Papua’s mystique piques the imagination of the explorer, naturalist, anthropologist, politician and traveller in you. What about Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya) would not intrigue? The diversity in lifestyle and culture of the indigenous people, who speak more than 250 languages, is matched only by Papua’s biodiversity and geography. The terrain covering half of New Guinea, the planet’s second-largest island, ranges from the misty peak of Puncak Jaya (5050m) – which features permanent snowfields and small glaciers – to the steamy island groups of Biak and Raja Ampat, just shy of the equator. Endemic wildlife gracing this vast expanse of jungle, mountain, swamp and sea include such weird and wonderful creatures as cassowaries, dugongs, showy cenderawasih (birds of paradise), egg-laying echidnas and tree-dwelling monitor lizards.
Though much of the region is covered by impenetrable jungle, most inhabitants live in and around coastal towns. Almost all visitors head to the Baliem Valley, home to some of the most remarkable traditional cultures on earth, while others are drawn to the art of the Asmat region, or the bird life and coral reefs of the northern coast and islands.
With its limited infrastructure, administrative sloth, political strife that continually keeps hot spots off-limits to foreigners, and an equatorial clime that puts siesta time in effect between 1pm and 5pm, Papua poses a few travel challenges. To those willing to accept, the rewards flow with a generosity as life-sustaining as Papua’s brown tributaries ribboning through its thick, enigmatic jungle canopy.
The province of West Papua chiefly comprises two large peninsulas – the Vogelkop (Bird’s Head/Kepala Burung/Semdoberai) and the more southerly Bomberai Peninsula – and several hundred offshore islands. The attractions here are primarily natural – above all the world-class diving and gorgeous island scenery of the Raja Ampat Islands.
Indonesia travel guide
From the western tip of Sumatra to the eastern edge of Papua, Indonesia offers endless exploration and infinite diversity. This unique land may well be the last great adventure on Earth.
Raja Ampat Islands
This group of about 1600 mostly uninhabited islands off Sorong has some of the best diving in the world. Little known until the last few years, Raja Ampat’s sheer numbers and diversity of marine life, and its huge, largely pristine coral-reef systems, are a scuba dream come true – and fantastic for snorkellers too. It’s like swimming in a tropical aquarium.
Best places to stay in Papua
The North of Papua
Papua province’s capital, Jayapura, and its airport town Sentani, are hubs of Papuan travel, and there’s a scattering of appealing things to see and do in and around these towns. Further west, Biak is a relaxed offshore island that's good for a spot of lazing on a beach, snorkelling and diving, and has evocative WWII sites to investigate.
Tony Wheeler's Dark Lands
Greedy Lords, dubious heroes, wicked relations and innocents in peril – Today’s world sounds like a grim fairytale!
The Baliem Valley
The legendary Baliem Valley is the most popular and most accessible destination in Papua's interior. The Dani people who live here were still dependent on tools of stone, bone and wood when a natural-history expedition led by American Richard Archbold chanced upon the valley in 1938.
Downtown Jayapura is hot, busy with traffic and hard to love, but it has a beautiful setting between steep, forested hills opening on to Teluk Imbi. If you just want to get up to Wamena as soon as possible, you can often make all arrangements in Sentani without coming into Jayapura. But if you want to see Papua’s biggest and most important city, this is it.
Wamena is a sprawling Indonesian creation with nothing traditional about it, but it’s the obligatory base for any travels around the valley. The population is a mix of Papuans and non-Papuans and the latter run all the businesses.
Indonesia - Papua (Chapter)
Papua’s tribal world lives on amid outside encroachments – some people still hunt their food with bows and arrows. Venture here and be awed by the charm of Papua’s peoples, the resilience of their cultures and the grandeur of their landscapes.
Biak (1898 sq km) is one of Papua’s biggest offshore islands. It’s a relaxed place with – even by Papuan standards – exceptionally friendly people, and has good beaches, snorkelling and diving. Biak saw fierce fighting in WWII, with about 10,000 Japanese and nearly 500 Americans reported killed in the month-long Battle of Biak (1944).
For travellers the main attraction of this relatively prosperous town is swimming with whale sharks. The world's biggest fish, whale sharks can grow over 10m long and inhabit warm seas all round the world.
Wasur National Park
The 4130-sq-km Wasur National Park, stretching between Merauke and the PNG border, will fascinate anyone with an interest in wildlife, especially birds and marsupials. But come in the later part of the dry season (mid-July to early November), otherwise most of Wasur’s tracks will be impassable.
Capital of Papua Barat province, Manokwari sits on Teluk Cenderawasih near the northeastern corner of the Vogelkop. It merits a visit mainly for the natural attractions in the surrounding area, notably the Pegunungan Arfak. Most travellers’ facilities are in the area called Kota, on the eastern side of the Teluk Sawaisu inlet.