(CNN) — Mozambique's coastline stretches about 2,470 kilometers along the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and most of its beaches remain in pristine condition without hordes of tourists or tacky boardwalks.
But even in a country blessed with immense natural beauty, the Bazaruto Archipelago, a group of six islands off the coast of Vilankulo, are a standout destination.
Here you'll see horses kick up sand and spray on the edge of the clear blue water, while just a few feet away, unspoiled coral reefs flash brilliant colors below the surface.
Most of Mozambique's coast lies undeveloped because of the country's past tragedies -- the 10-year war for independence from Portugal and the 20-year civil war that followed.
The remote Bazaruto Archipelago lies off the coast of Mozambique.
Pixabay / Creative Commons
However, the splendor of Bazaruto has been intentionally protected.
For decades the islands have formed part of a marine park that shields it from the country's recent boom of offshore drilling for natural gas.
Local fishing villages, home to about 3,000 people, are still allowed to ply the waters in traditional dhow sailboats, slender vessels that formed the backbone of a medieval trading system stretching the length of Africa's east coast.
The lack of commercial fishing has kept the reefs intact, making it one of the few places in the world where visitors can simply wade into the warm waters and watch the lives of sea creatures close to the surface.
Bazaruto's isolation and protection have also guarded one of the world's last populations of dugongs, also known as sea cows, the giant underwater grazers on the verge of extinction.
Land redistribution programs in Mugabe-era Zimbabwe saw Pat and Mandy Retzlaff pushed off their farm at the turn of the century. With their animals and those abandoned by their neighbours, the Retzlaffs set off for a new life in Mozambique with 104 horses in tow.
Made up of Bazaruto, Benguerra, Magaruque, Banque, Santa Carolina and Shell, the islands of Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago, have a long history of exclusive tourism.
In Santa Carolina, a luxury hotel catered to the world's elite in the 1950s in a locale dubbed "Paradise Island" during colonialism's last oblivious hurrah.
That was an era when Mozambican beaches were glamor destinations known for sun, surf and sex appeal, enshrined in popular culture of the era in songs like Bob Dylan's "Mozambique."
That all fell apart as the drive for independence gained strength, and the ruins of the Santa Carolina hotel sit as a reminder of that myopic time.
The Bazaruto Archipelago National Park has been a protected area since 1971.
During the war years, these central beaches and islands were mainly escapes for wealthy white Rhodesians and later Zimbabweans of all races.
In the 1990s, full-board stays at charming lodges cost about $50. Access to the island was on wobbly light aircraft or wobblier dinghies.
Trey Graham, a Washington-based culture critic, remembers visiting Bazaruto from Zimbabwe in 2001 on a small aircraft piloted by a man with a machete scar across his face, landing on a grassy airstrip.
"The grass airstrip is my most vivid memory -- especially once we got in the Land Rover, with the bags in the little cart behind it, and bumped our way around the edge of the airfield through the tall grass, past the wreckage of what I've always assumed to be the previous shuttle to the island," he said.
"When I tell people the story, I tell them the skeleton of the pilot was hanging out the window, like in [the 1984 movie] 'Romancing the Stone' or something.'"
"And there were maybe four people there with us the whole week? And that was including our pilot, who as I recall never left the bar."
That year was when the country's fortunes reversed, as Zimbabwe slid into political and economic turmoil while Mozambique turned itself into one of the world's fastest growing economies.
Horse rescue mission
One of the best ways to explore this beautiful landscape is on horseback.
Mozambique Horse Safari
Pat and Mandy Retzlaff were caught up in those changes, when they were pushed off their farm in Zimbabwe during then-president Robert Mugabe's land reforms.
They started taking in horses that had been abandoned when neighboring farmers fled.
"My passion for horses, that probably started before I was born. It's in my genes," Pat Retzlaff said.
"The idea with the horses at the beginning was, this is temporary. You know, all these horses are being slaughtered.
"Let's take some in, so we can give them back when things get to normality, which unfortunately it never did."
Eventually they ended up with about 300 horses.
Determined to find a new home for themselves and the animals, they decided to move to Vilankulo, which had the advantage of a small international airport as well as serving as the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago, though at the time the town had little else. Even telephones were new then.
"People bond with horses. Once that bond has become firm, it's very difficult just to discard the animal," he said.
"The alternative was just to put them all down. There was nothing else we could do."
They spent years earning the trust of the communities and learning the landscape.
Around 30 horses died after eating unfamiliar poisonous plants. Their new neighbors had no idea what they were seeing.
"They never knew what horses were, so it was a mixture of fascination and fear," Retzlaff said. "They saw the horses as big dogs, with big teeth."
Wave of success
People like to bond with the horses.
Mozambique Horse Safari
Their business grew, and they now offer four and seven-night horse safaris to explore the beaches of Vilankulo and meet nearby communities.
Six of the horses now live on Benguerra Island, the second largest island in the Bazaruto Archipelago, including four of the original Zimbabwean horses and two rescued locally in Mozambique.
"There's a lot of challenges to horses to keeping horses on an island," said Charlotte Levens, who cares for the animals on Benguerra.
"There's nothing really set up for horses in this country, let alone on this island. Everything has to come in from the mainland, so there's a lot of planning and co-ordinating."
"We offer two main activities, the swimming with the horses, which is a bareback beach ride, and then we take the horses into the ocean, which is just such a beautiful experience."
"The horses love island life," she adds, describing how they wade neck deep into the water and roll on the sand when they emerge.
"There are no fences on the island, so they have free rein really."
Fishing town Vilankulo serves as a gateway to the archipelago.
Mozambique Horse Safari
On Benguerra, visitors can stay in a handful of luxury casinhas at the &Beyond Benguerra Island resort (Benguerra Island, Inhambane, Mozambique; +27 11 809 4300).
Visiting the archipelago now costs upwards of $700 a night, but there won't be many more people around than Graham remembers from his first visit.
However access to the islands has greatly improved, with helicopter and boat service from Vilankulo.
There's only a few choices of accommodation, all top-end, and set up to help guests experience the area's unique natural beauty.
"Bazaruto is not just a beach destination," said Mark Havercroft, Africa regional director of Minor Hotels, which includes the Anantara Bazaruto Island Resort (Bazaruto Island, Inhambane; Mozambique; +258 84 304 6670).
"It's an island destination with some of the best kept coral reefs that protect rare marine animals and are home to some of the last remaining population of dugongs in the world."