Are you traveling to Timor Leste? You’d be one of very few who venture into this small country. Or maybe you are worried it’s dangerous or that you won’t be able to find your way around East Timor.
Don’t fret – this Timor Leste travel guide has got you covered!
I traveled to this amazing country and here I am sharing my tested tips about things to see, transport, accommodation, internet, and everything else you need for your trip to Timor Leste.
If you want a quick overview of the country, these are some fun facts about Timor Leste.
Timor Leste Travel Guide: Know before you come
It’s good to be prepared! Surprise is nice and it’s exciting to visit a country without knowing anything about it, but getting stranded and unable to take cash out of an ATM is not fun. Here are the most important points.
Timor Leste is Safe!
Let’s start with the most important. If you were alive in the early 2000s, you might’ve heard about the troubled situation in post-independence Timor Leste. Those days are gone!
Today, Timor Leste is a safe, stable democracy with established political parties partaking in peaceful competition, low levels of crime, and honestly, one of the kindest people I’ve met around the world.
Just exercise normal precautions that you would anywhere else in the world. I sincerely hope this Timor Leste travel guide changes some perspectives on this wonderful country!
Timor Leste is New and Unexplored
Timor Leste is one of the newest countries in the world. It officially gained independence in 2002 after 4 centuries as a Portuguese Colony, 24 years as an Indonesian Province (although it was actually a brutal and bloody occupation), and 3 years of transitional UN administration.
The adolescent age of the country paired with its relative isolation means that it’s also one of the least visited countries in the world. There’s very little tourism and even though things are changing (for the better) you are likely to be one of a handful of tourists on your trip there.
As far as I know, this thing you’re reading right here is the only comprehensive Timor Leste backpacking guide available online.
There’s a small expat community, mostly in Dili. This is their Facebook page.
Getting to Timor Leste
There is only one international airport in Timor Leste – Dili’s Nicolau Lobato International. The bigger Baucau Airport is currently being repaired, but it might take a few years before it takes any planes.
There are regular flights to Dili from Bali (Indonesia) and from Darwin (Australia).
A cheaper way to get to East Timor is to fly to Kupang (if already in Indonesia) and then take the direct bus from Kupang to Dili.
Timor Leste Visa
Do you need a visa? That’s an important question to ask before traveling to any country.
It really depends on your nationality and I strongly advise you to check the Wikipedia article for your nationality’s visa requirements and the IATA page to double-check.
Citizens of the EU, Schengen, Indonesia, and Cabo Verde are visa exempt. All other nationalities can get a visa on arrival at Dili Airport (30$, 30 days).
If you need a visa but want to come by bus from Kupang, you must get an authorization letter from the Timor Leste consulate in Kupang.
Language in Timor Leste
The official languages in Timor Leste are Tetun and Portuguese, whereas English and Indonesian are recognized as working languages.
Tetun is the local Lingua Franca of the Timorese. Practically everybody speaks Tetun, but it’s unlike any language most visitors would know.
Few people speak Portuguese, contrary to what you might expect. The Portuguese never forced the locals to learn the language (they were more focused on exploiting the people and the land).
Younger people speak some English. Enough to have a basic conversation. Older people mostly don’t and you’ll have to use your body language a lot.
About half the population speaks Bahasa Indonesia.
Money, Currency, Cards, and ATMs in Timor Leste
The currency in Timor Leste is the US Dollar. They use different centavos coins instead of US cents, but those are also accepted.
Timor Leste is not as budget-friendly as neighboring Indonesia. It’s actually surprisingly expensive, especially when it comes to accommodation. Budget hotels and guesthouses cost between 15$-35$ for a single room and more amenities quickly raise the price. Only Dili has hostels and a bed costs around 15$.
Food is generally cheap if you eat like the locals. A meal costs between 1-3$. Fancier restaurants are only in Dili and Baucau where a meal is between 5-20$.
Credit and debit cards are not accepted almost everywhere. Bring cash!
There are reliable ATMs only in Dili. Some ATMs only accept local cards. Most ATMs do NOT accept Mastercard. You can find ATMs that accept foreign Visas at Timor Plaza, next to Hotel Timor, and at the airport.
Internet in Timor Leste
Forget about Wi-Fi. It only exists in high-end hotels and even there you might actually be given a SIM card with data, instead of a password to the Wi-Fi.
Local Physical SIM
Mobile data is cheap. The best provider in Timor Leste is Timor Telecom. They have 4G in bigger cities and the prices are reasonable.
For example, 7 days of unlimited data costs only 6$.
The SIM card costs 1$ with any operator if bought from an official store.
There are street vendors that will offer you “pulsa” (internet credit) and/or a sim card, but I’d stay away from them. They won’t swindle you per se, but it’s more expensive than going to a store.
Expect coverage only in the center of cities and even then, speed is lackluster. Do not rely on the internet in Timor Leste!
Virtual SIM – Airalo
If you can’t be bothered to buy a local sim and your phone supports E-Sim cards, then Airalo is the best option for you.
1 GB of data with 7 days validity costs 6.50$ with Airalo and you can buy it even before you arrive giving you instant access to the internet when you touch land. The validity period starts when the eSIM connects to any supported network.
You can buy the package on Airalo’s official website.
Transport in Timor Leste
Due to the bad state of the infrastructure in many places around the country, coupled with the mountainous terrain, transportation in Timor Leste is slow at best, challenging at worst, and in some places – impossible during the rainy season.
This East Timor travel guide should be able to help!
Microlets or microbuses go between the major cities in Timor Leste. Some popular routes are:
- Dili to Baucau (5$, 3h, many per day)
- Dili to Lospalos (8$, 6h, 3-4 per day)
- Lospalos to Tutuala (for Jaco Island) (3$, 3h, 1 per day)
- Dili to Same (5$, 4h, 2-3 per day)
- Dili to Ermera (3$, 2h, 2-3 per day)
- Dili to Viqueque (8$, 7h, 2-3 per day)
The only new road in the country is the northern road connecting the border town of Batugade with Lautem via Dili, Manatuto, and Baucau. It was recently constructed and the asphalt is perfect.
There are many infrastructure projects all around the country, but it will take time until the roads are up to par with what we’re used to in Southeast Asia.
Dili is the only city with public transport (technically Baucau has 1 microlet connecting the New and the Old towns). The city is served by a network of 12 microlet lines. They all cost 0.25$ regardless of distance. To flag them down wave your hand and to get off them ring the railing with a coin.
Rent a car
Many travelers rent a car to explore the country. You can only rent a car in Dili. As far as I know, booking a rental car online for Timor Leste is impossible (let me know in the comments if you know a company taking online bookings).
A car costs around 40$ per day. For many routes outside the main northern road, you will need a 4×4, which costs 80$-120$ per day.
I want to strongly discourage you from renting a car, not only because of the high price but also because this will prevent you from really immersing yourself in the local culture.
The locals are fed up with UN personnel and their white jeeps and if you travel by car you become one of them in their eyes.
I believe that the best way to see the country is to hitchhike. This is a Timor Leste backpacking guide, what did you expect?
Hitchhiking in Timor Leste is easy and incredibly fun! I had the best moments of my trip to East Timor while in somebody’s car. People are friendly, lovely and so hospitable.
To hitchhike pat the air up and down. It works better than the thumbs-up.
Walk a little away from the bus stations, because many will come to offer you help on how & where to take a minibus.
Be open to riding in the back of a jeep and in a food delivery truck. These are some of the rides I got. Sometimes traffic is sparse and beggars can’t be choosers.
Food in Timor Leste
Food in Timor Leste is a blend of regional food like rice, fish, pork, cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, carrots, etc. with Portuguese and Indonesian influences.
You can find typical Portuguese meals like Feijoada (pork, cannellini beans, and chorizo) and Pastel de nata (the Portuguese tart that’s like creme caramel in a pastry cup), and the Indonesian staples Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Mie Ayam (chicken curry noodles soup), Bakso (meatballs) and Sate (meat skewers).
Some Timorese meals include:
- Batar Da’an: a mix of pumpkin, corn, and beans;
- Caril: mild chicken curry with potatoes and coconut paste;
- Ikan pepes: an entire fish, or sometimes pieces of fish, wrapped in banana leaves and copious amounts of spices and sauce;
- Ikan Sabuko: fish in tamarind marinade with basil and chili;
- Bibinka: grilled and layered coconut cake;
- Katupa: rice on coconut milk.
Fancy restaurants really only exist in Dili. Outside of the capital, look for a warung (small restaurant) or rumah makan (bigger restaurant) for your stomach needs. Most guesthouses can prepare you food as part of your accommodation deal.
Notable Cities in Timor Leste
The capital and the biggest city is usually the first stop of travelers to Timor Leste. Sometimes the only stop (some people are missing out!).
Dili has a few museums, a few nice markets, fancy hotels, backpackers’ hostels, and a huge statue of Christ. You can read my recommendations about what to do in Dili.
The second-biggest city is as charming as cities in Timor Leste go. It’s the one I liked the most from the ones I visited. There’s the beautiful Pousada, a colonial-era residence, turned into a hotel. There’s the vibrant market. There’s the pristine Uatabo beach just 5 km from Baucau. And more and more.
Find out my recommendations for the best 10 things to do in Baucau.
In the east of the country is the home of the Fakaluku people with their bizarre houses on stilts. There isn’t much more to do in Lospalos, but it’s a suitable spot on your way to Jaco Island.
Com is the closest thing Timor Leste has to a backpacker resort. Right on the beach with plenty of guesthouses, quaint bars, and all in all a relaxing atmosphere. In a bout of cosmic coincidence, I went there during the 2023 Total Solar Eclipse.
It’s a really small town 30 km south of Baucau that boasts an impressively colorful former school and a buzzing local market. It’s a good lunch stop on your way to Viqueque.
This city in central Timor Leste is famous for being the headquarters of the Fretilin – the guerilla resistance during the Indonesian occupation and now a major political party.
Viqueque seemed to me a very religious city. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was there during the Sunday Mass and the whole city had gathered for a prayer at the enormous cathedral.
There isn’t much to do in Viqueque apart from that, but it’s a good base for hiking the Mundo Perdido or exploring even less visited places in South Timor Leste.
A small town directly south of Dili with a beautiful Pousada and a charming feel. A good base for hikes in the surrounding mountains.
I didn’t go to Same myself, but a Portuguese teacher I met told me it’s the most beautiful city in East Timor. If you have been there and agree with that, let me know in the comments.
Same can be your base to trek to Mount Cabalaki and enjoy the natural beauty that Timor Leste has to offer – lush vegetation, small villages, and of course, coffee plantations! Talking about coffee…
Situated less than an hour away from Dili, Ermera is the epicenter of Timor Leste’s coffee industry.
In Ermera you can visit the coffee plantations and observe the process of collection, roasting, or packing, depending on the season. Timorese coffee is considered high-quality and it’s totally bio. The locals just don’t have money for pesticides and fertilizers, so you can be sure it’s as clean as nature makes it.
One of the biggest buyers of Timorese coffee is Starbucks! No Timor Leste guide is complete without a mention of coffee!
The place where five Australian journalists were killed in 1975 to prevent them from telling the world of the Indonesian atrocities in Timor Leste.
The Balibo house, as it came to be known, was where they barricaded and painted the Australian flag in an attempt to inform the military that they weren’t Timorese guerilla. This didn’t help them. The movie Balibo (2009) tells that story.
The painting of the flag is still faintly visible on the wall. The Balibo House is now the local community center.
The other notable sights in Balibo are the 400-year-old Portuguese fort and a cool unexplored cave.
Other notable, but smaller cities
- Lautem: Gateway to Com, Lospalos, Jaco Island and Nino Konis Santana National Park
- Liquisa: You go here for scuba diving. Also to see pelicans.
- Manatuto: You go here for beaches where you’ll be the only person. Like One dollar beach.
- Aileu: You go here to visit the former Falintil resistance training camp
- Suai: This town is so remote, that even the Japanese couldn’t get there. The Australian Sparrow Force stuck around Suai for almost a year after the Japanese invasion of East Timor in 1942. Suai is also the center of Timor Leste’s oil industry (which is yet to blossom).
Atauro is the island you can see if you look north from Dili on a clear day. It’s only 30 km and it takes about 2 hours by ferry.
There’s a weekly Government run ferry service on Saturday that will take you there and back for 10$ and give you 3 hours on the island.
However, I recommend you stay at least 1 night, why not 2-3 even, to explore the local culture and biodiversity (Atauro was found to have the most biodiverse waters in the world), then charter a boat to bring you back (40-50$).
On Atauro there are a few eco-lodges, guesthouses, and hotels that will take care of your gastronomical needs (just hunger, actually, nothing fancy; this island is poor!)
Have you noticed that the territory of Timor Leste is not contiguous? There’s the Oecussi exclave situated to the west of East Timor proper and completely surrounded on three sides by Indonesian West Timor and the sea to the north.
Oecussi’s spelling is a point of contention. Some alternative spellings are Oecusse, Oe-Kussi, and Oe-Cusse.
A really short history of Oecussi
Oecussi is where Timor Leste began. In the 16th century, this is where the Portuguese traders and Dominican Friars landed and first created a base. It was not until 2 centuries later that the seat of the Portuguese administration was moved to Dili.
Oecussi was kind of ignored after that. When the official borders were drawn in the 19th century, it was included in Portuguese East Timor, because it has always been Portuguese. Fast forward through the 20th century and the Indonesian Occupation and today, Oecussi is still part of Timor Leste.
How to get to Oecussi
To get to Oecussi, take an overnight ferry from Dili that runs twice a week. There’s also a daily flight for those with bigger budgets. Check the full and up-to-date ferry and flight schedule here.
There are no official border crossings between Oecussi and Indonesia.
What to see in Oecussi
Oecussi is a really interesting region. It’s pretty isolated, has a unique culture, and a very, very laid-back feel to it. UN personnel stationed there report that it’s the best place to be given an assignment in. Apart from visiting just to experience the local bizarre vibe, some notable sites include:
- The Dominican Missionary Sisters Women’s College: the first female Catholic school in Oecussi, now a peaceful place for a stroll in the center of Ponte Makassar.
- Kumando: A bit beatdown today, but it was an important administration building during colonial times. There are plans to make it a community center.
- Church of St. Antonio / Nossa Senhora do Rosário: A beautiful church built in 1965. If you visit during Easter, don’t miss the procession that honors Jesus with a life-sized statue of his body.
- Cave of Santo António Polsiba: considered a sacred site by Oecussians as St. Anthony is believed to have appeared here.
- Ruins of King’s Palace of Oé-Cusse: Yup, there were kings. Oecussi’s history is wild, go read about it.
- Fatu-Suba: The ruins of an important former prison (ya, I know, ruins again…that’s how it is in Oecussi)
- Lifau Monument: That’s where the Portuguese landed in 1515, now commemorated by a statue of a ship and some friars.
- Numbei Market: A typical Timorese local market. Busiest on Saturday.
- Fonte Sagrada: A “Sacred Fountain” from Portuguese is a beautiful waterfall where locals hold rituals.
- Mud Geysers: Surprisingly, there are mud volcanoes in Oecussi, just like the mud volcanoes in Azerbaijan.
Top Natural Sights in Timor Leste
If you prefer nature to a bustling city, look no further than Timor Leste. The nature there is superb! Mountains, beaches, rainforests, coral reefs, rice fields, coffee plantations…East Timor has it all. I’ve compiled a list in this Timor Leste guide so they are all in one place for you.
The ones you shouldn’t miss are:
Mount Ramelau (Tatamailau)
Tatamailau is the name of the actual peak (meaning “Grandfather of all“), whereas Mount Ramelau is the name of the mountain, although they are used interchangeably.
This is Timor Leste’s highest peak and a Christian pilgrimage site. Every year pious Timorese trek to the top to pray to the 3-meter-tall statue of the Virgin Mary.
Trekking to Mount Ramelau is pretty easy. The starting point is at the small nearby village of Hato Builico from where it takes 3 hours to summit.
Jaco Island and Valu Beach
Jaco Island is sacred to the Timorese. Nobody lives there and there are no buildings. It is just 700 meters from Valu Beach at the extreme east end of Timor Leste. Their beauty is only matched by their isolation – getting to Jaco Island is a journey in itself, but I’ve got you covered!
Mundo Perdido literally means “Lost World“, but we’re not talking dinosaurs, chill. However, you’ll be able to see a variety of species of snakes, monkeys as well as domesticated buffalos, horses, and cows.
To hike in the Mundo Perdido area, my advice is to rent a guide from Venilale. It could cost you as little as 10$ for a guide and provide invaluable insights and information. Just like this Timor Leste travel guide – if you like it, share it!
Don’t forget to visit the abandoned Japanese war tunnels!
Trailing behind Tatamailau by a few hundred meters (2316 m. vs 2986 m.), Mt. Matebian is Timor Leste’s third highest peak. It offers amazing views of the surrounding area, as far as the sea on both sides of Timor Island!
To hike it, make your way to the village of Baguia (Bagia) first. There are microlets from Baucau every day.
Timor Leste Travel Guide Parting Words
Timor Leste is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world. Top 5 for sure. For such a small country, it is impressive that it competes with Italy, Japan, and Indonesia for the top spots.
The main reason for this is the people. Oh my, oh my! Call me a liar if I’ve ever seen friendlier, more genuine people in my travels! Please go to Timor Leste and please, for the love of all Timorese ancestral spirits, do not lock yourself in a 4×4 for a week thinking you’re exploring the country.
Talk to the vendors, interact with the kids, hitchhike, hang out in front of the Pousada, drink coffee with the elders, buy bananas from the grannies. This is the best way to travel to Timor Leste.