A short guide to being a tourist for two days in Dili, Timor-Leste.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky to have both my mother and my sister visit me here in Timor-Leste. Neither could stay for very long, which in one sense was a very good thing: like the way I feel about my hometown, Perth, I believe Dili is a wonderful place to live, a wonderful place to visit for a weekend, and a rubbish place to be for any period of time in between.
Beautiful Dili, from Cristo Rei.
Perth is a relatively quiet, spread-out seaside city whose people are friendly and climate sunny and sublime. And Dili’s the same. You’d go mad with crunchy taxis and hot buses if you were trying to visit a string of tourist spots over a couple of weeks, but when it’s just a couple of days it becomes quirky and cute and decidedly tolerable. Living in Dili you can master the Tetun required to get around with ease; after more than a couple of days the communication barrier grates and stresses and hampers your holiday efforts. And while I think Dili is beautiful, colourful and interesting, I’m happy to admit it lacks the nightlife, events, and infrastructure of a city that can sustain a tourist for weeks on end.
So, you’re in Dili for two or three days. In my view, here’s what you should do.
$1 coconuts and tropical fruit shopping at Lecidere
1. A JDN microlet tour
This is the most expensive and most intensive thing on my list, but sits first for good reason: youth-led, Timorese-owed not-for-profit Juventude ba Dezenvolvimentu Násional (JDN) runs the only Dili tour worth taking and will give you a comprehensive, English-language introduction to Timor-Leste’s history, culture and people — and to Dili’s famous public buses.
The three-hour tour starts at the Motael Church, takes you all over the city and finishes at Timor Plaza, where you can toast your welcome with a happy-hour gin and tonic at the tacky-but-fun Skybar to sunset views of the city (see below). You’ll gain valuable insights about Timor-Leste and the tragic history that ripples beneath the surface of serene everyday life, and you’ll master the 25-cent microlets that will get you around the city for the rest of your time here.
2. A Cristo Rei walk and beachside brunch
Likely every guestbook and guide will tell you breathlessly about Dili’s statue of Jesus, Cristo Rei, that sits on a narrow point at the eastern end of the city. I’ve been up a handful of times and every trip thought why bother, until I’m at the top. Sweeping views of the city are at worst orienting and at best breathtaking, and a fresh coconut chopped open for you in the sand near the statue’s base is hard to beat.
Catch the pale-blue number 12 microlet from the Lecidere sign on the beach road to get there and back. I’d recommend going early in the day, so you’re not climbing in the heat, or late in the afternoon, so you can watch the sun set from the sand (but be careful; the microlet back to town will stop running before dark). If you time your trip with the high tide, you can swim in the beautiful clear water at Back Beach, where Jesus faces away from you and the front looks like this:
If you’re luxe like me, waste half a day post-climb at Beachside Cafe, eating homemade feta in scrambled eggs and buying bagged fruit from the tiu ai leben who roam between tables. A cut-price coconut at neighbouring Caz Bar is best for a budget.
3. See some art and buy some fruit
I know that the colourful fruit market at Lecidere is overpriced, but I can’t help it — I love going there with my woven bote basket and buying fresh fruit and tomatoes from the smiling vendors, and my mum and sister liked visiting it too. Cucumbers might be two bucks a pile but good Instagram content is priceless, no?
You can visit the fruit markets and see some art on your way back from Cristo Rei. Take the number 12 microlet to the fruit market, then when you’re done, catch the white number 10 from the same place in the opposite direction, heading west to Tasi Tolu for the Arte Moris art collective gallery.
Not art. Girl with bote at Lecidere.
You should spot the curious dome-shaped building out the window, but tell the driver where you’re going and they’ll drop you right in front. One of a handful of art collectives in Dili, Arte Moris has a beautiful open gallery with enthusiastic guides hanging around who will always show you though.
4. A Tasi Tolu sunset
If you took the JDN microlet tour, you’ll know Dili’s second religious statue: a huge tribute to Pope John Paul II, at the far-west end of the city. Sunset views here are beautiful; but again, be careful to make your microlet back before dark. If you’re wary or prefer something more central, Castaway Bar has a nice sunset view and a clutch of yellow taxis out front.
5. Hemu kafe
Hemu, drink; kafe, coffee; if you’ve come to Dili you can’t leave before trying what the country’s famous for. Here are my five favourite coffee spots in Dili, and I took both mum and my sister to Letefoho before their lunchtime planes left. Note that Agora’s closed on Mondays and Letefoho serves only snacks, not meals (we brunched at Castaway after morning coffee).
6. Sit, think, do nothing
Dili’s an expensive city and I find the heat exhausting, so I’m trying to keep this list cheap and relatively slow. You can, of course, visit the Resistance Museum and the touristy tais market and go snorkelling and visit the cathedral and poke around at Taibessi market and spend up on souveniers at Things and Stories and take day trips out of Dili to One Dollar Beach and Atauro Island and Black Rock Restaurant, but to do all that would be, in my humble opinion, to miss out on what makes Dili such a nice place to be.
My very favourite thing to do in Dili is what I’m doing right now — take my laptop or a book to a quiet little cafe, and sit and watch people go by, typing my idle thoughts, and letting hours while away without really accomplishing much at all.
If that’s not the point of a weekend in the tropics, what is?