Ripe coffee beans in Letefoho, East Timor

East Timor Coffee Country – How To Visit Gleno, Ermera & Letefoho

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One of the best-kept secrets about Timor Leste is her distinction as a producer of some of the world’s best coffee. East Timor coffee might only account for 1% of the global coffee production but I loved the smooth, slightly sweet flavor of a fresh cup o’ from the Letefoho Coffee Shop near the US Embassy in Dili.

The first coffee plants were brought onto the island by the Portuguese in the 19th century but have since taken on a life of their own.

Most of the coffee produced in East Timor is a hybrid of Arabica and Robusta called Tim Tim (or Timor Hybrid).

In the early 2000s, Starbucks invested heavily in the small-hold farmers who sell to cooperatives and the US company remains the largest buyer of East Timor’s organic coffee.

The plants grow largely without interference in the highlands of central Timor Leste in the shade of Albizia falcataria trees, a mimosa variety that reaches lofty heights.

Gleno

Gleno is the region’s largest city. Sitting on a plateau, it’s more compressed than Suai or Lospalos but of a similar size.

The gigantic church and a few government buildings are interesting to look at.

And thanks to the modern guesthouse and the bus connection to Dili it’s a good base to see East Timor’s coffee country.

Ermera

Ermera is a small village with a few crumbling 20th-century Portuguese buildings.

The main draw is the coffee cultivation in the area.

East Timor coffee isn’t grown in large plantations but instead in the shade of massive “Mother trees.” Their umbrella-like canopies protect the coffee beans from the sun as much as from the rain.

It seems like everyone owns some plants and between May and October people come from all over to harvest their coffee, keeping some for their own use and selling the rest to cooperatives that hold deals with coffee shop giants such as Starbucks.

I drove into Ermera from Gleno and then walked back, taking in the red coffee beans waiting to be picked, the mother trees, and the honey combs that seem to grow in them.

There are only few houses along the way, and if you tire you can easily hop on the next angguna to Gleno as they pass at least hourly.

Letefoho

Coffee is one of Timor-Leste's best-kept secrets. But the country does, in fact, produce some of the finest organic beans for bigshots like Starbucks. In this guide, you'll learn all you need to know about visiting East Timor coffee country - Gleno, Ermera, Letefoho - and discover more than just coffee. #coffeelovers #offthebeatenpath #southeastasia #timorleste

Letefoho is my favorite spot in East Timor.

A visit to this small village can be done as a day trip from Dili. If you stay until the afternoon you’ll have to hitchhike back to Gleno but it’s a calculable risk well worth taking.

Why is East Timor’s highest settlement (almost 2,000m above sea level) so special?

While it might not be by the sea, to me Letefoho is Timor-Leste in a nutshell:

Arrive below the market and turn left toward the Catholic church.

Set on a hill above the market that’s bustling with produce sellers and vendors selling 2nd hand clothes and household goods, the church steeple has a roof in the most unusual shape: two hands folded for prayer.

Continue on a way of the cross from the church. Many of the station markers have disappeared but you’ll soon see a hill with three crosses.

Continue walking and you’ll get to a Christ the Redeemer statue more impressive than the Christo Rei in Dili.

This Christ stands on top of the head of a Timor-Leste tribal king; the staircase leading up to the top is shaped like a sacred crocodile. Here, ancient culture and newer traditions merge.

And if that’s not all, Letefoho offers perfect views of East Timor’s highest peak, Mount Ramelau (aka Tatamailau).

I didn’t get to see it when I climbed Mount Ramelau from Hato Builico. But there it was in all its beauty. It looks quite harmless from the distance.

There is a path from Christo Rei de Letefoho to the Virgin Mary on top of Mt. Ramelau.

If you want to do that route you’d best call Alexandre from the Alcerim Guesthouse in Hato Builico or talk to a Dili travel agency as you will want a guide to navigate the unmarked paths.

And if, instead, you are visiting just Letefoho on a day trip you can turn back, pas the church, the market and where the bus dropped you, and explore the other end of the village with a hill covered in coffee trees in the shade of the dense canopies of “mother trees.”

End your walk in the cemetery with views of Mt. Ramelau to the East and all the way to Balibo in the West.

If you have your own means of transport and feel secure navigating the bad mountain roads, Mota Bandeira waterfall, about 20 km from Letefoho towards Atsabe, is a massive waterfall with natural pools.

Photo gallery

How to get the Letefoho

Buses

From Tasi Tolu on the Western end of Dili, you can catch buses to Ermera every morning until about 7am.

However, just to make it complicated, most of these buses do not, in fact, go to Ermera. Rather, they’ll go to Letefoho and on to Atsabe. For Ermera, you’ll have to get off the bus in Gleno and continue in an angguna.

I stayed in Gleno and at 8 am caught one of the buses for Letefoho passing through.

Note, that while it’s easy to get to Letefoho if you get up early enough, getting out of Letefoho is harder as the last bus for Dili leaves Atsabe at 7am as well.

Don’t worry too much, though, I only waited half an hour before I was able to hitch a ride back to Gleno from the road below Letefoho market.

If you are in a bind, you can walk toward Gleno. After 16km, the road joins the Ermera road and you’ll be able to catch an angguna back into town.

Minibuses & anggunas

Throughout the day, smaller buses and microlets leave Tasi Tolu for Gleno.

From Gleno, anggunas go to Ermera throughout the day.

On your own – by car or motorcycle

If you don’t want to walk or use public transport, you’ll have to organiz your journey starting in Dili.

In the capital, you can hire motorcycles for about USD25/day.

But be aware that after Gleno the road becomes narrower, more riddled with potholes and muddy when it rains. So I’d only recommend you drive yourself if you know what you’re doing.

You can also get on an organized tour. Timor Adventures, for example, offers a day trip from Dili to Ermera, Gleno, Maubera, and Liquica for about USD160 per car (shared among as many passengers as partake).

Where to stay

Surprisingly, there are barely any guest houses in the area. Letefoho especially, could, in my opinion, greatly benefit from a tourist accommodation.

At the moment, the only option other than bringing your own tent seems to be a guest house in Gleno that doesn’t even have a sign.

When you get into Gleno from Dili, walk back toward the bridge and just before the bridge, at the end of the market, turn left.

Walk down until you see the walled football field on the left. On the right, you’ll see a shop in the ground floor of a building with a balcony on the first floor.

The rooms are clean, fairly new, with air conditioning and funky Spongebob Squarepants bedding. I paid USD30/night for a single en-suite with breakfast.

Where to eat

Gleno has several local restaurants, around the market, most of which close before dinner.

For dinner, head over to the Timor Telecom building. Across the street is a fairly large restaurant serving a good selection of buffet items (similar to nasi campur) until late at night.

In Ermera and Letefoho, you’ll find stalls selling snacky food items such as bread, boiled eggs or sausage saté as well as the usual Mie Pop cups around the markets.

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