Tanzanians call it Bongoland. Other Africans know it as T-zed. Known for its vast wilderness of the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania shares borders with other 8 countries. On its eastern side are the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, including the islands of Zanzibar. Most Tanzanians will speak at least 3 languages; KiSwahili, English, and their tribal language.
It is a place I called home for more than 2 years and absolutely loved. So I can state with certainty that, Tanzania is the perfect budget-friendly getaway for backpackers. The wonderful white sandy beaches of Zanzibar are just as beautiful and inviting as Kili. If you are planning your trip to this wonderful country, here are 15 things to know before visiting Tanzania.
1. Tanzanian Tourist Visa
Unfortunately, Tanzania is not part of the East African visa agreement. Holders of most Western countries are required to obtain a visa in order to enter the country. There is a single-entry and transit visa that can be obtained on arrival. A single-entry tourist visa (valid for 3 months) costs $100 for US citizens, but differs for citizens of other countries. If, however, you are traveling through Tanzania to other destinations, you can apply for a transit visa at the Immigration Office ($30 and must leave within 14 days of entering the country).
tip: If you do plan on traveling to Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, the East Africa visa can save you money and time. For US citizens, instead of paying $50 per visa for each country, the East Africa visa costs $100 for entry to all 3. The application is available and can be obtained at your first entry to any of the 3 countries.
Traveling to any place on this planet carries its own risks. There is a greater chance of catching some illnesses traveling to some places than others, but everyone should always take the proper precautions. Unfortunately, our continent is still developing and so some very preventable diseases are still rife. So instead of taking a chance on your health, always check the necessary vaccinations recommended.
Yellow Fever – Tanzania is a tropical country, which means there are plenty of mosquitoes, especially during the rainy season, and yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes. Travelers to Tanzania are advised to have either received a yellow fever vaccination or given one about 10 days before departure. You might also be required to show proof of the vaccination, certainly when entering Zanzibar.
Other recommended vaccinations include Tetanus, MMR, Hep A, polio, and typhoid.
3. The Southern Circuit
Unfortunately, many times tourists leave without visiting the southern part of the country. Tanzania is pretty big and I understand the lure of the Serengeti is real, but there is also plenty of beauty in the south. Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve might be remote but they make up for it in their diversity and beauty. Ruaha national park is of the best places in Africa to see the rare packs of wild dogs and leopards. The Udzungwa Mountains National Park is a paradise: forests, waterfalls, and plenty of flora and fauna. And because they are lesser known than their northern counterparts, you will find fewer crowds.
Tanzania uses the shilling (TZS). Currently, $1 = 2277 TZS. You can get money exchanged at any bank, granted you have proper ID. I suggest NBC Bank, CRDB, NMB or any other large bank. There is a daily ATM withdrawal limit of 1,200,000 TZS. The maximum amount you can withdraw in a single transaction is 400,ooo TZS, which means you can make a maximum 3 withdrawals a day.
tip: Make sure you always have enough cash for the day if you are leaving big cities. There are times when ATM’s will run out of money, especially on the weekend.
Tanzania is a relatively safe country. But like most places, when visiting major cities, petty theft is pretty common. But in Tanzania, and especially Dar es Salaam, it is especially common in hotels. You will be advised to never leave your valuables in your hotel room unless there is a safe. If there is no safe inside the room, always leave anything of value at the front desk, and make sure you get a receipt. Any extra cash, laptops, jewelry etc.
tip: when walking around in Dar, avoid using backpacks and go for smaller bags.
If you are traveling on a budget, public transportation is very cheap. The DART bus in Dar es Salaam costs approximately $.26, and a taxi from the airport to town should cost less than $20. Another very good option is Uber. Just download the Uber app and you are good to go. Unlike most Western countries where the app stores your card and payments are made using the card, in Tanzania and much of Africa, payments are made in cash, at the end of your trip. It’s super affordable, it’s very safe, and the drivers are always very polite.
Taxis are also very common and safe. A cool and fun option around town is the bajaji (a small 3-wheeled taxi), cheaper than a regular taxi but obviously slower. I would never recommend anyone to ride motorbikes, especially in Dar es Salaam. The drivers are usually very fast and almost never provide a helmet for passengers. It is your least safest option.
tip: Always sit in the front with the driver. In most parts of Africa, the drivers actually love and prefer the passenger to sit in the front, and it’s also considered respectful.
7. Tanzanian people
If you are an introvert, Tanzania might not be for you. Here is why: Tanzanians love to talk. I mean really love to talk. They will talk to you on the plane, bus, restaurant, stop sign, anywhere. There is a reason greetings last at least 5 minutes! All you need to do is make eye contact with a Tanzania, smile, and that is a signal that you are ready and available for at least a 20 minute conversation. But Tanzanians are also some of the nicest people you will ever meet on this planet. They will go out of their way to help anyone, especially strangers in their country. When you come to Tanzania, you are considered a guest, and therefore it’s the duty of every citizen to make you feel welcome. Well, except for the petty thieves. I swear, it’s in their constitution or something. So if you like me-time, this might not be for you. But on the flip side, it can help you improve your social skills.
Know the seasons. This is actually pretty easy since there are pretty much only 2. Rainy season and dry season. Normally the rainy season is anywhere from November-April. Some parts of the country, like up north in the Ngorongoro, they will have the long rains and the short rains. If your main focus is animal viewing, visiting during the dry season is best; the animals will congregate around one major watering hole.
9. Swahili phrases
When visiting a new place, it’s always good to know a few phrases of the language. Tanzanians dedicate at least 5 minutes of every conversation to greetings. And locals always love to hear visitors making an effort to learn their language. There is nothing more obnoxious than hearing tourists try to use only English when communicating with non-English speakers. French people hate this practice so much they will flat out say they don’t understand English even when they do. A bonjour or merci goes a long way. Same in Tanzania. Though not as brusque as the French, Tanzanians will go the extra mile if you show a little interest in Swahili. So to help you out, here are a few Swahili phrases:
Habari za asubuhi/mchana/usiku = good morning/afternoon/night
Nzuri = well/good
Asante sana = thank you very much
kwa heri = goodbye
These are just the basics you need. And practically no one says hakuna matata. Except to tourists. You will hear that in Zanzibar or any other place with heavy tourist traffic. That phrase is not even in the regular Tanzanian Swahili vocab, and Tanzanians pride themselves for speaking the purest form of Swahili. I was called Kenyan many times because my Swahili was super shaky. Sorry Kenyans.
tip: no problem = hamna shida/matatizo.
10. Traveling to Zanzibar
If you decide to skip on that 20 minute flight from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar, I recommend taking Azam Marine – Kilimanjaro ferries. They have offices in Dar and I strongly recommend buying a ticket the day before to guarantee a seat. Tickets can also be reserved online, but you have to go to their offices to pay and collect the tickets. There are 4 classes offered: economy, business, VIP, and Royal. Tickets are reasonable; expect to pay between $35-60 for a one-way ticket depending on the class. The trip lasts approximately 1 1/2 hrs.
tip: there are other companies offering lower fares, but they are also less safe.
… is not money. If you have ever heard of African time, then you know exactly what I mean. If someone tells you they will meet you around 2pm, they mean at least 3:30pm. That’s African time, no one is in a rush so I suggest you get on this train or you will remain very frustrated. Except when you travel. I don’t understand and have failed to understand this, but when it comes to traveling, Tanzanians will be ON TIME. If the bus says it leaves at 6 a.m, that means it will be pulling out of the bus station at 5:58 a.m., so you better be on it. People will start showing up and boarding at or before 5 a.m because they know how it is. So don’t show up on time for anything, except the bus!
12. The police
If you decide to rent a car and drive, expect to be stopped by the police and pay a bribe at some point. Tanzanian police are notorious for this practice, and no one knows it better and feels the consequences than regular bus drivers/tour guides/everyday citizens. They will stop you for the most random and asinine thing, just so they can get some money out of you. It’s frustrating, but what’s even more frustrating is that it’s been accepted as a regular part of life. Imagine being a poor taxi driver and having to pay half of your day’s salary to a crooked cop! There are some very good policemen/women who are interested in doing their job, but as usual, it is the few minority that gives the majority a bad rep.
13. Zanzibar Beaches
The beaches in Stone Town are not that great so if you came for a beach holiday, head out north. I would be willing to bet any money that the beaches up north, Nungwi, Kendwa etc., are better than the beaches in the southern part of the island.
If you are a fan of the nightlife and love music and dancing, you will love staying on the mainland, especially in Dar es Salaam. Just don’t expect too much going on during the workweek. You can still have a good time, but Tanzanians don’t really go out until the weekend. And people don’t starting going out until 12a.m. Don’t expect to find anyone in the club at 10pm. And club-hopping is expected; cover-charges, if there is one, will usually be around 10,000 TSZ (~$4). Enjoy bongoflava.
15. Bargain but don’t overdo it.
I used to be a fan of bargaining, and I was very good at it too. I mean I had more than 2 year’s practice living in Tanzania. But now, not so much. We have to remember that these people don’t make that much of a salary in the first place. The hard truth is that they hardly benefit from tourism so they try to make a living any way they can. We never go to a mall and bargain for that ridiculous $120 dress or $80 shoes, we just pay and get on with it. So it’s okay to bargain a bit, but remember, it’s their livelihood. Now even when I know something is worth $1 and they ask me for $3, I will bargain for fun and still pay the $3. After all, your flight to Tanzania alone is probably the equivalent to something they hope to make in a whole year.