Break in the clouds during sunrise on top of Mt. Ramelau, East Timor

How To Climb Mount Ramelau & What To Do Around Maubisse

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As you set out from Taibissi bus station and make your way along the road from Dili into the mountains, you’ll notice motorcycles and anggunas proudly decorated with the red/black/yellow Timor-Leste flags pass you by. Those vehicles are most likely en route to Mount Ramelau, the massif that at 3,000m holds the country’s highest peak and national pride.

Known as Foho Tatamailau or Tata Mailau in Tetum, the “Grandfather of all” Mount Ramelau’s peak is dedicated to the perished souls (according to the East Timorese animistic tradition) and to the Virgin Mary (according to the newer, Catholic tradition). A 3m statue of the Virgin Mary, created in 1997 in Italy, adorns the summit.

It seems as though every Timorese needs to visit the mountain at least once in their life. Thus, the path to the summit is always full of pilgrims. In March of each year, thousands of people commemorate the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.

On a perfect day, you can see all the way to Atauro island in the North and to the coast in South. However, on an ordinary day, the summit is clad in clouds and rain.

This guide covers the ascent to Mount Ramelau from Hato Builico (Maubisse) in the East of the mountain. However, there is a lesser known route coming from Letefoho in the Northwest.

Maubisse

Timor-Leste tourism pamphlets advertise Maubisse as “Little Europe.” I’m not quite sure why.

The city in the Ramelau mountains offers a temperate climate throughout the year that becomes uncomfortable cold on rainy days.

It’s the typical rural Timorese city and the only two remarkable buildings in town are the massive church and the pousada, which has a lovely garden and magnificent views of the mountains.

The surrounding forests double as coffee plantations producing some of the premium organic coffee East Timor has made itself a name for.

With its choice of accommodation and restaurant options and easy public transport access to Dili, Maubisse is a great base for day hikes in the mountains where you can discover traditional villages, waterfalls, and impressive rock formations.

Climbing Mount Ramelau

Learn all you need to know to climb Mount Ramelau, East Timor’s highest peak and national pride. Plus: More things to do around Maubisse.  #timorleste #southeastasia #trekking

To reach Mount Ramelau’s peak for sunrise, you want to start down in Hatu Builico village at about 3 am.

From the turnoff near Hato Builico market, a wide, steep, rocky track leads through the forest to the entrance gate.

If you have a 4WD car or a motorcycle, you can drive the first 2.5km and park your vehicle by the gate, thereby cutting the walking time by about one to 1.5 hours (you’ll still need a fair amount of time and skill to make it up the winding track).

From the gate, steps lead you further into the mountain. If you are walking on your own, drop a few cents into the box at the gate to support the maintenance of the path.

The steps end after about 45 minutes and the path gets a lot more narrow.
Where the rain has washed it away, you’ll have to climb on all fours.

Eventually, you’ll get to a cell tower and a plain. But you’re still not done. At then of the plain is the open-air church. Here, many young pilgrims set up their tents and spend the night.

After this point, you have to walk for another 20 minutes along the mildly rising terrain.

Finally, turn right to the Virgin Mary statue at the very top – on a clear day, the sun will rise in her back, or turn left for a sweeping view of the country with Dili to the right and the Southern coast to the left.

The Lorosae – sunrise – occurs reliably around 6.30 every morning.

Technically, you do not need a guide to climb East Timor’s highest peak from the East. The path is only mildly challenging and well beaten.

However, it is considered a token of respect and support for the local community to hire a local guide. I paid USD20 and Eusebio, albeit speaking practically no English, showed me a shortcut into the village and kindly carried my backpack.

PS: Alternatively, you can look at climbing Mount Ramelau along the route from Letefoho village. But the path is more obscure as it’s intertwined with goat paths (get a guide!) and there is no accommodation in Letefoho.

PPS: From Hato Builico, you can also do other hikes, for example to Ainaro. Ainaro has a guesthouse, an ATM, at least one restaurant, and a Portuguese fort, and is serviced by the Dili to Suai bus.

Photo gallery

What to pack for Mount Ramelau

Roughly 3,000 m might not make Timor-Leste’s highest peak a contender for the World’s highest summits, in fact, it’s number 97 on that list.

However, it is still a mountain that needs to be reckoned with. And even though the path up the mountain is technically easy and most locals will do it in flip-flops, you want to be properly prepared and not risk any injuries.

  • Wear proper hiking boots or trail runners.
  • If you have, bring hiking sticks for the steeper parts of the track.
  • Bring a flashlight if you intend to climb the mountain for sunrise or sunset.
  • Bring plenty of water and snacks as there are most likely no options to replenish your water supplies or buy snacks until you are almost back in the village.
  • Wear layers of warm clothes as temperatures might go down to freezing as you get closer to the summit.
  • Bring rain-proof clothes as this highest point in the center of East Timor – maybe not surprisingly – sees a lot of rain and the weather might change within minutes.

How to get to Hato Builico

Step 1: Dili to Maubisse by bus or angguna

Any public transport from Dili to Maubisse leaves from Taibessi bus terminal right next to the massive Taibessi market.

While I would recommend splitting the journey by going to Maubisse, spending the night, and then moving on to Hato Builico the next morning, you can also take the bus towards Suai or Ainaro or Same and ask the driver to leave you at the turn-off to Hatu-Bulico. You can just tell him “Ramelau!” and he will understand.

Buses to Suai or Ainaro – via Maubisse – leave early in the morning until about 8 am.

However, throughout the day you’ll have anggunas (trucks converted to buses) going to Maubisse.

Step 2: Maubisse to Hato Builico

There is no regular daily (public) transport between Maubisse and Hatu Builico. The reason becomes apparent once you’ve seen the 16km road, which is narrow, not tarred, and in a very bad condition, getting worse when it rains – and it rains often in the mountains.

However, there is a market in Maubisse every Tuesday and Sunday. On that occasion, anggunas will bring in villagers from Hatu Builico in the early morning and take them back in the afternoon.

So, most of the time, you’ll have to hitchhike.

Remember that there are no buses from Maubisse toward the turn-off to Hato Builico after about 10 am.

You might, therefore, have to hitchhike in stages, starting from Maubisse.

The good news is that Mount Ramelau is of massive cultural significance to the people of East Timor and there are always dozens, if not hundreds of young Timor Leste people that travel to and spend the night on the mountain. You might be able to hitch a ride on their (rented) anggunas.

I drove with a young family from Maubisse to the turn-off, visiting a few of their relatives along the way, waited for an hour, and when nothing happened started walking toward Hatu Builico before a police pick-up allowed me to jump in the back.

Note: You cannot rent a regular (4WD) car with driver in Maubisse to take you to Hato Builico. However, you can ask around for a motorcycle (moto) to take you for USD20 one-way or you might be able to convince one of the angguna drivers down by the market to take you (USD50 one-way).

To hitch a ride back into Maubisse (or to the main road), go up to the old pousada/market as that is where the pilgrims congregate in the morning before heading back to Dili at around 10 to 12 am. I waited outside my guest house and missed a couple of rides as the vehicles were already full.

Hotels and guesthouses in Maubisse

There are currently four guest houses/hotels in Maubisse itself:

Outside the town, on the Dili road is a small guest house which I only saw driving past.

Right across the street from the giant Maubisse church is the Café Maubisse guest house.

I spent one night here. Rooms are simple and cold but cost only USD15/night with breakfast; Dinner is available for USD2.50.

My favorite – I ended up spending three nights here – is right by the roundabout near the market: the Sara Guesthouse and restaurant.

Rooms are modern, clean, and come with hot water (but without heating/air condition). I stayed in the bigger category and paid USD35/night with simple breakfast (available only after 8 am).

The smaller rooms on the second floor cost USD25/night with breakfast. Dinner at Sara Restaurant comes at local prices; mie goreng, for example, costs USD1.50.

The upscale option is the Pousada de Maubisse in a stunning location above the city. However, you will have to book ahead (walk-ins are absolutely not accepted – I tried) and a room will knock you back USD65 per night (with breakfast).

If you are looking for options outside Maubisse, there is the community-run guest house Hakmatek CBET, which provides accommodation in simple thatched huts about 5km outside of Maubisse. The community can also arrange guided hikes in the area or provide information on hiking routes.

Guesthouses in Hato Builico

In Hato Builico, you have three accommodation options. Timorleste.tl does list more options. But I was not able to find them and ascertain that they are currently in operation:

The Pousada Alcerim, about 1km below the market, is a massive guest house with at least 20 rooms. At USD20 per night with a simple breakfast and vegetarian dinner it’s cheap enough.

The hot shower is a plus, however, is still a bucket shower and it won’t work when there’s a power cut.

Pousada Levi (aka Levi Lodge) sits by the market and looked quite new from afar.

If you bring a tent (and all supplies!) you can also join the Timor-Leste youth and set up camp en route up the mountain. The largest camping area is at the outdoor church, about 20 minutes from the top.

Note, though that nights get extremely cold in Hatu Builico and even more so the higher up you get into the mountain.

Where to eat

Maubisse has Sara Restaurant in the center of town, the Cafe Restaurant across the street from the church as well as smaller eateries on the Northern route into town.

If you stay at the pousada, you can order food there.

Around the market, you’ll always get fresh vegetables and a limited selection of fruit (mainly bananas and the local green oranges).

In Hato Builico, you’ll either eat Mie Pop cups from the small shops next to the Alcerim Guesthouse and by the market or you can order food from your accommodation.

There are no food vendors in the mountain. You can eat the supplies you bring or you go hungry.

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