The world’s newest country is still shakily finding its feet after a decades-long war with Indonesia, and East Timor is still coming to terms with the bloodshed that caused the death of thousands. With independence having been achieved and the country’s doors having re-opened to foreign tourists, visitors can now explore its amazing coastline, colonial architecture, interesting culture and natural beauty, albeit at a slow pace thanks to the poor tourism infrastructure. What East Timor does offer however, is a chance for adventurous travelers to explore long out-of-bounds territory, meaning more opportunities to get off the beaten track.
Dili: boasting oodles of colonial charm, this seaside town on the northern coast offers some unique landmarks, a Portuguese-built castle and the State Museum of East Timor.
Baucau: the second largest city features some pleasant colonial architecture, eerie dilapidated buildings and caves that were used by the Japanese during WWII.
Areia Branca (Pasir Putih): this stunning beach offers tourists an idyllic retreat from nearby Dili, where they can swim and relax on the golden sands.
Atauro Island: accessible by regular ferries from Dili, this beautiful island is host to an eco lodge and some excellent diving, making this a popular spot.
Com: popular among fishing and snorkeling enthusiasts, this quaint and laid-back fishing village makes for a relaxed weekend getaway.
Oecussi: situated in Indonesian West Timor, but politically controlled by East Timor, this quiet town has some adventurous mountain biking trails and coral reefs that are teeming with marine life.
Three days in charming Dili
One day in architecturally intriguing Baucau
One day relaxing on the beach at Areia Branca
One day exploring Atauro Island
Three days snorkeling and fishing in Com
Three days getting active in Oecussi
Health and safety concerns are high here, making it essential that you get up-to-date travel information before setting off. Internal strife means that much of the island is out of bounds. Avoid demonstrations and the areas around the refugee camps. Do not walk around after dark unless you want to be robbed; however the risk of petty crime in daylight hours is low. If you plan to stay at some of the more basic accommodation establishments, bring a mosquito net if you want a creepy crawly-free night. Traffic accidents are common and the motorbike helmets for sale here a similar to toy hats: bring your own if you plan on doing a lot of riding as medical facilities are very basic. The wet season can cause havoc, especially in the south, and visitors are advised not to visit in this period.
Direct flights to Dili leave from Australian and Indonesian destinations, operated by Airnorth and Qantas. If you are coming from West Timor, there is a land crossing at Motain, about 115kms west of Dili. Buses run from Kupong (West Timor) to Dili regularly, with the journey taking roughly 12 hours. Local transportation means include buses, vans (bemos) and minibuses (mikrolets). Traveling around can be testing, with long journeys on uncomfortably bumpy roads, so be prepared for a tender backside.
The best time to visit is from July to November, when the weather is hot and dry. Temperatures average between 70°F and 83°F at this time, with mountainous regions being milder than flat areas.
The rainy season (December to April) should be avoided, as there can be heavy flooding, tropical cyclones and severe disruption to transport. Generally, the weather is hot year-round, but trips to the central districts require some warm clothing.
Climbing: climb Ramalau Mountain, the highest mountain in East Timor, and enjoy the amazing views at dawn. Accommodation is available on the mountain, but make sure you bring some woolies as it’s freezing at night.
Four-wheel driving: rent a four-wheel drive to explore Jaco Island, situated on the eastern tip of East Timor. The scenery is sensational, with colorful paddy fields and white sand beaches.
Diving and snorkeling: Atauro Island and Areia Branca offer some excellent dive spots, with the added bonus that these sites are not nearly as crowded as most other favorite places in Asia.
Mountain biking: the rugged mountain territory in Oecussi provides some fantastic mountain biking trails where you can challenge yourself on difficult terrain.
Dining: the standard diet of a Timorese family consists of rice and green vegetables, which you will have no trouble in finding; however, international delights await those who are willing to splurge, with authentic Indonesian, Chinese and Portuguese dishes available.
Shopping: the markets here are amazing if you are willing to look beyond what at first might appear to be a dusty or muddy dump (depending on what season you visit). Popular buys are coffee, tais (traditional hand-woven clothes), batik items, woodcarvings and silverwork.
Partying: there is a good selection of nightclubs and beach bars in Dili which open until late, catering for those who like to party.
Dili has the highest proportion of hotels and restaurants, while facilities are generally much more basic outside the capital. Internal strife means that much of the country of off-limits to travelers, but there are enough natural beauty spots that are trouble-free. Generally, the people are friendly, but traveling around the country can be testing with vehicles in near-breakdown condition, poor weather condition in the wet season and unsafe areas. Women should cover shoulders and upper legs when in the more rural parts if they want to be received well, and men: don’t go shirtless!