Is Vilanculos safe? Full Guide to the Best Diving Resort in Mozambique

Vilanculos has justifiably earned a reputation as one of the best places to go diving in Mozambique. With Bazaruto Archipelago and the iconic two mile reef on its door step, the diving and snorkelling in Vilanculos is some of the best in the world. Nevertheless, the question people always ask us before planning a trip: is Vilanculos safe?

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Table of Contents

Know before you visit Mozambique

Stay tuned for a full post on things to know before visiting Mozambique, but here are the basics:

  • Some basic Portuguese is a must for travelling in Mozambique. We’ve seen some online guides claim that you don’t really need Portuguese in Mozambique. We are not sure if maybe these people only stayed in tourist areas, but even if they did, that was absolutely not our experience at all. Yes, there will normally be some random person in the area who can help you with basic English translations but this is not something we would recommend relying on
  • Mozambique is generally inexpensive but the tourist areas can be a bit pricey. Vilanculos, as one such area, is quite expensive. Food etc. doesn’t cost too much, but we totally blew our budget on tours! We’ll cover this below.
  • The currency is Mozambique Metical. You can pay for some tours in USD with hotels and resorts but it’s best to have local currency on hand as it’s not possible everywhere
  • ATMs do not always work, and some will only work for visa, not Mastercard. It’s best to sort currency as soon as you arrive as many places do not accept card
An empty beach in Bazaruto, Vilanculos with just one small child and some boats on it.
Bazaruto Archipelago, Vilanculos

So, is Vilanculos safe?

This post is intended as a full guide to the town and resort of Vilanculos, but we did want to cut to the chase for those who just want a quick answer. Safety anywhere is completely subjective, so we can’t speak for everyone here, but, in general, yes, Vilanculos is a reasonably safe area to stay.

There are a lot of visitors around (though not so many that it was unpleasant!) so the locals are quite used to seeing tourists. Also the atmosphere is quite relaxed in general (think beach town), so we didn’t experience too much in the way of harassment or cat-calling as white tourists.

As with any city that you’re not familiar with, we’d advise exercising caution and sticking to areas that are well-lit at night. Additionally it’s always a good idea to avoid flashing expensive items, such as jewellery or technology.

Breaking this down, here are some additional things you can consider if you’re worried.

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Public transport in Vilanculos

Vilanculos is a really compact city. You can walk around the vast majority of it, but if you need to go longer distances, you can use taxis or chapas. There are no booking apps for taxis and they don’t usually have metres, so you need to get in and agree a price.

Chapas are ‘taxi buses’, common in a lot of Africa under different names. They’re usually Toyota Hiaces or similar cars (9-12 seaters). Drivers will stuff them very full of people and they are usually a bit rickety. On these buses, passengers should take extra care with their belongings. If in doubt with a valuable item, leave it at your hotel.

Basically, yes we would say it’s safe to take public transport for short distances in Vilanculos. It’s a small city so you shouldn’t be going far anyway. We’ll cover taking public transport outside of Vilanculos below.

Petty crime (such as pickpocketing) has a comparatively low rate elsewhere in the city.

A white sand beach in Vilanculos with palm trees on the edge. The tide is very far out so there are boats on the sand.
The beach at Baobab Backpackers

Is it safe to drink tap water in Vilanculos?

You probably should not drink the tap water straight from the tap in Mozambique in general. In Vilanculos, the water is treated, so most parasites and viruses should be killed, but it might still contain pollutants. Additionally, foreigners in any country can get sick from tap water if the mineral concentration is different from what they are used to.

Since there is a real plastic problem in many parts of Africa, particularly on beaches, we really advise you not to buy bottled water. In Mozambique, the waste disposal system is not very good and they don’t have a means of disposing of plastic. We therefore always recommend taking water filtration tablets or a filtered water bottle. We use Lifestraw and we love them.

Medical Care in Vilanculos

There is a hospital in Vilanculos town and several small pharmacies. Note that the hospital really is very small and might not have the same level of care most tourists are used to. You are not too far from Inhambane (around 4 hours away) in case of real emergency. The pharmacies in our experience were well stocked, but it is wise to carry your own medication too and stay hydrated.

Malaria is prevalent in Mozambique Consult a doctor before travel about whether you do need anti-malarials to visit.

Insurance for travelling through Africa

Although, as we have said, Vilanculos is a comparatively safe place, accidents can still happen. For travellers, it is really important to have a back up plan in case you get sick or something goes wrong. That’s why we always recommend having really comprehensive travel insurance.

We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them when visiting Africa or any other region. They are affordable and reliable, and have an easy price calculator you can use to work out your cost below. The best thing about them is that their rules are really clear and not confusing! They also have an easy to add on extra for adventure sports such as scuba diving.

Where to stay in Vilanculos

As a backpacker

There are two places we’d recommend as a backpacker in Vilanculos: Baobab Beach and Vilancool Beach Resort. They’re actually both really close to each other. Both are reputable, have great budget options for private rooms, and Baobab Beach has dorms as well. If you’re staying here, don’t forget to have lunch at Zita’s Food, which is the sweetest local cafe. The owner is just a delight, but she doesn’t speak much English, so having some Portuguese is best. If you don’t speak Portuguese, it’s best to download it on Google Translate.

One thing we absolutely loved about Baobab Beach hotel was how well-connected the manager, Rebecca, was. She was super hands on with the guests and always managed to find everyone exactly what they needed. She also helped us when we had an issue with our bus leaving Vilanculos (which we come to below).

You can check prices for both of these places below.

Midrange

Most of the hotels in Vilanculos are either backpacking, low-price accommodation or else high end luxury villas. Basically there are not many mid-range options, but they do have a 4* hotel, Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel. Prices vary but it’s usually not bad value! If you fall on the lower end of the midrange spectrum, you can also try Ocean Pearl Beach Lodge, a little further up the beach, another very popular and well rated hotel.

Check prices here!

Luxury

In terms of luxury, the Bahia Mar Boutique Hotel is the closest Vilanculos comes to a luxury hotel. However, it is a 4* boutique hotel, so it’s not perhaps the typical luxury that 5* travellers might expect. The best alternative in my opinion is a luxury villa. There are quite a few now in Vilanculos, including Villa Santorini (stunning! We had lunch just near here).

Things to do in Vilanculos

Vilanculos has a few great things to do. For example:

  • Snorkelling and diving. You can organise diving tours with your hotel – Baobab beach do some great ones, we also loved the seahorse safari with them, where you can snorkel with seahorses. They are endangered so the project works towards their conservation. For more information on snorkelling and diving in Mozambique, check this article here.
  • Cafe culture! It is abundant here, so sit and get a lovely latte on the beach, or alternatively wait for happy hour and you can have a cocktail.
  • Dhow sailing trips which will take you out over the reefs to spot marine life. These are a great, low-impact way to see the marine life as they’re not as loud of polluting as motor boats.
  • Visit Bazaruto Archipelago and the amazing 2 miles reef
  • Visit the open air markets in town (the Mercardo Municipal)

Honestly, Vilanculos has a slow way of life and the best way to enjoy it to the fullest is just to relax. It’s all about the snorkelling and diving, and marine life is what everyone comes here to see.

Murray is riding a horse in the sea.
The Mozambique Horse Safari – we weren’t the biggest fans…

Tours in Vilanculos

I suppose another part to answering the question of ‘is Vilanculos safe?’ is making sure you book the right tour. I.e. one where you won’t be ripped off, end up somewhere dangerous or have poor safety measures in place. This is a bit tricky because we did a lot of tours in Vilanculos (we didn’t really know we had any other choice) and some were great, some we didn’t love.

Tours we did and what we thought:

The Mozambique Horse Safari

This was something we heard so much about before visiting Vilanculos. In fact, it was the number 1 thing everyone told us to do. We must be honest that we didn’t love it. The idea behind the project is really nice and the family are lovely, plus they and their horses have gone through a lot. It’s great that the horses get a second life now and the family genuinely are really friendly and kind people.

However, it is really, really expensive for what you get. We did the ocean walk, which is 70 USD per person for a 15 minute ride with the horses in the water. This is up and down a stretch of beach. You don’t really go anywhere, you just walk behind each other in a line. You then get to stand with them and take pictures on the beach.

We wouldn’t mind the short duration if we thought it was really for the horses’ benefit, but the horses we rode seemed really irritated at being ridden/being in the water. Murray’s horse was super feisty and was biting all of the other horses, and mine seemed very frisky too, and I needed to be quite firm with her. We’re not experts at reading horse behaviour of course, but they just didn’t seem like they were enjoying it at all.

Apart from the fact that the horses were in the water and you’re riding bareback, there wasn’t much special about the activity itself, so it just seemed like a lot of money for not much gain. As a backpacker, this was more than we could afford, but perhaps this is also on us for not understanding the point of the activity.

We’d love to see a way the horses could be supported without needing to be ridden in a circle by tourists everyday, since this was the part they didn’t seem to enjoy.

120*60
The seahorse safari – bookable through Baobab Beach

Contrastingly, we loved this activity and we found it really hard to find out anything about it before we went! When we asked Baobab beach to book it for us, they knew exactly what we meant. Basically it’s a non-profit, run by an American woman (though she is often not there) aimed at protecting endangered seahorses. The point is to allow tourists to swim with them (at a distance) and use the money they pay to do so for conservation.

The seahorses are all found in very shallow water, so it’s a snorkelling tour. You need to be quite careful not to step on or touch the coral. We found the guides were a little bit lax about this, but we did put that down to lack of knowledge more than anything. They didn’t touch the seahorses or course, but they did get quite close to them, and we would have preferred they did not, and they sometimes accidentally brushed the coral when trying to move plants out of the way to show us the seahorses.

Given that the project is a conservation non-profit, we put this down to a lack of training for those particular guides, and would just strongly advise any tourists to know the best precautions to take themselves. Essentially, don’t show interest in touching the seahorses or corals, and if the guides do it, ask them to stop.

Overall though this was a really nice tour, very informative and very interesting. It was awesome to see seahorses up close and we hope the project is able to protect them.

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Bazaruto Island tour – booked through Baobab Beach

This tour should have been quite good. It was a day trip around Bazaruto archipelago, ending in the 2 mile reef for snorkelling. It wasn’t the best tour, but we saw others which looked very good, so essentially we would still do it but book through a different company. For one thing, the order of the tour was a bit weird, so by the time we reached the reef, it was too late and the water was cloudy. Basically we didn’t end up seeing much.

Others did things in a different order and arrived earlier so the water was clear and they saw loads. Apparently the water is cloudiest in the afternoons, so it’s important to check that you’re visiting the reef first.

Other than that, the tour was OK. It was expensive but it was a full day out to see the various islands and waters of the archipelago, and they gave us a good hearty lunch. Later in the day, we did also see a dugong which was awesome!

Choosing the right tour

To be honest, it’s tricky. Usually we’d say check the reviews online, but of course we did that with the horse safari and it wasn’t our favourite. We’d say just know what you’re getting into before you do it, and be advised that you can do things independently in Vilanculos without a tour. For example, Bazaruto – you can find people in town who will help you visit without a tour.

Travelling to other cities in Mozambique

If you have read our guide to backpacking in Mozambique, you’ll know that even as a backpacker, we highly recommend travelling with a car in Mozambique, rather than relying on public transport. However, if you do need to rely on public transport, there are a few things you need to be aware of when travelling from Vilanculos to other cities in Mozambique.

Emma and Murray are sitting on the floor of an aisle of a bus taking a selfie. They look exhausted and are surrounded by people. Murray is sitting backwards and looks very red in the face. When asking 'is Vilanculos safe?' public transport should be considered.
Us on the bus leaving Vilanculos – worst day of our lives!!

Quick information for booking buses leaving Vilanculos

  • There are two main types of buses in Mozambique: chapas (taxi buses -12 seaters) and ‘big buses’ (coach-style buses). Usually you need to pre-book the big buses, but this is not possible in Vilanculos as there is no bus station and the buses are not available to book online. You can pre-book over the phone if you have M-Pesa (a type of digital currency only available in certain African countries) or pre-book in person in other cities.
  • If you have not pre-booked a big bus, you will quite likely be denied boarding or, if they do let you on, you will probably not get a seat
  • No mainline buses go directly from Vilanculos to the North, they all go from a town 25 minutes inland called Pambarra
  • There are multiple big buses going from Pambarra to various other cities in Mozambique and they usually leave between 11am and 1pm
  • Chapas go from Pambarra up North (to Chimoio, Tete and Inchope) around 8am, so if you do not have tickets booked, this is a viable alternative. You will be cramped and uncomfortable, but should at least get a seat. We would only recommend this option if you’re really used to bus travel in Africa and don’t mind a little discomfort.
  • Buses run regularly to Maputo and Tofo – the situation is the same with booking tickets.

The reason we are going into detail on buses, without going too far into it, is that we had a pretty bad issue in Vilanculos. We were trying to Chimoio in the North of Mozambique and we were told that there was a local guy who could help us book a bus. It was a pretty official channel through our hostel (which was super reputable) but it turned out to be a scam. We will say this was not the hostel’s fault, they had no idea. They actually helped us get out of the situation.

Basically the guy didn’t end up able to get the bus tickets for us and what should have been a 7 hour trip turned into a two day long saga. We did eventually get a bus ticket (a day after we were meant to leave) but ended up sitting on the floor of the bus for 11 hours. It was unpleasant, so don’t be like us.

A man in Mozambique is loading pineapples into a pick up truck on a dirt road in Mozambique. There are hundreds of pineapples in the back.
Pineapples being loaded in Pambarra – we had plenty of time to see every sight here!

About Pambarra

In Pambarra, there is a ‘toilet’ (long drop) in someone’s back garden that you can use. It is pretty manky and we were told you had to pay 10 mets to use it (no one actually asked us for this at any point however, so that was a bit confusing). There are also several shops and restaurants, selling matapa, chicken, chips etc. as well as crisps, biscuits and sodas.

There is nothing too special to do or look at but you aren’t totally stranded, and there was a daily clothes auction too, which was quite fun to watch! Rebecca from the Baobab Backpackers Hostel told us that people often stay in Casa Bonita Lodge in Pambarra. We’ve not stayed there ourselves, but would trust her recommendation.

If you’re looking for information on any other journeys in Mozambique, here’s some other places we went:

Nelspruit/Mbombela (in South Africa) – Maputo
Maputo – Inhambane (- Tofo/Gunjata)
Tofo/Gunjata – Inhambane – Maxixe
Tofo/Gunjata – Vilanculos

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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