The North Coast, which includes Dili, is rich in cultural and historical attractions. The island of Atauro is famous for its dive sites. Located in the central highlands immediately to the south of Dili, Aileu includes very steep forested ridges – some lush with tropical vegetation and others dry and rocky, covered in sparse eucalyptus trees and grasses. Beautiful rice paddy ribbons run along the river valleys between the steep slopes making a colourful contrast with the mountain ranges behind.
On the winding road from Dili, travellers often stop to capture the expansive views down to the winding rivers far below and out to the northern coast with Atauro Island in the distance. Apart from the villages located close to the road and on ridge tops, others are hidden from view by the steep terrain and forest.
Going further south into the municipality the road from Dili eventually drops down to a very picturesque fertile high land valley and the bustling market town of Aileu. If it is market day, take a break and see all the fresh vegetable and fruit on display, plus coffee, tobacco and other local produce. There is a small freshwater lake to the town’s west. Continuing on south towards Maubisse the countryside starts to feel even wilder and more remote. The views are magnificent and in the wet season enjoy the wild flowers along the roadside. Traditional thatched roof villages can be seen in the distance, either linked by road or walking track.
Atauro Island (25 kilometers off the coast of Dili) at times can feel more like a deserted tropical island than the diving resort that it is. It boasts green mountains, white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. Here, visitors can enjoy snorkeling, diving and hiking on jungle trails through the mountains, or relax on the veranda of a thatched roof bungalow overlooking the beach and the sea. There are some nice resorts. The offshore rees are alive with colorful tropical fish and interesting coral formations.
Located enticingly close to Dili, Atauro Island is well suited for a day trip, or longer stay. The landscape features rugged mountains, forests and grassy slopes. Hiking destinations include Mt Manukoko and coastal walks. The coastline varies from overhanging cliffs to the most sublime beaches. Unlike the main island of Timor, Atauro has NO crocodiles
Boat access from Dili can be easily arranged and there is a good range of accommodation including small eco-resorts available. In towns there is no electricity during the daytime and in outlying areas there is only solar power so a torch is useful at night Ataúro is an extremely dry island with very limited freshwater – please use the resources that sustain us sparingly Among the locally produced handicrafts are carved wooden figurines, Boneka dolls and bags and intricately woven reed mats and baskets. For more information on Atauro go to www.ataurotourism.org
Diving at Atauro Island
Most of the Atauro is surrounded by reefs rich in marine life with crystal clear waters. Located in Coral Triangle, Atauro has some of the greatest diversity of reef fish and coral species of anywhere in the world and the snorkelling and diving is excellent. Whales and dolphins can be seen year round with the best viewing during the seasonal migration.
Atauro Island offers world class diving and snorkelling on its fantastic reefs. Dive operators such as Dive Timor Lorosae, Freeflow, and Compass Charters can arrange long trips to several dive sites on Atauro Island Sites range from magnificent wall diving with underwater cliffs plunging into the depths, to more sheltered and gently sloping fringing reefs. Open water fish species such as tuna and mackerel can be seen along with reef and whale sharks, manta rays, turtles, and on occasion the more elusive dugongs.
A must-see attraction is the local divers and fishermen in Atauro, who fish using only traditionally made goggles and spear guns. The ocean around Ataúro offers excellent fishing. Local people are adept with net, spear and trap. Arrange to go out with our wooden outriggers or charter a larger tourism boat for big game fishing including trevally, tuna, snapper, barracuda and other pelagic species.
Atauro Dive Resort is located at Beloi on Atauro and Compass Charters has a beach house at Beloi and diving eco-camp at Adara. Atauro Island beside Beloi beach, Atauro Dive Resort offers PADI accredited dive courses and guided diving trips around Atauro utilising their dive boat. Both day and night dives can be arranged. Atauro Dive Resort has comfortable eco-friendly thatched bungalows and a small dive centre. Owner/Manager: Volker Katzung, Tel: (+670) 7738 6166 /7323 2455.
Getting to Atauro Island
Nakroma Ferry operates on Saturday only. It departs at 9:00am from Dili Port (ticket must be booked day prior from wharf office) and 3:00pm from Beloi Pier, Ataúro (ticket purchased on Island day of travel – available from 1:30pm). Crossing by ferry takes approximately 3 hours. Owner/Manager: Timor-Leste Government, Tel: (+670) 7723 0965
Laju Laju Vehicle and passenger ferry service takes three hours and operates only Thursday only, departing 8.00am from Dili Port and 3:00pm from Beloi Pier, Atauro. Owner/Manager:Dragon Star Shipping Ida, Tel:(+670) 7302 2266/7302 2288, Email:email@example.com
Compass Charters Water Taxi operates regular 90-minute water taxi service utilizing motor launches. Departs Dili waterfront, just to the east of Palácio do Governo at 7.30am daily and Beloi Beach (Barry’s Place), Ataúro 9.30am (Monday-Friday) and 3:00pm (Saturday-Sunday). Charter services can be arranged. Owner/Manager: Robert and Tony Crean, Tel: (+670) 7723 0964 / 7723 0965, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.compassadventuretours.com
Dragon Star Fast Boats operates Fast boat one houre service, departing from Dili Port 8.00am Saturday and Sunday and Beloi Beach (near Beloi Pier), Atauro 3.00pm for return crossing. Extra charter services can be arranged. Owner/Manager:Dragon Star Shipping Ida, Tel:(+670) 7302 2266/7302 2288, Email:email@example.com
More adventurous or budget conscious travelers can arrange outrigger or other boat transport directly with owners/crew. Local boats usually leave very early when Wetar Strait is smoother. (Note: These boats normally have no radios, lifejackets or other safety equipment onboard and passengers are usually exposed to the elements – Wetar Strait can get extremely rough!).
Accommodation on Atauro Island
Barrys Place on Atauro offers accommodation on Atauro Island with all meals included in the cost. They have a range of accommodation from tents to bungalows and gazebos. There are some sun-drenched thatched cabins right on the beach. From US$$20 per night
Adara Eco-Resort (Mario’s Place) offers simple thatched accommodation with shared bathroom, located besides a beautiful white sand beach on the remote west coast. All meals are included. Access is by boat or walking from Beloi. Guided walks, boat trips and snorkel gear hire. Relaxing place with fantastic sunsets. Tel: (+670) 7795 7272 / 7764 1196
Atauro Dive Resort is small personalised eco-resort beside Beloi beach with thatched bungalows and shared bathroom. Specialised scuba diving centre onsite. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Great sunrises and very peaceful. Activities include diving, snorkelling, swimming and of course lying in a hammock. Tel: (+670) 7738 6166 / 7323 2455
Barry’s Place is an eco-resort with spacious open air restaurant, thatched bungalows and shared bathrooms in tropical gardens beside the beach. Very relaxing. All meals included. Organizes activities/tours and rents snorkel gear/bikes/kayaks/fishing rods etc. Tel: (+670) 7723 6084 / 7744 1101
Beloi Beach Hotel is a small hotel overlooking the ocean with restaurant/bar and swimming pool. Rooms have air conditioning and private bathrooms. All meals and motor-launch transport from Dili included. Organizes activities/tours and rents snorkel gear/bikes/fishing rods etc. Tel: (+670) 7558 3421
Compass Dive Resort offers Camp-style full-board accommodation on beachfront properties located in both Adara and Beloi. Island transfers, snorkeling, diving, dive courses, and dolphin-spotting cruises can be arranged. Tel: (+670) 7723 0965 / (+670) 7723 0964
Manukoko Rek has accommodation ranges from thatched huts with shared bathroom, to larger rooms with private bathrooms. Restaurant specializes in Italian food with pizza and freshly made pasta. Breakfast is included. There is a good beach nearby, just a few minutes’ walk away. Tel: (+670) 7748 7301 / 7795 5692
Vila Gracia is a small guest house offering rooms with shared bathrooms. Breakfast and other meals by arrangement. There is a good beach nearby, just a few minutes walk away. Tel: (+670) 7728 7641
Trisan House has thatched bungalows with shared bathrooms shaded by coconut trees. Breakfast and other meals by arrangement. There is a good beach nearby, just a few minutes walk away. Tel: (+670) 7726 2762 / 7740 6308
Ermera District and Gleno: Southwest of Dili
Ermera Municipality (southwest of Dili) is very rugged, sparsely-populated, mountainous area in central Timor-Leste. It is the coffee producing heart of Timor-Leste. With steep hills covered in coffee forest, looking towards towering Mt Ramelau in the south often all that can be seen of most towns is their colourful church spires poking out through the trees. The winding road up from Dili is good for road touring and mountain biking and offers expansive views out to Atauro Island.
Coffee is a shade loving plant which flourishes beneath the large canopied albezia trees. During the harvest season local people can be seen picking the ripe red coffee cherries that are then spread along the sides of the road and anywhere else flat they can find for drying in the hot sunshine. Down on the lush, green river flats tropical fruit and vegetables are grown around the main towns of Gleno and Ermera and local market days are colourful and interesting social occasions with people often coming considerable distances from the surrounding villages. Examples of Portuguese architecture can be seen in the old town of Ermera.
On the western flanks of Mt Ramelau, Letefoho is a pretty village with a combination of Portuguese architecture and traditional Timorese houses. An alternative approach to climbing Mt Ramelau can be arranged from here. Further to the south lie the small market town of Atsabe and the nearby Bandeira waterfall, the highest in Timor-Leste and an impressive sight in the wet season.
Located in a wide valley, Gleno is the capital of the Ermera district. It is a suitable destination for a day trip from Dili, especially if you want to see some mountains while staying on decent roads. Head west from Dili and go straight at the Tibar T-junction. The road passes through pretty valleys, then winds over heavily-forested mountains before reaching the wide valley of Gleno after about 2 hours. There are some shops and restaurants there. Beyond Gleno, the road gets much worse as it heads to Ermera and, eventually, Maliana.
Traveling Through Ermera District
According to Wikivoyage: “The road through Ermera to Bobonaro is the most scenic and rugged in Timor-Leste's western highlands. It is not for the faint of heart but will take you through some amazing landscapes and villages. It will be difficult to find accommodation or even food along the way unless you speak Tetum or have a guide, however the entire 8-10 hour drive to Maliana on this road (not advisable in wet season) can be very rewarding if you are intrepid enough. [Source: Wikivoyage]
“West of Dili, keep going south at the Tibar T-junction. The road (very good) will wind through tranquil valleys and over heavily-forested mountains. After 35 min, it reaches the wide valley where Gleno, the district capital, is located. This may be your last chance for warung food (there is one in the market). After Gleno, the road quickly gets worse as it winds into the mountains, often flanked by coffee trees and with views of Ramelau on the left. After about 1.5 more hours, you will have passed the turnoff to the actual town of Ermera (few roads or towns are signposted - often you can take the road in the best condition but sometimes this will be the wrong one; take a map and ask locals regularly) and will reach the beautiful village of Atsabe, which has stunning views over the valleys. There is at least one decent guesthouse here (two-storey greenish building with a big balcony overlooking the valley) that charges US$25 for basic rooms with shared crappy bathrooms and, between the dogs, pigs and chickens, will give you the noisiest night's sleep of any village in East Timor. It might be hard to get in unless you can speak Tetum. It will also be hard to get food - there are no restaurants so the guesthouses usually provide food.
“After Atsabe, the road is good for a while but as it approaches the Bobonaro ridge, it becomes shockingly bad. There is a left turn-off to Zumalai and Suai (about 3 hours further) but if you go straight, you will continue along the windswept ridge where, on a good day, you can see the south coast in one direction and Ramelau in the other. Shortly before the viewpoints is a right turn-off with an arch - this is the way to the Marobo Hot Springs, about 30 minutes down a steep rocky road. First you will find the ruins of a Portuguese resort, which are great for exploring and looking down over the valley. Then the road will end and you will have to cross a ditch to reach the springs, which collect in a pool that you swim in if you're brave enough (the water is very hot but it is possible). Local families maintain the pool and will charge a very low amount for use, and more if you want to get slathered in sulfuric mud by the kids. The road then drops down into Maliana - about 3 hours' drive from Atsabe.”
Liquica: Just West of Dili
Liquica (35 kilometers, 40 minute drive west of Dili) is a Portuguese-era port town with whitewashed buildings sloping down toward the sea. Liquica and Maubara are less than an hour west along the coast road (make sure to turn right at the T-junction in Tibar). Just before Liquica is the ruins of a prison, Aipelo Jail, where Timorese kings were imprisoned, with placards telling the story. Liquica has some ruined buildings and some beaches. Aipelo Jail was built during the Portuguese colonial era to house exiled political prisoners and features stone prison ruins and information displays. Open daily.
Liquica is one of the best places to see the remnants of Portuguese culture. According to Wikivoyage: “The Portuguese made Timor one of the first ports in Asia, and some of the earliest buildings can still be found in Liquiçá. Liquiçá was so valuable that in the late 1600s the Dutch established a beach head fort here. Maubara fort still stands well preserved with its cannons overlooking the bay. In the mid-1800s, the Dutch traded the fort for the islands of Flores.” [Source: Wikivoyage]
The road between Liquiçá and Dili is a reasonable coastal road with good scenery. Today, divers flock to Liquiçá for its colourful reef and whales. An expedition in the Ombai Strait found 2,000 whales in just one day. There is colourful reef in Tibar and resort there where you can learn to dive. Activities that can be enjoyed include swimming, scuba diving, fishing, water sports, volleyball, and cycling. There are no large supermarkets in Liquiçá, but most basic products are available.
Caimeo Beach Resort is Beachside resort includes spacious bungalows and luxury camping with private bathrooms and Black Rock Restaurant. Good beach for swimming, expansive ocean views and fantastic place to enjoy the sunset. One hour’s drive from Dili. Resort can help organise transport and airport pick-ups. Tel: (+670) 7798 8305
Lauhata Escape Resort is a beachside resort, good for relaxing, swimming and sunsets. Air-conditioned rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Camping spaces available and onsite bar/restaurant. Tel: (+670) 7740 1111
Tibar Beach Retreat in Tibar, Liquica is a hillside retreat overlooking a bay. It includes spacious bungalows with private bathroom. Onsite restaurant and bar. Beautiful ocean views and fantastic place to enjoy the sunset. 10-15mins drive to Dili. Resort can help organise transport and airport pick-ups. Tel: (+670) 7739 1124
Liquica District and Maubara
The district (municipality) of Liquiçá lies just west of Dili. The highway hugs the rugged coast crossing a series of rivers that swell during the monsoon. Every so often side roads fill with trucks carrying arabica coffee beans from plantations, and avocado trees hide the mountains. Driving along the quiet beaches of Liquiçá, you can see why the Portuguese felt at home here as is it sort of like coastal Portugal. [Source: Wikivoyage]
Liquica has an attractive coastline interspersed with rocky headlands, coves and beaches. These offer good swimming and the coral reefs provide excellent diving opportunities. There are small towns dotted along the coast road and roadside vendors selling local produce from the hills beyond. The majority of local people speak Tocodede.
Timor-Leste’s colonial past is very evident in this municipality with the remnants of a large historic jail at Aipelo and many fine Portuguese buildings in Liquica, the main administrative centre. Further to the west, past a salt lake known for its pelicans, is the interesting small town of Maubara. In addition to many old Portuguese buildings it has an impressive 17th century Dutch Fort which is a must see. Across the road local women in bright blue bungalows produce handicrafts including colourful intricately woven baskets and other items.
Maubara (west of Liquica, an hour west of Dili) is built around its largest landmark, an 18th-century Dutch fort. The Carmelite nuns run a convent here and have a strong network of convents across predominantly Catholic Timor-Leste. There are also some souvenir shops and cafes on the beach. Maubara is known for its skilled basket weavers. There are small resorts and other accommodation along this coast and the beaches offer good swimming and diving. Maubara Weaving Cooperative has a a good range of woven cane baskets, hanging mobiles and other items produced onsite by co-operative women members. Maubara Fort was constructed by the Dutch during the 17th century, the old fort still has its original stone walls and canons. Within the fort grounds is a restaurant and small gift shop selling local woven handi-crafts.
Continuing past Maubara the road clings to the rocky coast and climbs high above the sea. It is a good location to look out for whales and dolphins especially in the migrating season as they often come in very close to the shore here. The views out towards the large island of Alor across the Savu Sea also are spectacular.
Manatuto (60 kilometers east of Dili) is a large regional town lying beside the Laclo River on the north coast if Timor-Leste. It is known for its bustling Sunday market and also for terracotta pottery produced in local kilns. Further to the east, the small town of Laleia has a pretty pastel pink twin towered church, considered one of the most beautiful In Timor-Leste.
Manatuto municipality and stretches across the entire country from a beautiful north coast of idyllic white sandy beaches, steep cliffs and mangroves bordering the Wetar Strait, to the wilder Timor Sea in the south. It is one of the country’s least populated and most rugged municipalities with large braided rivers and a very mountainous hinterland. Much of the landscape and its villages have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The majority of local people speak Galoli. This area is known as the birthplace of Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader elected as the nation’s president in 2001 and who later became Timor-Leste’s prime minister.
Along the north coast closer to Dili are well-known sites for diving and snorkelling and Dollar Beach is a popular swimming and picnicking location. Grilled fish and rice can be purchased from roadside stalls and at Manleo there is a good range of woven basketwork for sale. Local farmers cultivate rice and other crops and graze livestock such as sheep and goats. Inland at higher elevation near Laclubar tree crops such as coffee and avocado are also grown.
The forests and coastal swamps near the isolated south coast have been proposed for designation as part of a wilder wildlife sanctuary that stretches west into neighbouring Manufahi municipality. Flooded each wet season this area known as Sungai Clere is rich with birdlife, including rare cockatoos and pigeons.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Timor-Leste tourism websites,Timor-Leste government websites, Wikitravel, Wiki Voyage, 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