The best things to do and hotels on Likoma Island

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Introduction to Likoma Island in Malawi

Likoma Island in Malawi is a little-visited place and receives very few tourists each year. It’s understandable as the island is as remote as it is tiny. Those who do make the effort to visit the island will be rewarded with a charming island, full of friendly communities, lovely hikes and gorgeous lakeside beaches. It’s such a small place that it’s actually quite tricky to find things to do and hotels on Likoma Island.

Try as we might, we found it desperately hard to find information about LIkoma before we went, so this guide aims to go into detail so you can plan your trip. We had initially planned to stay on the island for a few days, but we ended up staying for 2 weeks, because we found it a great place to relax and unwind in the middle of a very long backpacking trip.

If you’re in need of somewhere to shut off the outside world, Likoma Island may indeed be for you.

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Emma, a white woman with curly brown hair, is sitting on a rock at a view point on Likoma Island. She is sitting forwards but looking behind her over the lake.
Views of Likoma

Getting to Likoma Island

To get to Likoma Island, the cheapest and best way is to use a ferry. You can either take the MV Ilala (probably the best known route – you can read our full guide here), the MV Chamba, the MV Chilembwe or some of the smaller local boats. We found this timetable guide from Ulisa Lodge super useful with all of the boat timetables, though it doesn’t have much in the way of additional information and it does state that it might not be up to date.

Most of the boats do not run every day, so it is worth bearing this in mind, especially if you have a flight from the mainland to catch or need to be somewhere. In case of emergency if you do get stuck, charter flights do run to the local airport, but this obviously comes with a dramatically increased cost.

Once you arrive to Likoma by ferry, there is no actual port, so it’s best to arrange with your accommodation that they come and get you from the port. Most places in Likoma Island are not marked on Google Maps, so your accommodation might also be difficult to find and this will help you out, otherwise, as we mention in our Ilala guide, you’ll have to figure out another means of getting to shore by local boat. It’s not difficult but it’s probably something most people don’t want to be sorting out as soon as they arrive somewhere, so we’d advise asking your accommodation first.

Getting around Likoma Island

There really are not many options for getting around on Likoma. The good news is that it is very walkable and pretty small; in fact, you can walk it end to end lengthways in an hour and 25 minutes. If you need options that keep you off your feet, you might struggle since 1) there aren’t really any options for public transport (in terms of buses/trains etc.) and 2) there aren’t many options in terms of private transport (i.e. taxis). You have two main ways of getting around without walking and they are 1) boda bodas (motorbike taxis) or 2) local fishing boats. With both options, haggling for the price is expected, and boda bodas are more commonly used.

A Malawian woman walking down a dirt track, shaded with trees. She is carrying a beautiful red parasol and holding it above her head
Walking in the North of the Island

Amenities on Likoma Island

  • Cash: It’s worth being prepared when you arrive to Likoma Island: for one thing, there are no ATMs or bureaus de change, so you need to take enough cash with you for your trip.
  • Medication: there is a small hospital, but it is not really set up for tourist purposes, and we did not find any pharmacies. I don’t suppose there’s much you can do in advance about this if anything happens, but it’s worth going prepared with a good stock of medication just in case, being safe and careful while there, and avoiding the trip if unwell.
  • Shops and food: In Likoma town centre, you’ll find a large market street. Though there are no actual supermarkets (with refrigerated goods etc.), there are lots of market stalls selling things like fresh fruit and vegetables, local snacks and street food. Around the island, there are a few shops selling goods like electronics and clothing, but it should be stressed that this is only what can be sourced locally, so there is no huge variety of products. Once a week, there is a ferry deposit of goods and food (usually on Wednesdays), so generally there will be more choice just afterwards. It’s very difficult to get things like foreign snacks (Pringles/Lays/chocolate brands etc.)
  • Electricity: like much of Malawi, Likoma goes through daily load shedding, where power will be turned off for a few hours. It’s very frustrating and pretty unavoidable, but some accommodation will have generators in case of emergency
  • Mobile signal and internet connectivity: comes and goes with the internet, but should otherwise be pretty stable. When we were in Likoma, we did lose internet for a full day, but apparently this is a bit of a rarity and was an issue with the phone tower at the time. There are mobile shops on the island but we never found one open to top up credit the whole time we were there, so make sure you have plenty of credit if needed.
Emma and Murray, a white couple, are sitting on a brick wall next to a lake with islands in the middle of it. Emma is looking at the camera and smiling
How we spent most of our time on Likoma – doing nothing!

Safety on Likoma Island

We are always a little cautious to discuss safety, since it can vary hugely from person to person, but in general, Likoma is extremely safe. There is almost no reported crime there at all, and the locals are, we found, really friendly, welcoming and generous. The kids do get quite overexcited to see foreigners, but they’re just kids and are totally harmless. As with anywhere you visit as a backpacker, it’s advisable not to flash expensive equipment and be discreet with valuables, but this is more general travel advice, not unique to Likoma.

Insurance for travelling through Africa

In case anything does go wrong when travelling, we like to make sure we have really reliable travel insurance in place. We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and really like how easy they are to use, plus they have very clear policy wording that makes everything very easy to understand.

Check prices for your trip below.

Hotels on Likoma Island

Your options will vary depending on if you go in high season or low season. We visited right in the middle of the rainy season, so our options were extremely limited. Even then, we were able to find an amazing option through Airbnb with John and his family, known as Blue Gum Cottage. They were absolutely brilliant.

Firstly, they came to pick us up from the Ilala free of charge in their own boat, then they upgraded us to their master bedroom suite because they had no other guests and wanted to give us the best stay! Throughout our time on Likoma, we genuinely couldn’t fault them in terms of service, plus they had great WiFi, and we even had a private chef for the whole time we were there (who was super lovely and we paid barely anything for the meals!).

For the price (we paid around $35 a night), I would have rated this mid-range for Malawi, but the way they treated us I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone, no matter their travel style. If Blue Gum is not available, we recommend any of the below hotels:

  • Ulisa Bay Lodge – Ulisa Bay Lodge is one of the most beautiful and probably best run hotels on Likoma Island. The sunsets are absolutely stunning and the owners are lovely. This will be a great relaxing stay on the island.
  • Kaya Mawa by Green Safaris – Kaya Mawa is an luxury boutique eco-lodge that perfectly encapsulates the laid back feel of Likoma Island
  • Mango Drift Lodge – Mango Drift is a cool backpackers’ hostel. It’s closed for some of the year for rainy season, but when it is open, it’s a fun and lively place to be!
  • Sunrise Inn – a simple but lovely lodge in the South East of Likoma Island
  • Pure Likoma – another gorgeous eco-lodge made from repurposed wooden boats! This is possibly the most beautiful hotel of the lot.

Note that most of these hotels need to be booked directly via the details on their website, rather than on a booking platform. If you receive no response via email, try calling or WhatsApping, as they may prefer one method of communication over another.

A view from a balcony of a beautiful lake, with islands in the middle of it.
Views from the balcony in Blue Gum

Things to do on Likoma

Not to sugar coat things, the blog posts we read in this regard before visiting Likoma were dismal, to say the least. Since we’d been on the road for about 6 months at this point, we were perfectly happy to be holed up somewhere without much to do and good WiFi (which we got lucky with at Blue Gum) so we could just have a week off.

It is however worth being aware, if you’re not in this position that Likoma does not have a lot going on to stimulate the average traveller. That being said, if you get on board with the general vibe of the island, take a lot of books and things to do, it’s a great little get away. Here are some of your options.

1. Hiking

Like we said earlier, it only takes about an hour to walk Likoma end to end, and the island is quite pretty as a whole, especially if you venture off the main paths. There are some lovely viewpoints (just basically climb any hill you see and you’re bound to get a great view), and you can make the hike your own level of difficulty really since there are some really easy routes and some more challenging rock climbs. There isn’t exactly a guided route map of any kind, but there’s pretty much nowhere you can’t walk on the island, so the best idea is just to head off exploring and see where you end up.

Top tip: download Google Maps of the area as Likoma quite often loses signal due to load shedding, even if you have a sim card.

A brick cathedral
Likoma Cathedral

2. History

Likoma is interesting in terms of history and culture – it’s kind of like they’ve given it a go to be appealing to tourists but they kind of lost enthusiasm. For example, they have a ‘museum’, which was recommended on a few of the blogs we read before getting there.

I think honestly the word ‘museum’ is a bit of a stretch. It’s more of a room with things in. There is some signage (a little in English, a little in Chichewa), which describes the traditional artefacts on display, but there’s not really any information and I think at 4000 kwacha it’s a little steep for what it is (around $2.50, which might not seem like much but that’s the price of a full meal in Malawi!). The real highlight of this museum is the secluded little bandstand type area which you can access from here (down a hill to the right of the museum), which is beautiful and would make a great spot for a picnic!

The other interesting historical/cultural site on Likoma island is Likoma Cathedral. It doesn’t really have the gravitas of European cathedrals, but it’s definitely worth a visit. If nothing else, it’s pretty jarring to see a cathedral in this setting and is very interesting! For a few kwacha (I think we paid 2000 each), the bell ringer will allow you to climb up the bell tower.

This is interesting because at one point you do literally have to clamber up over the bells to get up it – the steps and ladders just run out so you haven’t really got any choice if you want to get to the top! We’d just say – know your limits here and don’t attempt it if you’re not a great climber, as it could be dangerous, and there aren’t any safety measures set up.

Murray is standing on the roof of a brick cathedral and looking out over the lake beyond it
Views from the top of the cathedral

3. Local markets

As we mentioned above, the supply ships come once a week, at which point the local markets in the centre of town (Chipyela area) come alive and is a great place to explore a typical Malawian market. It’s a fairly typical East African market, but it is a nice lively atmosphere and fun if you haven’t visited too many before.

The vendors generally sell a lot of maindi (grilled corn – our favourite!) so that’s a must-try if you haven’t already. There are also some bars and restaurants open in town, which are fun. Strangely in Likoma, there are a few liquor shops, which the locals call ‘bars’, but they’re pretty much just corner shops. We didn’t really find out why they were called bars.

4. Beaches

We could and should have spent more time on the beach in Likoma. Truth be told, we spent a lot of time on the balcony of our guest house not doing much, because we really needed a break. However, the lakeside beaches are really pretty on this island and we definitely recommend visiting a few (if you just head to the lake shore, you’ll find plenty of lovely places). The beach down by Mango Drift is quite open and it’s lovely to visit.

You can also snorkel in the lake and should be able to see plenty of cichlids (colourful fish) in the water, which is a really unique experience. If you do swim in the lake, be sure to get tested to schistosomiasis when you return home. Read our guide to Malawi for more on this.

Views over lake Malawi
More views over the lake

Top tips for visiting Likoma

  • Take plenty of things to do to entertain yourself and treat it as more of a relaxing break than a destination with lots to do
  • Go when you do not have a time limit to get back (e.g. when you’re not rushing back for flights etc)
  • Be prepared to be without internet/electricity for certain periods of the day
  • Enjoy the snorkelling and hiking (take a good sturdy pair of boots with you!)
  • Download Google Maps of the area for times of spotty signal

Packing List for Likoma Island

  • A sturdy pair of hiking boots!
  • A Malawian sim with plenty of credit
  • Enough cash to last however long you are there and USD as back up in case you need to stay longer (delayed ships etc)
  • Plenty of books/a laptop or tablet with plenty of films or games, whatever you need to entertain yourself
  • A snorkel! They’re hard to come by on the island and the snorkelling is great
  • A solar charger and power bank just in case. We’ve linked the two we used and they worked great.
  • As with most places in Malawi, take suncream and bug spray – make SURE they’re reef safe as you don’t want to damage the cichlids! Even if you’re not snorkelling, the showers are linked to the lake so you need to be careful. ‘Reef-safe’ is not a protected term, so anyone can use it even if they are not actually reef safe. We use this Amazinc suncream and Incognito bug spray. You can also cross-check with the chemicals on Save the Reef if in doubt.
  • A reusable water bottle with a filer. In countries like Malawi, it’s super important to travel as sustainably as possible, as the tourism is still relatively undeveloped there, so we always like to carry a reusable water with a filter so that we can drink the tap water. We’ve never yet gotten sick from water when travelling!

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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