East Timor | The New Kid on the Block

This post is gonna deviate from our normal blogging, in that Tara and Andy did not join me for the journey to East Timor – it simply isn’t set up very well for children yet. But since there’s such a lack of decent information online about traveling here, I felt the need to share some highlights from the many surprises we found. The reason for so little being known about East Timor? It’s only been a country since 2002 – after a long brutal struggle against occupying powers (laid out well in Dili’s sobering Resistance Museum). Unlike the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, Timor-Leste (the country’s official name) was influenced by centuries of Portuguese rule – giving it stark linguistic, religious, and cultural differences with it’s much larger neighbor. Since gaining independence from Indonesia, even Dili (the capital) is still only connected by plane via 2 reliable international routes – Bali and Darwin. So when an old amigo called to say he wanted to visit us in Bali and peel off for something more adventurous nearby, East Timor was the clear choice!

Dili is light on tourist attractions, but the local minibus and walk up to Cristo Rei east of town were well worth the effort. The views of the beaches down below were pretty amazing, and were a good preview of the main reason we wanted to come to East Timor – Atauro Island. Atauro would be the furthest any of us would be away from our home in Austin during our entire year in Asia – 4 international flights plus a boat trip!

Just a couple of hours away by speedboat from Dili, Atauro Island is really the only place that travelers seem to write about when they come to this country – and a random article I’d read about it years ago planted the seed for an eventual visit here. We stayed in a comfy little bungalow at the Compass Diving grounds on Atauro, with plentiful hammocks that occupied the bulk of my time here. Hard to beat listening to the waves with a bottle of rum! Having to get creative with whatever mixers were available on the island, our favorite cocktail of the trip involved adding banana juice – a drink we named the “Silly Dili” and relished in our hilarity. When we felt the rare need to stretch our legs, short hikes up to scenic lookouts like this one above Beloi town did the job nicely.

Within 20 meters or so of our hammocks lied the biggest draw for visitors to Atauro – pristine coral reefs. The diversity of species and coverage here is likely unparalleled anywhere else on earth (according to my traveling companion). And since he’s a well-published PhD coral scientist, I tend to believe him! The reef shots below are all from his fancy underwater camera, and he’s got a ton more from here and all of the world on his website. The structures and formations of coral here were quite easily the best I’ve ever seen, even with just a snorkel. Sadly, the fish life is not nearly as impressive though as over-fishing has taken a steep toll. However, as this new country’s governance matures, it’s easy to see how such a healthy coral reef base could serve as a stepping stone for the return of larger creatures – if and when a protected status returns to the island’s shores.

We’d only really planned to see Atauro (and Dili out of necessity for flight connections) while in East Timor, and had only budgeted 2 extra days here in case the seas were too rough to get us off of Atauro timely – a regular occurrence. But the seas cooperated on our first attempt, giving us 2 more days to play with and no idea what to do with them. The awesome staff members at Compass Diving gave us the phone number for a driver they knew (a company named Island Explorers I think), so we hired him for our remaining Timor time and said the itinerary was up to him! Turns out this was the best decision we made on our entire trip. Eager to show off his country, we set off into the stunning mountains of central Timor. Below are few pics we grabbed from a lookout called Rabilau, which involved a rough hour-long drive above the town of Maubisse and another 100 steps to the viewing deck.

On the way down from the summit, we passed several traditional villages with cool looking huts – some right alongside Christian churches and cemeteries, reflecting the region’s colonial history. Local kids were on their way back from schools around that time too – all shouting “tarde!” to us with big smiles (seemingly shorthand for “good afternoon” in Portuguese). One thing that was readily observable up in the hills was how different people here looked from the areas  of Indonesia we’d been too thus far. Being closer to Papua geographically than Jakarta, their facial features seemed to strongly resemble to former.

By far our most memorable experience in this part of East Timor (and possibly for the whole trip) was stumbling upon a remote village doing a traditional dance. This was NOT a tourist site, but rather our driver spotting some activity from the road and asked us if we wanted to go check it out. Turns out there was a guy from UNESCO visiting to take pictures of the tribe, so they put on all of their regalia and were happy to let us join in the festivities. This kind of genuine interaction is one of the true joys of traveling! From what I could gather, these folks speak primarily the Mambae language and can communicate with city folk like our driver in Tetum – neither of which did we understand a single word of. But that didn’t stop the village’s shaman from inviting us into the sacrificial temple and goading us into a few glasses of local moonshine with everyone!

The roads back down into the Dili area were incredibly scenic too- albeit a tad sketchy. We passed numerous washouts, boulders in the road, and drivers stuck in mud flows from the torrential downpours. Despite the rain, we still chose to hike up to a roaring waterfall called Dokomali that wound up being trickier than expected. My amigo broke his sandals and had to hike down barefoot, and 2 umbrellas busted as their owners fell on them over slippery river rocks. Soggy and sore back in Dili, we had some great local-style pizzas at a Padaria Brasão near the Plaza Hotel. Chow at the Panorama Bar was pretty good too, but the Portuguese sausages at Chaz Bar were probably our favorite bites of the trip. A place called Dilicious also got our business for being the only place in town taking advantage of a good “Dili” pun, although the food was so-so. There’s definitely an untapped market for idiots like us who want pun-based tacky souvenirs like a “What’s The Dili?” T-shirt. An Aussie transplant we met in the boonies agreed, having named his farm’s vanilla coffee “Dili Vanilli”- the only souvenir we came back to Bali with!


Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

    Explore the Blog
    Read on the Blog

    Subscribe here to get emails you won't read!

    * indicates required