Atauro Island is the top tourist place to visit in East Timor thanks to its diverse marine life, beaches and laid-back vibe providing a fresh escape from Dili. With the highest fish biodiversity in the world there are some diving spots which feel like an aquarium. Dolphins, fish, sharks (the friendly ones) can be found over the reefs just out from Beloi and if you’re lucky you may spot a dugong (which happened while I was there). There’s also plenty to do on land and some great accommodation options. The island was used by the Portuguese as a prison under their colonial rule and once the Indonesians gained control they also used it as a prison for holding Timorese rebels.
Highlights of Atauro Island
- Scuba dive at one of many dive sites
- Great accommodation options like Barry’s place and the Adara Eco Resort
- Visit Akrema beach, the islands most picturesque beach
- Grab a drink with a view at Ponkeys Bar & Cafe
After spending a couple of nights in Dili I was ready to see something new, so on Saturday morning I grabbed my bag, checked out of Timor Lodge and got a bus to the port…the wrong port. After some locals kindly pointed me in the right direction, I rushed over to get there before departure time. No matter how much you travel and learn that punctuality is a rare thing in most countries, as western travellers we still rush to get to the boat/bus/train before its scheduled departure time. We never learn.
I made it to the correct place but I had to cross a large concrete wharf area with ships either side. As I was walking I released that everyone else was stopped, like the world was on pause. Everyone was spread out but just standing still. I had no idea what was going on. I started to worry that I was rudely walking through some type of who knows what. I looked around until I saw that a flag was being raised on one of the ships. I glanced at people’s faces to judge if they were offended by me walking but I really didn’t want to miss the only boat going to Atauro that day. Nobody seemed bothered so I continued my slow walk. Just before I reached the ferry everybody unfroze and normality returned. I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but it might’ve been related to the military.
Getting to Atauro Island
There’s a few options to get to Atauro, the cheapest being one of the public ferry services available a few times a week in both directions. You can also arrange a private boat with one of the hotels or book a seat on the semi-regular flights that go from Dili to Atauro. I took the public ferry but regret not taking the flight after hearing stories from people who take it regularly. Below you’ll find more details about each of the options.
There are three ferry services that go from Dili to Atauro and back the same day. Dragon Fast Ferry is slightly more expensive at $10USD which runs Thursdays and Saturdays. I went with Dragon and didn’t have any problems in either direction. I arrived at the port shortly before departure and bought a ticket without any problems. Although it was shortly after the border had reopened so you may need to book in advance during the busier months. Tickets can be bought at the Dragon Star Shipping office near Burger King in Dili. Nakroma and Success are two other ferry services both running twice a week. Nakroma runs on Thursday and Saturday and Success running on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Both cost $5USD and tickets can be bought at the port prior to departure.
The short seven-seater plane ride is an adventure in itself and when I heard stories about the flight it reminded me of the small shaky airplanes used for skydiving. Obviously, it’s a lot more secure than a skydive flight but to be in a small plane flying over the ocean with views of Atauro would be great. The ‘airport’ in Atauro is a grassy, seemingly overgrown runway just by the side of the main gravel road. We drove down the runway a few times in the angguna (open-back truck taxi) going between Beloi and Vila. The flight is U$75 each way so only U$65 extra than the Dragon ferry.
The other options to get to Atauro Island is to take a charted boat offered by one of the hotels on the island. Beloi Beach Hotel, Compass Diving and Atauro Dive Resort all have their own charter service and charge approximately U$70 with Atauro occasionally charging U$55 as long as they’ve got enough passengers.
The Best Things to do on Atauro Island
Scuba Diving and Snorkling
There’s plenty of dive sites around Atauro and you can get your dive certification if you haven’t already. Refresher and introductory dives are also available and incredibly one guy saw a dugong on his introductory dive while I was there. There’s plenty of dive companies to choose from but I went with Atauro Dive Resort as it’s where I was staying. I went to three dive locations and was impressed with the first two but disappointed with the third which was a night dive. The dives were well organised and we saw a huge amount of fish during the day at all dive locations. The other group diving saw a hammerhead shark but we weren’t as lucky. The night dive was very disappointing. We walked out from the beach for about 100 metres but didn’t see many things.
Enjoy the Views at Ponkey’s Bar & Restaurant
Walk through Beloi village as you make your way up to Ponkey’s Bar & Café to enjoy the great view over the forest and out to the ocean. Beer, cocktails and mocktails are available and you can also grab something to eat. Ponkey’s is next to Beloi Beach Hotel Dive Resort and its pool which you can also enjoy if you’re lucky.
Take a Boat to Akrema Beach
Akrema beach is located in the northern tip of the island and has turquoise water over a bed of crushed white shells. It’s 12km north of Beloi and is easily reached by boat, you can also camp here if you’ve got your own gear. Organising a boat to (and from) Akrema is easy and can be arranged by at Barry’s Place for about USD$60 per boat.
Although known for its underwater activities, Atauro Island also has some great hikes both along the coastline and across its peaks. From strolling along the beach to multi-day hikes, you’ll be able to find something within your level. The best hike on Atauro is from Beloi over the mountain to Adara Eco Resort (Mario’s place). This hike takes approximately 3 hours and covers 9kms and is well worth it. You’ll pass through the village of Arlo and enjoy great views before arriving at Adara beach. It’s highly recommended to spend a night or two at the Adara Eco Resort (Mario’s place). You can find a list of hikes on Atauro in the resource section below.
Where to Stay, Eat & Drink on Atrauro Island
If you’re arriving by the public ferry you’ll be dropped off at Beloi and there are plenty of accommodation options within walking distance. Most accommodation options also have a restaurant, so you’ll find information about both below. There is a traditional market and also a supermarket in Beloi and Vila so you can buy fruit and basic items.
Atauro Dive Resort
I stayed in the dorm room at Atauro Dive Resort (only dorm room on the island) which was good value for money (U$18). Safi is a great host and can also help you arrange dives. I shared the dorm room with an Aussie and some expats working in the UN and European Commission, not your average dorm roomates so it was a nice surprise and awesome to get an insight into life in East Timor. If you choose to stay in the dorm room be aware the facilities are basic, if you’d prefer more comfort then best to stay at Barry’s or Beloi Beach Hotel. Meals are available for U$10 but I found the food much better quality and value for money at Barry’s place.
If you’re looking for an authentic experience then staying with Estavao and his family is a great option. Rates include three meals a day and you’ll get to see how the locals live and stay in their home. Estavao’s is centrally located and there’s also an accommodation only option.
Barry is a really welcoming highly knowledgeable Australian who’s lived in East Timor for many years. Barry is a big part of Atauros development and does a lot to support the local community. His place is great, much better than Atauro Dive Resort but he doesn’t have dorm rooms available. However, Barry includes three excellent meals a day so it works out to be better value compared to staying elsewhere and paying for three meals a day. Barry’s has huts of different sizes right next to one of the nicer areas of the beach, here you’ll find white sand whereas other areas are dark sand.
Beloi Beach Hotel Dive Resort
This is the closet place you’ll find to a traditional hotel (i.e. hot showers) and also the most expensive place to stay at $95USD per person per night which includes meals. There’s a pool with ocean views and they also offer a speed boat service from Dili (for an additional USD$65 pp). being at the top of a hill means you’ll be walking up stairs or a long path each time you head out or back. Otherwise you can take one of the taxi’s available. Even if you’ve got the budget for it, I’d still recommend staying at Barry’s Place if you want a bit more comfort than a homestay.
Adara Eco-Resort aka Mario’s Place
Located on one of Atauro’s nicest beach, Mario’s Place is one of the most isolated accommodation options on the island. Here you’ll find thatched huts and very basic facilities but you’ll also have the beach to yourself and be in a remote area of a remote island on one of the least visited places in Asia. Accommodation options are about $30 per person per night which includes all meals. You can either walk for three hours from Beloi or arrange a private boat transfer.
If you bring your own tent you can camp at a few of the accommodation options including Atauro Dive Resort which will charge you a little less than the cost of a dorm room (U$18). You can also camp at Akrema Beach but you’ll need to either hike the 12km to get there or pay for the private boat transfer ($60 per boat).
While on the island it’s worth visiting the town of Vila if you have enough time. The town is home to a few community initiatives which are always preferable to support. Manukoko Rek is an Italian restaurant which also has a guesthouse offering hut-style accommodation. Boneca is a doll-making cooperative run by local women who sell their products to support their community. Biojoia de Ataúro is also a community operative run by women where predominantly hearing-impaired women from Atauro make and sell jewellery.
Looking for more adventure in East Timor? Check out my guide to climbing Mount Ramelau, the highest mountain in East Timor (and Portugal at one point)
Travel Resources for Visiting Atauro Island
Atauro tourism website – Great source of information on hikes, diving and the history of Atauro Island.
Biojoia De Atauro – Women’s cooperative jewelry shop in Vila
Manucoco Rek – Restaurant and Guesthouse in Vila
Boneca de Atauro – Women’s doll-making cooperative in Vila
Barry’s Place – Comfortable bungalows right on the beach
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.