For most visitors to the country, Dili is the first stop, the jumpoff point to other East Timor places, largely because most of the hotels in the country are located here.
Before you leave Dili, though, to visit the other parts of East Timor, take some time to explore the city’s own treasures and landmarks first.
One of those is the Integration Monument, which depicts a man wearing East Timor’s traditional costume, pulling his hands apart to break a link of chains.
Although at first glance, it is easy to interpret this statue as a symbol of East Timor’s struggle for freedom from all foreign rule, the fact that the monument was installed by the Indonesian government somewhat confounds things. In fact, the monument might have long been demolished by the East Timorese if it had not been standing on a pedestal 10 meters (33 feet) high.
At the Xanana Reading Room, you can find documentaries and videos about East Timor. It may be a good idea for you to check these out and understand the country better before you head out on your trip.
At the Ante Moris, you can get authentic Timorese paintings. One of the special features of the paintings here is that they are made not on ordinary canvass but on East Timor’s valuable traditional woven cloths called the tais.
Nino Konis Santana National Park
Named after the independence-movement leader Nino Konis Santana, who was born in a village found within the park’s boundaries, the Nino Konis Santana National Park is the first ever national park to be created in East Timor.
The park covers 1,236 square kilometers (477 square miles) of land area. It also covers 556 square kilometers (215 square miles) of marine territory within the Coral Triangle, which is one of the areas with the greatest marine biodiversity in the world.
The park was created to protect a number of threatened species, including the endangered Timor Imperial Pigeon, the Timor Green Pigeon, and the Yellow-crested Cockatoo. Other attractions in the park are the huge domesticated water buffaloes, the giant frog fish, the scorpion fish, the box fish, the crocodiles, the civet cat, and the cuscus.
Eight hours away from Dili is the beautiful Jaco Island. Featuring wide stretches of pristine white sand, this beach is almost empty except for the fishermen and their boats.
An interesting sight you might catch here is of snorkelers using spears to catch tuna. Although that is by far not an easy thing to do, it is made a bit easier by the fact that the water here is so clear, visibility is nearly unlimited.
That’s a great thing because the amount of marine life to see here is astounding.
But you don’t need to wait until you reach Jaco Island before the fun begins. In fact, the trip to Jaco Island is, in itself, an adventure.
To reach the island, you first need to walk around 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Tutuala, because no 4×4 could make it through the available trail. And then, you need to get yourself a boat ride. This should not be hard, as there are fishermen all around who would be happy to bring you to the island and back again on their boats for a handful of dollars.
They would also be happy to sell you some of their catch, and cook it for your lunch.
On the way to Jaco Island, keep your eyes peeled for the dolphins that frequent the channel, looking to feast on the abundant fish living there.
Once you get to the island, you will find that although it was no walk in the park to reach it, the effort was certainly worth it. Surely, there are few other places on earth that can match the beauty and tranquility of this little piece of paradise in the Southeast.
Twenty-five kilometers (16 miles) away from Dili is the small but ecologically rich island of Atauro, unquestionably one of the best diving sites in the country and even in the world.
The whole 104-square-meter (1,119-square-foot) island is encircled with a coral reef that begins just 3 meters (10 feet) below the water surface and not far from shore.
Unlike most diving sites in the world, many dive sites in East Timor are found very close to the beach.
To top it all off, the visibility is excellent, reaching up to 40 meters (131 feet). Whether you decide to go scuba diving or snorkeling, you will surely come across a lot of interesting marine life. Whales, dolphins, even manatees are often seen here.
You can reach Atauro Island with a three-hour ferry trip from the capital. Depending on your travel class, this can cost $2 to $10 per head, two-way.
Mount Ramelau, also called Tatamailau, is a 2,964 meter (9,724 foot) mountain located around 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the south of Dili.
It is East Timor’s highest mountain.
At the peak of the mount, you will find a 3 meter (10 foot) tall statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This makes the mountain a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics. From the town of Hato Bulico, you can find a path that leads from the foot of the mountain to the Virgin’s statue at the peak.
But this pilgrimage to Mary is not the only spiritual significance the mountain has for the East Timorese.
Despite East Timor’s being a Catholic country, its people retain many ancient animistic beliefs as well. One of their beliefs is that their ancestors’ spirits make their home in Mount Ramelau; so each year, on October 7, they go to the mountain for an overnight pilgrimage, to pray and to visit their ancestors.
Baucau is East Timor’s second largest city, next only to Dili, which is East Timor’s capital.
Although Baucau was rich in Portuguese-built edifices in earlier days, many of the city’s old buildings, such as the old market, were destroyed or damaged during the 1999 riots.
Today, the ruins left standing offer a glimpse of old Baucau, telling their quiet tale of what had happened in the place.
But a few relics from the Portuguese era also survived without a visible scratch.
One of these that you may want to visit is the Pousada de Baucau, also known as the Pink Hotel. The place, which is really painted pink, is a popular place in Baucau not only because of its charming colonial architecture but also because of its large swimming pool, which is fed by spring water, and its restaurant, which offers a great view of the beach.
Speaking of beaches, there are some really nice ones you can find in this city. If you want to go swimming or do water sports, you can do them in Baucau.
Ermera district is a 746 square kilometer (1,060 square mile) piece of mountainous land, whose elevated location makes it a cooler place in general, compared to other places in East Timor.
Although it is known best for being East Timor’s top coffee producing district, Ermera actually has more than coffee to offer its visitors. Within the region, you will also find sparkling natural pools for fishing and swimming, high gushing waterfalls, hot water springs, verdant forests for hiking and camping, and a display of authentic Timorese architecture showcased in the district’s well-preserved traditional sacred houses.
Another interesting thing about Ermera is that it was also the hometown of Nino Konis Santana, the resistance hero after whom East Timor’s first-ever national park was named.
When you come to Ermera, you can visit Santana’s house; it is open to the public. Get a glimpse of where this brave man slept and dined. Discover, too, his house’s secrets – the hidden meeting rooms, the emergency escape tunnels.
The district of Liquiçá is a 543 square kilometer (210 square mile) coastal area that lies to the west of Dili, East Timor’s capital, and north of Ermera, which is famous for being Timor’s “coffee country.” (In fact, Liquiçá also has its own coffee plantations.)
At the district’s northwest side, you will find the Savu Sea.
Liquiçá is well known for being one of East Timor’s top dive sites. With the water temperature ranging from 21 °C to 25 °C (70–77 °F), swimming is pleasant and comfortable. The visibility is excellent, at 40 meters (131 feet) average.
And when you get tired of diving, there are other activities available for you to do, such as bird watching, whale watching, mountaineering, hiking, and of course, swimming. Although the beach has no white sand, it is nonetheless very picturesque.
If you include Liquiçá in your itinerary, plan to go between May and September. The district is accessible by bus from Dili, but when the rainy season comes in October, the main road tends to wash out.
Manatuto District is found at the eastern side of Dili. It is one of just two East Timor districts that reach both the northern and southern coasts of the island. (The other one is Lautem.)
At the southern shore of Manatuto, you will find the Timor Sea. On the district’s northern shore, you will find the Strait of Wetar.
Manatuto is best known for three things: salt, tamarind, and Xanana Gusmao. The district’s proximity to the sea has helped it develop a thriving salt production industry, so if you wish to see how salt is harvested, you can do that here.
The area’s warm and humid climate has encouraged the growth of tamarind trees, so the tamarind harvest here is one of the biggest in the country.
Manatuto is also famous for being the birthplace of East Timor’s first president, Xanana Gusmao. This fact makes patriotic sentiments run a bit higher in this place than in the rest of the country. One of Manatuto’s best known landmarks is a wall near a Manatuto market where murals have been painted celebrating East Timor’s independence.
Cristo Rei of Dili
Among all of East Timor’s landmarks, the Cristo Rei of Dili is arguably the most famous of all, among tourists and locals alike. This 27 meter (89 foot) tall copper-plate statue overlooks the capital of the country, facing the Indian Ocean.
The site of the monument is easily accessible by bus. To reach the statue itself, you need to climb approximately 500 stair steps – not an easy thing to do, but at the top you are rewarded by a breathtaking view of the capital city and the beautiful Atauro Island nearby.
Designed by Mochamad Syailillah, the statue was a gift to East Timor by the Indonesian government in 1996, to commemorate East Timor’s 20th year of integration to Indonesia.
Although this fact could have made the East Timorese less fond of the statue, the sheer greatness of the monument was able to overcome all adverse feelings. Today, this giant statue of Jesus Christ stands proudly as one of the best-loved landmarks of the capital.
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