Comoros Travel Guide

Comoros Flag

Ranked as #193 in the world as far as tourism, it’s not easy finding information on Comoros. But since we were in the Indian Ocean area, Chris and I were determined to visit. After much research into finding a flight, a plan began to come together. Here’s all the information I could gather, in the hopes that it helps other travelers who want to see this seldom-visited island nation.

Where is Comoros and how do you get there?

The Comoros archipelago is located northwest of Madagascar and due east of Tanzania/ Mozambique.

Only a few airlines fly to Comoros. Among them are Air France (from Paris, stopping in Amsterdam and Nairobi), Ethiopian Air (stopping in Madagascar), Air Tanzania, Kenya Airways, Air Madagascar, and Air Austral (from Reunion). Not all of these flights go every day of the week, so you have to be flexible with your dates when you do your searches, and some of these flights don’t show up in Skyscanner or AirGorilla, so it’s best to go directly to the airlines’ websites. In June 2019, there will be a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul (only through September, from what I could understand).

Chris boarding our Air Kenya flight

The visa (available upon arrival) was either $50 or 30€- so definitely try to bring some euros with you! It’s a much better deal.

There was an ATM at the tiny international airport, but it didn’t work. There are two ATMs in Moroni, the capital- the Exim bank machine takes Visa cards, while the BCC bank takes MasterCard (both on the same street as the National Museum). The Golden Tulip Resort has an ATM machine as well.

How do you get around the islands?

Comoros is made up of three main islands, and there are flights between them on AB Aviation and on Inter Isle airlines. These flights are notorious for being cancelled for weather or other undisclosed reasons, so some people take a speedboat between islands. These can be arranged via your hotel or guesthouse, and cost about what the flights cost, around 150 Euros.

Inter-island flights (if you’re lucky)

We only visited Grand Comoros, using taxis to get around. The island also has small buses, which look like shuttle vans. There’s a “bus station” that is really just a bus stop at the north and at the south of Moroni, where these buses pass through and you can hop on. Taxis anywhere in Moroni should cost 200 Comorian francs per person, and a shared taxi to the airport (if you grab one off the street near the Volovolo market) is 500 francs. Hotels will charge 20€ for an airport taxi, so if you’re good at bargaining, you can get your own for considerably less.

Where can you stay?

As of February 2019, there were about a dozen options on Booking.com for all three islands. There are another half-dozen or so on AirBnB and on Hotels.com. Some places have rooms with fans only; others have air conditioning- but be aware that power cuts are common on the island. On Grand Comore, we stayed at Jardin de la Paix, a mid-range option with a bar, terrace restaurant, and a dozen rooms. Our room only had a fan and was pretty hot and humid, but as far as I could tell, some of the other rooms have air con. We found the restaurant to be a bit overpriced, and ate most of our meals at other places nearby. The hotel only took cash, either francs or euro.

Standard non-air con room at Jardin de la Paix

We also visited the Golden Tulip Resort. They have a variety of room options, including beach bungalows. They also have a private beach, a spa, and a restaurant. It looked really relaxing and we enjoyed a swim and a lobster lunch there.

Golden Tulip Resort and Spa

What can you do there?

A major activity for Comoros is hiking up Mt Kerthala volcano, which can theoretically be done in one very long day, but can also be arranged as a two-day trio with porters hired to provide and carry tents, food, and water. Best not to try during the rainy season. The terrain is sharp volcanic rocks, so you really need good hiking boots with thick soles.

Of course the beaches on the islands are beautiful, and mostly deserted. Bear in mind that this is a Muslim nation, so swimming at public beaches should be done in shirts and shorts, not bikinis. Some guest houses and resorts offer private beaches and bikinis can be worn there.

Private beach at Golden Tulip

In the capital city of Moroni, there is a small national museum, which costs 1000 francs for foreigners and takes half an hour to visit. There is also a large, old mosque, and a busy outdoor market called Volovolo near the telecom building.

Volovolo market is always bustling

There is a dive shop on Grand Comore at Itsandra Resort. They offer diving and other water activities such as swimming with dolphins. They are very responsive via their Facebook page. They charge 60€ per person for a dive, with all equipment provided.

Outside of Moroni, you can see the ruins of the ancient capital city, Iconi, dating back to the 12th century. A blend of Persian and Swahili art and architecture can still be found today, but you really have to look for it. From Moroni, ask for the “BonzAmi” taxi stop- that will cost 200 francs from anywhere in Moroni- then switch to any shared taxi heading south, which will be 250 francs. Iconi is about 5km south of Moroni.

Deah, exploring the ruins of the old palace in Iconi

A local tour agency, Ylang Tour, may be of some help for planning activities on the ground, although they were not open the whole time we were in Moroni.

The island of Moheli has a marine nature reserve, home to a wide array of biodiversity. Created as a National Park in 1998, it extends over 400 sq kilometers.

Our hotel offered to get us a driver for the day for an island tour, but when he wanted 80 Euros, we figured we could get taxis on our own for way less. We met a couple of Peace Corps workers and once they explained the taxi system to us, we were ready to take it on! If you speak a bit of French, you can probably manage it.

Grand Mosque du Vandredi

What is the history of Comoros?

Originally settled by Swahili explorers, the Comoros islands were also explored by Omani sailors, who called it the “perfume islands” due to the natural crops of ylang-ylang and vanilla. Later, Madagascar sailors discovered the islands, and then the Portuguese in 1505. The French acquired the islands in the 19th century, and in 1961 the Comoros were granted autonomous rule along with Madagascar. In the 1970s (the date is a bit disputed), Comoros became independent, but the island of Mayotte elected to remain with France, as they do to this day. Since independence, Comoros has had no less than 24 coups- earning it the nickname “Cloud Coup Coup Land”.

Commemorating a 1978 coup

What language do they speak?

The word Comoros is based on the Arabic word “qamar“, or moon. The older people on the islands speak Comoran, which they call Shikomoro, a Bantu language similar to Swahili. French and Arabic are also official languages, and the younger people teach themselves some English. We only learned a few words in Shikomoro, such as “Yedje” for hello, “maharaba” for thank you, and “Injema“, which basically means “I am well”. At least trying these three words will bring a smile to any Comoran’s face.

What will it cost you?

This is always a hard question to answer- it all depends on whether you’re looking for an easy resort vacation or a do-it-yourself budget trip. Flights into/out of Moroni will run a minimum of 500€, and if you travel between islands, add at least 150€ for each round trip. The fanciest resorts, such as Moheli Laka Lodge, run over 150€ a night, with a midsize hotel on Grand Comore costing around 65€, and some rooms in guest houses on the islands as low as 30€ per night. Dinner at a “nice” hotel for two people cost us 35€, while the small restaurant two doors down cost us half that much for grilled chicken, grilled fish, rice, and plantains. Shared taxis are very cheap, while renting a car or hiring a driver for the day can cost anywhere from 40€ to 80€. So really, it all depends on what your comfort level is and what you want to do in your time on the islands.

Lobster is the national dish!

Is there beer?

The most important question for travelers! Although Comoros is a Sunni Islam nation, they do allow beer- we found Three Horses Beer, from Madagascar, as well as Heineken. Most hotels will have a full bar of spirits and mixers as well.

A frosty Three Horses Beer

I hope this guide helps you get started with planning a trip to the Comoros! Please leave any questions and I’ll try to give an answer; or if you’ve been to Comoros and have some insight to offer, drop it here for other travelers!

South Africa

Long March to Freedom Bronze Statues South Africa

As Chris and I looked at flights out of Mauritius and into Comoros, we found that most flights made use of the Johannesburg airport. Since we have friends in South Africa, whom we have not seen since we left Khartoum in 2011, we decided to stopover for a week and visit the area.

We arrived in Johannesburg, connected to Durban, and were picked up by our friends Paula and George. It was great seeing them and reminiscing about our days of the Khartoum Hash House Harriers and the crazy adventures we used to get up to in Sudan. We stayed with them for four relaxing days, and explored the area near Durban.

Nice to see a friendly face on our travels!

There are many historical sites near Durban. We visited the Albert Luthuli museum, dedicated to the first African Nobel Peace Prize winner. Luthuli was the president of the African National Congress, and his non-violent approach to ending apartheid won him the prize in 1960, although after taking 15 months to investigate him, the committee did not actually award him the prize until 1961. Under house arrest at the time, Luthuli was reluctantly given a ten-day pass to fly to London and then Oslo to accept the award and give a speech.

Albert Luthuli Museum

Very close to the Luthuli museum is the memorial and gravesite of Shaka Zulu, probably the most famous of the Zulus, although- surprisingly- he didn’t actually live that long. He united the Zulu clans, pushed out their enemies, and expanded the Zulu territory.  After the death of his mother Shaka killed several hundred members of the clan in a “cleansing” spree, and enforced a one-year mourning period during which not even crops could be planted or harvested. Fearful of starvation and being overtaken by enemies, Shaka’s half-brothers killed him when he was only 41.

King Shaka Memorial

With sandy beaches to the north and south, Durban has a beautiful skyline that is dominated by a huge stadium, which you can take a “skywalk” up- Chris climbed to the top to get this great view. Make sure you have sneakers on that day- you’re not allowed do it in sandals. Later that day we had lunch on Florida Road, the posh area for finding Durban delights such as “bunny chow”, a must-eat while in the area, featuring curry poured over bread, which was made popular by Indian workers who came to South Africa for work and needed a portable lunch for their workdays.

500 steps to the top!

A very interesting place to visit near Durban is the Nelson Mandela Capture Site. Wanted for “treason”, Mandela was arrested here, sent to trial- and spent the next 27 years in prison. A large modern museum is under construction, but for now you can see the beautiful sculpture there and visit a small building with informational displays.

“Release”

On our last day with our friends, we headed into the “1000 Hills” area- what beautiful views!- and visited the Shongweni Farmers and Craft Market. We all tried a different delicous breakfast option, and walked around looking at the foods and the crafts. Later, after a drive through the nearby villages, we ended up having lunch at a chef school, where all the waiters are chef students in their first year of culinary training. Delicious and educational!

1000 Hills area- KwaZulu Natal has some of South Africa’s best scenery!

Sad to leave our friends, we got a rental car to make the drive to Johannesburg and explore a little along the way. We spent the first night at Berg Backpackers, with amazing views of the Drakensburg Mountains, completely surrounded by corn fields and sky. At $27 a night, it was a great value and I wish we could have stayed there longer.

Our farmhouse near Bergville

We drove in to the Drakensburg Mountains (“the barrier of up-pointed spears” is what the Zulus called the range), which make up the border between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and visited the Royal Natal National Park. Here you can find some of the oldest bushman paintings in the world, the 2nd highest waterfall (Thugela Falls), and stunning mountain features such as The Amphitheater and Giant’s Castle. There are many hikes through this area; unfortunately we only had a short afternoon, so we just hiked in for about an hour, found a nice swimming spot in a river, and sat in the cool water for a bit looking at the majestic skyline around us.

Chilling out in this cold water, soaking in the view

That night we stayed near Parys at the Smilin Thru Resort, a kind of farm/eco-park that features many animals and a lovely setting along the Vaal River. Guests can choose between a hotel with swimming pool, several rondevals, cabins, chalets, or campground. I think we might have been the only people staying there the night we were there, but it was at least peaceful!

The view from our rondeval

On our last day in South Africa, we made two historical/cultural stops. The first was at Vredefort Crater, the site of the largest meteor impact on earth, which happened two billion years ago. The meteor, roughly the size of Table Mountain, slammed into the earth at a velocity of 20km per second, creating an energy release of 100 million megatons and a crater 300 km wide. Wow! That probably really shook things up for a bit here on earth.

Closer to Johannesburg, we stopped in at the Cradle of Humankind museum. A very cool museum, it features an exhibit on the “Rising Star” cave, which in 2013 yielded a huge crop of human bones that provide a link between Austrolopithecus and Homo erectus. Inside the museum, you can also take a boat ride which takes you from the filling of the earth’s oceans, through an ice age, and to the time of the volcanos. Very fun! And then there is a huge museum dedicated to our path of humankind, from the very beginning to the present, and a look at the problems we face in the future.

A day at the museum

With our time running short, we were able to (just barely!) squeeze in a quick dinner with Louis and Brenda, two of our other friends who live near Johannesburg. We met at the Emperor’s Palace casino and resort complex, and enjoyed a seriously delicious Portuguese/South Africa/Mozambiquan dinner that consisted of all kinds of meats. And beer. It was great catching up and I’m glad we were able to see so many of our friends on this leg of the trip. It’s one of the things that makes traveling so much fun- the chance to see friends that live far away from us.

Always fun to catch up with Louis and Brenda

Stay tuned for our next update- from the Comoros Islands!

Cruising the Indian Ocean: Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Reunion

Costa Cruise boat Indian Ocean

We had planned to go to Central Asia after India, but since it’s cold and wintry there in February, we spotted a cruise that was visiting four Indian Ocean islands. After considering the prices for lodging, meals, and airfare to such remote places, the cruise turned out to be a good deal- being flexible with our dates, we were able to get a heavily discounted fare for an upcoming sailing. We signed up- and got a free $50 onboard credit from Expedia!

Mauritius

Leaving the Maldives, we transited through Dubai and arrived in Mauritius a few days before the cruise. The small island has a fascinating history: known to Arab traders and the Portuguese but settled by neither, it was the Dutch in 1598 that populated the island for a hundred years- and completely wiped out the Dodo bird and the black ebony trees. In 1712 came the French, who valiantly fought the British during the Napoleonic Wars- the 1810 battle of Grand Port in Mauritius was the only naval battle the French won. But… four months later the Brits returned and prevailed, taking possession of the island. After the British abolished slavery, they produced sugar cane with the labor of half a million indentured laborers from India in what was called “The Grand Experiment”. Finally, in 1968, Mauritius gained its independence.

The sugar cane fields seem to go on forever here

We stayed three nights in the small village of La Gaulette on the southwest side of the island, in a fabulous roomy studio apartment (a place I really loved). We swam at La Morne beach, saw the UNESCO memorial commemorating the end of the slave trade, and teamed up with our hotel neighbors to drive to waterfalls and a nature reserve in the interior of this picturesque volcanic island. Then we moved north for two days, staying in Grand Baie, where we went scuba diving (and saw a very cool scorpionfish trying to camouflage himself next to a sunken wreck we were exploring). A barrier reef encircles the entire island of Mauritius and makes for some of the best diving in the world. That night we had a delicious Creole seafood dinner. The next morning we boarded our Costa cruise at Port Louis.

Chamarel Falls

Seven Colored Earth Natural Reserve

Touristing with friends

Seychelles

After two northbound days at sea, our first port of call was Victoria, Seychelles. The Seychelles are a collection of 115 islands, most of which are uninhabited. We felt like the tour excursions were rather pricey, so we set off on our own. We took a public bus up and over the granite spine of the island, and arrived at a postcard-perfect beach. On the other side of the street: a small shop, where we purchased cold Seybrew beers and Slow Turtle Ciders, which we enjoyed while sunbathing. The water was warm, the beach was clean, and the waves were perfect for body surfing. The next day we took another bus to Beau Vallon beach on the other side of the island, and enjoyed that one too. Some fellow cruisers we met the second day told us “This beach is just like the excursion we took yesterday except it didn’t cost €140!”.

Madagascar

After two and a half days in the Seychelles, we sailed southwest for one day and arrived at Nosy Be, Madagascar (“Nosy” means island, and “Be” means bay in Malagasy). Originally settled by explorers from Indonesian Borneo, Madagascar has a little different feel to it than the rest of the Indian Ocean islands- part Indonesian, part Indian, and part African, along with some remnants from European exploration as well. On Nosy Be, Chris and I took a tuk-tuk to a lemur sanctuary, where we were able to check out 15 of Madagascar’s 71 lemur species. In a “semi-free” environment, the primates live on their own little islands- they don’t like to cross water- not in cages, but fairly domesticated by this point, cared for and fed by tourists and park staff.

On our second day in Madagascar, our boat docked in a different city- Antsiranana, previously known as Diego Suarez. After a stroll around the small city (it was a quiet Sunday, so not much going on), we found a bar with cold Three Horses Beer and not-so-blazing-fast WiFi, and caught up on some communications.

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Chris in Madagascar

 

We had another day at sea while we sailed up and around Madagascar- did I mention that our time onboard our cruise is mainly spent trying out the culinary creations of the 106 cooks, served by the 145-person restaurant(s) staff? Of course we also make time each day for the four hot tubs, two pools, theater, five clubs, two coffee bars, and the gym. Plus lying on the loungers up on the solarium deck at night watching the Southern Cross rise in the jet black sky- so clear you can see the Milky Way. It’s just beautiful.

A fisherman approaches our cruise ship

Anyway. On our third Madagascar day, we docked at Tamatave (also called Toamasina), where we decided to visit another lemur park, because they are just so danged cute. I didn’t like this one as much, because they kept some in cages- as they are getting acclimatized to the park- but the park does stretch for acres and acres where other semi-wild lemurs roam free (we spotted two in the trees). As most of the wild lemur species are endangered, I guess this is better than losing them all.

I love those sweet lemur faces!

Reunion

After another day at sea, we arrived at the last of our stops in the Mascarene archipelago , the island of Reunion. Originally known as Isle de Bourbon, it’s now a French overseas department. The island is dominated by a volcanic caldera, and surrounded by both black sand and white sand beaches. Roaming around the small town of Le Port on our first day there, it seemed so European after our other stops. We found a bar and settled in for some cold beverages and people-watching. The next day, we took a bus to the beach town of St-Gilles-des-Bains, and played in the ocean for a while. Standing at the back of the boat that night, we watched the glittering lights of Reunion fade away as we headed back to Mauritius.

The dodo might be extinct, but you can still find a cold one at this bar

We arrived in Mauritius and docked, and spent the day in Port Louis, visiting some historic buildings there including the Caudan Waterfront and the Aapravasi Ghat, a UNESCO World Heritage Museum that tells the story of the 462,000 indentured servants brought from India, China, Comoros, Madagascar, and Yemen to work in sugar cane plantations. Most modern-day Mauritians are descended from these laborers, so it’s a big part of their history. It’s a good museum to visit and includes parts of the original processing buildings for the immigrants.

Aapravasi Ghats Heritage Museum, Port Louis

After one last night on the boat, we were done with our cruise. We left Port Louis, and stayed at a BandB on the southeast end of Mauritius for two more nights. Tomorrow we fly from here to South Africa, to visit some friends in Durban.

Have you been to the Indian Ocean islands? What was your favorite?

Interview with Chris: Bahrain, Kuwait, Eritrea, Jordan, Lebanon, Cyprus

Lebanon, Beirut

After visiting Qatar and Oman for Christmas,  I had to fly back to the States to return to work.  Chris stayed in the Middle East to do a little more exploring. Here’s an interview with him about his six-country tour:

So, tell me about Bahrain.

“Well, it’s a small island and most of it is one big city. A lot of bars, nightclubs, and nightlife catering to the Saudis coming over on the weekends. I visited Bahrain fort using public transportation, as well as the old souq, but mainly it’s a lot of skycrapers. The city is pretty spread out, not a very walking friendly.”

 

What was Kuwait like?

“Kuwait was pretty similar to Bahrain. The main downtown has skyscrapers and businesses, with a big souq/mall area in the center. The biggest tower is closed to the public, but you can go up inside the iconic Kuwait Towers, which look like giant balls skewered on sticks. The view from the inside is very nice. Public transportation is readily available but not all the places I wanted to get to were on a bus line. I went to the Al Qurain Martyrs Museum, where a bunch of Kuwaiti resistance fighters tried to hold off the Iraqis in 1991. It was closed when I got there, but the caretaker let me in after I told him I was in Desert Storm in 1991. The fish market and the corniche are a really nice area to walk around. ”

 

Eritrea is a hard country to visit- tell us about it.

“Getting the visa prior to going was difficult but I finally managed one from DC. The visa only gets you into the capital- if you want to visit another area of Eritrea, you have to get a permit from a government official in Asmara. Asmara is a sleepy town with really nice people who are eager to speak to the few tourists they get. It has some nice old Italian buildings and a coffee culture. You can visit the tank graveyard from the war with Ethiopia (you will need a permit). I took a 3 hour bus to Massawa- spectacular scenery as you go from 9000 feet to sea level. Hardly any guardrails on the road so I was glad the bus was pretty slow. Massawa was practically deserted- it took “sleepy little town” to a whole new level. Very few tourists, a few business owners. I was able to do some snorkeling with their dive center but since there wasn’t any other tourists, we couldn’t organize a dive. Even right off the island of Massawa the coral was pretty good. A lot of the times the restaurants didn’t have much available on the menu but did generally have spaghetti and injera.”

What did you do in Jordan?

“In Jordan I visited the city of Amman, and then went up to Umm Qais to see the Roman ruins right at the intersection of Golan Heights, Syria, and Jordan. Then I went to Jerash to see other ruins. I took a public bus down to Petra and hiked all around- get the two day pass, it’s worth it. I went very early in the morning and there were no other tourists yet. I met a Swedish guy in the hostel back in Amman so after taking the public bus to Petra, he and I wound up sharing a taxi on the way back to the capital so we could see the Dead Sea. Jordan was great- the food, the beer, the people. A little chilly in the wintertime but not freezing like up in Europe. Definitely worth a visit”.

Did you go to Lebanon just because Deah has already been?

“(Yes). I spent all my nights in Beirut and used it as a base- I did a winery tour in Bekaa Valley where we visited three wineries, and saw the Roman ruins at Baalbek- the local microbus system is easy once you figure that out. Byblos is just a short hop up from Beirut and it’s cool to see the Phoenician ruins and crusader castles, as well as where the alphabet began. Also north of Beirut is Tripoli, kind of like a border town, so close to Syria. They have some crusader castles up there too. South of Beirut there’s Tyre and Sidon, and you can see where soap was originally made. There’s two UNESCO sites down in Tyre- it’s easy to take public buses from Beirut down to the sites. In Beirut itself it’s fun to wander through the various neighborhoods- the walking tour was really nice, and you can visit the big mosque. I stayed at Saifi Urban Gardens hostel, which also has a bar and a language institute, so it’s a nice mix of locals and tourists, and of course great beer.”

Cyprus

“From Beirut I flew Cobalt Air into Larnaca, which felt like an off-season beach town. I wanted to get to Nicosia, so I took a public bus to get there. Nicosia is a nice walled city, but it’s split in half with a UN-guarded line between the Greek southern part and the Turkish northern part. There’s no problem getting back and forth, as long as you enter Cyprus from the south (the southerners consider it illegal to enter the northern part first). The two sides of the island have a different vibe- Greek food versus Turkish food, lira versus euro, Keo beer versus Eres. While on the Turkish side I took a bus over to Girne, which has a big castle that was variously controlled by all the different empires over time. It has a nice little harbor and locals there spending a day at the coast. I also visited Limassol, which felt like a beach town with a small Byzantine crusader castle.”

 

From Cyprus, Chris flew Aegean Airlines to Frankfurt, and then Wow via Iceland to Washington DC, taking advantage of their $99 one-way fares. Overall, he says, the hardest part of the trip was the variable weather with lots of rain, but still a fun, off-season foray into an area he’d always wanted to visit.