During 2017-2018 travels, I’ve made a point of experiencing new places, trying not to only frequent favorite, familiar haunts like Cape Town. After a much needed seaside respite in Amanzimtoti near Durban, I leave South Africa next week for a month exploring Mozambique, beginning with Maputo. Mozambique has long fascinated me. I passed through the country on safari a few years ago, but didn’t spend meaningful time there. It’s my first visit to Maputo.
I’ve read mixed reviews of the city – good, bad, and downright scary. One solo woman blogger labeled Maputo as her “least favorite city in the world”. I try to keep an open mind when reading negative articles and don’t let them deter my travels. Mozambique is a popular destination for South Africans, and everyone I’ve talked to praises it as a vibrant, exciting city.
Geography and History
Maputo is known as the City of Acacias and Southern Africa’s “Pearl of the Indian Ocean”. Population in the city proper is a little over one million. There are appealing written descriptions of Maputo portraying its streets lined with the “yellow, red, and purple canopies of Acacia, Flame, and Jacaranda trees”.
“Founded as a port town by the Portuguese, the influence of travelers and traders from Africa, Asia, and Europe made Maputo a diverse and lively metropolis.”
Maputo is 50 miles from South Africa’s border, with the Maputo River separating the two countries. Mozambique’s southern border is on the northern bank of the Esturio do Esprito Santo leading to Maputo Bay. Maputo is on one end of the Bay with rustic, laid back Catembe on the opposite edge. Maputo Bay is 56 miles long and 20 miles wide. In the 1500s, it was called Catembe Bay – “an exchange place for Arab and African merchants”. In an economy based on the Ivory trade, sadly elephant tusks were the primary product.
The new Maputo-Catembe Bridge replaces the current ferry and road systems between Maputo and Catembe. The two-mile bridge cuts transport time to South Africa significantly and will boost trade and tourism. When completed, it will become Africa’s longest suspension bridge.
Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first European to reach Mozambique. Da Gama landed in the Muslim island town of Moçambique in 1498. Portuguese explorer Antonio de Campos followed Da Gama and discovered Maputo Bay. He was followed in the late 1500s by navigator Lourenço Marques. Maputo Bay was once known as Delagoa Bay and the city of Maputo as Lourenço Marques.
In 1876, the Portuguese government sent a commission to develop the area and build a hospital and church. Maputo became a city in 1887 and the capital of Mozambique in 1898. With its busy port and railroad serving South Africa’s gold fields, the city grew.
Independence and Civil War
“Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975 was followed by years of intense civil conflict that concluded in 1992. The civil war was violent with transformation into a socialist one-party-state, crackdown on dissidents, and widespread nationalization of Portuguese-owned enterprises. White Portuguese Mozambicans fled the country “creating economic collapse and chaos”.
Civil war left Mozambique in disrepair with visible “signs of the violent 16-year conflict, like bullet holes on the walls of many buildings”.
In 1962, the nationalist independence movement – Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) – became a prominent political force in Mozambique. The party has ruled the country since its independence in 1975. Frelimo struggled through civil war against an anti-Communist faction known as Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO).
RENAMO insurgents “received support from the then white-minority governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa”. In 1990, Frelimo approved a new constitution and established a multi-party system. The RENAMO opposition party “never fully integrated into Mozambican politics”. Since democratic elections began in 1994, Frelimo continues to be the solid elected majority party in parliament.
Economy and Culture
Mozambique is one of the least developed countries in the world. Although promising, the country’s abundant assets are mostly unexplored. There’s great potential, including a 2,000-mile coastline, three major shipping ports – Maputo, Beira, and Nacala – and rich mineral, coal, natural gas, hydropower, and offshore oil resources. Mozambique has many challenges and priorities include healthcare, education, poverty reduction, food security, and job creation.
“Maputo’s economy centers around its busy port, a gateway to South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Chief exports include cotton, sugar, chromite, sisal, copra, and hardwood. In addition to trade, there are robust manufacturing and service sectors. Maputo has several universities, including the oldest in the country – Eduardo Mondlane University.”
In 2016, Mozambique’s economy “entered into a crisis after the discovery of $2 billion in questionable government-backed loans to three state-owned companies. Donors responded by freezing over $250 million in direct budget support,” and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cancelled Mozambique’s financial program. Since then, the Government has tried to restore donor and investor confidence – unsuccessfully.
Architecture, Food, and Clothing
Maputo is known for its “distinct, eclectic architecture”. Portuguese colonial, Neoclassical, and Manueline buildings stand alongside Art Deco, Bauhaus, and less-appealing Brutalist construction. Some of the more modern buildings were designed by Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes.
Mozambican cuisine is “deeply influenced” by the Portuguese, who “introduced new crops, flavorings, and cooking methods”. Mozambicans serve food with sauces made from vegetables, meat, beans, or fish. Typical ingredients include cashew nuts, onions, bay leaves, garlic, coriander, paprika, red pepper, millet, sorghum, and potatoes.
Maputo is famous for its Mozambican prawns in peri-peri sauce, a spicy concoction made from an especially hot African chili pepper.
Mozambique is a city of striking, bright colors. Women proudly wear capulanas with contrasting patterns. They’re sarongs “primarily worn in Mozambique but also in other areas of south-eastern and western Africa”. Capulanas are “rectangular cloths featuring African motifs, forms, zoomorphic or anthropomorphic abstract and geometric patterns, and figurative variables that illustrate culture, traditions, rituals, ideas, emotions, revolts, and passion”.
Provinces and Districts
There are ten provinces in Mozambique and one capital city with provincial status. The provinces have a total of 128 districts.
- Cabo Delgado
- Maputo City
Mozambique and Maputo Attractions
After its long civil war, Maputo is slowly recapturing its former glory as a tourist destination. Maputo is a lively city and there are many attractions there and throughout Mozambique, including stunning beaches and nature reserves.
Maputo Central Market – fragrant, colorful open market housed in a beautiful Victorian building. Vendors offer fresh fruit and vegetables, spices, handicrafts, basketware, carvings, and more.
Cathedral Nossa Senhora da Conceicao (Our Lady of Conception) – well-known landmark in Praça da Independencia (Independence Square). The cathedral has a tall single spire.
In Mozambique, “Capulanas are the female voice of silence.”
Iglesia de San Antonio de la Polana (Saint Antonio Catholic Church) – built in the shape of an inverted flower.
Statue of Samora Machel – Samora Machel was Mozambique’s first President from 1975 to 1986. Machel died in an air crash in South Africa under suspicious circumstances. His statue is a prominent feature in Praça da Independência.
Jardim Tunduru Botanical Gardens – designed in 1885 by British gardener Thomas Honney who created landscapes for the Sultan of Turkey and King of Greece.
Museu da Moeda (Money Museum) – also known as Casa Amarela or Yellow House is the oldest standing building still in use in Maputo. Damaged during the civil war, the “simple structure was beautifully restored with old street lamps above the doors”.
Praca dos Trabalhadores (Workers Square) – a statue commemorating Mozambican soldiers who fell in World War I.
Portos e Caminhos de Ferro de Moçambique (CFM) – Maputo Railway Station is a popular major landmark in a beautiful Victorian building.
The Maputo Special Reserve – 60 miles southeast of Maputo, the Reserve has marshes and rivers and includes elephants, birds, zebra, antelope, crocodiles, hippo, small bucks, bushpigs, baboons, fish, and unique plant life.
Gorongosa National Park – considered “Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration story” Gorongosa is home to lions, elephants, buffalo, zebras, bucks, hippos, crocodiles, and over 400 species of birds. Tourist dollars support the Park’s conservation programs to help farmers and provide educational programs and health care for local communities.
Niassa Reserve is a large protected area of spectacular untouched natural scenery. It’s twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger Park. Poachers have reduced the Reserve’s elephant population by an alarming 70 percent.
Lugenda Wildlife Reserve – an untouched 16,000 square mile expanse of wilderness in northern Niassa province. Lugenda Wilderness Camp on the banks of the Lugenda River in the Ngalongue Mountains is part of the Reserve.
Bairro Mafalala Walking Tour – two-hour tour through the Mafalala bairro, Maputo’s oldest township, including the late Samora Machel’s house, a visit with a local curandeiro (healer), and a traditional dance performance.
Fortaleza – a restored Portuguese fort with major historical significance at the fishing port and one of Maputo’s oldest buildings.
Fere de Populare Neighborhood – infamous area of bars and discos where Mozambicans dance to “seductive Latino beats”.
Inhaca Island – popular tourist spot accessed by ferry from Maputo’s fishing harbour. Visitors enjoy the island’s restaurants, hotels, maritime museum, and historic lighthouse.
Maputo Elephant Reserve – a 190 sq-mile “mosaic of lakes, floodplains, mangrove swamps, woodlands, and forested dunes sweeping down to unspoilt beaches” north of Ponta Malongane. Once a sanctuary for elephants, white rhino, and other game, poaching during the civil war severely reduced animal numbers.
Quirimbas Archipelago – off Mozambique’s northern coast, the archipelago’s islands are part of Quirimbas National Park. They’re popular for diving and known for coral reefs and waters inhabited by dolphins, whales, and endangered dugongs (sea cows).
There is so much to see in Mozambique! It will be hot, and unfortunately malaria medication is required before, during, and after a visit. A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is required at entry. Despite of all this, I don’t think the environment will be more challenging than Seychelles.
The sites explored will depend on budget and stamina – extreme heat (high 90s) zaps my energy. I would love to visit Lugenda Wilderness Camp, but it’s pricey – rightly so, as it’s important to restrict the number of tourists allowed to visit endangered areas.
The first hurdle will be obtaining a visa, and I’m hoping there are no snags. Last year Mozambique began issuing tourist visas upon arrival at the airport – or at least the embassy said they would do this. Before that, visitors from the US were required to go through red tape to get tourist visas PRIOR to entering the county or be turned away. I didn’t get an advance visa – no embassy nearby. I tried contacting the Mozambican Embassy online and also by calling and emailing, but never got through.
My nightmare is arriving and being rejected. Hope that doesn’t happen, but in Africa one never knows, and complacency is dangerous. I’ve gathered documentation to prove a limited, 30-day stay and am trying not to over think it. When you’re traveling solo it’s especially important to be prepared. Haven’t booked a departure flight yet, because I want to leave options open until I’ve experienced Maputo. Border crossings and immigration entry points have never been my favorite part of traveling.
Looking forward to a great experience in Mozambique! More later….