Visiting Timor-Leste: The Country No One Knows Exists

One of the many picturesque beaches in Timor-Leste
Picturesque beach in Iliana, Atauro

What in the world is Timor-Leste?

By Jenny Lundt

When I told my family and friends I had received a competitive national fellowship to do research in Timor-Leste for the summer, I was met unilaterally with the same HUH?? Even my fellow International Relations majors, “What country is that in, again?” or my favorite “Oh cool, Thailand is awesome”.

The author and a friend atop a mountain in Timor-Lest
The author and her project partner in Dare Village above capital Dili

Unsurprisingly, I found if people didn’t even know what Timor-Leste is, it definitely was not on the mainstream tourism radar.

Thus, trip planning was painstaking. Practically no information exists on the internet about what it’s like to visit Timor-Leste.

Curious about where to go and what to see and where to stay? Forget about it. Is this country even safe for women? No results found.

All I could find were the basic facts: a previous Portuguese colony and the first new country of the 21st century in 2002 after an extremely bloody independence war against Indonesia.

The country, located in the far East of the Indonesian archipelago, shares an island with West Timor, still a part of Indonesia.

Still undergoing massive development practices and caught between lingering systems of Portuguese, Indonesian, and United Nations bureaucracies. They speak Tetum (a mix of traditional languages and Portuguese), use the US dollar, and have a creation legend about a crocodile.

Challenge to get there

A few months later I found myself the only foreigner on a 16-hour bus ride from Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia to cross overland into Timor-Leste. This is where I discovered our second problem with Timor as a destination: access.

The Timor coastline from a boat
The Timor coastline from a boat.
How to Get To Timor-Leste

There are currently only two places you can fly to Timor from Darwin, Australia, and Bali. And despite being semi-affordable $100 one-way tickets in year’s past, more recently, tickets have skyrocketed to $350+ for one way.

This access barrier has choked visiting options down from what already was minimal.

Those few persistent wanderlusters, brave the inexpensive but inconvenient option: the stomach-lurching bus over infrastructure that could hardly be considered a road.

But, everyone else? Long since exited out of Skyscanner and Kayak tabs and booked a flight to convenient Komodo instead.

What is there to see?

Right away, the landscape grabs your attention and refuses to let go. As the bus tested the limits of its axles across non-existent roads, we saw a picture-perfect coastline with not a soul in yelling distance.

Pristine beaches, crystal clear water, dolphins leaping out of the water in the distance every tropical cliche you can think of painted into life before my eyes. Every twist and turn of the bus brought about new oohs and aahs. There was a stretch of road I fogged up the window because I could not pry my face from the glass.

The author at one of Timor-Leste's pristine beaches
The author at one of Timor-Leste’s pristine beaches

This awe continued into my arrival in slow-paced, developing Dili. How many countries can you name with untouched, white sand beaches in their capital city?

As an avid traveler who has been to 81 countries, I was stunned at the beauty of Timor.

For example, the most bio-diverse coral reefs in the entire world are right off the coast, pods of hundreds of dolphins use this area as one of the most trafficked migratory routes in the world.

Even though I personally believe the coral reefs are the biggest draw, there is no shortage of other mind-blowing things to do.

A beach at sunset
Sunset in Adara, Atauro

Best destinations in Timor-Leste

Dili

As the capital and first point of entry for any traveler coming to this country, you will inevitably wind up having to spend some time in Dili. Though it is not everyone’s favorite city, there are quite a few things to do in this ever-growing, chaotic capital.

Learn about Timorese resilience and the resistance movement through free local art classes and displays at Arte Moris, enjoy a beautiful sunset at a delicious oceanfront restaurant for every palate.

You can climb to the best vantage point of the city with the Cristo Rei statue, visit the Resistance Museum and learn about the complicated and bloody history that created the foundation for the nation.

Or visit the night BBQ market and enjoy freshly grilled seafood, drive 30 minutes outside of town to Dare for sweeping views of the city, and finally visit the Tais market for some beautiful local products.

Ataúro Island

The author goes for a swim in the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world
The author goes for a swim in the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world

This dreamy island a 1.5-hour boat ride off the coast of Dili is where the world’s most bio-diverse reefs were discovered.

This little piece of paradise is almost too good to be true. Close your eyes and picture this postcard life infused with a strong local culture: community festivals, all night weddings, women’s cooperatives, and vibrant weekly church services melodically filling the island with singing.

If Timor-Leste is a gold mine of untapped tourism potential, Ataúro is the most valuable nugget. Right now, divers and Dili expats are the only ones in on this secret, but not for long. With all of the hiking, bird watching, snorkeling, and sheer relaxation to do, the rest of the world will know about this place very soon.

Ermera Region

Coffee has been the main export for Timor-Leste since the Portuguese occupation. This mountainous region is one of the most common places for coffee to grow. Exploring this region takes you around winding mountainous roads some over 1000 meters tall, through the cool breeze, and friendly locals more than eager to show you their intricate process infused with love. Prepare your veins for ultra caffeination!

Mount Ramelau

Sunrise from the highest point in Timor-Leste
Sunrise from the highest point in Timor-Leste

Timor’s tallest mountain provides the best opportunity for fitness junkies and view chasers to come together. This three-hour hike to the peak is one of the most rewarding things you can do in the country.

Summiting surrounded by dozens of religious Timorese on religious pilgrimage to the statue and open-air church at the top is an unbelievable experience.

It is one of the few places on the island where you can see both the North and South Coasts as well.

Jaco Island

Although this island is a difficult 10-hour ride from Dili, over an excruciatingly bumpy road, this is often called the most beautiful part of Timor. Jaco is sacred which means no permanent structures are allowed to be built there, making it all the more remote and pristine. Get a boat over for a day trip and enjoy lazing around the most colorful, translucent waters anywhere in the world.

Sunset over capital Dili
Sunset over capital Dili

Perceptions and Reflections

I am writing this now from Bali, which is Timor’s polar opposite in tourism and name recognition. You’d be hard-pressed to find any person on earth who hasn’t had Bali appear in their dreams: frolicking in the jungles and soaking in the rays.

When getting here, I was hit hard with extreme culture shock. More than two tourists on a beach had me confused, the vast choice of accommodation for every budget overwhelmed me, and the traffic and congestion had me upset, impatient and coughing up my internal organs. Timor may be one singular plane ride away, but it might as well be on a different planet.

Developing tourism 

Timor-Leste is a complicated country with an even more complicated history. It is maddening and confusing and has a depressing shadow of war. However, Timor-Leste needs tourism. If they wish to develop quickly and get their infrastructure functioning, tourism is a very effective way to do so.

The Timorese government has recognized that and has decided to invest in tourism as a leading national economic strategy in an attempt to diversify dependence on oil and gas for revenue. USAID received a nine million US dollar contract to assist the Timorese government in this process, and prestigious international specialists are being brought in to help.

Part of this work is trying to undo a lot of the problems with tourism in Timor: the expensive flights, the confusing mixed language visa instructions online, the lack of knowledge and misconceptions about the place, among many others.

To be clear, this tourism is not mass influxes and exploitation of its land and resources with mega-resorts usurping resources and views, but responsible, sustainable tourism with curious visitors who seek to engage meaningfully with the fraught history and fragile environment.

Visit the Timor-Leste tourism board website here

Visiting Timor-Leste: The Country No One Knows Exists

Jenny Lundt is an avid adventure enthusiast and thrill chaser who just earned a Bachelor’s from Colgate University in Peace and Conflict Studies and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. 

Despite a meager student budget, she has been applied and pursued every possible opportunity to continue to see the world. This true love has led her to 81 countries in only 22 years and lived in 8 of these countries for more than 2 months each. You can find her trying to scheme the best rooftop for sunset or trying “just a bite” of bountiful mouth-watering cuisines. Follow her on Instagram @Jennylundt.

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