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Off the Beaten Path: Overland to East Timor

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As the van trundled across roads run with waterlogged potholes on the road towards East Timor, I pulled my knees up to my chest in an effort to cushion me from the juddering. I kept sneaking glances at my bus-mates to see whether they were as uncomfortable as I was, but it was hard to tell: each man was away in his own world. The scenery outside the windows was beautiful, sure, but it was hard to appreciate the deserted white-sand beaches and azure water when we were swaying so alarmingly from side to side.

East Timor — Timor-Leste — isn’t exactly a well-trodden path. Indeed, for many people it’s never even crossed their radar. With a mere 60,000 incoming tourists a year, it’s one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. And now is the time to visit — before everyone else works out just how awesome it is!

Here’s everything you need to know about East Timor.

  • Currency: US dollar
  • Climate: tropical
  • Dominant religion: Christianity (Catholicism)

Why visit?

East Timor is Indonesia’s unexplored cousin. The scenery is just as beautiful, the climate as temperate, but the crowds are next to none. While most of Indonesia’s tourist hotspots will be full of selfie stick-wielding crowds, East Timor’s beauty can be appreciated pretty much all by yourself.

When to visit?

Similar to much of the rest of Southeast Asia, East Timor experiences a monsoon season when it’s best avoided, and the rest of the time it’s pretty solidly sunny and warm (sometimes too much so!). Be warned — the roads are bad enough in the dry season, so monsoon is definitely not the easiest time to visit.

Rainy season runs from December to April.

Highlights of East Timor

Finding out about Timorese history

Timorese history is fraught, but fascinating. Colonized and invaded repeatedly over the ages, Timor-Leste only gained independence in 2002, which gives you an idea of how recent the issues it has faced are.  Check out the Resistance Museum in Dili for a detailed account of the country’s struggles, from Portuguese colonialism to Indonesian invasion.

Other historical sites are dotted around Dili too. Check out the vastly overcrowded Santa Cruz cemetery, the location of a 1991 mass shooting during a peaceful memorial, sparking huge global protest. The Xanana cultural center and the Chega! Exhibition also offer more insight on these events and more of the country’s recent history.

Exploring its capital

East Timor

Dili is, as far as Southeast Asian capitals go, very manageable. Stroll along the seaside boulevard to the lighthouse or wander in the other direction and pay a visit to the Christo Rei statue at the far end of town. You’ll be joined my multitudes of jogging locals upon the steps, inexplicably immune to the sweat-inducing climate. On your way back, grab a $1 coconut from one of the multiple vendors along the beach road, or grab a drink from one of the bars on the sand.

Here’s a complete list of things to do in Dili.

Hiking the highest peak, Mount Ramelau

Mount Ramelau, East Timor

While it’s nota particularly easy-to-reach mountain, as far as peaks in Asia go, Mount Ramelau is nevertheless worth a visit. Hatobuilico, the mountain out village from where the hike starts, is worth a visit for its location among picturesque hills, and the breath-taking cobblestone path to get there. Head up Mount Ramelauin time for sunrise and if you’re lucky you will be rewarded with a view stretching to both coasts – glorious on a clear day!

Heading to Atauro Island for snorkeling

Beach in East Timor

East Timor has honestly some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever seen — even after spending months doing it in neighboring Indonesia! One of the best spots to experience marine life, Atauro Island, can easily be reached from Dili. It costs just $4 or $5 one way to get the ferry over, and you can get a boat over to the outer reef, for about $10. Barry’s Place (about 150m to the right as you come off the ferry) will be able to sort out all of your snorkeling needs and offers easily the best accommodation around.

Making the (long) trip to Jaco Island

Jaco Beach in East Timor
Photo by Andidut (wikimedia).

The hallowed Jaco Island is a real undertaking to get to and is therefore spoken of with reverence by visitors and locals alike. At least three days are required for the trip (giving you some idea of what the roads are like), and you can’t stay there because it’s sacred to the local people. However, it’s entirely unspoilt for this exact reason, and well worth the hassle if you have the time.

Here’s a detailed guide on how to get to Jaco Island.

[ Related Read: Off-the-Beaten Beaches in Southeast Asia ]

Browse (and buy) amazing crafts at the market

Timor’s tais are uniquely beautiful. Intricately woven patterns form the centerpiece of beautiful handicrafts, adorning everything from purses to enormous rugs. Each of East Timor’s thirteen districts has its own traditional pattern, so exploring beyond the capital is worthwhile if you have the time for it. Otherwise, the central tais market in Dili is a fun place to browse.


It’s easy to imagine that East Timor might soon be discovered by tourism proper, so it’s worth making the trip while it remains pristine, quiet and beautiful. It’s got all the elements of the perfect destination: kind locals, stunning natural beauty, incredible beaches and accessible, fantastical marine life. I can hardly recommend it enough.


About the author:

Ellie is a twenty-something freelance writer and hopeless hippie, currently traveling the world and blogging about it at Grad Gone Global. She writes to inspire others to travel, then show them how, offering advice on everything from tax returns to visa requirements. She can be found voicing her inane thoughts on Twitter, crafting pretty pictures of beautiful places on Instagram, and trying to figure out how things work on Pinterest.

Off The Beaten Path is a series of traveler submissions featuring the untouched, authentic locations for backpackers. Want to get your story featured? Send us a quick email here!


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Travel guide to East Timor | off the beaten path in Southeast Asia

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