Zanzibar’s hidden tourist gem Prison Island worth a visit

Thursday July 08 2021

One of the main attractions on the Prison Island is the Peacock Farm. PHOTO | BEATRICE MATERU


Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja, off the coast of Dar-es-Salaam, is known for its unspoilt, white sandy beaches and a rich history to boost. But unknown to many, there is a smaller island known as Changuu or Prison Island.

Once the operating point of slave traders, Changuu Island is now where giant tortoises and peacocks live in a sanctuary. After the abolition of slave trade, which happened later after the rest of the world, the island was transformed into a government-owned tourist destination.

On a recent visit to Unguja, the local name for Zanzibar, my friends and I visited Prison Island. We enjoyed the pristine serene sandy beach, the wildlife sanctuary and learned about the island’s history.

From Stone Town, we took a dhow. The boat ride is at most 30 minutes at a cost of Tsh40,000 ($30 for residents and $40 for foreigners) for a return trip with 15 people on a boat. But, we learnt that the price is negotiable. The boat operators tend to pool clients if they all get fewer than five clients.

The agent’s package includes the boat and park entrance fees and snorkelling gear — you’re likely to get a better bargain if you book as a group.

Since the nature facility is government-owned and run, there is a $4 entrance fee per person for foreigners and Tsh2,000 per person for citizens.


We had an incredible experience on our round trip to the island and it was totally worth it.

Giant tortoises

One of the main attractions on the island is the Giant Tortoise Sanctuary. According to our tour guide, some of the tortoises are aged over 150 years and some are as big as a baby elephant. They weigh between 200kg and 2kg for new borns.

"I have never seen such huge tortoises and never even knew they existed," said a friend of mine.


One of the main attractions on the Prison Island is the Giant Tortoise Sanctuary. PHOTO | BEATRICE MATERU

Although there are signs warning "not to feed the tortoise," we were allowed to feed and even touch them. The tour guide gave us cabbages because the friendly, giant tortoises eat as many cabbages as you’ll give them and they appreciate you scratching their necks. They stand up when you scratch their necks. The tortoises have their ages painted on their shells to keep track and the oldest had 150 written on its hard shell.

Slave quarters

We moved on to the slave quarters, where the slaves were kept before being shipped out to other places within and outside Zanzibar. It was depressing to walk through the different rooms, with some of the chains still intact. Part of the slave quarter is now a motel, with a bar and restaurant.


The island’s calm, sandy beach is a perfect place to relax. It is very peaceful as there is only one small hotel and it is ideal for sunbathing. Under the flawless clear water, we swam with different sea creatures like lionfish, turtles, clams, octopus, dolphins, eels and others.

The boat package came with diving tools, mask, snorkel and fins.

But you can rent snorkelling equipment separately for Tsh6,000 ($2 to $3).