The Maldives on a Backpacker Budget

You’ve all seen the Instagram photos of bronzed celebrities frolicking on the white sand beaches of the Maldives. And you’ve probably heard that it costs anywhere between $300 per night and $50,000 per night (underwater suite at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island) to stay there. But have you heard that the number of guesthouses and boutique hotels has been multiplying in the Maldives, and now they outnumber resorts by 5 to 1!

There are now 560 guesthouses in the Maldives, with rates starting as low as $50 per night. That’s right, $50 to access the turquoise lagoons and year-round sunshine this tropical archipelago is renowned for. The accommodations in this new category (made legal in 2009) vary from simple rooms right up to boutique hotels, but even the flashiest ones still only cost around $150 per night. Some of them even have hot tubs, pools, and spas – for half the price of the cheapest Maldives resort! Often they are better value because they’re so new.

Uninhabited island in the Maldives

What You Need To Know

The 1,190 tiny islands that constitute the Maldives are categorized into three main groups; 130 “resort islands” (with just one resort per island), 200 “inhabited islands” (islands with local communities and guesthouses on them) and the remaining islands are empty and classed as “uninhabited islands”.

Different laws apply on the islands that guesthouses/boutique hotels are located on that are very important for budget travelers/backpackers to know about. But no matter where you stay, and whether you’re a millionaire or a backpacker, the thing to remember is everyone in the Maldives gets the same white sand, azure sea, and brilliant sunshine.

One of the best things about guesthouses is you get to live amongst the local community

Cultural and Legal Considerations

Guesthouses give tourists the opportunity to live amongst Maldivian communities, but different laws apply to these islands than to the islands that resorts are built on. Everyone visiting a Maldivian community should be aware that alcohol, pork and swimwear (bikinis and one-piece bathing suits) are illegal on ‘inhabited islands’, even for foreigners. This is because as a moderate Sunni Muslim nation the culture is fairly conservative – Maldivians aren’t allowed to drink and the women bathe in the sea fully-clothed.

The good news is, guesthouse owners, realized many of their guests wanted to have a beer or two and wear Western-style swimwear so they have come up with some ingenious solutions. Take Maafushi for example, the guesthouse owners have negotiated with the island council to provide a private stretch of beach where bikinis are permitted, available for all tourists to share.

With Maafushi as something of a model (being the first inhabited island to develop large-scale guesthouse tourism), many guesthouses on other islands have followed suit with private beach areas, such as the stunning beach at Rasdhoo. Most guesthouses also offer day trips to resorts for discounted rates (such as $25-50 for a day pass) so that travelers can sunbathe in bikinis and purchase cocktails and beer. Maafushi also has a ‘floating bar’ moored outside the lagoon that guests can visit.

However, if you’re quite happy to ‘survive’ a holiday in the Maldives without those things, then there’s no pressure to do so. In fact, many guesthouse owners report a significant percentage of backpackers to say they don’t feel the urge to drink in the Maldives. After all, the reason travelers travel is to experience a different culture, environment and way of life outside of our normal range of experience (as well as to find the sunshine).

The Maldives is also an excellent surf spot for intermediates to experts, Thulusdhoo Island is a great spot for surfing guesthouses

The Location

The chain of Indian Ocean islands that make up the country lie to the south-west of India and Sri Lanka, straddling the equator. The proximity to the equator means that the climate is hot and humid; the temperature hovers around 30c all year-round and it never gets cooler than 25c.

The wet season is from April to November but there’s still an average of 8 hours’ sunshine per day and showers are sporadic (often only at night). Bargain-hunters will find the best accommodation deals during this period.

Getting Around

An important expense for budget travelers to consider is transportation. The Maldives can be quite tricky and expensive to navigate because the 1,190 islands are scattered far and wide. Private charters are pricey but taking public ferries can save hundreds of dollars and the network has expanded in response to demand from budget travelers.

For example, the ferry to Maafushi runs daily (except Fridays) for $3 each way, compared to a speedboat charter which costs around $200. Maafushi is one of the most popular islands amongst backpackers due to the location and choice of guesthouses. There are about 20 guesthouses on Maafushi which is remarkable considering the island is 1.2km by 0.2km in size.

Many travelers use the tiny 2.2sq km capital city of Male’ as a jumping-off point as most of the public ferries to surrounding islands and some overnight ferries to the further-flung atolls depart from Male’. The majority opt for accommodation within Male’ Atoll or neighboring Ari Atoll (which reduces costs and traveling time) such as on the islands of Maafushi, Guiradhoo, Himmafushi, and Thulusdhoo. Male’ itself isn’t so great for backpackers because it’s very urban and pretty much the antithesis of what you picture when you imagine the Maldives (I’d know, I used to live there!).

Getting between one island and another without going back to Male’ is harder because the network is Male’-centric (and there aren’t any ‘taxi boats’ unlike in Southeast Asia). But travelers can sometimes hitch a ride on a fishing boat or cargo boat if they inquire locally – Maldivians are usually more than happy to try to help travelers but do take due care and consideration as this is just another form of hitchhiking.

Just one of the thousands of stunning beaches in the Maldives

Making Friends

While for the past few decades the Maldives has only been accessible to affluent travelers (the majority being honeymooners) the arrival of guesthouses has changed the demographic. Singles in their 20s and 30s, surfing enthusiasts, scuba divers, and groups of friends are discovering guesthouse accommodation so you won’t struggle with making friends on these islands. Couples and families are also starting to see guesthouses as a more colorful alternative to resorts, so you’ll meet a pretty broad mix of people.

The tropical archipelago is renowned as one of the best diving destinations in the world

The Guesthouse Islands

Dhangethi is one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the Maldives. The island is home to 1,200 Maldivians and is located 87km from Male’, in Alif Dhaal Atoll. Other than tourism; fishing, handicrafts, carpentry, and boat-building are the main sources of employment. At Holiday House Dhangethi, for example, you can have a picnic on a sandbank or go windsurfing for $20 compared to at least $70 at a resort, or hop on a boat for an all-day diving trip for around $60 compared to $90-$250 at a resort.

Many inhabited islands also have independent water-sports and diving centers for travelers to choose from, such as Maafushi Dive Centre on Maafushi, where it’s $50-$55 for a 3-dive day trip including equipment rental. Whale sharks the size of double-decker buses, alien-looking manta rays, moray eels, countless reef sharks and crystal-clear water are just some of the reasons why the Maldives is considered one of the world’s best diving destinations. There are more than 2,000 species of tropical fish and the sheer quantity of sea-life is barely matched in any other location. Divers can choose between shore dives to see the island’s ‘house reef’ or hop on a boat to track whale sharks and mantas (the Maldives is the only place on the planet with a year-round population of whale sharks). There are also countless opportunities to do wreck dives, drift dives, night dives, thilas, walls, and caves.

Those who prefer to stay above the waves can opt for a host of exciting water-sports including surfing, windsurfing, paddle-boarding, kite-boarding, and fishing.

A Close-Up Cultural Experience

Cultural activities are also available at some guesthouses and they’re also a major bonus of staying in a guesthouse versus staying in a resort. Resorts are segregated from the local island communities so guests miss out on a massive part of the Maldivian culture.

Guesthouses typically provide an array of cultural activities for guests including Maldivian cookery classes, watching craftsmen at work using traditional skills handed down for generations or sunset fishing with local fishermen.

A trip to a local cafe is a fun way of getting to know the country through the local cuisine. The delicious traditional breakfast of mas’huni roshi is always popular with travelers. It consists of tuna, coconut, lime, and chilli wrapped up in thin tortillas known as roshi and costs around $1-$2 a pop, including tea or coffee. Fish curries and Maldivian tapas known as hedika, form the backbone of Maldivian cuisine. Most of the fish curries are fairly mild and are served with roshi. ‘Hedika’ consists of small deep-fried squares, spheres or triangles made from fish and coconut with a handful of other local ingredients such as curry leaves, eggs, and onion. All of these dishes can be found in cafes on local islands alongside international classics such as spaghetti bolognese, pizza, pasta, fried rice, and sandwiches.

The boom in guesthouse tourism has been good news for the local economy because it allows small business owners to make a living and also supports a host of associated local enterprises such as cafes, diving, and souvenir shops.

A Maldivian woman making breadfruit chips

How your day breaks down:

Currency: Maldivian Rufiyaa (US$ also widely accepted).

Guesthouses: $50-150/night

Lunch: $3-$10

Water: $1

Excursions: $20+

Taxi: $2 flat rate

Atoll ferry: $1-$5 (inter-atoll ferries cost more)

For public ferry schedules visit www.mtcc.com.mv/transport/ferry-link or you can book scheduled speedboats for faster transfers with local travel agents such as Icom Maldives or Atoll Transfer.

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