Tuesday, 31 August 2021 | Socotra
Socotra is one of the few "undiscovered" places left to travel. A small group of islands off the coast of mainland Yemen, travel to Socotra has been limited during recent years due to the civil unrest the country has faced. Whilst it hasn't directly affected the Socotra, the civil war has significantly affected tourism, with flight restrictions, visa limitations and many international travellers unsure of the safety situation. During 2020, when travel looked set to resume, the global Covid-19 pandemic closed the tourism season.
From 2021, Socotra is fully open for tourism with a small number of locally operated agencies providing access to the island for individuals and small groups. What remains after years of very limited international travel is a destination that hasn't been spoiled by commercial tourism. If you are looking to visit a place with amazing natural landscape, species of trees not found anywhere else in the world and friendly local people with a genuine curiosity towards guests............this is your next trip! Facilities & infrastructure on the island are quite limited - there are very few hotels or restaurants, however this is a huge part of the appeal. Your time there will be spent disconnecting and enjoying the natural beauty of Socotra!
1. Getting To Socotra:
Whilst travel is now open to Socotra, getting there is still quite restricted. There are now weekly flights direct from Abu Dhabi into the capital Hadibo. At the time of writing, this is essentially teh only access for tourists to visit Socotra. The flight is operated by Air Arabia and bookings can be made online.
The best approach for arranging a trip is to go through a recognised tour operator. Even for those who enjoy solo travel or normally dont join tours, Socotra can be a really difficult location - there isnt any public transport and hiring cars/motor bikes is very limited. There are a small number of hotels in Hadibo, however the places to explore are spread across the island. So arranging your trip with a tour operator is the most convenient way to visit. I went with "Welcome To Socotra", which is operated by 2 awesome Italian travellers.
Welcome To Socotra managed booking flights and arranging tourist Visas (which are required for everyone). They also manage your itinerary, transport, accomodation, food etc for your stay. The Visas are issued by Yemen and whilst the process is tedious, it is now possible to obtain for tourism.
The Air Arabia flight from Abu Dhabi leaves around 10am in the morning, so you can either transit through Abu Dhabi, stay in Abu Dhabi or drive from Dubai. Note that with Covid protocols in 2021, if you are driving from Dubai, you will need a PCR test to enter Abu Dhabi. You can use the same PCR result to enter Socotra but ensure it is done at a laboratory and has your passport information. When crossing the border into Abu Dhabi you will need to show this result as well as your air ticket as you cannot visit Abu Dhabi from Dubai without quarantine unless you are flying out.
On arrival in Socotra, you will need to present your passport, visa and Covid PCR result (48 hours). They will also conduct a Covid rapid test at the airport before you are allowed to enter.
Be aware that Yemen is a muslim country, so alcohol is not permitted to be brought in. The border control in Socotra is managed by Saudi Arabia, so as a general rule, if you cant take it to Saudi Arabia, you likely cant take it to Socotra. Whilst local women will for the most part be dressed very conservatively with hair and arms covered, this is not a strict rule for visitors - although moderation is expected, especially in the city Hadibo.
2. Understand Socotra:
Socotra is actually a group of 4 islands hundred of kilometres off the coast of mainland Yemen and North-East Africa (Somalia) - it is one of the most geographically isolated places on the planet. The local population of Socotri are mostly of Yemeni ancestors wth some African migrants, especially around the coast. The main religion is Islam and the island can be considered to be a conservatively muslim destination.
The total population on the island is around 50,000 people, with most living in the capital Hadibo which has a population between 25-35,000. The dominant language spoken is local Socotri, although most will speak and understand arabic. In the city, some locals will understand English.
The political situation in Socotra is somewhat complex. Although it is part of Yemen, there are elements of control from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Certainly much of the infrastructure including roads, schools and hospitals have been provided by the UAE government, as well as considerable humanitarian support.
The local people are extremely friendly and very curious towards visitors (especially the children). Many are not comfortable with having their photos taken and this should be considered when travelling around the island.
The island is quite large, over 130km long and 50km wide. Roads are mostly suited to 4WD vehicles outside the cities. The weather can be somewhat unpredictable although there are definite seasons, including a monsoon season in the middle of the year when extreme winds lash the island. In 2015 a cyclone caused significant damage to the island including to the trees, reefs and local buildings.
The highlights of Socotra are its natural landscape and endemic plant species. There are over 900 species of plants on the island and over a third of those are not found anywhere else in the world. There are not a lot of native animals and the huge populations of goats are all from imported animals. There are also cats, camels and cattle. The goat populations have grown to such an extent that they cause issues with overgrazing the native plants, especially the iconic Dragon Blood trees.
The city of Hadibo has a small number of shops including some grocery stores, however for the most part it can be assumed that you won't be able to purchase very much. Visiting Hadibo you will hav the chance to purchase things like some fresh fruit, soft drinks etc. However anything like charging cords, medicines, electronics etc you will need to bring with you!
3. Visiting Socotra:
As mentioned, Socotra isn't really suited to solo travel or even visiting to stay in hotels. The island is there to explore, with the highlights spread out over island and roughly 1.5 hours drive from Hadibo. The best option is to visit with one of the tour operators. Tourism on the island is very well suited to this arrangement, with local communities involved at the various overnight locations - some you will set camp in the small villages and at other times they assist with activities like diving, fishing, guiding, etc. These tours are not commercialised and maintain the true authentic culture of Socotra. I visited with Welcome To Socotra and would strongly recommend them as a great point of contact to arrange your trip to Socotra.
Sleeping: It should be noted that Socotra offers relatively basic facilities in terms of accomodation & food. You will sleep mostly in small single person tents, although Welcome To Socotra do now offer a range of "glamping" style tents. Some sites dont have bathroom facilities and some just very simple toilet & shower. Be sure to bring your own amenities including toilet paper. Welcome To Socotra provide mattress, pillow and bedsheet, but you will need your own sleeping bag.
Food: Meals were provided by Welcome To Socotra and cooked by the team at the camp sites. You will get to taste many local styles of cooking with a strong seafood bias. A typical meal involves fish, salad, cooked vegetables, flat bread and tea. Almost all vegetables are imported from the mainland, so whilst vegetarian dishes are available, they are actually more difficult to source than seafood. If you a preferring vegetarian, definitely make this clear in advance so it can be arranged ahead of time - things like pastas, salads, curries, beans etc are all possible.
We did have the opportunity to also catch our own fish (successfully) and to purchase fresh seafood in the markets and directly from local fishermen. This included octopus, fish and crayfish.
Water is provided and so were refillable bottles. You can also buy water and soft drinks from Hadibo.
If you're fussy or a big eater, I recommend bringing some of your own snacks like protein bars or nuts. You can also buy fruit and snacks from stores in Hadibo.
Culture: Socotra is a relatively conservatively Muslim society, so being aware of some aspects of visiting Muslim countries will give a guide of what is considered acceptable/respectful. In most instances, the people of Socotra are also very welcoming of foreign visitors and happy for people to visit freely.
As a general guide, on arrival in in Hadibo, I would suggest some degree of respect in terms of dressing modestly. Women dont need to be covered, although wearing sleeves would be advised to demonstrate some respect. Outside Hadibo, wearing bathing costumes etc doesnt appear to be an issue. Alcohol is not permitted in Socotra and will be confiscated at the airport.
I always recommend taking the time to learn common greetings and customs when visiting foreign countries. The local people appreciate it and it opens our own experiences as we travel the world. People in Socotra speak both Socotri (local language) and arabic, so learning a few basic arabic phrases will serve you well.
Be aware that the holy month of Ramadan is observed in Socotra, so for 30 days there is fasting during daylight hours and an increased observance of Muslim practices. The dates for Ramadan come forward each year, so check the dates online in case they correspond with your travel dates.
People in Socotra are not "conditioned" to tourism in the sense that they haggle visitors or push to sell fake souvenirs. It is endearing to visit a place where the community is very genuine and authentic. Be aware that they are also not used to visitors coming and taking photos of local people going about their day, so be mindful and generally ask permission before taking someones photo (they will most often decline!).
One thing I did notice that was a bit surprising was the amount of rubbish - unfortunately there is not a great system for waste management and things like plastics especially accumulate in large piles, especially in Hadibo. Definitely dont contribute to this situation - use reusable drink bottles and generally avoid plastics where you can.
Safety: Probably the most common question I was asked during & after my trip to Socotra was "is it safe?". As many people know, there has been ongoing unrest in mainland Yemen that has unfortunately resulted considerable violence. This caused issues with Travel to Socotra as tourist visas were suspended and reports of the conflict deterred visitors.
Fortunately for Socotra, the violence never travelled from the mainland to this peaceful island. Whilst nothing in the world can be guaranteed, at the time of writing this and having spent time talking to people in Socotra, it can be considered a relatively safe place for travel. The reports of it being unsafe or subject to violent attacks are simply not true. Certainly the conflict in Yemen is a concern and I would advise checking for updates if you are planning to visit Socotra. My experience however, was of a very peaceful place to visit with friendly local people. In Hadibo there is possibly a small amount of minor crime, but it wasn't something I was exposed to. I think like all travel, everyone should do their own research and make an informed decision, however I read several reviews that described travel to Socotra as extremely dangerous - this was either significantly outdated or just plain wrong.
One thing I would say in regards to safety is that Socotra is an adventurous place to travel. At the airport departure there were 2 people with broken legs that had fallen over on hikes. Bring suitable footwear, sun protection etc as it is quite a rugged environment.
There is a very good hospital in Hadibo that was built by the government of the UAE.
Covid-19: Another topic I received a lot of questions about was Covid-19 related protocols and travel during/around the pandemic. The information relating to Covid-19 will change over time so I would suggest checking close to your travel date. When I visited (February 2021), we were required to have a Negative PCR within 48 hours of departure from Abu Dhabi. This was presented on arrival in Hadibo. I used the same PCR result to enter Abu Dhabi from Dubai. If you are entering the UAE via Dubai, these tests can be done at drive through clinics such as Kings Hospital Dubai and the results arrive within 12 hours (cost 150 AED). Om arrival in Hadibo, they did a rapid test (finger prick blood test) and entry was only permitted once that was negative. At the time of visiting there wasn't any restrictions in terms of masks or social distancing once outside the airport.
To return to the UAE you are required to visit the hospital in Hadibo (Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan Hospital) for a rapid test which you need to collect the day of your flight and present at check in.
Money & Tipping: You can exchange new USD in Hadibo if you are wanting to buy any souvenirs, food etc. Most things are quite inexpensive, so don't plan on needing to take too much for this. There are also some locals selling things like Dragon Blood powder in the villages. also like to "tip" locals I take photos of by paying them for their time if they agree to a quick "photoshoot" - this is a personal preference.
I always find it hard to give advice on tipping because its a very personal choice and different cultures have different opinions. If you explore the island with one of the organised groups, the team that look after you do have an "expectation" of a tip and this is how they make their livings. As a rough guide, people in our group each tipped from US$100-200 and the money went into a pot that was then divided between the team.
Climate: For the most part, Socotra is a warm, dry island, so you can mostly expect to experience pretty warm days. Dec-Jan can get cool, especially at night in the mountain areas. This is a very pleasant time to visit as the day time temperatures are very pleasant. Towards April, it will become very hot during the day and most operators finish their tours for the season. There is a monsoon season in the Summer (especially July/Aug) and visiting during this time is not recommended due to the extreme winds. Towards November there is a brief rainy season, which is another great time to visit, as everything becomes green.
Getting around: There are lots of places to visit around Socotra and you will really need to travel by road each day to see them all. Some roads require 4WD and your only option really are the tour operators - there aren't hire car options, no public transport, private drivers are difficult to arrange and hitch-hiking is not advised.
Itinerary: If you are visiting with one of the tour groups like Welcome To Socotra, your itinerary will be mostly arranged by their team. There may be some flexibility, especially if you are travelling with your own group, but otherwise, the team will create an itinerary that best suits what you are looking to see.
You will visit Socotra most likely for 7 days, allowing you to travel to most areas of the island and visit places like Qalansia, Diksam, Arher and Dirhamri. There is an option for 14 day visits which create the opportunity to do a 3 day hike/camel trek through one of the gorges. The reason for the 7 and 14 day itineraries is that flights only operate once per week.
If you are arranging your own travel, you will obviously have the flexibility to go where you please, however travelling between different places is likely to be very challenging.
In order to see the highlights of Socotra, come prepared for some driving between locations and some hiking to some of the more remote places. It refreshing to travel to destinations where some of the best sights still require the effort of hikes, albeit relatively short and not too demanding. Here is a list of my top things to do in Socotra:
See the incredible vegetation: Socotra is famous for the iconic Dragon Blood Tree - the uniquely shaped trees that look like something from another planet. Their name comes from the legend that there was once a fight between an elephant & a dragon on the island, the elephant won and the blood from the dying dragon flowed into the ground and from there the Dragon Blood Trees grew. The sap is a blood-red in colour and is harvested by the locals for its uses including make-up and multiple healing/medicinal properties. The trees take several hundred years to grow to full size and huge numbers were destroyed in the cyclone of 2015. The island also has a problem with the small trees being destroyed from overgrazing by goats, to the extent where it its rare to find any young Dragons Blood Trees. The trees only grow at certain elevations on the island, so there are only certain places you will get to see them. Diksam plateau is a great place for the Dragons Blood Trees and Firmhin is not too far away and has an amazing forrest of Dragons Blood Trees.
Another iconic tree of Socotra is the Bottle Tree, with their unique bulbous trunk and bright pink flowers. They are more spread out over the island, but certainly more concentrated in some areas including Diksam and Firmhin, however they can also be seen at lower elevations. They will bloom at different times of the year, however Feb-April is a great time to catch them in bloom.
There are 7 species of Frankensense on Socotra, 6 of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Thee sap/resin is used for its pleasant smell when burnt in homes. You can also find the well name Cucumber trees with their sausage shaped trunks and small tuft like branches and leaves. There are some places you are able to actually find all 4 of these trees in the same place.
In total there's over 900 species of plants on Socotra and more than a third of those are not found anywhere else on Earth, making it an incredibly unique landscape to visit.
Swim in the infinity pool at Homhil: This was a lot of people's favourite experience in our group. Most tours stop on the way to Arher and walk up the hill to the "infinity pool" at Homhil. Our group adjusted the itinerary to stay the night in Homhil so we could spend the afternoon into sunset. We walked through the valley and arrived at this amazing natural pool that looks down towards the ocean. Really picturesque and makes for perfect swimming hole.
Take a boat ride from Qalansia to Shoab: Qalansia is a traditional fishing village with lots of brightly coloured boats on the beach. It is easy to arrange a fishing boat to take visitors for an hour boat ride along the cliff lined shores to the white sandy beach at Shoab. This is another perfect place for a swim. The boat ride is also a great opportunity to spot huge schools of dolphins. We were also lucky to bump into fishing boats on the way back and buy fresh crayfish & octopus to cook for dinner that night.
Snorkel the marine reserve at Dihamri: Unfortunately the coral reefs at Dirhamri Marine Reserve was damaged during the Cyclone in 2015, so much of the coral and sealife did get damaged. It has recovered to some extent and this is still the best place win Socotra to go for a snorkel. There is a man who rents snorkel & fins at the camp area (USD15 for a set). There is some pretty good snorkelling right in front of the camp area and around the point. You will see large numbers of different fish, eels, crayfish, octopus, turtles etc. If you want to go fishing, there are some boats here that will also take you out to try and catch your dinner.
Walk through the dragon blood forrest at Firmhin: This is also a place that isnt on all the itineraries but worth discussing with your group. It is a drive short drive from Diksam Plateau along a winding road. This is one of teh highest density areas for Dragon Blood trees! It is a short walk from the road up the hill to the top and a view back down over the tops of thousands of trees. The slope of the hill also has lots of Bottle Trees and we found places on the way that had Dragon Blood, Bottle Trees, Cucumber trees and Frankinscence all in the same place.
Climb to the top of the dunes at Arher: This was my personal favourite place and experience in Socotra. The sand dunes at Arher are a white sand that has been blown up against the cliffs that line the water - swimming out in the ocean you get an amazing perspective of the towering dunes rising almost vertically up from the water. However the best view is to climb up the dunes and look back down over them onto the water. We got up really early and climbed before sunrise so we could watch the sun come up and bath the dunes in soft morning light. It is about a 45 minute walk up the pretty steep and soft sand, but it is 100% worth the effort!
Meet the local people: Something I try to do wherever I travel is interact with local people to get an understanding of the culture of the places I visit. Local Socotri are generally extremely friendly, welcoming and "unspoilt by tourism". The people who work in the tour groups are mostly locals - this industry is a major source of income for their communities. They are great to speak with as they mostly understand English and can explain a lot about the way of life in Socotra. As well, you will meet lots of different locals as you travel around the island - from fishermen, to people living in small villages up in the mountains. If you have the chance to spend some time in Hadibo, the small fresh food market is an interesting place to wander through and see locals going about their daily life. I found whilst locals were very curious, many did not want to have a photo taken.
Diksam Plateau at sunrise/sunset: For many, this will be the first time you get a look at the famous Dragon Blood trees! Rather than a public space, most groups will set up camp inside a local village. The canyon has some incredible views, especially with the changing light of sunrise and sunset - the walk from the village is around 30-40mins but bring a headlamp/torch as the ground can be rough. Some really great views of Dragon Blood and Bottle Trees along the sides of the Canyon. We also did some star-gazing/astro photography at Diksam as there are large open areas of Dragon Blood Trees. Due to the goats there are very few small Dragon Bloods left in Socotra, however just next to the village there is a fenced off area where they are growing the trees and its worth stopping to see what these giant trees look like when they are only small.
Go swimming in the gorge at Kallisan: This was another of my favourite experiences in Socotra. Another relatively short hike into the valley in Kallisan finishes in a small gorge lined by white cliffs. The water is turquoise and perfect for swimming. If you are brave enough there are some spots for cliff jumping. If you fly a drone, this place is absolutely perfect!
I was fortunate to visit Socotra with one of the worlds best landscape photographers - Daniel Kordan and we had a focus on documenting the island photographically during our stay. Many people who visit Socotra will have at least some interest in photography and if you dont, you likely will by the time you leave!
The landscape is incredibly photogenic, especially with so many unique plants and trees. For the most part you will be able to get really creative with compositions and very few people will leave Socotra with the same photo!
I travelled to Socotra with my full camera bag - wide angle landscape lenses and telephoto zoom lenses. Bring with you lens cleaner and sensor cleaner, as the conditions are really sandy. Think carefully about memory cards and batteries as the opportunity to charge electronics is pretty limited.
Even with a phone camera you will have the opportunity to take some amazing images and video - my favourite image from Socotra is from my iPhone, taken hiking back down the Arher dunes with my entire camera bag on my back (ironic).
Drones are an interesting one. The advice we received and everything we found online, suggested there was no issue with drones. However others have said they had drones confiscated on arrival. If you are travelling from Dubai, I would suggest having your drone registered and having a license to operate your drone. Observe the rules that apply to drones in countries like the UAE/Saudi Arabia, especially avoid flying anywhere near military facilities or the airport.
Below are my favourite photography places in Socotra and some suggestions if you are visiting for photography:
Diksam Plateau: This is the place to get your iconic Socotra Dragon Blood Tree photos! The whole area, including nearby Firhin, has a high density of Dragon Bloods due to being to ideal elevation. The drive in to the local village has a flat area with lots of great trees - we used this area for our astro photography as its easily accessible and you have variety of choices/compositions. With the minimal light/atmospheric pollution, you have a great opportunity to get clean milky way images.
The canyon at Diksam is a perfect place to get landscape dragon blood images, especially at sunrise or sunset, when the soft light creates amazing tones on the sides of the canyon. This is also an amazing place to fly the drone and access some compositions that are almost impossible to get any other way.
There is a large, perfect shaped tree on the edge of the canyon and some nice bottle tree/dragon blood tree compositions as you walk towards the canyon.
Rather than photographing just the tree by itself, look to bring in creative elements - foreground plants/colours, people or the canyon.
Sand Dunes at Arher: This is an incredible place for photos. Even just with a mobile phone or GoPro, you can wade out into the water in the morning and get a really nice shot of the blue water, white dunes and black cliffs. With a drone you can get some amazing abstract compositions of the sand on the dunes and other creative angles of the dunes/ocean.
The best photos from Arher though will be from the top of the dunes at sunrise/sunset. The soft light and coloured sky with the amazing compositions are some of the most breathtaking shots you can get in Socotra. Definitely my favourite place for photos on the island!
We hiked up the dune towards the western end of the beach for sunrise, it was a bit more accessible with much of the walk up along a rock line. Look for somewhere during the daylight that will allow you to access the top without having to walk up the steepest sand.
On several of the beaches at Arher there are moons of sand created by crabs. These make for some really unique and abstract shots - especially getting close and making them appear larger than they really are.
Local Portraits: love photographing local people in the places I visit and Socotra is a great opportunity for some travel portraits. The people are generally extremely friendly, however they are not used to visitors to the island wanting to take lots of photos of them. Many are not comfortable and refuse to have their photo taken, especially females. Always ask permission before taking photos of people in Socotra.
I found several locals who were comfortable to spend some time taking photos and gave them some remuneration for their time.
At the markets in Hadibo, many of the men in the fishing village will be happy for people to take a photo for a small tip.
Sunrise from mountain at Qalansia: We started our week at Qalansia (reverse to most itineraries), so we were excited to see our first bottle trees. There is a small peak to the east of the lagoon which can be hiked up for an amazing view across the water at sunrise. For sunset, you would look back towards the setting sun. We climbed for sunrise and had some magic conditions with the sun coming up behind us as we looked towards the lagoon. Note that its a moderate difficulty with some really steep sections, so take care on this walk of around 45-60mins each way (especially if its dark!). We found several bottle trees at the very top of the peak and depending on the time of year you visit, they might be in bloom (we actually sent a drone up the day before to make sure there was at least 1 tree with flowers).
There is a smaller peak between the lagoon camp and Qalansia village that has some nice views of the lagoon. So if you aren't confident in climbing the larger hill for sunrise/sunset, this is a great option.
Gorge at Kallisan: Another really amazing place for photos is Kallisan with the turquoise water lined by steep, white cliffs. This is especially amazing for drone photography/video and a polarising filter will result in much better photos. If you're into drones, mark this spot down on the itinerary!
You can get some nice shots using a camera also looking back down the gorge. I didn't take my camera with me as you will likely visit during the middle of the day. I imagine it would be pretty amazing to be there around sunrise with some colour in the sky!
White sand dunes at Zaheq: This isn't on all itineraries, but if you are able to have some flexibility and make the trip to Zaheq, there are white dunes that run along the coastline and the contrast of the sand with the blue water can be striking. These dunes are great for drone or sunset photography. If you are able to plan ahead you might be able to arrange a camel and local handler to meet you there to create a unique photo opportunity!
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