Timor Leste (or East Timor) is a fascinating island nation located just north of Australia. Few people know about this countries’ gorgeous beaches, vibrant coral reefs, rugged mountains, rich cultural heritage and captivating history.
However, there is little infrastructure in the country, especially outside of the capital, Dili to get to all of these hidden treasures. Therefore it is important to have a good plan prior to arrival. Especially since many accommodations, eateries, attractions, etc., are not reliably found online.
In this post, we share our detailed 4 day itinerary starting in Dili and self-driving to One Dollar Beach, Baucau, Com, Tutuala and onto Jaco Island.
A Short History of East Timor
East Timor is a country that has endured much strife and darkness through the last 500 years. Starting in the early 16th century it was colonized by the Portuguese who brought the Catholic religion, Portuguese language and of course as colonizers do – the horrid enslavement of the people .
There was also a war with the Dutch who wanted the island to themselves. The Portuguese settled by splitting the territories up. Then came WWII and the Japanese invaded the island.
The Dutch gave up immediately while the allies helped the Portuguese side. It was a bloody war with 50K Timorise loosing their lives (a big percentage of the population).
In 1975 East Timor became an independent country. However, Indonesia invaded 9 days later and another bloody war ensued. 200K more Timorise lost their lives. Finally after much bloodshed the UN stepped in and in 1999 East Timor was finally independent and free democratic elections were held in 2001.
Getting to Timor Leste
There are 3 ways to get into East Timor. One way is from Bali Indonesia, the second is from Darwin Australia and the last is from Singapore. The country has it’s own airline called Aero Dili. Indonesian’s Citi Link also flies there.
Most foreigners require a visa to enter East Timor. The visa is on arrival and at time of writing the cost was $30 USD per person for 30 days. You can extend the visa for an additional 30 days once, for a fee of $40 USD.
The immigration process is a bit slow:
- First, one must go to the visa window where you receive the passport sticker and make the payment. Try to be the first here as this process can be lengthy.
- Second, there is the immigration line where your picture and fingerprints are taken (this line was quite slow).
- Third, past immigration there are a number of computers where you enter your customs information. A QR code is generated which you must photograph to present at the exit.
Costs and Currency
Timor Leste is not a cheap travel destination as compared to other South East Asia countries. However, it is possible to adventure through this country at a reasonable rate. It just depends on how comfortable you want to be.
There are few high-end lodgings here, except for a few on the island of Atauro (which we did not visit). However even at their high rates, the accommodations are still not at the luxury levels that one may expect for the price.
In this country USD is the currency. Change is provided in local coins. A small 100 copper colored coin is a dollar, a 50 coin is 50 cents and the 25 is of course 25 cents. Rarely was change provided below 25 cents.
Car Rental in Dili
The roads in Timor Leste are mostly driveable. However there are some exceptions where the potholes are huge and the driving becomes 3-10 kim per hour. Especially on these stretches :
- Between Lautem and Com
- Between Fuiloro and Tutuala
The car rental companies would not allow us to take a regular car outside of Dili. They insisted that a 4X4 was required for our itinerary. It really was not necessary and was a huge overkill. However, a car with good clearance (for the potholes) is highly recommended.
We received 2 different quotes for the car rental:
- ESilva Car Rentals – $120 USD per day. The Toyota Hilux pickup truck that we received was at least 20 years old and had close to 300K km under it’s belt. Thankfully it got us there and back with little trouble. Even though this organization is poorly rated, they do accept Visa credit cards (so for our Ink Business Preferred card, the insurance was covered). In addition, they picked us up from the airport.
- RentLo Car Rental is rated much better on Google and the price is $110 USD per day. However they do not accept credit cards.
Some of our traveler friends have rented scooters to do this route, however their butts were very sore at the end of this journey. Rental Motor Timor Leste rent scooters and “motocycles” in Dili.
There are gas stations throughout Dili and one in Baucau. We suggest filling up prior to leaving larger cities as diesel is not always available. Gas stations that we visited only accepted cash.
4 Day Itinerary
Distances in Timor Leste are not what Google makes them out to be. For difficult roads like Lautem to and from Com or Fuiloro to and from Tutuala our times were at least 30% longer, nauseating and arduous.
However the beach drive and the country side are stunning and well worth the travel. We highly recommend getting some supplies prior to leaving Dili as there are few markets (if any) past Baucau. Not all supermarkets are created equal. Where we shopped was 2-4 times more expensive than what we are recommending.
PRO TIP: Timor Plaza has a supermarket on the basement floor called Meimart which is much better priced than the Leader Supermarket. There is also a new Health Food store in the back of the mall that has western staples and vegan ones. Fruits and vegetables can be purchased along the way or at the Dili Fruit & Veg Market.
Dili – Things to See and Do
Dili is the busy coastal capital of Timor Leste. There are a few things to see and do here that should not be missed:
- Cristo Rei is a 27 meter tall statue of Jesus Christ. Rob and I are not religious, but we really enjoyed climbing the 500 steps to get the stunning vistas of the beaches on both sides.
- Dolok Oan is the beach to the east below Cristo Rei. It is a gorgeous white sandy beach with dramatic cliffs behind it.
- Cento National Chega! Is a museum of the dark history of the island of Timor. The museum is housed in the Old Balide Prison. This is a Portuguese-era prison where TImorese resistance people were interned by the Indonesian military during the 24-year occupation of Timor.
- Arte Moris is a free art school for the talented people of East Timor. Here you can see local students creating wonderful murals, artwork and sculptures.
- Resistência Timorense Arquivo e Museu is another excellent museum commemorating the 24 year Indonesian occupation of East Timor.
PRO TIP: When going to visit Cristo Rei, bring swim clothes and towels if you want to swim in the Dolok Oan beach. Half was down from Cristo Rei, you can take the steps towards that gorgeous beach.
There are quite a few accommodations listed online for Dili, however some are non existent or shut down (e.g. Hilton). Upon visiting many of the remaining options we can only recommend a handful:
- Beachside Hotel is located across the street from a white sand beach and is within walking distance to Cristo Rei. It is a western style clean and airy hotel with a good cafe below. Double rooms start at $90 USD per night.
- Excelsior Resort Hotel is a dated hotel, yet it is located on a huge gated property a few blocks from the beach. It is clean, has strong air conditioning, large rooms with good lighting, a fridge, kettle and hot water on demand. Breakfast is also included in the price. We were so relieved to find this hotel at only $65 USD/ night for a very large king bed room with an ensuite.
If you plan to stay in any of the other accommodations, we recommend calling them in advance to ensure that they are still in operation.
Timor Leste grows some of the most amazing vegetables and fruits. They are displayed at all of the markets throughout the country. In addition, fish is still abundant in the waters surrounding the island as are the chickens roaming around the land. Therefore there are plenty of good eats in the city.
- L’Aubergine is a restaurant located on the east side of town within walking distance of the Beachside Hotel and Cristo Rei. They have a lovely terrace overlooking the water with wonderful sunsets and good food. The roasted vegetables are a good vegan choice.
- Nha Casa Restaurant is located next door to L’Aubergine. It also has a terrace, white linen tablecloths and a very varied menu. Their chef is excellent and can prepare a simple vegan dish. While carnivores enjoy everything from exotic lamb dishes to fresh caught fish, chicken, etc.,
- Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster is a fantastic place to get a strong cup of the local coffee beans. Grab a cup or two and head over to the beach across the street.
One Dollar Beach
One Dollar Beach, or Dollar Beach as it is sometimes called is a stunning white sandy beach with crystal clear water just 40 km east of Dili. In real time, it is about an hour drive from the capital. This is a great stop when heading to Baucau. Each time there we had the beach to ourselves.
There are very dirty toilet facilities there and some stilt huts for whale watching. If you have your own equipment this is an amazing place to go snorkeling or even diving. Don’t expect any amenities here though.
Baucau is the second largest city in East Timor and is located 126 km east of the capital. In reality this is about a 3.5 hour – 4 hour drive depending on traffic entering or exiting Dili. The town is situated on a winding mountain with the beach below it.
With only 16K inhabitants, it is a pretty, quiet town with a vibrant fruit and vegetable market, a colonial cathedral and the beautiful Pousada de Baucau.
Baucau – Things to see and Do
- Pousada de Baucau is a 1950’s Portuguese Colonial Hotel which at some point was a vibrant place for the Portuguese elite to cloister themselves from the locals. However, today the hotel is in the process of rehabilitation with some newer structures being erected. There is a lovely terrace which overlooks the town below and the ocean. Unfortunately there is a large cage built into the stone of the property housing some monkeys.
- Baucau’s Fruit and Vegetable Market is a vibrant area with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables as one would expect. However, it is also a fabulous place to people watch and get the feel of this small quaint town. It is located across the street from the Pousada de Baucau.
- The Baucau Old Market is an interesting piece of architecture. It is a colonial style grand building which was completed in 1932 and was destroyed a number of times during the wars and invasions of Timor Leste.
- St. Anthony Cathedral is a Catholic church in the center of Baucau. While we visited, local children were using the outside of the church like a makeshift community center. Young people practiced playing their guitars while others were singing and drawing.
Baucau – Accommodations and Restaurants
There are a few accommodations in Baucau – a lot less than one would expect from the second largest city in a nation. Here are a few that we can recommend:
- Pousada de Baucau has 2 different types of rooms – one in the old building (which is quite dated). However, it does include air conditioning and a small flat screen TV (big enough to cast to). The other type of accommodation is in the new building which has a flat screen TV, air conditioning and alleged hot water. We stayed in the new building and only experienced tepid showers at best. Both types of rooms have WiFi (which was very weak) and breakfasts are also included in the price. $70 USD for the old style room and $90 USD in the new. The gardens and grounds are quite lovely to wonder as is the terrace which overlooks the town and the ocean.
- Costa Guest House is located on the main road and has much simpler accommodations than the Pousada. However the rooms have air conditioning, and alleged hot water. The best aspect of this hotel is the breathtaking view of the ocean from each balcony. The cost for a room for 2 people was $40 USD per night and includes breakfast. They also have cheaper rooms without the view and without some of the other amenities.
As far as proper restaurants go, we were only able to find the restaurant inside the Pousada de Baucau. The food was fine, not great. And with a good Google translator I was able to get some vegetables. We mainly leaned on the supplies that we purchased in Dili.
Com is the perfect place to chill on the beach. The town is tiny and has just a few guesthouses and restaurants located on a small strip of the ocean. It is mostly a fishing village and a tourist stop.
In Com, the best things to do are to swim and snorkel in the crystal clear water or to sunbathe on the white sandy beach. There are also some ruins of a building of the old port located at the edge of town.
The only place that we can recommend to stay at and eat in is Kati Guesthouse. These are basic accommodations with shared bathrooms and fans with a view of the ocean for $25 USD per room. The non view room has air conditioning and is $40 USD per night. Their restaurant serves delicious food and has a few local options.
The road out of Com is amazing. It is freshly paved and is a welcoming change from the drive into Com. However, as soon as we reached Fuiloro everything changed. The road to Tutuala become even worse than the drive into Com. The potholes got bigger and there were more of them!
We pushed on the additional 31 km which took close to 2 hours to complete. And as we got closer to Tutuala, the road thankfully became paved again.
Tutuala is a small fishing village with less than 4k inhabitants. It is the end of the road for east Timor Leste. It is well known for it’s beach below called Valu and it’s access to the nearby Jaco Island.
Tutuala and Valu Beach Accommodations
In Tutualu the only hotel/restuarant in town that we can recommend is the Pousada Lautem. Nico runs this place and speaks English well you can reach him on Whatsapp: (+670) 7746 3880.
Pousada Tutuala is a unique yet quite run down hotel/colonial mansion. It is located within the stone walls of an old Portuguese fortress at the end of Tutuala. The hotel sits on a cliff overlooking the gorgeous coastline. The sunsets were breathtaking and there were roaming goats to entertain us.
The hotel offers air conditioned rooms with ensuite bathrooms for $50 USD. There are also rooms with a shared bathroom for $25 USD per person. Breakfast is included with your stay, and other meals can be arranged upon request.
The place is quite dated and has some issues. We did not have any hot water for showering and our toilet leaked. However, Nico and the staff’s generosity and welcoming attitude made up for any shortcomings.
There are a few hotels below Tutuala on Valu-Sere Beach. Lakumorre Hotel’s rooms were very basic and small. The cost for a dark but air conditioned room with a private bathroom (slightly outside) was $80 USD.
Jaco Island is uninhabited and can be reached from Valu Beach on the Tutuala side. Fisherman offer the boatride at $10 USD per person, return. You just have to tell them the amount of time that you want to spend on the deserted island. When we asked for an hour and a half they responded with one hour.
The island is part of the only national park in East Timor and is considered sacred. It is considered illegal and taboo to spend the night on the island.
The crystal clear water and the white sand sure make it a lovely destination. Just beware of the crocodiles which are known to swim in these waters.
PRO TIP: Make sure to bring some water, a towel and snorkeling gear as there are zero amenities on Jaco Island.
East Timor is a very welcoming country with friendly and genuine people. They have been through a lot, but have persevered. As we mentioned previously there is very limited infrastructure on this island for tourism. Therefore come mentally prepared for few amenities.
In addition, much of the colonial architecture that existed here in the past has been destroyed through the many wars that this nation has endured. Therefore, you will mostly see gorgeous nature, important museums and some interesting spots for war buffs.
And the nature of this island is truly phenomenal. The beaches, mountains and animals really do make this a special place. It reminds us of Bali the way that it used to be many decades ago.
Have you been to East Timor? What was your impression? Or are you interested in going and have questions? Please do write your questions in the comment section so that we can help you with your travels.