Is Travelling the Maldives on Budget Possible?
To be honest, I’d always been fascinated with the Maldives. What’s not to be fascinated about? Hundreds of tiny islands in the middle of impossibly blue waters sounds incredibly inviting to me! But given the infamous resort-like set up of the place, most would think that travelling the Maldives on a budget could prove quite challenging. You’d be surprised how easy it actually is!
While I appreciate the idea of travelling to relax, that’s just not how I travel. Resorts really do not interest me, but I’m always interested to see how the locals live. So I got in touch with a wonderful local man named Muhamed. He agreed to host me in his family home on the island of Hulhumale. It’s just over the bridge from the Velana International airport.
Getting to the Maldives
As the Maldives normally caters to high-end travellers, the airfares to get there tend to reflect that. But being the cheapskate that I am, I’d managed to find a flight for around US$160 return. With a stopover in Sri Lanka! This was great for me, as I have a friend in Colombo. It also meant that the last leg of the flight from Sri Lanka to the Maldives was only 1 hour.
To say that the Maldives looks amazing from the air would be an understatement. You’re looking over an endless blue ocean for most of the flight. Then outta the blue, pun intended, you start to see random sand bars in the ocean. They look so tiny, yet so intriguing. It’s interesting to think that people live on these tiny, little, unprotected sand strips in the middle of a vast ocean. It’s also absolutely amazing how immaculately blue the waters are between the atolls and sandbar islands. Possibly one of the best views on approach to a country ever.
Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – A Warm Welcome
I was impressed that we actually landed on time and I was off the plane and through immigration within 15 minutes. My host Muhamed had kindly organised for someone to meet me at the airport. It was his brother who works at the airport. He had typed up a very professional-looking sign with my name on it, so that I could find him. I can honestly say that’s the first time I’ve had my own sign upon arrival into a country. I felt super special!
He then showed me out to the bus stop, where I could get the bus across the bridge to Hulhumale. The bus only cost 15 Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR), which is under US$1. He let Muhamed know when I had left on the bus, so he could meet me on arrival in Hulhumale. As a bonus, the bus stop in Hulhumale was about a 2 minute walk from Muhamed’s flat. Nevertheless, Muhamed picked me up on his moped because he was worried about me having to carry my bag. How lovely!
Muhamed lived in a 4 bedroom place on Hulhumale where 9 other members of his family also lived. They still ensured that I had a bedroom to myself, even though I told them I was fine with sleeping on the couch. Maldivians believe in treating their guests like royalty. I was so lucky to have a local family allow me to stay with them. The family was of course interested in finding out more about me. Muhamed was the only one in his family that really spoke any English though. That meant he had to do a lot of translating!
Hulhumale is an island in the Maldivian chain that is northwest of Male. It is joined to Male and Hulhule, where the international airport is, by the Sinamale Bridge. Construction on the bridge had just been completed not long before I had arrived. I was one of the first people to cross the bridge. Before the bridge, the only way to travel between those islands was by speedboat or ferry. Unless you or someone you knew had a boat.
Interestingly, Hulhumale was completely constructed on land reclaimed in 2004. The government had realised back then that the land available wasn’t going to cater to the needs of the growing Maldivian population in the future. So they made their own land. There were many construction sites around Hulhumale. Muhamed advised me that the government was reclaiming even more land. He also told me that a lot of the land had already been purchased by luxury hotel groups.
Hulhumale was colourful and all the roads looked brand new. There also seemed to be a lot of newly constructed buildings housing foreign cafe chains, especially near the beach area.
And it appears that someone in Hulhumale knew I was going to be there..
Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – Getting Around
If people want to travel somewhere on the island they are currently on, they mostly use mopeds to get around. You’ll often see people on different mopeds riding side by side just having a chat. While there were always cars on the road, I didn’t get the feeling that traffic was a problem in the Maldives. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any traffic lights.
If people want to travel between islands in the Maldives, they take a ferry or speedboat. There are regular ferry services between some of the 1000 plus islands in the Maldivian chain. Muhamed regularly travelled to an island called Villingili, which is south of Male. At a glance, this island has a very similar name to another small island, Viligili, that lies to the west of Male.
The reason for Muhamed’s constant trips to Villingili was that his wife and daughter lived there. While I was there, he needed to pick up his daughter from a class then take her back to Villingili. He asked if I would like to join him for the trip and of course I said yes! I wanted to see as many islands as I could during my short stay.
While it was relatively easy to get to Villingili, the route wasn’t as direct as you would expect. We had to get a 50 MVR/US$3.20 ferry to Male first. Muhamed had an extra bike stashed there. He used it to take us from where the Hulhumale to Male ferry had arrived to where the Male to Villingili ferry would depart. That Ferry cost 25 MVR/US$1.60. The two ferries are run by different companies, Atoll Transfer for the Hulhumale to Male route and MTCC for the Male to Villingili route. That meant that the ports were on opposite sides of the island.
It was night by the time we made it to Villingili. It was quite a small island and definitely didn’t have a tourist feel to it at all. Housing on the island seemed to consist of small, budget 1 bedroom flats on narrow streets. I wasn’t really looking that hard, but I didn’t see any cars there; only mopeds.
In the few hours since she had met me, Muhamed’s 6 year old daughter had taken a bit of a shine to me. The fact that we couldn’t speak the same language didn’t seem to worry her. She asked if I could stay at her place for that night, but I had to politely decline as I had already organised a trip to another island.
Travelling the Maldives on a Budget – Day Trip to Himmafushi Island
After some long chats with Muhamed about which island would be the best to go to on a budget with limited time, we came up with Himmafushi Island. It’s about 16km north of Male, which meant it was only a 20 minute boat ride. Muhamed had called ahead and found out that the speedboat from Male to Himmafushi was 100 MVR/US$6.50 per person. Muhamed was good enough to accompany me on the ferry to Male to make sure that I could find the right speed boat.
When we got there, Mr boat guy advised that it was 150 MVR/US$10. The reason for the difference was that Muhamed had been quoted the local price. The tourist price was of course higher and Mr boat guy was adamant that was what I needed to pay. So I got myself a return ticket and jumped on the boat.
There weren’t many other people on the boat, so I could pretty much sit anywhere I wanted. I settled into a seat on the lefthand side of the boat, but then realised that all the good views seemed to be on the righthand side.
The trip out to the island was quite lovely. I was absolutely mesmerised by the water that just seemed to become bluer the further away we got from Male.
Once Himmafushi came into view, it was obvious that it was a very small island. Only 1km long!
I had always thought that bad parking was something you only saw on land. But when we were arriving at the Himmafushi port, I found out it happens in the ocean too.
Sand, Souvenir Shops and Street Art
When I finally got my feet back on land, I headed to the beach. As the island was so small, the beach was not hard to find!
As I walked on the sand, I was amused as hundreds of little crabs scuttered around me. Some retreating into their shells because they perceived danger, while others made a break for the water. It was quite entertaining to watch.
Whilst exploring the island, I was invited into a local souvenir shop, The Dolphin Shop. Inside the owner, Hussein gave me not one, but 2 gifts from his store. He also insisted that I stay for tea. Who was I to say no?
After chatting for a while, Hussein decided to utter a few words in Chinese. He wanted to check with me that what he was saying was correct. Then he invited me to visit again and proceeded to give me a Dhivehi lesson, for when I come back next year apparently.
Time to Go
Hussein had tried to convince me to stay a bit longer, but I eventually bid him farewell and took a short walk around the island before my ride back to Male arrived. I was very interested in the fact that an island with only 4 streets still managed to have some street art.
I’d had a wonderful day on the island and was treated to a lovely sunset on the way out.
In the 4 days I was in the Maldives, I made it to 5 islands and managed to meet some cool locals along the way. The best part is that I spent under US$20 for all transport and food. This is due in part to the awesome hospitality of my host who always wanted to cook for me or take me places on his bike. All up, that’s less than US$200 for the whole trip, including airfares. So it turns out that travelling the Maldives on a budget is surprisingly easy!