Where? East Timor/Timor Leste. East Timor is one of the newest nations in the world. It shares an island with Indonesian West Timor.
When? We visited East Timor in June 2014 on a trip where we also visited Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Why? A few people have asked us why we chose to visit East Timor. We went to East Timor because of a random conversation in a pub in Geoje, South Korea. Our French friend had previously lived in Singapore. Whilst there he had made friends with the East Timorian ambassador to Singapore and our French friend told us that he (the ambassador) was trying to encourage tourists to visit East Timor. As we were going to be in this part of the world we decided to pop in. We were also interested to visit this new nation, and there was an element of knocking a country off the list too.
East Timor is located on an island north of Australia, west of Papua and east and south of Indonesia. Timor Leste shares an island with Indonesian West Timor and there is an East Timorese enclave, Oecussi, within West Timor.
The capital of East Timor is Dili, which sits on the north coast. Atauro Island is approximately 30km from Dili.
Most of mainland ET is mountainous. Mt Ramelau (or Mt Rama-lama-ding-dong as we called it) is the highest mountain at 3,000 meters high. This country has altitude.
To the east of Dili you will find Baucau, ET’s second largest town, and at the far east of the island is the white sand, tropical paradise of Jaco Island.
To the south of Dili, in the interior, are the towns of Aileu, Maubisse, Same and Betano. Find out about our visit to Maubisse in the what we did on our holiday section.
East Timor is an undiscovered gem of a country which should be and could be on every backpacker’s hit list. Located an hour from Darwin, Australia and an hour from Bali, this small country is easily accessible with a lot of natural attractions to draw visitors here, including some of the best diving in the world, mighty mountains, golden sands and stunning sunsets. Located at the base of the coral triangle, East Timor is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving with regular sightings of manta-rays, dolphin, dugongs, whale and hammerhead sharks, and humpback, pilot and fin whales.
However, in our week in East Timor we only met two other tourists. Most of the westerners we met were useful people working to assist in the development of this new nation. Those of us who were tourists in Timor found a country of spectacular scenery and proud people, looking to build their country up after the devastation left after their destructive journey to independence.
East Timor (Timor Leste in Portuguese) was a Portuguese colony from the 16th century. In 1975 they declared independence from Portugal but then later on that year the country was invaded and occupied by Indonesia. Indonesian rule of East Timor was harsh, and many people were killed or exiled. In the Dili massacre of 1991, 250 pro-independence demonstrators were shot at the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili.
In 1999, in a UN sponsored referendum, 79% of the population voted for independence. Violence by pro-integration militias and the Indonesian military followed. Over 1,400 people were killed and much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed. An Australian-led international peace force was brought in, and the UN took control of the transitional administration.
East Timor became an independent nation on 20 May 2002, and Xanana Gusmão became the country’s first president.
Twelve years later (we visited in 2014), East Timor is a developing nation, and as such in some places the infrastructure is not great; but we found it relatively easy to navigate and we did see all of the places and sights that we intended to.
Jeff and I have great hope for East Timor: you can tell that the people and the international community want this country to be a success. There’s still a lot of work to be done, especially away from Dili, but with time we hope they will get there. We loved that the people of Timor Leste seemed to take pride in their country: the roads were clean, there was little trash and most children appeared to be in school. As tourists we received very little hassle, unlike in the rest of south-east Asia.
Hopefully the East Timorian ambassador to Singapore will get his wish and many more tourists will discover this natural gem.
Money, money, money, mon-ey
East Timor uses the American $. There are ATMs at the airport, at Tiger Fuel and in Timor Mall. Most of the ATMs are ANZ bank machines.
You can also change money at the ANZ bank in Timor Mall, but if you do this you will need two forms of photo ID (something we found out after queuing for half an hour). There is a money changer next to Tiger Fuel too. I’m sure they are fine, but they didn’t look very official to us, so we went to the bank instead.
Getting to and from Dili was surprisingly cheap and easy. You can fly to Dili Nicolau Lobato Airport from Darwin (Australia), Bali (Indonesia) and Singapore (Singapore).
We flew to the island from Darwin with Air North. We booked online and the flight cost us £130. The flight was great as the plane was pretty empty, we had a nice breakfast and the views as we flew into East Timor were wonderful. When we first descended, we could see the whole island laid out below us; we glided past the peak of Mount Ramelau, following mountain ridges so close we could touch them, waving at the people in the hill-top houses; then we swooped down high mountain valleys, over deserted, dusty tracks and weaving rivers; we did a twirl over the sea, before touching down in Dili.
When we departed we flew on to Bali with Sriwijaya Air. Again, we booked online and the flight cost us $130 (£80ish). The flight was fine and we were fed something that may have been fish or may have been chicken. Either way, the cake for desert was delicious and we got to Bali on time and safely.
The Singapore flight is run by Air Timor.
Dili airport is basic but good. There is a basic food stall in the arrivals area and a duty free shop past immigration. If you want to eat or drink, you should do this before you go through immigration as there’s no refreshments on the other side.
Getting from the airport to Dili
The airport is located on the edge of Dili. When we came out of arrivals we were mobbed by taxi drivers, so we went to hide in the toilets for five minutes whilst we sorted ourselves out.
Most of the taxi drivers at the airport were trying to charge $10 (£6) for a lift to the city centre, but we had read that it should actually be $5 (£3), so we walked away from the terminal to the main road (about 5 minutes walk) and caught a taxi from there for the correct price.
Visas, departure taxes and official stuff (as of 2014)
You need to have a tourist visa to visit East Timor, but you can get this on arrival at Dili International Airport. The visa on arrival costs $30 and you need one full page in your passport for the visa. There are no cash points before immigration, so you need to make sure you have the right cash on you, and the dollars have to be no older than 2006.
If you want to enter East Timor by land or sea then you need to get your visa in advance.
Find out more and get the most up to date information at the East Timor Immigration website.
On departure you have to pay a $10 departure tax. You do this after you have checked in and gotten your boarding pass. There is an ANZ ATM at Dili airport if you need to get some dollars.
We took taxis to most places within Dili. Whenever we were out we would be constantly beeped by taxis wanting to get our business. Most journeys cost $1 to $2. From the city centre to Jesus beach and to the airport we paid $5. We always agreed a price before we got in. Some of the taxis are ‘interesting’; many of them falling to pieces underneath us, but they all got us to our destinations okay.
For security reasons, taxis tend to only run in the day time. You can find some taxis in the centre of Dili at night, but not very many. We discovered this when we were stranded out by Jesus beach after watching the sunset. Luckily for us, a very nice Portuguese food-wholesaler gave both of us a lift back into town on his tiny-scooter, otherwise we would have been stuck.
Some hotels and ex-pat bars have night-taxi contacts and can call them for you, and there’s a night taxi number listed on the Dili Wikitravel page.
Mikrolet buses are small minibuses that you just flag down. You’ll know it’s a mikrolet bus by the hundreds of people hanging out of the open door. Each journey costs 25c and they run on set routes that are colour and number coded. Apparently, route number 10 runs in a large loop around the city centre, going east along the sea front.
Jeff and I didn’t go on to mikrolets as we were a bit intimidated by them and taxis were so cheap, but they are an alternative option.
Dili is quite compact and in the very centre there are pavements. We could have walked most places, we were just being a bit lazy by getting taxis. You will probably need to take a taxi if you go to Jesus Beach, Timor Mall or the airport, as these are quite a long way out of town.
Boats to Atauro Island
The water taxi service that runs daily from Dili to Barry’s on Atauro Island is run by Compass Adventure Tours. These guys run diving trips and stop off at Atauro Island at least once a day.
Their office is at Tiger Fuel, and we went in to the office to pre-book and pay, though I think you may just be able to turn up at the boat departure and try to get a space there and then.
The boat departs from the sea front, just in front of the EU commission, at approximately 8 a.m.
Travelling over, we were on a small boat with one engine, ten people and a huge speaker. The boat was small but seemed to be in good condition, though I was a little nervous when soon after we set off, one of the crew went over the back to fiddle with the engine. I was nervous as I think these seas can become quite rough and the Wetar Strait, which separates Dili and Atauro, is 3km deep in places.
The journey took us about an hour and a half and we got there safely.
Coming back, we had a much bigger boat. I rode on the front of the boat and that was exciting.
The water-taxi cost us $45 each way (about £45 return).
Nakroma, the government ferry, is an old German ferry. It runs from Dili to the enclave of Oecussi in the week and then to Atauro Island on Saturday. The ferry runs from Dili to Beloi, which is a town on the east coast of Atauro (this is where Barry’s is).
When the ferry comes into town there is a real party atmosphere on Atauro Island, and a market takes place around the ferry pier in Beloi.
The ferry tickets cost $5 for business class tickets and $10 for VIP tickets, so it is a lot cheaper than the $45 private charter. However, the ferry takes two to three hours and only runs on a Saturday.
In Dili, you can buy ferry tickets from the port ticket office, which is on the side of the port administration building, on Rua Portugal. Tickets go on sale at 8 a.m. on Friday and they can sell out, so it’s worth getting in there early.
On Atauro Island, the staff at Barry’s helped our friends to buy ferry tickets. You can buy them from the port side in Beloi.
Getting around Atauro Island
There’s only one road on Atauro Island and this runs up the east coast and then across the top of the island. It connects Vila and Beloi on the east coast and Arlo on the north-west coast.
The locals run tuk-tuks, which are motorbikes with trailers on the back (see above). We only wandered into the local village of Beloi so didn’t use the local transport, but some friends of ours caught a tuk-tuk to Vila and back. The tuk-tuks usually just pootle up and down the road and you can flag them down, or if you are staying at Barry’s then the staff can call a tuk-tuk for you. They cost $2 per journey.
You can also hire bikes from Barry’s and there are some good hiking trails around the island too.
Getting to Maubisse
Maubisse is a town in the centre of the island. We wanted to go there so we could see more of the interior of the island and because we had heard there was a nice pueblo (which we thought meant like a fort or a castle), an interesting market and some ornate churches. We wanted to see more than just Dili and we thought this would be a good way to see a different side of the island (literally and metaphorically).
All of the excursions that we could find information about seemed to be extortionately expensive. For example a day trip to Mt Ramelau seemed to be $200/ £100 per person; so we decided to navigate the island ourselves, as best we could.
We heard that you can get mini-buses from Dili to Maubisse, and that it takes about three hours and costs $5, so I was all up for doing this, but we couldn’t find any info about getting this public transport (which in hindsight was a good thing), so instead we booked a private car and driver to take us.
There is public transport into the interior, but they are not mini-buses: they are open trucks with seats in (see below) or terribly over-cramped buses. These vehicles wait by the roundabout just past Halilaran market and Dili University, and when full (and I mean full!) they set off. The journey for these vehicles takes about six hours and it must be super uncomfortable.
The road from Dili to Maubisse was one of the worst roads I have ever travelled: it was an assault course of constant pot-holes. I really felt for our driver as he constantly had to negotiate the bumps and crevasses for three looooong hours, each way. It was exhausting for us as passengers, and we were in quite a nice high-jeep.
We hired our car and driver through EDS. (The lovely Barry at Barry’s on Atauro Island booked this for us). I have a feeling that our driver may have been dragged in at the last minute to take us on the trip as he was an hour late and didn’t say one-word to us. We tried to talk to him, tried to ask his name, tried to ask if we could stop occasionally, but he just didn’t want to communicate with us. So we drove straight to Maubisse and then pretty much straight back. We’re really grateful for our driver for taking us all that way, but next time we know to ask for an English speaking driver as his silence was painful and really restricted what we did and saw.
The private car hire and driver should have cost us $90 + petrol (so about £25 each), which we thought was reasonable for a full day trip into the interior of the island. However, the driver then charged us $70 for petrol (no receipt of course, he totally seemed to make the price up), and so we ended up paying about £45 each for this day trip. It was possibly super overpriced (we don’t think petrol is that expensive in ET), but we didn’t feel we were in a position to argue and we just put the extra-cost down to experience. And even so, it was still a lot cheaper than the organised tours.
Our friends also hired a car and driver through EDS to take them along the coast to Jaco Island and they had a much more positive experience, though they did say that the roads were pretty bad in the east as well.
You can hire just cars or a car with a driver from EDS. Barry says they have their own workshop and so are really good if the vehicles break down, which is why he recommended them. Their telephone number is +670 7730 4188, or you can email them.
What we did on our holiday
As the capital, Dili is the focal point of East Timor. It’s where most people live, where most business takes place, where most tourism is focused, and the place with the best infrastructure.
Dili is a nicely-sized, flat, sea-side city, surrounded by high mountains. It’s not a huge city, there’s not a lot to see, but for us it was a good base for the time we were there and we spent one or two days pottering around the city. Dili has beaches at either end, and at sunset we would see people collecting shellfish here or playing football on the sand. There’s also a promenade to the east of the city centre, which is a nice place for a stroll or to sit and relax.
On our first day we walked into Dili, along the sea front, past all of the embassies, up to government house. Most of the sea front was wrapped in corrugated steel, as the city prepared itself for the forthcoming ASEAN conference, so we couldn’t see a huge amount, though we did get glimpses of occasional parks, statues and monuments hidden from view.
The Government Palace is a big, pretty, colonial building where the pres. hangs out. I don’t think you can go visit it, but it seemed like a focal point for the city. It seems to be the exact centre of the city, located on the sea front. We took a photo as we wandered by.
After stopping off for a cool down and an East Timor coffee, we went to look at the shops and the market stalls of the old market.
Whilst looking for a supermarket, we walked past Xanana’s Reading Room: a lovely library, cultural centre, information centre and small museum. The lady in the office here was lovely and really helpful and gave us loads of information about the island and what we should see and do. (In fact, I think I’ve found the lovely lady’s blog).
Whilst we were there, a group of ladies were doing demonstration about how to make traditional East Timorian material. Sadly, they had finished for the day when we were there but a friend went and he said it was quite interesting and he got to have a go.
Next to the information office there was a small museum which contained gifts given to East Timor’s first president, Xanana Gusmão, and lots of pictures of him and his family. We think he looks like the most interesting man in the world, from the Dos Equis beer advertisement, so we had to get a picture with his portrait. In the room next to this there were examples of traditional East Timorian cloth.
Finally, at the back of the complex there was a small museum relating to East Timor’s Palaeolithic and dinosaur history. They had a few models of dinosaurs and some interesting information about the geology of the island.
We liked visiting Xanana’s Reading Room as there was something very sweet and friendly about it. All the people at the museum seemed to be quite surprised to have visitors, let alone foreign visitors. The Reading Room is primarily a library, rather than a museum, but it’s still a good place to go to learn more about the island.
On the sea front, just up from Xanana’s Reading Room is a pretty park, a nice promenade area, the Bishop’s Residence and the Lita Supermarket. We had a relaxing stroll along the seafront and then popped into Lita to look at East Timorian products and to buy some basics.
A few times during our stay, we ended up at Timor-Plaza, a new, contemporary shopping centre located on the airport side of town. We went to the plaza for cash points, banks, for super markets and to eat (the country’s first Burger King is here). It seems to be a focal point for a lot of the investment in Dili, and is one of the most modern places in the city.
Whilst we were here the 2014 World Cup was just starting and they were showing the matches in the lobby, on East Timor’s largest TV screen. We didn’t go to watch a match there ourselves but it looked like a fun thing to do.
Also in Timor Plaza is a Gloria Jean’s Coffee House, an opticians, two supermarkets, a Korean store, an ANZ bank, clothes shops, bags shops etc., and a cinema.
On our final day we went to visit the Resistance Museum (Arquivo e Museu da Resistência). This was a good, air conditioned museum that told the story of the East Timorian resistance against the Indonesians and about how East Timor gained independence. It was good to learn more about the island’s recent history, to see what the country had been through.
Most of the museum is made up of information boards, with some resistance items and contemporary news reports. You do wonder when you visit somewhere like this if it is just propaganda of the victors, who are now in power. If it was propaganda it was very well done though as I felt we got a good understanding of what had happened in East Timor, backed up by facts. I wish we’d been able to visit here at the start of our visit so we could have had more context to understand where we were visiting elsewhere on the island and what had happened in the recent past in these places.
The museum was an interesting way to spend an hour, it was nice to be somewhere cool and I felt that we learnt a lot by visiting the museum.
The museum is located behind the Government Palace Complex and costs $1 for entry. www.amrtimor.org.
You can find out more about Dili at the Dili Wikipedia page.
Jesus Statue (Cristo Rei) and beach side sunset
Towering over Dili, like Christ the Redeemer in Rio, is the Cristo Rei Jesus Statue. This Jesus statue is the second largest Jesus Statue in the world, after Christ the Redeemer in Rio. The statue was commissioned by President Suharto of Indonesia in 1996 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s integration into Indonesia. It shows Jesus stood on a globe with his arms spread wide. Although the statue was originally built as political propaganda, it has now been embraced by the locals and today it is one of Dili’s main tourist attractions.
The statue is located to the east of Dili city centre, at the tip of Fatucama Peninsula. To get there we took a taxi to Caz Bar ($5), which is located on a beach close to the statue, and then we walked around the coast to the statue. It took us about 20 minutes to get there from Caz Bar.
There’s a car park just underneath the statue hill and a path runs up from the car park to the statue. The path starts off quite gently, with occasional sets of steps. Alongside the path are panels that tell the story of the Passion of Christ.
Towards the top of the hill there is a large platform where there is a small cave church.
Finally, you have to climb the last sets of steps up to the Jesus statue platform to get up close and personal with the man himself.
The Jesus Statue is supposed to be one of the best places to watch the sunset, but when we were there they were installing new lights so it was busy and noisy, and the weather wasn’t great. Also, we were a little bit worried about security as we had heard that people have been mugged here. When we were there, however, the statue area was quite busy and so we didn’t feel unsafe. Most people were there doing after work exercise; using the statue as an end point for their run or running up and down the 500 stairs to keep fit. I have to say, East Timor seemed to be a really fit country: we saw loads of people out running or playing soccer on the beach.
Anyway, we only stayed about five minutes at the actual statue. After we visited Jesus we walked back along the road to the Beachside Hotel, which had a beautiful beach bar with tables under the trees. Here we celebrated our last night in East Timor with cocktails, ice cream and a stunning sun set.
We had quite an adventure getting back to Dili afterwards as all the taxis disappeared. A very kind Portuguese wholesale trader offered to give both of us a lift back to town on his tiny scooter, as he saw we were stuck (Thanks Mr). It was quite exciting, the three of us riding through the dark, over roads being tarmacked, into this dark, mysterious city. Once we were back in he city centre we were able to get a taxi back to Castaways.
The beach area to the south of Dili is much more resorty and I think if investors and hotel chains come in this will be the area that they will settle in. The beaches here are beautiful, with golden sand and soft, still seas; it’s away from the noise and the dust of the city and there are fabulous views over Atauro Island, Dili and the surrounding mountains. Though it’s a little out of the centre, if we come back to Dili I would much prefer to stay in this area.
Atauro Island is an island approximately 30km from Dili. When you are in Dili it’s Atauro Island that you can see out in front of you. Atauro Island is a rocky, bleak island that for many years was used as a prison, first by the Portuguese who exiled all their colonial criminals and political prisoners there, then by the Indonesians who exiled over 10,000 resistance supporters to the island.
Bleak as it is though, there is something very special about Atauro Island. As a tourist, there’s something magical about being isolated on a tropical island. We came here to chill out, to hide away and to drop off the radar for a little while.
To get to Atauro Island we caught a water taxi with Compass Adventure Tours (see the Getting to Atauro Island section for more info). They ran us over to the island and dropped us off on the beach outside Barry’s, the eco-lodge that we were staying in and the focus of our visit.
Barry’s is an amazing place to stay. The complex is made up of individual wooden and thatch huts, built by Barry himself, that all have views over the sea. Our hut had a mosquito net draped bed, a deck and two deck-chairs, and that was it. We pretty much spent the next three days just chilling here, reading books, chatting and giggling, and just doing very little. It was so nice to just be.
On our first afternoon, Jeff went on a snorkelling trip, as Arturo Island has amazing coral reefs. The resort ran the trip in their own boat and I think they charged $5 per person. They wandered around the resort to see who wanted to go along and then just took the boat out. It was all very relaxed. J says the reef was good, it’s only just off shore, and he saw lots of small fish.
I stayed on the deck and read a whole book.
Later on that evening, we went for a sunset walk on the beach as the tide had gone right out. As the sea here is technically a lagoon, when the tide goes out the water is almost absolutely still and quiet. The lagoon was a symphony of blues, as you can see from the photo at the top of the page. It was magic.
Locals were walking along the beach, collecting seaweed and shellfish to eat, the crew from Barry’s were out collecting jetsam from the beach and the local fishermen were taking their boat out. There was a real community feel to the beach.
Jeff and I spent ages walking and playing along the shore line, looking for interesting washed up things. We found mini-crabs and sea-snails, shellfish, a shark’s eyeball, and what we think were some turtle eggs.
After this, the moon rose huge in the sky (it was the size of a pizza pie!) and we went for dinner with the other travellers staying at the resort. The hotel operates on a full-board basis and the food is good. We ate crispy chicken, fried seaweed, salads and potatoes. They operated an honesty bar system, so after dinner we sat around swapping traveller-tales and drinking beer, before heading back to our cabins for an early night.
The next day I woke up to watch the stunning sun rise, then it was more reading and more relaxing.
This was a Saturday, which is the day the ferry comes to Atauro Island. There was a market in Beloi, around the harbour. It seemed as if everyone on the island was there. We had fun wandering around all of the stalls and seeing all the people who lived on the island, out doing their Saturday shopping.
There were clothes stalls, jewellery stalls, handicrafts that people had made, live chickens for sale, bags of edible seaweed, coral, cosmetics and lots of dried fish. There was a really good, friendly atmosphere and we enjoyed wandering around looking at things for an hour or two.
We ventured back into the village later on, after the ferry had left, but there was a strange atmosphere around this time; like the end of a party when most people have left and just the stragglers remain. Barry had told us that there were some drunk, young men that they were keeping an eye on, and then when we went into the village some very drunk men approached us and told us to be careful of very drunk, young men (we don’t think it was a threat). They were okay with us but we suddenly felt quite vulnerable and we became very aware of how far away the police or official help was. (We later discovered that the men were from the army and were on a day off).
We went for a walk on the beach, accompanied by Oh-Oh the hotel dog, and though he was a great bodyguard, I still felt quite vulnerable so we went back to the resort.
The next day was our last and so we spent the whole day making the most of the beach and the isolation. We lay on one of the beach-platforms and enjoyed the resort library, then we caught the water-taxi back to Dili mid-afternoon.
Coming back into Dili, we could see the huge cloud of dust that hangs over the city and already I longed to go back.
For more information on Barry’s Eco-Lodge see the Where we Stayed section. If you have a look on the eco-lodge’s website, they have more information about things you can do on the island. Or you can find out more about Atauro and what you can do there on the Lonely Planet or the Wikipediawebsites.
Day trip to Maubisse and the island’s interior
When we made our plans for East Timor we had three things that we wanted to do: we wanted to explore Dili, we wanted to go to Atauro Island and we wanted to go to Maubisse, in the interior. We’d read about this town in the Lonely Planet and they made it sound like a lovely place, high up in the mountains. We got the impression that we would take an easy drive up into the hills, past coffee plantations, mountain streams and wild roses, to a village with a stunning Posada (whatever that is) and an elaborate church.
It wasn’t like that. Our trip to Maubisse was a long, hard slog over an assault course of pot holes, to a wet, dilapidated, closed town. I’m not sure that I would recommend to other people to do what we did. However I don’t regret making the trip and (with hindsight) I’m glad that we did it.
So, we originally looked at booking an organised tour to Maubisse but these seemed to be extortionately expensive ($200 per person). The Lonely Planet said that there were buses to Maubisse every morning, that they took three hours and cost $5. I thought we could get one of these but we couldn’t find much information about these buses; which turned out to be a good thing, as these buses look awful and actually take about six hours to get to Maubisse (see the Getting to Maubisse section for more information).
Whilst we were on Atauro Island, some friends of ours booked a car with driver to take them to the eastern tip of Timor. This cost them $90 per day + petrol, and as we thought this sounded like quite a good deal we decided to do the same.
We booked a car and driver through EDS. The driver turned up an hour late and he looked really grumpy. We said: “Are you from EDS?”, and he just nodded, so we got in the truck and he drove off. We tried to talk to the guy but he just didn’t want to know or even try to communicate with us. In fact, we were a little scared of this guy, although to be fair to him he was a good driver on extremely bad roads.
We wanted to ask him to stop so we could take photos or so that we could have a look at some sights, but his sullen silence put us off trying to ask anything of him. We felt sort of guilty for asking him to do anything, even though we were paying him to be our driver.
The road to Maubisse goes out of Dili just past the university, and then climbs up and up and up and up and up and up. Within about fifteen minutes of leaving Dili we had a birds-eye view of the city. We had gotten high seriously fast. We were then up in the clouds for most of the journey.
This part of the island is very mountainous and is pretty tough terrain, so the road weaves up and around all of the valleys between Dili and Maubisse. The road was diabolical: it was an assault course of constant pot-holes and all of us were left feeling sea-sick. Parts of the road had been washed away. It was pretty scary in places and it just seemed to go on and on and on. It took us three and a half hours to travel 70km, so we were averaging 20kmph. That’s 12.5mph.
High up in the mountains it was pretty though. We didn’t see any coffee-plantations but we did see lots of stunning mountain vistas. We travelled through many small, isolated communities. People were farming, kids were going to school, there were markets by the road side. As we travelled further and further away from Dili the infrastructure became more basic, the communities more simple, until we were passing villages of straw huts. This area of East Timor is very rural and seemed to be isolated from the development of Dili. I’m glad we saw this side of the island as it was very different to what we had seen in the capital.
When we (finally) got to Maubisse our driver asked us where we wanted to go to. The Lonely Planet describes the pueblo as the best place to stay in town, at the highest point, with great food and gorgeous grounds – so we asked him to drop us there. We weren’t sure what a pueblo was (we thought it might be a castle or a fort), but it sounded like a good spot for lunch to us.
The pueblo here was a dilapidated, pre-fab style bungalow in a weedy, wet garden. We went inside and indoors it was like an old, empty community hall in the UK: there were Formica tables, a display of pressed-flowers and a hatch for food service – but no one was there apart from a cute little dog. Eventually we managed to find two guys and we were able to buy coffees from them. It was all very strange and depressing though.
Whilst we were there we met two wonderful Australian ladies who had volunteered to offer medical services to isolated communities in East Timor. They were staying at the pueblo, in the two bungalows out front. I didn’t envy them, as these ‘rooms’ looked really drab and damp from outside and not inviting at all. The ladies were lovely though and they had this wonderful, enthusiastic guide who gave us loads of information about what we could see – and he spoke to our driver for us to ask him if he could stop at a few places on the way back.
As we didn’t like the look of the kitchens in the pueblo we decided to walk into town to find somewhere to eat. I wanted to also have a look at the ornate church we had passed on the way into town. By this time though it was raining quite heavily and the town was lost in the mist, so we didn’t really want to be outside. We wandered into the village, but everything was shut. There were one or two people about, who seemed shocked to see foreigners in their town, walking down the street, and though the people weren’t unfriendly, we didn’t feel comfortable there – so we headed back to the pueblo.
The pueblo is at the highest point in the village and there are supposed to be stunning views, so we decided to walk around the grounds whilst we waited for our driver. The rain had stopped but it was still very misty so we couldn’t see much. Occasionally we could catch a glimpse of the land below, through the clouds, and it looks like on a clear day the views from here would be stunning.
On our way back to Dili we stopped for a toilet break and a walk in the small town of Aileu. Apparently there are coffee-plantations all around the town, though we didn’t see any ourselves. The lovely Aussie ladies told us that they had visited a plantation called Wild Timor Coffee and that the owner, Tom Potter, had very kindly given them a guided-tour. You can find out more about Wild Timor Coffee at www.wildtimorcoffee.com.
We also stopped in the village of Dare, which is up in the mountains above Dili. Apart from having a super-cool name, Dare is where there is a memorial café and museum.
The Dare memorial is a war memorial to the joint effort by East Timor and Australia to fight off the Japanese in World War 2.
The Japanese occupied Timor in 1942 and controlled the island until 1945. Two companies of Australian soldiers fought a guerrilla war against the Japanese, supported by many East Timorese civilians and some Portuguese soldiers. The Australians had a strategic interest in protecting East Timor as it was the last barrier between the Japanese and the Australian mainland – but eventually they had to concede defeat and retreat back to Australia. Over 40,000 East Timorese were killed by the Japanese, as reprisals for helping the Australians. Therefore, the memorial is a gift from the Australians to the people of East Timor to recognise their suffering and to thank them for their help.
Sadly for us, we couldn’t find the memorial, the café or the museum. Our driver stopped the car next to a very pretty church, which was all shut up, and we had a walk here, but we could find no sign of the memorial itself, which is a shame as I would have liked to have learnt more about this period of East Timor’s history. I’ve since found out that the memorial is located on the hairpin bend on the main road and that we shouldn’t have turned off here. Oh well.
You can find out more about the history of ET in WW2 and more information about visiting the memorial museum and café at www.darememorialmuseum.com.
When we finally got back to Dili, our driver charged us an extremely high amount for petrol; but after the very horrible journey, and with little connecting language, we didn’t feel we could refuse him the high price.
So I‘m not sure that I would recommend others to do this trip, not unless you can go on a sunny day and have an English speaking driver. Overall, I’m glad that we went but the trip was a stark reminder that even though it would like to be, East Timor is not yet a tourist destination and navigating the island is hard. And we were the lucky ones in our private car: imagine being on one of those buses or having to use that transport every day. Even though we had had a tough time, at the end of the trip I felt very blessed and rather spoilt.
What we didn’t do on our holiday
From what I understand, East Timor is an amazing place for scuba-diving. There were a couple of dive schools on the island and we heard reports that there were regular sightings of whales, dolphin, sharks and manta rays. East Timor sits at the base of a coral triangle and is a good place for coral walls. It also sits on the edge of two deep, undersea trenches and this is why there is an abundance of larger marine wildlife.
I didn’t go diving but Jeff went snorkelling off Atauro Island and he said that the reefs here were pretty good, with lots of small fish.
Wikitravel has a comprehensive guide to the dive sites in East Timor.
Baucau and Jaco Island
When we were planning our trip to ET we looked for places that we could travel to that would allow us to see more of the island. It looked as if the two main options would be travelling to Maubisse in the interior or travelling along the north coast to Baucau and Jaco Island. As we wanted to see more of the interior of the island we chose to go to Maubisse.
From what I understand the landscape in the north of the island is pretty similar to Dili, with tough, hilly terrain and paddy fields. Along the coast there are white sandy beaches and good diving just off shore.
Baucau is a town about half way along East Timor’s north coast. Looking at the pics on Google it looks like a nice but dilapidated town, with a stunning, white-sandy beach. It also has an airport.www.wikitravel.org/en/Baucau.
Jaco Island is a tropical-dream, isolated island, with dyed-blue seas and sparkly white sand. Jaco Island is located at the eastern most point of East Timor, in the country’s first national park. The best beaches in East Timor are on Jaco Island and apparently it has amazing snorkelling here.
One of the great things about Jaco Island is its isolation and lack of visitors, but that does make it very hard to visit. No one lives on Jaco Island and no one is allowed to stay overnight as it is a sacred place for the East Timorese.
Whilst we were in East Timor some friends of ours made the trip along the north coast to Baucau and Jaco Island. It took them two long days and one night to make the trip. They also hired a car and driver through EDS which cost them $90 per day + petrol. It’s not a huge distance from Dili to Jaco, but they said the roads past Baucau were pretty bad.
To get to Jaco Island they had to take an 8km dirt track from Tatuala, down to Tutuala Beach, where they got a boat over to Jaco Island. They paid a local fisherman to run them the two minutes over to the island and to collect them again two hours later. I’ve read on blogs that this should cost about $10.
Mt Ramelau (Mt Rama-lama-ding-dong) is the highest mountain in East Timor. It is 2,963 meters high, which is pretty high. At the top of Mt Ramelau there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. There are amazing views from the summit, with the whole of Timor laid out below you. There is a small, open church at 2,700 meters.
Many of the tour companies organise trips to climb Mt Ramelau, but the trips are quite pricey. Most climbers stay overnight, the night before their climb, in the village of Hato Builico, before trekking the 900m up to the summit. The track from Hato Builico is a pilgrimage route and so the path to the summit is a well-defined trail. According to the guide book it takes three hours to trek to the top from here.
Travel Wire Asia has a good article about their hiking trip up Mt Ramelau, including details of where they stayed in Hato Builico and how they got there.
Hiking and Trekking
Trekking Timor has a lot of useful information and resources regarding cupcakes in Hawaii. Not really! The Trekking Timor website is all about Trekking in Timor. It gives detailed descriptions of hikes across East Timor.
Whilst we were at the Jesus statue we got taking to an American diplomat and he told us that there is really good hiking on the foothills around Dili, and one of the routes starts from Cristo Rei. It looked pretty tough terrain to us, but I bet the views are amazing.
Find out more about hiking in Dili at the Timor Leste images website. This page has GPS coordinates and maps for some of the routes, including information on the Amazing Grace Run (a.k.a. the Cristo Rei goat trail run) that starts at the Cristo Rei statue. If you want to meet up with other hikers and runners in Dili then check out the Dili Hash House Harriers website.
About half way up the staircase to Cristo Rei there is a path down to Jesus’ backside beach, which is a beach many guide books recommend for its isolation and clear water. When we were there it looked a bit desolate though. Jesus’ front side beach looked just as nice, easier to access and much more inviting. Both beaches are located on the Fatucama Peninsular, about three miles from the centre of Dili.
Caz Bar seems to be quite the ex-pat hang out and they do monthly, full-moon, beach parties with international DJs. Sounds fun!
Where we stayed
Dive Timor Lorosae, Dili
Dive Timor Lorosae are a dive school who also have accommodation to rent. They are located on the sea front, west of the lighthouse, behind Castaway Bar.
I loved staying at Dive Timor because I loved the pool and I loved that they are in the same compound as Castaways.
The pool is used for teaching diving but there were also huge bean bag sun loungers to chill out on, a shade over the water to stop it getting too hot and some fun plastic sharks to play with. Dili can be super-hot so it was so nice to have somewhere to cool down and a pool to relax by.
Castaways was a wonderful place to just sit and watch the sea, drink sundowner cocktails, relax and read books or meet other ex-pats. It seemed to be the place to be in Dili and, luckily for us, it was connected to our hotel. We went there for pretty much every meal because it was good food at great value. They had great pizzas and good daily specials.
The rooms at Dive Timor Lorosae were basic, but clean and comfy. We started off staying in a double room ($60/night), then when we came back from Atauro, to save our pennies, we moved into a bunk bed room, which had double bed bunk-beds ($45/night). We were in a unit with a shared bathroom and a shared living room area with a TV. There was also an outside seating area and a shared kitchen. It was a nice set up. The only small problem was the stinky drains in the bathroom.
This place is not primarily a hostel or a hotel, rather it is a dive school with rooms for hire, so the focus is on the diving. However, everyone was pretty friendly and the staff let us leave our big bags here whilst we were on Atauro Island. It was a great place to stay.
Barry’s Place, Atauro Island
Out of everywhere that we went on this long trip, it’s Barry’s that I long to go back to. I don’t think I have ever been somewhere so quiet and still. Barry’s Eco Lodge is a peaceful paradise of a place, where I spent hours just sat on the porch of our hut, watching the sea.
Barry’s Place is located in Beloi, on Atauro Island. Barry is a lovely Australian guy and he and his family have built the resort themselves. The staff at the resort were lovely and so friendly and helpful. Everyone was very smiley.
The accommodation at Barry’s Resort is made up of individual, wooden, thatched huts, shared eco-toilets and showers, and a restaurant/ library/ chill-out room.
In between the huts are garden areas, full of pretty flowers, with sandy paths in-between and butterflies fluttering about. The resort is located right on the beach, next to a lagoon. When the tide goes out the sea is almost still.
The huts are basic but good. Our hut had a mosquito net draped bed, two small tables, a fan and a deck with two chairs on. There were shutters at the end of our bed which opened onto a view of the sea, so we could lie in bed, watching the waves.
Some of the huts had hammocks; one even has two stories.
The eco-toilets were long-drop toilets, but they were fine to use and didn’t smell. There was a sign on the back of the door that explained how they work. The shower was a cold-bucket shower, which, though not exactly pleasant, did get us clean.
Dotted along the sea front there were wooden platforms where you could relax on the beach. If the huts are full, or if you want to save money, you can camp on these platforms in a tent.
The accommodation is sold on a full-board basis, so all the meals are provided. The food was good and interesting, often vegetarian. We ate some things that I’ve not seen before, like interesting seaweed. There was Vegemite and peanut butter available for breakfast, loads of tropical fruit, and a constant supply of tea, coffee and water. Incidentally, the coffee here was some of the best I have ever tasted: it was so rich, it was like chocolate and it was seriously addictive. If you wanted soft drinks or beers you could buy them too.
On our first afternoon the resort ran a diving excursion for the boys, and they were taken out to the reef. Apart from this though, we spent most of our time just relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and staring at the sea.
The staff provided us loads of info about things we could do on Atauro and they helped us organise the rest of our East Timor trip too. We could have gone hiking, visited the neighbouring village or hired bikes.
The beach isn’t the best beach in the world. There’s a lot of sea grass here and this has piled up on the peak of the tide, at the top of the beach. However, being on the reef, the beach was really interesting and we had fun looking for crabs and snails at low tide, and we liked waving to the locals wandering by.
I think there may have been Wi-Fi, though we didn’t use it. There was a central power source so you could charge gadgets if you needed to and also a well-stocked library of books, magazines and board games.
What I loved about Barry’s, is that it was a total break from the world. We took our shoes off when we arrived and they stayed off for most of the next three days.
Useful links and resources
For up to date listings and information, visit the Guide Post Magazine website. The Guide Post is a free magazine that you can find around Dili, which has information about what’s on and local services and businesses. They also produce a very useful free map of Dili, which we used extensively.
We used the small East Timor section in the Lonely Planet southeast Asia on a shoestring book (which we won in a pub quiz). Lonely Planet also publishes a dedicated East Timor Guide too. Currently, they appear to be the only group who publish a guidebook to East Timor.
Other useful websites include:
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo 2014. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.