The first impression one gets of Maputo is of what might have been. It is a city that is in many ways trapped in its own past. It is quaint for an African capital city and attractive in an old-world style, bustling and full of eager hawkers desperate to sell their merchandise. It is a busy place but with some pitfalls.
The former colonial power Portugal left in a hurry at independence, draining it of expertise, and long years of civil war further impoverished the people. The net result was that for thirty years no new buildings went up, and many of the existing edifices acquired a shabby appearance.
The Mozambican countryside is largely unsafe, with landmines and AK47s left over from the civil war, and police roadblocks renowned for taking a bribe from anyone they perceive to be wealthy or a tourist.
In the city things are safe during the day but you may be stopped on inadequate grounds at night and it could be suggested that “you sort out things” on the spot with the policemen rather than going back to the police station.
Independent travel in Mozambique is only for the adventurous and we would recommend that ladies especially should join up with a tour group to do your sightseeing.
While the hawkers and beggars are not a menace, they are certainly a nuisance and they do not take “no” for an answer. We suggest that you do not stray from your group into unfamiliar territory, and if the group goes to one of the local markets, be sure to have a designated meeting point.
That said, with a smidgeon of care you can have a good time. A few places to see include the following:
Maputo Central Train Station
Completed in 1910, the main building is charming and attractive in its own right. There is an accessible bar/restaurant just off the platform. An ice-cold Laurentina beer can be bought here for a good price. The platform is open to tourists and one can even climb up the broken steps of one of the local trains to have a peep inside the carriage.
Although the current building is not all that old, the site has a lot of history attached to it. The big tree that stands close to the entrance is talked about enthusiastically by the tour guides, mostly because it has a somewhat macabre story to tell. The prison governor of the time was captured and hanged from it in 1883, a story which gets some elaboration that is quite entertaining when one is on a guided tour there.
The Central Market
This is a must-see and you can see all the above and the market in a day tour, owing to the compact layout of the city centre.
The smell of fish drying in the sun on a hot day can be fairly overpowering. And there are a lot of hot days in this warm African tropical climate.
Fish, fresh fruit, spices, cashew nuts and souvenirs can be bought here. We suggest that you buy only what you can consume on the day because of the risk of spoilage.
Cashews are cheap and abundant but they are largely grown by small-scale farmers who do not have access to suitable insecticides. As a result there is a good chance that the cashews you buy may be infested by grain-borer insects. Any cashews remaining when you reach your home country will likely be confiscated and destroyed! Rightly so – before about 1970 there were no grain-borers in Africa. They were inadvertently imported from South America into Tanzania and have since spread to nearly every southern African land.
Wooden items may be infested with wood-borer and we don’t recommend buying any wood products as souvenirs. If you do, be sure to have it treated for borer on return to your home country and keep it in an air tight bag until you are able to have that done. It is probable that you will not be permitted to bring such curios through your local customs, so be sure to check this beforehand.
Natural History Museum
Scenes of animals that are native to Mozambique are shown in their natural habitat here. These exhibits are well done and worth seeing, though the scale and presentation are of a rather provincial standard. There is also a collection of cultural relics and photos of by-gone days in Maputo. Some of the descriptions, though, have not been translated into English. The building does not boast air-conditioning and in summer, temperatures inside and out can be oppressive, which led in our case, to several tourists lying on the grass outside and cooling off instead of seeing what was on offer inside.
If you are in a tour group and you have a good tolerance for heat then you should probably go into the museum even if it is not the sort of thing that usually attracts you, just out of self-defence. Should you opt to remain outside you will be besieged by hawkers selling cheap tee-shirts, locally-made African jewellery and of course, cashew nuts.
If you are travelling on a grand budget then a good way to end off the day is with High tea at the Polana Hotel, which still maintains the high standards it was known for back in the colonial era. (We cannot speak of this first-hand as the “high” also appears to refer to the price, and we had already spent our budget on keepsakes.)