I ventured to the less traveled part of Zimbabwe just to see the impressive Great Zimbabwe Ruins. The word Zimbabwe means great stone house. The country is named after this mysterious ancient city that was abandoned when the Portuguese arrived in the 1400s. It is proof of a thriving advanced civilization and kingdom about which little is known. It is an outstanding example of stone work believed to be 1000 years old.
I stayed 2 nights in a hotel at the site to have a very full day at the ruins. I hired a guide in the morning. He was quite good and spent a few hours explaining and leading around the site. I went back without a guide in the afternoon as the ticket is good for the entire day. I like being spoon fed information and shown around, but I also like experiencing places slowly and quietly without a program.
There are several areas within the Zimbabwe Ruins. The Great Enclosure, set on flat ground away from the hilltop, is the most impressive architecturally. The huge curved walls are an amazing feat. No mortar is used. I was told very little has been reconstructed and most of what you see is original including the impressive curved passageways.
The hilltop enclosure is where the royal court was held. It is built on top of and into this hill. Taking advantage of the boulders on the hill. . You have to look carefully in this photo to see the buildings.
Walls were built atop of the monolith rocks of the hillside.
The Royal Enclosure is further fortified by narrow passageways and entrances and steep ascents.
The small on site museum contains soapstone carvings found at this site. The most famous is a fish eagle with a crocodile on the side. This is on the Zimbabwe flag.
Walking between and around the enclosures is where you really get a sense of how large the town was.
2020 Update on Costs:
Prices below no longer reflect how you can pay in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has reintroduced the Zimbabwe dollar. I was traveling during the cash crisis during the last days of the US dollar as the primary currency. Check recent information for how to pay for things in Zimbabwe. When I had planned my trip withdrawing dollars with an international card from the ATM was possible. By the time I arrived it was not.
How I got to Great Zimbabwe Visiting by public bus
The way to Great Zimbabwe is not obvious. There is no commercial airport nearby making access by road only. Myself and my husband traveled to Great Zimbabwe by public bus. Many tourists rent a car in Zimbabwe. When I visited the police in Zimbabwe had not been paid in months and were collecting their salary from road blocks stopping motorists. This would have made an already very expensive car rental extremely expensive. It would also add to travel time and add extra stress. The bus was stopped by police 4 times in 5 hours but passengers were not bothered. When we did a tour in Bulawayo the local guide’s car was stopped many times but he knew them and had snacks as gifts. Seeing this in action I was glad I chose the bus.
I flew into Bulawayo from Capetown. After a few days there I took an early morning bus to the town Mosvingo. This is the closest town to the ruins. The bus was a proper coach, took 5 hours, left when full, and cost $8 each. The guide I employed the day prior knew the bus station and bus times. I was not able to find this information online. I arranged the day before for him to drive us and sort out the bus in the morning. The sign in the bus window did not mention Mosvingo.
Once in Mosvingo we took a taxi to the ruins. I paid $12 and was delivered to the entrance of site which was still a walk to the lodge.
I stayed at the Great Zimbabwe Family lodge. This is the much cheaper of the two lodging choices within the site. They had dorms, and Rondavels. I stayed in a little house. It had two bedrooms each with a bath and a kitchen in the center and cost $50USD for two people. I had a hard time making reservations and paying ahead. I ended up using a site called Jumia Travel which is now Travelstart. They were the only agency offering this hotel that I found online. I needed to pay in advance by card due to not having many dollars with me. On the second night the hotel filled up with a large group of government workers from Harare so I was glad to have booked. This hotel was fine and had a small restaurant but no wifi and my local sim card did not receive more than emergency data. This was pre Google Fi. I walked over a mile past the ruins to the other side of the park to the expensive Great Zimbabwe hotel (over $250 per night) each night for internet. This hotel was beyond my budget, but seemed to be where the few other foreign travelers and foreign travel groups were staying.
The bar was reasonable, the hotel had an expensive buffet for $26 but you could still get a Sudza meal for $6. As bar and restaurant customer I was able to use their wifi.
Tip: Dress tidy. People in Zimbabwe were very neatly dressed in quality garments that are well maintained. I was often embarrassed with how sloppily I was presented. My very casual worn down clothes were fine in South Africa but I felt out of place in Zimbabwe. The guides at Great Zimbabwe had on blazers and dress shoes! It felt disrespectful to be dressed as poorly as I was, but it was all I had with me.
The next day I went to a dirt road behind the lodge and caught a minibus to Mosvingo as directed by the hotel staff. In Mosvingo it was easy to locate a bus to Harare. This bus took about 7 hours and there was a long lunch stop. Cost was $8USD per person. The bus lot in Harare was the only time I felt unsafe in Zimbabwe. There was an intoxicated man who took too much interest. There were no taxis to be had. Very unusual for a bus station anywhere in the world. I did find a minibus into town, it had to stop quite a ways from my lodging as there were large protests at the time. The driver called ahead and a young man appeared at the stop to escort the two of us the rest of the way. Obviously he was looking to be paid for this service, but that was fine. Carrying luggage and pushing through the crowds was less intimidating with him leading.