Timor Leste Destination Guide
An interesting medley of sights awaits the visitor to Timor-Leste – people going about their lives in towns and villages, the undulating greenery in the plains, rice paddy in fields, the savannahs, the rugged beauty of the mountains, swaying coconut trees, pristine beaches and dense jungles. As you revel in the natural beauty that surrounds you, the friendliness of the people here will also delight you. The populace here has not had much contact with the Western world, so tourists are treated with frank curiosity.
Hire a car and drive along Timor-Leste’s spectacular coastline. Breathtakingly beautiful beaches at Manatuto will make you want to linger, but there are more beaches at Baucau, Tutuala and Com, so drive on. You will be thrilled by the great diving spots near Com and at Jaco Island, the northeast end of Timor-Leste.
This Timor-Leste destination guide, together with our Timor-Leste tour suggestions, will tell you all you need to know about the not-to-be-missed highlights of Timor-Leste. And be sure to check out some of the local highlights of Timor-Leste's neighbours, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia. Our Timor-Leste country guide proides some useful general travel information for use during your holiday in Timor-Leste.
Things to See & Do in Timor-Leste
Click on the links to the right or scroll down the page for some useful information about some of the exciting tourist attractions in Timor-Leste.
Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, is the largest town in the country. The town has a distinct Portuguese character, evident in the old fort dating back to 1627 whose ruins can be seen even today, and in the villas that line the beach roads in the town. Tourists can take long enjoyable walks along the waterfront and also spend time at the nearby Palácio do Governador. Another place of interest is the huge statue of Jesus Christ, which is situated atop Cape Fatucama.
Dili is a lively place that may remind one of an engaging frontier town. The restored colonial buildings are Portuguese in style and sport vivid colours, standing proudly along the Esplanade. You can see Dili residents shopping, socialising and going about various activities. The occasional charred ruins that you see are relics from the violence that occurred here in 1999. Thatched dwellings and stalls are a reminder of how much development is still in store for Timor-Leste.
Areia Branca, a sheltered cove, is where the best-known beaches of Dili can be found.
The drive from Dili to Baucau is a three-hour journey during which you will be treated to gorgeous scenery on all sides. The first hour takes you through some precarious cliff roads and memorable stretches of scenery.
Gradually the landscape changes from mountains to coastal plains and large rivers or riverbeds. Depending on what time of year it is, the rivers may be full or dry. You will also pass several beaches with reefs, which are ideal for snorkelling. The road further winds across a river and into the small town of Manatuto. En route to Bacao, you will cross many small villages, often sharing the road with wandering livestock. It would be best if you could hire a driver so that you can enjoy the sights without worrying about the driving.
Baucau has two sections – New Town and Old Town. The views from both the Old Town and the New Town are enthralling as both are perched on limestone cliffs and have lovely sprawling beaches below them. New Town is perched above the Old Town and will treat you to several interesting sights. The gushing freshwater spring in New Town is very refreshing. There are several imposing colonial buildings here. With a little restoration they can return to their earlier glory.
Don’t miss the 3 km walk down the beach; you will be walking alongside the spring which flows under several huge banyan trees. On its way it forms several short waterfalls and provides water to the rice fields and coconut groves in the area. Traditional thatched houses along the fields add to the charm of the place.
Once you cross Baucau’s plateau you come to Venilale, which is a tiny village situated atop a hill. This was a favourite Portuguese haunt for summer, as the temperature in Venilale was relatively lower than on the plateau. The natural hot springs here were also an added attraction. Terrace farming is widely practised by the rice farmers of this region and the fields along the hillsides are a lovely sight to behold. To the east of village is Mount Matebian, which translates to Mountain of the Souls. The Timorese believe that this mountain is the final resting place for their dear departed.
Those fond of trekking can hike through a trail that passes through rice paddies and leads into the ‘Lost World’ of Mundo Perdido Mountains in the west. The other option is to carry on with your car trip and reach Ossu. This is a cheerful traditional village that has a daily market which people flock to. Ossu has a waterfall that is held sacred by the Timorese. Going further south you will reach Viqueque, which is very famous for its weaving.
The stretch from Baucau to Tutuala is breathtakingly beautiful and untouched till date. The first town on this stretch is Laga, a fishing village. You will see a group of fishermen’s houses along the shore. The traditional Macassae style has been followed for constructing these houses. They present a colourful picture with flowering shrubs in their front gardens. You can see the men going about their business of fishing and the women tending their rice paddy fields, which seem to extend into the water.
Mount Matebian faces inland and is a spectacular setting for the low foothills where there is a ruined fortress looking out over the coast. You will cross a few perfect but deserted beaches on your eastward journey towards Lautem, which is the district capital. There are a few more great beaches beyond Lautem. Your enjoyment of the ride will however be marred by the terrible condition of the road. Further down this route you can visit Muro, East Timor’s northernmost village.
Com is the largest town in this part of Timor-Leste. You can take a walk from Muro to Com enjoying the lush palm forest that you cross. You will come across different species of birds and several monkeys. Eagles flying over the reefs look spectacular; do keep a lookout for those. Com is a beautiful coastal settlement and has lovely little houses dotting the hillside. There is a very pretty white sand beach at the foothills, and this spot is great for snorkelling.
If you travel southwards from Dili then in about 3-4 hours time you will reach the mountainous heart of Timor-Leste. The sights here are spectacular but the roads are not for the fainthearted. The winding, snaking stretches of mountain roads look pretty dangerous. These roads uphill are quite rugged and steep, so if you are prone to motion sickness do take the right medicines beforehand. Once you are up on the mountains you will forget everything but the landscape – it is so fabulous. With some development it will soon become easily accessible too.
Your next stop will be Maubisse, which lies in a broad valley that’s almost alpine. There is a large hump in the centre of the valley on which is located the Portuguese governor’s residence. The building is now renovated and houses an inn, which capitalises on the panoramic views that surround it. Maubisse boasts of one of the best markets in Timor-Leste and the goods on display range from a Timor pony and wild tobacco to woven Tais.
Timor-Leste grows a lot of coffee in the region southwest of Dili. The coffee grown here is of premium quality and 10,000 tons of coffee beans, mostly high-grade organic arabica, are exported every year. You can probably get it back home at your local coffee shops. This variety is blended and sold under a label called ’Verona’.
The walk from Ermera to Mirtutu is through coffee plantations and groves of fruit trees. You can see pineapples, plums and mangosteens in their natural habitat. You will also cross Petilete, a tiny village with wonderful views of the coastline. There is a sacred site in this village where several rituals are held on a regular basis. The rituals are scheduled at sunrise and sunset and are accompanied by a lot of singing and drumming. These rituals are called ‘Meeting the Sun’ and are a monthly occurrence.
Letefoho, which translates to ‘Mountain Top’, is situated in the foothills of Mount Ramelau. Letefoho is an interesting town and the brand new church here is easily the most important building in the area. The church’s steeple is in the shape of a pair of hands joined together in prayer. Sundays bring a 2000-strong crowd to the church for prayers.
The violence that took place in 1999 has resulted in devastating damage to the country. As you drive up to Dili from the airport you will see enough evidence of the ravages of 1999. Burnt out shells of what were once proud buildings and other such reminders are all over the place. You will see temporary shelters housing many of the displaced people and a lot of reconstruction activity going on.
These sights bring to mind the tragic and traumatic events that Timor-Leste has seen in the recent past.
A huge statue of Jesus Christ looks over the Timorese in Areia Branca. This statue will remind you of a similar one in Rio de Janeiro. A short drive along the coastline from the town centre in Dili will take you past several fine coves and beaches to Areia Branca.
The path to the main sanctuary is full of several depictions about the life of Jesus Christ. The main sanctuary lies just below the statue.
Taking a tour to this site is worth taking even if you are not the religious sort. The breathtaking scenery that greets you all along will be a great reward for all the effort you put into the trip. The sight of the pristine beaches and crystal clear waters will stay with you forever.
Atauro lies at a distance of 40 km to the north of Dili and is a quiet laid back place. You will find plenty of fishes and coral here. The main activities for tourists in this area are walking and snorkelling, so carry appropriate gear. Head for the southwest corner of Atauro and enjoy the company of dolphins and pilot whales. The coral walls in this part of the island offer great spots for diving.
Being relatively unexplored, Atauro still retains a simplicity and old world charm. The people here are very friendly and tourists can visit the many villages on the island in their company.
Boats to Atuaro leave early in the morning from the Dili beach, which is near the beachfront fish market. The trip will take around three hours. The best way to find out about the boat trip is to ask around on the beach the previous day.
Tutuala, which lies around 10 km inland from Timor-Leste’s eastern tip, possesses beaches that you dream about. Everything about these beaches is just perfect. This might just be the remotest place you ever get to visit. Tutuala is a simple village surrounded by spectacular beauty and it has an ancient history.
From Tutuala you will travel on a bumpy road and reach Walu Beach, also referred to as Vallou or Waloo beach. Across a narrow strait is the Jaco or To-Tina Island. This is a sacred place for the Timorese and you can see several totem poles marking actual beaching points of the very first settlers boats that arrived here in ancient times.
If you plan to travel this route by bus, you will need to take a bus from Dili to Los Palos and from there ask around for buses to Tutuala, which is just 50 km away.
Do not expect to find any great amenities for tourists in this area. You will find only a guesthouse and a small shop in the village.
From Dili you can take a brisk walk to Dare, which is a small town situated on a hilltop behind Dili. Pick the Catholic Cathedral in the middle of Dili as a starting point for your walk. Head in the southeast direction and take any of the dirt paths that you come across. You can see villagers going about their work, who stop to give you smiling, curious glances as you walk past them.
Once in Dare, relish the spectacular views from the top. You can see Atauro Island and a few other islands too. The Australian troops built a swimming pool here as a gesture of gratitude to the locals who gave them shelter during World War II.
A 2-hour round trip will take you to the summit of Timor-Leste's highest mountain – the Hatubuiliku or Hato Builico. The path is through rugged terrain and dense forests. You can see plenty of freshwater springs that have water all year round. October brings rain to this region. For the stronger and more enthusiastic trekkers there is the 6-hour trek, which takes you to Loelaco Mountain, near Maliana. You will pass through Bobonaru town and Marobo. Do look out for the traditional cone-shaped houses in this region.
Carry your binoculars with you as Timor-Leste gives you the opportunity to watch 25 protected bird species. The variety ranges from eagles to parakeets. The Lautein district, especially near Ira Lalaro, one of Timor-Leste’s largest lakes, is the place for serious bird watching, but these birds can also be seen almost everywhere in Timor-Leste.
A memorable experience is watching dolphins in the waters around Timor-Leste. Dolphin activity abounds in Tutuala in Lospalos, Manatutu district, Carimbala and Likisá district. If you are lucky you may even catch sight of large groups of migrating whales that swim in the deep waters that run between Ataúru Island and Dili.
Long stretches of pristine coral reefs in Timor-Leste offer great spots for diving. Some of these spots are in fact the best in the world. A few enterprising diving companies operate scuba safaris from here. These safaris will take you to destinations like Manatutu District, Dili, Tutuala, Ataúru Island, and Jaku Island in Lospalos. Several marine creatures like turtles, varieties of exotic fishes, whales and sharks, make their home here.
Mount Ramelau, standing tall at 2963m/9630 feet, is Timor-Leste’s highest peak. This point was once the highest point in the whole of the Portuguese empire. There is a ten-foot high, snow-white Virgin Mary statue at the summit. The Timorese seek her blessings when in need.
The climb from Hato Builico to the summit takes three hours and the wonderful view that greets you makes the climb well worth the effort. If you are lucky enough to watch the sunrise from here you can see the sun lighting up all the valleys in turn.