Baliem Valley (accessible by plane from Jayapura) is the main tourist destination in Papua and the most accessible access point to the Papua interior. Situated in the middle of Papua, it is central highland, tableland valley roughly 70 kilometers long and 31 to 16 kilometers wide and covering an area of 1272 square kilometers. A narrow paved road runs along the length of the valley, which is filled with fertile green fields, canals and forests and framed by terraced mountains and they in turn are surrounded densely forested mountains. The Baliem River drops more that 1500 meters in less than 50 kilometers as it heads south.
The Baliem Valley it is inhabited by the Dani, a tribe group of about 100,000 former Stone-Age cannibals and headhunters that have adopted some modern ways and become Christians but still practice clan warfare and worship animist spirits and still live in their traditional kampungs, or compounds.
The first outsider to discover the valley was American Richard Archbold, who, in 1938 from his seaplane, suddenly sighted this awesome valley dotted with neat terraced green fields of sweet potatoes, set among craggy mountain peaks.The first white people did not set in the region until 1938 and the first time the outside world really heard about was after a plane crashed there in 1945 and the survivor returned with incredible stories of what they saw there as if it were an equatorial Shangri-La.. Dutch missionaries arrived in 1954 and established the post of Wamena two years later.
A stunningly beautiful place, the Baliem Valley is situated in the mountains of central Papua at an altitude of 1,600 meters and hemmed in by steep green mountain walls. The highest mountains are around 2,400 metrs high. It is cut by the Baliem river, which has its source in the northern Trikora mountain, cascading into the Grand Valley, to meander down and further rushing south dropping to become a large muddy river that slowly empties into the Arafura Sea.
There are three major tribes living around Wamena (the main town in the Baliem Valley: the Dani, Yali, and Lani. They can be identified by the different types koteka (penis gourds) each wears. Some still wear only a koteka but when when in town, they usually change into western clothes. Despite this, you will still meet tribe members wearing koteka to the local market. If you wish to photograph them, be prepared that it will cost you some money.
Dani: the People of the Baliem Valley
Dani is a somewhat pejorative term used by outsiders to describe groups around the Baliem Valley, the main tourist area of Papua. Also known as the Akhuni, Konda, Ndano and Pesegem, they have traditionally lived in circular thatch-roof huts and subsist primarily on sweet potatoes. The different Dani groups have different languages customs and styles of clothing. Some are former Stone-Age cannibals. There about 100,000 Dani. [Source: Karl Heider, Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Oceania edited by Terence Hays, (G.K. Hall & Company, 1991) ~]
Known as the “gentle warriors”, the Dani have only recently emerged from the Stone Age. Yet with their simple tools of stone and bone, they managed to sculpt green fields that hug the hills of the Baliem Valley, where they grow root crops, and raise pigs. They have also built outposts and lookout towers to defend their valley from hostile tribes. Because the land is fertile soil and crops are raised with agricultural skills, the Dani together with the sub-tribes of the Yali and the Lani have made the Baliem Valley the most populous area in Papua, living scattered in small communities near their gardens among the steep mountain slopes. Today, they mostly cultivate bananas, taro, yams, ginger, tobacco and cucumbers. Pigs are greatly valued. The men's and women's huts (locally called the honai) have thick thatched roofs, which keep the huts cool during the day and warm during the cold nights.
The Dani remained unknown to the outside world until the 1930s. When explorers discovered a Dani tribe in 1938 they had no metal tools. They used wooden spears, bows and arrows and stone tools. The first permanent contacts were not made until the 1950s. Michael Rockefeller had been with the Dani during the last great Dani tribal war. In the 1960s the Dutch government launched a program of pacification that was continued by the Indonesian government. ~
Grand Valley Dani of the upper Baliem River and the Western Dani are the largest Dani groups. The Eastern Dani are known as the Jale. They tend to be small and have traditionally lived in rougher terrain. They average only 4 foot nine in height and have Negroid feature but sometimes have green eyes and reddish blonde hair. The highlands where they live is covered by jungle and sharp rocks. It sometimes can take days just to cover a few miles. ~
The Dani are regarded as relatively approachable. Some of them dress up in quite decorative clothing and are very sociable. If your timing is good, you go on an arrnged tour or you pay enough you may be able to see staged wars, real hot stone cooking, pork feasts, as well as visit the sweet potato farms.
Traveling in the Baliem Valley
Most visitors spend their time in the valley visiting nearby Dani villages on foot, motorbike or by car or trekking through the mountains and forest checking out villages, mummies, wild pigs and hanging bridges. Try to time your visits to the villages so you there on their market days. The Dani sometimes ask for cigarettes or a few thousand rupiah to have their picture taken, more if the dress up in ceremonial gear. The climate is mild although it rains a great deal and is cool at night. The wettest months are between September and February. The driest months are between March and August. although it still rain quite a bit then.
The number of foreign visitor to the Baliem Valley increased from 758 in 1988 to 6000 in 1995 and shrunk to 1000 in 2002. Many come for the valley’s big festival in August. Flights are often full because flying is the only way to get to the valley. You get around on the main roads in the valley by public hired taxis and chartered taxis. Becaks are used for shorter distances in Wamena.
For the most part the tourist industry is run by non-Papuans. Local people work primarily as guides and producers of handicrafts. Visitors are encouraged to use businesses run by locals; pick up after themselves; not photograph people without permission; and generally be respectful to the culture and customs the local people. Tourism and modernity have had an impact on the Dani and others but they still remain true to their culture and way of life.
Also remember: 1) A Guide is needed to explore the valley; 2) Don’t forget to bring a copy of your Surat Keterangan Jalan; The best time to visit is between March and August; 3) If you travel during the rainy season, prepare yourself with cold weather gear; 4) Avoid breaking Dani taboos: Ask your guide about Do’s and Don’ts in the Baliem Valley. Tourism has changed the local mindset and daily life, although their indigenous knowledge and conventions are still strong.
Permits and Money for the Baliem Valley
Before arriving in the Baliem visitors have to obtain a $35 surat jalan (travel permit) to visit the region. The permits can not be obtained in Wamena but is easy enough to get one in Biak or Jayapura (See Above), which you to fly through to get to Baliem Valley. For most travelers this means stop in Jayapura long enough to get your permits.
The full name of the travel permit is the Surat Keterangan Jalan. You can obtain it police stations in major cities in Papua, such as at Jayapura, Merauka, Timika, Biak, Nabire, Monokwari and other major cities.
The permit will depend on your request, lasting from 1 week to 1 month or longer. Prepare copies of your passport, recent photograph and list of places you wish to visit. It is easy to obtain the Surat Keterangan Jalan, because the officers are friendly and helpful. You can ask your travel agent to arrange the Surat Keterangan Jalan.
It is highly advisable that you stock up on Indonesian Rupiah when traveling outside of Wamena. You can withdraw cash from the ATM at any banks in town. Note that there is nowhere else in the valley that you can change your currency. So, while in Wamena, do exchange your currency at either: 1) Bank Mandiri (Jalan Trikora 92), which only change US dollars in cash; 2) Bank Papua (Jalan Trikora 45). The exchange rates and endless lines can be a bit challenging; 3) Bank BRI (Bank Rakyat Indonesia); Jalan Yos Sudarso & Jalan Trikora. Better yet is to exchange your money at
Wamena; Gateway to the Baliem Valley
Wamena is the main administrative center and trading town for the Dani people. Home to around of 17,000 people, it sprawls out over a large area and is a place where topless women in grass skirts and men with penis gourds walk the streets with other people dressed in ordinary clothes. Things are expensive because many things are shipped to Jayapura, then trucked to Sentani and then brought in from there by air. Most hotels, restaurants and important offices are a short distance from the airport/
Wamena (pronounced Wum-in-ah) is primary a base of exploration of the valley but has a few interesting places worth checking out. The museum near the airport has an interesting collection of fossils, fertility stones, bamboo peace pipes and pig tusk ornaments. The sacred objects upstairs are off limits to tourists. The central market is a good place to see the Danis.. Locals haggle over chili peppers and palm nuts while tourists snap their pictures and admire the selection of adzes and penis gourds. Just outside of Wamena are traditional Dani houses and a hanging bridge, About 3½ kilometers away in Sinatma. There is a busy market, hanging bridge and Dani compounds set among the forest there.
Wamena is surrounded by agricultural villages and settlements, a few of which have mummies, sitting in a folding positio, that villagers are willing to show travelers for the right price. Visitors can also learn how salt is prepared by local women even though the sea is hundreds of kilometers away.
You can visit Wamena any time of the year, although the best period is between March and August. Hundreds of tourists show up in mid August for the annual Baliem Festival is held. The Festival is the main reason why many tourists travel to these highlands. To make your trip easier and to get the most value, it is advisable to join package tour.Popular destinations on such tours are the Dani Market in Wamena and the traditional Wauma Village. In Aikima you can see a 250 year-old mummified village chief, or, after a two-hour climb, see the salt springs, where Dani women have gone, for centuries, to make salt.
Hotels in Wamena are within walking distance. For longer trips, take a becak. There are not many of these becaks here and they usually disappear when it rains. They are usually marked as A2 and A3, heading up Jalan Trikora to the market or pasar in Bahasa Indonesia. This transport is quite convenient if you wish to be in the market for real sightseeing. To visit the only museum in Wamena, take a Becak, then 800 meters past the stone clock, you will see the museum displaying Dani clothing, decorations, and instruments. The Museum opens from 8 am to 4 pm.
Accommodation, Restaurant and Shopping in Wamena and the Baliem Valley
There are hotels in Wamena. Homestays are available in villages. Overnight or multi-day treks usually include an overnight stay in a village and a homestay. Often you will put up in a honai (Dani traditional house). A tent as back up even if you stay in villages is not a bad idea. Some Dani huts are filled with critters and creatures of various sorts.
Restaurants are mostly at the hotels and even then it is often a set meal prepared the same for everyone rather picking dishes from a large menu, although there is some of that. Rumah Makan Mas Budi (Jalan Pattimura) offers lunch and dinner. It is very popular and well worth it. Mentari Restoran (Jalan Yos Sudarso 47) serves lunch and dinner and has an English menu. Goldfish, or Ikan Mas in Bahasa Indonesia, is the local specialty. The version here costs a bit more than in the western part of Indonesia but the fish is much larger than the Ikan Mas on Java.
If you are eager to know what the locals eat and how the local tribes prepare their food, then your guide can arrange for locals to show how their simple meals are cooked and can you can some if you like. If you are going trekking then it is advisable that you stock up on food and snacks prior to departure, that can be bought at grocery stores in of Wamena. Many package tours include food but it is good idea to bring some of your own, say, maybe you don’t like the food you are given.
Popular souvenirs include stone blades, sekan (rattan bracelets), noken (bags made from tree bark fibers), necklaces and arm bands; jogal (grass skirts) and various head decorations Before buying, it is wise to shop around at several places. Bartering is the norm here. The finest stone axe blades or kapak are made with “blue”, regarded as the finest and the hardest stone. The blades can be very expensive, depending on the size and labor involved. Noken are still widely used by Dani women and the ones made nowadays come in a variety of colors. Head decorations called suale, which are entirely made of cassowary feathers topped off with the tusks of a wild boar, are expensive. Make sure all the components are genuine.
Getting to the Baliem Valley
Most visitors take a flight from Jakarta, Makassar or Bali to Jayapura, capital of Papua province, spend a couple days there securing their permits, and then fly to Wamena. A number of travel agencies regularly organize tours to the Baliem valley. For your own safety, if intending to trek alone into the interior, you are advised to first report your itinerary to the police upon arrival at the airport.
Flying into Wamena is really the only way to get to the Baliem Valley. There are a number of carriers that fley from Jayapura to Wamena. Trigana Air Services provide daily flights into and out of Wamena. Trigana Air has service offices at Sentani Airport terminal and Wamena Airport terminal. Others are MAF, AMA, Yajasi, Manunggal Air. Some people even fly with the Indonesian Army (TNI) on Hercules aircrafts. Aviastar Mandiri serves Wamena, specializing in local government officials, plantation, mining, forestry, and tourism industry employees and guests.
Merpati Airlines flies daily to Wamena at 7 am. It also flies to several cities in Papua and other cities in Indonesia on selected days. Its office is located on Jalan Ahmad Yani no. 15. Call its representative at +62 967 21111. It is located next to the Hotel Matoa.
MAF (The Missionary Aviation Fellowship — Protestant) Office is located next to the Sentani air terminal. Its schedule is set based on the church’s requirements. This airline provides services primarily for missionaries whose needs take priority. If you fly MAF, the airline will take into account your body weight, including your luggage. MAF does run chartered flights into the interior of the island. To organize a chartered flight contact MAF two months before your date of departure, and then double check a couple of weeks before your arrival. The office is at harbor road, past the Bank of Indonesia. Call its representative at +62 967 21264.
AMA (The American Missionary Alliance) is the Roman Catholic version of MAF. Please call the officer at +62 967 21925. The office is located at Jalan Sam Ratulangi no. 3, P.O. Box 523, Jayapura.
From Wamena into the interior of the Baliem valley you can rent a car or travel by public bus .
Baliem Valley Festival
The interesting Baliem Festival is held on in mid August every year. At the Festival, traditional dances, pig races, staged tribal wars and races are held. Today, the Baliem Festival is one of the main reasons tourists visit Papua. This a good chance to see lots of Dani men wearing only a penis gourd, known as koteka, with elaborate headdress made of bird of paradise, cassowary feathers and pig tusks, and women wearing grass or fern fiber skirts (sali or saly), carrying carry pigs or the harvest of sweet potatoes, using noken (cloth bark bag), slung from their forehead.
In the old days, the Dani practiced ritualized warfare to defend their villages or to raid others to avenge for tribe members being killed. Anthropologists have pointed out that the “Dani wars” were more a display of prowess and opulence of dress and decoration rather than an all out war to kill the enemy. The weapons of choice were long spears, measuring as long as 4.5 meters, and bows and arrows. Most often, combatants were wounded rather than killed, but still sometimes people were killed and now such “wars” are largely a thing of the past.
In recent decade tribes have made peace with one another, and instead of having have real wars to maintain strength and defend their territories they decided to hold annual mock which display the same strengths and skills needed for success in real wars. Nowadays, Dani mock battles are the features events at the Baliem Valley Festival. Dani, Yali, and Lani send their best warriors to the arena, wearing their best regalia. The festival is complemented with a Pig Feast, earth cooking and traditional music and dance.
Each tribe wears clothes and ornaments unique to their tribe that marks identity. One one can see clear differences among them and identify tribes according to their costume especially the koteka (penis gourds) each wears. The Dani men usually wear only a small koteka while the Lani tribesmen wear larger koteka’s, since their bodies are bigger than the average Dani, while the Yali wear long slender kotekas held by a rattan belt, strapped at the waist.
The mock battles can be staged at different venues. Usually they bigger ones are held in Kurulu Village or at Wosilimo, about 27 kilometers from Wamena. Many travelers stay overnight at Wamena and make their fighting sites the day of the mock fight. It is recommended that you book a package via a tour operator who will arrange your trip and secure definite transportation and accommodation as places and things are often fully booked during the festival.
Usually there are more than a thousand war participants when all the tribes and teams are added together. Some of the warriors adorn themselves amusing with local regalia, while sporting flashy sunglasses or talking on their smart phone. Some of the mock battles look quite serious. The longer it gets, the closer the spears and arrows come to hitting their opponents. The closer the miss, the louder the roar from the hundreds of spectators.
Trekking and Hiking in the Baliem Valley
Trekking and Hiking in the Baliem Valley is arguably the best way to explore the valley if for no other reason that many villages and places of interest are only reachable by foot. A guide is necessary and the trails often steep, wet and slippery. The biggest obstacles are rivers. Sometimes they can be traversed in log rafts or dugout canoes. Other times they have to be crosses on flimsy-looking hanging bridges or slippery logs. Tourists have died when the hanging bridges they were crossing collapsed.
Guides for treks can hired in Wamena. Selecting a guide can be a problem. They are pushy as elsewhere in Indonesia but can also sometimes demand more than the original price that was agreed upon after the trek is over. You are best off getting a guide recommened by another traveler or set up through a decent hotel. Make sure your guide is knowledgeable about the place you want to go and speaks the language there. Sometimes guided with more experience with the more difficult, longer treks charge more. To shake off guides that approach you on the streets simply tell them you already have a guide. It is worth considering an organized tour through a foreign-run tour group or one of the better hotels in Wamena to make sure you get a quality guide.
Multi-day trips involve camping out or staying in village huts. Make sure and bring rain gear and warm clothes for the chilly nights and have worked out where you will spend the night. A tent as back up even if you stay in villages is not a bad idea. Some Dani huts are filled with critters and creatures of various sorts. Bring a powerful flashlight (and a back up light) if you plan to explore any caves. Otherwise carry all the stuff you would take on a normal camping trip. Stock up in food in Jayapura before you arrive because food other than sweet potatoes in the Baliem Valley can be very expensive. Porters can hired for about $10 a day to carry goods, camping gear and even your backpack You need to bring food for you guides as well.
By trekking, you can witness traditional ceremonies, traditional markets and the relatively untouched way of life of the Dani. There are a very limited number of places to eat inside the Baliem Valley. Your tour guide can bargain with the Dani people to provide you with simple meals. It’s strongly advised that visitors bring their own meals and snacks during trekking through and around Baliem Valley. Meals and snacks can be bought at grocery stores in Wamena but items that are brought in from the outside are generally much cheaper when bought in Jayapura.
Trekking Destinations in the Baliem Valley
Destinations near Wamena that can be reached with a guide include the villages of Jiwiki, Kimbim, Manda, Kelila and Kurima. Mummies can be seen at Sumpaima, near Jiwiki, and Pummo, northeast of Kimbim. The 270-year-old mummy in Aikima has seen better days. Near Suroba and Dugum are some well constructed hanging bridges and clearings where dances are sometimes staged.
In Jiwika mock baatles will be staged for a fee of $10. Some of the valleys 50 caves are accessible with a day trip. For details about specific treks check the Lonely Plant guide. Popular destinations on one-day package tour are the Dani Market in Wamena and the traditional Wauma Village. In Aikima you can see the 270-year-old mummified village chief, and maybe after do a two-hour climb to see the salt springs, where Dani women have gone, for centuries, to make salt.
Longer distance hikes can be done to the very scenic Wolo Valley, the 3450-meter-high Lake Habbema, and 4750-meter-high Gunung Trikora (mountain climbing experience required). Traveling west along the Baliem River, one reaches the home of the Western Dani people who call themselves the Lani. East and south of the Baliem Valley is the home of the Yali people. Reaching their villages by foot requires at least a five days round trip.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( indonesia.travel ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in August 2020