Photo by Martín Huarte
Indonesia is always a good idea. With more than 20,000 islands and one of the world’s most diverse flora and fauna, there is always a new mountain to climb, a new beach to visit or a new diving spot I want to try. So when my friends/ classmates/ flatmates in Singapore, Martín and Miguel, asked me where should we go with 10 days to spare, I did a quick mental scan of my ‘Indonesia to do list’ and Flores was next.
The island of Flores is part of the East Nusa Tenggara province, a group of islands east of Java. Its name, meaning ‘flowers’, was given by the Portuguese, who arrived in the 16th century. To this day, and unlike most of Indonesia, the island’s inhabitants are predominantly Catholic, due to the Portuguese and Dutch influence (most of Indonesia is a former Dutch colony). It is not part of the tourist circuit, but it has recently started attracting foreign visitors who want to venture outside Bali and Lombok.
Flores featured prominently on the list of places I wanted to visit in Indonesia after reading ‘Indonesia etc’ by Elizabeth Pisani. It is one of the best books I have ever read on the country and incredibly comprehensive, a real feat given the complexity of this diverse nation. ‘Indonesia etc’ is a fascinating account of the author’s travels around the archipelago, but the main draw is that she has lived and breathed Indonesia for years, speaks the language and is genuinely in love with the country, as I am. It is a real pleasure to read about her adventures and also learn about the history of Indonesia and its different provinces, especially, as it is my case, she has experienced the country mostly on her own.
Our trip starts in Bali, where we spend our New Year’s Eve and our friend Anna makes a last minute decision to join us for the first leg of the trip. It is a great start to the year and I even find time to sprain my ankle, just in time for our hikes ahead. While waiting for my ankle to heal, I design an itinerary. We will be starting in Labuan Bajo, one of the main cities, which will be our base to visit the Komodo National Park. From there we will hire a driver to take us to Wae Rebo, Ruteng, Bajawa, Riung Islands and Moni, finishing our trip in Maumere. Now we just need to find an agency to organise the driver and the fuel.
1 – Labuan Bajo
After having been on it a couple times, I have to say the flight to Flores has to be of my favourites when travelling around Indonesia. If there are not too many clouds, you can see dozens of stunning volcanic islands from the plane, including Sumbawa. Landing in Labuan Bajo is as impressive, as the airport is surrounded by green, luscious, tropical vegetation. You can believe that you have landed somewhere much more remote than you actually have, and all of us are really excited to be here. The drive to town is quite quick, and the taxi takes us to our hotel, Puri Sari Beach Hotel, in the outskirts of Labuan Bajo. The rooms are quite simple, but it has a great pool overlooking the ocean and its own private beach. We drop our luggage and then we go to town to arrange our trip. After visiting a few agencies, we opt for Getrudis. We will be paying for the car rental, the fuel, the driver and his accommodation, and we will arrange our own accommodation as we go along. (Note: outside of urban areas, hotels in Indonesia don’t always accept cards and there might not be any ATMs around, so it is always important to travel with lots of cash)
We also arrange our trip to Komodo Island, which most agencies can easily organise, as well as my diving and another island trip for the rest of the group. (Note: in 2017 visiting the park involved a USD 10 fee, which is expected to increase to USD 1,000 in 2021)
The next day, half asleep and without breakfast, we board the boat that will take us around Komodo National Park. The boat is basic, and although not small, it is not very comfortable, as we are just sitting in planks of wood. We start in Rinca, a beautiful island of green, rugged, volcanic mountains. We hike up one of the mountains, so we can admire the view. The island is shaped like a cross, and despite taking pictures from every angle, it is very difficult to capture how stunning the view is. We are looking at a landscape of volcanic islands, blue and emerald waters and it just seems too perfect to be real.
We continue our itinerary and go to a nearby sanctuary to see the famous dragons. They are quite big, but seem misleadingly calm and slow. Apparently they kill a tourist every now and then, when they get too close to take a picture. We maintain a careful distance, while we observe them napping under the shade. One of them wakes up very slowly, and starts moving. Its skin looks thick and hard like a heavy armour, and after looking at us, not very interested, he goes back to sleep. It is definitely something worth seeing but not sure I would pay USD 1,000 for it.
Next is one of the other big highlights of the park, Manta Point, home to the giant mantas. We are given snorkelling gear and we swim towards a big group of mantas, which seem to circling a cleaning station. I have dived with them before, but this is not the case for the others, and it is very exciting to see the reaction when someone encounters them for the first time. Mantas are very friendly and like approaching humans, but as soon as they start coming in our direction, Miguel starts getting very close to me. He will not admit it later, but I think he was scared! ‘They were very big and I was trying to protect you from them’, he says. We finish a great day having dinner at Le Pirate, which has a rooftop terrace overlooking the bay and is one of the nicest restaurants in Labuan Bajo. Another nice place in town is Bajo Bakery, which has 3 floors with views, and serves delicious pastries and breakfast.
The following morning I go diving with Manta Rhei Dive Centre, whilst my friends spend the day in Kanawa Island, taking a boat that apparently almost explodes (or so they tell me, but we all seem to have a penchant for drama). Having dived with Manta Rhei on two separate occasions, I have to say they are one of my favourite dive centres in Indonesia. Their boat is big and very comfortable, their equipment is in good condition, they have good dive guides and their food is great. They even have waffles! So I take a beanbag in the top deck and nap while we get to the dive site. As soon as we get there, we dive and start looking for the mantas. Komodo is also known for its very strong currents, which mantas love, as they bring food and helps to clean them, and soon we are greeted by one of them. The current is so strong I am afraid it might take the mask off my face, and we hold on to whatever we can, to avoid being thrown into the blue. Soon our pain pays off, as we see the first manta approaching. I never get tired of looking at them, no matter how many dives I do. She swims elegantly towards us, effortlessly, while we struggle to resist the current. She pauses in front of us for a few minutes, letting us admire her, and then continues her trajectory, disappearing like a mirage. Yet another precious moment to store in my diving memories.
2 – Wae Rebo
We say goodbye to Anna, who is going back to Europe, and start our Flores road trip. Our driver, Bernardus, speaks limited English, and at the time my Bahasa Indonesia is quite limited too, but surprisingly we always manage to understand each other. We drive through the gentle, volcanic hills of Flores, covered in dense, dark green vegetation, until we arrive to a small mountain village. From here, a local guide will take us up the mountain until we reach the traditional village of Wae Rebo. The hike is not particularly challenging, even with my damaged ankle (mainly because I use my friends as crutches every now and then), and we often stop to admire the view. We also stop to admire Miguel’s new hiking boots, a pair of black, heavy and seemingly uncomfortable sturdy shoes, that make him look like a member of Village People. After 3-4 hours of amusing hike, we get to the top of the mountain, where we are greeted by a few traditional huts, with characteristic conic roofs that go all the way to the ground. The village is quite isolated, but with some funding from the European Union (?), they are attracting foreign tourists.
We will be sleeping in one of the larger huts, with 10 other tourists, mostly Indonesians. The sleeping arrangements consist of mats spread around the floor, reminding me of my Papua trip. We are served traditional coffee from Flores, which tastes delicious, quite chocolatey, and even if I actually don’t like coffee at all, I love this one (ironically, a few months later I am back in Flores, due to a job that involves working with Indonesian coffee farmers). It probably tastes better because of the beautiful setting, a great hike and having with me 2 of my favourite people in the world. We wander around the village, followed by screaming children, admiring the sights, and feel very lucky to be here.
3 – Ruteng
Our next stop is Ruteng, one of the main towns in the coffee region. On our way there we stop to visit local sights, like the spiderweb rice fields, which are exactly what its name says, fields that look like a spiderweb. We also visit Golo Curu, a hilltop with fantastic views over the city, and a cave where people say Virgin Mary appeared. We are alone there, and the site is quite solemn and spiritual, it feels like it has a special energy.
Wherever we look, there are beautiful things to see. Every bend on the road brings a surprise (including some of us getting very carsick). Nothing too dramatic, but beautiful. Flores is stunning in a placid, gentle way. There is something worth looking at wherever you go, and its inhabitants are relaxed and calm. From my side I think I am experiencing an extra dose of calmness, coming from the fact that I really enjoy travelling with two male friends, as it allows me to not worry too much about the eternal questions of the lone female traveller – ‘Is this outfit appropriate?’ ‘Can I wear shorts?’ ‘Is he trying to help or does he want to take advantage of me?’. For once, when someone comes to talk to me, I can be friendly, instead of guarded, because no one tends to be inappropriate when you have male companions by your side. Travelling alone as a woman can be very rewarding but it can also be quite tiring.
We stay in a very simple, half built hotel, in the outskirts of Ruteng. The hotel itself has a fantastic view of the surrounding valley, but our room overlooks a brick patio. We also get to share our bathroom with a healthy population of slugs. I cannot help myself, and I take one of them and throw it to Martín while he sleeps – ‘ladies don’t do these sort of things’, he says, showing disappointment at my behaviour for the first time, after almost 5 months of sharing an apartment. (Note: In my following visit, I stay in a much nicer hotel, Spring Hill Boutique Hotel, which has charming, modern, wooden bungalows. It is missing the view though. Hobbit Hill Homestay is another good option, staying with a local woman, Udis, who speaks perfect English )
4 – Bajawa
As we drive through the island, Bernardus asks us where do we want to stop and eat. We speak between ourselves in Spanish (Martín is Uruguayan and Miguel is Spanish like me), which he clearly doesn’t understand, but it is interesting how much you can gather from the tone and the interactions of a group, even when you don’t speak their language. The guys are quite relaxed and I love organising, so Bernardus soon decides I am the ‘boss’ and says I am the one making the decisions, which I find quite funny (but probably true).
Photo by Martín Huarte
We visit another traditional village, Bena, a megalithic site and home to the Ngada people. The village seems to be run for the tourists, but it is still fascinating to learn about their culture, and as we walk through it, it feels like going back in time. The thatched roof houses are located at the bottom of Mount Inerie, believed to be the home of the god Yeta, who protects the village.
The Ngada are animist (although not officially recognised by the Indonesian government, which classifies them as Catholic). They still engage in animal sacrifices in an ancient stone altar, to ensure a good harvest, communicate with ancestors and also for traditional community events, such as weddings and funerals. Their houses are full of symbolism, with animal carvings representing key things such as protection (a snake) or a good harvest (a horse). They also have horns of sacrificed buffaloes displayed outside the household, and like in other parts of Indonesia, this intends to show the family’s wealth.
That night we sleep in Bajawa, in yet another basic but decent hotel. There is a painting in the reception of the hotel that will haunt me for years to come. It shows a number of horses, all in different colours, galloping in all directions, with a wild/ diabolical look. I find it quite ugly and even terrifying, and somehow it stays in my memory. Now I have literally seen it in dozens of hotels all around Indonesia. Wherever I go, no matter how remote, chances are there will be a small hotel, with leaking showers and rule of only payments in cash allowed, and the painting of the wild horses hung next to the reception desk.
5 – Riung
Our next stop is the coast and we are excited to be back by the ocean. Riung is a small fishermen’s town with a few nice islands in close proximity, and we hire a local fisherman to show us around. He takes us to a beautiful beach in a nearby island, and we have it all for ourselves. It is not the most incredible island in the world, but it is very pretty and travelling like this, not surrounded by other tourists, is a real privilege. I wouldn’t change it for the world. This is what keeps me going back to Indonesia – you can easily go somewhere quite remote and stunningly beautiful, not find any foreigners and feel safe and comfortable at all times.
Feeling like castaways, we snorkel around the reef, while he cooks a delicious fresh fish wrapped in palm leaves. A real paradise. We spend our day tanning (in the case of some, burning) and napping, and we swim in transparent waters, full of small tropical fish.
This time we share our hotel room at Hotel Bintang Wisata Riung with a few geckos (‘tokek’ in Indonesian), which are one of my favourite animals, as they eat mosquitos, spiders and other insects. These ones are particularly loud, and we fall asleep to a series of very loud ‘ge cko!’, which I consider some sort of soundtrack to my Indonesian rural adventures.
6 – Moni
We continue driving eastward. The landscape becomes more dramatic, with higher volcanic peaks, more dreamy beaches and every bend of the road shows us yet another fantastic view. We stop to eat on the side of the road, sitting on wooden structures by the beach, that remind me of the ‘fales’ in Samoa. They are built on stilts, with a wooden floor and a thatched roof, no walls. We sit back and enjoy the view while we devour fresh fish.
Our stop tonight is Moni, the closest town to Mount Kelimutu, famous for its 3 lakes that keep changing colours, depending on the time of the day. As we will be going up the mountain at dawn, we use the afternoon to rest. We are staying at the Rice Field Guesthouse, which has basic but clean accommodation overlooking the mountains (now there seems to be a wider range of available accommodation in Moni). It is located next to Mopi’s Place, an airy café with couches and (according to my friends) very good coffee, as well as sweet treats.
We wake up before dawn to hike up the mountain and see the lakes at its peak time. As we get closer, it definitely feels like a special place. Locals believe this is where the souls of the departed come to rest. There are 3 lakes – Tiwu ata Mbupu (Lake of Old People), Tiwu Nuwa Muri Koo Fai (Lake of Young Men and Maidens) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched or Enchanted Lake), named after the souls that will rest there. The names are in local language, and they remind me of Polynesian words. The connection with this part of the South Pacific is quite apparent in eastern Indonesia, especially further east, in Maluku (as Papua is Melanesian).
Unfortunately this time of the year is not the best to see the lakes, and even if they are very beautiful, they are slightly underwhelming compared to the pictures we have seen before. This time, one of them has a magnetic light blue colour, and the other two are dark blue-green. Apparently they can also be red and green, depending on the sunlight and the chemicals from the volcano activity interacting with the minerals in the water. Nevertheless, it is a unique view and we smile as we see the sun rise over the lakes.
7 – Maumere
We finish our grand tour in Maumere, a quiet coastal town with a convenient airport. We stay at the Sea World Club Resort, which has nice bungalows by the beach (fancier than anything we have seen recently), and we spend hours just resting under the sun and eating seafood sitting right next to the water. We make the most of this quiet time, as we will all be departing the following day. Martín is leaving for Australia and Miguel and me have a gruelling trip to Mexico via Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada (it just seemed like a reasonable idea at the time).
I decide to get a massage and warn the masseuse to not get too close to my ankle. By now, it has acquired a purple-greenish shade and is quite swollen, especially as I haven’t given it much rest and I have done all the hikes we had planned. The guys have had to help me walk in steep slopes and I am worried it’s getting worse, despite the anti-inflammatory creams and bandages. The masseuse looks at it and decides that the massage will now be focused on the ankle. Somehow, I just feel like I can trust her, and my blind faith in Indonesian traditional remedies (as opposed to its healthcare system) has always paid off. She prepares an ointment with herbs, and puts a hot plaster on it for a few minutes. After that, she massages it for a very long time. In the end the massage takes 2-3 hours but the ankle looks way less swollen and painful. In the next couple days, it will be almost cured. The magic of Indonesia, once again. Perfect ending to a fantastic trip.
Arranging the trip:
- Flying: Most Indonesian airlines fly to Labuan Bajo and Maumere, which are well connected with Jakarta and Bali Denpasar. For bookings not with Garuda Indonesia, I recommend using Traveloka (they accept international credit cards)
- Hotels: We booked the one in Labuan Bajo on Booking.com, everything else on arrival. I would recommend checking Booking.com as new hotels have popped up all around Flores
- Getting around: In Labuan Bajo we asked the hotel to arrange local taxis, as Go-Jek was not available yet (I would recommend checking if this has changed)
- Diving: I booked it in advance through Manta Rhei’s website https://www.mantarhei.com
- Day trip and tours: We walked around Labuan Bajo’s main street and talked to a few agencies to compare prices and options – I would recommend having an idea in advance of your itinerary. Agencies should also be able to arrange the hike and stay in Wae Rebo.
- Books to read
- Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the improbable nation, Elizabeth Pisani
- Beauty is a wound, Eka Kurniawan
- Films to watch
- The act of killing, Joshua Oppenheimer
- The look of silence, Joshua Oppenheimer
- Kartini, Hanung Bramantyo
- Women travellers
- I have travelled around Flores both alone and with male friends, and I have always felt safe
- I feel more comfortable with my legs covered when travelling alone, but Flores is even more relaxed than the rest of Indonesia, so solo female travellers should feel quite relaxed about their outfit choices
- Flores feels quite safe, but I would recommend having an eye on your belongings at all times, especially in touristic areas
- Dry season goes from April to October, but we went in January and had great weather
- Other considerations
- Ramadan: Flores is mostly Catholic, but during Ramadan month some activities/ restaurants might be closed in Labuan Bajo