Don’t Skip: Labuan Bajo, Indonesia

Bajo Fisherman

Intro to Labuan Bajo

Labuan Bajo lies on the westernmost coast of the island of Flores in Indonesia. Known best for its proximity to Komodo National Park, Labuan Bajo does see a fair number of tourists. At heart, it’s still a small fishing village, but the tourism industry is growing fast, and there is a wide range of accommodation and dining options. The airport (LBJ) isn’t too far from town, and has service from Denpasar (Bali), Mataram (Lombok) and several other small cities. Many people arrive by sea on a liveaboard boat from places like the Gili Islands off Lombok. Reviews are mixed, but it’s apparently quite an adventure regardless. We were trying to be economical, so opted for the “land, water, land, water, land” route involving several buses and ferries. After a 57 hour odyssey, we eventually made it, and spent a wonderful week on the island. As remote as it is, we’d jump at the chance to return. Below are some highlights.

Komodo Dragons

Komodo Dragons

Rinca and Komodo islands are the only habitats in the world where Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis; locally called ora) are found. The dragons are the world’s largest lizard, and can grow up to about 9 feet (3 meters) and weigh over 300 lbs. There are about 2700 in Komodo National Park, according to the last survey, taken in 2010. The largest community is on Rinca Island. Dragons on Rinca look a little different from those on Komodo, and no longer cross back and forth between the two islands. We visited Rinca on one of our dive days, with plenty of time for a guided walk through landscapes that reminded us of Africa, an open savannah with a few hills and lots of palm trees. Read our post on our walk with the dragons for more details!

Bajo Dive Club Boat

Diving

This part of Indonesia is famous for world-class diving and amazing underwater beauty. The straits around the islands of Nusa Tenggara form channels between the southern ocean and northern, This means that sea giants like whales, manta rays, sharks, dolphins and turtles are often in sight, in addition to endemic species. The whole area is a transition zone known as Wallacea, for the Wallace Line that runs between Bali and Lombok. It’s an underwater biodiversity hotspot! We dove with the friendly folks of Bajo Dive Club. We completed a total of five dives at some awesome sites. Corals were colorful and healthy. Green and Hawksbill Turtles accompanied us on every immersion. There were also several types of sharks and rays, all the common creatures like Butterflyfish, boxfish (my personal favorite after the cutie cowfish), Moorish Idols, Clown Triggerfish, and the highlight, mantas. The way these giants (some with a 10-foot wingspan) appear from nowhere and glide gracefully by is indescribable.

Currents can be strong at some locations, but this makes for excellent drift dives. Coral bommies, pinnacles and walls were perfect for searching for the small stuff: nudibranches, shrimp, flatworms and juvenile fish. Close inspection is always rewarded with something unusual and special, like an amazing Orangutan Crab we spotted one day. He peeked out of his hiding place for just long enough to give us a wave with his fuzzy claw before retreating. We were able to see dolphins daily as well.

Labuan Bajo Sunset

Sunsets

Sunsets over the bay in Labuan Bajo are absolutely gorgeous. We saw several while walking home after a long day of diving. You can also relax with a drink and a bite at one of the hillside restaurants to enjoy the exquisite views.

Labuan Bajo Soccer Match

The Interior

The rest of the island of Flores has much more to explore: waterfalls, caves, petrified forests, spiderweb-shaped fields unique to the villages (such as Cancar) they surround, and one of the deepest crater lakes on earth at Sano Nggoang. Liang Bua, about 14k from Ruteng, is a cave famous as the place where the skull of Homo floresiensis was discovered. Archaeologists believe the skull dates back about 18,000 years. Also found in the cave were the bones of a stegodon (an ancient elephant), komodo and turtles.  Kelimutu is close to the town of Moni, and a hike to the top is rewarded with views of three, different-colored crater lakes. Getting to the interior of the island (never mind to the other side and Maumere) can be tricky, and it’s probably best to hook up with a trustworthy tour operator to do so. It is also possible to rent a car.

Friendly Beach Goers

Where We Stayed and Ate

Komodo Indah is located on the main road of Labuan Bajo on the second floor, just above a furniture shop. It’s just up and over the hill heading south from the docks. It’s a decent choice among the budget guesthouses. We stayed in the only air-con room, as it had its own bathroom and looked cleaner than some of the other choices. The place was being managed by one of the owner’s sons and some of his friends, so “breakfast” consists on what they feel like grabbing (toast, a packaged donut) plus a cup of good, local coffee.

Treetop Restaurant: We ate here several times after a day of diving. Food was tasty and we always had the nicest server, though he’s not there any more. There are both Western, local and Chinese selections on the menu. Beers are some of the cheapest in town. Sunset views from the top floor are great, and there’s a pool table on the first floor.

We had some of the best pizza we’d ever had (yes, you heard it, EVER) at Made In Italy in Labuan Bajo, a most unlikely spot, since everything has to be imported. The owner/chef, Marco KNOWS how to do pizza. He’s picky about the ingredients, and it shows. Pizzas are baked in a stone oven. We splurged a little, since prices are, as one would expect, higher than standard local fare.

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.