How to get to Socotra and 9 other top tips for visiting

Socotra is a destination that shocked us in every way possible. If you’ve heard of it, you’ll almost certainly be desperate to visit, whether that’s for the alien-looking dragon blood trees, the beautiful pink blooming bottle trees, or the varied and dramatic scenery. The trouble is, no one seems to know much about it. How to get to Socotra, where to stay, when to visit, etc. are still questions which aren’t easy to find answers too!

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Socotra seems to surprise everyone who visits. For all it’s publicised on Social Media, no one seems quite able to capture the essence of the island itself. Before we visited, we imagined it to be a sort of Maldives-esque bare bones paradise full of eco-resorts (yes, our research was lacking and safe to say, we were delighted that it wasn’t what we imagined), but others seem to imagine a completely off the grid remote island getaway.

While the eco resorts were distinctly lacking, we did get the white sand beaches of the Indian Ocean islands. I guess you could say, it’s like the Maldives… but with camping! There’s very little infrastructure to support tourism at all, and therefore we have to ensure that we are choosing to visit as responsible tourists. Here’s what you need to know…

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A dramatic view of a white sand beach from a cliff.
Beaches on Socotra are stunningly beautifu

10 Things You Need To Know Before Visiting Socotra

1. Socotra is part of a developing country

Like we said above, Socotra is an underdeveloped area of the world. Ultimately, it’s a part of Yemen, which is, in itself, a developing country. This means that the infrastructure is extremely limited. Things like waste disposal systems are non-existent, bathrooms are generally squat toilets and hosepipes for showers, and you can pretty much forget about hot water. Tourists hoping to find a luxury travel destination should reconsider travel to Socotra. For those willing to embrace the chaos, it’s a wonderful adventure!

WiFi and Internet on Socotra

People are often surprised to find out that you can get internet signal on Socotra (though it is very sporadic!). The signal comes from the UAE network, Etisalat. There are some WiFi towers, but the signal was 3G at best. In Arher Beach, there was no signal at all. Some of the hotels in Hadiboh will have WiFi, though we found it came on and off.

To get the sim card, simply go to the Etisalat desk at Abu Dhabi airport. It’s open 24 hours, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting a sim card, but you may need to queue!

A view down a grubby looking street with colourful doors on each side

Electricity on Socotra

Most tours are camping-heavy, so you will not have electricity for most of the time you’re there. We took an inverter with us, which we used in the car to charge our devices. Most of the campsites don’t have electricity or much in the way of facilities.

Waste disposal and litter

Litter in Socotra is a problem. There is no means of disposing of rubbish, so unfortunately litter does cover much of Hadiboh. While the country is still working out how to deal with these issues, it’s important to ensure that tourism doesn’t contribute to the problem. The best way is to limit plastics and disposables, and aim to leave no trace.

A beach in Socotra with a tent on it
Camping in Socotra

2. There are not many hotels on Socotra

Like we said, most of the tours around Socotra use campsites. This is because there are no hotels in many of the more remote areas (such as Diksam Plateau and Firnhin forest). Camping enables you to get closer to these areas without such long road trips. If you do prefer to stay in hotels, it is possible, but you may need to drive for longer during the day to visit each area.

The hotels that do exist in Socotra may not exactly be the level you are used to. Even a nice hotel in Socotra would probably be the equivalent standard to a basic 2* hotel in Europe or the USA. Facilities tend to be very basic, with simple rooms and food.

Hot water

We didn’t have hot water for the entire time we were in Socotra. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it would need to be much more upmarket hotels than we were staying in.

A dirt track road in Socotra on the side of a cliff. It looks beautiful.

3. There are not many roads on Socotra

Actually, this kind of depends on your understanding of the word ‘road’. There are places where you can technically get a car, but they probably wouldn’t be considered roads in most areas of the world! Most of the cars in Socotra are Toyota Land Cruisers. Luckily, these are extremely sturdy cars, and they really need to be! The main road between Hadiboh and Arher Beach (the day we arrived) is very smooth, but after that, you’ll be driving through a mix of roads, river and rocky hiking paths

Some of the cars do not have air-conditioning, and many of them don’t have seatbelts. It’s all in the spirit of adventure, but it’s definitely worth bearing in mind that long drives can be uncomfortable. The drivers themselves are absolutely amazing however! Our own driver, Abdubaziz had taught himself to drive, age 16, and had been in the industry for 18 years. He was without a doubt the best off-road driver we had ever met!

Lots of blue boats in the sea.

4. Socotra is completely different from mainland Yemen

Every person working in tourism on Socotra is keen to tell you that Socotra is completely safe. Honestly, we don’t feel qualified to comment on the political situation. Of course, it is ever-changing and no one knows what will happen from one day to the next. What we can say is that while we were there, we had no reason to disbelieve anything we heard from our local guides.

We haven’t been to mainland Yemen, but from what we learnt, the island felt completely different. We met several Yemeni people while we were there who gave us some insights. Seemingly everything from the food to the culture is totally different, as well as the involvement in conflict. There is certainly no evidence of trouble in Socotra. Everywhere you go seems very friendly and politically safe.

We did not even encounter concerns of anything like pickpocketing. Honestly, it felt like one of the friendliest places we’ve ever been.

A sunset over the cliffs

5. How to get to Socotra (3 ways!)

The flights seem to one of the things that scare people the most when visiting Socotra. In fairness, I can say that I felt some trepidation, as I didn’t really understand the flights before we went!

So, there are two flights to Socotra, the first goes from the United Arab Emirates (from Abu Dhabi). In high season or when necessary, this flight runs twice a week, but usually it’s once only. The second flight goes from mainland Yemen. The third and final way to get to Socotra is a small boat from mainland Yemen. A lot of locals use this method of travel to get between the island and the mainland. As you can imagine, with current political tensions, most tour companies prefer to organise the flights for you from the UAE.

Our tour company organised the flights for us. There is one person in the whole of Socotra who organises flights to and from the island and he is obviously very busy. It’s much easier for him to deal with the tour companies he knows, so even though you can technically book the flights directly, you’ll have a faster response if your company helps you.

The flights are actually organised by the UAE government as a charter flight with Air Arabia. As we understand it, the UAE government would not want to run this flight if political tensions made it unsafe to visit the island.

Two men in a small corner shop selling spices and honey. The shopkeeper is smiling at the camera

6. Socotra has its own language

Though many Socotri people can speak fluent Arabic, Socotri itself is a completely separate language. It sounds completely different from Arabic and has letters which can’t be transcribed, so it is only a spoken language, rather than written. The main language children learn at school is Arabic, so they generally speak it very well.

Most people can’t speak English, but almost everyone working in tourism does. The tour guides generally have excellent English. Our driver actually didn’t speak great English at all, but his Arabic was very good and he found it easy to communicate with us anyway. It’s a good idea to learn a few phrases in Arabic just to communicate with local people.

A bottle tree with pink flowers in the foreground and a dragon blood tree in the distance
Bottle trees blooming as early as January

7. When to visit Socotra

Socotra has a savage windy season. It runs from June to August and it is almost impossible to visit the island as a tourist during this time. Many tours stop running entirely and lots of locals will even leave the island and go to mainland Yemen to get away from the weather. Those who don’t leave will spend much of the season indoors, only going outside in case of absolute necessity.

September and October are still pretty unpleasant months because of the wind. The sea is extremely choppy, there’s almost no chance of seeing cetaceans such as dolphins, and flying debris is common.

It’s a common misconception that the best month to visit Socotra is March, but actually it’s an incredibly hot month, which makes it really uncomfortable. Most tourists believe that they can only see bottle trees flowering in March, but in fact we saw plenty in January. Apparently, they can begin to flower as early as mid-December!

If you’re still not sure when you should go, we’d recommend December or January, and we wrote a whole article explaining why!

8. You do need a tour company to visit Socotra for the first time

As a first time visitor to Socotra, you do need the help of a tour company. Many people we have spoken to have asked us if this is a myth, or said they don’t quite believe it. We had heard it before visiting as well. It is definitely the case that you need a tour, as the customs officials on arrival to the airport asked for our tour company in order to give us our visas.

We often travel independently, but in fact it was extremely useful to have a tour company to help us as they helped us with a lot. Firstly, they sorted out our visas for us, which we would never have been able to do alone. Secondly, they booked our flights from Abu Dhabi and managed to hear back from the flight agent much faster than we would have. It’s important to book a local tour company when visiting Socotra, so that the money can go back to the local economy. We share more about the tour company we used in this post.

Emma and Murray are sitting under a dragon blood tree. Behind them is a large forest of dragon blood trees.
The dragon blood forest from Diksam Plateau

9. Socotra is a Muslim country

As part of Yemen, Socotra is a Muslim country. What does this mean for your visit? For one thing, you should follow the traditional rules of Muslim dress, which means: shoulders, knees, chests and midriff covered, especially for women travellers. We didn’t see any women tourists wearing headscarves, nor did I choose to wear one myself in most areas of the island, but I did wear one when we visited the home of a local family, as it felt more respectful. It’s important to note that you should dress conservatively, even if other tourists do not. You do encounter local people, even out in the more remote regions, so it is important to respect the local culture.

There are lots of children running around in the countryside, and it is not fair to subject them to tourist dress codes when we are in their country. There are areas where tourists can bathe in natural water sources. In these areas, there are rarely any local women and the local men will typically be guides. For this reason, we did not feel disrespectful or uncomfortable swimming in our usual bathing costumes.

In Ramadan, it’s worth bearing in mind that your guides will not be eating during the day, and therefore they may be lacking energy. They have to work very hard every day packing and unpacking tents, and driving you around, so it is really important to be extra empathetic during this time.

Sunset over the dragon blood trees
Sunset over the dragon blood trees

10. Not much grows in Socotra

Socotra does not have many natural resources, except a few fruits and vegetables, and the legendary dragon blood trees. As such, much of the food you eat during your stay needs to be imported from the UAE, mainland Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

This is especially important to note if you have dietary requirements, for example if you are gluten free or vegan. As a vegan, I actually didn’t struggle much at all and I’ll be writing a full post on this soon.

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    Written by Emma


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