Vilanculos is a fishing village that’s the gateway to diving in the Bazaruto archipelago, and a world-renowned, off-the-beaten-path, diving haunt in its own right. But there are many more things to do in Vilanculos, Mozambique.
If underwater safaris are on your bucket list, there’s no better place to go than Mozambique. They say the country has Africa’s most sought-after beaches, and after my second visit, I’d have to agree.
1. Diving and snorkelling
Mozambique’s only official marine reserve, the Bazaruto islands, and their surrounding coral reefs were declared a national park in 1971. The coral reefs surrounding the island support 2,000 species of fish, along with whale sharks, giant lobsters, humpback whales, turtles, and dolphins.
We were headed to Magaruque, the small island covering a mere two kilometres of land. Just ten kilometres east of the mainland it’s easy to include in a one-day trip and the waters are literally teeming with life.
Here you’ll find a stone reef (not coral reefs, like in Zanzibar), which has an excellent vertical rock drop-off. It’s drift dive territory — get ready to be swept up by the powerful current, your fins acting as breaks.
We encountered angelfish, trumpet fish, parrotfish, stonefish, and rays, but sadly the elusive dugong (the island is home to East Africa’s largest population) didn’t make an appearance.
I visited in May, which weather-wise is one of the best months for visibility. The optimum time to travel is from May through September and during this period visibility can reach up to 40 metres.
2. Dune Climbing on Magaruque Island
Back on the sands after our snorkelling expedition, we headed up to Magaruque Island’s central dune, where we were treated to some mesmerising views. The dunes are on the eastern side of the island and well worth a visit if you’re a budding shutterbug.
3. Horse Riding near Vilanculos
There are some great activities in and around Vilanculos itself. Some friends I met on the dhow safari had been horse riding on the beach the evening before and loved it. The local operator caters to both experienced and inexperienced riders and your equine adventure takes you along parts of untouched beach for a real ‘island hideaway’ feel. You even have the option of going swimming with the horses.
4. Sunset Dhow Safari
Nothing beats hopping aboard a traditional dhow — these wooden vessels with triangular sails, which are used by the locals as fishing boats. You’ll leave in the late afternoon and cruise across the azure waters, with plenty of time to take photos as the sun sets over the islands.
5. Kite Surfing in Vilanculos
With shallow waters, a nice steady wind, and being pretty much crowd-free, Vilanculos is the perfect place to learn to kitesurf.
Most courses will show you the ropes and include tips on safety, interpreting the wind, setting up an inflatable kite, safely launching and landing, body dragging, and self rescue. If you’re up for a kite safari this is the place to be as dolphins, rays, and even whale sharks are commonly sighted.
If you’re a quick learner or have kitesurfed before, you might even be able to join the more experienced and manage a downwinder from one of the islands.
6. Big-game fishing
The reefs in the Bazaruto Archipelago are home to a vast number of baitfish. These fish attract a startling variety of migrating pelagic fish, which cruise past the area over the course of the year making this a great place for big game fishing at any time on the calendar.
7. Picnic on the beach
For all the seafood you can eat, you can’t go wrong with a trip to this part of the world. As part of our day trip out to Magaruque Island we enjoyed a picnic on the beach and feasted on fresh fish baked on coals, chapati, and fresh carrot and pineapple salad. Believe me, when I say, it was some of the most mouthwatering food I have ever had the pleasure to dine on!
8. Whale watching on the ‘Humpback Highway’
From July to October, humpback whales mate and birth their calves in the warm waters, making this a must-visit destination for nature lovers.
The archipelago is a sanctuary for these magnificent beasts and you can see them as part of a day trip with snacks, drinks and even a stop on a golden beach included in your itinerary. Venture out on a speedboat past the beautiful Bazaruto islands to ‘Humpback Highway’ to watch them in action.
9. The local market and Machilla Magic
It’s worth taking a trip down to the market as this cultural hub is always a hive of activity, and you’ll get a feel for the real Mozambique.
Here you’ll be able to purchase a capolana – a colourful piece of fabric that is a key part of Mozambican life. It has a variety of different uses so it’s definitely one for the backpack — it can be worn as a skirt, dress, turban, or shawl or even used as a baby carrier.
We also made a stop in a lovely Fair Trade shop called Machilla Magic to pick up some gifts before heading home. This shop is very involved with the community and assists local artisans in giving them a place to create items, mostly from reclaimed resources like old Dhow boats and fabrics, which they transform into the most beautiful gifts.
10. Watching local life drift by…
Vilanculos has certainly grown since I last visited over ten years ago, and there’s more of a buzz surrounding this once-sleepy seaside haunt. Many of the roads are still sand tracks so getting around tends to be by foot or 4×4.
The town has retained its rugged, non-touristy appeal, and the bay itself is fringed by a few rustic eateries which are perfect for sundowners. Tucking into a plate of seafood caught fresh from the Indian Ocean and watching local life drift by is a must: the fishermen bringing in the day’s catch and the women cleaning the fish while their children splash about during low tide.