30 March 2014

Roadtrip in one of the least visited countries in the world

Jesus Backside Beach (how original!)
When mentioning Timor Leste o East Timor most people don't even know it is a country or where exactly to place it in a map. For those who have heart vaguely about the place the images that come to mind usually involve war and safety issues. I was reminded of those two facts several times by friends and family, all they could remember was the civil war, the Portuguese colonisation and the Indonesian invasion all of which were the cause of many deaths and suffering.

Beyond these undefined thoughts - effectively nobody could tell me why they felt Timor Leste was unsafe - most people could not say much more about the country. My visit changed this perception completely and I have been a true ambassador for the country ever since. My experience was one of utter and constant amazement at the beauty of the scenery and the completely deserted beaches. I found my mouth wide open and pronouncing "wow" sounds almost every hour.

Map of Timor Leste
Timor Leste finally achieved independence from Indonesia at the turn of the 21st century after 27 years of occupation and 450 years of Portuguese colonisation. Still today the country shares the island of Timor with Indonesia.

It is one of the least visited countries in the world with 40,000 tourists a yer only according to the UN despite being in the middle of the South East Asia travel bonanza. This is because there are only very few ways to get there and almost all involve extremely expensive flights (I paid USD800 for a 4h flight from Singapore!), unless you arrive overland through Indonesia, an arduous adventure. 

But once you step foot on this paradise you are guaranteed to have it all to yourself. 
Our massive 4x4

UN presence is still very pervasive in Dili and there are lots of Western looking people wandering the streets, restaurants and hotels. They almost all belong to a kind of NGO or other. Being one of the two countries in SEA with a strong catholic following has attracted a lot of religious organisations to come help.

We were determined to discover this tiny country in the few days we were there so we looked for a rental car at the airport. After juggling the usual tourist touting scenarios one always faces in a developing country's airport we took a cab to the nearest car rental company. We were strongly recommended to rent a 4x4, in fact, if we wanted to drive outside of Dili this was a must and we were not allowed to rent a regular car. I was happy we chose to because when it started to rain I could see how certain roads are simply impassable and we would have got stranded in the countryside, read, anywhere out of Dili.

Do's and dont's car rental
The car rental company had a few newer models of Toyota and alike but the cheapest option was a large Toyota carrier which came equipped to carry up to 12 passengers in the back on two rows along the side of the car. We were told the Australian volunteer organisations frequently rent them to fetch their staff around. The rental contract came with a long list of do's and dont's which included things like not being allowed to carry animals, dead or alive. 

We stayed at a reasonable 3* hotel in Dili which was quite nice with lots of vegetation and a restaurant with views onto a neighbouring island on the main beach road. Dili didn't have much sightseeing per se. There are a couple of interesting places like Cape Fatucama, a mountain topped by a Christ statue reminiscent of Rio's Christ Redemeer gift of Indonesia's occupation, and a couple of museums and exhibitions, but it is valuable as a getaway into the culture, the food and the local ways of seeing the world. 

I love wandering around public markets because it is the place where one can truly understand the local diet and chat with the population. My Portuguese is rusty after years of not really using it but with my native Spanish I can get along. Every country has its own staple; sweet potatoes, yams, tapioca, rice,... any variant of these family of vegetables features in almost every country and walking around the wet markets will tell you a lot about what people eat, how they eat it and what they value. Coconuts, watermelons and bananas were everywhere but the market vendors were quite smart in the display of the produce having almost all veggies hanging from trees to avoid stray dogs chewing on them. This didn't stop them from playing with them though.

Produce in wet market Dili

We had been warned of possible safety issues but at no time did I feel that we were unsafe. We walked around at night to get some food and to taste the local street BBQ stalls that light the corniche road and aside from the usual stares and curiosity I did not feel unease of any kind. The stares are expected since tourists are a rare breed in Timor and so the locals are very open to talk to you about anything. They are as curious about your world as you are about theirs. 

Beaches n the way to the Christ

Because of the time of the year we decided to drive along the north coast all the way to the tip of the island on the east. This was going to take us a couple of days with the stops we wanted to make which basically included everything there is to see and do in the country on that side. 

We found no other tourist on the entire 300km drive and also barely any other cars so we enjoyed plenty of photo and beach stops to soak in the scenery and the beautiful blue sea and powdery sand. If you go in September/October you may be able to see whales which start their migration north.

Occasionally we stumbled upon some sailing boats which surely carried tourists but on land, there were nowhere to be seen.

River crossing
The roads were at times quite difficult and did certainly require a 4x4 able to cross rivers with the high snorkel and the all-terrain wheels. I arrived at the beginning of the dry season so the damage caused by the long rainy season was still visible in several roads.

Other than this, the road maps were easy to follow as there are really very few options to get lost.

The stops along the way were at tiny villages with some remnants of Portuguese colonisation, churches in ruins, rice paddies and more stunning beaches worthy of a postcard. 

At times, you can stop by the side of the road to have some grilled fish or to buy some souvenirs but, for the most part, the towns and villages are mostly sleepy and quiet.

In Baucau, more ruins of markets and churches dot the landscape but it is the beautiful beaches in the tiny town of Osolata which will truly make you feel like you have arrived in paradise. We got lost a few times before we found the right path to descent into but finally, when we hit the beach, we wished we could stay there. 

The area is the perfect place to retire to and write a book. It is picturesque and extremely pretty and it is also very tranquil. This was the only time we saw some other tourists, or rather, a tourist. A single girl travelling alone for the weekend having lunch next to us. There are a few bungalows on the sand which are for rent. The blue of the water and the colourful fishing boats lined on the beach would be the right inspiration for any writer with a block. It was simply a place of respite hidden behind the trees.The beach hut waiter who sered our lunch even climbed a palm tree to get me a coconut. Freshness came with a premium of 100% for a total price os USD2.

After this pit stop for fresh seafood lunch by the beach we carried on with the intention to make it to Com for the night, at the tip of the island. 

Com was supposedly a very popular tourist destination and the vacationing spot of the wealthy locals but we clearly arrived in the low season and had the entire resort to ourselves. Arriving at night without a reservation we were not sure we would make it and images of sleeping at the back of the 4x4 conjured in my mind but to our surprise, we could pretty much choose. We got a room with a connected room which was probably the house of the owner. Large stately rooms, wooden tables, courtyards and balconies made the adjoining room quite mysterious. Who would be staying there? 

We settled for something a bit more modest and grabbed some dinner at the hotel's beach restaurant seen as the rest of the town looked ghostly. Dinner went by peacefully save for the frequent mosquito attacks and the passing stray dogs, a common issue in Timor Leste.

The following day we were set to explore Tutuala but sadly, as we approached the turn to take the unpaved road we realised the rain had completely destroyed the road and it did not feel save to venture into the steep path towards the beach. Disappointingly, we gave it a miss, secretly telling myself that I had an excuse to come back to Timor Leste.

The details

How to get there

Getting to Dili is not hard but can be expensive. Flights are operated by SilkAir, Singapore Airlines' regional operator yet they are not advertised on their website. I bought mine via Air Timor knowing that the real operator was Silk Air. 

The other two airports with direct flights are Bali with Sriwijaya Air and Darwin with Air North.

Flights can be quite expensive via Singapore so if you can, plan the trip as a second leg of a visit to Bali.


Best time to visit

May to November. Coming in the rainy season, although still an option if you plan to dive (as long as you avoid February where visibility is a real issue) will prevent you from seeing most of the country as roads will be impassable

Where to stay

The constant influx of NGO and other support organisations is keeping most of the hotels and restaurants occupied so you might have to book well in advance. This also keeps prices relatively high when compared to the living standard so beware this is not one of the cheap SEA destinations.

In Dili I stayed at Hotel Esplanada which is a good alternative. Proper rooms, AC, a nice courtyard pool, good restaurant and accessible location if a bit out of town if you don't have a car.

Do not miss the chance to stay at Baucau Beachouse and Bungalow for the real paradise on earth. At USD15 per night you will have the most beautiful beach to yourself.

In Com, stay at the lush Com Beach Resort.

How to get around

Rent a car, a serious 4x4 or you will be severely handicapped by the lack of mobility. Unless you plan to stay for a really long time this is your only chance at roaming at your own will.

What to do 

  1. Diving or snorkeling is a must as the sites are world class and untouched. Apart from the obvious reason related to its location in SEA Golden Triangle Timor Leste enjoys great reefs as a result of the tight control Indonesia imposed on explosives during its occupation which prevented the local population from using dynamite for fishing. And because the reefs are so shallow in the north dive sites are accessible from the beach
  2. Road trip along the North coast for some culture and beautiful beaches
  3. If you have time, trek into Mundo Perdido, the forest and the viewpoint are amazing
  4. Attemp the trip to Jaco Island from Tutuala, it will be the most beautiful beach you will ever see
  5. take a trip to Atauro, the island just in front of Dili


  1. We were told taxis are not available at night so you will have to arrange a ride before you set off if you don't drive
  2. Be careful when buying on the side of the road Palm Wine as it is sold in the same bottle and colour as petrol
  3. Check the roads before setting off into the unknown to avoid getting stuck
  4. I tried to squeeze as much as possible into a long weekend trip from Singapore but the country deserves at least a full week, give it that and it will reward you with truly memorable experiences
  5. Bring USD cash, getting money outside of Dili is practically impossible
  6. Beware, Timor Leste is not a cheap place. Between the strong presence of UN/NGO and the limited supply prices have been kept high for a developing country. Playing 70-80 USD for a 3* hotel or 15 USD for a meal is not uncommon
  7. Book in advance, the constant stream of NGO/UN personnel take up most of the accommodation options and some destination like Com or Atauro are very popular weekend getaways
  8. To book certain accommodations you will have to repeatedly call the hotel as emails don't really work outside of Dili and we never managed to get replies. Better yet, if you have a friend who speaks Portuguese you will do much better


Rent a car, it will make your trip very different and it will give you the ability to chose where you go. Get out of Dili for a real taste of the country.

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