Maafushi: The Independent Traveler’s Maldives

I ARRIVE AT MAAFUSHI just a little past noon. I took a ferry from Male, then plied the turquoise waters of the Kaafu Atoll for about an hour, passing a couple of resort islands on the way. Just as soon as I alight the boat, I’m greeted by locals asking if I want to avail this island tour or that beach activity. I smile and shake my head, going straight to the south of the island, where I remember my guesthouse is.

I don’t have a map with me, and I have yet to update the map of my phone to my current location, which I can’t do because I’m offline, and the roaming data can rack up the bills pretty quickly. So I walk along under the intense heat of the sun, passing through the narrow dirt roads of Maafushi and looking at the colorful houses. I see only a handful of people on the way, all of them locals. The island may be the largest and the second-most populous island in the South Male Atoll, but at this hour and in low season, it feels like a ghost town.

I find my guesthouse, the Summer Villa, a few minutes later. It’s a charming guesthouse and one of the cheapest in the Maldives, though it’s located just in front of the Maafushi Prison and is quite a walk from the main tourist center in the northern part of the island. I walk in and am greeted by the staff, and after a few minutes, I’m led to my room. I take this time to catch my breath and rest my legs. I plop down on the bed and close my eyes a bit.

A new day greets Maafushi island.
Locals enjoy the morning with a swim at one of the island’s beaches.
The Anantara Veli Resort can be seen in the horizon. Maafushi is located in the South Male Atoll, where majority of uninhabited islands have been converted into resorts.
Locals go about their daily routines in Maafushi, where the population is around 1200.
The Maafushi Mosque (left) towers above the island’s houses; a swing under a tree provides a fun way to escape from the sun.

IT’S A DIFFERENT SCENARIO from the usual expectation of being escorted from the seaplane to your room with a resort staff carrying your baggage, but that’s the essence of traveling to the Maldives – or anywhere in general – independently. The country has kept off backpackers for decades due to its previous restrictive policies on foreigners, prohibitive prices of resorts, and the lack of transportation between islands.

This changed in 2009, when former President Mohamed Nasheed relaxed foreigner restrictions, allowed the construction of guesthouses in inhabited islands, and established a public ferry network. This for the first time allowed tourists to travel between islands and interact with locals without having to get a permit from the government. Slowly but surely since then, independent travelers have been coming to the Maldives, and while this doesn’t come with tensions between these foreigners’ values and the conservative sensibilities of the locals, it’s safe to say that the country isn’t closing its doors again to those who want to see it outside of its resorts.

While this is a welcome development, the truth is there isn’t really much to do in the country. There are no towns with attractions to keep you occupied for a day. But for those who want no other things but swim, laze under the sun, or explore the Maldives’ underwater treasures while still being in touch with the local culture, being able to do this outside of a resort is a blessing.

While the independent travel scene has grown in Maafushi, it is still part of the Maldives, which is a staunchly Muslim nation, and so visitors are still required to dress properly (left); various water activities are offered (right) by scores of companies.
The waves may not be that good, but surfing is still possible in the Maldives.
A beachside stall offers visitors some traditional Maldivian food and drinks.
Taking cue from the Maldives’ reputation as a romantic destination, restaurants in Maafushi provide beachside meals at sunset.
The foreigners’ beach (left) is sealed off from the rest of the island, allowing tourists to strip down to their bikinis or swimming trunks without offending locals; a table for two (right) is ready for diners.
Maafushi’s open waters dwarf swimmers.
Sunset-watchers take in the view from the western part of the island.
The sun sets behind a ferry docked at the port. The ferry travels once a day between Male and Maafushi.

LATER IN THE AFTERNOON, just before sunset, I walk to the northern part of the island where the foreigners’ beach is located. The beach is located in a sealed off part of the island where tourists can wear bikinis away from the sight of locals. It’s a peculiar aspect of tourism in the Maldives and a testament to the still incongruous situation between foreigners and locals.

I take a spot at the beach and sit there to wait for the sunset. Then I return to the guesthouse for tonight’s rooftop barbecue buffet dinner.

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