Whether you want to spend your days beachcombing, hiking in the mountains, or whale-watching, you’ll find that Timor-Leste has something for every type of traveler. Located in Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste is on the eastern portion of the island of Timor. In recent years, the country has suffered from political instability, but conditions have improved, and its tropical landscapes beckon travelers who prefer unspoiled settings. There’s nothing touristy about Timor-Leste, and that’s one of its best attractions.
The coastal city of Dili is Timor-Leste’s capital and largest city. Visitors will find plenty of accommodations and loads of fresh seafood. Attractions of Dili include the stately Government House, the Dare Memorial Museum, and the Farol Lighthouse, and its 27-meter-tall Cristo Rei statue perched above the city. When visiting, be sure to explore the waterfront, the beaches and its coastal bars, and the cities' various markets that specialize in everything from handicrafts to fresh produce. As the country’s main cultural and economic hub, Dili is the best place to base your Timor-Leste stay.
Located off the eastern coast of Timor-Leste, Jaco Island is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands and encompasses 4.2 square miles of white sandy beaches lapped by turquoise waves. The island is beloved for its unspoiled setting, which is uninhabited and undeveloped. The island is only a five-minute boat ride from the mainland, so it’s easily accessible. Overnight stays are not allowed, but by day, visitors can snorkel, bird-watch, or relax on the beach.
The best time to visit Wetar Strait is October through December when migrating whales pass by. Visitors can get out on the water with operators who specialize in whale-watching expeditions. The strait is among the best places in the world for whale watching as it features many species and is within easy distance from the mainland. During the migration season, it’s a commonplace to see humpback, sperm, and even orca whales. Majestic blue whales and pods of dolphins are often spotted in nearby waters, too.
The country’s largest freshwater lake, Ira Lalaro, is located near the eastern border of Timor-Leste. The lake provides an important ecosystem for the island’s wildlife. Its most notorious residents—crocodiles—are responsible for several fatal attacks on the local fishermen. Swimming is not advised. However, do visit to explore its lush surrounding landscape, but keep a sharp eye for green pit vipers and scorpions. If you want to experience a wild excursion, a visit to Lake Ira Lalaro is fraught with a wide array of beasts and adventuresome treks.
The island of Atauro is only a short boat ride from the capital. The island is best known for its spectacular scuba and snorkeling. Pristine beaches are a hallmark of Atauro Island, and many visitors prefer relaxing on them while catching glimpses of the dolphin pod that makes its home in the island's waters. For hikers, Atauro features trails that lead to various villages. Visitors can purchase traditional handmade goods from villagers or even pay to enjoy some traditional native fishing lessons.
Suai is located on the southern coast of Timor-Leste and has its airport. The village features a couple of hotels as well as unspoiled beaches and the nearby River Tafara. Its local church, where the Suai Massacre took place, has preserved much of the country’s recent and tumultuous history. Visitors can learn about Timor-Leste’s difficult road to independence and meet with villagers who are friendly and eager to reveal their local customs. Traditional dancing, handicrafts, and local food are some of the highlights visitors can expect to enjoy in Suai.
Mount Ramelau is the tallest peak of Timor-Leste. Rising 9,800 feet high, the mountain makes for a moderately strenuous hike, but its views of the surrounding forests are spectacular. The mountain can best be reached by the village of Letefoho, about an hour away. Guides are available, and horses can be procured for carrying supplies. At the summit of the mountain, there is a statue of the Virgin of Mary. The area is dotted with many small villages, many of which are viewed from the mountaintop.
The town of Maubisse is in the hill country south of Dili. Many residents of the city visit Maubisse to enjoy its cool air and tranquil atmosphere. Maubisse doesn't have many modern amenities, but it is the ideal place to base your hiking adventures, especially if you want to hike Mt. Ramalau. After your hike, you can cool off in the waterfall that’s just outside of the village. There are no touristy shops here, but there’s currently one hotel and a couple of eateries where visitors can enjoy the local cuisine.
As one of the country’s most sacred sites, Mount Matebian is an important pilgrimage site. The top of the mountain features a statue of Jesus Christ. Many of the island’s people believe that the souls of their dead family members reside on the mountain. Visitors can trek to the summit, but it requires about 12 hours for a trip to the top and back down. During WWII, the Japanese created a series of tunnels and caves in the mountains and used them to kill and imprison islanders. This history has contributed to the mountain’s reputation as a place for dead souls.
The coastal city of Baucau is located about 75 miles east of Dili and features strong Indonesian and Portuguese influences. The Pousada de Baucau is a good example of the Portuguese colonial influence in the Old Town section of the city. The real fun, though, lies outside of Baucau. Travelers can swim in freshwater rivers or hike to nearby waterfalls. There are also natural caves outside of Baucau that some travelers may wish to explore.