It's hard to imagine amid the crumbling coral walls and dirt streets of Ilha de Mozambique that it was once the capital of a Portuguese East Africa and a gateway to global trade. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this little island off central Mozambique could rightly be teeming with tourists, but due its disrepair and incredibly remote location, it remains a time capsule.
To get acquainted with the island we signed up for the Ilha Blue free bike tour. Learning about the Arab traders arrival in 900 AD, the founding as a Portuguese colony in the 1500s and the dynamic international population that lived on the island got our imagination going as we passed the old colonial buildings. The crumbling structures gave a precious look under the city's hood -- a mix of influences from the Arabs, Indians and Europeans affected the urban planning and architecture..
Depending on the tide, the town can take on an entirely different look. The night we arrived the waves were crashing onto the street and the next morning that same shoreline stretched out to sea for a kilometer, revealing incredible tide pools. Neon coral, clown fish, eels, starfish and sea urchins showed themselves in just a few inches of water.
In the afternoon we headed to the museum, set in the governor of Portugal's home. Decorated with the finest furnishings from Europe and the Portuguese colonies in Asia and Africa, the palace awaited the governor's arrival to Mozambique but he never came. The adjacent maritime museum had a more lively history documenting all the explorers, traders, and shipwrecks that came to port. If you are scuba certified, I hear the ocean floor is their greatest exhibit
The ticket to the museum also grants visitors entry into the first settlement on the island, the 16th-century São Sebastião fort. A guard looked at our ticket on the way in but after that, there wasn't a soul to be found-be it an employee or a tourist. Rubble-filled rooms, canons piled in heaps, and stairs leading to nowhere made for a slightly creepy but fascinating visit.
Ilha de Mozambique is wonderfully confusing place. We loved and hated it for its dilapidated state. Saddened by such grandeur diminished to rubble but inspired by the resilience of an abandoned town, Ilha de Mozambique is surely worth the visit if you can find a way to get there.
A GUIDE TO ILHA DE MOZAMBIQUE
Escondhino Hotel: A lovely upscale hotel with a garden restaurant serving fantastic grilled fish and the best WiFi in town.
Ruby's Backpackers: The best budget lodging in town, set in a historic home with chic antique furnishings to match. If you have to pass through the dreaded Nampula to get to Ilha, they also have a sister property there.
Rose Cafe: This rooftop cafe has fabulous ambiance looking over the center of town with the crashing waves in earshot.
Sarah's Fish Shack: A great local joint gussied up and ready to go for the few travelers gracing town
Cafe on the Pier: This is not actually the name but if you take a stroll down the pier by the museum, it's the only business around. This itty bitty places has classic African décor and serves drinks for the best sunset views in town.