Off the traditional list of destinations in Southeast Asia and off the radar for many travelers is the tiny country of Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) located on the far eastern side of the Indonesian archipelago. It remains relatively anonymous and still lacks much of the infrastructure to support large scale tourism. But on the small island of Atauro across from the capital Dili is a diamond in the rough for divers and adventure seekers who are willing to venture into the unknown.
The waters around Atauro Island are some of the most bio-diverse in the world, filled with abundant coral varieties and reef fish species. It is recognized by Padi as one of the best reef diving locations in the world, nicknamed the 'Amazon of the Seas'. Atauro lies within the Coral Triangle and offers pristine diving destinations. It is especially popular during whale migration season from September to November when a vast variety of whales traverse along the "superhighway" through the Ombai Strait including blue whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, melon-headed and pygmy killers, dolphins, orcas, and more.
Atauro Dive Resort was a perfect location to base out of to do the best dives in the area. The resort is located just a few minutes walk down the beach from the ferry port where most visitors arrive. With no wifi on the island and limited cell service, it is a great chance to disconnect from the outside world at this eco resort and enjoy the quiet island days.
Atauro Dive Resort offers everything you need from their bungalows on the beach, hammocks to take a nap on, all meals, as well as coordinating daily dives from their resort center, making it easy to spend the whole trip at this peaceful haven. Don't miss sampling their refreshing homemade coconut ice-cream and tasty passionfruit popsicles!
If you feel ready to venture out and explore the island, the staff can provide recommendations for where to go and how to get there including organizing tuk-tuks or mopeds as required. Most of the island's inhabitants live in remote and austere locations that are primarily accessible by foot. Down the street is a women's co-operative doll factory that makes handcrafted dolls and embroidered bags, Ponky's bar is a ten minute walk away where you can sip on cocktails while enjoying a view (I highly recommend trying the Pina coladas!), or there are several restaurants that you can call ahead and order dinner.
If you feel like exploring a bit further on the island, pack your hiking boots, bug spray and a lot of water! You can ask for a local guide or a hand drawn map to help navigate the island as the GPS and maps online are missing most for the trails. There are several options, but the two most popular treks are to either climb the highest point on Manukoko Peak (5-6 hours) or cross over from Beloi to visit Adara Village (minimum 3 hours each way). There are some fisherman boats available to help bring you back, but
prices can range from $10 to well over $100 for the quick boat trip, so bring lots of cash or give yourself plenty of time to make the return journey over the mountain.
My biggest recommendation is to do a lot of planning and research before going! I was definitely unprepared for visiting Timor Leste expecting that it would be similar to many other countries in the area that have well-established tourism industries and I was definitely mistaken. Plan ahead and check out the limited dragon boat and ferry schedules which only cross the straight a few days of the week with prices varying greatly. There are quick puddle-hopper flights available, but they also run on a limited basis and book up early. Alternatively there are tiny fisherman boats that cross in the early hours of the morning if you need to get back. I ended up catching one of these from a nearby beach at 02:30am. It was a dark and cramped ride inside the tiny vessel, but I made it back to catch my flight!
It is also very helpful to bring USD into the country which is necessary upfront to pay the visa on arrival fee and for the initial taxi ride. There is a currency exchange at the airport but it is typically closed and no ATMs are available. Ask your accommodations how much to pay for the taxi ride or expect to get a substantially higher price. There are some ATMs around Dili, but none on Atauro and the entire island is cash-based so be sure to pull enough money for your whole stay.
Once you make it into Atauro's waters though, any frustrations from the trek there definitely begin to fade as you dive through the incredible reefs though and sip cold ones on the beach!