A Backpackers guide to Zanzibar: Traveling from Zambia
Our goal with our Zanzibar trip was to go as budget as possible while still having a fun and relaxing time. And we reached it! I've called this a backpackers guide because everything is very budget friendly. As far as packing goes, I just brought one large beach bag with me! Zanzibar is very doable for backpackers and would be awesome to do at the end of a trip around different parts of Africa. Here are all the details of how we vacationed in Zanzibar (including round trip travel from Zambia) for under $500!
If you are traveling internationally, your time on the island, including food, accommodation, excursions and all costs, can stay well under $300 for a full week! Here's how we did it.
Choosing the destination
Zanzibar is one of the top world travel destinations known for its white sandy beaches and beautiful clear and turquoise water. A picturesque place that I definitely cut out of a magazine and taped to my bright pink wall in 2004. A place I had numerous pins about on my bucket list pinterest board. But more than its beaches, the island is part of Tanzania yet really has its own rich culture and identity.
I had just over a week off for my midterm break as a teacher at an international school in Zambia, and my friend April was starting up a NGO also here in Zambia and was able to take a week off on a whim! Both of us have wanted to go to Zanzibar for years. So it was only the very week of our trip, that we were planning and finalizing everything.
Choosing the time of year to travel
We went for 9 days in the middle of October (a time when it's normally dry and warm) but out of the ordinary, experienced storms. It turned out to be a good amount of time though if we had a choice to stay longer, I absolutely would! Here's the breakdown:
June to October are said to be good times to travel because it is their "spring" weather, dry and warm.
November is rainy.
Then December to February is known as their summer when it is hot and dry, also a good time to travel.
March, April and May are also rainy.
Yes, that means they have two rainy seasons, November and March to May, which wouldn't be as advisable to visit during.
Guide & Story
This is my detailed guide and experience of our trip. It includes information on the travel and background story aspects. Feel free to skip through or read my post just about the top 10 things to do in Zanzibar here. When I was researching about traveling from Zambia to Zanzibar I could only find some information from a few years ago so that’s why I wanted to make this in detail to help others as much as possible - as you potentially embark on this journey!
As budget travelers, we went for the very cheapest version of transportation that we know of - bus & train & ferry. But it also meant it was very long. A good suggestion if you don't mind spending a little more and if you are more limited on time, would be to fly one way from lusaka to Dar es salaam. But to do this, you will probably have to plan your vacation around those flights because for the days we needed, round trip flights from Ndola or Lusaka were almost $800 per person.
BUS TRAVEL: NDOLA-DAR SALAAM
We took the 6am bus from Masala, Ndola to Nakonde, just at the border of Zambia and Tanzania. This bus was expected to be 10-12 hours and it took about 14 hours. (Be prepared to always add a few extra hours on the bus travel time! And no one will be apologetic about it.)
We arrived in Nakonde about 8pm and then had to go through immigration and everything which I’ll get to later!
The next morning we woke up early for an even longer day of bus travel...
6am the bus leaves from the Tanzanian side of the boarder. When we first boarded the bus in Tunduma, it was very empty. But about 2 hours later in Mbeya, it became crowded. This bus ride was expected to take 12 hours but it took almost 17 hours….SEVENTEEN! This is not for the faint of heart. We only arrived in Dar es salaam after 10pm - almost 11pm! We didn’t stop much so keep that in mind if you have a small bladder, although they will stop for you if you ask most times, so don't be shy if needed.
With bus travel, just be ready and flexible for anything. If you do choose to travel by bus, I wrote a short post blog post with tips of traveling by bus in Zambia!
BORDER CROSSING, ZAMBIA TO TANZANIA
If you are entering Tanzania through the border and not the airport, here are some tips to keep in mind.
1) They do not accept anything else but dollars for a visa. No credit cards, no Tanzanian shillings, no Zambian kwacha. Just dollars, cash.
2) If you have a Zambian passport, disregard this, you’re free!! Just show, stamp and go! If you are any other nationality outside of Africa, you will have to pay $50. For Americans ONLY, be prepared to pay $100. This visa will last you a year.
Unfortunately we were not prepared with dollars, so we were taken to the border to exchange kwacha into dollars. We also took this time to exchange some kwacha into shillings. We then went back to immigration to pay but the network was down. It took them a very long time to process our visas so they told us to go ahead across the boarder (without our passports) to have dinner (it was almost midnight) and then come back across the border for our visas.
Turns out, this was quite a fun experience! We had 2 friends who picked us up from the bus station and took us to immigration and then to the boarder to exchange money and then back to immigration and then that’s when they took us across the boarder for dinner.
Just minutes over the border and it really felt like a different country! Motorcycles zooming around everywhere, different music playing and a whole new language: Swahili.
We had a mix of barbecued chicken and goat meat (nyama choma) with fries (chips) and ugali (nshima). I tried out a local brew - safari light - and April had a coke in a glass bottle. Though it was late and a full day of traveling, this was my first time in Tanzania and I really enjoyed it, soaking up every bit. We then went back across the boarder to immigration to retrieve our passports. April withdrew money from an atm at the immigration office which is a great option as you can then withdraw the tanzanian shillings you’ll need for the trip.
Our friends took us to a nearby hotel which was small but affordable and clean. We only had a few hours of sleep so we really didn’t care. Once you’re in Tanzania, be ready for mini showers right by the toilet where the whole bathroom is like a shower.
Arriving in Dar…
After an even longer bus ride, we thankfully had friends who came to pick us up. They weren’t able to drive into the bus station so they parked and came to get us as we had no idea where we were. They took us somewhere with spicy indian barbecue and fresh fruit juice. Little did we know, this was the beginning of having fresh squeezed juice every single day. They were so helpful like the other friends, and took us to a hotel called Sapphire, not far from the ferry terminal. I would recommend this hotel. It was more spacious and comfortable than hotel in Tunduma. The cost was the same: 50,000 (about $25) for 2 of us with one room and 2 single beds. The next morning they also picked us up and took us to the ferry terminal! If they hadn’t, it would have been about a 15 minute taxi ride from Sapphire hotel.
We booked our tickets in advance online: $35 economy, each way ($70 round trip). There were some extra charges for about $10 each. ($4 processing and another unknown fee.) If you aren’t on a tight schedule, you can buy the tickets at the ferry terminal (and probably avoid some of those extra fees). The ferry leaves every 2.5 hours. It takes about 1 hour 30min - 2 hours. But if you’re schedule is tight, definitely make sure to book in advance. We met some people at our hostel who had to wait an extra day to go back to the mainland because the ferries were all booked.
As a foreigner when you pay $35 for economy (more than locals pay) you will already be put into a more comfortable waiting area and load the ferry first. (There is no discount for Zambians, only if you’re from Kenya or Uganda). From there, we didn’t really notice a difference of where economy, business ($40) and first class ($50) were because we were allowed to go anywhere on the ferry. So paying more didn’t seem like it would get you anything special.
On the way to Zanzibar island, we sat at the very top and thoroughly enjoyed! The views, the unknowns, the adventure. The smell of the ocean air and the cool breeze. On the way back, however, it was stormy and we sat inside with air conditioning and people were sea sick. The lady in front of me vomited into a paper bag. It was a rough ride due to windy, storm and big waves, which is NOT usual. Overall the ferry is comfortable and I thought it was a fun part of the Zanzibar experience - on the way there.
Choosing where to stay
We chose to stay all our nights in Stonetown. It worked out well for us because we still did day trips to other parts of the island but definitely decide what part of Zanzibar best suits you!
We stayed at lost and found hostel in Stonetown. I would 100% recommend this and definitely stay there again. It was $10/night but after tourism fee and tax it was $19 per night. This amount will depend on the time you book and for which dates. We booked only one week in advance.
Lost & Found Hostel experience
Seamless Wifi, air-conditioning, comfortable bed and space, personal locker with lock included at no additional cost. The location is ideal being just a 2 minute walk to the beach and on a main street in Stonetown close to everything. Stonetown is small enough that you can walk everywhere! (Don’t listen to all the taxi drivers.)
There is no kitchen at the hostel, which felt like a problem to us upon arrival, but when we walked around and had lunch out, we found out that going out to eat (depending on the place of course) can actually be cheaper than buying your own food and cooking it. We spent less on food and dining out (apart from a couple fancy lunches) than we spend on groceries weekly in Zambia! Even though it is a tourist destination, it is much more affordable than Zambia and many places around the world.
Island Day trip: Stonetown to Paje and Pingwe
Zanzibar is small and to go from Stonetown (west side) to Paje beach (the other side on the east) is very doable in one day. It takes about 1 hour from Stonetown to Paje, even using public transportation, and another 20 minutes up to Pingwe. The trip from the hostel and with tour guides, will charge much more to go to Jozani forest and it is mainly because of the transportation. We opted to go to Paje beach with public transportation and make a stop on the way to Jozani Forest National Park. I am so glad we did this!
Even though it’s not in my top recommendations, it was still a great experience and showed the diversity of the island. The entrance fee is about $10 and transportation was so cheap it’s almost free. Normally the trip would be about $30 and wouldn’t include going to see the beaches on the other side of the island. Another option is to rent a private vehicle, which again seemed like a waste of money to us when we were going budget and for the local experience, anyway!
Here’s how to take the bus and enjoy a full day in
Paje and Pingwe: East Side of Zanzibar
9am walk to bus station. You have to take one bus to another station nearby, just tell the bus drivers you are going to Paje and they will help you out. We paid 250 shillings each (less than 25 cents) for this short trip (someone told us it would be 400 shillings but they didn’t make us pay more). They would gladly take more so be careful! Just have small change ready.
The bus will stop at another bus stop and they will tell you to get off and which bus to go to Paje. On the next bus, to Paje, tell them you’d like to stop at Jozani. The bus will stop at the entrance. Now if you are not that into learning about plants and actually walking in the forest and seeing the mangroves, you could cheat a little and just see the monkeys from the road without paying. If you do want the experience, I hope you get a better tour guide than we did! But overall I still felt it was worth it.
It’s 20,000 to enter which includes the tour guide taking you on a short walk through the forest to talk about local plants and medicinal uses (about 20 min). Then you will go to see the monkeys which are only native to Zanzibar Island. They are very cute and friendly, red colobus monkeys. We saw babies as young as 4 months old. The last part of the tour will go across the road a little ways to mangroves. During this part, we met some other tourists who were already planning to go to Paje and we ended up spending the afternoon with them! They had already hired a private ride so we just road along with them. If you don’t make friends, just stand by the road and get a bus to Paje.
It was so windy that day that we were not able swim at Paje. But the views were incredible. This is the picturesque side of the island and I am so glad we went there! We didn’t stay too long, before we made a plan to go up to Pingwe where the famous Rock Restaurant lies. If you are strict on time, make a reservation in advance! It took us about an hour to get in, but we enjoyed the beach and company while we waited.
Our plan was to just get drinks to avoid paying for an overpriced meal, but we ended up not eating all day until our reservation at 3pm and we were with friends who were eating, so we didn’t have much of a choice. I quite enjoyed the gnocchi with shrimp in garlic butter sauce. April had a vegetable noodle and seafood curry dish. Both were good but not much better than our $2-3 dollar Lukmaan lunch place compared to $20 here. You’re paying for the atmosphere and popularity for sure. We split a bottle of wine for $20 which felt worth it. By the time we finished, it was getting close to 5pm and our friends went back north to where they were staying and it was time for us to get back to Stonetown.
We didn’t know how late the buses ran so it was a little up in the air. But everyone assured us, “just go to the road and you’ll get a bus all the way back to Stonetown, and just be prepared to pay more since you’re not local.” Well turns out, within minutes of getting to the main road, we waved down a truck and asked them where they were going (better then telling them first!). When we found out they were both going to Stonetown, they let us hop in the back of the pick up truck and ride all the way there. It was a free ride, they were very kind and didn’t bother us at all. We also picked up some other hitchhikers on the way. We both felt very safe, but of course be careful in these situations. We caught a gorgeous sunset on the way home.
Do it because, “Did you really go to Zanzibar if you didn’t go to prison island?” The great thing is, its an affordable but fun excursion. $15 from the hostel includes a round trip boat ride to the island, a tour of the island and seeing the huge Seychellian tortoises as well as snorkelling. Our day turned out a little differently because we had planned an island hopping day; starting at prison island for the touristy part and then going to another island for a seafood lunch, snorkelling and a full on island beach day. The weather did not agree so we cut our trip short after prison island. All in all, do it if you’re looking for a reasonably cool and affordable adventure and boat ride and to do the thing that everyone does in Zanzibar. If you have better weather and go snorkelling, I'm sure you would enjoy it more than we did. But still, skip it if you don’t mind being a rebel.
This was tied with many others as my very favorite. If you know how much I love cooking, traveling and learning, this was the perfect intersection of it all! I would recommend going for the $15 spice tour which also includes lunch. We went for a more local deal which ended up not including lunch for the same price but it was very fun because we had a more individualised tour and the tour guide was awesome! They did fruit taste testing and we learned about so many spices. They also have many spices from that spice plantation for sale at the end. The prices are reasonable.
One of our favorite parts of being in Zanzibar was getting lost in Stonetown. Hence the name of our hostel…Lost and found. It is such a unique city! Stonetown's old quarter is a UNESCO world heritage site with its tiny, winding alley ways for streets and tall buildings made of stone in an arabian style. Kids playing and motorcycles whizzing by. Walk everywhere and just enjoy these streets, take in the beauty and the fragrances.
People tend to be very friendly and welcoming. I’m not sure how many of the friends we made make friends with tourists on a weekly basis but regardless…it did enhance our experience and help us to get a good feel of the local Zanzibarian way of life. I found that I enjoyed Stonetown, come rain or shine. On our stormy day where the island hopping was ruined, we were able to have a lovely cozy day full of tea, cocktails, and tasty food overlooking the city and sea. Definitely go to Emerson Tea House! There is night life and cafe life and plenty of restaurants. If you’re just going for beach, the north side and east side of the island are better. But I still think staying in Stonetown and then taking day trips is the best way to do it!
When our island vacation came to a close, we took the ferry back and took a cab to TAZARA, the train station which begins in Dar es Salaam and ends in Kapiri, Zambia. This is a unique experience of a lifetime. There was something special about living in Africa for over 2 years and just now getting to see it by train! The sunsets were incredible and the scenery was beautiful. It was by bus when we saw giraffes and other african animals in the wild in a national park. By train we rode through the national park during the dark unfortunately, so that timing is something to consider when you book your travels. For more information on riding the train, check out my Train Travel in Africa post all about TAZARA.
Food and possibly accommodation could be slightly cheaper surprisingly, but we did wanted to enjoy and I feel that we did! Of course everything could be much more glamorous if you want it to be. I didn't include souvenirs in the cost chart below, but the only ones were getting hena and buying a sarong. I still use the sarong all the time! Those together cost about $10, still keeping everything under $500. Here's the breakdown of costs from our 9 day trip!
The last thing I'll leave is just a list of some of the parts we loved about Zanzibar! And 2 things we wish we had done. More detailed information of each one is on my 10 things to do in Zanzibar blog post.
Traveling around the island and seeing other beaches
Wandering around the small back streets of Stonetown
Emerson’s Tea House
Meeting local zanzibarians
Swimming at sunset
The Rock Restaurant
I could have skipped but I’m not mad I went:
Wish we didn't miss:
Nungwi beach - north side of the island. We missed the full moon festival by just one day! It's known as more hippie but also more touristy and often full of honeymooners.
I've also heard some great things about the south side of the island in regards to it being less touristy and still beautiful.