S the heavy rain pelted the windows of the taxi, Julio, my regular driver in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, hardly seemed worried. He calmly piloted the cab through the flooding streets, as water rose above sidewalks and spilled onto people’s front lawns.
Approaching my hotel, near the beach in a low-lying area of the city, the rain picked up, and soon I felt my feet getting wet. I looked down, and saw rain coming through the bottom of the taxi, like a boat taking on water. Still, Julio wasn’t concerned. “No problem, no problem,” he said, and continued chatting on his mobile phone while driving.
At that moment, the car stalled, leaving us stuck in the middle of a waterlogged street. “No problem,” Julio said again. And he was right. Within five minutes, a group of men had emerged out of nowhere to help us push the car to the side of the road. They expertly tipped the cab on its side, letting the water run out the bottom like a child’s toy. Julio smiled and shrugged, opened a big bottle of fruit juice, and lay down in his car until the rain stopped.
Julio clearly had absorbed the laid-back Mozambique ethos. After nearly two decades of civil war, the country, a former Portuguese colony – and home to over 1,500 miles of undeveloped Indian Ocean beachfront, some of the finest diving and deep sea marlin fishing in the world, and a unique Afro-Iberian-Brazilian culture – is rediscovering its place as one of Africa’s most alluring, and most relaxing, tourism destinations.
This is, in fact, the country’s second chance to get tourism right. Mozambique had one brush with mass tourism before – in the 60’s and early 70’s, before the decades-long war between the government and guerrilla insurgents, and then civil war afterward, which made this country off limits to most tourists. Back then it was a playground for white South Africans, thousands of whom would flock here on low-cost package vacations, rarely spending much money in the country itself. This time around, local travel specialists say the tourism ministry is rebuilding the infrastructure and focusing on the development of intimate resorts, hoping that a more-well-heeled class of traveler will follow.
“We need to promote Mozambique more as a boutique destination,” Sylvia Campos, a veteran Mozambican travel operator, told me over thimble-sized cups of European coffee at the Girassol Bahia, a boutique hotel in Maputo. “We are trying to position ourselves for high-end tourism,” she said. “We need good investments that will conserve the cultural landscape.”
The Girassol is one of many new addresses in Maputo, which has witnessed a building boom since the civil war ended in 1992. When I arrived in Maputo in February to begin a weeklong trip to Mozambique, the city’s broad, Iberian avenues, wide, zocalo-like public spaces, and new skyscrapers were on a much larger scale than my previous destination, Lilongwe, the tiny capital of neighboring Malawi.
But Maputo, population roughly a million, still feels like a small town. At stoplights, Julio would frequently encounter friends in nearby cars; at the Girassol, Sylvia ran into one old pal after another, and was constantly getting up to kiss cheeks. And unlike residents of many African cities, which empty at night, Mozambicans crawl their vibrant city at all hours – snacking at sidewalk stands offering enormous yellow mangoes and papayas and popping into hundreds of bars for some of the Portuguese-language Afro-Brazilian funk that wafts out into the streets.
All this activity makes Maputo one of the safer capitals in Africa – certainly safer than the wealthier, but more crime-ridden, cities of South Africa. Even heavy afternoon rains during monsoon season dissipate by early evening, hardly crimping any activity.
On my days in Maputo, I would spend mornings wandering up from my hotel, the Holiday Inn, to the downtown, perched on a bluff overlooking the water – the city sits both on the Indian Ocean and at the confluence of three rivers.
Walking along Avenida Julius Nyerere, a main drag, I passed strings of restored Iberian-style mansions, all pastel pink and yellow and fuchsia, with wide, wrap-around wrought-iron balconies, roofs of brown South American tile, and gardens of palm fronds and flame trees. It was like an African St.-Tropez, complete with exquisitely coiffed matrons in absurdly high heels walking ridiculously small white dogs. When I got lost, I could easily find directions; though Portuguese is the primary language, many young Mozambicans speak English.
Occasionally, a structure would stand out amid the warren of Portuguese buildings: the totally restored colonial Polana Hotel, a temple in white, with white-suited waiters serving simmering white lattes inside a shimmering white building; or the towering main cathedral, completed in 1944 by Portuguese authorities who reputedly grabbed teenage girls and checked if they were virgins. If the girls weren’t, they were counted as prostitutes and employed as manual laborers – a decision that undoubtedly didn’t help Portugal’s image in Maputo.
Inside many of the older structures, enterprising Mozambicans have built gelaterias, cafes and restaurants featuring upscale versions of Mozambican food, one of the world’s original fusion cuisines. Because Mozambique was influenced not only by Portugal and its own African roots but also by Arab traders and migrants from Portugal’s Asian and Latin American colonies, Mozambique’s cosmopolitan cuisine mixes Brazilian spices, Asian styles including Indian, and Portuguese and African produce -Portuguese cod steak and potatoes, local seafood and tropical fruits.
Restaurants in Maputo showcase this fusion with flair; at each place recommended by locals, the food seemed to get more sumptuous. One night, plates of seafood tapas at Miramar, a seaside cervezaria that attracts hip young Mozambicans in short skirts and tight slacks, their mixed skin tones a sign of the integration of Africans and European and Brazilian migrants. The next evening, an enormous fish dinner at Costo del Sol, a local institution famous for its footlong prawns, grilled with Portuguese spices and piri-piri, a fiery African chili sauce.
In Mozambique, the war can seem like an age ago, though there are reminders, like the national flag; Mozambique hasn’t changed the flag’s insignia, which still bears an assault rifle crossed with a shovel. One afternoon, I poked into the National Museum of the Revolution, which chronicles the revolt against Portuguese rule and subsequent war between the Socialist government and rightist guerillas through the 80’s, ending in 1992. Inside the dimly lighted structure, a lone guard dozed in her chair. I wandered the musty exhibits – endless paeans to “O Socialismo” and grainy photos of Mozambican leaders with Fidel Castro.
“Anyone been here today?” I asked the guard, who’d woken up.
“No, no one,” she replied, before promptly nodding off.
My last evening in Maputo, I stayed in the new Catembe Gallery, a model for Mozambique’s boutique tourism. Across a narrow stretch of water from downtown, in a fishing village near a local elephant preserve, Konraad Collier, a Belgian, had redecorated an old mansion, furnishing the rooms with exquisitely detailed local weavings, and adorning the walls with paintings by local artists. The tiny hotel – it housed less than 30 guests – had an intensely personal feel, with staff hanging out with guests at the bar late into the evening. “We want to have a total experience for guests that makes the hotel feel like their home,” Konraad said.
The next morning, I drove north along the narrow coastal highway, to spend four days at Barra, one of the Mozambican beach spots just beginning to be developed. Rather than braving the driving myself – the travel industry is still constrained by Mozambique’s potholed roads – I’d hired Pedro Pinto of the local tour company Mozambique Adviser. Pedro’s family had come to Maputo from Portugal in the early 1960’s, and stayed after Mozambique’s independence in 1975.
As Pedro piloted our four-wheel-drive vehicle, we zoomed through the rugged coastal landscape. Outside Maputo, deep green fields of sugar cane dotted with thatched huts and jacaranda trees gave way to small markets stocked with cassava and the mildly alcoholic fruits of local cashew nut plants. We sucked the cashew nut fruits dry, wincing as their mild tannins dried our mouths. As we neared the beach, we passed both mosques and groups of Christians dressed in white, holding hands and praying in circles under palms along the side of the road.
By sunset, we had arrived at the province containing Barra, the place where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama first landed in Mozambique, in the late 15th century, and proclaimed it “Land of the Gentle People.”
Like Catembe, my beach hotel, the South African-run Barra Lodge was a new boutique operation, much nicer than the bungalows on nearby beaches. The owners had tastefully decorated the place with local wood and Mozambican carvings, staff members remembered my name, and I even had a personal waiter, Teles, who served nearly all my meals and taught me Mozambican slang.
On the other hand, Barra, set between the ocean and a freshwater bay, lacked some important amenities, like easily masterable bug netting. My first night, mosquitoes devoured my legs, leaving me looking like a chicken pox victim. (I soon learned how to use the netting.)
Even so, Barra Lodge is already spawning imitators. Up the Mozambican coast, in the Bazaruto archipelago, South African and Saudi investors have recently opened boutique lodges offering exquisite diving, and people were buying up beach land to build private homes.
Outside my room, Barra’s attractions were obvious. Mozambique offers some of the finest diving of any country that borders the Indian Ocean, in part because the long war limited the fishing industry, preventing commerce from destroying fish and coral and fouling the water’s visibility. And in comparison to many Asian beaches, where divers must sail miles from shore, in Barra the marine life was easily accessible and dives were cheap – less than $80 a dive.
After just a 10-minute boat ride, I snorkeled off a nearby reef, where coral shaped like brains and razors retained their natural bright blues and reds, not yet worn into a dull brown. Two-yard-wide manta rays, giant eels, barracuda and schools of tiny, fluorescent blue pepperfish swam below. Enormous clams the size of a human being blended into the coral, until they slowly opened and closed their mammoth mouths.
In the evenings, when the blazing sun began to set, I’d stroll along the beachfront. Over miles of white and ocher sand, I never saw more than two or three others, along with occasional fishermen in dugout canoes. Barra reminded me of Southeast Asia before the development of big resorts like Phuket.
On my last evening in Mozambique, I strolled out to Barra Lodge’s beachfront bar, where chefs were barbecuing piles of freshly caught prawns, kingfish and crab, and the waiters were bopping to Portuguese funk and passing around a local version of a mojito, a drink blending Mozambican cane sugar and fruit liquor. On the water, in the distance, dhows sailed around the tip of Barra beach, taking the last passengers of the day home. Two Mozambican women in long dresses and floral-patterned headscarves, with pots of fresh fish balanced on their heads, wandered in from the beach.
With the full moon shining through wispy cirrus, and ocean breezes blowing in, I loaded plate after plate of seafood, tempted by the freshness of the prawns and crabs. After an hour of eating, I thought I was full. Then Teles brought over Mozambique’s most famous fusion dish, curried crab – local crustaceans lightly stir-fried and then marinated in a thick red curry, with hints of Goan and Brazilian spices Portuguese curried crabs, in a rich, thick gravy.
I reached for more.