Bobonaro municipality (far western Timor-Leste) borders Indonesia and the Savu Sea. Along its northern coastline, beautiful sweeping grey sand beaches can be enjoyed from the road linking Dili and the Batugade border crossing. The scenery varies from red earth and dryish vegetation reminiscent of northern Australia to bright green rice fields with water buffalo on the river flats. Clusters of food stalls selling grilled meat and fish, dried salt and other produce are at times encountered. At Batugade there is a small salt water lake and an overgrown Portuguese fort.
To reach Bobonaro from Dili, take the main highway heading west past Dili airport. Remember to turn right at the Tibar T-junction to go through Liquica, Maubara, Batugade and Balibo. This is somewhat of a historic route, with possible stops at the prison ruins before Liquica, the fort at Maubara and the house at Balibo with an exhibition on the murdered Australian journalists, as well as another ruined fort. If you have time, go straight at the Tibar T-junction for a challenging, but scenic 8-hour trip through Gleno, Ermera and eventually to Maliana. This route is slow but scenic. If you take this route back from Maliana to Dili via Ermera., take the other road at the 3-way junction and look for the next major left fork - it's in the middle of a village and both forks are paved - the high road on the right goes to Zumalai and the low road on the left goes to Ermera. Take food as it may be hard to find restaurants.[Source: Wikivoyage]
Balibo is located among forested hills inland from Batugade. The site of several massacres during the Indonesian occupation This inland basin is surrounded by some very steep mountains with limestone outcrops and caves. High on the flanks of Mt Loilako and the other mountains, the cone shaped thatched houses of the Tetun people can be seen. In this area there are some excellent guided hiking and cave exploring opportunities.
The rugged country further south is covered in forest and open grasslands used for grazing cattle and horses and requires a strong four wheel drive vehicle. There are some fantastic views out to the south coast near to the old and dilapidated colonial retreat of Bobonaro and geo-thermal hot springs are found downhill from the small village of Marobo. These natural springs have been developed into a series of bathing pools. A very rough road continues on to Zumalai on the south coast. Driving conditions are slow but the expansive scenic views and traditional villages along the way definitely make it worthwhile.
Road Trip in Bobonaro District with Some NGO Dentists
Anneli Knight wrote in The Guardian: “We met only a handful of foreigners during our week in Timor-Leste. And, like many visitors to this country, we were there as volunteers. Our group spent much of our time in the remote mountain village of Maubara in the west of the country, numbing gums, pulling teeth and filling holes. We – three Australian dentists, a dental nurse and me – a journalist there to spend time with my dentist dad and to scrub and sterilise tools – were there on a Rotary mission. [Source: Anneli Knight, The Guardian, August 5, 2015]
“We took a long road trip into the western part of the country towards a remote mountain village called Bobonaro, just 120 kilometers away but more than five hours in driving time. At the start of the road, the temperature was warm and humid, like much of the tropics, but by the time we reached the mountains we found ourselves inside a misty cloud, much colder than we’d expected this country to be.
“A road trip in this area is a key reason a foreigner might visit Timor-Leste. Some sections of road are new and well paved (it is a country in heavy construction mode) and, as you veer around a tight corner from high atop a cliff and enjoy uninterrupted views across a glimmering ocean you might mistake yourself as being on the Great Ocean Road or the Amalfi coast. At other times the road is marred by deep potholes, ruts and rubble. Twenty kilometres an hour feels like sprinting. It’s at this pace you can glimpse the lives of the locals in the villages and farms we pass.
“After a couple more hours of neat highway-style roads followed by potholed rubble, we arrived at the convent in Bobonaro, where we immediately set up the mobile dental clinic. Over the next five days I watched in admiration as this small dental team treated schoolchildren, villagers, police officers, nuns and the local doctor, who had been educated in Cuba. All of this was achieved without shared language, the dentists and nurse leaning across to read from the sheet of translated phrases that were pinned to the wall: “Senti Moras?” Do you feel pain? “Tafui.” Spit. We treated such a large number of people in this small town that our early morning walks were filled with big waves and shy hellos from schoolchildren, and friendly nods of recognition and wide-open grins from their parents...
“....It was then time to enjoy our road trip in reverse, which concluded with a stop at a seaside strip of bars back in Maubara for some knock-off beers at an almost-empty terrace bar. The only other patrons were a local guide and two motorcyclists from the Australian country town of Dimboola, who were in Timor-Leste for the fourth time for a three-week motorbike journey. One of them captured what many visitors find most enjoyably unique about their travel experience to this country: “There’s no bloody tourists,” he said. “I hate bloody tourists.”“
Maliana (3½ hours by car, southwest of Dili, near the border of West Timor, Indonesia) is third-largest city in Timor-Leste but is a remote dusty town. There's not much in the town itself, but it is surrounded by interesting landscapes and can make a good stopover or base for day trips. Situated amidst a fertile flood plain, Maliana is the capital of Bobonaro and is an important area for rice growing. The town’s buildings are Portuguese influenced and there is a sprawling market. It is home to the Kemak people, whose rectangular stilt houses dot the countryside. Bobonaro municipality is famed for producing some very fine tais, many with distinctive black backgrounds. Maliana is good place to try and find them.
The highway runs northwest-southeast and intersects with Maliana's main street next to the sports field and gymnasium. This area is easy to walk around, but some hotels are on a hill that is accessed by a road turning right off the highway about 500 metres south past the intersection (opposite a cemetery). The market on the main street is interesting to walk around but doesn't sell much except for fruit, vegetables and household products.
Pousada Maliana is a guesthouse set on top of hill overlooking Maliana. Air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms. Breakfast included. Tel: (+670) 7725 1393
Ramascoras Resort is guesthouse set amidst rice paddies in the countryside on the outskirts of Maliana. Not much of a resort but a decent hotel by local standards. Clean, air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms, and hottish water. You might need to bring your own towels and toilet paper. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. US$45. Location: two kilometers down the road to Dili, look for the signposted laneway next to the big government building, then veer right at the junction and look for a sign and an orange building. Tel: (+670) 7597 7166
Risky Hotel: Despite the name, it may be the safest option in Maliana. Reliable water from its well, you will probably have a fan and you might even get toilet paper. Upstairs rooms have a mandi and squat toilet while downstairs rooms have a cold shower and sit-down toilet. Nice terrace with mountain views. US$30-$45. Location: on a corner one block south of the main street and one block east of the highway.
Diocese guesthouse is located in a church compound. The rooms are in a building built to look like a church. Usually clean but often has water problems. US$30. Location: East of the main intersection, turn right opposite the cemetery.
Restaurants: 1) Restaurante Maliana, Main St (opposite the market). Pleasant restaurant that typically has a watery curry or stew plus local favourites like liver, beef rendang and vegetable dishes. US$3-$5 2) Laduena, Main St (opposite the market). A somewhat larger and more Indonesian menu than the one next door, with beef, chicken and vegetable dishes in the window, plus some a la carte choices. US$3-$5
Balibo: Site of the Balibo Five Massacre
Balibo (near the land border West Timor, Indonesia) is a small hill-town on the western side of Timor-Leste has an old Portuguese fort which provides expansive views of the surrounding country side. Within the fort is a boutique hotel and restaurant. Across the road from the fort is Balibo House which operates as a community centre and museum. The museum within the hotel with in the stone walls of a 17th century fort the stone ramparts mainly displays a photographic collection. Tel: (+670) 7709 1555
Balibo is the site of several massacres during the Indonesian occupation included the one in which the ‘Balibo Five’ — five journalists, two Australians, two Britons and one New Zealander — were killed by Indonesian soldiers while attempting to film the initial invasion. These events are commemorated at Balibo House and in the nearby Portuguese Fort, part of of which has been converted into a small hotel and museum.
Balibo Fort Hotel includes restaurant and small museum built within the colonial-era Portuguese fort. Sweeping views across forested hills, Balibo village and out to sea. Air-conditioned rooms have ensuite bathrooms. Free wifi. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. At the hotel guided visits to local villages and caves can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7709 1555
Anneli Knight wrote in The Guardian: “The small museum there is based inside the house where five Australian television journalists sought refuge, and relives in photographs and stories the final days of their lives before they were murdered by the Indonesian military in 1975. The village is large by Timorese standards, though can be explored on foot in less than half an hour, and there are developments under way that aim to transform Balibo into the gateway for tourism for the western side of the country. At the moment there are about a dozen choices for accommodation offering clean and basic rooms, with a couple of cafes that have limited opening times and menus – curries and fish are popular offerings. It is not a country yet geared to attracting the global tourist dollar.” [Source: Anneli Knight, The Guardian, August 5, 2015]
Marobo Hot Springs
Marobo Hot Springs (1½ hours from Maliana) is a Marobo geothermal hot springs located in beautiful mountain scenery. Chillin in in the hot water pools while gazing at the beautiful countryside in the valley is a very blissful experience. The hot water springs have been developed into a series of bathing pools in the valley below Marobo village. They were originally developed during the Portuguese colonial era and have recently been rebuilt. Open daily.
Anneli Knight wrote in The Guardian: “On our final day in Bobonaro we visited the area’s Morobo hot springs, set among Portuguese ruins. We all sank gratefully into the pool of steaming, sulphuric water, framed by crumbling edifices of the old bathhouse with dramatic views within a prehistoric volcanic crater.” [Source: Anneli Knight, The Guardian, August 5, 2015]
There are not really any places to stay in Marobo. Most visitors seek out the springs as a day trip, traveling from their accommodation in Maliana or Balibo by motorbike or four wheel drive vehicle. To get to Marobo take the highway south and it winds into the mountains and along a windswept ridge where, on a good day, you can see the south coast in one direction and Ramelau in the other. A bit further along (keeping left at the fork - the right one goes to Bobonaro village) is a 3-way junction. The road on the left with an arch leads to Marobo. [Source: Wikivoyage]
After Marabo village itself, the road gets steep and rocky. First you come to the stone ruins of a Portuguese resort, which are good for exploring and for views down the valley. Further on, the road is blocked and the springs are a short walk beyond. There is a pool there but the water is seriously hot. Local families maintain it and charge a fee for usage or to have kids slather you with sulfuric mud.
Oecussi: Timor-Leste’s Enclave in West Timor
Oecussi (reached ferry) is Timor-Leste’s enclave in West Timor. Mountainous and truly off the beaten path, it is were you can still see ruins of the Indonesian occupation and meet locals who rarely see travelers.. The enclave, also spelled Ocussi and known as Ambeno, occupies 78 square kilometers (30 square miles) on the northwest coast of West Timor. It is separated from the rest of Timor-Leste by Indonesian territory which surrounds the enclave except to the north where it borders the Savu Sea. In 1959 when Portugal and the Netherlands divided Timor Island under the Treaty of Lisbon, Oecusse-Ambeno remained with the Portuguese section, now known as Timor-Leste. Oecusse-Ambeno recently has been designated a Special Social Market Economic Zone (ZEESM) by the Timor-Leste Government and large scale infrastructure development and building construction is underway. [Source: Wikivoyage]
The main town is the coastal town of Pante Macassar. It is fronted by a grey sand beach and is overlooked by striking mountain peaks. The groves of banana, coconut, papaya and mango trees between the houses give it a very tropical air. Lifau near Pante Macassar was the first place the Portuguese landed in 1515 and this site is marked by a memorial park. The most interesting other colonial site and a good viewing point is an old garrison building – Fatusuba on a hilltop immediately behind Pante Macassar Pantai Mahata just to the east of Pante Macassar has a good reef for snorkelling and diving as well as offering an excellent vantage point for the annual whale migration.
Oecussi has jagged mountain ranges, fertile river flats along the Tono River and long sweeping beaches great for beach walking, swimming and surf casting. There are some wonderful hiking opportunities including the area around Kutet with its dense jungle, waterfalls and mountain panoramas. Walking tracks link the many traditional villages and a hiking guide is definitely required. To the south of Oecusse-Ambeno, the enclave is ringed by a mountainous escarpment with peaks rising to more than 1,200m. In this area near Oesilo geothermal small hot mud volcanoes can be found blowing their tops.
The local population of Oecusse-Ambeno are mostly Dawan and are known for their incredible warmth and friendliness. Their traditional conical shaped houses dot the landscape from the coast to the mountains and they mostly speak Baikeno. They are acclaimed for producing distinctively woven and embroidered tais, as well as wood carvings and other crafts.
Inur Sacato Oecusse Villas has air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms. Breakfast included and onsite restaurant. Tel: (+670) 7724 0150
Oecusse Amasat guesthouse with restaurant/bar located opposite beach. Air-conditioned rooms have private bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Hiking guides and snorkelling can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7732 9755
Royal Rao Hotel has air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms and more simple rooms with share bathrooms. Breakfast included and onsite restaurant for other meals. Tel: (+670) 7723 5417/7717 1850
Oecusse is serviced by the Government-run, Nakroma ferry which departs Dili Sea Port twice a week (Monday and Thursday) and returns from Pante Macassar the day following. The ferry is usually crowded and the trip takes around 8-12 hours. For ferry tickets visit their office at the Dili Port. Dragon Star Shipping also runs daily services on their fast star craft between Dili and Pante Macassar, approximately 3-4 hours.
Ainaro municipality (100 kilometers south of Dili), in the southern part of the country, has spectacular scenery from the central mountains to the wild south coast and provides wonderful opportunities for exploring and hiking. This area includes Timor-Leste’s highest peak – Mt Ramelau (2960 meters high) which is sacred to the Timorese and known at Tatamailau (grandfather). The towns of Maubisse and Hato Builico have very spectacular hill settings and the larger town of Ainaro is located at much lower elevation in a lush river valley midway to the Timor Sea.
The panoramic views from the Maubisse pousada on its promontory are especially impressive, as are the views from Mt Ramelau at dawn after a guided climb from Hato Builico. Looking out over the mountain ranges of Timor-Leste bathed in the early morning light is an unforgettable and very rewarding experience.
The majority of the local people speak Mambae and their villages with characteristic thatched circular, conical roofed houses are scattered across the municipality. A lot of coffee is grown in the Ainaro area and vegetables are cultivated in between rocky screes on what often seems like impossibly steep slopes. Ponies are still commonly used for carrying produce and other goods between the isolated villages and markets. They and other livestock are seen grazing on the mountain sides.
Maubisse (3 or 4 hour drive south of Dili) is a small town nestled in the valley below the slopes of Mount Ramelau is peaceful and scenic, and a good place to escape from the dust and heat of Dili. The 3-4 hour drive from Dili takes you past coffee plantations, lush forests, and rolling hills. The biggest draw to Maubisse for travelers is its close proximity to Mount Ramelau, the highest mountain in Timor-Leste.
Maubisse is perched on a ridge at a height of around 1400 meters in rugged mountains and is surrounded by spectacular scenery. It’s an old hill town and makes a delightful break from the heat and humidity of the coast. Guided walks can be arranged to traditional Mambae villages and it is a good place to learn more about coffee growing. Guest houses available include the fine old Maubisse pousada offering expansive views.
Leublora Green Villa is an Eco-accommodation located in countryside Maubisse. Beautiful views and peaceful setting. Rooms with thatched roofs and share bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Tel: Tel: +(670) 7839-8948
Café Maubisse Guesthouse is situated in a garden has small lounges and balconies. Rooms have private bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Tel: (+670) 7727 4756
Hakmatek Eco-Accommodation is located in countryside near Maubisse. Beautiful views and peaceful setting. Rooms with thatched roofs and share bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Hiking guides and village visits can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7751 3490
Pousada Maubisse Guesthouse is set in gardens within old stone walls (Portuguese colonial era). Hill top location offers expansive views. Rooms have ensuite bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. On site restaurant/bar. Tel: (+670) 77312368 / 7839 8948
Sara’s Guesthouse is located in central Maubisse above restaurant. Rooms have private bathrooms. Breakfast included.
Hato Builico and Mt Ramelau
Hato Builico is the closest town to Mt Ramelau, the highest mountain in East Timor at 2,960 meters high. A highlight for many of a holiday in Timor-Leste is a guided hike from the village of Hato Builico, located high in the 2000-meter-high Tatamailau range, to the summit of Mt Ramelau to watch the sun rise.
Many people start the 2-hour trek to the summit in the early hours so that they can watch the sun rise over the island. In all directions the views are stunning. Other guided hikes also can be organised in the surrounding valleys and to nearby traditional villages from the guest houses. A good four wheel drive vehicle or motorbikes are needed to access Hato Builico due to the steep mountainous terrain.
You can stay at a place just before the top, and climb up for the dawn (a couple of hours climb). It is a fairly popular thing to do so ask around or ask at the Hotel Dili – they can arrange an excellent four wheel drive tour. It is freezing at night For more information on Hato Builico go to www.hatobuilico.com
Hato Builico Homestay has shared rooms with shared bathrooms. Meals can be organised. Host (English speaking) is available as trekking guide. Tel: (+670) 7736 8515 / 7618 5904
Ovalido Hotel offers rooms with private bathrooms and dormitory rooms with share bathrooms. Breakfast included. Other meals by arrangement. Trekking guides can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7741 3468 / 7618 3577
Pousada Levi is Small guesthouse with rooms have a share bathroom. Breakfast included and other meals can be arranged. Trekking guides can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7743 8777
Manufahi District: Heading Towards Southern Timor-Leste
Manufahi municipality (100 kilometers south of Dili) stretches from the central mountains to the southern coast. Inland, scenic vistas of the large mountains and expansive valleys are magnificent. Small villages can be found along the roads and on isolated ridges. The majority of people living in Manufahi speak Mambae and their traditional circular thatched buildings can be seen.
Travelling south, the road from Dili winds down steeply after Aituto and follows a lush green river valley towards Same. The local climate and terrain are well suited to the cultivation of many tropical fruits and vegetables, plus Timor-Leste’s famous organically grown coffee.
The laidback South Coast stretches the length of the mainland, with coffee plantations, trekking and beautiful scenery at every turn. Much of the coastal area known as Sungai Clere further to the east of Betano have been proposed for protection as a wildlife sanctuary. This wetland area and the hill country inland area to its north are very isolated and often inaccessible by road in the wet season.
Same (120 kilometers south of Dili), the administrative capital of Manufahi. Same is located in a lush tropical river valley, part way between Timor-Leste’s highest mountains and the wild south coast (Tasi Mane). Same also has some lovely old Portuguese buildings. This was the location where Australian Sparrow Force guerrilla troops had to be evacuated by ship and submarine during WWII.
Same offers a great base for exploring the surrounding areas. A trek to Mt Kablaki through dense forests and small villages is an ideal way to experience the natural beauty of the area and the nearby river is good for swimming. From Same the road continues on further south to Betano, a small fishing village on the coast with long sweeping black sand beaches.
Same has some good accommodation. Hotel Umaliurai has air conditioning, restaurant, attractive swimming pool and garden area. Most rooms have private bathrooms. Breakfast included and other meals by arrangement. Trekking guides can be organised. Tel: (+670) 7725 3849
Covalima municipality (borders West Timor in Indonesia and the Timor Sea) is located in Timor-Leste’s south west corner, a region that is gearing up for the development of the large oil fields in the Timor Sea. Covalima It lies across the rugged mountain hinterland from Dili. With very steep hill country, wide river valleys and lush coastal flats, it has the sprawling town of Suai as its main centre. The Covalima coast is characterised by salty marshlands, important for wildlife, and spectacular black sand beaches offering expansive vistas out to the Timor Sea. Most people living in Covalima speak Tetun Terik or Bunak.
Suai is the main town in southwestern Timor-Leste located near the coast, this sleepy town boasts beaches and traditional fishing villages dating back to Portuguese colonial times. Watch out for crocodiles though. In Suai you can pump oil straight out of the earth and people look forward to big change with the development of the Sunrise oil ad gas field. Oil speculation has made Suai the most expensive place in Timor-Leste. The market has the usual household goods but prices of basics can be up to 50 percent higher than elsewhere. The extremely large Suai Cathederal (Ave Maria Church, near the market) is an impressive local landmark. Just completed, it replaces a church destroyed by pro-Indonesian militiamen in the 1999 violence.
According to Wikivoyage: “From its cracky mountains to its sea, Timor-Leste's Covalima district is a favourite place to explore and relax. The new road of a 1500 meter pass looks like something out of New Zealand, you might even find a few rugged houses. Highlanders in this part of Timor are still very traditional, and are always happy to meet new comers. About 4 hours from Maliana. There are 2 roads that lead there from the ridge south of Maliana. One goes via Lolotoe and is a rough road with unmarked turns. The road through Zumalai is better, except for 2 spots that are prone to landslides that may close the road. If coming from Dili, the road through Maubisse may be faster.” [Source: Wikivoyage]
Eastern Dragon is the best hotel in Suai but prices are skyrocketing. Newly-renovated rooms have AC, satellite TV and bathrooms with warm showers and sit-down toilets. Complex includes a supermarket (closes about 8pm) and Chinese restaurant. US$52s/$65d/$90vip. The restaurant has bland Chinese food plus a pool table and a bunch of bug-eating cats. US$6. Location: On the road heading east to Zumalai, just east of the roundabout with the statue..
Hotel Suai (100 meters west of Eastern Dragon on the other side of the road - new sign is easy to spot) is a basic hotel that has been there a long time. Recent reports say that most rooms now have air conditioning. US$25s/$35d
There are Several basic warungs are in the market that serve up meals for around US$2. Near Hotel Suai, west of the roundabout, there are some warungs that offers an alternative to Eastern Dragon. Good chicken and beef but limited veges, although you can get a basic soup to go with it. English-speaking staff. US$2. \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