Dili: the capital
Dili, the pleasent, laid-back capital has sprung to life since independence. Although most of the city was destroyed during the militia attacks of 1999, homes and businesses have been rebuild and new resort and tourism facilities are being developed constantly.
Dili still sports a few Portuguese accents like the villa-lined beach roads, the former colonial garrison build in the late years of the 18th century and the waterfront Motel Church.
The city occupies a coastal plain between two headlands, each of which has a famous statue: to the east, is the Kristu Rei (Jesus Christ) statue perched a top Cape Fatucama, with its beautiful white sand and beaches.
There is a pathway to the summit where the 27-meter-tall statue stands on a globe, commanding one of the best scenic views in the country. Pilgrims can pause at shrines to the Stations of the Cross on the way up.
The statue was built by the Indonesians as a gift to the Timorese people during the occupation, in 1996.
To the west, there is a six-meter-tall bronze statue of Pope John Paul II, erected in 2008 in Tasitolu, where this pontiff celebrated Mass on October 12, 1989. The statue which overlooks the capital’s western fringe and faces the sea, stands next to a chapel also built in the late of Pape’s honour.
The city itself is nestled at the base of the surrounding hills, which are lush and green in the rainy season, revealing terracotta-coloured earth in the dry. To the north, Dili looks out to sea and the whole city is linked by a beachfront road that runs very close to the surf line.
At the heart of the city’s waterfront is the imposing Government House (Palacio do Governo) building, with the country’s parliament at the rear. This part of Dili is a centre of activity from dawn till dusk. There are pedestrian walkways along the central harbour, shaded by gigantic banyan trees offering an excellent place to cool down in the shade whilst enjoying fresh coconut juice.
Fishermen unload their catch of delicious seafood on the beach and peddlers sell cold drinks and snacks. You can often watch a game of football or beach volleyball and perhaps join in – an excellent way of meeting local people.
Here there are a number of beachfront restaurants and hotels, as well as some charming small local eateries that have opened up in a newly-build food court on the beach.
This is also a good spot for the daily ritual of watching spectacular sunset over the Indonesian island of Alor, which is silhouted in the distance.
After a morning on one of Dili’s beaches, the best way to cool off is to head for the hills. The village of Dare is only half an hour away from the capital, yet you will find yourself driving through the clouds into another world.
The vegetation is lush, with massive trees and stands of giant bamboo.
You will feel the temperature drop as you make your way up the winding road to this hillside gem, enjoying magnificent panoramic views of Dili on the way.
You will also pass the official residence of the President, which is reminiscent of a fairytale castle perched on the hillside.
The people of Dare are renowned for their horticultural skills; many of the houses have stalls displaying beautiful tropical plants, which they also sell at the daily gardener’s market in Dili’s Mandarin neighbourhood. Dare is also worth a visit for the World War II mamorial (Dare Memorial Cafe and Museum)
Dili is an ideal place for a short break or as a base for adventure further afield in Timor-Leste’s district. The island of Atauro, which is clearly visible from the city, is well worth the short boat journey for a day trip or a longer visit.
There is a weekly ferry, but it is also possible to take a water taxi over to the island (appoximately one and a half hours), or choose a day-long sailing, fishing or diving charter.
Atauro’s spectacular coral walls are ideal for snorkellimg or diving and it’s likely that you will see huge schools of dolphins (year-round) or migrating whales (Oct-Nov) during the journey.
Once ashore, you can stay at one of the two eco-lodges and enjoy trekking up Mount Maucoco (995mt) or simply kick back and relax.
Atauro is also renowned as the home of the Boneka Atauro, charming dolls hand-made by the local women, as well as a range of other beautiful and unusual handicrafts. More details on Atauro Island
There are periodic cultural festivals on Atauro: see www.islandofadventure.tl for more details.
Aileu is a mountainous district just to the south of Dili. It has beautiful ribbons of rice paddies running along the valleys between the steep slopes. The views from the road are magnificent as it winds into the mountains past the traditional villages of the Mambai people with their round, thatched houses. Aileu’s town church, Portuguese buildings and the former FALINTIL resistance training camp are all worth a visit.
For many visitors to Timor-Leste, the trek to the summit of Mount Ramelau is the high point of their trip; in this case, literally, as this towering mountain peak is the country’s highest peak at 2,963 metres. Many People stay at the charming old Portuguese “Pousada” in Maubisse before setting out on their trek to the evilage of Hato Builico, the base for a 3-hour, robust hike to the summit. Arrangements can be made with the local community for guides to take you to the top. The peak punches through the cloud cover, offering a memorable view of the sunrise and breathtaking coast-to-coast panorama on a clear day. Timorese people make the ascent to attend religious services at a shrine with a 3-metre statue of the Virgin Mary on the mountain’s higher slopes. Ainaro is also stepped in Indonesian-era history as a hub of resistance operations during the struggle for Independence.
The main border crossing post to West Timor (Indonesia) is at Batugade, where there is also a fortress marking the frontier between the former Portuguese and Dutch territories. This is horse country, a legacy of the Portuguese cavalry which bred and trained its mounts here. Rice paddies and fruit orchards lead the way to the district capital, Maliana, which has walled houses displaying district Portuguese accents contrasting with the cone-shaped thatched traditional houses of the Tetun people high on the flanks of Mount Lolako.
Trekkers can take a soothing break to bathe in the hot springs in Marobo.
Bobonaro district suffered severe damage during the 1999 conflict and part of its sad heritage is the killing in October 1975 of five members of the Australian-based media, who where monitoring the Indonesian invasion – the “Balibo Five” -the subject of a movie starring Anthony La Paglia. The Balibo house was the last refuge of the journalists, who painted the Australian flag and the word Australia on the wall, believing it would protect them from attack. The house where they stayed is now a community centre (http://balibohouse.com) but the painting iis still there, through faded. There is also a 400-year-old Portuguese fort at Balibo.
The district’s capital, also named Baucau, is the second-largest town in Timor-Leste. Set high on a breezy plateau overlooking the sea, the main part of town derives a decidedly Portuguese flavour from the hotel (the “Pousada de Baucau”) that was built in the 1960’s and the beautiful old market square with its restored colonial building. The “Pousada” also has a large swimming pool.
The white sand beach is a short drive or 30 minutes walk from town through clusters of thatched houses set among coconut groves, rice paddies and the occasional sandwood tree.
One of the country’s most important mountains is in Baucau district: the 2,315m high Mount Matebian (the Mountain of Spirit or Souls), which is considered by local people to be a sacred place. Matebian was also a resistance stronghold during the Indonesian occupation.
Top 10 sites that ‘must-see’ in Baucau District
Baucau: overlooks the sea from a high plateau with lovely Portuguese colonial buildings and an attractive residential area of tradi tional houses
- The Pousada de Baucau, a Portuguese-style inn, combines charm and sea views with international standards
- Excellent base for explorations to the south and east
- Thatched houses surrounded by coconut groves and rice paddies and overlooks the sea occupy the slope below town
- Beautiful beach with fresh water springs
- Laga: noted for its lush rice paddies, often partially submerged in the sea, and for its flowering cottage gardens.
- Venilale: favoured by Portuguese colonials for cool summer temperatures and natural hot springs.
- Beautiful terraced rice paddies.
- Cave systems used as hideouts and arsenals by WW2 Japanese troops where recent archeological digs have yielded a wealth of prehistoric artifacts Ossu: boasts traditional houses, Portuguese fortifications, a lively daily market and a dramatic sacred waterfall.
The capital of Covalima district, Suai, is set to become the centre of Timor-Leste’s oil and gas industry, drawn from rich reserves offshore in the Timor Sea. In some parts of the district, flames fuelled by natural petroleum deposits shoot from the ground itself. The forest of the interior of the region can be explored on horseback, whilst the black sand beach at Betano has good waves for surfing. Betano beach was also the place where Autralian troops – “The Sparrow Force” staged their final, desperate withdrawal under the onslaught of the Japanese forces of occupation in Word Wear II.
Ermera is the heartland of Timor-Leste’s coffe country. The unique Arabica-Robusta hybrid grown here is a shade-oving plant which flourishes beneath the large-canopied albezia or “Mother of Coffee” trees. The high quality beans produced are shipped, unroasted, all over the world, although a fairly substantial portion remains on the island as Timorese themselves are avid coffee drinkers.
After the harvest the villagers spread the beans along the roadsides, using the hot tarmac and the sun to dry them. Ermera also has a wealth of tropical fruits including mangoes, mangosteens, passion fruit and pineapple. Letefoho is a pretty village with a combination of Portuguese architecture and traditional Timorese houses and an alternative approach to climb Mount Ramelau can be staged from here.
Liquica is the closest district to the west of Dili and offers the visitor a combination of hill walks and coastal activities. There are good scuba diving sites in Maubara, which also has an unusual saltwater lake populated by pelicans.
There is a 17th century fort on the beach road which was used by he Portuguese as a look -out point to the sea. This has now been converted to a community based handicrafts centre and restaurant. The women of Maubara are renowned for the cultivation of coffee and there is a vanilla orchid plantation near the village of Basartete.
The most easterly district of Timor-Leste, Lautem has a wealth of natural and cultural within the Nino Konis Santana Marine and Terrestrial National Park. Whilst there are no large scale tourism facilities in Lautem, there are number of charming local guest houses, and the “Ethical Tourism” beach bungalows at Tutuala, which are administered by the Timorese environmental NGO Haburas Foundation (http://www.haburas.org). Independent travelers can make arrangements here to have local guides show them the many attractions this fascinating district has to offer.
The diving is good and the beaches are exquisite: the eastern most pint of Timor-Leste’s territory, Jako Island, can be reached by hiring a local fisherman to make the brief trip by canoe. There are traditional “spirit houses”- a cultural icon of Timor-Leste – set on stilts, with sacred relics of the animist spiritual belief at Ili Kere-Kere and numerous stone sarcophagi and animistic shrines throughout the district. The mountain landscape is wild, unspoilt and rugged-great terrain for trekking. Many of Timor-Leste’s endemic birds-200 non migratory species – area to be found in Lautem, especially around Lake Iralalaro.
Top 10 list of TUTUALA & TO-TINA (JACO ISLAND)
- Pristine white sand beaches and transparent waters teeming with underwater life
- Terrific snorkelling; coral reefs with trapped sea life accessible on foot at low tide. Villagers will take visitors fishing by day or night in dugout canoes
- Five species of endangered sea turtles
- Key Timorese cultural/historical importance as landing site of early settler. Cave and shelter paintings have been dated to southward migrations from Asia.
- Natural mesophyll vine forest (rainforest) thick with orchids and ferns, as well as monsoon forest with banyan, rosewood and fig trees
- Resident wildlife includes the now rare Russo Timores deer, cuscus and over 200 species of birds.
- Lake inhabited by salt-water crocodiles
- Craft traditions, including pottery, weaving and carving, which date back over 1000 years. Numerous pottery workshops producing work identical to pieces recently unearthed by archeologists in the area. Local ikat weaving patterns bearing animist symbols
- Traditional houses and sacred sites banyan-encircled springs at Muro Dong Son style houses at Mehara
- Portuguese colonial architecture notably at Muro.
The closest district to the capital, Manatuto stretches from the north coast of the Water Strait all the way across the country to the Timor Sea in the south. One of the country’s least populated regions, its beaches, villages and landscapes have remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
The district is known as the birth-place of Xanana Gusmao, the resistance leader elected as the nation’s president in 2001, who later became Prime Minister. Highlights for visitors include the bustling Sunday market, the hand-made terracotta pottery workshops and the Portuguese church in Laleia, which was built in 1933.
Same is the capital of Manufahi district and serves as a base for exploring the breathtaking surrounding landscapes. A trek to Mount Kablaki through forests and small villages surrounded by dense vegetation is an ideal way to enjoy the outstanding natural beuaty of this district, which also has a pleasant cool climate. The weather and terrain are suited to the cultivation of Timor-Leste’s famous organically-grown coffee. The road is fringed by plantations and guided tours can be arranged for coffee enthusiasts; the red coffee “cherries” are harvested between June and September.
Surrounded on three sides by Wes Timor (Indonesia), Oecusse is the site of Portugal’s first landing on the island, by Dominican missionaries who arrived at Lifau in 1540, at a spot that is now marked by a memorial. A Portuguese garrison was later established on the site, and some of its walls still stand. The capital, Pantemakassar, has a wide beach which is good for swimming and is overlooked by splendid mountainous scenery. Patai Mahata, just outside Pantemakassar, has a reef for snorkelling and diving as well as being a vantage point for the annual migration of whales in October and November. The hilltop village of Fatsuba provides a good view of the capital and has an old fort with a shrine to the Virgin Mary in its Courtyard.
With its forests, waterfalls, resistance hideouts and the Mundo Perdido (‘Lost World’), the district of Viqueque presents visitors with the opportunity to engage with some of the most fascinating chapters of Timor-Leste’s living history in a breathtaking natural setting. The tiny village of Loihunu has an eco-lodge that serves as a base for treks into the forest to visit the caves where Falintil guerrillas used to hide from the Indonesian army during the struggle for independence. There is also plenty of architectural evidence of the Portuguese era in Viqueque’s Schools and churhes. The beach in Viqueque looks out across the Timoor Sea (the “Tasi Mane” or “Male Sea”) on the island’s south coast and is more suited to windsurfing and sailing than the gentler waters of the northern “Female-Sea” or “Tasi-Feto” or Wetar Strait.