GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE:
By Kristin Johannsen
In Indonesia's Nusa Tenggara region, the third island east of Bali.
To encounter a unique and welcoming traditional culture living against a stunning backdrop of live volcanoes.
The Florinese still build towering thatched houses, still dress in intricately hand-dyed cloth, still hunt wild boar with homemade harpoons, still practice a startling blend of Catholicism and spirit-worship (churches are often decorated with strings of buffalo skulls). And they're happy to share it all with visitors.
WHEN TO GO
The dry season, from April through September. Roads can be completely impassible during the rainy season.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
The easiest access is by Merpati airlines from Denpasar (Bali) to the main city of Maumere. Flights take about 2 hours and cost roughly $100. However, they are often overbooked, delayed, or cancelled (or all three). The alternative is a long trek by bus and ferry from Bali, across Lombok and Sumbawa. Combination tickets take you straight through, but you may want to break the journey-- it's beautiful, and exhausting.
On Flores, transport options are public bus (bone-jarring!) or a hired car and driver.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTION
The lakes of Kelimutu
Ascend the winding road from Moni in the back of a truck before dawn, then climb a half-hour on a rocky path. As the first rays lighten the horizon, an unearthly sight materializes through the gloom: in three volcanic craters below you are lakes of brilliant turquoise, olive green, and inky black. The rising sun makes them shimmer and glow like pots of pots of dazzling paint. No one knows what causes the colors -- the vertical sides of the craters make it impossible to reach the lakes. Weirder still, the color scheme changes over time. Postcards in dusty shops show the lakes ruby red, black, and milky white. By mid-morning, the clouds have closed in, and it's time to head back down the mountain.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
It's surreal -- miles of empty beach, lined with pastel blue, green, and pink stones. Come closer, and you'll see people sitting solitary along the shore, intently piling up stones. What on earth are they doing? It turns out to be a cottage industry. Enterprising locals sort the stones by size and color, and sell them for use in landscaping. They're exported as far away as Japan. A great place for some totally inscrutable photos.
BEST ACTIVITY AND TOUR
Theres a lot to see and do on the island, but much of it is inaccessible without a guide. Hire a freelance guide, with a car and driver, by asking around at hotels in Maumere or Labuhanbajo. I highly recommend a young guy named Anselmus Marianto, nicknamed "Yanto", who lives in Maumere.
The cost of a private tour, is negotiable but reasonable -- US$350 is a good rate to travel the length of the island for five days, including guide, driver, car, and gas. You'll see and learn so much more in the company of a guide, who will speak several of the island's five main languages alongside Bahasa Indonesia and English. Ask other travelers for recommendations, but don't put much faith in official guide licenses -- getting one takes bribery, not skill.
Ask your guide, or a local friend, to take you to some of the smaller traditional villages near the "famous" ones. For instance, travelers generally head for Bena to photograph its rows of towering
thatch-roofed houses, but nearby are other villages, such as Luba, still completely immersed in traditional ways. You'll need to bring someone to interpret for you (and smooth the way) because many older people, such as village heads, don't speak Bahasa Indonesia, let alone English.
Once you are properly introduced, villagers will be happy to show you around and explain their ways and customs: they're proud of their traditions, and pleased that you are interested. Be sure to give a small donation ($2-3) to the village leader.
- Volunteer opportunities
The British organization VSO places volunteer teachers in schools on Flores (among numerous other places.)
BEST LOCAL HAUNT
- Soa Hot Springs, near Bajawa
You'd hardly think people in a tropical climate would crave a soak in hot water, but whole extended families pack picnics and spend the day splashing and playing in the steaming ponds here -- from majestic grandmothers bathing in their sarongs to blue-jeaned kids having raucous waterfights. Bring snacks to share, because friendly folks will offer you roasted bananas and corn-on-the-cob from their cooking fires.
Hotels in Flores are basic but clean, with a double room seldom over $10.
- Hotel Wisata in Labuhanbajo, is a quiet little oasis in a bustling port town, with a good restaurant and a sunny courtyard
Nothing to write home about. It's a poor island, without a distinctive cuisine of its own restaurants, though inexpensive, serve fried noodles, gado gado, and other Indonesian standards. Fish is generally a safe bet. The coffee, on the other hand, is incredible. Local beans have a complex, almost chocolaty flavor, and people brew it strong. Any village family will pour you a cup far better than that "gourmet" stuff you pay $20 a pound for at home. Why isn't it exported? A mystery.
Whip dances, around Ruteng. In these ritualized performances, young men slash at each other with rawhide whips until the blood flies. Seeing one is a matter of luck (they're held during major
festivals) or money -- for $150, villagers will be happy to proclaim a festival in honor of your visit.
Ikat weavings in the village of Sikka. The whole island is famed for its gorgeous textiles, with sinuous patterns tie-dyed into the threads before they're woven. Along every roadside, you'll see women working away at their backstrap looms under a shady tree. But the highest-quality weavings (and the most charming salesladies) are in Sikka, just south of Maumere. As you step from your car, villagers will surround you with a wall of weavings, smiling and murmuring their sales pitches. A magnificent sarong, two months in the making, was US$25 -- and the weaver looked quite pleased with the bargain we'd struck.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
Visitors from most western countries are allowed entry into Indonesia without a visa for stays of up to two months.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Despite the political turmoil elsewhere in Indonesia, Flores has remained a tranquil backwater. You do need to be quite careful about what you eat and drink, since it's a poor island with poor sanitation. Stick with bottled drinks or boiled water, and eat only thoroughly cooked food.
COMMUNICATIONS AND MONEY
Take at least half of your money in cash (US dollars are best) since credit cards are useless, and travelers checks can be changed only in large towns like Maumere and Ende.
Communication is tricky. Phone service seems OK in Maumere and Ende, but is unreliable (or nonexistent) elsewhere. Postal service is glacially slow. You'll do much better to carry your treasures home with you.
Despite unrest in Indonesia in recent years, Flores remains a peaceful backwater, untouched by violence and separatist conflict. Local people are content to be Indonesian citizens, and in fact complain about being ignored by the government and the rest of the country. This is, partly, a blessing-in-disguise. For the Florinese, it means a lack of development money and social services -- but for travelers, it means tranquility, and an island that is surprised and pleased that you came to visit.
Welcome to Nusa Tenggara
Indonesia's Eastern Islands, by Peter Turner
A better-than-average offering from Lonely Planet, with plenty of cultural background on the island's five major ethnic groups, and details on even the most obscure villages.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Indonesia