One of the highlights during our trip to East Timor was our 3 night stay on Atauro Island. The island is conveniently located about 25 km off the coast from Dili, yet seems to be just one step away from a cast away experience.
It’s a beautiful, but rustic, no-frills kind of place, still innocent from the organised luxury and chaos of mass tourism. It’s definitely a must-visit for anyone interested in diving and/or snorkelling with stunning and healthy coral around the island.
Diving also seemed to be the main reason for the other 60 tourists (true story!) on the island to come. The majority of visitors here were from Australia, usually from far-off outback places, where East Timor is often closer and surely cheaper than tourists spots in mainland Australia. Other than that we encountered researchers and student groups studying the island and surroundings for different reasons.
After the ‘hustle and bustle’ of Dili be prepared to slow down and work on island time. Nothing is done in a rush here. Also kiss modern amenities such as showers or hot water goodbye and give yourself into the simplicity of island life.
… depends on your time, budget, organisation and – I guess – luck. As we found out the information on how to get to Atauro were often based on a rumours rather than facts. After some partly hard learned experiences and more research we have some rather solid facts on the transportation situation.
On the way from Dili to Beloi (the harbour on Atauro Island) we chose the Dragon Star Fast Boat, which took about an hour and cost 13 USD per person. From Dili the Dragon Boats only departs on Saturdays and Sundays at 8 am. From Beloi it departs the same days at 3 pm (flexibility required!). It’s a fast and convenient way for little money it definitely comes recommended if it works out with your own travel plans.
The cheapest way to get between Dili and Atauro is the Laju Laju ferry, which takes about 3 hours and only departs on Thursdays. If you are on a tight budget, but flexible with your time this would be your transport of choice as the ferry only costs about 5 USD per person one way. For all other times a private speed boat from Compass Charters would be your best choice and is the nicest way to get around between Dili and Atauro. It does set you back 45 USD per person, but if you are as lucky as we were you might even be the only people on board. We were joking with the crew before we set off that we would expect to see dolphins on our way to Dili as we had heard that they can be frequently spotted in the waters around Atauro. And what do you know? The crew not only spotted the dolphins for us but also took at least half an hour for us to follow them around the bay! The crew definitely went way beyond their duty and we had an amazing experience. Definitely recommended!
We opted to stay at the Atauro Dive Resort, a great little eco lodge beautifully situated right by the water. The resort is owned and run by Volker, a German expat and dive master who lives in East Timor for more than 10 years.
From the boat pier it’s an easy 500 meter walk down the road to the Atauro Dive Resort. Even with our – admittedly light – luggage we had no trouble walking the distance. If your luggage is too heavy there are usually some tuk tuks available to get you to your accommodation.
The Atauro Dive Resort consists of standard, supreme and dormitory huts plus a
communal area where all meals are served. You can sit there comfortably and read up on East Timor from the little book exchange library. You also quickly become acquainted to your fellow lodgers during the communal meals. Breakfasts are already included in your accommodation rates and if you would like to get lunch and/or dinner at the lodge you just need to let them know preferably in the morning. There is no menu to choose from, but lunches and dinners change on a daily basis and are served at set times. Given that there are barely any other dining options on the island we ate most of our meals at the resort and loved the delicious fresh fare we got served! Watch out for their famous goulash, it’s the highlight on the weekly menu!
The standard hut we slept in was lovely and spacious, with a nice breeze going through at night. The bed has a mosquito net around it, there is a desk and chair plus a spacious balcony with amazing views over the sea! Do yourself a favour and at least get up once to see the sunrise over the ocean right in front of your hut! It’s stunning!
The toilets and showers are communal and eco-friendly, which means it’s long drops and bucket showers with cold water. But you don’t come to Atauro to hangout in the bathroom, right?!
If the Atauro Dive Resort should not be for you or doesn’t have availability check out Barry’s Place. From the pier it’s pretty much the same distance as the Atauro Dive Lodge just in the opposite direction. Barry is a super relaxed and friendly Australian, who owns and runs the lodge with his Timorese wife Lina. Barry is a bit of a legend on the island and has been living here for many years. His lodge has been the first one on the island!
We didn’t stay at Barry’s Place, but booked their buffet dinner one night just for a change of scenery. Compared to the Atauro Dive Resort Barry’s Place was pretty big and modern (flush toilets!!!!) and situated right on the beach! The food was fresh and good, but with a big group of Australian students staying there, who behaved like they hadn’t eaten in weeks, it felt like an episode of Survivor during dinner. This is of course no fault of Barry or his lovely staff and we still had a very nice evening.
Diving and other activities there…
Diving is definitely the biggest draw card for most tourists to come to Atauro and rightly so. It really has some beautiful coral reefs and fantastic dive-sites. Most of our fellow lodgers at the resort were hard core divers and usually went out twice a day for their dives. They would leave in the morning only popping back in for lunch before going back out for the afternoon. The diving was easily organised with all equipment on site, boats mostly just at the beach so you just need to carry your equipment down and off you go. The dive sites for the day are decided in the morning according to weather and currents. It’s also comparatively cheap to dive there with a single dive costing 45 USD. I did one dive and had a fantastic time!
If diving is not for you they will also take you out for snorkelling depending on the dive site they go to that day. Otherwise a separate boat can be organised for a small fee only. When we got into the water for a snorkel we couldn’t believe our eyes how colourful and healthy both coral and fish were. It was seriously one of the best snorkel experiences we had.
If you had enough of water based activities or lounging by the sea reading a good book try and go for a hike on the island. Just be careful as it does get extremely hot, the roads are dusty and you need to bring all the water you need since there are no shops along the way where you can buy some (even in the villages). We went one day to Vila, the main village on the island about 5 km from Beloi and the resort. In Vila you find the “factory” of the famous dolls they create here. The dolls are similar to the 80’s Cabbage Patch dolls. All dolls are all handcrafted and unique. If a 10 km round trip in the heat is not for you it’s also possible to get a tuk tuk between your accommodation and Vila. We saw some along the way, but surely your host will be able to organise transport for you. While we didn’t visit the factory in Vila we did try to visit a local community based project close to Barry’s Place. We really, really tried to have a look at the project and possibly buy some souvenirs that would support the local community. However after the third time we went during the given opening hours just to find it closed, we gave up. I guess they call that ‘island style’ opening hours.
Cocktails, cocktails, cocktails…
If you fancy a good sundowner overlooking the palm trees and the sea go and have a drink at Ponky’s Bar! It’s up some steep stairs but they are well worth it! At the end of it awaits a stunning view and some good beverages. If you fancy a beer there is not much that can go wrong. The cocktails on the other hand were partly hard to come by. There often seemed a major ingredient to be missing (Sorry, no ice. Sorry, no lime. Sorry, the fridge broke….). It seemed therefore like a fluke of luck of what is available. The cocktails we did get were delicious though – Ponky’s Punch comes highly recommended. A beautiful place to have a drink and watch the sunset!
The bar is part of the Beloi Beach Hotel which looked beautiful and pretty fancy! We tried to book dinner at the hotel restaurant for the evening, but did not get through via phone to make a reservation. So we unfortunately never made it for a meal there, but I am sure it would be a great place to treat yourself to a lovely dinner overlooking the island.
As you see there is loads to explore on Atauro Island at sea as well as on land. If you make your way to Dili make sure to plan a couple of days on this beautiful island!