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How to Visit Prison Island in Zanzibar


If you’re planning a trip to Zanzibar in Tanzania, you’ve probably heard of “Prison Island.” Sometimes referred to as “Changuu Island” or “Turtle Island,” it is also called the Tortoise Sanctuary.

The name Prison Island in Zanzibar comes from its history as a former prison, although it was never used for that purpose.

Changuu Island gets its name from the abundance of fish in the surrounding waters – Changuu is the Swahili word for fish.

Although called Turtle Island by tourists, there are no turtles on this particular island; only tortoises can be found here.

The main attraction of this island is undoubtedly the Tortoise Sanctuary, where you can see giant Aldabra tortoises in the wild.

With so many different names floating around, it’s easy to get confused. But don’t worry! We’re here to guide you and give you all the information you need to visit Prison Island in Zanzibar.

Related read: Most Popular Day Trips from Zanzibar

Here is an overview:

Where is Prison Island in Zanzibar?

Located in the northwestern part of Stone Town, this site is only 5.6 km or 3.5 miles from Stone Town, making it conveniently close to the city and perfect for a quick visit.

A boat ride to reach it takes about 25 minutes, but be aware that the water can get rough at times, which can slightly extend the duration of your trip.

Although the island is not very large, only 800m long and 220m wide, it has a wealth of attractions and experiences to offer.

Beach at Changuu Island - Prison Island in Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Beach at Changuu Island – Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.

What to see on Prison Island

There are a lot of tortoises on Prison Island, and they are definitely the main attraction.

Some people may mistakenly call them turtles, but technically they are tortoises. There are about 100 of them; you can walk among them and even feed them. They have lettuce for breakfast right on the ground!

If you’re lucky, you might even pet these amazing creatures and take pictures.

However, it’s important to remember that as guests in their habitat, we should respect their space. Don’t try to force them to do anything or pick them up – the worst thing you can do is sit on them!

These Aldabra tortoises are one of the largest tortoise species in the world; some can weigh up to 200kg! What makes them truly remarkable is that they are believed to be among the longest-living creatures in the world. The oldest tortoise on Changuu Island is estimated to be an impressive 196 years old. You’ll notice that some of these beautiful creatures have numbers on their shells indicating their age.

Originally from the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, four of these incredible tortoises were generously donated by the Governor of the Seychelles in the 18th century. Their population grew to around 200 individuals.

Unfortunately, their numbers began to decline rapidly in the 1960s due to poaching. These magnificent creatures were either stolen for consumption or kept as exotic pets. Shockingly, by 1980, there were only a hundred full-grown individuals left alive, and unfortunately, that number dropped drastically to just seven by 1996.

Faced with such an alarming decline, and with the Aldabra tortoise being listed as ‘vulnerable,’ urgent action was required by the authorities, and eighty hatchlings were relocated to Prison Island to provide shelter for this endangered species. This shift in the island’s purpose, from a place of exile to a sanctuary for these magnificent creatures, was largely due to its geographical isolation, which provided them with a safe haven.

In addition to tortoises, Prison Island is also home to some peacocks, birds, and small, elusive duikers – tiny antelopes that are difficult to spot.

The second most interesting attraction on the island is undoubtedly the prison ruins. There are benches and a bar where you can enjoy a beer or coffee during your visit. Keep in mind that it might be a bit pricey, but having such an amazing view with your drink might make up for it! The restaurant there is called the “Prison Restaurant.”

Interestingly enough, you can go snorkeling near Prison Island after your visit. It has become quite popular with visitors looking for more water activities. Just ask the captain of your boat trip to take you there, as it would be impossible to reach this spot from shore, and the water is incredibly clear, offering great visibility of the marine life within the reef.

When is the best time to visit Prison Island?

The ideal time to visit is in the morning for several reasons.

First, tortoises are eager and ready to eat at this time. They will actively eat food from your hand or forage for themselves.

Second, because it’s early in the day and not too hot, they tend to be more active and move around a bit more (though don’t expect them to run everywhere). It’s all within tortoise limits.

To make the most of your experience without feeling uncomfortable due to the heat, leaving Stone Town at 9am is perfect timing. The temperature won’t be scorching, and you’ll get to see the turtles at their best – a win-win situation.

However, remember that because the mornings are popular with visitors like you, there may be some congestion as boats dock and undock. There may be a short wait to get on or off the boat, but nothing too long.

How to get to Prison Island?

Unfortunately, there are no public ferries to take you to Prison Island.

However, if you happen to be strolling along one of the two beaches in Stone Town, chances are that you will be approached by individuals offering private boat charters. Most of these boats are motorized dhows, which are about 7 meters (22 feet) long and known for their sleek hull design. The cost of this boat trip can be negotiated and usually decreases per person when more people join the trip. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s possible to join a group and save some money.

However, caution is advised as arranging your own trip may result in being cheated or ending up on an unsafe vessel.

Unauthorized guides can also be subject to significant fines, which can complicate your vacation. To ensure a smooth and hassle-free experience, it is advisable to book an organized tour instead.

Arrival to Changuu Island - Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Arrival to Changuu Island – Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Private tour to Prison Island in Zanzibar

You can arrange private tours to Prison Island for three hours.

During this time, you can learn about the island’s fascinating history and admire its breathtaking scenery.

Embark on an enjoyable journey aboard a traditional dhow as you meet your guide in Zanzibar or are picked up from your hotel if you prefer.

Experience the fascinating story of how this small island got its name and now serves as a sanctuary.

Price: $50 (Only $33 on Fridays and Saturdays!)
Duration: 3 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before

Book the experience directly with the tour operator here

The package includes:

  • private boat transportation
  • Entrance fee
  • Knowledgeable local guide
  • Snorkeling gear
  • Refreshing drinking water
Snorkeling near Changuu - Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Snorkeling near Changuu – Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Prison Island tour with lunch on the sandbank

Start your tour by heading to Prison Island, where the adventure begins.

Explore the stunning underwater world and meet the magnificent giant tortoises that inhabit this island. Swim alongside colorful fish and marvel at the awe-inspiring scenery that surrounds you.

Later, relax and unwind on enchanting sandbars as if you were lucky enough to discover them yourself.

Price: $94
Duration: 6 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before

Book the experience directly with the tour operator here

The package includes:

  • A delicious BBQ lunch
  • Convenient boat transportation
  • Entrance fees are covered for you
  • An informative local guide to enhance your experience
  • Top-of-the-line snorkeling equipment provided for your convenience
  • Refreshing drinking water available throughout the trip
  • Tasty snacks to keep you energized
Nice beach in Changuu Island - Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Nice beach in Changuu Island – Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Zanzibar: Changuu Island and Stone Town Tour with Lunch

Embark on a personalized day trip to two of Zanzibar’s most famous attractions – Changuu Island and Stone Town. Immerse yourself in the rich history, culture and people of the area while enjoying a traditional meal.

Begin your journey with a private boat ride to Changuu Island, where you’ll have the freedom to explore at your own pace. Take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and get up close and personal with the island’s native turtles.

Cool off from your adventures by snorkeling the pristine waters in search of vibrant marine life, colorful fish and stunning coral reefs. This refreshing activity complements your exploration of the island’s peacocks and antelopes.

Once you’ve thoroughly explored Changuu Island, make your way to Stone Town – an East African city steeped in cultural and historical significance. Marvel at its magnificent 19th-century architecture, with influences from Swahili, Arab, Persian, Indian and European civilizations.

Learn more about Stone Town by visiting notable landmarks such as the Old Slave Market and the City Market after reading about its nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Interact with locals as you shop for a variety of goods that truly capture the essence of East Africa.

Soak up the charm of Stone Town by exploring fascinating sites such as the Palace Museum, the House of Wonder (Beit-el-Ajaib) and Freddie Mercury’s childhood home. To complete this enriching experience, take a moment to visit the Natural History Museum (Nyumba ya sanaa) and the Peace Memorial (Mnara wa amani).

Price: $92
Duration: 6 hours
Free cancelation up to 24 hours before

Book the experience directly with the tour operator here

Your tour includes:

  • Admission Fees
  • Guide fees
  • Refreshing drinking water
  • Delicious lunch
  • Comfortable boat transfer
  • Knowledgeable local guide
  • Snorkeling gear for your enjoyment

Boat and safety on water

Most of the boats available are long motorized boats with a sun shade. They may not be the most comfortable, but they are good enough for the short trip to Turtle Island.

Getting on and off the boat is easy, as most have a small ladder, and if you’re lucky, you won’t even get wet. However, people with physical disabilities may find it a bit challenging and require more time.

As mentioned above, the water can get choppy at times, causing some bouncing. It’s important to note that life jackets are required on all boats, so please inform the captain if you prefer to wear one.

In general, the trip doesn’t take long and is relatively safe. These captains sail this route several times a day and are very familiar with it.

A helpful suggestion would be to take some pictures of yourself aboard the boat as you approach Stone Town or Prison Island.

Boat to Snorkeling to Changuu - Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.
Boat to Snorkeling to Changuu – Prison Island near Zanzibar, Tanzania.

How much does it cost, where to pay and what are the opening hours?

The cost for local visitors is 15 USD or 3000 TSH, while the entry fee for Minai Conservation is 6000 TSH.

There are two payment booths that are easy to spot. First you have to pay at the reception desk and then you get your tickets to hand over to the ticket collector, which is about 10 meters away. It’s essential to have these tickets as they allow access to the turtle sanctuary.

Children up to the age of eight are admitted free of charge, while those over eight pay the same price as adults.

Credit cards are not accepted at this time, but there are rumors that they will be in the near future.

Hours of operation start at 9:00 am and end at 5:30 pm.

Staying overnight on Changuu Island

For those who want to maximize their experience here, spending a night in one of the hotels on Changuu Island could be an interesting option.

You’ll get to wake up without any tourists around and enjoy all this unique location has to offer.

The Changuu Island Lodge offers amenities like pools and different types of rooms to suit different preferences. The lodge offers 27 room options divided into two categories.

There are 15 luxurious deluxe cottages discreetly situated along the ocean line on the northwest side of the island. These cottages offer the utmost in privacy and seclusion while being built with local materials and traditional thatched roofs to create a comfortable temperature throughout the day and night.

Inside these spacious accommodations, you will find elegant decor and en-suite bathrooms for your comfort.

In addition, each cottage has a private outdoor veranda facing the sea, allowing you to enjoy the ocean’s breathtaking views and soothing sounds fully.

On a different note, there are also 12 charming standard rooms located in Stone Town’s former quarantine area built back in 1931. Located on the southwest side of the island, these rooms offer magnificent views of Stone Town itself. As with the other accommodation at the lodge, each room has its own en-suite bathroom.

Pool at the Changuu Island Lodge on Prison Island, Zanzibar.
Pool at the Changuu Island Lodge on Prison Island, Zanzibar.

Transfer in Zanzibar

Instead of the inconvenience and expense of calling a taxi at the beginning or end of your trip, choose this convenient and fast alternative. You have two choices.

You can take advantage of a private airport transfer to Stone Town, which is affordable, safe, and comfortable.

Alternatively, you can choose the private transfer option to travel between any point on the island of Zanzibar. Whether from the airport to a beach hotel or from your hotel to anywhere else on the island, you have complete freedom to decide where you want to go.


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