There was something about Stone Town that really drew me in from the moment I read about it. A cultural mishmash of crumbling buildings, all connected by a honeycomb of impossibly narrow alleyways. It sounded so enticing, so mysterious, so different than the cosmopolitan streets of San Francisco I had grown up around.
As soon as it was clear that we’d be traveling to Zanzibar, I knew I had to see it for myself.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Stone Town initially flourished under the Sultanate of Oman in the mid 1800’s, when both spice and slave trading were big business for the small island of Zanzibar. As the capital city, many different cultures funneled through for trade over the years, leading to a mix of African, Arab, Indian, and European influence on everything from the architecture to the locals.
Since then much has changed, though the buildings themselves still heavily reflect this cultural melting pot.
We started things off with our guide from Matwemwe Lodge walking us through a large public market – fitting, as this is the most active area of Stone Town. Wooden rickety stalls offering everything from colorful dry pasta, vibrant produce, and assorted baskets are hastily scattered about the outdoor area.
Walking past the many customers bartering in heavy Swahili over farm grown or hand made goods, it’s difficult not to find yourself completely lost in time. Outside of the occasional modern convenience, this is a scene that easily could have existed 100 years ago.
We then began to make our way to the indoor area of the market, but were quickly stopped in our tracks by an odor that can best be described as vile.
“What’s that smell?” I hesitantly asked our guide, the entire time trying not to breath in the acrid air.
“The meat market up ahead. The heat outside is not helping the smell…”
He was right. The damp tropical heat acted as a sticky glue for what now could be identified as the scent of oxidizing flesh, heavily lingering in the air.
“We can skip if you would prefer.”
But there was no way that was going to happen. I had come this far and was fully intent on exploring Stone Town, warts and all. Even if this meant observing a scene that was more fitting of a horror movie than small travel blog…
It was a gruesome sight, with chunks of mysterious gristle and bone sprayed all over the small concrete room. By this point, the smell had gotten significantly worse, forcing Tristen into a less fragrant area of the market.
With my limit soon hit as well, we moved into the opposite area of the indoor space, where freshly caught seafood was being sold to large groups of haggling customers.
Much to the relief of our nostrils, we then made out way outside, where the air was relatively fresh. We now found ourselves at the vibrant entrance to a series of narrow labyrinthian walkways that wind through the heart of Stone Town.
Beginning to wind our way through these alleyways, we passed stall after stall, all appearing to sell similar, if not the same, colorful items. At times it felt like running a gauntlet, with each shopkeeper loudly letting us know that we needed whatever it was they were selling. Before too long I just went into full on broken record mode, repeating the same response without even thinking.
“No thank you. Not today.”
Clearing the stall area, we ducked around a corner and found ourselves beneath a large church that was under construction. Now, given that the population of Zanzibar is 98% Muslim, churches are a rare sight here. It seemed especially out of place in the middle Stone Town and right next to a mosque, so I had to ask our guide for some background.
Built in the late 1800’s to memorialize the British helping to bring an end to slavery in the area, the Christ Church stands over the site of one of East Africa’s largest slave markets. The surrounding grounds now act as a museum of sorts, containing various displays and monuments. The standout though is a hauntingly lifelike and heartbreaking stone display.
Going into one of the nearby buildings, there’s a staircase down into a preserved slave quarters, complete with the original shackles that had been used not even 120 years ago.
The air here was heavy, and everything about this room was completely and totally stifling. Whether by claustrophobia or emotion, it was literally difficult to breath at times. And the thought of up to 200 people being stacked up here for days and weeks? Almost incomprehensible, but still a reminder of Stone Town’s dark past.
Exiting, you ascend out of this dark cubby hole into a large open room filled with tall white ceilings and plenty of natural light.
We couldn’t help but feel our mood lift as our eyes readjusted to the sun before heading back into the labyrinth.
After worming our way through the heart of Stone Town, we exited out onto a small, slightly sandy beach where a boat was waiting to take us somewhere.
“See that small island out in the distance? That is where we are going. Prison Island.”
Now, after our whirlwind tour of the slave market, I had just about had my fill of dark depression for one day. Seeing my hesitancy, our guide slightly smiled and shook his head.
“It’s no longer a prison. Now it is just mainly used as a tortoise sanctuary.”
Did he just say tortoise sanctuary…? Let’s get moving then!
As our small wooden boat puttered along through the ocean, we got a bit more info on Prison Island. Originally built up in the 1890’s with the intention of housing violent criminals, these plans were abandoned and the island was instead used to quarantine yellow fever patients.
Since then, Prison Island has been used as a general hospital, a boutique resort, and now as primarily a tourist spot that protects the giant tortoises colony that was brought over in 1919.
Landing our rickety boat on Prison Island’s small beach, we quickly disembarked and followed the many handmade signs to a large fenced in area.
Spread throughout the grounds were 15-20 of the oldest and largest reptiles I had ever seen.
Scrawled onto the backs of the larger tortoises were large white numerals, indicating their age. Surprisingly, many were over 100 years old, with the oldest being 132! These guys weren’t doing much, outside of just laying around and bobbing their head, but it was still amazing to see these massive creatures in person.
After a few walkarounds, we had had our fill of giant tortoises and continued exploring the rest of Prison Island. Sadly, there really wasn’t much else going on. The former hospital/hotel has been closed for some time, so all we were able to do was walk around the grounds and view the outside of the buildings.
Having seen just about everything there was to see on Prison Island, we began our walk back. Turning to take the path back to the boat, we were stopped dead in our tracks by something we would have never expected. As if offering a final goodbye, Prison Island had sent its most elegant of delegates.
Back on the boat, as we began our slow return journey to enjoy our final night, I couldn’t help but be astounded by everything we had seen during our time in Africa. Observe wild animals while on safari in the Serengeti? Yep! Check out a Zanzibar spice farm (and unexpectedly receive an aphrodisiac as a gift)? Check! Explore the streets of Stone Town? You bet. All truly unforgettable.
Thinking back on everything now, it really is hard to imagine outdoing all of this in one single trip.
But you better believe we will keep on trying!