About the Island
The island is situated 36km from Dili and accessible by boat or plane (I saw an airport, but not sure if it is in use), with an area of 105km square. It looks small from Dili, but it actually is not. There are mountains in the middle of the island and narrow coastal plains. It is known for some of the best diving in the world and the coral reefs are really beautiful.
Historically, Atauro was used by both the Indonesian and Portuguese government as a place of exile for dissidents, criminals, and those that were on the wrong side. There was a community of about 10,000 people, mostly subsistence fisherman and farmers that live in five districts spread over the island.
I decided to go to Atauro, since everyone told me that it is a must visit destination. I decided to go on a Wednesday, since the local boat option was not that appealing. Firstly, the local boat was more like a river boat and I was not going to risk my life crossing 36km. Secondly, the ferry only ran on the weekends, so I took the option of the speed boat from Compass Adventure Tours. I was really lucky that I had company during my entire stay at Atauro. I met Matt and his mom Cheryl (Aussies) at the hostel and we spent the entire 48 hours together in Atauro. There were only eight guests on the boat, an American family of three, a Portuguese/Italian couple and us three. I had a great time spending time with the two Aussies.
We checked into Barry’s Place, which was very simple, but quite comfortable. My small cabin was very tiny with two single beds, two lights, two fans, but the view was right in front of the ocean, so it could not have been better than that.
We gathered together and went for a quick walk around Barry’s Place in Beloi. It was a very small village and there was pretty much nothing to see. There was a small store selling souvenirs, several small markets next door, and a small supermarket down the street. It was very rustic and underdeveloped, which was a good thing from my point of view. I prefer visiting less visited places. We had fresh coconuts, which were handpicked by this little boy. He just climbed up the tree and got us the coconuts. Pretty cool right?
After eating lunch at 12pm (the times for meals were fixed at Barry’s at 7am, 12pm and 7pm), we took a tuk tuk and went to Vila, the other main city six kilometers away. The tuk tuk ran on a dirt road and we got to Vila in about twenty minutes, but there was really nothing there. There were two stores, a store that sold dolls made by ex-war casualties and another one that sold jewelry. There was not much for me to buy, since I could not afford carrying anything in my already full backpack. Otherwise, there was a small church, which was getting ready for Christmas. A few people that I met told me about their stay at Manukoko Guesthouse and praised about the delicious Italian food. We did not have a chance to sample it, since we had already eaten lunch. The guesthouse also provides housing.
We walked a good one hour back from Vila to our guesthouse, which was pleasant, but raining at times. There were no bars or things to do in Vila, so we ate dinner, played cards and went to bed. I did learn how to play a new Australian card game.
The next morning, we organized a snorkelling tour with the American family. We got on a fishing boat and went out around 500 meters from shore. The view to the mountain was amazing and we saw so many different kinds of fishes, sea urchins, corals, star fishes, and more. We even saw this deadly snake (we found out later and why did they not advise us earlier?), which was going up to get a breather and was standing about two meters from me. I swam so fast to the boat that Michael Phelps would have scouted me on his relay team. Matt saw it too and he was near the boat right after me. That was pretty scary.
In the afternoon, we went fishing, but the rods did not have any weights to put the bait down to the sea, so we turned around and got back to shore. That was a real pity since I was looking forward to do some fishing, but there will always be a next time.
In all, it was a very relaxing vacation within a vacation, but I had a great time. I recommend visiting Atauro in the dry months. During the dry months, there are options for better diving on the western part of the island and plenty of hiking. I was quite disappointed that I could not go hiking, since it rained a few times per day and the trails were not in the best conditions. In terms of diving, it was not advised to go that side during the wet season, because the sea gets pretty choppy and you won’t enjoy it.
I had planned on staying three nights, but cut my trip short to two nights and returned with Matt and Cheryl via the speedboat back to Dili.
How to get there
Getting to Atauro Island can be very easy or difficult. It all depends on how much money and time you are willing to allocate. There are ferries and boats that are catered for the locals, which are relatively cheap from $4 to $10 USD and takes anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. If you are short on time and don’t want to go through the hassle, there is a taxi service at $45 USD per person one-way. Compass Adventure Tours have daily services to the island, so does a few more. Ask around for the most current price. If you really want to save money and try your luck, you can go with the local fisherman. It is not the safest option, since it may take around 4 hours and I heard they don’t have life jackets.
Once on the island, there are tuk tuks for roughly $2 USD per person between each town. There are loads of them on the road and if you cannot find one, ask the guesthouse to call.
Where to stay
There are not many options on the island. For backpackers, the options are either Barry’s Place in Beloi (this is where the boats come in) or Manukoko-Rek Guesthouse in Vila.
Barry’s Place is an all-inclusive option for $45 USD for a big cabin per person, which includes 3 meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner). The smaller cabin costs $35 USD per person, including meals. There is no self-catering option at Barry’s, since meals are included. The smaller cabins have 2 beds in them and have barely enough space to fit backpacks. The cabins are very simple and don’t expect luxury. The place also recycles water, uses natural energy when feasible, and does compost for human waste. In all, it is a great eco-tourism option.
Manukoko-Rek is located in Vila, about 6km away from Beloi. You can either walk for one hour or take the tuk tuk for 20 minutes. It costs $15 per person per night, but does not include meals. There is an Italian restaurant located on premise, but the costs are high at around $15 USD for a pizza. If you want pizza, you have to order a day ahead.
Diving is a big activity on Atauro. I heard the diving is better off on the west side of the island. As written above, it is not advised to go to the west during the wet season. Please consult local dive shops.
Fishing is available and can be chartered from the guest house for about $15 an hour. Make sure to rent your equipment and bait from the hotel, since the locals use nets or do spearfishing. Further check if the hotel has the proper equipment.
Hiking/trekking trails are abundant and worth a try to tackle Manucoco (995 meters), the highest limestone with some volcanic rock formation. During the wet months, it is not advised to go hiking due to landslides. If you plan on doing so, take a guide, don’t go alone.
What to bring
I recommend to bring the following, since they are more expensive and hard to find (remember, only two or three shops in Beloi).
- Sun block, hat, shades
- Mosquito repellent
- Snacks, Water (although, plenty of water sold at the markets)
- Bathing suit
- Sneakers for walking
- Snorkelling gear (if you have one)