Jaco Island from Valu Sere beach, East Timor

How To Visit East Timor’s Sacred Jaco Island (Plus: Nino Konis Santana NP)

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Jaco is a sacred island in the far East of Timor Leste. Along with East Timor’s largest lake, Ila Lalaro, it is part of the country’s first conservation area, Nino Konis Santana National Park. Beyond the remote island off Valu Sere beach, ancient rock paintings and caves await the intrepid traveler who dares to go East East.

Lospalos

Lospalos is the region’s largest city. Sitting in a large plain, it’s more a collection of villages and hamlets than a metropolis. It’s a convenient base to explore the different sights of Nino Konis Santana National Park if you have your own transport (or book transport via Hotel Roberto Carlos).

Otherwise, it’s a typical East Timorese rural city.

Note that any buses leaving Lospalos for Dili leave early in the morning and that due to the abysmal condition of the road beyond Lospalos, any other transport — such as to Iliomar and South coast — is few and far in-between.

Tutuala village & rock paintings

Learn all you need to know about how to visit the sacred Jaco Island and East Timor’s first conservation area, Nino Konis Santana National Park. In addition to info on sights to see and transport/accommodation/food options on Valu Sere beach - your jumping off point for Jaco Island - this extensive guide also covers Lospalos and Tutuala village. #backpacking #offthebeatenpath #southeastasia
Learn all you need to know about how to visit the sacred Jaco Island and East Timor’s first conservation area, Nino Konis Santana National Park. In addition to info on sights to see and transport/accommodation/food options on Valu Sere beach - your jumping off point for Jaco Island - this extensive guide also covers Lospalos and Tutuala village. #backpacking #offthebeatenpath #southeastasia

Tutuala is Timor-Leste’s Eastern-most village. It sits on a cliff high above the Banda Sea. On clear days, you can see Kisar Island in the distance. The people here are subsistence farmers and fishermen.

Tutuala is spread out over several hamlets and village.

The main village has a crumbling church with a steeple and a traditional steep-thatched roof.

The village’s only tourist accommodation is its only reminder of the Portuguese era: a pousada, or guesthouse, at the highest point of the village with a sweeping view of the sea and the coast.

Independence fighter Nino Konis Santana was born in Tutuala and there is a small archive in the village center dedicated to his memory.

The Fataluku people of Tutuala and the surrounding area are related to Papuan seafarers who were the first to migrate to Australia more than 40,000 years ago.

Along the road from Tutuala to Valu Sere beach, you’ll have the chance to explore East Timor’s ancient history.

Kere Kere and Lene Hara and about half a dozen other sites in the area have remarkably well-kept rock paintings that might well be up to 30,000 years old.

While all sites are easy to reach independently, please remember that they are sacred to the Fataluku and it would be respectful to ask for a local to guide you (ca. USD20).

How to get to Lene Hara cave & rock paintings

Lene Hara is easy to get to from Valu Sere but also easy to miss.

About 1 km before the beach, you’ll see a sign on the left side of the road pointing you to Lene Hara.

Follow the path for about 150 m.

When you get to a fork in the path stay left and within a few steps, you should see a rock wall through the foliage on the left. Walk towards the rock.

That’s Lene Hara, a cave with rock paintings in the ceiling (look up at the entrance) and formerly a temple-like structure (look to the right and you’ll recognize what used to be a massive door).

Make sure you bring a flashlight to explore the inside of the cave.

BTW: If you get back to that fork in the path and turn left instead of right, back to the road, you’ll eventually end up at Lakumorre Guesthouse and Valu Sere Beach Bungalows. The path is hard to miss but in some spots requires you to carefully climb down low ledges; don’t take it if you are carrying a heavy backpack or didn’t bring hiking shoes.

How to get to Kere Kere rock paintings

Kere Kere is a fair bit farther from the road between Tutuala and Valu Sere. But it’s worth the 2.5-hour detour.

About half-way down there is a dirt track going left (no signage, though!).

The track is accessible by 4×4, even though it does get narrow at some points and you’ll graze the encroaching bush.

If you follow the track till its end – about 25 minutes on foot – you’ll get to a clearing with a Timor Telecom cell tower, two paths leading into the forest, a few signs telling you about different rock painting sites in the area, and a picnic table.

Choose the left path.

The sign will tell you that Kere Kere is only 200m away. That’s not true. It’s more like 2,000m.

The first 90% of the path are pretty much a doddle: even though the jungle is slowly reclaiming the ground you can clearly see a concrete path.

There are two spots where trees have fallen onto the path. Walk around the trees or climb through them (avoid ripping your clothes, something I didn’t manage to do).

At the end of the concrete path, you’ll be led down concrete stairs.

The staircase comes to an abrupt end without any hint of where to turn next.

Staying in sight of the rock wall to your right, you want to carefully move downhill for about 5 minutes.

Low and behold, there it is: Kere Kere!

The name Kere Kere is derived from one of the best-kept and first rock paintings you’ll see: a stylized rooster. It is believed to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old and testament to the long-standing tradition of cockfighting in the region.

As you move along the rock wall you’ll also a sea urchin and even human figures.

Climbing down further, you’ll get a stunning view of the coastline below with a glimpse of Jaco Island to the right.

The bad news is that there is no shortcut and you’ll have to climb back up to the main road to continue your journey.

Valu Sere and Jaco Island

Valu Sere (also Walu or Vallu) is the long, narrow stretch of beach on the Eastern tip of Timor Leste. From here, you can catch the fishing boats to Jaco Island.

If you want to snorkel bring your own gear as it’s not guaranteed that the cooperatives running the guesthouses can provide functioning masks and snorkels.

When swimming at Valu Sere beach note that saltwater crocodiles roam the area. It’s advisable to always have someone on the lookout while you’re swimming or snorkeling. If you want to be properly scared of crocodiles (but impressed by East Timor’s doctors) talk to Nico at the pousada in Tutuala about why his dad stopped fishing.

Nino Konis Santana National Park – Ila Lalaro Lake

Nino Konis Santana National Park is East Timor’s first nature reserve. It includes Jaco Island, the jagged limestone formations around Tutuala with their ancient rock paintings, and Ira Lalaro, Timor-Leste’s largest lake.

The remote wilderness of this Eastern tip of Timor offered the last Fretelin freedom fighters under the leadership of now president Xanana Gusmao shelter during the Indonesian annihilation campaign of 1975 to 1978.

Ira Lalaro Lake is East Timor’s largest freshwater lake, though the presence of saltwater crocodiles and the fact that there is no river that would steadily bring fresh water into the lake suggest that the water is salty or brackish.

Similar to Myanmar’s Inle Lake, it sits on a large plateau (330m above sea level) and its size changes drastically between about 55km² in the rainy season (December to April) and about 10km² in the dry season (May to November).

It’s part of Nino Konis Santana National Park and offers a great variety of birds along its shores.

The lake is also home to an estimated 300 saltwater crocodiles. Thanks to the fact, that these are considered sacred in East Timor and therefore not hunted like in other parts of Southeast Asia the population was able to thrive.

Boats are traditionally not allowed on the lake and men fish by standing in the water, frequently falling prey to the salties.

When going from Lospalos/Bauro to Tutuala you’ll drive past the lake’s northern shores.

It doesn’t look very exciting: grasslands with cow pastures leading into a shallow water. I was told that the more interesting vistas are on the harder-to-reach southern shores, including a forest half submerged in the water and swamplands reminiscent of the Bayou.

Note that the road along the South lake shore is usually flooded during the rainy season and after heavy rainfall (which might also happen in the months after and before the main rainy season).

Photo gallery

Getting there

Getting to Jaco Island on public transport is an adventure in itself and when you eventually stand in the white sand of Valu Sere beach it feels like a veritable accomplishment.

I recommend that you pack as light as possible and bring walking shoes as this will allow you to move faster and more freely.

I made my journey extra complicated by putting in a stop in Com. But here is how you get to Jaco Island from Dili:

Step 1: Dili to Lospalos by bus

Take the bus from Bekora bus station to Lospalos.

Tickets cost about USD14 and the journey takes roughly 8 hours depending on the road condition on your travel day.

Note that most buses leave in the morning or in the afternoon and that you might wait up to a few hours until the bus leaves.

If you want to break your journey, take a bus to Baucau, spend the night there, and catch any Dili – Lospalos bus as they pass through the old town of Baucau (best waiting point: outside the pousada/market under a beautiful tree).

Buses to Baucau leave frequently from Bekora throughout the day.

When you get to Bekora bus station hold on to your bags as bus helper boys – in an effort to get you on their bus – will grab your bags and run to the respective bus they are trying to fill up. However, no reason for panic: it is more a nuisance than a worry about losing any of your stuff.

If you want to avoid that situation simply have your taxi drop you 100m outside the bus station and walk to a bus of your choice.

Going back to Dili from Lospalos turned into a problem for me as the last bus to Dili leaves Lospalos at 8 am. If you miss that you’ll be stuck (or have to hitchhike).

There is no proper bus station in Lospalos, instead, starting from Paróquia São Pedro e São Paulo roundabout near the market, buses will circle through the city until reasonably full.

Step 2: Lospalos to Tutuala (or as close as you can get to Tutuala) by angguna

Here is where the fun begins. Catching the bus from Dili was easy.

Now, while you can ask the bus driver to drop you at the Bauro turn-off to Tutuala, I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, go into Lospalos, tell the bus driver you want to go to Tutuala, and he will find you an angguna (that’s a truck used as a bus) heading in that direction.

The anggunas also cruise through town until full. But the market or the Paróquia São Pedro e São Paulo roundabout are good places to wait.

This seeming detour is necessary because anggunas might take one of the back routes and not pass through Bauro at all or they might be full by the time they get to Bauro.

Unfortunately, there is no daily direct connection to Tutuala at this moment.

Many anggunas terminate service in Mehara, about 8km from Tutuala.

Your driver might offer to take you the rest of the way for around USD20. But you can also chance it and start walking in hopes of catching a – free – ride in the back of a pick-up or on someone’s motorcycle.

I got lucky and hitched a free ride until Tutuala Suco, about 2km from Tutuala village.

When leaving Tutuala, ask Nico at the pousada whether he knows of anyone heading into town. Or you do as I did and just start walking.

I ended up getting a free ride all the way into Lospalos on a rolling supermarket, trucks loaded with goods from Baucau crisscrossing the area to sell directly to customers or to the small shops. It took a few hours but was an interesting experience.

Step 3: Tutuala to Valu Sere beach

This last section is 9km long and I opted to walk.

Since the track goes almost completely down-hill it can be done in 2 hours if you simply follow the wide road.

However, I wanted to see a couple of things along the way and being on foot gave me the freedom to just get off the main road and explore.

You can ask around Tutuala for a motorcycle to take you down/up. It should cost you about USD20 one-way.

However, the track is steep and currently not in a good condition, which only gets worse with rain. So I would not recommend using a motorcycle/scooter.

You cannot find cars in Tutuala to take you anywhere and you cannot rent scooters/motorcycles.

When you walk you might get very lucky and see cars go past. Note, however, that most of these are cars with foreign tourists and they will usually not stop (if they have space at all).

I did not see a single car going in my direction on my way down and when I walked up again, all three cars going my way were full. The only one who stopped was a policeman but he was heading toward the beach.

I was told that once in a while the fishermen have an angguna come to take their catch to Lospalos. But I would not count on that when planning your journey to Jaco Island and back.

Finally, some promising news: While the road between Bauro and Tutuala is a dirt track, wide but riddled with rocks and potholes, the road between Tutuala and Valu Sere is currently in development and should soon be a beautifully smooth and wide tarred road. This might make it easier you convince an angguna driver in Lospalos to take you to the beach at a reasonable price.

Step 4: Valu Sere beach to Jaco Island

Once you’ve made it to Valu Sere beach, turn left to get to the two guest houses or turn right to find the fishermen and their boats that can take you to Jaco Island.

The going rate seems to be USD10 per person (not per boat) and includes the fisherman hanging out on Jaco island, using his time to fish while you snorkel or lounge in the white sands.

Where to stay

Lospalos accommodation

If you check Google Maps, you’ll find five hotels or guest houses in Lospalos.

I was only able to verify the existence of two of them and I ended up staying at Hotel Roberto Carlos because I couldn’t see the sign for the guest house.

Hotel Roberto Carlos is a rather large hotel outside of Lospalos center; though it has to be said that Lospalos is very spread out and “the center” is merely defined by the existence of a couple of schools, a couple of churches, and the central market.

I paid USD35 for a room with breakfast. Breakfast was the best I had in East Timor – banana pancakes, fresh rolls, juice – and the family who runs it is lovely and always trying to help.

However, the hotel is long past its heyday when NGOs and UN soldiers came here on their off-days. The rooms are clean, the bed comfortable, and the air conditioning efficient but the bathrooms are in dire need of maintenance.

Stay at Roberto Carlos if you need help organizing guides and transport in the region.

The other option is the Centro Antico guest house near the Centro Saudade.

You might miss it as I did: from the central bus stop go into the street that has the Paróquia São Pedro e São Paulo on the left and the Centro Saudade on the right until you see the traditional wooden, stilted house to your right, turn onto the street that makes a sharp right turn around the tradisional; the Centro Antico guesthouse is on the left.

I was told by a fellow backpacker that for USD15/night you get a decent, simple private room and breakfast.

Centro Antico guesthouse coordinates: -8.522122, 126.999232.

Tutuala accommodation

I had read that there would be “several guesthouses” in Tutuala. Oh boy, how wrong I was!

Tutuala is a sleepy little village, which doesn’t even have a proper market.

And with the few foreign visitors these days coming on organized tours that take them straight to Valu Sere beach there is no market for guesthouses.

The only visible option is the old Portuguese guest house, the Pousada Lautem. The government renovated it and rented it to a local family.

Even though the humid weather is showing in the walls, manager Nico and his two helpers keep all rooms clean and ready for guests that might pop in unannounced.

All six rooms are large and airy with high ceilings and have en-suite bathrooms.

The two Deluxe Rooms in the main building have portable air conditioning units (which thanks to the location on a cliff high above the sea are not really necessary).

Rooms at the Pousada Lautem in Tutuala cost USD25 for the standard room or USD50 for the deluxe option, both including breakfast. Lunch and dinner are available on request.

It is best to book your stay at the pousada in Tutuala ahead. However, if you come unannounced, there’s a phone number on the door to call or ask any local hanging around to get Nico (the manager).

Apparently, there’s also an informal guest house right at the junction to Valu Sere offering rooms for USD10/night. But I didn’t see it and hence didn’t get a look at the rooms.

Valu Sere/Jaco Island accommodation

Valu Sere boasts not one but two places to stay! Both are run by the community and should be prebooked to avoid arriving to locked doors, no vacancy, or no food.

Lakumorre Guest House was locked when I arrived (unannounced). From the outside, it looked like accommodation is provided in rooms in a brick-and-mortar building.

Valu Sere Beach Bungalows (on Google Maps as Guest House Valu) is a collection of simple bamboo huts with a shared, external bathroom.

I almost didn’t get to stay here, either, because a group from Australia had booked all the huts.

I eventually stayed in the smallest room (USD20 excluding breakfast).

The mattresses are old and thin, the mosquito nets have holes, there are no fans, and electricity cuts out frequently.

If there is any place in East Timor where I wish I would have brought a tent it’s Valu Sere.

Very important note: Jaco Island is a sacred place in Timor-Leste culture and it is forbidden to spend the night there.

If you have a Telemore SIM card, it will probably not work in Valu Sere.

Where to eat

Lospalos has a few local restaurants, including the one at Hotel Roberto Carlos which offers a few Western dishes in addition to the usual local fare of fried rice, fried noodles, chicken, and fish.

In Tutuala, you can order your lunches and dinners from the pousada for USD5 per vegetarian meal with copious amounts of rice and vegetables.

Alternatively, you can buy Mie Pop cups at the shop. Note, that there is no produce market in Tutuala.

Apart from fish, anything you consume in Valu Sere/Jaco Island needs to be taken there (usually by motorcycle).

That is why it’s crucial that you book your stay ahead to give the cooperative the chance to bring in supplies.

Alternatively, you can bring supplies from Lospalos or Baucau for the staff to cook (you’ll still be charged per meal).

A simple breakfast consisting largely of donut-type pastries costs USD2 at Velu Sere Beach Bungalows; lunch and dinner cost USD5 each. A large bottle of water costs USD2 (compared to USD0.50 in Dili).

You might also like…

Learn all you need to know about how to visit the sacred Jaco Island and East Timor’s first conservation area, Nino Konis Santana National Park. In addition to info on sights to see and transport/accommodation/food options on Valu Sere beach - your jumping off point for Jaco Island - this extensive guide also covers Lospalos and Tutuala village. 
#backpacking #offthebeatenpath #southeastasia

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