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David Page brings you expert accounts of traveling to what might be one of the strangest, least-known specks of land on Earth.

Somewhere between 189 and 217 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen (depending on your source of information), and some 130 off the coast of Somalia, like a tiny, glittering tongue-stud in the gaping maw of the Gulf of Aden, lies the legendary island of Socotra (Suquṭra), ancient source of ambergris, dragon’s blood, frankincense, and myrrh.

Now an International Biosphere Reserve, it’s been called a Wonder Land, the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean, and one of The Most Alien Landscapes on Earth.

“It is one of those unique places in the world,” says Spanish toptrotter Jorge Sanchez, founder of the well-respected Travelers Exploits Club.

And it has a long and distinguished history of being very hard to get to.

By Sea

With two annual monsoons (southwest from June-October and northeast from April-May), no natural harbor, not much anchorage to speak of, and a flourishing offshore piracy business, arrival by sea has always been problematic.

Photo: NASA

Thomas the Apostle is said to have been shipwrecked here sometime in the first century A.D., on his way to or from India. They say he built a church from the wreckage.

Marco Polo managed a safe landing, apparently, but noted the abundance of corsairs selling booty to the locals. For the generally uncooperative weather he squarely blamed the latter: a naked people he described as “the most skilful enchanters in the world.” He continues,

[I]f a ship is proceeding full sail with a favourable wind, they raise a contrary one, and oblige it to return. They can make it blow from any quarter they please, and cause either a dead calm or a violent tempest.

According to The Arabian Nights, Sinbad the Sailor made a brief call here on his fifth voyage, only to have his ship destroyed not by Socotran witchcraft but by a pair of huge, angry, possibly not entirely mythical birds-of-prey dropping boulders on it.

Birds of such description no longer factor among the 211 species on the Socotra Bird Checklist. And the last Socotran witchcraft trials are said to have been held in the 1970s. But the corsairs, as always well-equipped with the latest in contemporary weaponry and chutzpah, are still very much in business.

According to Alan Lucas’ classic Red Sea and Indian Ocean Cruising Guide, “vessels have been grappled and towed into shore for looting.” Yachtsmen are advised to give the archipelago as wide a berth as possible.

Socotra is “an island full of blond people who are descendants of Alexander the Great.”

Several local fishermen have been murdered in the last seven months, or have had their boats or engines taken out from under them at gunpoint. A freighter bound for Socotra with 2,000 tons of diesel fuel was taken by Somali pirates and held for ransom between January and April of this year, causing a shortage of electricity on the island.

The silver lining, for diving enthusiasts, is an unparalleled underwater landscape of sunken vessels waiting to be explored.

By Air

Bill Altaffer, of Expedition Photo Travel in San Diego, was among the first tourists to Socotra after a new airstrip was built in 1999. It almost didn’t happen for him.

“We got on a plane in Sana’a,” he recalls.

It was a crummy plane, a Yemen Air piece of shit, and as we’re about to lift off there’s this big bang and flames shoot out of the engine.

Photo: Sotti

Altaffer’s been to every country in the world, plus 300 island groups, disputed areas, territories, and colonies. He’s been to both poles. He’s surfed off every continent and skied on six. The dude was the first American to surf the legendary Queenscliff bombora off Manly Beach in Sydney (in 1962).

He wasn’t about to let a little equipment failure get in the way of his pioneering visit to what he describes as “an island full of blond people who are descendants of Alexander the Great.”

If it had come to it, he’d have gone through Aden, where weeks earlier the USS Cole had docked to a warm welcome of Al Qaeda-brand C-4 explosives. As it turned out, Yemenia found another plane in somewhat better condition.

“The easiest way from the U.S. is through Dubai on Emirates,” says Charles Veley, of San Francisco, who by his own count is The World’s Most Traveled Man.

If you don’t want to stop in Dubai, you should continue on to Sana’a on Emirates. Transiting to Yemenia (last time I did it) involves a terminal change and isn’t fun.

At age 44, Veley has been to 710 “countries, territories, autonomous regions, enclaves, geographically separated island groups, and major states and provinces.” When he gets to 762 he figures he’ll have been “everywhere” — that is, unless the number goes up before he gets there.

Charles Veley on Socotra

He hit Socotra early on December 31, 2004, back when there was only one flight a week, “so the choice was whether to turn around the same day or stay 7 days.”

Veley stayed for a couple of hours, found the landscape “remarkable and otherworldly,” and the people “super-friendly — much friendlier than on the mainland,” then got back on the plane in time to make a giant New Year’s Eve party and Sean Paul concert at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa.

When he goes back to Socotra, he says, he’ll spend 3-5 days and treat it “like a camping trip, because the hotels are basic and in the only town [Hadibo], and the scenery is far out of town.”

Until recently, Yemenia (Yemen National Airways) was the only airline with semi-regular service to Socotra (SCT). For a while it was almost daily, out of both Sana’a and Aden, through Riyan (RIY) at Al Mukalla.

Then, what with one of its dozen or so planes dropping into the ocean, and all attendant and ongoing international scrutiny of maintenance habits and such, Yemenia seems to have cancelled some of its domestic schedule.

Photo: Sotti

For now anyway, local upstart Felix Airways has stepped into the void, with its four Canadian Bombardier CRJ700s (and four more on order) and five scheduled round-trip flights weekly between Riyan and Socotra (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday).

Connect to Riyan via Sana’a (SAH) or Aden (ADE). Online booking is “coming soon.”

In the meantime, try contacting their office at the Sana’a airport on 967-1-565656, or by email at callcenter@felixairways.com.

And let us know how it goes!

Rules, Regs & Red Flags

For the latest travel advisories, piracy and terrorism updates, and general visa information, check the U.S. State Department’s oft-updated Yemen Page.

Get your visa beforehand in Washington, says Veley: “Supposedly they are available on arrival, but they’re not very forthcoming at the window in the Sana’a airport.”

General Notes/Tips from Jorge Sanchez

You can hitch hike from the airport to Hadibo: the first car will give you a ride. In Hadibo there are several hotels, you can bargain for the price. The first one is where all tourists meet, Germans, Italians, and the rest. They organize trips, excursions, rent Land Rovers, etc. I went further downtown and found a nice hotel, cheap, with shower. But several nights I slept à la belle etoile, on the beach. People brought us mattresses to sleep on the sand.

Fish is good and cheap, as well as goats.

Transport is easy: just stop any pick-up and negotiate a price for the highlights of the island, especially the dragon’s blood trees and the oasis in the middle of the island, it’s all very cheap.

Learn some Arabic, it’s very useful in negotiating prices.

The only inconvenience is that beers are forbidden, and all alcohol, so it’s water or Coca Cola. Still, you will not regret visiting Socotra!

Community Connection

Have you been to Socotra? We would LOVE to hear from you. Share your experiences in the comments!

For more otherworldly scenes, be sure to check out Photo Essay: The Most Alien Landscapes on Earth.

Health + LifestyleSports + AdventureTrip Planning


 

About The Author

David Page

David Page has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, Skiing, Esquire, Outside, and many other publications. He is the author of the Lowell Thomas Award-winning Explorer's Guide to Yosemite and the Southern Sierra Nevada (Countryman Press/W.W. Norton), now in its second printing. His work has been anthologized in the collection Travel Stories from Around the Globe, edited by National Geographic Traveler's Don George, and the 2013 California Prose Directory: New Writing from the Golden State (Outpost19). He lives in Mammoth Lakes, California. David's headshot by Steven Bumgardner.

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  • http://www.wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

    Thanks for the comprehensive advice. I’m deeply intrigued.

  • julia

    hi! here some more really usefull information about Yemen: http://iwannagothere.com/ye/sana-a

  • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

    Man oh man, the more I hear about Socotra (and Yemen in general), the surer I am that I’ll make it someday. Maybe by then they’ll actually have daily flights. Either that or the pirates will lay off. :)

    • late_stranger

      I totally agree, Hal. The more I hear, the more I want to go. A really great travelogue/history on Yemen is Yemen: The Unknown Arabia by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. It has a really great chapter on Socotra.

      • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

        Nice rec, stranger. I’ll be sure to check that out.

  • http://thetravelersnotebook.com David Miller

    This place sounds fascinating. Thanks for the straight up guide.

  • http://www.wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

    Here’s a good article about how to study Arabic in Yemen.

    http://matadorabroad.com/dreaming-in-arabic-learning-in-yemen/

    • http://wayworded.blogspot.com/ Hal

      I remember that piece well, Tim. It put Arabic study in Yemen on my top 5 list for future plans. Great stuff.

      • http://www.wheretherebedragons.com Tim Patterson

        Maybe we’ll find ourselves in Yemen at the same time Hal – inshallah.

        • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

          What a strange place that would be to finally meet! I’d take it though.

          Do you have definite plans?

  • Alan

    WOW, looks like making the trip is worth it just for those amazing looking trees alone.

  • joshywashington

    This piece has it all! Far flung places of lore, such as Socotra tease my imagination and make my feet itch with impending advenuture!

  • http://www.paul-sullivan.com Paul Sullivan

    This article is utterly bananas. In a good way. Many thanks to the author…

  • http://thelonglayover.blogspot.com Carlo

    I’d never even heard of this island before this. Excellent piece David!

  • benny blox

    And i hear there are even rumours of empty surfbreaks for months at a time during the monsoon.
    As if you needed another reason to visit such an otherwordly spot.
    it’s on my list…..

  • http://www.goodlytree.org alokaishi

    welcome
    socotra is UNESCO natural world heritage site
    biosphere reserve
    the fourth island on the world on biodiversity
    kind people
    endemic plants more than 307
    birds, reptiles, insects ….

    again you are welcome
    Yemen one of the oldest civilization in the world
    the original place for Arabs
    the place that mentioned in all holy books
    Sana’a also is the city of the son of Noah
    more and more…………..

  • http://n/a leigh

    Havn’t dragon blood trees been considered by the UN Educational/Scientific board a signifigant national treasure and of considerable historic importance? If they have healing properties why are locals able to buy them? Maybe you shouldn’t be suggesting on your website that rich tourists stop by and pick up something that could potentially have properties that may cure cancer or AIDS. just for it to sit on a mantle piece somewhere… there is no other place on earth those trees go. Take some responsibility.

    • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

      Hi leigh,

      If you can point out in the article where it suggests that rich tourists should purchase and/or remove dragon’s blood trees from the island, I’ll be happy to take responsibility and remove it.

  • Dalia

    I am from Yemen and planning on going to this marvellous island. The more i read about it the less patient i become. Once i go i will share with you my experience. A big welcome to everyone.

    • dzevad hadzic

      i might be coming over there in a few months inshanla. mind if i drop you a note.

  • Abdullah

    i am from socotra,
    this fourm started one year ago . who of u is really coming to paredise island ? i suggest u to visit me and my island and check by your self , how we use the blood of the dragon tree, it is resin come from the tree with out spoiling the tree ,and also the other plants , like aromatic incense tree ,
    and also the natural of the island beachs coral reefs spot , mountains,canyons ,caves villages and friendlly people in the virging island socotra,
    looking forward to seeing u in socotra

    • sandra cruzalbo

      HI there,
      Im looking forward to visit Socotra Island. When is the best season to go there?
      Greetings from far away Mexico..
      Sandra

      • arher

        Hi Sandra
        thank you for contacting me
        You can visit Socotra any time from september to may: seaside and mountais will be both great for the temperature, sunshine, beaches activities and treking
        The only time of the year not suggested to come here is windy season from may to september: actually you can visit the inner part of the island also during the windy season but you will miss most of the beautiful white beaches and also snorkeling or diving could be more difficult to be organised.
        Lodge: it is up to you, from ****hotel to funduk or camping

        I will be pleased to answer more questions for you, and help in organizing your trip here (accomodation, transportation, activities…) if you need

        Looking forward to having your news

        Abdulah

    • Marrow2000

      I’ve been reading up on Socotra a lot lately and am thinking of going in February/March. Is that a good time to visit? I will be taking a side trip from Mumbai. I hope the beaches and hiking treks are as beautiful as I’ve read.

      • arher

        no problem if you want to see the island in February or March
        the windy season is from may to agoust, when it is not possible to visit most of beaches and the sea is fine just for skilled surfing

  • Sonja

    My husband and me we like to travel and we plan to go to Soctra and be there
    during the New Year. When we trave we alwast get in touch with local people. It is a good way to learn about places you visit. What to do on Soctra during 5 days
    30th December- 4th January?

    • Abdullah

      Hi sonja
      i am a local guide in Socotra island.
      In 5 days you can visit the main sites of the isand, a selection might be the following, or you can make choices according to things you prefer:
      the capital Hadibo (to see lcoal life and markets), protected area Dihamri (snorkilling in coral reef), Dixam plateau (Shibhon viewpoint, nature exploration… dragon blood tree, incense tree, bottle tree; Darhur canyon, swimming in fresh water pools), Qualansiya, Delisha, Arher beaches (relaxing in withe send beaches) and boat trips to Shoub to see spinner dolphains and cormorans, mangroves an d many other activities.
      if you need any help to organize your trip (accomodation, services and programme) do not hesitate to contact me at:
      abdulahsocotri@yahoo.com

    • http://www.SocotraExplorer.com Fuad

      Sure Socotra is safe

  • Rochelle

    Is there any improvement lately in the safety of airplanes flying to and from Socotra? It sounds like one is risking one’s life to fly to Socotra in a rattletrap plane or sailing there in the face of cruising pirates. I would love to visit and camp out and explore for a week but just to get there and return sounds like taking one’s life into one’s hands!

  • arher

    hi”
    Yemenia and Felix airways seem to me as safe as any other flight company, they connect Socotra to Yemen every day… boats are also safe but do not consider them to go to Socotra since they are mainly used for fish and not for people transportation..
    i hope to see you soon in Socotra and trusting you will be able to come..
    all best arher.

  • http://www.socotra.info Denis

    This is a wonderful place!

    I spend on the island for several months a year and I love this place.

    Large selection of photos can be viewed at http://socotra.info/index.php?id=2

    Almost all the photos were taken during my trips around the island with guests.

    Socotra – a paradise for photographers. Many of the photos on the link were removed normal soap camera.

    If you also have interesting photos of Socotra Island, you can place them on the site also )

  • Abdirizak

    It’s my first time that i’ve heard Island called Socotra, I’m from Somalia, but i live in U.S.A. I’m desperate to go there. It looka natural and fresh land which is i adore most.if there is any tourrist agencies tha responsible for the client please contact me at this E-mail. Suuraj2008@hotmail.com

    Thanks guys!

  • Ronald

    Hi there,

    the most amazing photo’s!! Does anyone know whether it is safe to go Socotra. When you look at the foreign travel advise for Yemen they do give a number of warnings for this area.

    Thanks for any suggestions.

    Cheers,

  • mary

    i have been there …….. i will never forget that pure place …………………and am sure i will get back there one day…………………i cried when i left…. and still can hear the ocean ………. soon ……….3 days the most useful, beautiful time i still do not know what to say when people ask me how was it i can not explain to them or describe

  • http://www.unexploredsocotra.com alice

    i have been there 3 times!!! with group or as indipendednt traveller.
    Today it is more difficult and expensive to have a VISA, but no other problems in visiting the island, also with a short stop in Sana’a and/or Mukalla
    the development of this island is strongly related to tourism… just hope that it will be eco-tourism not spoiling its nature and ancient tradition
    I suggest you to visit Socotra, just now, before things will change this uncontaminated paradise

  • Rima

    There are a lot of wonderful photos of Socotra island and Yemen here: http://www.socotraisland.com/yemen/gallery/galleries.html

  • Kunjethy

    Two years back I made a trip from Ajman,UAE,to Salalah in Oman
    by 3 cars, one Benz, one Camry, and one BMW. some 1500 kms. I think. It
    was a real adventure and our aim was to go to Mukallah and try to get a
    lift to Socotra on a cargo ship. But that attempt did not materialise.
    Now I have booked a ticket via Rian Mukkallah and Abdujameel. I hope
    this time I would succeed in take in all the sights and sounds and sea
    and mountains of Socotra which they say is the Island of Bliss or Diva
    Sukhdhara or the Island of Tranquillity. I am reading up all the books I
    purchased from McGrudy’s and from the xerox section of the Sharjah
    Public library (which unfortunately closed down when I went to look at
    some of the books on Socotra i hadn’t completed. I will tell you more
    about Socotra, probably much much more than you care for, and with
    illustrations to match when I come back.Also I want to do a little bit
    of historical research on the Muziris and Bernicke connection of
    Socotra, and even about the religious evolution perhaps. Pl. pray for
    the success of my much dreampt about trip. -G. Menachery

  • Waegook Tom

    Ahh, I’d LOVE to visit Socotra but alas, it seems like such a pain in the ass to get to, even by air – and mainland Yemen isn’t somewhere I’d like to be hanging out for any longer than absolutely necessary.

  • Abdullah Omar

    Hi there! it is a long time people do not write about Socotra on matadornetwork.
    I hope this will be a starting point for a new discussion.
    Windy season has almost finished and Socotra is ready to receive again travellers who want to explore the endemic plants of the wadi and just enjoy the wild be to give inoaches relaxing, snorkelling…
    hope to have chance to meet many of you here very soon.
    Also I am always very happy to disseminate information on Socotra, both technical detalis for organization of trips and general subject for whose who want to master local culture.

    • Rod Waddington

      Hi Abdullah, We would love to visit Socotra as we have long been interested in the endemic plants. How easy is it to travel around and also is is necessary to camp where hotels are not
      available. What is the weather like during August as this is the time when we travel each year.

  • Victoria Tran

    I have never seen such beautiful and strange trees.

  • Sigitas Ja

    Super

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