Diving East Timor gets you stunning corals and no crowd. Tourism is still in its infancy. It is a paradise for advanced divers and underwater photographers looking for the next frontier destination.
this is a video with my recent diving in Atarau Island
1. Getting to Dili and East Timor. ( Timor Leste)
The departure point for diving in East Timor is Dili.
Dili is also the main airport of East Timor and is surprisingly easy to reach from Bali.
It is a direct 2 hours flight.
Citilink, Nam Air and Sriwijaya fly there.
Citilink is the most reliable one. I learnt it at my expenses that Nam and Sriwijaya have a tendency to cancel flights when they are not full.
It caused me to miss my connecting flight to Komodo and having to spend a night in Kuta. So beware
From the airport to the center of Dili, it is a short 10 minutes taxi ride. The price for airport Taxi to anywhere in town seems to be 10 USD.
Tip: Since February 2018, there is a visa free entry for visitors of 85 countries ( check the list here) . It was a bit chaotic at the airport and the staff made me queue for a visa. So I lost 15 minutes queuing for a visa that I didn’t need. So check the list before you get there😊
2. Where to stay when diving East Timor ( Timor Leste)
Finding a real luxury hotel in Dili is difficult.
So I stayed at the dive center Dive timorose since I was here for diving East Timor. The room was comfortable and the people were friendly. Staying here was a nice choice. They have a pool but I was not inspired to swim because the pool water was very murky.
They also have a restaurant – “the castaway” – upstairs that offers a nice sea view. The restaurant was famous for sunset views and has a diverse menu with local and western food as well as a large choice of beers and cocktails.
The location of the dive center within the hotel is the best part about this place, making it so convenient for hardcore divers.
If you are looking for a beach holiday with some diving, Dili might not be the best place for you. You will be much happier in places like Alor, Derawan or even Bali where you can enjoy nice accommodation on the beach.
Tips: Most places don’t accept credits cards and most ATM’s are not working. It is therefore recommended to bring cash with you. The USD is the currency of East Timor.
3. Diving East Timor
East Timor ( Timor Leste) is located at the eastern end of the chain of islands called the Lesser Sundas, which form the southern boundary of the huge Indonesian archipelago. To the north, you will find the deep basins of the Banda Sea and the rich waters of the Indonesian Through flow, the largest volume of flowing water in the world and the life-source of the famed Coral Triangle.
These waters are endowed with nutrients from the Banda basins, moving along the north coast of Timor. This means two things – big currents and the likelihood for some great diving. Many dive sites were only discovered in Timor-Leste after independence; thus, these dive sites are simply a tip of the iceberg of other things that can be discovered.
Timor is still such a new nation and tourism infrastructure is still at its infancy. There are no crowds at the dive sites so imagine having the whole dive site to yourself.
Diving East Timor has over 30 dive sites to choose from, and many of these sites are yet to be discovered and explored. All in all, East Timor is a nice place to visit if you looking for a new, less popular dive location or if you want to go on a dive adventure.
The 3 major areas for diving in East Timor:
1) Diving near Dili
Tips: I did not try the dives close to Dili but was advised by other divers to skip them and head directly to Atarau and other coastal dives.
2) Diving the coastal locations will take up to two hours’ drive to the east and west of Dili.
East Timor probably has one of the best shore diving in the world, entries are so easy and are located about 10 meters away from shore; there’s also a 20 meters’ drop-off.
It’s hard work though: The roads to the dive sites is bumpy and dusty. Once you get there, you need to walk over pebble beach, which I found way more difficult than diving from a boat.
K41: The unique name of this site is as a result of the distance of the site, the dive site is exactly 41km east of Dili.This site has two different locations you can dive through – right and left. There is a reef wall at the beginning on your right hand side once you enter the water, you can follow this wall until it begins to slope gently into the deep. At the end of the wall, you will find a nice spot covered in crinoids and gorgonians with schools of sweetlips and fusiliers covering the reef top. You can also swim to the left of this side, the experience here is totally different from the right end, the habitat is more siltier, featuring colorful coral bushes and large sea whips. You will easily find egg cowries on the gorgonians and large Nembrotha nudibranchs feeding on ascidians.
3) Diving the large island of Atauro to the north of Dili.
Getting to Atauro island via boat will take about 90 minutes. This island offers one of the best wall diving underwater experience in the Indo-Pacific region. You are likely to see dolphins on your way to Atauro island (I saw dolphins and a killer whale while heading to the island).
Atarau diving might be one of the best dive wall I have ever done. The visibility and corals are just amazing; this place is great for taking pictures.
It’s best I inform you that there are very few big fishes. I guess they all ended up in the kitchen of Dili’s inhabitants.
I dove with Dive Timor Lorase. They are the oldest dive shop in Timor with history counting nearly 20 years. They organize dive excursions and PADI certifications. They were friendly and professionally organized.
The only reservation was that I found the dive groups too big. My group had 5 divers for one dive master. This can make the dive sometimes confusing.
Timor is not affordable like its neighbour Indonesia. It is possible to get a package for one week diving, accommodation and food for around $ 1000. Accommodation starts at $ 30, food is around $ 10 for a meal, diving costs $ 100-160 for two dives depending on the dive sites. Atarau was 250$ for the day
4. History of East Timor
The island was divided into two halves by the European colonialists. The Dutch Timor, which is the western half was occupied by the Dutch. In 1949, it became Indonesian Timor and part of Indonesia. The other half occupied by the Portuguese, was called the Portuguese Timor, till 1975. The Portuguese were forced to move out of the territory after a colonial rule of 455 years following a political turmoil and a coup d’état in Lisbon
The country was invaded and annexed by Indonesia nine years after declaring itself independent – Democratic Republic of East Timor – on the 28 November, 1975.
The country suffered another 24 years of brutal colonial rule. The end of Indonesia’s Suharto era eventually inspired self-determination. As well as the appointment of Xanana Cusmao, former guerilla leader, as president, and Dr. Ramos Horta, Nobel Peace Prize winner as Prime Minister of a newly Independent Republic of Timor-Leste in 2002.
Timor, as well as its people paid a heavy price to be independent. The country lost about two hundred thousand people during the period (24 years) it was the disputed 27th province of Indonesia.
Timor has about 16 different ethnic groups and it is one of only two Roman Catholic countries in Asia, the other being Philippines. Timor-Leste is still one of the poorest countries in Asia despite the oil and gas reserve holds promise of a better future.
5. What to do in Dili beyond Diving East Timor
Dili is a town that has a weird vibe. I had read all the comments about high criminality and sexual harassment so as a woman traveling alone, it was not comforting.
Upon arrival, the taxi drivers were a bit aggressive trying to get the ride. My taxi driver kept insisting that I seat at the front. Weird. Fortunately, nothing unpleasant happened to me during my trip and the people I interacted with were friendly.
What struck me while driving into town is the high security and gated area visible in many places. You don’t see much economic activities and the majority of shops and offices seems to be either international NGO’s or Chinese shops.
Dili is along the water and has a nice beach but there is a large and busy road right next to it. So it is not a very inviting place.
The infrastructure is also pretty run down with broken roads, ATM’s not working,…
All in all, this is a country recovering from war and it does feel very different from its neighbor Indonesia
There is more to the East Timor’s marine wealth than coral reefs. Each year, you will find different whale species (dolphins, whale sharks, and so on) between August and November moving through the Ombai Strait, which separates the Atauro island from the Mainland, Timor Leste.
The best monument in the city is the Christ the Redeemer statue, which is about 27 meters tall and it is located East of Dili. This is an amazing spot for sunrise/sunset and a preferred workout location for Dilians.
You will find the best beaches in Dili below the statue. Use a taxi to get to Dili Christo Rei, it will cost about $10.
Museums in Dili
The Resistance Museum is the best place to know more about how East Timor struggled for independence. The small museum and national archive has records of the history of Timor Leste from the Kingdoms that dominated the area before the Portuguese ruled the land in the 16th century till their independence 2002.
The Chega Museum, which displays crafts and works by local artists used to be a prison in Indonesian times.
You will find the Dare Monument in the mountains just above Dili, which commemorates the partnership of Australian soldiers and Timorese people when the Japanese invaded the island in world war II.
Market and Shopping
The Taibesse (Taibisi) market is the largest produce market in Dili. The market features a wide collection of vegetables and fruits from all areas alongside meat, fish, household items, clothes, and so on.
If you don’t want to go through the stress of buying fresh fruits in the Taibesse market, you can get them in a small market close to Aru Bakery & Café located at the Pertamina jetty end of Avenida de Portugal or by the seafront East of Licedere Park, which is opposite the Lita Supermarket.
Head to the Tais Market if you want a more souvenir-oriented shopping experience. You can purchase jewelry, bags, East-Timor-themed merchandise and also the traditional East Timorese tais weaves –strong fabrics with colorful-striped pattern.
You will also find the Timor Plaza, a typical western mall where you can purchase electronics, eat at restaurants featuring international cuisines, sit in coffee shops, and also see movies in a multiplex cinema.
The wife of the president, Dr. Kristy Sword Cusmao, founded the Alola Foundation, which specifically supports the children and women of East Timor. Handcrafts created by women from different parts of the country are sold in their shop in Dili.
6. When to go to East Timor
Timor Leste features a tropical climate with two seasons: a wet season and a dry season.
The wet seasons which has a temperature between 30-35 degree Celsius during the day and drops to 20 degrees at night runs from December to April. Traveling by road during this period may be limited by floods and landslides caused by heavy rains.
The dry season has an average temperature between 20°C - 33°C and runs from May to November.
The temperature in mountain or high areas is much lower and cooler with overnight temperatures of 15°C or less at higher altitudes.Diving is conducted year round. However visibility is low after heavy downpours in the wet season.
If you have ever visited Dili or East Timor for diving, I would love to hear about your dive experience. Please share your experience with us in the comment section.