The Maldives is one of those places that frequent the “Top xx places to see before you die” lists. Or as they should be known, the remind you that you haven’t actually ever travelled, hate your job, and live in a miserable place list. The image imagined when thinking of the Maldives is that of the uber luxurious overwater bungalow resting atop near magical aqua blue water on some pristine white sand beach that make you think, ah yes, if only my 401K can take me there. So after spending two weeks in the Maldives I have a few observations.
1) The postcard image you keep seeing in all those travel magazines is a real place, and it really is impressive
2) In order to stay in those pictures for say a week it will cost about as much as a college tuition
3) There is a way to do Maldives on a budget for about $100/day or maybe $150/day for two.
Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet Maldives and you will find a detailed well written guide about how to stay in resorts, and what resort to pick. ATMs? You don’t need those, all the resorts take credit cards. Language? English on your five star resort of course. I’m normally a fan of Rough Guides over Lonely Planet, but since there is no Rough Guides the Maldives LP is the go to. Unfortunately it is simply not a book for the budget traveler which is more often than not LP’s main audience. This sort of makes sense (they don’t get off the hook completely) as the Maldives just opened the gates a few years ago to “Independent Travel”, which I learned means travel on your own, and not through a travel agent or resort, rather than travel for singles which is what I thought it meant. So it’s reasonable that the guide books haven’t really caught up with the sprouting up of guesthouses and the backpacking crowd influx. Needless to say, it’s tough to find good info out there right now about budget travel in the Maldives, and I did most trip research by reading blogs. So I’ll do my best to give some tips and tricks if you found this article by searching for just that.
The first large glaring point to be aware of is that the Maldives is an Islamic state and under Sharia law. Which means amongst other things, no alcohol, no bikinis, and no practicing any religion other than Islam (unless you are on a resort)! So Liz had to ditch her booze, Bibles and thongs. The second thing is that they are not used to backpackers at all. This lesson was learned when we tried to go through customs and couldn’t show a hotel reservation for our entire stay, because of course I only had the first night booked. This was very concerning to the customs official, as she wanted to see my ticket to India from the Maldives and then my ticket out of India. Right before we almost went to secondary interrogation her manager came out, took one look at Liz’s new hippie pants and backpack and moved us right along. The second lesson of the evening was there are no taxis from the airport. The idea of walking around and finding a place, or parachuting into a new city with no reservations is a very bad if not impossible idea. The hotel must come pick you up at the airport. It also helps to know that the airport is on its own island. The capital city Male is a short ferry ride away. But, it’s a much better idea to stay on the island of Hulhumale which is technically its own island, but it is attached to the airport by a land bridge, so your hotel (which there are many of in Hulhumale) can just come get you in a car. Most people only stay a night or so in either Male or Hulhumale and then take a ferry or speed boat to another atoll, so really don’t plan on spending much time here. I highly recommend Hulhumale over Male. Male is a bigger Asian looking city full of traffic, garbage, and general city congestion. Hulhumale is a government created project of a man made island. It is more quiet, and less congested than Male with large open spaces and larger Soviet like apartment complexes. There is a nice strip of beach and some decent restaurants. Also, most hotels are brand new with excellent facilities. But, make your reservation ahead of time, I can’t stress this enough.
There are not too many places in the Maldives with budget guesthouses, and at rates over $1,000 a night at resorts this will determine where you base out of. It’s possible to base out of Hulhumale and do a bunch of day trips on speed boats, but many people head to the island of Maafushi which is in the South Male Atoll.
There are some other outlying islands with guesthouses which you might have to be more creative to find, and would have to be even more creative to get to on the cheap. If you’re considering this keep in mind that there is ferry system in the Maldives to all the inhabited islands (note: a resort is not an inhabited island), but a ferry to a far island may only run once or twice a week, and you will most likely need a hotel reservation on that island if only to establish a contact to figure out when the ferry runs. There is a rumor that a large part of this ferry system is no longer operational either. It’s always possible to hire your own speed boat, but it will run about $150. Maafushi however is a short ferry ride away from Male.
Maafushi is a small island (about 200m x 1000m) in the North Male Atoll. The main side of the island is a grid of small guesthouses and little shops. There is a “tourist beach” where the anglo crowd flocks to show off their bikinis. your Surrounding the 100 meter tourist beach is a palm fence placed at eye level to not poison the locals with the sight of tanned woman flesh. But, this little swatch of beach although small and overcrowded will give you the laying out on powdery white sand with post card colored water experience, and this is more than Hulhumale or Male can offer in this regard.
On the other side of the island is a prison, but that’s better than the leper colony it used to be. Maafushi is generally thought of as a jump point for diving, water sports or island resort day excursions. It’s not really a place a to hang out for multiple days as island fever can set in quickly. So day trips and activities are pretty much a must. Which is basically the same situation as Hulhmale, but at least there is more to do in Maafushi, and a small beach to lay out on. Oh, it’s also much cooler in Maafushi than Hulhumale/Male.
Getting to Maafushi
Coming from Hulhumale you have to do the following.
-Take a public ferry from Hulhumale to Male. The ferry runs every 15 minutes, lasts about 20 minutes, and costs less than 50 cents. It is possible to walk to the ferry terminal from just about any guesthouse in about 10 minutes. Or take a bus or taxi for about $1.
-In Male get in a taxi and go to the Villingili ferry terminal which is on the other side of the island. This should cost about $2 and is worth taking instead of trying to walk across Male.
-At the Villingili terminal buy a ticket to Maafushi, which as of Feb 2015 leaves at 15:00 every day (except Sunday). This will cost about $2 one way, and will take about 2.5 hours.
Sleeping in Maafushi
There are bunch of guesthouses, and it’s important to book ahead of time. I booked the first two nights with the plan to either extend my stay or find another guesthouse. This proved to be almost impossible as many places were sold out until the end of the month. Note, that many of the guesthouses overbook and will “walk” you to another guesthouse. Most of the time it’s a guesthouse of equal or greater value, but just don’t get your hopes up about one place if you’re looking in the $50-$75 price range. It honestly is not that important to be on the beach and pay a premium as the island is all of 200m wide.
Things to do in and around Maafushi
Any watersport you can imagine you can do in Maafushi. There are 3-4 dive/water sport shops that will cater to water paddle boarding, kite surfing, jet boarding, banana boating, etc. The dive shops will do any number of PADI certifications, but expect to pay a premium. An open water course costs about $500. Dives can be arranged for around $40 if you are certified.
If you want to consume an adult beverage in Maafushi it won’t happen on the island itself, you have to either go to a resort, or I learned a little secret at the end or our stay: there is a “booze cruise” of sorts that runs every evening from Maafushi that picks up at the main dock several times per night.
Every guesthouse can arrange multiple day excursions, from $10 snorkeling adventures to $100 resort day trips. As far as the resort day trips are concerned it’s worth shopping around as the main cost difference is the transfer to the resort. The resort itself is a fixed price entry fee that everyone pays at the resort. We went to Fihaalhohi Island resort for a full day. The first place I looked at quoted $60 for a speed boat per person while another quoted $25. It’s worth doing a day trip, or even two. The resorts are beautiful, and without staying in the 1-4k per night bungalow, it’s possible to enjoy all the amenities of the resort for about $60-$100 per day per person. This is absolutely where you will find the pictures of the white sand powdery beaches, bungalows and palm trees to irritate your friends with on Facebook. Plus, the resorts can serve alcohol and it’s possible to buy a day pass with drinks included.
Maafushi is small remote island, so it’s not hard to believe that it’s difficult to find toiletries and medications at a reasonable price or at all. With that said there are a couple of shops that are fairly well stocked with western sunscreens and toothpastes, but you will pay for it. As far as health care is concerned there is a small clinic on the island staffed by two doctors. They are very limited in their scope of care and the pharmacy across the street can handle simple cough and colds, but that’s about it. Make sure to bring what you need, or may need. For some ideas see my packing list suggestions under medications. Also make sure you have good travel insurance. The only hospital with any capability is in Male and a speed boat transfer will cost about $150 or $800 by a seaplane if something were to go wrong outside of a stomach flu or common cold.