With white sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs and a burgeoning community-based tourism scene, Atauro Island is the tropical you’ve probably never heard of. This guide to East Timor’s Atauro Island was updated 20th May 2022.
By Richard Collett
“Atauro Island has some of the most beautiful coral in all of the world”, Vila – the Portuguese owner of the hostel in Dili, East Timor’s capital that I was staying at – told me, “but last week lots of people they were stuck on the island, because of the rains”.
It was raining as we spoke, the only chance I had to travel to East Timor was during February, which here is still very much the rainy season. And every single day so far it had rained at least once. Dili wasn’t so bad, the weather tends to be much dryer and hotter in the capital than elsewhere in the country, but from the shore front out to sea I could always see Atauro Island, just a two hour boat ride away from Dili, continually obscured by clouds in the distance.
Atauro Island is a tropical paradise, but it’s a place that few travellers ever see, because few travellers ever make it to this part of the world. Atauro Island is surrounded by white sand beaches, untouched coral reef and is one of the most bio diverse marine sanctuaries in the world.
Unfortunately though, like anywhere in East Timor, Atauro Island is not the easiest place to get to – even when the rains stop – but regardless of the weather, I was determined to set foot on the white sands of this tropical island and to snorkel the coral reef that surrounds it.
You can find practical information on travelling to Atauro Island by ferry, where to stay and what to do at the end of this article!
Atauro Island Travel Map
Travelling To Atauro Island
I had travelled overland from West Timor – the Indonesian side of the island of Timor – and driving along the coast towards Dili I could see the distinct shape of Atauro Island out on the ocean long before I ever reached the capital.
Atauro Island is just 30 kilometres from Dili, and its high, conically shaped mountains dominate the horizon for miles along the coast around the city. It’s geographically close, but the treacherous strait that separates Atauro from the mainland has always been difficult to navigate. This has left the island traditionally isolated from the rest of the country, so much so that Portuguese colonisers in the 19th Century used it as a prison for exiles and undesirables, and in 1975 when East Timor declared independence from Portugal, the Portuguese Governor chose to flee to Atauro Island, as he knew he would be essentially unreachable.
On paper, it does seem relatively easy to visit Atauro Island. There are car ferries, fast boats and water taxis crossing the channel regularly – supposedly. But this was East Timor, and it was raining. I knew it couldn’t be as easy as simply finding a boat.
At Hostel da Terra, my Dili accommodation, the owner Vila had told me already that just the week before the ferries had all had to stop running, because of the weather. Travellers had been stuck on Atauro Island for a week waiting for the storms to lift, and in the rain, there isn’t much to do at all there.
It was looking like the next week would be better, there would likely be no storms and just a little drizzle. This would be the time to go.
The next problem though was actually finding a ferry.
Finding A Ferry To Atauro Island
The route to Atauro Island can be a rough one, and the locals working at the hostel told me that the Dragon Boat, a fast but small boat that caters for tourists and in the dry season does run most days of the week, wouldn’t yet be running. No one wanted to risk death, was their blunt comment on this.
This left the local car ferries, and the possibility of a barge. Bigger ships, and hopefully less chance of death.
The problem was, no one was quite sure when they left. Even the locals who had lived in Dili their whole lives. There was one ferry that definitely ran every Saturday, but this also returned the same day, meaning that if this was the only one going, I would have to spend an entire week on Atauro; time and money I just didn’t have. There was a possibility that a barge might be leaving the next day – a Thursday – and if it was, then if everything went to plan, I could return on Saturday afternoon on the car ferry.
I went to the harbour to see if I could source any information, accompanied by one of the local girls Lucy, who worked at the hostel, and from our enquiries we gathered that there might be a barge the following morning. I would just have to turn up and find out though.
Such is life in East Timor.
The Laju Laju Ferry To Atauro Island
The weather was clear the next morning as I made my way to the harbour again, and being loaded up at the dock was a rusting old barge. This was the Laju Laju Ferry to Atauro Island and it was just getting ready to depart.
I bought my ticket and walked up the ramp as locals made themselves comfortable on the deck and piled up their goods and belongings on the sides. The old barge didn’t have much in the way of amenities or even seats, and most people laid out on the decks or if they were lucky found a bench in the main hold area at the back of the boat.
So far the weather was keeping clear in Dili, but out to sea Atauro Island was surrounded by clouds.
The journey across wasn’t rough, but the swells were still huge, rolling the barge from side to side. It was slow going, and two hours in as we neared Atauro Island the rain began to lash down. Everyone on the deck piled into cramped undercover areas to escape the downpour, and it didn’t let up even as we docked and unloaded.
There isn’t a huge amount of accommodation on Atauro Island and infrastructure is basic at best. That’s part of he appeal. Atauro is an escape from the confines of the city, a getaway to a peaceful, beautiful island.
That does mean though: no internet, electricity only runs every other day and there is a severe fresh water shortage.
Atauro isn’t set up for any sort of mass tourism, and the locals want to keep it that way to protect their most valuable asset -, the island itself and the marine life that calls the water home.
As the rain poured down it was hard to appreciate the beaches and scenery as I tramped through the mud to Barry’s Place, a collection of beach bungalows just a short walk from the harbour.
Barry is an Australian guy who first came to East Timor in 2001 to teach English after the end of the Indonesian occupation. He stayed for the slow pace of life and eventually found himself on Atauro Island, where the pace of life is even slower than the mainland. He married locally and is now part of the island community.
Barry built the bungalows from scratch, and told me that the current low tourism numbers are just perfect for him and for the rest of Atauro Island. No one wants the place ruined. “The reefs are the best in the world”, he claimed, “…and there’s more bio diversity in the marine life than anywhere else in Asia”.
Barry helps to educate the locals of Atauro on conservation and sustainability, and hosts volunteering programmes which help to collect vital marine data from the surrounding coral. The next morning, weather permitting, he would arrange for me to travel out to snorkel on the reef.
While Barry offers accommodation and meals for visitors at the bungalows, he also helps to arrange home stays with the locals on the island, and he set me up with Estebao, a local fisherman who is fast becoming a success in the tourism industry.
Estabao’s Atauro Island Home Stay
The people of Atauro Island are as diverse as the island they call home. “There are 4 different languages on the island”, Estabao told me, not to mention the fact that locals like himself were now learning English.
Estabao, like many other locals is a fisherman by trade, but really much more than that. He told me that he used to help out Barry when the bungalows were being built, but then started taking tourists out on his boat to see the reef before then offering his home to those who wanted a more local experience on Atauro Island.
He introduced me to his wife and kids and every day during my stay they cooked me a huge breakfast and dinner. He even prepared the odd coconut from his garden for me to drink.
He generally gets a few tourists staying with him each month, and when he’s not busy catering to visitors Eastabao is usually off spearfishing in the ocean to bring in fresh catch to eat or sell at the market in the town.
Snorkelling The Coral Reef Of Atauro Island
I was on Atauro Islands for three days in total. Every afternoon and evening it rained hard, without fail. In the morning though, there was a small opportunity to experience the coral reefs that I had travelled from Dili to see.
Barry arranged a boat with another local fishermen to take myself and the few other tourists staying at the bungalows onto the reef just off the beach. Barry had said that the water would be a bit murky because of all the run off from the rains, but that it would be still be worth snorkelling.
He wasn’t wrong, and although it was supposedly a bit murky, it was still the most spectacularly clean coral I have ever seen, with a real abundance of colourful marine life where ever I looked.
This is some of the most diverse marine habitat in the world. Even in the rainy season, with more silt and mud being washed into the ocean it was incredible to see. In the dry season, the water is even clearer and the coral even more radiant. In the right season, Atauro Island also sees the migration of larger marine mammals and the waters fill with the sight of whales and whale sharks swimming past.
The real challenge Atauro Island will face is conservation, and keeping the island and the waters clean and diverse. While people like Barry and Estabao who live on the island rely on tourism for their livelihood, they understand the need for it to be responsible tourism. The lasting impression I received from them was that they wanted the bare minimum number of tourists to visit.
This is their home, and they don’t want it ruined.
The Ferry Back To Dili
The rain held me back from truly exploring Atauro Island itself, as the hiking trails between the different beaches pass through the mountains and were too treacherous to really walk. Experiencing the coral reef though was very much worth making the journey by boat from Dili, even if the afternoons were spent sheltering from the heavy rain, and I have plans to return in the dry season one year to see the larger marine life and o dive further afield.
On the Saturday, Estabao took me down to the ferry terminal to buy my ticket back to Dili. He then took me through the local market, to find his wife who was having lunch with friends. We took a group photo together, before I boarded the ferry for the choppy return journey back to Dili.
Atauro Island has the potential to draw in tourists from around the world, but as I left the island I realised that actually, the best thing about Atauro was the fact that there was almost no one there.
The reefs are spectacular, the marine life is the most diverse in the world and the beaches are beautiful, but the real charm of Atauro was the local experience and its isolation from the rest of the world.
How To Travel To Atauro Island East Timor
Here’s my guide on how to travel to Atauro Island in East Timor from the capital city of Dili. There is information on when to visit, transport, accommodation and things to do!
When To Visit Atauro Island
- Atauro Island, like the rest of East Timor, experiences a wet and dry season.
- The wet Season is generally November to May and the dry season is generally from May to November.
- The best time to visit is May to November, when the water is clearest and calmest. Towards the end of the dry season is when the marine life is at its best and also when the large marine animals begin to migrate past the island.
- I visited in February during the rainy season. The weather was wet and transport unpredictable, but the coral reef was still spectacular.
Travelling To Atauro Island By Ferry
- Atauro Island is located around 30 kilometres away from Dili. You have to travel by boat to reach the island, and there are a few different options available. This is East Timor, and things are unpredictable and subject to change so always take this into consideration.
- Al boats leave from the harbour in the centre of Dili, which is opposite the Burger King on the map below. Tickets can be bought just before departure, but get there a little earlier to ensure a spot.
- Dragon Star Fast Boats – This fast boat is probably the most convenient way to get to Atauro, offering a 1 hour journey time from Dili. The boat is small but fast and so doesn’t run in bad weather. In the high season it runs most days. When it does run, it departs at 8am and returns the same day at 3.30pm. The cost each way is $15.
- Laju Laju Ferry – This is the slow, old barge which departs once a week on Thursdays. The journey takes at least 3 hours, and there are few comforts aboard. It departs at 8am on Thursdays, returning at 3.30pm the same day. Tickets cost $5 per person each way.
- Nakroma Ferry – This is a nicer car ferry which departs on Saturdays at 8am, returning to Dili the same day at 3pm. The journey takes around 2 hours and there are large seating areas, comfy seats and TVs for entertainment. Tickets cost $4 per person each way.
- Compass Charters Water Taxi – This charter boat is a small vessel and very weather dependent, leaves early morning and can return the same day. Costs are $45 per person each way. Can be hired out completely. Best to contact in advance.
Accommodation On Atauro Island
- Barry’s Place – Barry has an awesome set up of bungalows on the beach. He charges $35 per person per night for twin share, or $45 for a single. This does include breakfast, lunch and dinner, all of which are served up buffet style and he can organise boat trips and diving. Barry doesn’t take online bookings but you can call him or email him for more information. He also has a fridge full of cold beer for sale. Click on the link for more details.
- Homestays – There are currently 7 home stays in the Beloi Beach area and you are best contacting Barry to organise a spot, or turning up and walking to Barry’s from the harbour and organising in person. I stayed with Estabao and his family in my own private room, for a very reasonable $15 a night including breakfast and dinner.
- Beloi Beach Hotel – This hotel is not actually on the beach as the name would suggest but on a hill overlooking the town and beach. There’s a swimming pool and nice rooms, but it is a more luxurious and expensive option. They have incredible views and a fully stocked bar and restaurant.
- Atauro Dive Resort – Located near the harbour, this resort has bungalows available and organises diving trips. It’s right on the beach.
- Mario’s Place – Mario’s is the most secluded and difficult to reach place on the island. It’s on Adara beach which is the opposite side of the island to the harbour, and to get here involves either chartering a boat or hiking for three hours through the jungle. Mario charges $25 per person per night and can be contacted via Facebook HERE.
Things To Do On Atauro Island
- Snorkelling and Diving – These are the main things to do on Atauro Island. The coral is beautiful and the water is clear. Barry can arrange snorkelling trips to the reefs on local boats and usually charges around $10 per person including conservation fees and hire of masks and fins. He can also arrange diving, but there are a few other companies too that can do this. It’s possible to also walk in off the beach to many snorkelling points, the coral is that close to shore, including directly from the beach adjacent to the harbour and many other spots along the island.
- Hiking – There is a great network of hiking trails across the island, the best of which is supposedly the 3 hour trek to Adara beach. However during the rainy season – when I visited – these can be dangerous due to the wet weather and mud!
- Explore the Local Villages – Beloi is the main town, although more of a village really, and along the coast from here it is possible to walk to the other smaller villages, many of which have little local shops and new enterprises focusing on tourism and local crafts which are all interesting to see.
- Saturday Market – If you are on Atauro on a Saturday then this is market day! By the harbour front, a long market forms in the morning along the beach as soon as the ferry docks, and all day locals from Atauro and from Dili are busy buying and selling before many return to the city on the same ferry in the afternoon.
- There is almost no internet on Atauro. If you want to stay connected you are best buying a local SIM card as some areas will have 3G signal.
- There is very limited electricity. Unless they also have solar power, most local places will only have access to electricity every second night. Resources are scarce on Atauro.
- There are no ATM’s on Atauro Island so take as much cash as you think you will need with you from Dili.
- In the wet season be careful with your travel plans, as getting stuck on Atauro could mean you miss a flight out of East Timor if you don’t leave enough time! In the dry season this isn’t much of a problem to consider.
All Photos and Words by Richard Collett