I’ve just returned from a beautiful, lazy week away at Atauro Island, which sits 30 nautical miles off Timor-Leste’s north coast. Without slipping too far into hyperbole, it’s an absolute must-visit for every Dili tourist: a beatific island paradise where the diving’s world-class, the beaches white sand and the coconuts just 50c.
I’ve lived in Dili for a year and have been to Atauro three times, but have never had to book my way. So this weekend, I was pretty stumped. How do I get there — and how do I do it without getting ripped off?
Thanks to some helpful friends and some Facebook searching, I have answers. Here are your options for getting to Atauro Island for a weekend away.
You’ve got six-ish options for getting to Atauro Island. Here they are from cheapest to most expensive.
1. Nakroma ferry
The gargantuan local ferry makes a day trip every Saturday, leaving Dili port at 8:30am and returning from Atauro jetty around 3pm. It’s the safest and cheapest of all the options: its size makes it sturdy, and tickets cost just $4. Expect a journey time of minimum three hours, and buy tickets directly at Dili port.
2. Dragon Star Shipping fast ferry
You’ll spot the eye-catching red-and-yellow riverboats bobbing in the harbour as you wander around Dili. The “dragon boat”, as it’s known, goes daily to Atuaro from Thursday to Monday, and leaves from Dili port at 8am on the dot on Saturday mornings. The voyage is fast and smooth when the sea’s flat, and terrifyingly washing-machine-like when the swell’s up or the wind’s come in. Tickets are $13 from Dragon Star’s office in Colmera, just next to Rolls and Bowls.
3. MV Atauro boat
More commonly known as “Kevin’s boat”. A whale-watching company that does frequent Atauro trips. Call to check they’re going on your weekend and book your spot. Price is between $35 and $45 per person and the journey takes an hour or so (if you don’t slow down to spot marine life on the way). Call famed Kevin on 7733 6612.
4. Compass Charters boat
Dive company Compass runs a daily water taxi that departs Dili around 7:30am and costs $45 per person. The zippy speedboat takes about an hour, and returns to Dili in the late afternoon. Call to book your spot on 7723 0965.
Compass and other dive companies Dive Timor Lorosa’e and Aquatica also do Atauro day trips, so if you’re going over for diving and are short on time, a day trip could be a good option (two dives and gear hire costs about $200).
5. Beloi Beach Hotel boat
Swanky Beloi Beach Hotel on Atauro’s east side runs a water taxi service for its guests and welcomes hangers-on. Call in advance to confirm times and book your spot on 7558 3421. The journey takes barely 45 minutes on a huge pumping four-engine speedboat and costs $45.
6. MAF plane
If not even Beloi Beach is fancy enough for your tastes, you can actually fly to Atauro Island. The Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) light aircraft can be chartered for about $600 (it takes 440kg, so pack light and invite extra friends), and takes something like 15 minutes to pop up and back. Book it by calling 7732 7771 or emailing MAFemail@example.com.
Who should I choose?
Varying trip times, prices, and degrees of safety make combining a couple of these options the best choice for an Atauro weekend.
In the wet season, I’d recommend either taking the dragon boat both ways, or taking the dragon boat to Atauro in the morning when the sea’s flatter, and returning with a speedboat (Kevin’s is great) in the afternoon when the sea’s a bit bigger and you don’t want to be trapped in a craft built for a river.
In the dry season, when the winds come in, I wouldn’t trust the dragon boat — and I’m too impatient to take the big ferry. I’d fork out for a smaller speedboat and visit Atauro less frequently to compensate for the higher price, but if you have three hours to spare, take the Nakroma there and a speedboat back.
If you’re on holiday and have the money, taking a boat like Compass’s both ways is a good choice: you’ll get there quickly, maximise your time on the island, and have that unbelievably fun open-water boat experience. Twice!