With hardly-touched 'best-in-the-world' reefs to dive, dugongs to spot, mountains to climb, and ancient traditions that have survived the ravages of war, Asia’s newest country offers some of the world’s last great off-the-beaten-track adventures.
Get an insight into Timor-Leste's dark history in Dili’s museums, then venture out of the capital. Hike to jungle caves, wander through misty mountain village markets, and sip local coffee on the terrace of grand Portuguese pousadas. Bump along diabolical roads, stopping for photos of the seascapes as you grip the cliffs along the coast.
Strap on a snorkel and marvel at the pristine reefs that fringe the north coast and Ataúro, or delve deeper with dive companies that are proud to show off sites with superlative reef fish biodiversity. Trailblaze your way through this amazing country, and find out what everyone else has been missing.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Timor-Leste.
Set in the buildings and cells of a Portuguese-era prison where resistance figures were interned by the Indonesian military, Chega! ( chega means 'stop' or 'no more' in Portuguese) houses the results of the Commission for Reception, Truth & Reconciliation (CAVR) process – documenting human rights abuses from 1974 to 1999. A series of panels and photos details various elements of the violence in now-peaceful surrounds. It's best to book a visit (which includes a free tour) ahead, or go with Dili History Tours.
This Brazilian-founded social enterprise is a heartwarming place to visit. Kids and young adults from the surrounding area come here to be taught languages, crafts, cooking, music and more and are then supported to enable them to generate income using their skills. Enthusiastic tours are free but you'll definitely want to splash out in the colourful shop or excellent restaurant. There are also great rooms available (US$25 to US$30 per person), one double and one six-bunker, with more on the way.
An excellent museum which commemorates in detail Timor-Leste's 24-year struggle against Indonesian occupation. Falintil’s resistance is brought to life with a timeline, photos, video recordings and exhibits of the weapons and tools of communication that the East Timorese used in their fight for independence. You can watch harrowing footage of the Santa Cruz Massacre here and see the poignant possessions of some of the murdered.
Balibó Flag House is where the five journalists reporting on Indonesian's invasion of East Timor stayed before they were killed by Indonesian Special Forces on 16 October 1975. The Australian flag they painted for protection is still (though just) visible under a modern restoration. Press play on the DVD player to watch Greg Shackleton's final, engaged broadcast. The journalists were killed in the ruined house diagonally opposite.
Crashing through foliage under the squawks of bats and lorikeets as you climb Mundo Perdido (1775m) – which translates to 'Lost World' – is one of the country's highlights. The view of sunrise from the grassy plateau near the top (1380m) is worth the 4am wake-up call. Local guide Xisto (7786 7272 or 7836 3979) charges US$10 a group. The starting point is near Ossu, 20 to 30 minutes from Loi Hunu. From there, the 6km hike takes two hours return.
There are fine examples of rock art in the cliffs and caves heading down towards Valu (beach), with depictions including cock fighting, sea urchins and people hunting. Sites are signposted off the Tutuala to Jaco road. It's best practice to go with a guide (organise through Valu accommodation): expect to pay $US5 per group.
On 12 November 1991 Indonesian soldiers fired on a peaceful memorial procession for Sebastião Gomes heading from Motael Church to Santa Cruz Cemetery; Gomes was an independence supporter who was shot by Indonesian police. More than 250 civilians (mostly students) died. British journalist Max Stahl filmed the bloody attack; the smuggled footage was beamed around the world, empowering the nation's independence struggle.
Watch kids kicking soccer balls around on the patches of sandy beach and runners sweating it out while you're strolling the decent walking path that runs along the waterfront. The grand Palácio do Governo is a highlight, as is Farol lighthouse to the west. Further west, oversized embassies take up space next to small expat-owned bars.
The hard-to-miss Cristo Rei, 7km east of town, has 570 steps leading to the statue of Jesus, a gift from the Indonesian government in 1996. It's a popular morning and evening exercise spot, with mountain and water views. Catch blue mikrolet No 12 or a taxi (US$5) to get here (ask the taxi driver to wait). On the other side of the promontory, you can descend to another lovely white-sand beach.