Timor-Leste: Paradise Yet Untouched

Twenty years after its hard-won independence, Timor-Leste is only just beginning to open up its natural landscape to the region. Exploring every corner of Southeast Asia’s youngest country, Sophie Raynor discovers the pristine wonders we've been missing out on.

May 1, 2019

Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor, is a country few foreigners could place on a map, but whose name and tragic story they’ve doubtlessly heard: the newest independent nation in Southeast Asia, its brutal and decades-long occupation at the hands of neighboring Indonesia captured global attention and saw a United Nations-brokered independence referendum secured in 1999. Now, 20 years on from that blood-soaked independence, the peace-builders, development workers and INGOs are shunting out and scaling back and Timor-Leste is emerging as a stable, peaceful and prosperous young country—with unparalleled natural beauty and untapped tourism potential. Developing that potential is a key priority—the United States has just injected US$9 million worth of aid into the nascent sector—but with its white-sand beaches, teeming coral reefs and world-class organic coffee, Mother Nature has already done most of the hard work herself. Timor-Leste has the pristine tropical beauty of an unexplored island. Here are three reasons to visit now.

A BUDDING COFFEE CULTURE

“Single-origin coffee” in Timor-Leste means more than just packaged beans with a shared country of origin: here, it’s whether the beans have been grown in the same tiny hamlet, an area smaller in size than a village. Timor-Leste is home to a disease-resistant hybrid coffee bean, the Hibrido de Timor, which produces world-class brews from impossibly small batches, hand-picked from local family farms. An estimated 80 percent of Timorese families are subsistence farmers whose livelihoods are tied to the land, and many of them grow coffee. The farmers live hand-to-table on tiny, two-hectare plots, coaxing award-winning coffee from gnarled colonial-era trees, and selling several sacks of green beans to the grassroots collectives that export the country’s high- standard coffee to places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Australia. Just an hour inland of Dili, the country’s capital, you’ll start to see the glossy dark-green leaves of the coffee trees fringing the road.

Freshly picked beans from a farm near Ermera. ©Un Photo/Martine Perret.

In the city, try the quality organic local coffee at Letefoho Specialty Coffee (cafeletefoho.com; coffee from US$1.50); some of the baristas at Agora Food Studio (timorlestefoodlab.com; coffee from US$2) were even sent to Australia for training. Wending inland to the hilltop town of Railaco, just 30 kilometers from Dili, state-of-the-art coffee center Timor Global (timorglobal.com; coffee from US$1.50) offers locally roasted beans with, on a clear day, views to the coast.

DIVING ON YOUR DOORSTEP

Home to some of the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs, Timor-Leste’s pristine coastline is virtually untouched even right in front of Dili. Here, iridescent waters teeming with tropical reef fish and vibrant critters make an ideal snorkeling setting; sip a fresh local coconut split open for you at the water’s edge; or take the easy, hour-long speedboat trip to lush Atauro Island to dive the steep walls and craggy alcoves where turtles, sharks, dugongs and rare mandarin fish and frogfish hide.

Timor- Leste’s untouched reefs mean its marine life remains pristine.
Courtesy of Dive Timor Lorosa’e.

Beloi Beach Hotel (beloibeachhotel.com; doubles from US$85) offers accommodation on the island and boat transfers between Dili and Atauro, and both places are home to PADI- licensed dive schools where friendly instructors who know the reefs from top to bottom can help you get certified and explore hidden depths. At Atauro, contact Atauro Dive Resort (ataurodiveresort.com; dives from US$45) for certification and fun dives around the island, and in Dili, visit Compass Diving (compassdiving.com; courses from US$500) or Dive Timor Lorosa’e (divetimor.com; courses from US$450) for courses from open-water to instructor, or to organize a day trip to the secret dive sites scattered behind palm groves and deserted beaches along the winding coastal road.

SCALING NEW HEIGHTS

Sandy-beach stretches and lazy coastal days show just one side of Timor-Leste. The tiny island’s dramatic geography sees ascents of nearly 3,000 meters just a few hours’ drive from the water. Up above the clouds, the mountain-air chill makes a welcome change from muggy, tropical Dili. Rent a four-wheel drive and venture two hours inland to the tranquil hillside town of Maubisse—a quiet, serene hideaway, whose restored Portuguese colonial-era guesthouse Pousada Maubisse (facebook.com/pousada-maubisse; doubles from US$45) offers sweeping valley views, meals made with organic local produce picked from family gardens, and an ideal rest spot before a sunrise mountain summit.

Sacred houses in the coffee-growing municipality of Ainaro are used for cultural ceremonies. Sophie Raynor

Mount Ramelau, the country’s highest peak, lies a bumpy 90 minutes further up-country on some fairly treacherous roads—stay in one of the modest guesthouses in the nearby village of Hatubulico, and ask your hosts to book you a local guide to take you from the town to the 2,968-meter summit. The trail is clearly marked and the climb is not too difficult— making it ideal for a pre-dawn start; you’ll catch the day’s first golden rays and clear panoramas of the valley from the top. While Mount Ramelau is the region’s best-known hike, Hatubulico is home to hundreds of rocky trails that wind through lush tropical forests, alongside trickling waterfall streams, and past the traditional houses used by rural communities for cultural ceremonies. Closer to town, the historic hillside town of Dare is an easy 11-kilometer-long hike from Dili itself, where you can visit the small museum honoring the contribution Timorese people made during World War II, and see clear across the city’s bay. While the country’s history may still be short, Timor-Leste’s treasures have been here all along.

Explore more of our editor’s favorite stories here.

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