You’ve booked a solo trip to the sandy slice of heaven known as Zanzibar, and now you’re frantically combing through the internet for safety guides and travel advice. Well, you’ve landed in the right spot.
This paradisiacal archipelago was my first destination as a solo female traveler and, while doing my pre-travel research and preparation, I became apprehensive due to all the communities and articles that would mention that it is unsafe for women to travel alone and that its more of a couple’s honeymoon destination. But, being an unrelenting feminist and die-hard adventurer, I grit my teeth and followed through with the travel plans, and it was the best decision!
So, if you want to know a few things before taking your first solo safari in Zanzibar, here is what they don’t tell you in most articles.
Safety - What they don’t tell you online
Whenever people think about traveling, safety is the first concern, even more so for solo females who are about to head into an unknown country where English isn’t the first language.
Many people have heard about Stone Town’s acid attack a few years ago and that’s enough to put them off. Understandably so, but it’s also important to note that instances as extreme as this are few and far between, so it should in no way deter you from exploring the city’s ancient alleyways lined with bookshops, spice vendors and uniquely carved doors. I never felt unsafe while navigating the maze of shops and vendors in Stone Town or while taking long aimless walks on the white-powdered sands of the region’s many beaches but, as with any country, things can happen.
Be prepared for a complete lack of infrastructure and worn out buildings
My arrival in Zanzibar was daunting to say the least, as I landed close to midnight and the airport isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing place to walk into after a long-haul flight. The airport was dark and incredibly worn down, shops were closed and the WiFi… well, what WiFi? To put it mildly, the airport can look quite dodgy. Thankfully, the local staff are incredibly friendly and happy to help, and the process of passing through customs works relatively quickly… just make sure you have all your documents (including yellow fever cards) ready at hand and do not fall prey to anyone asking you for a chai (the term for a bribe there).
Tip: Buy a local sim card and load data on it, so that you’re always reachable.
It’s all too easy to get lost in Stone Town…
So don’t wander around while it’s getting dark. This may seem like a pretty obvious one, but places close up just before 10 in the evenings, even earlier on Fridays, and chances are, those shops and vendors you used as landmarks will be packed up and gone by nightfall.
Tip: The best time to explore the town is early morning.
Keep your eyes on your belongings
As with any other destination, pickpocketing does happen so try not to carry massive amounts of cash on you. You can exchange your notes at most hotels, but if you must use an ATM, make sure you count your cash in a private space.
Forget about Uber and alwalys buckle up!
The local Taxis here are the most convenient way of getting around, but make sure to always use a reputable service or you risk getting ripped off. Hotels and hostels are happy to suggest a few companies. One of the best decisions I made was to ask a taxi driver for his card and contact number, that way I had one point of call who was always happy to take me around (and even lowered his rates). On the topic of roads, be prepared for crazy traffic and minimal order! There are hardly any traffic lights, speed limit signs or lane markers on the road, but somehow accidents are always avoided - but hey, everything is polle polle here (I will explain what that means shortly)!
Respect the culture
This should go without saying, but as a solo female traveler, keep in mind that you will be in a strictly Muslim region and should try not to offend the locals by wearing revealing clothing in town or touching their holy scriptures. (I got kicked out of a bookstore because I picked up a Quran by accident, in my defense though it had no markings or name on the cover)
Overall, the city and its coastline are safe, all you need are a bit of street smarts and to be ready for a culture shock.
The locals and etiquette
Zanzibar is an autonomous part of Tanzania, and is filled with an eclectic melange of people who are a mix of Arab, Comorians, Bantu and Shirazia, as well as the native Swahili people. The island is predominantly Muslim and especially conservative in the city, so women should keep this in mind when packing. Although people are accustomed to tourists, it’s respectful to keep your shoulders, cleavage and legs covered when in conservative areas, especially during Ramadan celebrations.
When it comes down to packing, I’d highly recommend maxi dresses, t-shirts and harem pants. While on the beach or at the hotel, it’s totally acceptable to dress how you wish (no topless tanning though) and light weight scarfs and sarongs also come in handy as they can be used to cover the shoulders or as a makeshift skirt.
From seaside all-inclusive resorts to city slick backpackers and even budget friendly home-stays, there are plenty of places to call home while you’re exploring Zanzibar. Although it is known as a dream honeymoon destination, and understandably so, there is something for everyone.
Most of the backpackers hostels (between USD15 and USD25 per night) here are located in the city, so if the idea of bustling street markets appeals to you then this is a perfect option. But, if it’s snow white sands, palm trees and turquoise oceans you want to wake up to each morning, then I’d definitely recommend staying in one of the island’s many resorts.
High season here is from December to mid-March and from July to August, and it’s definitely worth booking in advance. During the lower season, prices drop dramatically and the weather conditions still make for excellent exploring.
The cost of traveling and activities
Compared to other African countries, Zanzibar isn’t exactly the cheapest place to travel, contrary to popular belief, but it is still possible to make it on a budget. While food, water and drinks are incredibly reasonably priced, if you’re purchasing local goods, it’s the activities and souvenirs here that burn through cash very quickly.
As a first time solo traveler, I quickly learned that you could easily be charged three times the amount for an activity just because you’re alone. It makes sense for logistic reasons, so I strongly recommend integrating with a group of people who have similar likes when it comes to tours and sightseeing. This way, you will meet plenty of amazing people, all the while saving you cash.
If you’re anything like me, the ocean calls to you and you’ll most likely be spending most of your days offshore. From snorkeling to swimming with dolphins, scuba diving and island hopping, there are many activities to choose from, so I would recommend budgeting a minimum of USD500 for a full week’s worth. But, there are a few places you can see for free or on a tight budget, such as Freddy Mercury’s childhood home, Jozani Forest and Kuza Cave. Although it’s free to walk around Stone Town and take in the bustle of the city, you are likely to spend quite a bit of cash while meandering through the markets.
When the time comes for you to start thinking about souvenirs, you will have a plethora of rich fabrics and intricately carved pieces to choose from. Although US dollars are widely accepted, try to make purchases with Tanzanian shillings as much as possible to avoid on-the-spot exchange rate calculations.
Overall, Zanzibar is one of the most diverse and safe places to travel and definitely worth exploring alone. There is so much to see and do here, from aromatic spice markets, to beachcombing over powder white sand and exploring its untammed jungles and caves, one week is definitely not enough time to experience its magic.
Good to know phrases
- Jambo: This means hello and you are guaranteed to hear it about a thousand times a day! The locals here are incredibly friendly, so always give a Jambo back or follow it up with Mambo, which means “how are you”.
- Asante or Asante Asana: This means “Thank you” or “Thank you very much.”
- Hapana asante: Meaning “No, thank you,” I used this phrase a lot, especially when approached by beach boys, fake tour guides and annoying men.
- Polle Polle: It means “slowly, slowly” - This is more of a lifestyle rather than a phrase, and you’re going to hear it a lot, so get used to things moving at a snail’s pace.
If you want a change of pace from the polle polle island living, then take a walk on Tanzania’s wild side with these epic wildlife safaris.