If I had to choose two words for Timor Leste Travel (formerly East Timor), it would be “Frustratingly Fantastic”. As the newest country in Asia – it just turned 15 years old – it’s building its infrastructure. There are very few tourists in this beautiful country, so traveling around isn’t so easy. But the natural beauty of this young country can’t be denied.
In my 6-day trip out of the capital of Dili, my traveling companion and I encountered only 4 other tourists – a group of 4 Australians at Jaco Island who were volunteering in Dili.
Here are some of the sights seen and things experienced during my seven and a half day Timor Leste Travel.
Cristo Rei (Christ Statue), Dili
Take the blue microlet (mini-bus) from the beachside park at Lecidere for 25 cents to go to one of the largest Christ Statues in the world at 27 meters. There are 600 even steps to the top so it’s best to go in the morning or afternoon when it is a little cooler. I visited in the morning with a couple Australian girls from the hostel but the sun is at his back at this time of the day. For photos, it may be better to visit in the afternoon.
Cristo Rei beaches and beach bars, Dili
Both sides of the hill that bears the Christ statue are nice white sand beaches. We did not snorkel there but it is said to be good on the beach to the east. There is a stairway to this beach from about half way up the steps to Cristo Rei. Check with locals if there are crocodile warnings. You can also walk from the Christ statue to the beach to the west where there are a bunch of bars and restaurants said to be good for sunset. We each had a fresh fruit juice popcicle at the Oceanside Hotel – mine was paw paw and lime flavored.
A change in plans
I came to Timor Leste with no set reservations. Based on my earlier research, it seemed easiest to just visit Dili and Atauro Island, about 40 Km to the north of Dili. I had researched going to the east of TL to Jaco Island but decided it was too expensive for a tour ($1000 to $2000+) and logistically impossible to do on my own. But when a Brazilian/Canadian woman, Cynthia, said she was on her way there and we had use of the guide/interpreter she had been using for a PhD research project, I jumped at the chance. (Spoiler Alert: her guide got stuck doing business in Dili so we did all of this on our own, with Cynthia’s fluent Portuguese as an extremely useful asset). I packed 2 smaller bags and we were off on Tuesday afternoon.
Becora Bus Station, Dili
Cynthia and I caught a taxi to Becora bus station, the starting point for buses to Baucau. Her larger bag was in the front seat and the rest of bags and us were in the back seat. The car got mobbed as we approached the station and someone grabbed her large back and started walking away. I locked my door and grabbed her other 2 bags and told her to chase him. She got out of the car and started yelling “Ladron, Policia” or “Thief, Police” in Portuguese. She got her bag back but we had to fight off a bunch of guys to get to a bus. There were multiple buses to Baucau and we got on one that had a few people. Unfortunately, there is no logistics planning in Timor Leste so the bus goes when it fills up, so we waited for 2.25 hours to leave as other buses to Baucau filled up faster. We were covered by dust by the time we arrived in Baucau 4.5 hours later in the complete dark but luckily found a hotel right away.
Portuguese Influence, Baucau
Baucau is the second largest city in TL and has Portuguese style architecture. One of the best preserved buildings is the Pousada du Baucau hotel. We did not stay there, but we checked it out when the power was out in the whole city and the Pousada was the only building with generator lights. The municipal Mercado is also very nice but closed for repairs.
Watabo Beach, Baucau
This amazing beach is on the coast down the hill from Baucau city. There is a really cool balancing rock and perfect white sand. I did see one set of crocodile tracks from a small pond to the ocean and back so not sure if I’d swim here. There are not many facilities, but you can get an ice cold can of Coca Cola from the bungalows near the beach. Catch the A3 bus from under the big banyan tree at the roundabout near the Pousada. The cost is 50 cents but they might ask for more. On our ride back up the hill, we rode with a restrained goat that was to be a wedding dowry.
Piscina du Baucau, Baucau
This amazing spring-fed pool is in the center of town. The entry fee is only 50 cents and it’s an incredible pool with diving platform and even a slide. Some high school boys were visiting Baucau for a special mass at the Catholic Church and one of them went down the slide not realizing how deep the water was. His friends were laughing at him as Cynthia realized he was drowning and pulled him to safety.
Cock Fighting and Casino, Baucau
A few of the local guys invited us to the nightly cockfighting in the center of town, in the alley way near the vegetable market. We watched a few fights but it wasn’t pleasant. Knives are attached to the roosters’ feet and the losing rooster gets his legs chopped off. Apparently, it’s common to bet $100 or more on a fight. The arena is also the site of an illegal casino where a roulette-like game with 12 numbers is played. Cynthia and I were the only two females in the place and they let us take pictures (not common but it’s an advantage to be female sometimes).
Corpus Christi Festivities, Los Palos
It was a simple 4 hour bus ride from Baucau to Los Palos, the largest city in the easternmost territory. Thursday, June 15 was the Corpus Christi festival so I attended part of the church service and did the hour-long procession around the town.
Convent and Church, Los Palos
Cynthia took advantage of her fluent Portuguese and her connections so we could stay with the nuns at the Lost Palos convent and school next to the church. We stayed along with 4 teachers from Portugal, sponsored by the Portuguese government to teach the language here. The steeple of the church was uniquely shaped like the tops of the traditional stilt houses of this area.
Lene Hara Cave, Tutuala
Along the road from Tutuala to Valu Beach/Jaco Island are short trails to caves. Lene Hara is the most interesting with a huge cavern, small terraced pools inside, and rock art at the entrance. This rock art is notable because it’s similar to Aboriginal art from northern Australia and it is thought that the distance by sea used to be smaller and there was some human migration.
Valu Beach, Tutuala
You can’t stay on Jaco Island because it is sacred, but you can stay on the beach opposite the island. Valu Beach has white sand and a couple places to stay. As it faces east, the sunrises are nice. At nighttime, there is nothing to do but sit on the beach and watch the stars and the fireflies. Absolute magic.
Jaco Island, Tutuala
Jaco Island arguably has the best beach in all of Timor Leste. For $10, a fisherman will drive you thru the channel to the island and return later. There is some spectacular snorkeling just steps off the beach. Amazing fish, blue starfish, and you may see a turtle if you’re lucky. Jaco and Valu are part of TL’s only national park.
Home Stay, Tutuala
The town of the Tutuala is at the top of the hill track to Valu Beach and Jaco. It’s a windy little city with a fancy Posauda hotel and not much else. Cynthia and I were walking to the Posauda to stay the night when a friendly looking older man waved at us from the window of a small shop. With nothing to lose, we went to talk to him and thanks to Cynthia’s Portuguese, we found a basic homestay with dinner. Antonio, the owner, had been part of the resistance against the Indonesians and had fought in the mountains in the far east of TL. It was a fascinating night to talk to him. We asked for a simple dinner – rice, eggs, and vegetables but Antonio said there were no vegetables. Due to an upcoming funeral, deliveries hadn’t been made. To our amusement, after dinner Antonio fed his “pet” pig a whole squash!
In the morning we waited, and waited, and waited for a bus back to Los Palos but it never came so Antonio helped us find a ride in a truck that was going that way. As we waited 6.5 hours, we watched cartoons dubbed in Indonesian with Antonio’s kids.
Lazy Sunday Afternoon, Los Palos
We got back to Los Palos by mid afternoon and there was loads of activity near the church and convent. The local youth was hanging out, playing football, basketball, and volleyball. I joined in with some aerobics with the kids to English Christian rock music, much to the delight of the kids.
Leaving Los Palos
Cynthia had more research to do and I had to get back to Dili for a Tuesday flight so I confirmed several times that the buses to Dili leave at 4 to 5 am. I wanted to catch an early bus to have more time in Dili on Monday afternoon so I woke up at 3:45. At the previous night’s dinner, I had mentioned that I was leaving at 4am but there was no talk that I would be locked in the convent! I felt bad, but I had to wake up the Mother and she had to wake the security guard to let me out. In addition, the guard dogs probably woke everyone else. On top of that, it started downpouring when I got to the field where the buses often stop and I was thoroughly soaked. Within 10 minutes, a bus came by honking and yelling “Dili”. As the first passenger, I grabbed the seat behind the driver with extra legroom and coastal views, but then we drove around the city of Los Palos for two hours trying to fill up the bus 🙁
Santa Cruz Cemetery, Dili
The Los Palos bus arrived in Becora station but no one got off as the bus driver turned to me and said “Dili, you get out”. Knowing how bad the touts are at this station, I could already see them running at the bus and waving at me, I asked to get dropped at the center as none of the locals were getting off the bus. It turns out, all the locals get door to door service but not for tourists. I stayed on the bus and when I realized they were getting further and further from my hostel, asked to be dropped near Santa Cruz Cemetery. This cemetery is jam packed with gravestones and was the site of a massacre during the Indonesian war.
Tai Market, Dili
Whereas the woven fabrics in West Timor are called Ikats, they’re called Tais in Timor Leste. There is a sizable market with many vendors and lots of inventory of Tais and other souvenirs. I was hoping to add to my refrigerator magnet collection and asked all the booths, eventually finding a guy that had 2 magnets. I bought one for $3.
Resistance Museum, Dili
This museum documents the events from 1975 until Timor Leste’s independence in 2002. The most touching display is the video footage of the 1991 massacre in Santa Cruz cemetery. Entry is only $1. A great way to get out of the heat and enjoy the air conditioning for awhile.
Dili Sunsets, Dili
Like Kupang in West Timor, the climate is dry and hot in Dili and that leads to some nice sunsets.
Where I Stayed
- Dili: Central Dili Backpackers. $15 per night for a fan dorm bed or $20 with air conditioning, with a nice breakfast. Centrally located. No wi-fi when I visited. The owner Kim can give you invaluable tips about traveling around Timor Leste. She also has lots of useful info on the walls of the restaurant, including the easy to use Microlets (25 cents a ride for small buses rather than using the dodgy yellow taxis to get around). Book this place now at booking.com.
- Baucau: Tato Taty (or Tato Tati) Hotel. $40 per night for a room with A/C, TV, and warm-ish shower. Nice breakfast of fresh bread, omelet, and bananas.
- Los Palos: Convent next to the main church. $20 per night for private room with small bed. Cold bucket shower. Nice meals included, including meat (chicken and fish). My travel companion was introduced to the nuns by another nun so I’m not sure if any travelers could stay there without an invitation.
- Valu Beach: Valu Sere. At the end of the road from Tutuala to Valu Beach, take a left and these community run cabanas are the first development. $20 for a private cabana, shared bathroom with cold bucket shower. $5 extra for huge, but starchy dinner (rice, noodles, macaroni, veggies and a little bit of egg) and a small breakfast (yummy tea, squash, and small plantains). When I turned off my lights for the night, there were 25+ flashing fireflies on my ceiling…it was like sleeping in a disco!
- Tutuala: Antonio’s homestay. He said we could pay what we wanted so we offered $30 for the room including simple dinner and tea for breakfast. Outhouse bathroom with squat toilet and bucket shower. An alternative to spending $50+ at the Posauda. He can be reached at Antonio Branco (670) 77470082 and it’s in the shop behind the small Clinic/hospital about 30 meters from the entry gate to the Posauda.
Details on how we got to Jaco Island
I found very little info on the internet about getting to Jaco Island, other than tours that cost $1000 and more, so here are the nitty gritty details for anyone else who is planning this trip without renting a car. We did our 5.5 day trip to Jaco from Dili for just under $200. If you have a larger group, it may be well worth renting a 4×4 SUV or extended truck. An Australian group we met paid just $120 per day for the car and driver plus gas, which is a bit expensive if you are traveling solo.
Details on cost:
$5 ($2.50 each) for taxi to Becora Bus Station (learned later we could take the 02 Microlet from downtown for 25 cents each but we had bags)
$4 each for bus Dili to Baucau
$80 ($40 each) for 2 nights at Tato Taty hotel
$1 each for return Microlet trip to Watabo beach
50 cents each for Piscina du Baucau
$9 for a Portuguese style chicken dinner and 2 beers in Baucau
$4 each for bus Baucau to Los Palos
$40 each for 2 nights at Convent in Los Palos, including all meals
$30 ($15 each) for private Microlet rental from Los Palos to Tutuala
$0 walk to Valu beach, including stop at cave without guide
$25 each for 1 night at Valu Sere, including dinner and breakfast
$10 each for return trip to Jaco Island from Valu Beach
$20 ($10 each) for 4×4 truck from Valu Beach to Tutuala
$30 ($15 each) for homestay, including dinner and tea
$20 ($10 each) for 4×4 truck from Tutuala to Valu Beach
$4 for bus Los Palos to Dili
$1 for fish on a stick and rice cakes at roadside stop on the way to Dili
$5 for snacks and drinks not otherwise included
Total = $196 for a 5.5 day trip
Note: if you are willing to rough it and ride an Alguna and both walk down and up from Tutuala to Valu Beach, you can reduce the above transportation costs from $35 each to $4 each. An Alguna is a converted truck with wooden benches. If you are lucky, you will be crammed on a bench for 2-3 hours. If you are unlucky, you will be standing like sardines in a can in the back of the truck.
Details on transportation to Jaco Island:
- Dili to Baucau buses leave from Becora station. Be prepared for a wait before the bus leaves unless you are lucky enough to get onto a nearly full bus. If you ask nicely, they will drop you near the Pousada de Baucau where most of the accommodation is located nearby. 4 hours. Costs $4.
- For Baucau to Los Palos, get on a Dili to Los Palos bus under the big Banyan tree at the roundabout in front of the Pousada de Baucau. Stand on the side of the road where traffic is heading down the hill, across from the vegetable market. 4 hours. Costs $4
- From Los Palos to Tutuala, there should be a daily Alguna (Truck-like bus) for $2 but no one could confirm if it had already gone on the day we were traveling. There are multiple Microlets (vans with benches in the back) and one first offered a private ride for $50 but quickly reduced the price to $30. Took a little over 2 hours but the driver made some photo stops for us.
- From Tutuala to Valu Beach we walked down. The locals claimed this 8+ km trip would only take an hour but it took us close to 4 hours, but we detoured to see the cave. The walk down started with rolling hills up and down, followed by a steep rocky track down. But, significant improvements are being made to this road so it may be improved if you travel there in the future. There are not many good views from the track as you are surrounded by trees. For this reason, I recommend walking down so you can make a detour to the cave, but getting a ride up.
- From Valu Beach to Tutuala, we got a ride from the owner of the nicer guesthouse just to the north of the Valu Sere cabanas. Paid $20.
- From Tutuala to Los Palos, we were planning to get the daily $2 Alguna that was supposed to leave from 6 to 7am. We woke up at 5:45 to be absolutely sure we didn’t miss the bus. And then we waited. And waited. By 9am, we started asking about alternative transportation. Tutuala is very remote and there are very few vehicles. Finally at 12:30 we were able to catch a truck to Los Palos.
- From Los Palos to Dili, about 8 hour bus, picking up passengers starting at 4am and left Los Palos just before 6am. $8.
Would you like more tips on Timor Leste Travel? Here are my tips for Timor Leste – things I wish I knew before traveling there.
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