It can be hard to remember that Indonesia is comprised of more than just Bali, but this island nation, made up of more than 17,800 islands, is home to an incredibly diverse range of cultures, religions and ecosystems.
About 400kms east of Bali includes the island of Flores, which is both ecologically different and religiously different from its neighbours. 95 per cent of locals are Catholic.
Named for ‘Flowers’ by Portuguese colonialists, who were awestruck by its lush jungles, and white sand beaches, the island is considered the jewel of Indonesia and is fast-becoming a tourism hotspot on the South East Asia backpacking trail. While Flores may not be famous for its flowers, it does have colourful volcanic lakes, world-class diving and dragons, all with laidback vibes and backpacker-friendly budgets.
Tourism on the island is focused on three main areas: The western port of Labuan Bajo, Ende and the northeastern coastal town of Maumere, with a few choice stops in-between.
Where to stay:
Once a quiet fishing town, Labuan Bajo is now the heart of the tourism scene and the perfect place to start or base yourself for your Flores trip. Locals refer to it as ‘the Bali of twenty years ago.’ But Bajo, as it’s called by familiars, is about to boom, including the construction of mega-hotels, a harbour shopping complex and a Starbucks. For now, the main strip is still dusty and lined with a multitude of dive shops, tour operators, budget accommodation and bars – ranging from dives (excuse the pun) to fancy rooftop pools.
From here, visitors can organise trips into Komodo National Park to either explore the vibrant underwater world or to visit Komodo and Rinca Island to seek dragons. These trips can be done in a day, but due to the large size of the park, it’s common to opt for liveaboards and multi-day tours, which offer accommodation on smaller island hotels. While this may be a pricier option, most of these getaways offer the opportunity to sleep on quiet and unspoilt beaches away from the bustle of town.
Things to do around Labuan Bajo:
Laban Bajo is the gateway to some of the best diving spots in the world. Large marine life like turtles, sharks, manta rays, dolphins and pilot whales frequent the seas in Komodo National Park and are the main reason why divers and wannabe divers flock to this tropical paradise. But there are many things to do above the surface as well.
Rangko Cave is an easy half-day trip, involving a quick journey by bus and by boat to a cave where visitors can swim in. The water has high saline properties, making the whole experience feel like a floatation tank. Cunca Wulang Waterfall is a half-day trip where you’ll be able to jump off canyons and swim in refreshingly cold waters. Either drive yourself on scooters or organise a car to drive the hour and a half up the steep Flores highway outside of Labuan Bajo. Then trek through the jungles and across suspension bridges for about 20 minutes before reaching the falls.
Island hopping tours leave the harbour daily, and no trip to Komodo National Park is complete without visiting the dragons. Komodo dragons are the guardians of Rinca and Komodo Island. These gigantic, prehistoric lizards are the closest descendants to dinosaurs to the human imagination. They grow up to three meters in length and weigh up to 100kgs. They’ve been known to attack a wayward tourist or two, making them a formidable and alluring aspect to any visitor.
As an added bonus, most tours stop at the pink beach as well as Padar Island, which is one of the most selfied spots in Indonesia. A short, albeit very hot, hike up the hill awards you with stunning panoramic views of the park’s rugged rock formations and azure blue waters.
Hungry? After returning to port, you’re sure to have worked up an appetite. While the town has a plethora of dining options to suit any budget, one of the greatest meals you’ll have is at the local fish market. Local fisherman will display their wares. You can wander the dirt rows, choose your fish, lobster or calamari and choose how it’s cooked. A chef will then fry it up for you while you sit sweating under tarps on small, plastic chairs. The best part? It’s BYO!
Finally, it’s time to unwind. Labuan Bajo has some of the most beautiful sunsets. Big hills ring a harbour full of colourful butterfly boats, set against a backdrop of turquoise waters and rugged islands. When the sun dips down, it turns everything into an explosion of pink and purple. The water turns a deep fuschia and blends into the cloudy, tropical skies. There’s no better way to watch this light show than from the cool waters of a rooftop pool at Le Pirate, with a cold Bintang in hand.
After a large upgrade to the regional airport, Labuan Bajo is the easiest destination in Flores to reach by air. Many Indonesian airlines fly daily to Komodo Airport from Denpasar and Jakarta to name a few and offer connections to the other airports in Flores including Ruteng, Bajawa, Ende and Maumere.
If you’d like to do it on the cheap, it is possible to take a bus from Denpasar to Mataram in Lombok, with a long connecting journey to Bima, Sumbawa and then across to Sape where you can finally board a ferry to Labuan Bajo. While inexpensive, this is an arduous journey with no guarantees on reliable bus schedules.
The more popular route for backpackers is the Lombok to Flores cruise. This sailing journey is a 4 day/3 night adventure which departs Lombok and arrives in Labuan Bajo via Komodo National Park. You’ll have the opportunity to visit uninhabited islands, visit Indonesia’s Pink Beach, snorkel with giant manta rays as well as hunt down dragons, all for $165 US. This fee is inclusive of activities, food, entrance fees and accommodation. Book your boat trip here.
Getting around Flores
Flores isn’t the easiest island to traverse, even with the 700km long Trans-Flores Highway, which connects both sides of the island. As soon as you leave the coast, you enter the dense jungle of the highlands. It’s a beautiful drive, but a treacherous one.
Bus routes link all major towns. However, it’s worth it to pay the extra rupiah for a private operator like Gunung Mas. The scheduling is more reliable and the safety measures are a little more stringent. If there’s a large group, it might be worth it to organise a private tour operator to take you out east. We recommend Adrianus Mbaga. Call him on +62 821 45066396 and he can organise all your Flores destination tours.
Where to next:
Heading east, the first highlight is the traditional village of Wae Rebo, followed by the hobbit cave, which is located outside of Ruteng. This cave contains remains and a museum dedicated to Homo floresiensis, a species of human who was only found on Flores and grew to only four feet tall. If you’re taking your time through the middle, these stops break up the drive to Ende nicely.
Otherwise, many visitors choose to drive or fly straight to Ende in order to visit what is arguably the most spectacular sight in Flores: Kelimutu. The tri-coloured lakes are actually craters of an extinct volcano. Hikes up to the peak are not to be missed if you’re travelling through the region.
Finally, the last major destination on the north coast of Flores is Maumere. What once was the tourism and diving epicentre of the island; the town and the surrounding corals were destroyed by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. The region is on the mend, however, and if you’re after a quieter coastal town than Labuan Bajo, Maumere’s quiet, pretty beaches are a great way to end your Flores trip. Shop the markets for traditional weaving, which the area is renowned for before catching a flight back to Labuan Bajo and onwards on your Indonesian adventure.
• • •
Originally published in South East Asia Backpacker