Maldives on a Budget

The plan for our round the world trip was to have no plan. However, only two days before we flew to Sri Lanka, we learned we needed a return flight booked before we would be allowed in the country. We looked up the cheapest outbound flight from Colombo and did a double-take. The Maldives?! That can’t be right.

The Maldives is one of those mystical faraway places that I never thought I would step foot in. Most of us know it as the quintessential desktop screensaver. You know the one. Over-the-water huts surrounded by mesmerizing turquoise blue water and white sandy beaches.

Too bad those are luxury resorts for only super rich Wall Street bankers, oil magnates and movie stars. They probably cruise in on their private plane or mega-yacht, drinking champagne. Let’s be honest – that’s a lifestyle we’ll never be able to afford. WRONG! Well, sort of. We can’t afford that lifestyle, but it is possible to visit Maldives on a budget! The government of Maldives changed the game back in 2010.

Previously, the tourism industry consisted of exclusive resort islands focused on secluded luxury. These resort islands are designed for wealthy tourists and no Maldivians live on them. They allow heathen Westerners to enjoy their booze and bikinis away from the Muslim population.

A new law enacted in 2010 allowed people to open guesthouses on the country’s inhabited islands. The government hoped to tap into a huge potential for mid-market tourism that caters to more budget-minded travelers who want to experience the “real Maldives.” Local islands would now be able to share in the tourism profit and it would also address the disconnect between the lucrative resort model and local people.

After discovering a cute little guest house on a sleepy island and buying some swimsuits, it was a no-brainer. We’re going to the Maldives!

Malé City

We arrived in the country’s capital and most populous city, Malé, after a short one hour flight from Colombo. Malé is home to around 150,000 people and covers a geographic area of only 2.2 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated islands in the world. Commercial and residential buildings cover nearly the entire landmass of the island.

Tourists rarely visit Malé. Most people land at the nearby airport island and head straight to their resort. We are glad that we didn’t skip it. There isn’t a lot of sightseeing or activities, but enough to do and see in one full day. Plus it was entertaining to witness the bustling island life.

There’s not a lot of cars on the island, primarily just taxis and transport trucks. And for good reason, since the island is small and EVERYONE owns a scooter. A parked scooter lines nearly every inch of road. Crossing the street is an adventure in itself. You’re forced to play a game of frogger, carefully choosing each step as a flood of seemingly never ending scooters passes by. We even saw a few women wearing full-body burqas that were driving around on scooters. Props to them because that can’t be easy.

We spent the day navigating the city’s narrow streets and avoiding sporadic rain showers. When it rains, it rains hard and the streets flood like crazy. We meandered through the local fish market, watched Chinese tourists in Republic Square obsess over taking selfies with pigeons, and admired the architecture at the People’s Mosque.

Journey to Fulidhoo

Our next destination is where we spent the majority of our time in the Maldives, a local island in the Vaavu atoll called Fulidhoo. We did some research online prior to our visit and read about the beauty and laid back vibes of Fulidhoo, an undiscovered beach paradise that hasn’t been yet been overrun with tourists. Needless to say, we were pretty excited.

Instead of taking a speed boat from Malé to Fulidhoo, we opted for the much cheaper (and slower) ferry service. The ferry transports people and goods between the capital city and other islands. It is the lifeline that connects 26 atolls and hundreds of islands stretching across over 100 square miles. We climb into the boat, unload our backpacks and find a seat on one of the rows of wooden benches bolted to the floor. Locals lay out along the benches to get some shut eye and port workers start a pile on the floor behind us loading all kinds of goods – food, electronics, industrial supplies, etc.

Three and a half hours later we arrived to Fulidhoo and pulled into the small wooden jetty. Fulidhoo is a tiny island, a speck of sand in the Indian Ocean just 675 meters by 200 meters. Needless to say, there is no vehicles and you really don’t even need a bicycle. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its beauty and tranquility.

The Island Life

We exited the ferry and stepped onto dry land. A young guy named Marey met us on the beach to lead us to our guesthouse. His extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins owns and operates several of the guesthouses on the island.

We stayed at La Pearla Guesthouse, which was small with only 3 rooms and a patio in the middle where tables were set up for dining. The island is completely non-commercialized, so there are no restaurants or bars. We ate at the guesthouse for breakfast/dinner and made PB&Js for lunch on most days. About 30 feet in front of our room is a rocky shore, the doorstep to a giant reef on the north side of the island that makes for great snorkeling.

We settle into our room and then embark on a self-guided tour to explore the island.

The population of Fulidhoo is 400 according to Wikipedia, but we’re convinced it’s no more than 150. It felt like a deserted island from an episode of Lost because we hardly saw anyone. Despite its small size, the island has a school, health clinic, community center, mosque, convenience store, an ambulance (not sure why), and a handful of souvenir shops which open a few times a week when guests from nearby resorts come to visit.

The main beach stretches along the island’s south side and a number of boats sit anchored along the shore. We stroll along the beach and watch a group of school-aged boys fishing off the jetty with their makeshift fishing poles, which consist of a line wrapped around a plastic bottle. We also notice the group of sting rays that glide through the water and like to hang out by the jetty.

There are hammocks and chairs made from fish netting strewn along the beach where locals relax under palm trees. We want to go for a swim, but the main beach is not one for sunbathing or swimming, not for women anyway. Maldivian women swim fully clothed and wearing a bikini is a big no-no. However, many of the local islands set aside a cordoned off beach for tourists in order to get around the issue of women’s swimwear.

We finally found Fulidhoo’s “bikini beach” at the far end of the island – it was gorgeous! The best part is that most of the time we had the beach all to ourselves.

Pit: Getting caught in a rain storm in Malé while walking home from dinner. It took weeks to dry our clothes after that! The relentless mosquitoes that devoured us every chance they got.

Peak: Being on island time, taking amazing hammock naps and befriending a stingray.

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