Home > mint-lounge > The hard, scenic road to Jaco

Timor-Leste reminds you of days when it was still possible to believe in lands “far, far away". Moored on the far eastern edge of South-East Asia, its crocodile-shaped length is a speck on two seas: Banda Sea to its north and Timor Sea to its south.

Yet, those who make the journey and reach its easternmost district of Lautem, right up to Tutuala—a village that hides caves dating back 35,000 years—and make the precipitous right turn going down to Valu Beach (navigable only by a four-wheel drive), are looking to go even farther: to the magical island of Jaco.

Jaco Island is part of the famed Coral Triangle, an underwater area that holds the world’s greatest diversity of both corals and coral reef fish, and is protected by the Nino Konis Santana National Park. The island is considered a sacred site by locals and is uninhabited. There are no permanent structures on the island, camping is prohibited, and its only regular visitors are fishermen, their hand-sharpened spears laden with fresh-caught yellowfin tuna and red bass. The biggest draw is, of course, the beach itself, which, even in a country strewn with great beaches, elicits rapturous eulogies.

I arrived in Dili, determined to see this secret island. Dili, which is the best place to stock up on bottled water and other supplies, has a unique vibe that draws from the Austronesian-Melanesian mix of its population and, naturally, the more recent history of strife and violence. The street scene is gritty, with the notorious martial arts gangs a constant ominous presence in the city’s underbelly. At Arte Moris, the city’s most well-known art space, installations and artwork use burnt tyres, brightly coloured gasoline jerrycans, mutilated automobile parts and assorted detritus to narrate a visceral post-conflict experience.

Sunny climes: A girl from East Timor walks past dried fish in one of the many refugee camps. Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

Elsewhere, locals throng the beaches near Areia Branca, the site of a cliff-hanging 27m statue of “Christ the King" (moulded in the likeness of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro), while expat aid workers and off-duty UN police officers peel off their neoprene wetsuits and brag of sightings at the city’s many world-class dive sites like Dili Rock or, a little farther out, K41. These days, the evening ends with nothing bloodier than the sky, stained with the setting sun, and everyone—locals, expats, UN troops, tourists—can climb the wooden steps of Castaway—Dili’s undisputed king of evening hangouts—and settle down to jugs of sangria and a live band.

A statue of the Virgin Mary on the peak of Mount Ramelau. Sebastian Ku

In a perverse way, it’s this history that has protected Timor’s exceptional natural beauty from the scavenging attentions of global resort chains and tour operators. But “give it another couple of years, you wouldn’t be able to recognize it", a local friend tells me when I exclaim what a discovery this feels. He may be right: In October, CNN’s online travel portal argued that Timor deserves to be a more popular destination and The Sydney Morning Herald has compared it to Bali in the 1970s. According to the government, arrivals are few, but growing steadily.

For now, though, travelling through Timor still gives you that rare feeling of having truly discovered a place for yourself. For those headed to Jaco Island the experience is intensified.

A game of football in progress in Dili. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Reaching “pantai (Bahasa Indonesian for beach) Valu" feels like a minor victory. Jaco Island is in sight. Unfortunately, the only way to get there is to wait on the beach patiently for a kind fisherman to take you across.

I left the soft, vanilla sand behind to venture into the ossified volcanic formations that drape the island. The floor was rocky and it hurt to walk barefoot on its jagged surface. That afternoon, the sun was relentless, but the rocks have also formed natural awnings that trap the balmy breeze. I stood in the crevice of one of these alcoves, watching the sea come in, wetting the pebbly veins of the caves.

Timor is a hard place to travel to: Outside of Dili, accommodation is basic, the food mediocre, the heat sapping, and there are no “easy" days. It is still grappling with basics such as roads (22% of national roads are classified as being in “poor" condition and about 70% in “very poor" condition), electricity, water and security. Yet, in this era of airbrushed holidays, Timor—and Jaco Island—is a rare experience.

Also See | Trip Planner (PDF)

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

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