If you have the curiosity to experience what an undeveloped and new nation is like you should go to East Timor. I say new nation because this former Portuguese colony became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century in 2002. The country was utterly ruined in 1999 when the Indonesian troops who had occupied it for 24 years were forced to withdraw after a United Nations referendum resulted in its independence. Almost 15 years after this event, it still lacks in resources, and there is not too much happening in East Timor. And this is the reason why we decided to visit this little nation in the Indian Ocean. We wanted to see with our eyes how a country in its very beginning looks like.
Dili, the capital
As soon as we landed in Dili, we met Tony, an Australian man who has been living in East Timor for the past 15 years. He works for Compass Charter and is the only person in Dili having a boat that goes to Atauro island.
Dili lies on the northern coast of East Timor and has sort of a colonial style, with its waterfront and a square bordered on the south side by some Government Buildings. It’s a lazy little seaside city which took the role of national capital. The Portuguese influence is everywhere. The most dramatic landmark of the city is the Cristo Rei of Dili, a 30 metre high Jesus statue on top of one of the hills, which was a gift from a former Indonesian president to the city. It’s a smaller version of the Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer, in Brazil.
The weather was warm, so we headed to Restaurante Victoria, at Dili Beach.
Our hotel, Hotel Esplanada, located at the Avenida Portugal (also known as Beach Road) is where expats like to hang out.
Diving in the Atauro Island & Road tripping to Baucau
Diving in Atauro, an island located 30 km from Dili, felt like exploring an unknown world. Atauro was used as a jail by both the Portuguese and Indonesian governments during their domination. The corals are pristine, and the reefs are for the most part undamaged. However, for me, what is special here is that you are the only one at the dive site.
We met some people working for NGOs over lunch at Barry’s Lodge. It’s indeed a tiny island, but it’s possible to walk trails that lead through traditional villages and remnants of tropical forest.
A road trip in this area is one of the reasons one might visit East Timor. Back to Dili, we met our friends Tom and Pauline, and together we headed to Baucau. There are few street signs outside Dili, and not many locals in the region speak English, but some do speak Portuguese which turned out to be interesting for me as I could reconnect to my roots.
Some sections of the road are well paved and, as you veer around a tight corner from the top of a cliff you can enjoy uninterrupted scenic views of the ocean. At other times the road is marred by deep holes, and it’s when we need to slow down, but in return, we have the opportunity to observe the lives of the locals in the villages and farms we pass. The drive is beautiful and the road empty. There are no tourists at all.
A friend of mine who visited East Timor years back said to me the most beautiful place she had been in the country was Jaco Island, so the next day we got back to the road and drove towards this remote island. We stopped by at the Tutuala pousada, at the very end of the village. The last 10 km from Tutuala to Jaco was a bit difficult on a real dirt road (4WD is a must, although short in distance it took us one hour drive), but totally worth it as Jaco Island is a real untouched paradise.
We enjoyed our road trip in reverse as we visited the traditional Fataluku houses around the village of Fuiloro (two-hour drive West from Jaco).
East Timor offers something very rare, the kind of adventure backpackers experienced in the 60’s when there were still numerous exotic destinations where roads were rough and food not always available. As a destination, it ticks all the boxes for someone who is in search of the remote. There is barely any tourism, and the lack of visitors means locals are often overwhelming friendly. Everyone I met during this trip was NGO employees, lots of inspiring people working on busting the tourism in this country as a way to keep the economy moving. The lack of infrastructure is a challenge however I hope the pristine beaches, exotic diving locations, and gorgeous landscape will encourage some other adventurers to experience this remote country in the east.
We travelled across Dilli-Atauro-Baucau-Jaco Island from August 7th to August 10th, 2015 (4-day trip). We went diving with Compass Charter (firstname.lastname@example.org) and rented a Toyota Landcruiser from email@example.com. Had our meals at Restaurante Victoria, Castaway Bar, and Barry’s Lodge and stayed at Hotel Esplanade and Pousada de Baucau hotels. We flew with Air Timor from and to Bali.
In the bag: Light clothes.