This World Traveled’s Guide to Visiting the Maldives on a Budget

I know what you’re thinking. How can a trip to one of the most beautiful places in the world be budget friendly?

I promise you– it’s possible.

The Maldives is any ocean lover’s dream destination. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is made up of almost 1,200 islands grouped into 26 ring-shaped atolls.

Each island is made up of white sandy beaches that lead into crystal clear lagoons filled with some of the most colorful sea life you’ll ever see. Out of the 1,200 islands, 200 of them are inhabited and about 80 are resort islands.

I’ve been to the Maldives on three separate occasions and spent two months there during my last visit.

All three times I’ve stayed in the South Ari Atoll, which is one of the largest Atolls in the Maldives. It consists of 105 islands divided up into Northern and Southern sections.

Due to its proximity to the Equator, the Maldives has a consistently warm temperature year round. There are two distinct seasons: wet season and dry season. Dry season typically runs from December until April when the Maldives experiences the highest amount of sunshine and lack of rain. The wet season is from May until November when the Maldives is cloudier and has a higher chance of rainfall.

The weather can be  quite finicky– it may be raining on one island but sunny on another one nearby. Also, don’t bother checking your weather app. If two months in the Maldives taught me anything, it’s that the weather predictions are almost always wrong.


Where to Stay


Less than a decade ago the Maldivian government relaxed its rules on tourism and began allowing those living on the inhabited islands to open their own guesthouses. This was a huge success for the locals, as many of them were already working at resorts but had aspirations to one day own their own businesses in tourism.  With the restrictions lifted, their dreams came to life and many Maldivian’s began opening guesthouses. Slowly, at first on the larger islands with easy access from the capital Male, the tourism industry boomed. Finally, on the local, smaller islands tourism has taken hold and we lucky visitors now have many options.

One of those island options is Mahibadhoo.

Mahibadhoo is the capital island of the South Ari Atoll. Located 42 nautical miles southwest of Male this small island is only 1 mile in circumference but packs a powerful tourism punch.

Upon arrival into Mahibadhoo’s new harbour you will be greeted with the picturesque, postcard worthy views of the traditional Maldivian wooden boats, known as Dhoni, anchored in the crystal clear waters.

The charming island is surrounded by a turquoise lagoon, flourishing coral reefs and an abundance of incredible sea life which is only a snorkel and a few fins away.

Currently there are 5 guesthouses on Mahibadhoo, a number that will likely increase in the upcoming years. During my visits I stayed at Mazin’s family run guesthouse Noovilu Suites.  Completed only a few years ago, Noovilu Suites is a luxury guesthouse at a budget traveller’s price. The unique design features outdoor bathrooms and a one-of-a-kind revolving round door.

However, it is truly the people that make this place feel like home. Mazin and his family are very kind, welcoming and accommodating. There is no doubt that you will leave Mahibadhoo feeling like you are part of the family.

There are a few other highly rated guesthouses on the island at different price points. Two of them are Liberty Guesthouse and Sundive Lodge. Both of these guesthouses also offer diving excursions which you can still book even if you are staying at another guesthouse.


How to Get There


Once you arrive at the Male (MLE) airport you will need to take a public ferry from the island of Hulumale, where the airport is actually located, to the capital city of Male.

Upon arrival on Hulumale, most of the guesthouses will have a representative there waiting for you at the airport exit and will travel with you on the ferry to make sure you get to the Male seaport and board the correct boat.

The public ferry runs frequently, takes about 10 minutes and costs 15 rufiyaa (about $1). Once you arrive in Male, your guide will take you to either the public ferry or the public speedboat. Depending on your arrival time and your budget you can either take the ferry or the speedboat to Mahibadhoo.

The public ferry is very inexpensive but takes just over 4 hours to get there, whereas the public speedboat takes 1.5 hours (weather permitting) and costs $25 per person one way. You can pay for the speedboat in US dollars or rufiyaa and you will pay on the boat. The speedboat is quite popular with both tourists and locals so it is best to have your guesthouse reserve a seat for you prior to your arrival.

The public speedboat is operated by HMHI Travels.

Male to Mahibadhoo schedule is as follows:

The public speedboat runs Sunday through Thursday at 4:00 pm; Friday 9:00 am; Saturday 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.

The public ferry runs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 8:30 am.  There is also a night ferry that runs at 6:00 pm on Wednesday and Saturday which is convenient if your flight arrives after 4:00 pm.

Mahibadhoo to Male schedule:

The same public speedboat runs every day at 7:00 am with an extra time at 10:00 am on Thursday and Saturday.

The Public Ferry is Tuesday and Sunday at 10:30 am or overnight on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:30 am.


My Favorite Excursions


Swimming with a Whale Shark

One of the true highlights of the Maldives is the opportunity to swim with a Whale Shark in its natural environment. Year round in the South Ari Atoll, these gentle giants can be found swimming against the current feeding on plankton.

To reach the whale shark point near the island of Mamagilli you will take a scenic 45 minute speedboat ride from Mahibadhoo, passing by many beautiful sandbanks and resorts. You’ll pass by patches where the deep blue ocean turns to turquoise and you can see the shallow depths below. Keep your eye out for flying fish, leaping manta rays and (if you’re lucky) pods of dolphins along the way.

 

With no real schedule, the guesthouses are able to be flexible with time. They prefer to head out early before the resort boats get there with their larger groups of visitors to give you optimal opportunities to swim with the whale shark. You’re also likely to be one of the last boats to leave which is just another added bonus of staying with the smaller guesthouses.

While swimming with a whale shark isn’t always a guarantee, your chances are pretty high in the South Ari Atoll. I’ve been lucky and have swam with them on every occasion I’ve gone out. They will also communicate with their friends from both the guesthouses and resorts to confirm sightings from the day or days prior.

Snorkeling

Snorkeling in the Maldives is truly an indescribable and exciting experience because you never know what you will see each day.

Every time we lowered our mask and snorkel covered faces into the Indian Ocean we would become face to face with some of the most colorful and curious marine life that live in the South Ari Atoll.

With such a large array of reef inhabitants, including tropical fish, stingrays, sea turtles, sharks and coral, its no wonder the Maldives is known for some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.

The water clarity is incredible and on most days you can see up to 30 meters deep just from snorkeling at the surface. There are few dangers to snorkeling and diving in the Maldives, but always be sure to check with your guide about any potentially threatening sea life– like the stone fish, lion fish, and fire coral, just to name a few.

Swimming with Manta Rays

During the Manta season, which runs from the end of May through December, these graceful creatures can be found gliding through the Maldivian waters just a short 15 minute speedboat ride from Mahibadhoo. These curious and playful filter feeders are the largest in the ray family and are referred to as En Madi in the Maldivian language.

Unlike the Stingray, the Manta Ray does not have a venomous spine and is, therefore, not dangerous to swimmers or divers. The Manta tends to swim in an oval-like pattern while feeding so all you have to do is move slowly in the water while they glide past you.

Visit to a Private Island

Only second to swimming with a whale shark, a day visit to a private island is one of my favorite excursions in the Maldives. Could there be anything better than escaping to your own deserted island for an entire day?

Probably not.

With no one else in sight besides the group you arrived with, you will spend the day doing what ever you’d like.

Want to go snorkeling?

No Problem.

Want to take a leisurely stroll around the island?

Why not.

Want to take a nap in the shade?

We won’t judge.

Octopus Hunting

These sneaky, camouflaging eight-legged cephalopods can be–very carefully–spotted all over the coral reefs. It is quite a thrill to watch the Maldivian’s catch an octopus that will ultimately end up on your dinner plate!

Many of my days were spent snorkeling the reefs and assisting in the octopus catching. It is a unique experience to allow the arms of an octopus to suction and release on your skin–a sensation that feels like velcro. By the end of my time in the Maldives I was removing the organs and skinning the octopus myself.

Night Snorkeling

The underwater world looks completely different when lit up only by the narrow beam of your flashlights glow. There is something thrilling and dangerous but also magical and relaxing about not knowing what you will see. The sea creatures look different at night–the skin of the cuttlefish is irridescent, the lion fish come out to play and the bioluminescent plankton is the real show stealer.

The plankton reacts to tension or stress by emitting light from their cells, which to us, appears blue. We not only saw the blue sparks lights up as the waves crashed from the shore but during night snorkeling when we all shut off our flashlights, waved our hands arounds and watched as the ocean around us flickered blue.


The Local People and Religion


The island of Mahibadhoo has a population of just over 2000 very friendly and welcoming people.

The pace of life is slower here and many people enjoy spending time with family and friends while lounging in one of the many jolie’s dotted around the island. You can find these handmade chairs almost anywhere on the island but my favorite spot was swinging under the shade of the large Banyon tree right next to the lagoon.

It is easily the best location on the island to watch the sunset as you sway in sync with the sounds of the crashing waves.

On the island there are many local shops, cafes and restaurants. Most of the guesthouses will over a full board option and the food is delicious. However, should you like to experience meals outside of the guesthouse, there are quite a few options around.

As it is the capital island in the atoll, it is also well-equipped with basic services like a hospital, banking facilities, ATM, phone shops and convenience stores. While the Maldivian Rufiyaa is their national currency, US dollars are generally accepted on the island as well.

Exploring the charm of the inhabited island and interacting with the locals is all part of the experience so take a stroll and say hello.

When you aren’t out on an excursion, take the time to enjoy those softer moments and let your mind relax. You’ll be happy you did.

The Maldives is a Muslim country with rather conservative dress and appearance rules.  Although the rules are slightly relaxed for tourists, the females will be expected to wear at least a t-shirt and shorts on local guesthouse islands. I wore mostly lightweight fabrics and longer shorts because it is very hot and humid. The guests can wear bikinis and swim gear when they’re out on a boat away from the locals…or at a resort.

During my stay in the Maldives I snorkeled a lot on the house reef. With respect to the locals, I would wear either my short sleeved or long sleeved rash guard and a pair of loose fitting swimming or athletic shorts.

Also, keep in mind that alcohol is strictly forbidden on all local islands in the Maldives and is therefore not available on Mahibadhoo. It is also not allowed to bring your own alcohol into the Maldives so be sure not to pack any in your luggage.


Learn Some Dhivehi


Dhivehi is the national language of the Maldives. While many of the younger generation, as well as those working with tourists, know and understand English it is still fun to learn a few words or phrases.

Baajja veri hendhuneh- Good Morning

Baajja veri haveereh- Good Evening

Haaalu kihineh?- How are you?

Varah rangalhu, shukkriyyaa- Very well, thank you

Keekuranii?- What are you doing?

Kon thaaku dhanii?- Where are you going?

Mi reethi- This is beautiful

Shukriyyaa- Thank you


All of my photos, including the underwater shots, were taken with the Leica XU camera and the GoPro Hero 4.  All of my drone photos were taken with the DJI Mavic Pro.

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