Timor-Leste, otherwise known as East Timor, is one of the youngest countries in the world. Its located in Southeast Asia on the border with Indonesia and has become very popular amongst divers who want to explore untouched reefs and visit a non-touristy destination.
Timor-Leste gained its independence only in April 2002 after several wars with Indonesia. It used to be a Portuguese colony until Indonesia took over and nowadays you can still find Portuguese influence on their language and food. Even though the main language in East Timor is Tetum, locals understand and use Portuguese and Bahasa (official language in Indonesia) on their daily basis.
After traveling for a long time through Southeast Asia, I decided that it was time to see and experience something different. As a dive enthusiast, I also saw Timor-Leste as an opportunity to go diving through untouched sites. This is why I decided to book a flight from Denpassar, Indonesia (Bali) and explore this country.
NOTE: There are only three international flights towards and from Timor-Leste: Singapore-Dili, Denpassar (Bali)-Dili and Darwin (Australia)-Dili.
After an amazing trip in Indonesia (click here for my travel tips on Indonesia), I arrived in Dili, the capital of East Timor. As soon as I got down from the plane, I had to go through a small booth to apply for my visa on arrival. Most nationalities can obtain visas on arrival and the cost is USD 30. Make sure that you have cash with you because there are no ATMs before immigration.
Going through immigration was easy, they just asked how long I was staying and where was I heading towards next. After this I collected my backpack and had to go through customs. They checked almost everything inside my backpacks and then let me go (this is a ver standard process in Dili so don’t be surprised when they check your things).
The taxi from the airport to the city costs USD 10. Once in the city I based myself in a hostel called Dili Central Backpackers. The hostel has a very relaxed vibe and the staff is very friendly and helpful, specially a guy called Anas.
WARNING: Accommodation in Timor-Leste is expensive for Southeast Asia. Dorms usually start at USD 15, breakfast included.
There are a few things to do and see in DILI. You can find one of the best views of the city from the Cristo Rei (Christ the Redeemer). This statue of Christ is located on top of a hill with the perfect view of the town.
The two cheapest options to get there are: 1) take mini bus no.12 for USD 0.25 or 2) walk for about one hour from the city.
I decided to walk to see what was on the way and found many interesting things. There is a fruit and vegetable market with many affordable and fresh options along the waterfront. Additionally, there are a few beaches, including Areia Branca (white sand), before arriving to the Cristo Rei. Be prepared to interact with many locals that will stop you on the way just to ask “where are you from” or to practice their English with you. I loved their hospitality.
Once I got to the bottom of Cristo Rei, I started going up the stairs. Its not a long walk and fairly easy but boiling hot, so be prepared to sweat. The views from the top are beautiful and worth watching. You can see both Areia Branca and the Jesus Backside Beach from the top of Cristo Rei.
There are also museums and exhibitions in Dili worth visiting whilst you are there. The Resistance Museum has a good display of the Indonesian-Timorese wars and the entrance fee only costs USD1.
After Dili, I took the Saturday public ferry towards Atauro Island. The trip takes around two-three hours until you reach a small piece of paradise. Atauro Island is the perfect place to relax, dive and hike at the same time.
There are only a few places that offer accommodation in Atauro. Barrys Place is the most popular hangout area. This place offers private huts with fans and hammocks plus three buffet meals for USD30-45 per day. The facilities are in great conditions and the food is very good. Click here for more information.
Another place that I recommend is Atauro Dive Shop. They offer private huts with fan and breakfast included for USD 35. You can order lunch and dinner in advance and the staff will be glad to cook something for you.
Nonetheless, I brought my tent and set it up in Atauro Dive Shop. They only charged me USD7 per day including showers, toilets and coffee. Besides the above, I also used their hammocks and tables to relax during my time in Atauro.
NOTE: Traveling with a tent in Timor-Leste is very helpful if you are on a budget. I saved a lot of money by sleeping in my tent. I would recommend asking in hostels first if they allow you to set your tent near their facilities so your stuff is being looked after. If not, there are plenty of spots where you can camp for free.
The only local restaurant in Atauro Island is called Linissa Restaurant. This is the only place that offers local food for a great price and the portions are quite generous. The staff is amazingly friendly and always happy to receive tourists. Lino, the owner, worked with Barry (at Barry’s Place) for more than three years and plans to open a small hotel/hostel for budget travelers. Make sure you come to eat here at least once whilst you are in Atauro, they are the best!
Besides diving and relaxing, you can also go hiking in Atauro Island. I went on a day hike to Mount Manucoco, the highest peak in the island. you definitely need a guide for it since the trail is not very clear. You can ask for a guide in Atauro Dive Shop or in Barrys Place.
After Atauro I headed back to Dili for a few days and later to Maubisse. This was the highlight of my trip. I stayed in a local village with a Timorese family. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, communication was not hard. The persons in the village were the friendliest and most warm hearted people I met in Timor.
My visit to the village was only possible thanks to my local friend Anastasio, who will start soon an accommodation project in Maubisse for travelers and expats to visit this village (2017). The road from Dili to Maubisse is not the best. There are many potholes, unpaved sections, dust and a lot of fog in the afternoon that does not allow you to see very well. Nonetheless, once you are there, is worth it.
Diving in Timor-Leste
One of the main reasons that drove me towards Timor-Leste was diving in what many people consider the best spot in Southeast Asia. The coral and reefs are less deteriorated than in other parts of Asia; hence, they are more colorful and untouched. There is a great variety of fish anywhere you dive, its impressive.
I only did four dives in Timor-Leste, two in Dili and two in Atauro Island. Diving is not cheap in here which is why I could not afford to pay for more. The average cost per tank in Timor is USD 50 so budget that when you are planning to visit this country.
I went diving twice whilst I was in Atauro Island. The first spot I went was the “Outer Reef”, where you have to pay an additional fee of USD 2 for being a Protected Area. The coral is nice and there are a lot of fish but not many big species that can blow your mind. The second dive, we went to the “Airport” where we saw a turtle and a few small fish. Nothing special for those who like to find excitement while diving.
I did my diving in Atauro Island with Atauro Dive Shop.
Diving in Dili was better. I got to see many species such as the lion fish, nemos, giant squids, yellow box fish, sea horses, and more. But the best was finding a giant grouper right in front of us, it was breathtaking. There are a few trigger fish around so always be aware of that, we got attacked by one on the first dive.
I was not lucky to spot the dugong at Tasi Tolu but there is one that is usually swiminig close to the shore everyday. If you are lucky, you will find it.
I went diving in Dili with Aquatica Dive Shop, which I recommend.
Hope that you enjoyed this post!
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