The Inertia Travel Guide to Socotra
In 2015 Yemen’s civil war severed this remote Arabian island’s air link to the outside world. However, with the easing of tensions, flights have quietly resumed, opening up this ecological eden to visitors once again.
Socotra is located in the Indian Ocean, and is closer to Somalia than to Mainland Yemen, having broken off from the Arabian Peninsula some 80 million years ago. This isolation allowed Socotra to develop some of the most unique plant life on the planet; over thirty percent of the island’s plant species are endemic and found nowhere else on Earth.
The island has a total population of around 70,000 people, and they speak their own Socotri language. Apart from the main town of Hadibo, there exists little infrastructure on the island and visitors will spend most of their nights camping in the mountains and on desolate beaches. Socotra is a remarkable destination for camping, exploring, hiking, and immersing oneself in a natural world like no other.
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Group Expeditions and Custom Trips
When to Go
Timing your visit to Socotra is important, as the island has a distinct windy cyclone season that makes visits unpleasant and camping difficult from June through September. The best time to visit Socotra is between October and May— weather is generally pleasant and temperatures are not too hot. Rainfall is most common from October to December, but even then it does not rain too much, with daily rainfall percentages around 10%, but days tend to be clearer and less hazy. February through May is dry, but conditions may be slightly hazy on the island.
Yemenia’s once weekly flight 607 / 606 from Cairo to Socotra and back is the only reliable way onto the island. This flight leaves very early Wednesday morning, travelling from Cairo to Seiyun, a desert city in Mainland Yemen’s Hadhramaut Valley, and continuing onto Socotra, before flying back to Seiyun and then continuing back to Cairo. This means that one can spend one or two weeks (or more) in Socotra without much difficulty and enjoy a reliable way of getting to and from the island.
It is currently not possible for foreigners (non-Arabs) to travel overland to Seiyun and catch the domestic leg of the flight from Seiyun to Socotra. Yemeni authorities in Seiyun will bar foreigners from boarding the flight in Seiyun if they did not fly in from Cairo. However, it is possible to take the flight from Socotra to Seiyun and disembark the plane in Seiyun to travel overland to the Oman border or Aden. This route is still very dangerous, especially for Westerners, and is highly discouraged.
Socotra International Airport is a designated Port of Entry to the Republic of Yemen, and immigration and customs facilities are available at the airport. Passengers arriving from Cairo clear Yemeni immigration and customs formalities in Socotra, not in Seiyun during the transit stop.
This flight is the only reasonable way to get to and from Socotra, you can find more info on this flight, how much it costs, and how to book tickets here.
There is an irregular supply “cement” ship that travels to Socotra from the Port of Salalah, Oman more or less monthly. The journey cannot be arranged in advance and it takes 4-5 days to reach Socotra from Salalah. There is no food available on the boat and after meeting a Japanese traveller who took the boat in 2019, it was described as “rat infested”. Locals take occasional ferries to the Yemeni port city of Al Mukalla, but this Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a strong presence in this city and it is not safe nor approved for foreigners.
Since Socotra is an island with a small population, there are limited ways to get around the island. The easiest and most effective is to hire a 4-wheel drive truck with a driver in Hadibo. There are several paved roads on the island, including a decent road that hugs the entire north coast, and 3 roads that cross through the centre of the island. Additionally, there are gravel, dirt and sand roads and trails throughout the island linking up some of the smaller herding communities.
Occasional public buses run in Socotra, especially between Hadibo and Qalansiah on the north coast of the island, as well as to Hadibo Airport. Besides that, public transportation is non-existent.
Hiking and camel trekking are popular activities on the island for travellers.
Visas and Permits
A Yemeni visa is required for nearly all nationalities wishing to visit Socotra. Given the turmoil in Mainland Yemen, the Yemeni government is currently not issuing any tourist visas. Do not fret, there’s a work around.
Since Socotra has a somewhat special situation within Yemen, the Yemeni government backed by the coalition (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have allowed tourism to continue on Socotra in the form of allowing Socotri travel companies to obtain work visas for their clients.
In order to obtain a visa for the purpose of travelling to Socotra as a tourist, one must book a trip on the island, send in their passport photocopy to their host in Socotra, and wait about 1 week to obtain their visa through the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior’s Immigration Department in Socotra.
Once issued, the visa is on a separate piece of paper and is not a sticker placed in your passport. You have to print out two copies of your visa— one will be collected by Yemenia (Yemen Airways) when boarding the flight to Socotra in Cairo, Egypt. You will need to show the other copy when you arrive in Socotra at the immigration counter. Officials will detach and stamp the bottom part of the visa, and if requested they may stamp your passport as well.
Boycott of Israel
Yemen is one of several Arab League countries that takes part in the boycott of travel to Israel. If there is any evidence of travel to Israel— including Israeli visas, passport stamps, arrival/departure cards, or Egyptian or Jordanian stamps issued on a border with Israel, you may be deported from Yemen. There is a security check in Seiyun and a Yemeni official may look through your passport for evidence of travel to Israel.
If you have travelled to Israel and there is any proof of that visit, you will either need to obtain a new passport or ask your government to issue you a duplicate passport (available by application only for Canadians and Americans, as well as many EU citizens).
With around 7,000 inhabitants, Hadibo is the largest “city” on Socotra and is one of the only places on the island that enjoys such conveniences like hot running water, flushable toilets, stable electricity, cell phone signal, and the occasional wifi. Socotra’s only hotels are in the city (currently two of them are operational: Summerlands Hotel and the Socotra Eco Lodge), as is most of the commerce. The Haggier Mountains form the backdrop to the town, but the amount of plastic litter and garbage on the streets is off-putting.
Many items from the mainland and neighbouring countries can be found in the city’s bustling bazaar, making Hadibo an interesting stop to see a bit of local life, as well as purchase any last minute items needed for your trip. Traditional Yemeni clothing is also widely available in the market. Hadibo is also a place where you can change US Dollars into Yemeni Rial and sit down for a meal at a restaurant. The local fish market is a colourful place to visit as well.
The northeast of Socotra is stunning. There are soft white sand beaches, coral reefs, rocky shorelines, valleys and plateaus, as well as one of the island’s most impressive cave systems. Highlights of the northeast part of Socotra include:
Arher Beach— a stunning white sand beach where massive sand dunes have formed against the granite cliffs above the shoreline, good place to spot bioluminescence in the evenings, and a fresh water creek meets the sea here.
Homhil Protected Area— one of two places in Socotra where one may find Dragon’s Blood Trees, this valley is stunning and full of a diversity of plant life, not to mention an incredible natural infinity pool for swimming.
Momi Plateau— located just above Homhil, this stunning plateau is home to Frankincense trees, cucumber trees, bottle trees and sweeping views.
Hoq Cave— easily one of the most impressive features on Socotra, Hoq cave can rival many in terms of size and sheer amount of unique rock formations.
Rosh Marine Protected Area— great spot for diving or snorkeling amongst Socotra’s reefs and marine life.
Dihamri Marine Protected Area— great spot for diving or snorkeling amongst Socotra’s reefs and marine life, with a small dive shop with gear rentals set up nearby.
Ras Momi— the easternmost point of Socotra, where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea.
Socotra’s northwest features stunning beaches and lagoons, loads of marine life, and the island’s “second city” of Qalansiah. Highlights of the northwest include:
Detwah Lagoon— a stunning bright white sandy tongue stretches out from behind Qalansiah into the turquoise Arabian Sea, while a blue lagoon forms behind it, making Detwah one of the most beautiful parts of Socotra. Excellent for swimming as well as exploring marine life in the lagoon.
Qalansiah— Socotra’s “second city” is home to narrow streets and a popular fishing port with colourful boats and friendly locals.
Shu’ab— this remote part of Socotra’s west coast is only accessible by boat or by hiking. Shu’ab Beach is a beautiful white sand beach, and nearby there are plenty of amazing reefs to explore the marine life— large pods of spinner dolphins may be found here as well.
Home to the Haggier Mountains, central Socotra boasts deep wadis, rocky peaks, stunning plateaus and a plethora of unique plant and wildlife. Some of the highlights include:
Diksam— this stunning plateau is located near the geographic centre of Socotra and is home to Dragon’s Blood Trees, friendly locals, a Dragon’s Blood Tree nursery, and stunning views into the Durhur Canyon.
Firhmin— this forest just on the opposite side of the canyon from Diksam has the highest concentration of Dragon’s Blood Trees on the entire island (and thus in the entire world). It’s a spectacular place.
Haggier Mountains— these rocky mountains lie just to the south of Hadibo and rise some 1,500 metres from the sea, creating their own weather patterns and providing much of the moisture needed for Socotra’s unique flora to survive. Camel hikes and treks through the mountains is a great way to experience this unique region populated mainly by Socotri Bedouins.
Durhur— this canyon near Diksam is surrounded by walls 700 metres high and boasts a unique ecosystem.
Southern Socotra is remote, sparsely populated and ruggedly beautiful. Home to incredible sand dunes and beaches, this area contains several highlights:
Hayf and Zahek Sand Dunes— where a sea of low lying sand dunes meets the sea, this incredible dune formation in southern Socotra is one of the most intriguing to explore at sunset.
Dagub Cave— a large cave that opens to the sea on Socotra’s south coast.
Omek Beach— one of Socotra’s nicest white sand beaches (although not as spectacular as Arher and Detwah), it makes a perfect place to relax and camp on the south coast.
SAFETY & SECURITY
Yemen and the War
The reality of the situation is actually quite straightforward. Socotra is conflict free. The war never came close to spreading to the island. Socotra is quite autonomous from Mainland Yemen, and it has been for some time. It has its own culture and language, a small population, and a lot of untamed nature.
This is not to say there have not been repercussions for the island due to the conflict in the mainland; it just means that these repercussions have not affected individual safety on the island. After the war broke out, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia established a coalition force in the country, with the UAE largely responsible eastern and southern Yemen— including Socotra. There’s a small UAE military base on the island, while operations of security have been returned to the Yemeni government and military.
The other major issue caused by the war in the mainland relates to transportation— Socotra used to benefit from regularly scheduled commercial flights on Yemenia and Felix Airways from Sana’a, Al Mukalla and Dubai. These all shut down in early 2015 as the war raged on in the mainland, essentially severing Socotra’s connections with the outside world. Local shipping boats continued moving people and goods between Socotra and Al Mukalla on the Yemeni mainland, and an occasional rat-infested cement ship makes the four-day trip over to the island from Salalah. The war lead to severe price inflation, an unstable Yemeni Rial, and a loss of transportation options for locals, let alone tourists.
Safety on the island has more to do with making sure you stay hydrated, prevent food-born illness, and take care while trekking and hiking, as many of the rocks and mountains on Socotra are sharp and jagged. Carrying a personal first aid kit is highly recommended.
Jellyfish stings are also a problem while swimming, so do take care to look out for bright blue, circular looking jellyfish near the beaches and while swimming in the ocean.
Locals are generally friendly and quite reserved. Conservative dress is expected when travelling in cities and towns— women especially should have their legs, torso, shoulders and hair covered while in Hadibo or any other settlement in Socotra. When hiking and camping, this is not so important.
COMMUNICATIONS & FINANCE
Phones, Internet and Post
A slow 3G mobile network is available on Socotra and many major international phone service providers can connect to the local network. As of writing (April 2019), SIM cards are not available for foreigners to purchase on Socotra— only in Mainland Yemen.
Internet is practically non-existent on the island now, but you may check email and use messaging services on the Socotra 3G network when you have signal (available around most of the major towns).
Due to the war in Yemen and the lack of transportation options, the postal system is currently not operating in Socotra.
Money, Exchange and ATMs
For all personal expenses, bring USD cash to the island-- you can change it on the black market once in Hadibo or in Mainland Yemen. The official exchange rate is no longer useful nor accurate, as the Rial is “pegged” at 250 per USD but may be exchanged for between 800 and 400 Rial on the black market, depending on the day (as of April 2019 the exchange rate is around 550 Rial to the US Dollar). Due to the ongoing conflict in Mainland Yemen, the rates fluctuate heavily and are not stable.
There are no ATMs on the island and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, so you must carry cash. Western Union and Money Gram are available in Hadibo with a limit of $2,000 per month cash withdrawal.