The volcanic archipelago of the Comoros Islands lie just off Africa’s east coast, situated between Mozambique and the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. They are officially referred to as the Union of Comoros (comprising Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli), while the French-administered department of Mayotte (Grand-Terre and Petite-Terre) lie just to the southeast.
The islands have a long-established Swahili culture, with the arrival of Islam in the 10th century uniting the archipelago with Zanzibar, Pemba and Lamu along Africa’s east coast. They thrived on the trade of ivory and other African goods heading to the Middle East and India, before France bought the island of Mayotte in 1841 and their influence spread over the entire archipelago. The majority of the Comoros voted for independence from France in 1974, with the exception being Mayotte, and the remainder formed what was the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoro Islands. Numerous coups since 1975 have rocked the islands politically, although things have stabilized somewhat under what is referred to as the Union of the Comoros today.
Tourism is still in its infancy in the Comoros (which is a large part of the islands’ appeal) and adventurous travelers will be in their element hiking through its rugged interior, relaxing on the uninhabited beaches and exploring the healthy coral reefs which fringe the islands. But it is the Comoros’ culture that is the biggest draw, with crumbling Swahili architecture in the whitewashed streets and strong Islamic traditions that govern society. The Comoros have long been referred to as the “Perfume Islands”, with the scent of vanilla, cloves and ylang-ylang wafting through the air, adding to the charms of this fascinating destination.
When to travel - weather
The Comoros Islands are located around 10 degrees below the equator, resulting in a maritime tropical climate that is divided into two distinct seasons. The wet season generally stretches from October through to April, with northerly winds bringing moisture and warmer temperatures from the Indian Ocean. The heaviest rains occur from December through to April, when roads can get washed out and travel plans suddenly disrupted.
The best time to visit is from May through to September when the winds are southerly. These bring drier and cooler weather to the islands and far more favorable conditions for lazing at the beach and exploring the coral reefs. The mountainous interior of the Comoros experiences cooler conditions, particularly during the evenings, and the rainfall tends to be higher than along the coast.
Food and drink
The cuisine of the Comoros Islands draws on both Arab and French influences, fused with a distinctly East African heritage. Traditional African ingredients like plantain, banana and cassava are important staples in the Comoran diet, while spices such as cloves, cardamon, cinnamon and nutmeg reflect the diverse cultures that have impacted the islands.
Goat is one of the most popular meats, while beef has traditionally been reserved for special occasions. The abundance of fish and seafood along the coast is reflected in many traditional dishes being seafood-based, with cod, crab and lobster particular favorites. Don’t miss the opportunity to try langouste a la vanilla (lobster boiled in vanilla sauce), m’tsolola (fish and green plantains stewed in coconut milk) or roti ya ya houma pampa, a cod dish cooked with tomato and onion.
Both the spiced meat and rice dish of pilaou and the cardamon-flavored pigeon pea curry known as ambrevades au curry reflect the Comoros’ Middle Eastern influences. Kebab meat is also popular, as it remains across much of the Arab world.
The lightly pickled vegetable salad known as achard aux legumes, together with mkatra foutra (fried unleavened bread) are both popular meal accompaniments, while ladu balls of sweetened and spiced ground rice make for an ideal dessert.
Popular vacation spots
Mount Karthala - The highest point on the Comoros is Mount Karthala - the world’s largest active volcano which towers 2,260 meters over Grand Comore. Despite its frequent eruptions, it’s possible to hike through the evergreen forest which covers the slopes, up to the rim and into the crater, which stretches 4 kilometers wide in some places. The slopes of Mount Karthala provide a home for many of the Comoros’ endemic species, including the Comoro drongo, Humblot’s flycatcher and Karthala scops owl.
Parc Marin de Mohéli - The smallest of the Comoros Islands, Mohéli is renowned for its natural beauty and remote tranquility. It is home to the only national park in the Comoros, Parc Marin de Mohéli, where green turtles nest on the pristine beaches, whales and dolphins play in the waters and exotic birds sing through the forests.
Dziani Boundouni - The sulfurous crater lake of Dziani Boundouni is situated at the center of Mohéli and easily reached on a day walk from the capital Fomboni. It’s one of the few freshwater lakes in the country and houses a diverse array of bird species. As you walk through the surrounding forests, you may also be rewarded with sightings of the rare mongoose lemur.
Anjouan - Also known as Nzwani Island, Anjouan is one of the three islands that make up the Union of the Comoros. Its main town Mutsamudu is renowned for its ancient citadel, exhibiting a distinct Swahili-Shirazi style architecture and beautifully carved doors. Wander the winding alleyways, dotted with mosques, visit the ylang-ylang perfume distilleries of Bambao, and relax on the beaches of Bimbini.
Mitsamiouli - The beaches which surround the small town of Mitsamiouli in the north of Grand Comore are among the islands’ best, with a scattering of resorts where you can kick back and relax. There’s also good diving on the surrounding reefs, with grey reef sharks, barracudas and mantas often seen. The region is renowned for having some of the best Comoran dancers in the archipelago, together with the remains of a Royal Palace which dates back to the Sultan era.
Mayotte - Despite being administered by the French, the island of Mayotte still retains a distinctly Comoran culture and is claimed as one of the Autonomous Islands of Comoros. It’s surrounded by coral reefs which offer superb scuba diving, while sea turtles come to nest on its southern beaches and humpback whales can be spotted off the coast around August/September. Hike to the summit of Mont Choungui for spectacular views across Mayotte and visit the beautiful Sulu Waterfall which plunges into the ocean.
Moroni - Located on the island of Grande Comore, Moroni is the capital of the Union of the Comoros. Its name translates as “in the heart of the fire” due to its location at the base of active Mount Karthala. Its crumbling old town is home to narrow winding streets lined with atmospheric Swahili architecture, while mosque minarets tower above. The oldest is the Badjanani Mosque or Old Friday Mosque, which overlooks the historic harbor and boat building yard of Moroni.
The official languages of the Comoros are French, Arabic and Shikomo (Comorian), which blends both Arabic and Swahili. Before the French arrived, it was Arabic and Swahili which we used by those in political power, with Arabic the language of religion and Swahili brought from East Africa. Today around 97% of the population speak Comorian, although administration and education are now in French as a result of European colonization.
The official currency of the Comoros is the Comoros Franc which is tied to the Euro. Both Euros and US Dollars are commonly accepted at hotels, together with most international credit cards. But at the majority of shops and restaurants you will need to pay cash in local currency.
There are ATMs for withdrawing cash and banks in the major towns where foreign currency can be changed, but be aware that they are open very limited hours in the mornings. If you decide to take travelers checks, then those in Euros will attract the lowest fees.
Health and Safety
Medical services in the Comoros are relatively basic and most of the facilities are privately run. It is essential that you take out comprehensive travel insurance before visiting and be prepared for evacuation in case of severe emergencies. Both hepatitis E and B are widespread and vaccinations against tuberculosis, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, hepatitis A and diphtheria are all highly advised. Malaria occurs in some areas and anti-malaria medication should be taken as a precaution.
Tap water is not always safe to drink and should be boiled or sterilized first, while milk is unpasteurized and needs to be boiled also.