Tourism touts like to throw the word “untouched” around, but if that statement was ever true about a place, it would be about Ibo Island. Pulling up to this 10-km stretch of coral in the Quirmbas Archipelago you see fisherman mending their nets, women in colorful khoi khois collecting shellfish, dhows floating amongst the mangroves with crumbling colonial buildings in the background and you can’t help but think to yourself, “What is this place?” Ibo Island has been inhabited for over 500 years and during its heyday in the 1700-1800s it was a vital trading port for the Portuguese spice trade. Though similarly to Ilha de Mozambique, when the colonists were forced to leave at the dawn of Mozambique’s independence, this thriving town slipped back to its ways as a simple fishing village and its great buildings began to crumble with it. Ibo has a sort of ghost-town feeling, but one that you aren’t afraid to peek behind doors. The people are warm, the sunshine is abundant, and with the arrival of places like the Ibo Island Lodge, there is a sense of optimism that’s infectious.
Pemba is the closest mainland city to Ibo and where most visitors start their journey to Ibo and its neighboring isles. Downtown isn’t much to speak of but Wimbe Beach had great beach bungalows, perfect palm-tree coves, and the most charming dhow boats. We stayed at Russell’s Place (aka Pemba Magic) which was touch expensive for a backpacker joint but the adorable thatched-roof rooms, fun vibe, and helpful staff made it worth it. See the slideshow for more on this town…you’ve never seen better sunsets.
We had a two-night reservation via our partnership with Honeymoons at Ibo Island Lodge but first we decided to get to early to get a sense of the island. We checked into Cinco Portas (one of four hotels on the whole island) and the owner invited us to watch a piece of machinery get delivered to the island that afternoon. That initially sounded like a totally bizarre and mundane invite, but he said, “If you want to understand Ibo, just come.” As a remote island village with extreme tidal swings, Ibo’s only method of delivery is by dhow. To get this 1000+lb woodworking device to the owner’s workshop they had to wait for the tide to go out and the boat to run aground, wrangle 18 of the strongest guys in town, lift it off with any available “tools” (fence poles and planks), then secure it to the town trailer. Two hours later, the expression “it takes a village” took on a whole new meaning (and yes, that is Mike getting maximum leverage on that metal fence post).
After a great stay at the charming beach-front Cinco Portas, we walked around the bend to Ibo Island Lodge. This was the first hotel to be built on the near-abandoned island, and was taken on more as a conservation project than a money-making operation. Instead of bringing in a construction team from the mainland, they hired all local builders, carpenters, seamstresses, and offered training courses for more to join in, plus English classes for those interested in continuing to work at the hotel after construction was completed. The majority of the staff at Ibo Island lodge were the very hands that built it and they couldn’t be more proud of this special place.
We went on a walking tour with Ibo Island Lodge’s resident guide, a fifth-generation Iboian, who had lived through the days as a Portuguese colony, Mozambique’s tumultuous independence, the return to an isolated fishing village, and now the new beginnings of tourism….talk about perspective! This one of the many churches on the island but the only one still functioning in the mostly Muslim town.
Walking along the dusty boulevards, past abandoned 17th-century mansions and withering plazas, you feel the mystery of Ibo. The chipping paint and vines growing on the buildings makes it hard to distinguish between what’s in use and what is long forgotten.
After our tour through town we went back to hotel for a little relaxing and contemplation by the pool. What I loved is that the lodge didn’t feel like a fortress separated from town; low walls gave views to the life on the shore.
The rooftop terrace looked out across the idyllic turquoise water and second largest mangrove in Africa. This is where breakfast, dinner, and the best sedentary sightseeing took place.
A true highlight during our stay at Ibo Island Lodge was our trip to the sandbar island. The tides fluctuate so much in a given day that depending on the hour, this dreamy spit of land can vanish under the water. Timing it just right we sailed out in the morning for snorkeling, sunbathing, and brunch. The team set up a full sit-down meal of omelets, yogurt parfait, pastries, and french-press coffee under the shade of this pop-up dining room.
Ibo Island is a pure place, devoid of manufactured attractions, cookie-cutter accommodations and droves of tourists. It’s a rare that an idyllic island getaway also comes with a sense of history and culture…go while you can.