East Timor is an exciting destination renowned for its rich culture and beautiful beaches that have yet to be tarnished by tourists. East Timor gained independence as a country in 2002, making it one of the youngest countries in the world today – though it still holds tight to Portuguese and Indonesian influence. If you’re looking for a tropical adventure destination that’s well off the heavily treaded tourist trail, then East Timor is perfect for you.
The best way to explore the country is with a knowledgeable driver, as signs are sparse once you leave the country’s only major city. While the region is relatively stable, you should still exercise caution and be alert while you’re on the road.
Here are the best places to visit in East Timor:
Dili is East Timor’s largest city where you’ll find new restaurants, textile shops, produce markets, and seafood stands amongst thatch roofed homes. On the beaches of Dili, you can enjoy freshly cooked seafood, drink a coconut, and watch whales swim along the coastline during migration season. Scuba diving in Dili is known to be great all year and is home to a variety of corals, blue moray eels, trevally, scorpion fish reef sharks, and more.
Most directions around Dili are in relation to Cristo Rei, a 27-meter-tall statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the city. Cristo Rei is the second largest statue of Jesus Christ in the world. While in Dili, the effort taken to walk up to Cristo Rei is worth the panoramic views of the city and the sea.
2. Atauro Island
Thirty kilometers from the beaches of Dili is Atauro Island, accessible only via boat ride. Here, you’ll find world-class diving, walking paths, and are likely to catch a glimpse of the resident pod of dolphins. Atauro means “goat” in the local language, so expect to see many there too.
During both Portuguese and Indonesian occupation, Atauro Island acted as the local jail. Today, its untouched beaches are perfect for snorkeling and diving while inland you can find trails that venture through the cleared rainforest to lively villages famous for selling wooden sculpture and crafts.
For a price, you can also try your hand at traditional fishing using handmade goggles and spear guns.
Baucau almost seems as if it could be two separate cities. In Old Town, you’ll find Portuguese colonial architecture while New Town hosts new buildings with an Indonesian influence. Stop by the bright yellow government building, formerly the town’s community market.
On the south side, visit the stunning buildings of Venilale and explore the caves created by Japanese military during WWII. Further south, are the villages of Ossu and Viqueque, where you can swim in freshwater rivers, explore natural caves, and gaze at churning waterfalls.
Suai is the south coast of East Timor’s main village, where the livelihood of most residents revolve around fishing. In Suai, you can watch traditional dancing, walk over the town’s smooth sandstone beaches, and explore the River Tafara.
If you’re interested in the darker side of East Timor’s history, you should visit the town’s main attraction, Our Lady of Fatima Church, where you can find a memorial devoted to the infamous church massacre that took the lives of 200 people.
With a thriving bird population, beautiful beaches, and cave drawings, the Lautem region is a perfect mix of culture and nature. Almost defying gravity, the houses in this region are often placed atop narrow stilts, built completely with thin bamboo, wood, and dried grass.
Because the Lautem is so undeveloped, you’re likely to have a beach or nature path all to yourself. For the regions highlights, visit the beach of Tutuala, and the villages of Viqueque and Lospalos.
Maubisse is one of East Timor’s most popular vacation spots for international tourists and those residing in Dili alike. The town’s only hotel, Pousada de Maubisse, offers charming views but has not been renovated since the 1950s.
Once again, as everywhere in East Timor, expect a memorable and adventurous experience over a luxurious one. For active hikers planning to trek Mt. Ramelau, Maubisse is the best town to stay in as a base.
7. Lake Ira Lalaro
The largest lake in East Timor, Lake Ira Lalaro is perfect for mountain biking around and exploring for a day trip. However, keep all of your activities land-based and avoid swimming as the lake is also home to the country’s largest crocodile population.
Be sure to bring enough food and water, as shops around the area are sparse.
8. Mt. Matebian
Mt. Matebian is one of the East Timor’s most sacred sites, with thousands of pilgrims making their way to the base every All Souls Day. Mt. Matebian is topped by a statue of Jesus Christ. If you’re interested in hiking to the top, take note that you’ll likely need more than twelve hours to hike to the summit and back.
The mountain often goes by two nicknames. Often, it’s called the Mountain of Souls because locals believe that this mountain is where the souls of their ancestors reside. Alternatively, it’s called Mountain of the Dead because of military activity that took place during WW II, when Japanese forces created a series of caves and tunnels – and killed many people in the process. Due to its history, Mt. Matebian is a touch point for East Timor culture.
9. Jaco Island
Completely removed from any semblance of a crowd or tourism, Jaco Island is an offbeat oasis of white sand and an active marine life of reef sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, and technicolor fish. If you want to visit Jaco Island, hire a local fisherman to shuttle you from the mainland and back for the day (they might even catch you your dinner and prepare it for you for a small fee).
Since Jaco Island is sacred, it is largely uninhabited. There is only a small guesthouse and camping area for those who want to spend the night. Bring all food and supplies.
This village inland of the country’s coastline is a located between lush trees and offers an authentic look into small-town life in East Timor.
Those in search of a souvenir will be happy rummaging through the local market, renowned for its crafts and tai, a type of textile.
Betano, an untouched black-sand beach, was once a Timorese kingdom. Today,Use Betano as a base to explore the nearby mangrove swamps spanning all the way to nearby Viqueque.
Betano is often cited as a favorite stretch by Tour de Timor riders, who mountain bike the length of the entire country in just five days.
12. Mt. Ramelau
Hikers must visit Mt. Ramelau, where you can stay at the base in the town of Hatubuilico. The hike from bottom to top takes around six hours, with most hikers leaving before sunrise.
After three hours of hiking, you’ll be greeted by a statue of the Virgin Mary, another one of the country’s famous religious icons.
Near the summit of Mt. Ramelau is a church frequented by locals who wish to deepen their faith.
If you’re wanting a more resort-style stay in East Timor, come to Com, a small beach town on the eastern end of the country. The main road traces the coastline offering a variety of guesthouses and restaurants. Grab a glass of white wine and enjoy sitting at the beach and enjoying sunshine.
Though swimming is off the table due to crocodiles, you can go shopping, fishing, explore the colonial-era Portuguese buildings, and hike. For upscale accommodation, stay at Com Beach Resort, who also offer space for camping.
Hidden and rarely visited, Marobo is perfect for a day trip from the town of Maliana. Take a dip in the Marobo Hot Springs, a natural spring on mountain foothills.
To get to the hot springs, you’ll pass through Timorese homesteads until you arrive at the ruins of a resort. Though the resort is gone, a large pool, mud bath, and mineral bath are kept in full working condition, creating an eerie atmosphere.
15. Nino Konis National Park
Home to over 250 species of birds, wildlife, trekking trails, and more, this lowland rainforest is perfect for adventure seekers obsessed with nature.
Keep an eye out for the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, a beautiful and intelligent bird that is critically endangered.
Uniquely, the national park also incorporates a large portion of the Coral Triangle, a rich marine area for diving and snorkeling.