After the first few days in Maputo, I began to wonder if a month was too much time to spend in Mozambique. I’ve felt like that about other places in my travels, only to shed a tear when it was time to leave. Maputo isn’t an easy city. There are challenges – a significant language barrier, poor signage, sketchy public transportation, deficient infrastructure, and extremely hot, humid tropical weather. Adjusting is difficult but worth the effort.
It’s exciting to get out of your comfort zone and experience life from another perspective. Acclimating to a new city in a foreign country takes time. A month is long enough to get comfortable with the local environment and dig deeper. Each day I’ve gained a better understanding of Mozambican culture.
Most Maputo taxi drivers don’t speak English, so communication is difficult. They can misunderstand your destination, unless it’s a well-known place or you have a card with a picture and the printed address. Many are illiterate and cannot read. Packed buses are dangerous, not to mention learning sketchy pickup and drop-off points.
Tours and Guides
For the past few days, I’ve explored major attractions in central Maputo. Guides have taught me about local culture and history. In turn, some have picked my brain about difficulties I’ve experienced as a tourist in Maputo.
One local group – Maputo a Pé – is knowledgeable and well-connected with local clubs and expat organizations like French and American cultural centers and the Club of Mozambique. Their office is near the entrance to Tunduru Botanical Gardens. I appreciate their help and plan to attend an “art safari” and take barrio walks to learn about Maputo and Mozambique.
Walking on concrete pavement for extended periods of time takes its toll. To make things worse, Maputo’s pavement is a mass of cracked, crumbling, chunky cement. People park their cars on the sidewalks forcing pedestrians to walk in the street until they can divert to a safe, unobstructed walkway. It’s dangerous, but slowly I’m getting accustomed to it. Maputo’s reckless drivers assume the right-of-way, disregarding vulnerable pedestrians. The police don’t do much about the parking or bad driving……….but I’m digressing…
One guide – Hendy Mario of Maputo Free Walking Tour – specializes in guided tours of Maputo’s historical sites. Hendy is Mozambican. His wife is from Georgia USA. Hendy grew up on the Island of Mozambique, a remote fishing village on a “crescent-shaped coral island” in northern Mozambique. The island is noted for its mixture of European, Arabic, and Indian cultures. For centuries it was a Portuguese trading post on the route to India and considered the “capital and trading centre of Portuguese East Africa“.
“Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site Ilha de Mocambique is barely two miles long and a few hundred yards wide.”
Hendy’s tour was set up like those I enjoyed in Prague. You aren’t obliged to pay a set fee. At the end of the tour you pay the guide what the experience was worth to you. I learned much from Hendy, and his tour was time well spent.
We walked Maputo’s central area where he pointed out notable buildings and talked about their history. Many of them are described in Phillip Schauer’s book Maputo Architectural and Tourist Guide, a valuable reference.
Hendy’s tours concentrate on major historical attractions, some I’d already visited. His narrative provided more insight and taught me about African ethnic culture in Mozambique – the subject of a separate blog post to follow soon. Despite significant ethnic and linguistic differences, “there is little conflict among various Mozambican groups”.
There are twelve major ethnic groups in Mozambique:
- Makua / Lomwe
- Tsonga / Shangaan (Shangana)
- European / Mestiço (mixed races)
- South Asian – Indian and Chinese
“The greatest cultural disparities are those dividing the north from the south. Because they’re far from the capital and other urban centers, northern groups show less influence from the Portuguese.”
Central Maputo Attractions
Hendy and I met in the café at Hotel Pestana Rovuma located near Independence Square. Our first stop was Nossa Senhorha da Conceicao. The well-known Catholic Cathedral is a Maputo landmark with a tall single spire and stained-glass interior. Portuguese architect Marcial Simões de Freitas e Costa built the cathedral – Our Lady of Conception in English – in 1944.
There was a funeral gathering at the cathedral with government cars parked outside. I didn’t think it appropriate to walk inside but will return later to see the interior artwork and stained glass.
Across the street from the cathedral we visited City Hall, a French “Beau-Arts” building. The architects were Carlos Cesar do Santos, Franz Keindl, and Arnaldo Pacheco Pereira Leite. Completed in 1947, the words of the former President of the Portuguese Republic Americo Tomas – “Aqui e Portugal” (This is Portugal) – were inscribed on the building but removed after Mozambique gained its independence.
An imposing Statue of Samora Machel – 30 ft. tall, weighing 4.8 tons – dominates Independence Square. Machel was a follower of Eduardo Chivambo Mondlane, an anthropologist and the assassinated leader and founder of The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). During the 1960s, he spent time with Mondlane in Tanzania where FRELIMO was founded. Machel was Mozambique’s first President from 1975 to 1986. He died in an air crash in South Africa under suspicious circumstances. His statue was “designed and constructed in North Korea by the Mansudae Overseas Projects, an arm of the Mansudae Art Studio“.
His widow, Graça Machel, later married South African President Nelson Mandela. Machel is an international advocate for women and children rights. In 1997, she became a British Dame and was recognized for her humanitarian work. She lives in Maputo.
Graça Machel is the only woman in history to have been first lady of two separate republics – First Lady of Mozambique from 1975 to 1986 and later First Lady of South Africa from 1998 to 1999.
Built by the Portuguese, after Mozambique gained independence in 1975, the square’s name changed to Praça da Independência. Samora Machel’s statue replaced that of Portuguese cavalry officer Joaquim Augusto Mouzinho de Albuquerque. Albuquerque’s statue and other remnants from the era of Portuguese rule were moved to the old fort.
We passed the Iron House near the botanical gardens. The interesting house was designed in the late 19th century by an associate of Gustave Eiffel. Intended to be the governor’s residence, the house’s metal-plated exterior was unsuitable for tropical weather. There’s a display of local art made from bullets and remnants of Mozambique’s civil war.
I’ve visited Tunduru Botanical Gardens a few times to escape the heat and busy city streets. Trees and plants in the park are a magnificent haven. Hendy pointed out a colony of fruit bats that make the park their home. You can see them literally hanging in the trees.
On the way to the fort we passed interesting architecture including the Avenida Buildings which burnt down in 1990 and were never restored. Located in a prime central location, they were constructed in the 1900s for Gerard Pott, a South African and Honorary Consul of Transvaal.
Another building that has seen better days is the TAP (Portuguese National Airline) or Montepio (Portuguese Savings Bank) building. There’s a colorful abstract mosaic painted on the façade. It’s had many uses and now is an apartment building.
We continued to restored Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora da Conceicao, the Portuguese fort built it in the mid-19th century and surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees. The fort’s museum houses “remnants from the era of early Portuguese forays to the area”. The sealed, carved wooden coffin of King Ngungunhane – “final ruler of the famed kingdom of Gaza” – is on display in one of the side rooms.
In another area of the museum, there’s a display of handcrafted, delicately-detailed wood carvings by local Mozambican artists and master carvers. They depict scenes from Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1498 and the Portuguese take over until Mozambique’s independence in 1975. The hard-fought, brutal battle for independence was fierce. Africans fought on foot using primitive weapons, while their Portuguese opponents had horses and guns!
We ended at CFM Railway Station. The beautiful Victorian building was designed in 1920 by an associate of Gustave Eiffel. It has a wrought iron roof dome and marble pillars and is considered one the world’s most beautiful train stations.
A Monument to the Great War stands in front of the CFM station. Not the most popular statue in Maputo, it’s considered a Portuguese memorial representing the “efforts and sacrifices of the Portuguese and Mozambicans in World War I to repel the German invasion of northern Mozambique”. Portugal “conscripted thousands of Mozambican men to fight for the Allies”. “More than 130,000 Mozambicans died in the war,” resulting in an uprising in 1917.
After Mozambique’s independence in 1975, the Minister of Transport and Communication wanted to destroy the Monument, but the “multi-ton hunk of steel-reinforced concrete made that difficult”. Today, it’s a somewhat neglected monument to Mozambique’s “territorial integrity”.
“Legend states that the female figure in the Monument to the Great War honours a courageous woman who rid the area of a deadly cobra (rising from her feet), which killed many people. The notorious creature met its match when plunging to its death into a boiling cauldron of porridge balanced on her head.”
After visiting the station, I thought about taking the train from Maputo to Cape Town in March. When talking with several locals, I realized it would be a long, uncomfortable trip. With frequent stops, it could take up to 7+ days. I’ll fly.
This central tour merely scratched the surface of the many interesting buildings in Maputo – each with its own unique story. Another favorite is Cine África on Avenida 24 de Julho. The beautiful Art Deco building was once a theatre that “disseminated films produced in Africa,” but it’s now closed.
“Inhaca Island reefs are among the most southerly in the world. Since 1976, parts of the island and surrounding waters are a marine reserve with over 300 different species of birds.”
Nature Reserves, Inhaca, Ponta do Ouro
Some of Mozambique’s nature reserves are closed during the rainy season from November through March. I’m planning a Maputo Bay snorkeling trip to Inhaca island and perhaps Ponta do Ouro. Inhaca is a marine research center known for remarkable coral reefs. Ponta do Ouro is a popular area near the South African border. Getting to both locations can be complicated and involves ferries and booking in advance.