Budget traveler's guide to Zanzibar (July 2018)


 Why do people choose Zanzibar as their vacation destination? Pristine white sand beaches washed by azure waters of the Indian Ocean seems to be the prime and dominant reason, but for some that's not the only one. The difference between most places with such heavenly seaside views and Zanzibar is that you can really enjoy all this at little to no cost, if you know where to look.

 This is made possible because the spending ability of locals is far from being on par with that of the tourist folks, but those 2 distinct groups of people have to coexist on the same island. Just as there are tourists and locals, there are also two "ways of living", as it were, that take place with little to no overlap - on one hand there are US dollars, beaches, sunsets and expensive seafood, and on the other hand there's Tanzanian shillings (1 US dollar is approx. 2200 TSh.), villages, plain and inexpensive food.

 Mingling with the locals is, therefore, the way to go for any budget traveler. But unlike the personnel catering to tourists, most of them aren't interested in sharing the valuable information about the island with you - in fact many of them don't know enough English (and you probably don't know enough Swahili) to make it possible.

 If chilling on the beach and staying inside the gated area of your hotel is your cup of tea during the upcoming vacation, then what will follow is useless for you. The rest of you may read on!

Hotels like this one are what will insulate you from the real life on this island.

Gated area around the hotel on Nungwi beach. Everyone is free to enter the beach itself, but the rocks above the beach are off-limit unless you're staying there().

 This post is essentially going to be a congregation of notes taken on my recent trip to Zanzibar (2018) that will, hopefully, shed some light on this island's darker (but not in the ominous meaning!) side.

Arrival

Airport

 There are two ways to get into Zanzibar (and Tanzania as a consequence) - by air and by ferry. Means of transportation notwithstanding, your point of entry to Tanzania is most likely going to be Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar-Es-Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania.

 One of the surprises that can catch someone not familiar with the local customs off guard is getting the Tanzanian visa (TLDR version - it takes about 2 hours and is really confusing). You may take a quick look at this Wiki article to see the visa policy for you country, but you'll most likely be required to get a visa upon your arrival, that is, in Dar Airport. Visa costs 50 US dollars and getting one sounds like a piece of cake - just pay the money and get you passport stamped (and those who visited Tanzania before say that it used to be) - but wait!

The room ends about where I stand while taking the picture. If you think that this is a crowd, take a look on the pic below.

 Upon the arrival we were greeted by a line that ended near the door to the landing line. As a necessary formality, you'll be asked to fill in the arrival declaration form - I strongly advise doing it while you're still in the aeroplane, the flight attendant is supposed to hand those forms out.

There were two slightly different versions of this form when we arrived in Dar Airport, which is why airport personnel have to ask you additional questions and leave additional pen marks on your form. This, of course, wastes additional time, but who cares?

 We were foolish enough to think of filling the forms out in the airport and by the time I managed to borrow a pen from the staff (yes, there are forms but no pens whatsoever) the line looked like a river swollen with rainfall and ready to flood everything in the vicinity:

The same line in just about 5 minutes after the previous picture was shot.

 There were no directions, so everyone (us included) just assumed the process of getting a visa would be streamlined, just like in every airport - follow the signs and you'll be done in no time.

 Well, it turns out you have to get through multiple lines in exact order, and that's what everyone sooner or later found out through trial and error (airport personnel wasn't exactly helpful, and judging the way the passengers acted, it wasn't just for me):

1) Visa desk. The line on the first picture is for this desk. You'll briefly show your passport, get your fingerprints scanned and maybe  get asked some questions. That's it, don't poke your money at them - they just don't accept it. The line was utterly unorganised - one huge throng of people stretching from wall to wall and converging on two or three desks with airport personnel. Therefore, it was entirely possible to just slip into the crowd near the point of convergence and cut the line (which was what some people did).
2) Payment. A bit farther down the corridor you'll see 2 windows with notices about credit cards on them. Here you're supposed to pay your 50 dollars per person and surrender your passport. The exterior of the desk suggests they accept credit cards, but I really wouldn't rely on that - I suggest that you pay with cash to avoid technology-related problems. Don't worry about walking off without your passport - they'll stamp it and give it back, but in completely different window. It took about 20 minutes in our case.
3) Actually getting your visa and entering the country. The desk near the passport control (completely defunct, obviously) is where you'll anxiously wait for your passport to come in (pictured below):


 The passports are just stamped somewhere behind the scenes, then, as they come in in batches they are unceremoniously thrown on the desk. Nope, you can't just take it - stand there and wait for the guy in blue uniform shout your last name:

The way he pronounced some last names was hilarious by the way!

 The whole visa rollercoaster can take about two to three hours. That means if you expected to catch a connecting flight to Zanzibar, be sure not to waste precious time. Our plane arrived at 2:30 pm and the plane to Zanzibar departed at 6:40 pm - we only just managed to make it to this plane. Lack of organisation is what apparently whole Africa suffers from (or, I'd say enjoys actually). You get used to the local pace (you'll often hear 'Pole-pole!' from locals, meaning 'slowly', 'no hurry' - and they really do live by that motto), but having had just encountered this kind of confusion we were overwhelmed at fist.

Changing money

 Every experienced traveler knows that you shouldn't change money at airports. Airports tend to terribly overcharge for the local currency.
 Personally, I found that this simple truth does not really hold in Tanzania. Why? As of July 2018, 1 US Dollar equals approximately 2 280 Tanzanian Shillings. Let that sink in: 1000 Shillings is just 44 cents. Change bureaus may offer a rate ranging from 2 270 Tsh for one USD in Stone Town (it's deemed to be the best area in terms of exchange rates) to, say, 2250 Tsh at the airport (let's assume the worst case). Now, that means that if you wanted to change 1 000 US dollars, you'd get a 20 000 Tsh difference between the best and the worst exchange rate. This is just 8 dollars - enough for a meal for one person in a cafe.

Becoming a millionaire 101: Change 500 US dollars to Tanzanian Shillings. Pictured here: an equivalent of 600USD.

 But, if you like to be thrifty with your currency exchange, head to no place other than the Stone Town - the local change spots will give you the best rates. One things to note: 100 dollar bills are valued higher than 50s and 20s.

 No need to rush with changing your money for Tanzanian Shillings since nearly every place will accept US dollars alongside with the local currency. Why even change money, then? To get better deals, of course! Let me elaborate a little on use cases for different currencies:
 Generally, we paid with US dollars only for expensive things (>20USD) like tours - the rest is best paid for with shillings. When asking for a price, you'll often hear the response: "Dollars or shillings?". No answer is wrong, of course, but if your mental calculation skills are not too rusty you'd best inquire prices in both currencies. Multiplying by 2 000 is far easier than by 2 280, therefore some sellers will do just that,  leading to you saving almost 30% on every purchase because of rounding errors 😀.

 Example exchange between you and seller:
   - How much is this trinket?
   - Dollars or shillings?
   - Dollars.
   - 10.
   - And in shillings?
   - 20 000.

Thus, how much to change to shillings is really the question of how much expensive stuff you want to pay for. The rest can be converted to shillings - maybe about 200 dollars for a start, then you'll be able to buy some more in change bureaus when you're in Stone Town or almost every store or hotel (yes, almost every establishment offers money changing service - just walk in and ask) when you're elsewhere.

 This brings us seamlessly to the next subject concerning driving the price of everything down, described below.

Haggling

 Taxi is the most comfortable and expensive mode of transportation on the island, but one could easily manage to order taxi only twice: on the way from and to the airport. The taxi from airport to Stone town is around 15 000 to 20 000 Tsh (approx. 7 to 10 USD), as you can easily find on various websites. Incidentally, if you're based in Nungwi, 40 USD from airport to Nungwi is a fair price.

 The taxi is likely going to be the first thing you'll pay for, and that's the first time you'll get the taste of the most valuable skill in Tanzania: haggling. This is how Tanzanians trade with mzungu that don't know how to negotiate the price: 1) The guy names the price that is easily 3-4 times what it really costs. 2) You agree. 3) You pay the price, the guy jovially strolls off because he just earned something around his weekly wage in 1 minute.

 In my experience, the most tiring thing you'll have to do in Tanzania is learning what everything costs, because knowing the real price will reduce the time you waste negotiating the final price dramatically. You'd think that the seller going "No, I won't give it for this low a price, sorry" is an indicator of the real price - a big nope to that. Try to walk away from his store and you'll hear a loud hail of "Wait!" followed by the introduction to the "actual" store owner that will give you the "last" price 😀. 

Coming to a market? Be prepared to negotiate - that's the way it's done around here.

 Here's how the buying process should ideally go from your point of view:
1) If possible, don't look really interested in what you have your heart set on.
2) Ask how much is it. As a counter-offer, tell that you can only give some ridiculous sum of money, preferably proportional to how high the seller raised the price (if you know the real price). E.g. if the thing costs 10 000 Tsh and the shopkeep tries to sell it for 20 000, tell him/her that 5 000 sounds about right. Then their price should decrease and yours increase, until they meet at the midpoint of 10 000 Tsh.

 At first the seller is eager to lower the amount due, but eventually it might make things easier if you give the reason why it's not worth this much.

 Example arguments: 
  • I've been offered the same thing for $(cheap_tag) behind that corner/in Nungwi/in Stone Town!; 
  • It's just regular wood, not ebony;
  • I'll buy this thing and those 2 other things - that's bulk order! Why not give me the bulk price?
  • I'll recommend your shop to my friends if you concede on this price.
  • Unleash your imagination for more!
 Remember - this is a game of push and pull, so most importantly have fun haggling, and get a great deal as a bonus!

 There are places where haggling is unsuitable: supermarkets, mini-markets, cafes and restaurants. Despite the fact that no stores in Tanzania ever put price tags on their wares, not even supermarkets, you can't negotiate there. Street food stalls also seem to give the fair price, but that's never guaranteed (UPDATE: I've just read that you can and should try to drive the price down when buying street food).

Getting around

How

 The public transport on the island is great, though obviously tailored to the needs of the local people. There are 2 interchangeable kinds of "buses": dala-dalas and actual buses, as well as another mysterious mode of transportation called "carry".

 A must-have for anyone desperate enough to attempt getting around on public transport: good maps. I found OpenStreetMap to work great because of how fine-grained they are. Google Maps may work well in large urban areas elsewhere, but for developing places like Zanzibar they're quite shabby. There's an app for mobile phones called Maps.Me that just renders OSM - highly recommended! It also works offline.

An area in the center of Stone town. Left: Google Maps, Right: OpenStreetMap.
 Things to know before attempting to use bus or dala:
1) Where is the bus stop? This should be partially covered by good maps on your mobile phone. But just to have it typed on a website other than TripAdvisor: There's bus station on Darajani Market near gas station, you'll find buses/dalas to all northward destinations: Nungwi, Kendwa, Matemwe and Kiwengwa seem to concentrate most, if not all, hotels. There's also Pwani Mchangani with its superb  kite surfing.

Hotel locations of the northern Zanzibar, as seen on Booking.com

 Each and every one of those settlements (or villages) has a bus stop going back to Stone Town, specifically (you guessed it!) Darajani Market. Anyone familiar with star network topology should be familiar with transport network from the outset of their journey.

Hotel locations of the southern Zanzibar, again Booking.com

 What about other popular destinations with beaches such as Paje, Jambiani and Kizimkazi? They're concentrated in the southern half of Zanzibar, but you won't find a bus (or dala-dala) to these destinations on Darajani Terminal. To get to those buses, you'll have to walk a bit, then take any bus going east to Kwarakwao station, get off at Kwarakwao and that's where all dala-dalas to southern destinations are. Find more on how to get there (with pictures) down below, in the section on getting to Jozani forest.

Another thing I've found to be indispensable is the location of every bus station: Google Maps seem to thinks there aren't any except Darajani Terminal in Stone Town!

2) The fee is payable somewhere in the middle of the journey when the conductor starts collecting payment. You can tell that he's the one because everyone else hands him the money (yip, that's important because of fake conductors, more on that below).

3) Do not take dala-dalas for long journeys! Most of the time you won't even manage to, because even locals realize that spending 2 hours in dala-dala is more than anyone can take. That is why buses dominate on routes like Nungwi (Bus No. 116) and Kendwa (same bus actually), but to get to Paje you'll have to wait for several dalas to hop aboard a bus.

4) Specific to Nungwi: the bus to Nungwi drives a slightly different route on the way to Nungwi and to Stone Town. The way to Stone Town goes through Kinyasini while the way back passes through a small fishing village Mkokotoni. Keep in mind that you won't be able to hop off at Kinyasini on your way from Stone Town back to Nungwi (same goes for ride to Stone Town and Mkokotoni).

Route of bus no. 116 Nungwi.

Prices

 One funny situation that we'd repeatedly found ourselves in during our stay at Zanzibar looks like this: we've taken a bus from Stone Town to Nungwi, the price for one person is 2 000 Tsh.

  • I'm handing the conductor 10 000 Tsh, expecting 6 000 Tsh change.
  • He immediately forgets about me, although the locals get handed their change after me.
  • I'm coming up, asking for a change.
  • He's like: "Yeah, I remember" and gets distracted again.
  • Fast-forward half hour, we've arrived. I'm walking to the exit, taking care to hold on near the conductor.
  • He suddenly "recalls" that change is due, gives me 4 000 Tsh.
  • I'm smiling, indicating that's not enough. He starts smiling as well, unwillingly giving me a thousand bill after a couple of seconds.
  • I'm not budging, another 5 seconds pass by. He realizes that I know the price , laughs and gives me the remaining 1 000 shillings.

 This might seem weird to someone not familiar with Tanzania, but fixed prices like bus fare can be subject to a contorted bargaining process described above (that's not a one-off occasion, things like this happened consistently all through our journey).

 Even if you're don't really care for the money, knowing the price of the ride is the only way not to appear like a foolish tourist cattle strayed from the camera-clicking gum-chewing crowd.

Here's how it works: the bus/dala fare isn't fixed, it depends on the distance. Call out your destination when paying the conductor so that he knows how much to charge. Here come the approximate prices for dala/buses:
  • Within Zanzibar town - 300 Tsh
  • Kinyasini to Kiwengwa - 500 Tsh
  • Nungwi to Kinyasini - 1 000 Tsh
  • Kwarakwao station in Zanzibar Town to Jozani forest - 1 000 Tsh
  • Stone Town to Nungwi - 2 000 Tsh
And a handy map for reference:


Practical example: Getting to Jozani forest on your own on public transport

Prerequisites: you're in Stone Town.

First you'll have to get to the eastward buses as shown on my rather crude map below. The thing is, not every bus or dala-dala departs from Darajani Terminal - those are mostly going in northern direction. The eastward station is only a 5 minute's walk from Darajani market.


That's what it looks like:

Buses going east depart from here.

Now, you'll want to take any bus going east, No. 504 Fuoni for instance has been tested by me and my wife personally 😀 :


By the way this is the bus where we've encountered our first "fake conductor" tout! Don't give pushy people on the bus anything until you've seen local people giving them the money.

Get off at "Kwarakwao" stop - it's market on OpenStreetMap and is about 5 minute's drive from this stop.
Kwarakwao station: all 3XX dalas depart from here.

It looks more like another bazaar with buses and dalas strewn around it, but believe me, that's it. Now we're looking for bus/dala No. 309 to Jambiani:

It will take you to Jozani Forest.

Typical interior of dala-dala inside, with the exception that it's not chock full of people yet.

All the free space between two benches can be used for baggage. How do people get in and out? By miracle, of course.

In about 30 minute's drive you'll find this sign designating the Jozani-Chwaka National Park, the only official park in Zanzibar:


Bonus: another means of transportations named Carry

 I'd like to introduce a patient reader to a kind of thing that is usually never ridden by anyone other than locals. At least I couldn't find any mentions of it online.

 We discovered it accidentally when we were stranded in Kinyasini and the dalas to Kiwengwa beach were crowded beyond measure, not even stopping to pick up new passengers. We struck up a conversation with a friendly local and it turned out he was heading to Kiwengwa as well to pay visit to his friends.

Main street of Kinyasini.

 After 30 minutes' of dalas passing by, he managed to get us all a spot on "carry" - that's what he called it.


  Essentially it's just a truck and you drive in it's cargo area in the back. You'll see locals driving "Carry" all around Zanzibar, and I must admit it gave me the feeling of belonging in this unusual place, different from the usual touristy admiration of places that are deemed worthy of visiting by foreigners.

The other day I finally realized why it's called "carry". The same story as Jacuzzi or Jell-o

Conclusion


On that note, I'm ending the endless torrent of information about Zanzibar with a friendly "safari njema!" IPA [sɑˈfɑɾi n̩dʒˈɛma] to everyone wanting to visit this beautiful island, and I hope my notes will help you, the traveler, on your trip to Zanzibar.

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