Vilankulo, one step before paradise
January 1, 1970
by Stefania Iacuzzi
Living in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, you simply have no means to imagine that you ended up in one of the most unknown gems of southern Africa. With just one road connecting north to south and just one air company, Mozambique it’s clearly not prepared to welcome tourism, but with its paradise untouched beaches and atemporal villages, it is slowly awakening and becoming aware of its own potential. You really realize where you are when, after only one hour by plane and a ten minutes drive, you get into a sleepy and sandy village, with a crystal-blue background.
Vilankulo is a tiny and slow-paced village laying on The Indian Ocean. Time flows following the quite rhythm of fishermen’s life, and looking at it from the window of the central café you can barely realize that you are in one of the most touristic spots of the country. This village is known for its beautiful beaches and the impressive color of its waters during the low tide. Moreover, this fishermen’s small town is the continental door to reach the Bazaruto Archipelago, but to know something more about this you’ll have to read the next article 😉 .
The centre is carved up between the two main streets, and is composed by some local restaurants, a cute little church from the colonial period, a bank, an hospital and a bakery, which entry is always plugged by a long queue as it supplies the whole village. But the real heart of Vilankulo is its central market, crowded of sellers from the very early morning, where you can find all kind of seasonal fruit and vegetables and buy the most fresh fish, still dripping with ocean water.
Turning left from the main street, a sandy road goes down between small groups of traditional houses, and is at this point that Vilankulo really gets you with a paradisiacal view. Protected from the open ocean by the islands of the Archipelago and thanks to a very low and sandy ocean floor Vilankulo has the most crystalline and intense light blue waters you might ever see.
Following the sinuous path of the shore, lined with tall coconut trees you can enjoy the almost desert and untouched beaches. Apart from South African holidays, when Vilankulo is surrounded by big 4×4 pickups, there are no tourists breaking the quite rolling of local life. In the early morning and in the late afternoon the dhows, traditional fishing boats, come back with the catch of the day, and the beach comes alive again: dozens of people reach the small crafts and drag them to shore, before selecting and bargain the fish on the sand.
Local food, local people, local projects
Arriving by car from the airport following the recently renewed street to the centre, the first thing that crosses you mind is that you must be the only tourist in this piece of Earth, and walking along the streets this becomes a certainty. Mamas selling fruits on the side of the street, groups of children in their uniforms, young women carrying all kind of stuff on their heads, some workers resting under a tree: everyone but you is Mozambican there, and that means that you attract everyone’s curiosity. Everybody is talking to you while you’re passing by, asking if you need a taxi, trying to sell you something, asking for a picture or simply saying hi.
If you still didn’t hopped on one, Vilankulo is a good opportunity to try a tchopela, one of the most typical means of transport of Mozambique, a three-wheeled vehicle that normally carries up to three people. This is the cheapest way to get around the village, even though not the most comfortable one to climb up and down the rudimental – and completely dark – roads that lead to lodges and restaurants.
Fishing is the primary activity of the village, and Vilankulo offers a variety of restaurants that serve delicious fish. Shrimps, lobster and crab at a price that will make you eat them every single day of your stay. Your lodge will recommend you the best places to eat, and usually they indicate Casa Cabana as the top one. But if you want to eat local don’t forget to try the barracas, small restaurants usually made out of bricks and metal roof. My advice is Leopoldina’s, a small barraca that recently became a kind of social project: following the initiative of a Belgian couple, many tourists offered their contribution to give value to this local business. All the dishes are made at the time, so sit down, relax and wait for your tasty traditional dish.
Where to stay
There are several lodges just in front of the main beach, many of them reasonably cheap. I stayed at Casa Jules, which has a truly good vibe. Nice swimming pool area, several rooms with view, and some rondàveis, round little houses with external private bathroom – taking a shower outside, with no other lights around but the stars, has been amazing. The restaurant is one of the best in the village, with tasty and cheap fish dishes (try the lobster!) and “the best pizza in Vilankulo!”.
Another option I considered while booking my stay is the Baobab Beach Backpackers, which is incredibly cheap and offers, besides the dorms, some rondàveis with common bathroom, a good restaurant and a chilling and social atmosphere. And besides that, it has a huge baobab in the backyard.
How to get there
Vilankulo Airport is just a ten minutes drive from Vilankulo. The airport is connected to Maputo by the national air company, LAM (Linhas Aereas de Moçambique). Flying with LAM is quite expensive and your flight has a 70% probability of being late, but still, this is the only company flying in Mozambique. Furthermore, learning to accept and manage huge delays is a fundamental component of travelling in Mozambique and is something you need to get in harmony with to really enjoy Mozambican way of life. There are direct flights from South Africa too, managed by Airlink and operated by LAM.
You can reach Vilankulo also by car following the EN1 from Maputo, but be aware that this means an almost ten hours trip, and the road conditions are not the best (no lights and narrow street, avoid to travel at night). If you are planning to travel by bus from the capital make sure that the bus company you choose guarantees speed limits and driver shifts. The buses leave from Junta in the very early morning and you can book your ticket there.
…one last picture
Late afternoon is the best moment to walk along the beach, where after passing the day in the open sea, the bright-colored dhows rest for the night, entrusted to the white sand by the low tide; some fishermen still rolling up their nets in the lazy sunset light, small groups of women carrying heavy wood bundles on their heads, their neck moving sinuously under the weight; dozens of children playing football between screams, laughs and athletic exultation flips; the whole picture framed by an amazing blue sight on the background.