambique

This is not Cancun or some over developed Thai island. Infrastructure has a decidedly African charm. This is not to say it’s falling apart, it is just not new and shiny! You have to have a sense of humour to run a business, and holiday in such an environment.  This is half the fun.  If you want 5-star-slick go to Mauritius or Comores.  Even better, Zanzibar.  This is not to say there aren’t 5 star resorts.  Dugong, Pestana, Azura Benguerra and Anantara on Bazaruto offer the $400 per person per night ass-wiping treatment.   But the drawback of these digs is their remoteness from real life.  They are positioned miles from the real draw card of Mozambique, the town with its flavour. Sure, there is something to be said for being remote and away from other humans!  But on this occasion I wanted be in the action, and for $135 a night, get an equally relaxing and authentic experience.

IMG_4895
My cottage has the red towel hanging outside! Not too shit!
View from Beach Cottage 2
View from Beach Cottage 2

Casa Cabana is just the spot. It has a prime beach position in the newer, more northern part of Vilankulo.  The town is 7km from top to tail so you can easily walk Vilankulo in less that 2 hours.  My thinking was “be on the beach but close enough to to walk to the shops”. I wasn’t expecting public transport to be so readily available. The Tuk-Tuk phenomenon has hit Mozambique. And what a wonderful service they provide.  Had I known this I might have considered staying a smidge further out of town, now knowing that for less than $4 (R80 / 400 Metical) you can catch a ride from south to north, & even cheaper for shorter trips.

8m from the beach!
8m from the beach!

What sold me on Casa Cabana was the idea that my room would be right on the beach. It didn’t disappoint. Owner Robert and his team comprising Juanita and Bobo are getting it right.  The perfect blend of rustic chic and luxury.  I stayed in Beach cottage 2.   The linen was heavenly to sleep on, and the lounger on the patio was perfect for just chilling and putting my feet up.  Did I mention the beach was less than 8 meters away?!!!  The room came with a bar fridge that I stocked up with cheap beer from the local store, and a tea/coffee making station. What more do you need.  Running the risk of repeating myself, the cottage was almost built on the beach!   Enough shameless promotion, another key reason I like Casa Cabana is their beach bar, which, “Yes, you guessed it!” is right on the beach too!   What can be better than sitting at a table with your feet in the warm sand sipping on an ice-cold Mozambican lager?

Drinking beer at the Casbah Beach Bar
Drinking beer at the Casbah Beach Bar. You have to try their Prego.

Trip Advisor can be both a blessing and a curse.  On one hand the rating system does weed out the truly revolting from the habitable!  But because it has a western bias, and also because ignorant reviewers contribute, the ratings and value attributed to some of the places are way off.  This means only a few of the spots attract the business – inundated with the less adventurous travelers who flock like sheep.   I am not saying this is a bad thing. Kudos to businesses who have tapped into the top ranks. They deserve all their success.

But in Mozambique some of the best places aren’t even on trip advisor, and if they are they are way down! The less adventurous wouldn’t dare set foot in spots like these. Their loss is my gain! It’s refreshing to know that places still exist that offer great accommodation and food, and don’t need the validation of wi-fi searching parrots to succeed!

A case in point is the Vilankulo Beach Lodge.  It’s at the northern limits of Vilankulo which explains why guests would prefer accommodation closer to town.  Now that I know how easy it is to get a Tuk-Tuk I think I will try this on my next visit.  The Beach Lodge is straight out of the pages of Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.  But you neither have to be rich nor famous to stay here.   The property is immaculate. The lawn is manicured to perfection, and an infinity pool that makes properties in Camps Bay look cheap, flanks the beach.  And the open plan bar/restaurant is next level with sexy cocktails, tasty tapas and great service.  Let’s keep this our little secret okay?

IMG_4959
Vilankulo Beach Lodge is so worth a visit. And surprisingly good value.  Pina Colada heaven!

I love sipping beer with a view.  When I was in Santorini is 2014 I thought it couldn’t get better. I was wrong. Frutos Do Mar in Vilankulo is a contender.  Previously the Upper Deck, the new owners have drawn inspiration from the Greeks.  The decor is pristine white, and one suspects it could be the party hot spot of Vilankulo in the evenings. Alas, I will never know as I am an ageing old man!!!   The view, service and food is tip-top.   If you want to access the restaurant from the beach you’ll have to climb up the make shift stairs made of old bus tyres.  Not ideal but worth the effort.

IMG_4864
What a view. And the decor is greek-chic!
IMG_4866
2M. The national beer of Mozambique
IMG_2474
Low tide in Vilankulo. Notice the local villagers dragging in their nets in a line.  Heave-ho!

From Casa Cabana, the local town center is a 3,5km walk.  If it’s your first time in Vilankulo I suggest walking so you can take in the charm.  The main road leading from the north is brick-paved. I think this is a great solution to the pot-hole pandemic.  Instead of having to tar entire stretches of damaged road at a huge premium, all you need to do is plant a few new bricks.  And because the road is low volume, mostly tuk-tuks, the bricks can handle the load.  Clever!

IMG_4804
Tuk Tuk Tropical!
IMG_4834
Spot the tourist!

Poverty is never far in Africa. However, in Mozambique no one feels sorry for themselves.  Like Nigerians, if you have 2 arms and 2 legs, you make a plan and sell something.  The road is flanked on both sides with informal traders and provision stores.  The woman and men tending to their businesses have friendly smiles and no one begs.  As a foreigner I stood out like a sore thumb, but it was refreshing not to be continually hassled and haggled.  Vilankulo is a tropical paradise.  The palm trees prove this.  But what was surprising were the baobab trees lining the roads.  I am sure there were probably many more years ago – chopped down for fire wood. Either way, the few that remain are awe inspiring.

IMG_4808
Baobab beauty

Operation “Find a Pasteis de Nata”!

The Café Mocambicano is a small non-descript bakery close to the municipal market.  The tell-tail sign is the “Delta” sign outside. The Delta brand is the leader in coffee imports throughout Mozambique, so their sign is a good indication that quality is not far!

IMG_4824

I remember about 10 years ago the brand “Bicafe” was the dominant branding outside coffee shops. I  wonder what happened to them?

Back to the task at hand.  Find a Portuguese tartlet called a Pasteis De Nata.  Bingo!  Cafe Mocambicano  had a freshly-baked batch on offer. The pastry was flaky, the custard had a subtle vanilla flavor, and the cinnamon powder added that extra yumminess.  For R6 (US$0,40) a piece, they are a bargain in any language.  I had 3!

IMG_4822
30 MT = US$0,40 = R6
IMG_4827
I just got photo-bombed. Well played Enrique!

No trip to the beach would be complete without some swimming and snorkeling.  The tides are big in Vilankulo.  At low tide you can walk out several hundred meters. This makes for less than ideal swimming.  For that you’ll need to jump on a boat and head across to Bazaruto island.

The southern tip of Bazaruto Island
The southern tip of Bazaruto Island. The boat ride was a bumpy 40 minutes.

There are several operators offering day trips.  For $75 you’ll get some of the best snorkeling on immaculate reefs that money can buy, dune climbing on abandoned islands, and a fresh Baracuda braai (BBQ) on the beach!  Heaven!

IMG_4928
Barracudas – Before!
IMG_4938
And After.

The boat trip from Vilankuklo to Bazaruto takes 40 minutes.  They don’t launch the boats if the wind picks up or if the weather is bad.  What would be the point?  I suggest being on a standby list and be flexible with date.  When the weather is good GO!

I was in Vilankulo in their low season.   Although the air temperature was a pleasant 27 Celsius, the water was not a not-so-tropical 22!   It was by no means cold, but after snorkeling for 30 minutes you need some warming up!  I can only imagine how amazing the water is in summer.  Jacuzzi!

IMG_4948

Vilankulo provided me with one epiphany.  Colin!

Colin is a bloke who moved to Vilankulo 11 years ago to get away from the rat-race.  He makes a humble living growing chili-peppers and selling Piri-Piri sauce.  He certainly looks care-free!  I am sure there is more to his story than I was able to establish in the 30 seconds I spoke to him, but he is living the dream we all dream about.  It made me contemplate the ridiculous script we are all living. Work, work some more, work, get sick, pay for medicine, get road rage, work, fight, get sick, die.

IMG_4964
Salty-Sea Dog Colin!

I prefer the Tao of Colin.  Grow, Make, Sell, Drink Beer, Smile, repeat!  Ask yourself who is winning at life?  You or Colin?!

IMG_4889

Vilankulo is a paradise.  It has an innocence that you seldom find elsewhere. The worst that could happen to your husband if he goes on a fishing trip with the boys is he will drink too much!

3 days is more than enough to see everything.  One day to explore, one to island hop, one to chill.   I heard it’s a Malaria area. Oops!  I will keep you posted on any unexpected weight-loss!

Please follow and like me: