First Time Maputo
During my 2017-2018 travels, I’ve focused on experiencing new territory, trying not to frequent favorite haunts like Cape Town. After an Indian Ocean seaside respite in Amanzimtoti near Durban, I leave South Africa next week for a few months exploring Maputo and other areas of Mozambique. Mozambique has long fascinated me. I passed through the country on safari a few years ago, but didn’t spend meaningful time there. This is my first visit to the capital, Maputo.
I’ve read mixed reviews of the city – good, bad, and downright scary. A woman blogger labeled Maputo as her “least favorite city in the world”. I try to keep an open mind when reading negative reviews, not letting them cloud my travel aspirations. For South Africans, Mozambique is a popular destination, and people I’ve talked to praise Maputo as a vibrant, exciting African 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 colorful 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 northern 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 is on the opposite side. Maputo Bay is 56 miles long and 20 miles wide. In the 1500s, it was called Catembe Bay – “a favorite 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 and cut transport time to South Africa.
Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first European to reach Mozambique, landing on the Muslim coral island town of Ilha de Moçambique in 1498. Explorer Antonio de Campo followed Da Gama, discovering Maputo Bay, and Portuguese Navigator Lourenço Marques arrived in the late 1500s. Maputo was formerly known as Lourenço Marques, and Maputo Bay as Delagoa Bay.
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 a railroad serving South Africa’s gold fields, Maputo grew quickly.
Civil War and Independence
“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 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 sixteen-year conflict, including 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 are said to have “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 democratic elections in 1994, FRELIMO remains the majority party in Mozambique parliament.
Economy and Culture
Mozambique has many challenges and is one of the least developed countries in the world. Sadly, the majority of Mozambique’s abundant assets are unexplored. There’s great potential, including a 2,000-mile coastline, three major ports – Maputo, Beira, and Nacala – and rich hydropower, coal, mineral, natural gas, and offshore oil resources. The country’s highest priorities include education, food security, healthcare, poverty reduction, 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, Mozambique has manufacturing and service sectors. Maputo universities include Eduardo Mondlane University, the oldest in the country.”
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 to restore investor confidence have been unsuccessful.
Maputo is a melting pot of ethnic cultures dominated by the Portuguese and Bantu, but also influenced by Arab, Indian, and Chinese immigrants from cities like Goa and Macao.
Architecture, Food, Clothing
Maputo is known for its “distinct, eclectic architecture”. Portuguese Colonial, Manueline, and Neoclassical buildings stand alongside Art Deco, Bauhaus, and Brutalist construction. Portuguese architect Pancho Guedes designed many modern buildings in Maputo.
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, potatoes, garlic, paprika, red pepper, millet, and sorghum.
Maputo is famous for fresh Mozambican prawns in peri-peri sauce, a spicy concoction made from an especially hot African chili pepper.
Mozambique is a city of striking, bright traditional colors. Women wear capulanas with contrasting patterns. Sarongs are “primarily worn in Mozambique, but also in other areas of south-eastern and western- Africa”. Capulanas are “rectangular cloths featuring vivid African motifs, abstract anthropomorphic or zoomorphic forms, 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
- Maputo – Capital aka Lourenço Marques
Mozambique and Maputo Attractions
After the civil war, Maputo is recapturing its former glory as a tourist destination. It’s a lively city, and attractions include stunning beaches and lush nature reserves.
Maputo National Museum of Art – houses works by Mozambican artists like poet and painter Malangatana Ngwenya. and sculptor Alberto Chissano.
Maputo Central Market – fragrant, colorful open market in a 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 Praça da Independencia (Independence Square) landmark. The cathedral has a tall single spire.
Iglesia de San Antonio de la Polana (Saint Antonio Church) – church built like an inverted flower.
In Mozambique, “capulanas are the female voice of silence”.
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 Maputo’s Praça da Independência.
Louis Trichardt Memorial – created in memory of voortrekker, Louis Trichardt’s trek to find a route to the sea via Mozambique. Many in his expedition died of malaria.
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.
Maputo Special Reserve – 60 miles southeast of Maputo, with marshes, rivers, elephants, birds, zebra, antelope, crocodiles, hippo, baboon, fish, bushpig, and unique plant life.
Gorongosa National Park – “Africa’s greatest wildlife restoration story” and home to lions, elephants, buffalo, zebras, bucks, hippos, crocodiles, and over 400 species of birds. Mozambique tourism supports conservation programs to help farmers and provide education and healthcare services 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. Sadly, poachers have reduced the reserve’s elephant population by an alarming 70 percent.”
Niassa Reserve – home to endangered African wild dogs, sable antelope, elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, and exotic birds.
Mecula Mountain – part of Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique and a little-known montane forest ecosystem inhabited by threatened bird species.
Lugenda Wildlife Reserve – an untouched 16,000 sq. mile expanse of wilderness in northern Niassa province, Lugenda Wilderness Camp in the Ngalongue Mountains on the banks of the Lugenda River is part of the Lugenda 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 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 – 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 reduced animal numbers in the reserve.
Quirimbas Archipelago – off Mozambique’s northern coast, the islands are part of Quirimbas National Park. They’re popular for diving and known for colorful 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 Mozambique’s 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 Mozambique or be turned away upon arrival. I didn’t get an advance visa – no embassy nearby. I tried contacting the Embassy online, calling, and emailing, but never got through.
My worst nightmare is arriving and being rejected. Hope that doesn’t happen, but in Africa one never knows, and complacency can be dangerous. The documentation I gathered supports a limited stay, and I’m trying not to overthink it. When you’re traveling solo, it’s especially important to do your homework and be prepared. Haven’t booked a return flight, because I want to leave options open until I’ve experience Maputo. Border crossings aren’t my favorite part of traveling.
Looking forward to experiencing Mozambique – more later….
Good luck and happy travels with this next adventure. I thought the video from the young girl was fascinating and amazing. I hope you meet many such as her in your journey.
Thanks Gwen – also hope I meet young people like her and surely that will happen! As with volunteering, which I don’t do so much anymore, it’s rewarding to interact with local people – especially children – to learn and better understand their lives and world but a bit unrealistic to think it will be an ongoing long-term relationship you can hold onto for any length of time. When I was helping Cape Town township children improve their reading skills it was easy to get involved. We were encouraged to focus on the reading, nothing else. Mozambique has been through so much – hope things improve for them!
Your photos are amazing. I just love those Jacaranda Trees, so beautiful. Thank you and all the best to you!
Thank you Cecilia!