A Booby-Trapped Beach Nirvana
Vilanculos feels like what happens when you booby-trap a beach nirvana and surround it with barren land. Arriving by air is expensive, driving overland took us two days from Maputo, and the most treacherous approach is by sea.
The mazes of sand bars offshore are stunning. At high tide, the sea washes over them and the Mozambican sun turns them ocean paradise blue. However, as the tide recedes, it exposes the iron skeletons of wrecked ships half consumed by the sand bars.
Vilanculos would probably be a famous honeymooner’s destination if it was not such a mariner’s nightmare. The juxtaposition of its classic beach beauty with the difficulty of arriving there, gives it an endearing character.
Perplexed with a Side of Nothing
The local tourism industry seems perplexed. It is a mix of stylish driftwood hangouts and large concrete art deco resorts. All the restaurant menus are ten pages long, offering cuisine from cultures around the world. However, nobody has managed to stock the kitchens.
Ordering is comical by the time you get to your fourth choice, and the waiter tells you it is out of stock as well. One waiter seemed tired of the back and forth and let us order a dish without remarking that they only had half the ingredients. The plate was half empty, but I guess he thought that was close enough.
I kept imaging supply ships wrecked on the sand bars offshore leaking hamburger buns and Heinekens in the sea that were meant for all these eateries. Fortunately, you can reliably get toasted cashews on the street and fresh fish on the beach from the fishermen. If you are braver than me, you can also try the salted fish in the central market. You can just follow your nose from anywhere in town to your stall of choice.
When the tides slither back out, crowds of villagers gather on the beaches to pull fishing nets back to shore, and the whole ocean floor becomes a soccer pitch for the children. Its then, when the shoreline is suddenly on the horizon, that you notice the miniature mosquitoes biting you and the weight of the humidity in the air. If you have a 4×4 you can drive north to Villa do Indico and lounge in the pool, otherwise it is better to be out exploring the islands.
Snorkeling Bazaruto and Benguerra Islands
The locals have learned to navigate the tidal sand bars and offer trips out to Bazaruto and Benguerra islands in Swahili dhows. We saw rare humpbacked dolphins and manatees on the way out. The islands combine the stark beauty of the Namib desert dunes with the azure water of the Seychelles. Bazaruto has an estuary with flamingos and egrets, and the reefs surrounding it are colorful and alive.
Snorkeling Bazaruto was fun. I found lionfish under ledges, moray eels, octopus and lobsters. However, my friend, Diesel, almost stepped on a massive stonefish, which quickly reminded us of how remote Vilanculos was. Some consider stonefish the most venomous fish in the sea. I am uncertain if there is an antidote, but I am certain that if I tried to order it in a clinic, they would not have it in stock.
For those that are happy snorkeling by themselves, pressing first footprints into big sand dunes, and lazing days away on deserted beaches, Vilanculos has that paradise at the end of the road vibe, which I often crave. Just bring some snacks and arrive by sea at your own risk.
Notes for Nomads:
We did not find a lot to do in town outside of the resorts, although it was worth strolling through the central market. Otherwise, lunch and people watching from Fruto do Mar with the view of the main beach is a great way to pass time, or driving north to Villa do Indico for the pool. Lastly, if you want to treat yourself, the food at Casa Rex was good – get the crab samosas.
I would have liked to dive two-mile reef, but the conditions were not right when we were there. Odyssea Dive offers scuba diving, and we went out for a day trip with them to Bazaruto and Benguerra islands. The snorkeling was good on both islands and worth the day trip. They also let me snorkel the reef where they took some divers, and the snorkeling there was even better. Great colorful reef, but some strong currents to be aware of.
Some locals offered to do a walking safari with us out to the islands at low tide. Apparently, the water is low enough, however, it sounded rough. There is no shade, and you must swim across some fast-moving currents in channels between sandbars. It sounded worthwhile, but we just did not have the energy for it that day. It is very hot and humid out there.