During my 2017-2018 travels, I’ve made a point of experiencing new places, trying not to frequent favorite, familiar haunts like Cape Town. After a seaside respite in Amanzimtoti near Durban, I leave South Africa next week for a few months 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 reviews and articles, not letting them cloud my travel experiences. Mozambique is a popular destination for South Africans, and everyone I’ve talked to praises it as a vibrant and 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 and rustic, laid back Catembe on the opposite side. 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”. At that time, elephant tusks were the primary product In an economy based on the Ivory trade.
When completed, the two-mile Maputo-Catembe Bridge will be the longest suspension bridge in Africa and replace ferry and road systems between Maputo and Catembe. The bridge will boost trade and tourism by cutting transport time to South Africa.
Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach Mozambique, landed in the Muslim island town of Moçambique in 1498. Explorer Antonio de Campo followed Da Gama discovering Maputo Bay, and Portuguese Navigator Lourenço Marques arrived in the late 1500s. At one time, Maputo Bay was 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 violent civil war included 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 white-minority governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa”. In 1990, Frelimo approved a new constitution establishing a multi-party system. The RENAMO opposition party “never fully integrated into Mozambican politics”. Since the democratic elections in 1994, Frelimo continues as the solid elected majority party in parliament.
Economy and Culture
Mozambique has many challenges and 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 ports – Maputo, Beira, and Nacala – and rich mineral, hydropower, coal, natural gas, and offshore oil resources. 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 state-owned companies. Donors froze over $250 million in direct budget support,” and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cancelled Mozambique’s financial program. Since then, attempts at restoring donor and investor confidence have been unsuccessful.
Architecture, Food, and Clothing
Maputo is known for its “distinct, eclectic architecture”. Portuguese colonial, Manueline, and Neoclassical buildings stand alongside Art Deco, Bauhaus, and less-appealing Brutalist construction. Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes designed some of the modern buildings.
Mozambican cuisine is “deeply influenced” by the Portuguese, who “introduced new crops, flavorings, and cooking methods”. Mozambicans serve food with sauces made from meat, beans, vegetables, and fish. Typical ingredients include coriander, cashew nuts, onions, bay leaves, garlic, 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 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, anthropomorphic or zoomorphic 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 civil war, Maputo is recapturing its former glory as a destination for tourists. Maputo is a lively city and there are many attractions there and throughout Mozambique, including nature reserves and stunning beaches.
Maputo Central Market – fragrant, colorful open market housed in a Victorian building. Vendors offer fresh fruit and vegetables, handicrafts, basketware, carvings, spices, 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 Church) – built like an inverted flower.
Statue of Samora Machel – Samora Machel was Mozambique’s first President from 1975 to 1986. He 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 ornamental gardens and 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”.
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’s marshes and rivers include elephants, birds, zebra, antelope, crocodiles, hippo, baboon, fish, bushpig, 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 sq 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 traditional dance performance, and a visit with a local curandeiro (healer).
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 restaurants, a 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 unspoiled 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 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. Last year Mozambique began issuing tourist visas upon arrival at the airport – or at least the embassy said they would. 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 upon arrival. I didn’t get an advance visa – no embassy nearby. I tried to contact the Embassy online and 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. Documentation gathered supports a limited stay, and I’m trying not to over think it. When you’re traveling solo it’s especially important to be prepared. Haven’t booked a return flight, because I want to leave options open until I experience Maputo. For me, border crossings are never a favorite part of traveling.
Looking forward to a great experience in Mozambique! More later….