The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything

GoPro on Car

SPECIFICALLY SOCOTRA: Welcome to the strange island of Socotra. This photo series documents some of the strange landscapes from this small island off the horn of Africa. As always, click photos to embiggin. If you’re just joining us, this is what you’ve missed so far:

  1. Gone Fishing … In Yemen
  2. Specifically Socotra
  3. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore …
  4. The Myth of the Dragon Blood Tree
  5. Burqa on the Beach
  6. Attn: Crayola — A New Color For You — Socotri Cerulean
  7. My Day as a Pirate
  8. The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything


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Since posting this series of photos from Socotra many dozens of emails, tweets and messages have come in asking a range of questions from “how much does it cost” to “where can you stay on the island.” In an effort to answer all of the questions in one fell swoop, as well as provide some confirmed and recent information on travel in Socotra, this post which will simply discuss the basics for travelers looking to get off the beaten path and hopefully counter much of the misinformation out there in the blogasphere.

So, without any further adieu, here is The Idiots Guide to Socotra: How To … Everything. Information here was valid in the Spring of 2012.



WHAT: Socotra is considered the “Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.” The landscape is completely unique on a global scale. For adventure travelers there’s a lot to see and do, none of requires any infrastructure.

Socotra Archipelago, in the northwest Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden, is 250 km long and comprises four islands and two rocky islets which appear as a prolongation of the Horn of Africa. The site is of universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna: 37% of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90% of its reptile species and 95% of its land snail species do not occur anywhere else in the world. The site also supports globally significant populations of land and sea birds (192 bird species, 44 of which breed on the islands while 85 are regular migrants), including a number of threatened species. The marine life of Socotra is also very diverse, with 253 species of reef-building corals, 730 species of coastal fish and 300 species of crab, lobster and shrimp.

While the biodiversity is amazing, beach goers, hikers, divers and climbers have endless possibilities on the island. For those wishing to go a little further out of site, the caving and spelunking scene seems pretty untapped. Even in the last decade people have been exploring the inner tunnels of this island and finding amazing relics of the past including intact, human remains and ancient art. The island is also known for bird watching as well as well as windsurfing and paragliding.

Really, the possibilities are endless.



HOW: The first step to going to Socotra is getting there, which will most likely take you at least two flights. Daily flights go from Dubai to Sana’a, Yemen (although this is not necessarily true the other way around). My flight from Beijing, China to Sana’a, Yemen on Emirates cost about $1000 USD. A flight from New York to Sana’a during the same period cost about $1200 and from London about $900.

Socotra Airport

From Sana’a two airlines go to Socotra — Felix Airways and Yemeni. At the time of writing this post it looked like there were about 6 flights a week from Sana’a to Socotra, but I wouldn’t trust the schedules or these airlines. My first flight booked was canceled without reason and the timetable for the airlines seemed completely off. Best thing to do is book through someone there who is keeping an eye on it.

The flights from Sana’a act more like a bus than a plane and do stop although you don’t need to get off the plane. A roundtrip ticket from Sana’a to Socotra cost around $150.



VISAS: After you have your flights figured out, there’s the messy business of getting a visa. When I called the Yemeni Embassy in Beijing, they quickly assured me it was not possible to get a tourist visa to Yemen. Looking at the U.S. State Departement’s list of travel warnings, does not encourage one to travel to Yemen either. But rest assured, it is possible and legal.

Visas for Yemen

After some frustrating filtering of ridiculous information on blogs and web sites I found a man on the island who claimed if I Western Union(ed) him some cash he would obtain a visa for me and email me a PDF of it (to show to customs agents on my departing side). Then when I arrived in Yemen he would send someone to the airport with the actual visa who would time their arrival with my flight and give the visa to the customs agent who I was seeing.

Be it an “international airport,” El Rahaba Airport (Sana’a International) is not so secure that a random person can’t just walk through security and do this. And while airport agents in China and UAE where a bit confused by the seemingly photocopied document, they allowed me past and the man was there on the other side. For the visa and the service, this man charged me $50.



WHO: This man’s name is Abdullah. Abdullah not only got me a visa, but got plane tickets from mainland Yemen to the island and helped arrange a car, a driver and a guide. Abdullah is really —  one stop Socotra shopping.

Abdullah - Socotra

Here’s Abdullah above, you can email him here or see his web site here. He was completely reliable, friendly, helpful and although it seems dodgy to send $500 USD to a stranger on a small island in the middle of nowhere — the plan worked exactly as he said it would. While at one time there was an association that governed tourism, the organization has disbanded and now private entrepreneurs like Abdullah are the only real way to organize things.

While this place is remote and exotic, the first note to anyone thinking of going there is, its very underdeveloped. There are no resorts on this island and besides in the capital city of Hadibo, there are no restaurants, hotels or guest houses. In the capital I was told there was two hotels and four restaurants. Our hotel (which cost $10 USD a night – the cheaper of the two options) was powered by generated during the night time hours (ergo, no power during the day) and had no hot water. This was about as luxurious as it would get as the next two weeks on the island were spent camping with no facilities.

Hadibo, Socotra

Above is the city of Hadibo, the capital of Socotra. This is the “big city” — consisting of one main road and some side roads (you are seeing most of the city in this picture). Outside of this, you’ll pretty much encounter only small stone-hut style villages. So don’t expect B&B’s and guesthouses. But this ok, because Abdullah can set you up with a tent and some friends to come along to help.



WHEN: When to go to Socotra is actually a bit tricky. The summer can be blistering hot with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees. However, it is not the heat you are really worried about — but the wind. The winds in Socotra become so fierce from June through August almost everything shuts down.

There are two annual monsoons: the south-west monsoon, which kicks up high seas around the island from early June to early October (this monsoon occasionally brings heavy rains in June), has created a physical barrier to access by sea since the earliest times. These intercontinental stratospheric winds blow from Africa towards the Himalaya mountains, bringing the wet to India. But as they pass over Socotra they are caught by the nearly 5000 ft. Hagghier mountains and dragged fiercely down over the northern coast. The wind blows on the north coast, non-stop, day and night, for three months at approximately 90 kilometers per hour with some gusts at 180 kph, in the area of Hadibo, between Howlaf and Mori. The north-east monsoon from April to May delivers a smaller amount of precipitation. The annual rainfall varies between 130 to 170 mm/hour. Even during the calmer months sea landings may still be difficult due to a combination of logistical problems, including the absence of adequate harbor facilities.

Sandy Landscape

This actually forces the population to live a quasi-nomadic life moving from place to place on the island to shelter from the winds. A good portion of the island is completely desertified. This creates sand storms so brutal almost any and all tourist activities are complete shut. While my guide said tourism was “not allowed” during this months I can’t find anything official that says this.

But I certainly think its a good idea NOT to go during the windy season and the desolate sandy landscape would become very painful.



THERE: Once you are on the island and out of Hadibo you will almost have no opportunity to spend money. You won’t encounter any beggars although some children might try to sell you some dragon blood or incense. And you won’t receive any type of India-like pestering from these kids, its pretty harmless and not annoying.

While there is one main paved road around the island, you will need a four wheel drive vehicle to really explore. I rented a jeep with a driver from Abdullah for $50 a day. There was no options that I heard about for renting your own car or motor bike. Socotra has not developed enough with toruism to have people slinging this stuff yet.

Car with a View

However, this ended up being great. The driver (above) was completely flexible of where we wanted to go and at any point would stop or start the car to photograph. Changing our plan as we deemed fit as we went was not a problem. The car itself was comfortable for 4 people and you could squeeze 5 if you wanted.

There is a microbus service on the island as well, but it is inconsistent, slow and certainly hard to figure out. Its essentially a small (crowded) van that cost about $1 for a long ride and less for shorter rides.

Mahdi Naseeb - Guide Socotra

While the driver is necessary, you can optionally have a guide. If you haven’t been to Socotra before I would certainly recommend getting a guide. My guide, above, was Mr. Mahdi Naseeb. There are allegedly only 12 or 13 guides on the island. Although I haven’t met many of the others, I would certainly recommend this guy. He did go through official training and knows a tremendous amount about the island — from history to plants and trees. And he likes to sing …

Mahdi and the driver acted as a team and understood that while we wanted some information we also wanted some privacy. So if you go to the beach for the day, the driver and guide won’t be sitting watching, waiting impatiently for you to hurry up. Nothing like that. These two, who had never heard, or heard of The Beatles or Elvis Presly were not only great companions but actually seemed like they were having fun with us. I’ve had similar scenarios in other remote places where this is not the case.

Camping on Socotra

In fact, they work as a team in an almost luxery camping setup. So when you get to a spot — you can go explore, rest, swim — or anything else you might want to do. In the meantime, the guide and driver will setup your tent and start preparing food.

These are pretty much your only options while on the island if you want to explore away from Hadibo. While you will be camping on rocks, they will provide a mattress of sorts during meals and for sleeping (if you don’t have a thremarest). While I own camping gear, being able to simply show up with nothing is pretty convenient. Be aware, that even though its tropical and very hot in the day, it can get chilly at night in the spring.



FOOD:I mentioned before there was no restaurants outside of the capital city. So you might be wondering — well, how do you eat then? The food scenerio is very basic, although very good considering the location. In most scenerios, the guide or driver would essentially be “figuring out” dinner every night.

Lobster

This meant either fishing or buying a fish from a local fisherman and when we were in the mountains buying a goat. An entire (small) goat would cost about $10 and would feed all four of us (with rice and pita bread). They can kill, skin and prepare the goat amazingly fast. We ate lobster and fish and were offered stingrays.

Breakfast and lunch were much simpler and consisted of bread, cheese, jam and honey (breakfast) and tuna, yogurt, vegetables (lunch). While in Socotra and Yemen you will consistently be forced an enormous amount of delicious tea. There’s no shortage of that …

Cooking at Night

For someone who grew up camping, having someone else do all the work is a bit of a luxurious experience. And while I think its nice to setup your own tent as its part of the “camping experience” the guide and driver were both very candid and happy as they did this and they never made me feel guilty or lazy. Instead, it was more like they were being hospitable.

Socotra Boats

For three meals a day, prepared, etc. cost $20 per person. Camping, including the tent cost $5 per night and the English speaking guide cost $20 per day. We gave them both small tips at the end which they seemed grateful for. Additional costs included snorkeling ($6), and a boat trip which while it was kind of stupidly expensive, was very worth it ($30 per person) because we had a great time.

So — all said and done, how much does it cost? While I’m sure its possible to do it cheaper, a weekly cost for me while on Socotra was about $450 per person (traveling with two people).

I hope this is helpful — if any further questions should arise feel free to give a shout and I’ll try to get back to you in a timely manor.

And now — the blog will move on to Sana’a, the world’s oldest city.

Jonah

10 thoughts on “The Idiots Guide to Socota: How To … Everything”

  1. Hi there! You have some amazing content on your website, captivating photos and writing alike, great work!

    I will be headed to Yemen mainland and Socotra end October. I noticed you were there with your girlfriend, was it any issue at all? I will also be travelling there with my girlfriend and I was advised that while possible, I should just pretend that she is my wife if asked.

    Another thing is, you mentioned it cost you only $450 for a week’s worth in Socotra, how did you manage to get it that cheap! The cheapest agent I found is charging $1,050 per person for two travellers (5 days of camping in Socotra and another 3 days of trekking in the highlands outside of Sana’a).

    Regards,

    Vic

    1. Hey Vic – I think it would be a good idea to tell people you are married, if it comes up. I would exercise that percaution.
      As far as price goes, you could call my guy who I have listed, thats what we paid. Its possible the price changed dramatically, but still, 1000 seems a big change.

      Once you have it sorted, drop me a line. Im curious if it actually changed a lot.

      Cheers,

      Jonah

  2. Hi Johan! Congrats on your posts. Loved reading your feedback on Socotra. I’ve been wanting to travel there so bad, but as Victor commented above, I’ve been apprehensive with the Sharia Law. I too will be traveling with my boyfriend. Socotra seems to be a world apart from the mainland, but that doesn’t change the fact that chances are I probably will get the connecting flight to the island from Sanaa and not Sharjah (I’m from Brazil and flights to Dubai are just too expensive). On our governments website it clearly states that women are just allowed to walk the streets accompanying by ones husband, father or brother and should wear the “abaya” and the “hijab. How did your girlfriend cope with all this? I’ve only been to Lebannon in the Middle East, but laws seem to be a lot more flexible in Beirute then Sanaa.

    Best,
    Isabella

    1. Hi Isabella,

      We didn’t run into any problems; however, my girlfriend did dress very conservatively (only long skirts and shirts with arms. In addition, she would always have a head scarve or hijab on. Its not such a big deal to wear the scarf, and it also helps you blend in a little more actually. When checking into hotels or if people asked we would also say we were married, although I can’t remember if anyone ever asked (just something we’ve done when traveling in general). But regardless of what the rule technically is, there’s no one walking around asking to see proof of your relationship so you can be walking around. If you are worried about being in the mainland on your way there, I think it would be pretty easy to simply hop on a plane, get to Sana’a. Go directly to a hotel and then hang there and go back to the airport when its time to hop over to Socotra and once you are there, its a much more relaxed place — although the dress code might be similar.

      Hope that helps! Safe travels –

      Jonah

  3. Dear Janah,
    Thanks for sharing the useful information!

    Any entry fees need to pay there?
    Is it easy to get vegetable to eat there?
    your price $450 per person was for 6 nights/7 days and all accommodation are camesites?
    Thanks for your attention!
    Regards,
    ling

    1. Hey Ling! I think that fee included everything, except visas. We paid for those in advance, but the other money included (1) transportation (2) guide (3) driver (4) all camping (5) food. So its really not a bad deal at all. Hang out in Burma for three days, these days you’ll spend more than that …

  4. Hello Jonah,
    Thanks for putting up such a nice post.
    We are 3 ppl really keen to cycle to Socotra this winter. We ve toured Africa full circle by motorbike and along the Silk Road to Mongolia, but due to political unrest and troubles with vehicle documents we are not able to go to Yemen, a country we want to visit for a very long time. This is our blog: intotheworld.eu/en
    We wonder if you can help with some pointers. First, can you please kindly tell how did you secure flights to Socotra? Felix or Yemenia no not respond to emails or Facebook messages and we cannot check if cargo for bicycles is available or not. Or what is the price.
    Now then the situation has clearly changed, but it looks that you got a visa through Abdullah, only after you agreed to you book a tour with him. Our question is if you have any idea if it’s possible to reduce the tour to a minimum, 1,2 or 3 days, in order to be able to enjoy cycling and exploring the island on our own?

    We are fully aware of the security concerns but we are also sure that this is not an issue in Socotra.
    Can you please enlighten us about this?
    Big thanks and hope you are able to respond. And BTW, awesome reporting and awesome documentaries you make.

    Ana & John

    1. Hi Ana and John,

      I think the situation is changing quickly enough that my information is probably out-of-date. I was there 2-years-ago and while I follow the news, I havent followed visa-related news. I can tell you this: We took Felix airlines to and from Socotra from Sana’a. However, Abdullah also arrange flights. So essentially: we Western Union-ed him a grip of money, he sent us a copy/PDF of a visa. We got on the plane, and someone not only met us with the visas at the immigration, but also had plane tickets and dragged us right over to the next flight. Abdullah then met us when we landed in Socotra.

      In terms of flexibility, I think Abdullah would be very flexible to your request and would probably simply arrange a visa if you paid him (enough) to do it.

      In terms of bikes, I have no idea — but from my experience, you can normally check bikes. With a plane this small, you might want to have it packed up good though … 

      I do believe you are correct in thinking that security concerns are a mainland issue.

      Not sure if the flight is still enroute, but we found out when we were there that you could fly directly from Oman (I think it was Oman …) and avoid going to mainland Yemen all together.

      Hope that helps —

      Jonah

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