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A Solo Female Traveler’s Guide to Zanzibar

by Jodi Lucas

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Just booked a trip to Zanzibar? Congrats, you’re going to have a great time!

 

But with the excitement of new travel plans comes the anxiety of planning the details, especially when traveling solo.

Between looking up local customs, safety information, accommodation options, activities, and budget planning, things are starting to get a bit complicated.

But fret not! This paradisiacal archipelago was my first destination as a solo female traveler and, while doing my pre-travel research and preparation, I, too, know how much time is involved in researching the destination and making sure you’ve taken the best decision.

If you also want to know a few useful things before taking your first solo safari in Zanzibar, here is some helpful information to help you plan the trip of a lifetime. 
 

Accommodation in Zanzibar

accommodation in zanzibar

Photo credit: Moon Tours

From seaside all-inclusive resorts to city slick backpackers and even budget-friendly camping sites, there are plenty of places to call home while you’re enjoying a safari in Zanzibar. Although it is known as a dream honeymoon destination, and understandably so, there is something for everyone and every budget.

Most of the backpacker's hostels (between USD15 and USD25 per night) are in the city. 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 we recommend staying in one of the island’s many resorts.

High season here is from December to mid-March and from July to August. Make sure to book in advance. During the lower season, prices drop dramatically, and the weather conditions still make for excellent exploring.

The cost of traveling and activities in Zanzibar

red colobus monkey in zanzibar

Compared to other African destinations, Zanzibar isn’t exactly the cheapest place to travel, although Tanzania is one of the best countries for budget African safaris. Luckily, it is still possible to plan a great trip here 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 going alone. It makes sense for logistic reasons, so I strongly recommend booking a safari in Zanzibar in advance. Or you can pair up with a group of people to enjoy the activities together. 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 when traveling in Zanzibar, so I would recommend budgeting a minimum of USD500 for a full week’s worth.

Zanzibar is home to some of the world’s most endangered animals. Head to Jozani Chawka National Bay Park, the only national park in Zanzibar, and get a chance to spot the red colobus money and the Zanzibar servaline genet, both endangered species.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the giant land tortoise, visit Prison Island, located just off the Old Stone Town.

There are also 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 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 untamed jungles and caves, one week is not enough time to experience its magic. 

The locals and etiquette

Zanzibar is an autonomous part of Tanzania and is filled with an eclectic mélange 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 lightweight scarfs and sarongs also come in handy as they can be used to cover the shoulders or as a makeshift skirt.

Safety in Zanzibar

stone town in zanzibar

Photo credit: Richard Mortel 

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.

With that in mind, here are a few words of warning and safety tips I wish someone else had given me before traveling to Zanzibar:

Be prepared for a 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? 

Thankfully, the local staff is 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.

Don’t forget to let your bank know you’d be withdrawing money in Zanzibar to avoid your cards being blocked for suspicious activity.

 

Forget about Uber and always 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 few street smarts and a big sense of adventure.

 

Good to know phrases in Swahili

beach in zanzibar

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.

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