I’ve just returned to Dili from a long weekend away in Oecusse, the western enclave of Timor-Leste completely encased within the island of West Timor, Indonesia. To be honest, I had low expectations of the trip — all I’d heard previously of Oecusse was from Oxfam fundraising emails (drought and despair; can you help now, Sophie?) and government budget analyses bemoaning the millions of unassigned dollars being poured into infrastructure development in Oecusse (Oecusse’s designation as a ‘special economic zone’ and the elevation of former prime minister Mari Alkatiri to the region’s presidency helped broker a peace deal between two feuding political parties in 2015, and it appears the special economic development of the region is unrelenting and unmitigated).
Gross big bridges and desperate drought, is what I imagined. Why would you want to go there?
But a friend had been there previously for work and suggested a tourist trip back, and I agreed — and had my expectations totally flipped.
Oecusse is a beautiful, lush jungle paradise with trickling waterfalls and shaded hiking trails and sprawling rice paddies and sunset seaside cocktails. Warm, friendly, easygoing people and great roads and quick darting fish spotted in reefs just off the beachfront and dramatic craggy mountains stretching into bright clear blue sky. I had a beautiful time away and would recommend a trip to anyone.
Here’s how to do it.
Getting to Oecusse
There are four main ways of getting to Oecusse: your own car, a private tour bus, the aeroplane or the boat. The land crossings are better in terms of time and cost, but both the plane (expensive and fast) and the boat (cheap and slow) have the advantage of avoiding the border crossing into and out of Indonesia.
I’m an Australian citizen and for the last couple of years we haven’t needed up-front visas to enter Indonesia — and this time through I actually only got an ‘in transit’ stamp in my passport. But I’ve heard some foreigners need letters from the Indonesian embassy in Dili before entering Indonesia, so if you’re considering a land crossing best to check with the Indonesian embassy first.
- The slow boat takes 12 hours, costs $8 and is the Nakroma ferry, or whatever is replacing it while it’s being repaired. Buy tickets from the port in Dili. It goes on Mondays and Thursdays, leaving Dili in the morning and Oecusse the next day.
- The fast boat takes four hours, don’t know how much it costs, would be terrified to recommend it, it’s the Dragon Star Shipping boat I recommend for a morning Atauro crossing but not for the afternoon. Buy tickets and find out prices from their office in Colmera. They go daily.
- The bus takes eight hours including border crossings, costs $20 and is the Paradise travel minibus, seating about 12 comfortably (while AC-less, sweaty crowded public bus this is not). Book tickets by calling 7728 6673 or visiting their shop in Fatudaha, across the road from Landmark Plaza. It goes every day.
- The plane takes 35 minutes, costs $75 and is the ZEESM plane, the special economic zone plane managed by the government. Call 7733 8725 or 332 1025 to book tickets. It flies every day except Thursdays.
I have actually crossed the border once in a private car — I went to Kupang in West Timor with work late last year — but as I didn’t drive nor organise the crossing I have no idea what you need to do in order to get a car across.
Where to stay in Oecusse
We stayed at the foreigner-friendly Hotel Amasat (7732 9755 or 7723 5151), which sits slightly out of the centre of town and is run by Veronica and her Australian husband Mark. I can’t speak highly enough of this place for first-time Oecusse visitors: the pared-back facilities were safe, comfortable and secure, and our hosts went above and beyond to make sure we had a good time — everything from custom meal requests to tour guides on tap to motorcycle taxis to water bottles filled from the fridge was provided for us, and my friends who flew were picked up from the airport. And due to Mark’s extended time in Timor-Leste, everyone on the property had an excellent command of English.
Views from outside the Hotel Amasat
It cost us $70 per night for a three-bed room, and the two-kilometre walk to town felt the tiniest bit inconvenient for more than a night or two in a row, so for those reasons only I’d be interested in staying somewhere else next time. My friend stayed at the nuns’ place when she came with work and recommended it — from memory it’s about $30 per person per night, right in the centre of town, with a lush tropical garden. There’s a smattering of other guesthouses around town that I assume are similarly priced or cheaper.
What to do in Oecusse
When I say we stayed in Oecusse, I mean we stayed in the main town, Pante Macassar. But thanks to our lovely guide, Mario, and his friends with motorbikes, we were able to see the top of the district from east to west, and ventured inland and uphill on a series of different hikes.
The ZEESM, or special economic zone, management has actually made a series of incredibly informative brochures about Oecusse (still a rarity in Timor-Leste’s nascent tourism industry), which you can find in English on their website, www.zeesm.tl — this will be your best bet for things to do. We did a fair bit of hiking, along the beautiful and sacred Fonte Sagrada trail to a waterfall; balanced along an irrigation channel through lush rice paddies to swim in another waterfall pool and eat tamarind and berries picked from trees; to the mud geysers at Oe-Silo (weird, fun, farting mud puddles) and through lush Australian eucalyptus bush for a sweeping view of the valley from the hilltop.
We cooled off with snorkelling and swimming out the front of the large chair sculptures on the beachfront, and then with caipirinhas at sunset at the shore-side Cafe del Mar. For eating I’d also recommend Wild Timor coffee and fresh juice and cake for afternoon tea at the nuns’ cafe (Oecusse was the first place the Portuguese landed in Timor in the 1515, and there remains the feeling of a strong Portuguese presence: lots of old colonial buildings, menus in Portuguese, Dominican nuns, and a new monument at the Lifau, the point just west of town where explorers first landed).
I found Pante Macassar just a really lovely place to be — the roads are wide and clean and newly asphalted; there are palm trees and jungle ferns and trailing bougainvillea; people are curious and friendly and happy to receive tourists; and it’s calming being right by the sea without the comparative chaos and dust and haste and fuss of Dili. While the majority of my low expectations went completely un-met, I do have to say my fondness for big-buck infrastructure development extended only to how good the roads were and not beyond — we did see the sight the Lonely Planet names the second-best in Oecusse, the new, $12 million Ponte Noefefan bridge, and were rather underwhelmed.
(Not, Mari, by the size of the bridge. It’s very impressive. But it’s a four-lane superhighway busting through tranquil rice paddies to a dusty ether on the other side; apparently home to a future casino; in the meantime, an expensive, unnecessary and arguably obscene investment in a region where families struggle for food year-round).
What would I do differently next time?
I’d return to Oecusse in a heartbeat. Next time, I’d take the ferry (sacrificing the shorter trip time for the convenience of avoiding the border crossings), stay closer to the centre of town, make it up to the hills for sunrise, and venture deeper into the district; upland into those incredible craggy mountains in search of more waterfalls, more rives, more forests, more fun.