Dili, East Timor’s capital at the Northern coast is without a doubt the most-visited part of the country. It’s a great place for diving and to explore the country’s history, as well as a hub for travel into all the regions of Timor-Leste.
Diving From Dili
East Timor counts itself among the prime dive destinations in the World. Off the coasts, and sometimes just steps away from the beach, there are reefs waiting to be discovered as well as volcanoes and walls going down into mile-deep canyons. The waters are crystal clear and teeming with maritime fauna.
Dili Dive Shops
With almost 20 years of history, Dive Timor Lorasae is the oldest dive shop in East Timor.
They organize dive excursions and PADI certifications and can help you with your East Timor backpacking — from simple questions such as where to find the bus to whale watching tours to hiring a driver and guides for a few days of trekking the mountains.
Their headquarters is by the beach, between the Chinese and the US embassies.
Accommodation is offered in dorms, private rooms, or modern apartments.
And you don’t even need to leave the compound to get food as the CastAway bar/restaurant serves some of the city’s best burgers and Margaritas.
Compass Charters & Ocean Adventures operates a tour company to organize dives and tours throughout the country. They also have two Eco Camps on Atauro.
http://aquaticadiveresort.comAquatica Dive Resort in West Dili offers upscale accommodation with their dive trips.
Equipment is available for rent at all dive shops.
Prices start around USD50/dive and are determined by the dive spot distance from the shop.
East Timor’s marine wealth doesn’t only include coral reefs. Every year between August and November, different species of whales – from dolphins to orcas to whale sharks – migrate through the Ombai Strait separating Atauro island from mainland Timor Leste.
If you’re lucky you might see them during your passage to/from Atauro.
Or – if you want to help luck – you can book whale watching tours, most notably through the dive shops listed above.
The 27m-tall Christ the Redeemer statue East of Dili is the city’s best-known monument.
It’s a favorite workout destination for
Below the statue are some of Dili’s best beaches.
To get to the Dili Christo Rei, catch a cab (around USD10 one-way) or use microlet #12 (from Dili Port).
As mentioned before, East Timor has endless miles of beaches to offer and Dili is no exception.
West of the port runs a long stretch of sand and rocks with a cute green and white lighthouse in the middle.
East of the port is a large park along the seafront.
And even further east, toward Christo Rei, you’ll find larger beaches inviting you to spend the day and sip a coconut in the shade.
When you climb up to Christ the Redeemer the path forks about half-way, turn right and you’ll get to a more remote beach; locals reckon this is the city’s finest.
Dili’s population has caught on to the global fitness craze and you’ll see people run along the beach promenade, sometimes all the way up to Christo Rei.
And in the early evening, if they’re not running, families come out for a walk. They might also buy fish from the fishermen presenting their catch of the day or – during low tide – they’ll go into the shallow water and collect crabs.
Art & history
Apart from Christo Rei (Christ the Redeemer), there are several other statues dotted around the town. The most impressive ones, in my option, are the one on the airport roundabout and the one next to the port, opposite Motael (St. Anthony) church.
The soldier on the airport roundabout depicts the national hero Nicolau Lobato, East Timor’s first president, who declared the country’s independence in 1975 and who was killed in 1978 during the war with Indonesia.
Opposite Motael church is another monument to the fallen. The “Statua Juventude” — the statue of youth — was made by the same artist as the Lobato monument and depicts victims of the Santa Cruz massacre: On November 12, 1991, at least 250 East Timorese demonstrating for independence were killed. It is considered the bloodiest of several massacres carried out by Indonesian troops between 1975 and 1999. November 12 is now a public holiday.
To learn more about East Timor’s long struggle for independence, head over to the Resistance Museum. The small museum and national archive chronicle Timor Leste’s history from the kingdoms that ruled the lands before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century until independence in 2002.
Chega! Museum used to be a prison in Indonesian times and now displays works by local artists.
Dare Monument in the mountains just above Dili commemorates the partnership of Australian soldiers and Timorese people during the WWII Japanese invasion of the island.
Markets & Shopping
Taibesse (Taibisi) market is Dili’s largest produce market. Here, you’ll find a large selection of fruits and vegetables from all regions along with fish and meat, clothes, and household goods.
If you just want fresh fruit without the stress of Taibesse market, you’ll find them by the seafront East of Licedere Park, opposite the Lita Supermarket, or in a small market near Aru Bakery & Cafe on the Pertamina Jetty end of Avenida de Portugal.
For a more souvenir-oriented shopping experience, head over to Tais Market near the port. Here you can get the traditional East Timorese tais weaves — heavy fabrics with colorful striped patterns — as well as jewelry, bags and other East-Timor-themed merchandise.
Timor Plaza is a typical Western mall where you can buy electronics, sit in coffee shops, eat at restaurants serving international cuisines, and even see a movie in a multiplex cinema.
Alola Foundation was founded by the president’s wife, Dr. Kirsty Sword Gusmao, and specifically supports the women and children of East Timor. In their shop in Dili, they sell handcrafts made by women from all over the country.
Day trips from Dili
Along the Western coast to Liquica and Maubara
Into Coffee Country: Letefoho & Ermera
Public transport is the one thing in Dili that is cheap. Be it the ubiquitous yellow taxis or the microlets that seem daunting first but become convenient once you’ve understood the routes.
The cheapest way to move around Dili is the microlet. These are small minibusses, painted with colorful designs go along designated routes (unless the driver has an errand to run or you pay a bit extra).
Microlets cost 25 cents per ride, occasionally less; if you hand the driver 25 cents once you’ve left the vehicle you can’t go wrong.
There are no fixed stops along the routes. Instead, you either yell “Parar!” (stop!) when you want to get out or you tap a coin against the metal handrails.
The microlets are narrow and get crowded quickly. So they might not be for tall people.
While during rush hour you will often see young men hang to the outside of the minibusses, I found that microlets will not stop for malae if they can’t offer you space on the benches.
And when you are moving with big luggage, I recommend getting a cab.
If you aren’t sure which microlet to catch find a landmark near your destination (a market, a church, a mall,…) and ask how to get there. Most people don’t know the street names but they do know where the markets and churches are.
You always want to have maps.me downloaded on your phone to navigate.
dilimicrolets.com has some info on Dili microlet lines but I find it cumbersome to use.
Main Dili microlet routes that I have used:
- 1 to Bekora bus station
- 2 to Bekora bus station, passes the port
- 4 to Taibessi market/bus station (Tibesi)
- 6 passes Timor Plaza, port, Tais Market
- 7 to Taibessi (Tibesi)
- 8 to Taibessi (Tibesi)
- 9 goes along the full length of the waterfront between Palacio de Governo (martyr monument when going West), passes airport roundabout, port
- 10 to Tasi Tolu bus station, passes Timor Plaza, Tais Market, port, airport roundabout
- 11 to Tasi Tolu bus station, passes Timor Plaza, Tais Market, airport roundabout
- 12 goes to Christo Rei, passes the port
More Dili microlets
- Tasi Tolu to Liquica (USD2, often goes all the way to Maubara Fort)
- Taibessi to Belar
- Bekora to Manutoto
In Dili, there are two types of official taxis:
Yellow taxis are plentiful on the streets of Dili. They are usually older cars, moving at a frightfully slow speed. But the fare is cheaper (USD2 to USD5) than for blue cabs.
Blue taxis are a lot rarer. Hiring one of those newer cars usually requires somebody knowing somebody to call (ask your accommodation) and a 10- to 30-minute wait. Dili’s blue taxis are metered and cost roughly USD0.75 per kilometer.
There are no official motorcycle taxis in Dili.
Uber or Grab currently don’t operate in East Timor.
If you are planning a sunrise excursion or move around after sunset taxis will be hard to come by. Make arrangements via your accommodation or a driver you know and plan extra time.
Buses from/to Dili
Dili is East Timor’s main transport hub. From the capital, you can catch buses into all parts of the country.
Depending on where you are going, you have to head to one of three bus stations:
- Buses to Lospalos (via Baucau) from Bekora bus station
- Buses to Viqueque (via Baucau) from Bekora bus station
- Buses to Suai (via Maubisse and Ainaro) from Taibisse bus station
- Buses to Same (via Maubisse) from Taibisse bus station
- Buses to Maliana (via Balibo) from Tasi Tolu bus station
- Buses to Ermera (vis Gleno) from Tasi Tolu bus station
- If you are heading to Oecusse or Kupang in West Timor, you need to go the Timor Tours and Travel office in Fatuhada. Buses to both destinations leave daily at 8 am.
Dili offers a wide selection of hotels, guesthouses, apartments and even hostels. Hostel dorms start at USD10/night, privates can be had for about USD40/night and the fanciest among the hotel resorts clock in at about USD250/night.
The standard is below what you might find on Bali but on par with Sri Lanka or Cambodia.
Note, however, that WiFi is not standard in East Timor; some accommodations might claim that they have it but it turns out that they’ll provide you with a SIM card rather than WiFi access.
I stayed in three quite different properties:
When I first arrived I stayed in this centrally located business hotel next to Dili Cathedral. They picked me up from the airport, they had actual WiFi, and breakfast was served as a small buffet with savory and sweet choices.
However, air con was noisy, the bathroom was starting to fall apart, and the staff couldn’t help with any other logistics than calling a taxi and selling guided tours.
Run by Dive Timor Lorosae, this became my go-to place during my two months traveling in East Timor.
I would go backpack outside the capital for a few days and then return to the modern amenities of the Timor Backpackers: there’s a pool, CastAway bar has delicious food, the dorms have only four beds each and strong A/C, the showers are hot and powerful, there’s solid WiFi, and there’s even a TV with HBO and other English-language channels.
When Timor Backpackers couldn’t accommodate me on my penultimate night, I opted for this guest house run by an Australian woman and with a central location behind the US embassy.
The room was large and clean, and the bed very comfortable.
But there was no WiFi, the shower was cold, air conditioning could only be set to freezing or off, and to boot I was asked to pay the Booking.com host fee on top of the room rate (which in 100+ bookings has never happened to me).
I’ve also heard great things from fellow backpackers about Hostel DaTerra.
While the facilities might not be as swish as the ones at Timor Backpackers, Hostel De Terra has a convenient location in walking distance to the port (for your boat to Atauro) and is run by a Timorese couple with in-depth knowledge of budget travel in East Timor.