A middle seat on an overnight flight to Luanda with Angola Airlines.
Travel is rarely glamorous.
I bumbled my way through Lisbon airport with my boarding pass gripped tightly between my fingers, my intuition screaming at me to turn around and leave. I shook my head in a failed attempt to gain a silent brain.
Read any article about solo female travel, and the number one tip will be to pay attention to your instincts; to trust your intuition. Which yeah, is absolutely what you should do, unless you suffer from anxiety, in which case your every step will have convinced you’re about to face certain death.
I experience this on every visit to every airport, and it’s worse when I travel solo because there are fewer distractions.
Ignore your intuition. Ignore your intuition. Ignore your intuition.
If I paid attention to it, I’d most likely never go outside.
I’d certainly never book a flight on Angola Airlines.
But the good thing about bringing my anxiety along in my carry-on? I can usually leave it behind in the departure hall.
I boarded the noisy plane, shoved my overstuffed backpack beneath the seat in front of me, fastened my seatbelt, and breathed.
Finally. After years of dreaming and months of planning, I was finally heading to Mozambique and like every other time I’ve stepped on a plane, my anxiety was replaced with pure excitement.
Which was then replaced with exhaustion, because it was midnight and I’d just realised I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep that night.
The two men splayed out on either side of me were major armrest hoggers and the one on the right kept shifting in his seat and elbowing me in my ribs. The cabin lights had been dimmed, but everyone around me had switched on their reading lights, illuminating my seat until I felt like I was reclining in the midday sun. I pulled down my tray table, bunched my sarong into a ball and attempted to sleep, but then the person in front of me reclined their seat into my head and left me with no room.
It was going to be a long flight.
Luanda Airport wins the award for the most disorganised I’ve ever had the pleasure of passing through.
The majority of the 300 passengers I’d shared the flight with turned out to also be transferring here, so together we pushed and shoved through the one small x-ray scanner in arrivals. My back was drenched in sweat, my eyes were barely open, and I was definitely the only person in the entire airport who was trying to form an orderly queue.
I reached security after everyone else and dropped my backpack on the conveyer belt. When I passed through the scanner, it beeped, but none of the airport staff reacted or cared. I collected my bag and noticed that nobody had been monitoring its contents on the screen.
With a shrug, I entered the tiny departures hall. There was a toilet, a few rows of chairs, four gates, and a couple of cafes selling overpriced sandwiches. It was more than I had been expecting, based on the literal thousands of 1-star reviews of the airport online.
I accidentally attempted to board a flight to Cape Town, thanks to the lack of screens above the entrance to any of the gates and the fact that all of the announcements were in Portuguese. I then wandered around in a daze for an hour, desperate for sleep and a chair.
My flight had been delayed. Nobody knew how long for, I couldn’t speak Portuguese and nobody could speak English, and there were no signs with any kind of useful information on them.
I curled up into a ball, rested my head on my knees, and passed out.
Five hours later, I landed in Maputo, dishevelled, stinky, and in desperate need of my guesthouse.
I rushed through immigration, ran to an ATM, and blinked when I saw the list of numbers in front of me. 200 meticais; 500 meticais; 1000 meticais; 5000 meticais; 10,000 meticais. For the seven hundredth time since starting to travel, I had forgotten to look up the exchange rate before arriving in the country.
Not wanting this to be like that time in Moscow, where I accidentally withdrew $400 worth of rubles for a one-day layover, I decided to play it safe and withdraw just 200.
It was only when I ventured outside to get a taxi that I would learn that 200 meticais is the equivalent of $2.80.
My guesthouse was basic and clean, with air conditioning and friendly staff, who gave me a discount upon my arrival because they couldn’t find the right change when I paid.
Most visitors to Mozambique choose to skip over this chaotic capital city because it’s said to be dirty, dangerous, and there are better beaches elsewhere, but I’ve never been one to follow the crowd.
My guidebook plotted out a self-guided walking tour to the main attractions of the city centre that I’d marked down as my first thing to do in Maputo, so, not yet having data on my phone, I cached an area on Google Maps for the city, and set off to explore.
I crept out of my guesthouse and shuffled down the road, accosted by tout after tout.
One of the things I liked most about my guidebook when planning this trip was how anti-scare-mongering it was. The author had been quick to point out that the crime levels in Maputo are very low compared to those in Nairobi and Johannesburg. That it’s safe to walk around the city by day. That solo women will find Mozambique to offer very few risks specific to them, and that it’s often regarded one of the safest regions in the world to travel alone in by women travellers.
“Bay-beeeee! Where you from, baby?”
“Is this your first time in Mozambique?”
A man sat by the side of the road clicked his tongue at me, then hissed as I hurried past.
Oh god, I was seriously intimidated. There were people everywhere and every single one of them seemed to be shouting at me.
In addition to reading my guidebook, I’d also taken a deep dive into forum posts on the internet and come up terrified. People said it wasn’t safe. That I’d be mugged. That women travellers shouldn’t visit, and especially not alone. That I’d need to keep my valuables locked in my room at all times. That I shouldn’t take my phone or camera out under any circumstances.
My guesthouse staff would tell me to be cautious while walking around; and other tourists in my hotel had told me it wasn’t safe for women to be in Maputo alone.
I wasn’t sure who to believe at this point, but I knew I was letting fear win.
I leaned up against a wall and sneaked out my phone to take a glance of where I had to go next, then concealed it and hurried onwards, sidestepping street stalls and persistent hawkers every few seconds.
I reached the first stop on my guidebook’s walking tour: a giant statue of Samora Machel, the country’s first president. I would later learn this statue had been donated to Maputo by Kim Il-Sung and bears a strange and inaccurate resemblance to Mao.
Nearby, the Casa de Ferro, the Iron House. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel, which was just about the only interesting thing about it.
I walked a few more paces and entered the Jardim Tunduru: Maputo’s botanical gardens, where a large wedding party was assembled. Tinny hip-hop blared out from someone’s phone as everyone in the group began to dance and shriek and I was reminded of the fact that I am the awkwardest of all awkward white dancers to have ever badly danced the earth.
When one of the locals waved at me, I quickly scuttled past in case they asked me to join in.
The botanical gardens were small, so I left after spending several minutes walking down every path that didn’t lead to the dancing bride.
I’d jotted down a list of some places I wanted to check out for lunch, but the first didn’t seem to exist, the second was closed, and third also didn’t seem to exist.
“Shit!” I whispered.
I’d just realised I’d left my passport behind in my guesthouse.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it.”
Fun fact: it’s illegal to not carry your passport on your person at all times in Mozambique. If the police stop you and find you don’t have it on you, they’ll charge you a fine. Of course, if you do have your passport on you, they’ll often take it out of your hands, and then make you pay a bribe to get it back. If you have your passport and don’t let them take it, they’ll sometimes charge you a fine for not stopping fast enough. One backpacker was taken to the police station and robbed by the policemen who were there.
Mozambique is the only place in the world where I have been scared witless of running into the police.
“Baby!” I looked up and made eye contact with a man in a white car. He smiled and waved at me, so I waved back.
Oh shit, now he’s driving towards me.
He pulled up at the side of the road and began to drive along beside me as I walked, asking me questions. In a panic, I suddenly pretended not to understand and started walking faster.
He got out of the car and continued beside me on foot, asking if he could come home with me.
Back safely in my room an hour later, I let out a deep and frustrated sigh.
My first day in Maputo had been a colossal failure.
Whenever I’m in this situation, I always ask myself: Is it the city that sucked or is this my problem?
I remembered how my guidebook had reassured me that Maputo was perfectly safe, then remembered the things I’d read online that had left me worried it wasn’t.
Nothing bad had happened to me while I was exploring. I’d kept my phone buried deep in the pocket of my jeans despite spotting plenty of local teenagers walking around with iPhones in hand. I’d been nervous, jumpy, and silent when approached by locals, despite them showing zero signs of wanting to harm me in any way. I’d kept my eyes down and looked petrified for my entire walk, despite having yet seen any reason for me to feel that way.
Was it that I’d been spooked by the things I’d read online, or was it my own prejudices coming to the surface? Had I just been lucky or was Maputo not as bad as people said? Was it seeing derelict buildings and overwhelming amounts of trash that had me so convinced I was somewhere to be afraid of? Was it witnessing extreme poverty that had me concerned I was going to be mugged? Was I equating different with dangerous?
It was most likely an equal mix of both, but I resolved to be less fearful tomorrow. I was in Maputo either way, so there wasn’t much point in being terrified unless something awful actually happened.
I awoke the following morning and decided to channel the confidence of a girl I’d spotted the previous day. She was white and blonde — the only other white and blonde person I’d spotted while walking around — and was bursting to the brim with boldness. I’d watched her wander down the street with her camera around her neck, chatting and joking with the locals, laughing off the men’s attempts to flirt with her. The locals had seemed to respect her more for it. She was calm, confident, and courageous, and I was going to try to be the same today.
I put my passport and phone in my pocket and set off in search of a better experience.
I held my head high, I walked with purpose, and I made eye contact with everyone I passed. I smiled. I said hello. I chatted with touts for a few minutes then moved on. I answered their questions. I was welcomed to Mozambique more times than I can count. I got out my phone when I needed to get directions without feeling like I should be hiding in a bush to protect myself from thieves.
Maputo still felt like one of the most dangerous cities I’ve ever been to — and I didn’t see another obvious tourist during the entire six hours I spent outside — but when I changed my attitude, I no longer felt like a target.
I saw more of the tourist attractions on my second day in the city. Like the famous Maputo railway station that’s often falsely reported (including in an earlier version of this blog post!) to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel and was voted the third most beautiful train station in the world. It’s even used to host Mozambique Fashion Week each year.
While it was the prettiest building I saw in Maputo, and probably the only site that I’d call a must-see, the cloudy skies and trash outside had it looking less beautiful than the photos I’d seen online.
I next strayed into Maputo’s red-light district and when I went to take a photo of a mural of an orgy inside one of the bars, I was chased back to the train station by an angry horde of prostitutes.
I ended my day with a wander through a bustling market that would have had me trembling the previous day. I’d noticed, however, that by changing my attitude to that of someone who wasn’t afraid, I was, well, no longer afraid.
It’s funny how that works out.
I learned a valuable lesson in Maputo about considering the source of the information before you take it on board. Guidebook authors? Generally know what they’re talking about. Anonymous people on the internet? Most likely haven’t even been to Mozambique in the first place.
I researched Mozambique so thoroughly because I’d had zero travel experience in Sub-Saharan Africa and I knew the country had a reputation for being more dangerous than many of the more frequently visited countries in the region. But here’s the thing: if I’d sat down and researched safety in Thailand or Cambodia — two of my favourite countries, and ones I feel so safe in — I’d most likely stumble upon comments online from people also saying they’re dangerous and solo women shouldn’t visit.
So, is Maputo dangerous? It’s hard to find crime statistics online and all I can offer is anecdotal evidence of me being perfectly fine. There are, however, also anecdotes online of travellers in Maputo being robbed at gunpoint, of people having someone break into their hotel with a gun, of tourists being robbed by the police, of people having their phone snatched out of their hand, of a journalist being stabbed.
Which are also things that happen every day with a higher frequency in neighbouring South Africa, where few people are afraid to visit.
Of course, in South Africa, you can actually go to the police when this happens to you.
As you can see, I’m conflicted.
If you do decide to visit Maputo, though, I recommend checking your attitude and not walking around like you believe everybody is going to stab you. Once I stopped feeling so intimidated, the locals were kinder, the city was less scarier, and I was calmer.
So, do I recommend spending time in Maputo?
Despite having a much better second day, I still came away listing Maputo as my least favourite city I’ve visited to date.
There really wasn’t anything to do there, and what few tourist attractions there were were far from impressive. This was confirmed when I travelled through the rest of the country and didn’t find a single traveller who warmed to the city. In fact, everyone reacted with horror when I told them I spent a full three days there.
I could have done more, of course. I could have taken a day trip to Maputo Elephant Reserve, but tours were crazy-expensive and I didn’t want to drive. I could have taken a ferry out to Inhaca Island, which looks beautiful and is on my list of things to do should I ever return. I could have taken a walking tour to Maputo’s slums, but poverty tourism makes me uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, I found Maputo to be more about trash than tourist attractions. Which is fine. Travel is about opening your eyes to other people’s living situations. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, so I’m not going to visit and complain that it’s not pristine, but it was disheartening to see half-empty garbage bins with trash strewn all over gardens, streets, and parks nearby.
(For a heartbreaking glimpse at the people who live and scavenge in the garbage dump of Hulene, close to Maputo’s airport, you should take a look at this photo essay by Jose Ferreira, which helps shine a light on the lives of some of the poorest people in Maputo.)
If you’re going to Mozambique, I think you should go to Maputo for a day to get a feel for it and to see a side of Mozambique away from the beautiful beaches and islands and whale sharks and dhows.
But I don’t think it’s worth much more of your time than that.