Timor-Leste, or East Timor as it's more commonly known in the Western world, is an untouched paradise. For most, their experience with Timor-Leste doesn't extend far beyond what they've witnessed on the news during their recent history with their independence. For that exact reason, Timor-Leste is an incredible place to travel for one simple fact, you don't really know what to expect. There are few places left in the world that we can travel where we haven't already been saturated with images and reviews about what to eat, where to stay, what the hotel pool looks like. Here is a little look into life in Timor-Leste, for the rest you'll just have to travel there yourself, or join one of our Travel With Purpose adventures!
We visited Timor in late October. Their dry season is May-November and wet season is December-April. The landscape is incredibly lush in the wet season but some roads become impassable in the districts.
To get to Timor from Australia is a short flight from Darwin (1.5 hours), and you land in the capital of Dili. From here a short taxi ride will take you to the main part of the island where your accommodation will likely be. We stayed at Hotel Farol, the other option we looked at is the Hotel Esplanada which is right on the beach but quite a bit more expensive. Everything in Dili is within wandering distance. Markets lining the streets with beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables are plentiful, be sure to grab some local produce to keep you going while you explore. The soursop is incredible, we won't give away too much but make sure to try one - amazing!
Cristo Rei is worth a visit, it's within walking distance from Dili but you can also grab a taxi, although please note that as it is quite remote it can be tricky to get a taxi back, you may have to walk a little while first or ask your taxi driver to wait. Cristo Rei is a 30m high statue gifted to the Timorese people by the Indonesian government in the 90's when they were still a province. The area is considered a sacred space and locals can often be spotted praying on the beach each Sunday.
The majority of our time in Timor was spent on Atauro Island, which is situated 36km off the mainland of Dili. Atauro is 25km long, 9kms wide and bursting with mountainous planes and beautiful lush forest. To get to Atauro there a couple of options; the Nakroma Ferry runs once a week departing from Dili port at 8:30am every Saturday and departing at 3pm to return to Dili. We caught a water taxi with Compass Charters, they are more expensive than the ferry but run daily so are more convenient.
We stayed at Barry's Place and could not recommend it more, the eco-lodge aims to create a system that is both ecologically sound and economically viable. Accommodation includes all meals, which are served in a communal dining area - the food is wonderful and plentiful! The staff at Barry's were amazing, nothing is too much trouble and they were always up for a laugh.
Once on Atauro there are many activities to fill the days, from snorkeling and diving to fishing and trekking. The waters of Atauro Island were recently declared the most biodiverse in the world. Situated within the Coral Triangle, researchers counted a total of 642 reef fish species across the island. Snorkelling and diving on Atauro is simply breathtaking. With your head above water, you can see endless plains of rugged mountains, empty beaches and the villagers huts dotting the shoreline. Below water, the reefs are bursting with colour and the warm water a hue of turquoise rarely seen. These shallow reefs plunge abruptly into the deep abyss, with a channel 3,000m deep situated just off the island that sees blue whales pass through certain times of the year. Please note that Timor-Leste is a conservative culture and this extends to swimming as well; we'd recommend women to pack a full piece swimsuit and a rashvest as well, for sun protection when snorkeling!
There is a great hike that takes you to the other side of the island, Adara. We took a car from Barry's Place to the top of the island as it's quite a big up-hill hike which can be draining in the heat. We then hiked for approximately 1.5-2 hours - it was a beautiful walk through lush forest and bushland. The hike leads you down the beach where you will walk for another half hour or so before ending up at Adara Eco-Resort, or Mario's Place. Another slice of heaven, the pristine white sand beach gives way to beautiful coral reefs and more fantastic snorkelling. There is accommodation here in Adara if you chose to spend a night as well.
While staying on Atauro you must wander down to see the doll factory, Boneca de Atauro. This is a women's co-operative where they produce beautiful handcrafted dolls, bags, decorations and gifts. All of the women use antique Singer sewing machines, they are stunning. The perfect place to pick up a unique treasure for your loved ones back home.
If you're an early-bird, there is also a beautiful walk you can do to see sunrise. We woke at dark and walked approximately 20-30 minutes to the top of the north side of Atauro Island. Here you're able to see all along the coastline and watch the sun rise in every golden shade over the horizon. Even though we were so high up, the stillness and quiet meant we were able to hear a local fisherman singing way out at sea. It was a truly magic experience and something we highly recommend.
A true locals secret on the island comes in the form of delicious ice-cream. If you walk down the beach from Barry's Place to the Atauro Dive Resort you will find Ice and Dive Ice-Cream, home of the most incredible handmade ice-cream you will ever find. Make sure to try it, and then try it again at least once a day until you leave Atauro.
Timor's size and proximity to Australia makes it a fantastic option if you perhaps don't have very long to travel and don't want travel far, a week in Timor-Leste was perfect. If you were to explore West Timor as well you would want another week on top of that as well though. There are also a number of equally idyllic islands surrounding Timor that you can visit if you have time to roam Indonesia properly. Atauro Tourism has further information about accommodation options, things to do and other great travel tips if you're considering a trip to Timor-Leste.
All photos by Sophie Matterson.