Socotra, the beautiful island of Yemen

Socotra, the beautiful island of Yemen

The island of Socotra is part of an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. This area is so isolated, that one third of the plant life of this place is found nowhere else on the planet. In short, a paradise for travellers in love with nature and the best travel destinations. Not only the famous dragon blood trees, which look like flying saucers perched on trunks, but also the island’s animals will surprise you. Birds like Socotra’s starling, Socotra’s sun and Socotra’s beak are nowhere else on Earth. Bats are the only native mammal on the island.

Socotra nature

In 2010 a Russian archaeological team discovered the ruins of a city on Socotra. According to experts, these ruins date back to the second century.

The island of Socotra is also considered by some to be the site of the original Garden of Eden, due to its isolation, biological diversity and the fact that it lies on the edge of the Gulf of Aden in Yemen, which many connect with ancient Sumerian tales of a paradise called Dilmun. There are almost no roads on the island. On the other hand, there are caves and numerous finds of shipwrecked ships.

What to do and what to see in Socotra?

As far as population centres are concerned, the capital of Socotra, Hadibu does not offer much except the possibility of sleeping in the hotels mentioned above. It is however the place where there are more services: from shops to markets, from pharmacies to telephone booths, and even places with public access to the net, even if there is no internet cafe.

Here you can also meet people who speak English, being the main tourist centre, so to speak. Of course, you are not in Socotra to stay permanently in a hotel, but you will want to move around. This is also why travelers choose beach camping, which is free of charge. A beautiful beach where you can spend the night is Qalansyiah, the other large centre of the island which is nothing more than a traditional fishing village.

Activities to do in Socotra

The things to do in Socotra are numerous, and are closely connected with the places you’re going to visit. The trekking can be done at various levels of difficulty. The most popular hike is to the Diksam plateau, a limestone plateau with a large concentration of drachens and other endemic plants that stretch for miles and miles.

It can be reached in one hour via the asphalt road from Haribu, and then continue in 4×4. Here and there are small villages with stone houses. Another spectacular view can be seen in the protected natural area of Homhil, where numerous varieties of baobabs can be admired. This area is populated by a large number of reptiles and insects. A huge jungle of dragon trees can be found in Fermihen, estimated at over a million.

The Hagier mountains

These are the highest peaks of the Socotra island, and reach 1,525 meters in the Scant area: here hiking is more difficult, and requires the help of an experienced guide. More accessible are the excursions in the wadi, the valleys dug by the streams, which are a boon for bird-watchers. The watercourses attract numerous species of birds. You can also camp here and visit the small villages in the surrounding area. The Wadi Ayhaft National Park is the most important because of its biological and landscape variety. Other interesting Wadi are the Dirhir, Daheru, Dieghen and Difarhu: everywhere you will find natural pools with crystal clear water where you can enjoy a swim.

Various caves of Socotra

Hoq cave in Socotra

The most important is the cave of Hoq, which can only be reached on foot: a 2.5 km route populated with stalactites and stalagmites. This cave is the most interesting as it preserves the remains of ancient settlements, witnessed by the graffiti on the walls (including that of a commercial ship). The Dogub cave is surrounded by several villages, and inside it there are small natural pools, in addition to the usual limestone formations.

Those who love desert landscapes, on the other hand, will find vast areas where large dunes were formed naturally by the action of the winds. The areas of Hayf, Zahek and Ras Irsel are topped by these white sandy mountains, where the more experienced can enjoy climbing and skiing on them. Don’t forget that many excursions can be made on camels.

Diving and snorkeling in Socotra

These are of course the main activities to be carried out on an island with a heavenly and uncontaminated sea like this one. The most abundant site in coral and fish fauna is the marine protected area of Dihamri, on the north-eastern side: here you can meet manta rays, monkfish, barracuda, sea urchins, parrot fish and many other varieties. Another interesting place for diving is the protected area of Roush. However, you can also organize sea safaris with private boats, where you can dive offshore or fish. Moving away from the coast increases the possibility of contact with dolphins.

The beaches of Socotra

Socotra beach

The beaches of Socotra are naturally beautiful and pristine. Turquoise water bathes long stretches of white sand populated with palm trees, dunes and small cliffs. Places like Aomak, Noget, Arar, Delisha, Neet are known to all visitors. The beach of Shuab is distinguished by its beautiful mangroves. However, the beaches are not the only places to bathe in search of peace and solitude. The island is populated with beautiful lagoons: Qaryah is the largest, and flamingos and herons visit it.

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The lagoon of Detwah is the most spectacular: a vast and isolated expanse of transparent water that can also be covered on foot at low tide. All the places mentioned are perfect for water sports: in particular the monsoon period is ideal for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. Of course, given the high wind speed, it is recommended only for the more experienced.

How to get to Socotra?

Visiting Socotra requires careful planning. It is not a do-it-yourself trip, but you have to rely on specialized tour operators who in turn deal with local agencies. This helps, of course, to overcome the already uncomfortable bureaucratic process of permits to visit Yemen, but above all to organize flights to Socotra which, as we said, operate at not exactly regular intervals.

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Socotra coast

The first obstacle to overcome is the flight to Yemen: there are no direct connections with Italy. The two best alternatives are Turkish Airlines and Yemen Airways. Once you arrive in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, you will need to spend at least one night there. Which is then a magnificent opportunity to visit what is generally considered the most beautiful city in the Middle East, and that our Pasolini described as a dream.

Flights to Socotra from Yemen

Flights to Socotra from Yemen are run by two companies. One is Yemenia, which starts at Sana’a and Riyan. The other is Felix Airways, which departs from Sana’a, Ririan and Aden, and is therefore the most used carrier. The flight lasts about two hours. The plane lands at the airport of Hadibu, the main center of the city. There is only one bus connection between the airport and the capital, and it is the only public transport system on the island.

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But there are several car rental companies, and of course the reference vehicle is a 4×4 jeep: the whole island is crossed by only one paved road, beyond which there are only rough and dusty paths. Socotra is not a place for tourists, but it does not mean that there is no civilization. There are four main hotels: the Taj Socotra Hotel, the Hafijj Hotel, the Socotra Hotel, and the Summer Land Hotel.

In addition to these, there is the airport hotel. The hotels are all equipped with services such as air conditioning, refrigerators, and television. Almost all of them have a room with bathroom (only some rooms in the Hafiji and Socotra have a shared bathroom). All have a restaurant offering delicious Yemeni cuisine.

How to organize a trip to Socotra?

If you wish to organise a tour to Socotra, you can contact one of the many tour operators that deal with this destination. However, as a result of the various travel “advice” issued by Western governments (in my opinion a bit ‘exaggerated, at least according to the conditions found in February 2020) it may happen that not all tour operators are able to confirm trips to Socotra.

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An excellent alternative is therefore to contact a travel agency in Socotra that can organize your dream trip to this beautiful island according to your interests and the time available. Generally the Socotra tour operator will provide you with one or more 4×4 cars depending on the number of passengers, a driver, a guide, meals, and everything you need to sleep in a tent if you choose this option for overnight stays.

If you are travelling alone there is no problem, except for the cost which may rise slightly as this cannot be “smeared” on several travellers.

What to see in Sana’a?

Sana'a city in Yemen

If your flight plan to Socotra includes long stops in Sana’a and you don’t want to wait all the time in the small (and certainly not “comfortable”) airport of this city, you might consider taking a short tour in Sana’a, perhaps even resting for a few hours in a typical Yemeni hotel (such as Arabia Felix) before continuing your trip to or from Socotra.

Actually this wonderful city, not to mention the rest of Yemen, would deserve much more than a short excursion and I must say that, contrary to the many “warnings” present on this destination, I didn’t have the impression of all this danger. If you want to organize a short excursion to Sana’a or a real tour in Yemen with several stops, you could contact Al Mamoon International Tours that can organize transfers from Sana’a airport, the guide, the transfers and the possible overnight stays requested.

What is the climate in Socotra?

The climate is tropical, characterized by distinct seasons identified by whether or not the monsoons blow. In autumn and winter the climate is temperate, pleasant, with not excessively high highs and a very low risk of rainfall. From April to September, on the other hand, due to the north-west monsoon, it is the rain, strong winds and the rough sea that are the bosses, accompanied by very high and often unbearable temperatures.

The best time to visit the Socotra archipelago is between October and March, when sporadic rainfall can occur almost exclusively in the inland areas of the island.

What is the best time to go to Socotra?

As the island is a naturalistic destination, with the sea to enjoy in peace and quiet and landscapes to admire, many people will wonder what is the best season to go to Socotra, which ensures stable weather and pleasant temperatures during bathing in the sea or hiking in the mountains.

The best time to visit Socotra is from January to mid-April, preferring a late departure if you want to see the seasonal flowering of endemic plants (from the end of February onwards) or an earlier departure if you want to take advantage of the Christmas holidays (but expect a slightly cooler climate and some extra clouds).

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In May the weather in Socotra starts to get too hot, making trekking too tiring, while from June to September a strong wind blows constantly, making some parts of the island inaccessible. The rainy season in Socotra runs from late October to mid-December. Obviously these on the climate in Socotra are only general indications and there can be significant variations from year to year.

Is it safe to visit Socotra?

If you are dreaming of making a trip to Socotra, but you are worried about the safety warnings in Yemen that are often published on the websites of Western governments, I can say that during my stay at Socotra I have never felt in danger. On the contrary, I personally consider Socotra a safer destination than most European countries as the crime is virtually unknown all over the island, with extremely friendly and hospitable people who are simply curious to meet you and share their culture with you.

If your safety concerns during a trip to Socotra are related to the stopovers in Yemen required to reach the island, you can actually arrange flights with a few hours of waiting at the airport without the need for intermediate overnight stays (see the previous paragraph on how to get to Socotra). In any case, even during the 15 hours spent in Sana’a, between a short tour in the historical center and a nap at the hotel Arabia Felix before taking the connecting flight, I didn’t have any particular kind of problem or perception of danger, so much so that I promised myself to return to Yemen for a more in-depth tour of Sana’a and the surrounding areas.

If your concern is about health insurance, as many companies do not cover countries considered “at risk” for some reason, you might consider taking out a policy with First Allied Travel Insurance that also covers any additional expenses due to international crises, in the remote possibility that something serious might happen.

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