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Published: August 12th 2017
Prior to our trip, it was difficult to find timely information online about traveling in Zimbabwe, as of the summer of 2017. Once on the road, we had hoped to meet people in South Africa, Zambia, or Botswana who had been there recently, but we met no one. So, here's what we found from visiting:
There simply isn't much of it right now, likely because of all the difficulties explained below. We had initially planned to spend more time in Zim to check out Mana Pools and maybe some other destinations farther from major cities, but ended up settling for the two main cities: Bulawayo and Harare. In hindsight, we probably could have found buses or local shared taxis to these smaller destinations; then again, we even had to spend half a day looking for information about a bus from Bulawayo to Harare - something that should be very simple. It was a hassle at times, but definitely worth exploring the country, as we found it to be safe, friendly, and off the current backpacking path.
If you're looking for a good contact in Bulawayo who can help with barebones tours of Motopos, Hwange, etc., talk to Thembi
via Whatsapp or text (+263 7 76531258). He is also on Couchsurfing, though his home is basic and outside the city a bit. He's honest and a charged about half what the legit tour companies wanted. His old van is no-frills, but it's a bit unnecessary to be in a posh safari vehicle with a special seat near the left headlight (like we saw some of the tour book guides driving around the park).
1. Visas are $30 for Americans and most other Western countries. If you're going to both Zim and Zambia, it's possible to buy a dual visa for $50 at the airport in Livingstone, but it's only valid when going back and forth between these two countries. We went to Botswana after Zambia, so we had to buy a new $30 visa when we re-entered Zimbabwe near Francistown.
2. Entering Zimbabwe at Victoria Falls was easy. It's a ten minute taxi from Livingstone to the Zambia side of the falls, and you can walk the 2km to the border from there. Mostly tourists and people who work on the opposite side cross here, so there were few delays. The whole process, including the walking, took
@The Bulawayo Club
We enjoyed our midday bloody marys, followed by a beautiful butternut squash and spinach soup, and then really nice mains.
under and hour.
3. However, crossing the border between Francistown and Bulawayo took 10 hours all told. In Francistown, we boarded a bus whose driver and assistant said it left at 1, but it didn't really leave till 3:30. The border took another 3 hours since everyone had to take everything off the bus for inspection, and most people were taking electronics, blankets, food, and other taxable items into Zim. Add the bus stops and police stops, and we didn't get into Bulawayo until 9:30. The 10 minute taxi to our guest house cost as much as the bus tickets.
1. Only bring U.S. Dollars. Yes, many shops take Rand and Pula and even Yen in some places, but you won't always get a good rate. We mistakenly brought a few hundred dollars in Rand because someone in South Africa told us to, and there is a government and corporate push to get people to use more Rand, but many places don't even know the exchange rate.
2. Avoid taking too many $50 or $100 notes, since you'll likely get change in Zim bond notes, which are equal to the U.S. Dollar in Zim, but
are useless elsewhere. Even $1 bills are fine. These bond notes are different than the old Zim $, which is hyperinflated (there were notes in the trillions near the end of its use; these are sold in some tourist shops) and worthless.
3. Bring all your money from outside the country. Most ATMs were out of service, and while some seem to have cash in them again, lines wrap around city blocks, and it's unclear if foreign cards would even work. Withdrawals and currency exchanges in banks are limited by law to $100 a day (perhaps even less?). We met a young couple who didn't bring any money from outside the country, and they looked like they were in an argument I wouldn't want to be a part of. I was unable to even check my PNC balance online in Zim - the app must have all IP addresses from there blocked.
4. You can get a good idea of costs by searching online. Peggy and I stayed at reasonably nice guest houses and Airbnbs (some places are on both booking.com and Airbnb, the latter often being cheaper) for around $50 a night. Bus transport, groceries and local
restaurants are inexpensive as well (only $6-8 for nice lunches at the posh Bulawayo Club!, a must-visit!); however, the country is full of unavoidable surprise costs, like high taxi rates to the suburbs or airports, and surprisingly expensive tours/safaris and crafts. We ended up spending $60-70 each, per day, all told, making it significantly more expensive than say, South Africa.
1. If you have an IPhone and it's locked, unlock it before leaving home so you can use local sim cards. You'll need this to call taxis, tours, and hotels. We tried to rely only on wireless, which was a mistake in all of Southern Africa.
2. Wireless is really spotty, but no worse than in South Africa, etc.
1. Renting a car apparently isn't a great option, since it's expensive and fuel prices have skyrocketed. Renting one cheaply in South Africa could help, but it wouldn't get you around the gas prices or the countless corrupt police stops on every main road. On the way to Matopos on our guided tour from Bulawayo, 6 very un-busy officers stopped us at a checkpoint, walked around the car with a tape measure, and eventually
recited code about the required size of reflectors on vehicles. Our driver got out to talk to them for awhile, refused to pay the bribe, and got a ticket.
2. Taxis in cities are unbelievably expensive- a dollar a km at minimum. There's no way around it unless you're on a direct route and can used a shared taxi.
3. Shared taxis, most of which are unofficial, are about 1/15 the cost of taxis. They come along any main road and seemed safe enough to us, though you might end up sitting four in the back seat, or even one in the trunk.
4. Bus prices are reasonable, but crossing the border from Francistown to Bulawayo was a ten-hour ordeal.
I know this entry concentrates on the negatives, but we did enjoy ourselves in Zimbabwe, and it would be worth it just to enter from South Africa or Botswana, go to the Bulawayo / Matopos area, and then take the train to Vic Falls. Some of the problems limited our experiences there, but Bulawayo has a nice pace to it, with very wide avenues and pretty good craft markets. Nearby Matopos (40k away) is good enough
to be worth a few days - there is lodging in the park and plenty of things to see. You'll probably agree that there needs to be an epic film made about Cecil Rhodes... just check out the Wikipedia page about him. Harare is just a big city, though the Doon Estate craft market is pretty impressive, but pretty much devoid of tourists.
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