Sunset in Pante Macassar from Faot Sub prison ruin, Oecusse, East Timor

Oecusse, A Bit Of East Timor in The West

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Oecusse (or Oecussi or Okusi or Oe-Cusse or Oecussi-Ambeno) is an East Timorese enclave on Indonesian West Timor with a population of about 70,000 on 814 km².

It seems surprising that through the centuries it has remained part of Timor-Leste rather than falling to whoever ruled West Timor.

Lifau, West of Pante Macassar, was the spot where in 1515 the first Portuguese landed on Timor, and it is the place from which Dominican friar Antonio Taveiro – better known as St. Antonio in East Timor – started his missionary work on the island.

So when Portugal officially made East Timor their colony they had an interest to hold on to Oecusse.

Oecusse was made a special economic zone (ZEESM) to overcome the challenge of being separated from the rest of the country and several big development projects are ongoing:

The only properly tarred road in the enclave is a shiny wide highway running along the coast.

One of the developments it passes is the international airport due to open in 2019.

The highway all but ends in Lifou at East Timor’s longest bridge, Noefefan.

The powers to be in Timor-Leste have high hopes to create a tourism miracle in Oecusse and it will be interesting to see whether the international airport will be able to entice beach dwellers from Australia that might otherwise head to Bali to stop by.

Things to do in Oecusse

Beach & Sea

The sea off Oecusse offers the same pristine waters you’ll find all over Timor-Leste.

None of the dive centers operate here but you can rent snorkeling gear and get info on the best spots from Oecusse Amasat guesthouse near the port and Café Del Mar in Pante Macassar.

Hiking & History

Learn all you need to know to organize a visit to the Timor-Leste enclave Oecusse, a place that's stuck somewhere between the past and the future. The comprehensive guide includes things to do, transport options, accommodation, and food. #timorleste #offthebeatentrack #southeastasia

Leave Pante Macassar to the West – either on foot or with one of the few microlets zooming along the coast – to Lifau.

This is the spot where the Portuguese first landed in Timor and from where friar Antonio started his missionary work on the island.

A large monument commemorating this history is currently in the works. Unfortunately, the building site was surrounded by a high fence when I visited so that I could only catch a few glimpses of the sculpture and the surrounding park.

So instead, I followed the way of the cross up a hill above Lifou and took a stroll through the vast rice fields between the beach and the Noefefan Bridge.

For a different sunset view – you can’t always spend the end of day at the beach – head up to the old prison/governor’s seat Fatu-Saba.

From central Pante Macassar, the uphill walk takes a manageable 20 minutes.

If you come in the morning and bring water/snacks, there’s a goat path that starts behind the outdoor chapel and leads into the mountains; I hear there are waterfalls waiting to be discovered…

All that currently remains of the Kumando, the Old Portuguese admin post, is a ruin on the waterfront that is envisioned as a future tourist information center.

Outside Pante Macassar

Unfortunately, Oecusse has an even weaker public transport infrastructure than the rest of East Timor. Therefore, moving away from Pante Macassar and the coast requires either having a car or having a lot of patience. I didn’t have either and therefore missed out on some exciting sights.

To rent a car/driver either get organized in Dili or talk to Timor Tours & Travel – the guys that run the Dili/Oecusse and Dili/Kupang buses – at Loja 21 Junho (next to Irmao Timor guesthouse) or to the Regional Secretary of Community Tourism near the airport.

Fonte Sagrada Source & Waterfall

The holy fountain near the village of Oe-Foko has been a sacred place of the people of Oe-Cusse for centuries with ceremonies honoring the spirits held every year in March/April.

The Mud Volcanos (Oe-Silo Mud Geysers)

All the way in the South of Oecusse, near the border to West Timor, a landscape covered in grey mud awaits.

Leolbatan Mountain & Mt. Ramelau Twin Virgin Mary

Leolbatan is the highest point of Oecusse, crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary that was created in Italy along with the Virgin Mary of Mt. Ramelau but not placed at her final resting point until 2017.

For more hikes and things to do in Oecusse, including trails and guide contacts, check the zeesm.tl website and download their Oecusse guide brochures.

Photo gallery

Getting there

Dili – Oecusse by boat

The same large ferries that service Atauro from Dili, Berlin Nekroma and Laju Laju, also run the Dili – Oecusse route. Both offer space for a few hundred people with fairly comfortable seats under deck, a car/cargo deck, and some open air space on deck but no private cabins or first-class options.

The arrival/departure times of the boats are determined by the tides. Thus, you might find yourself waiting offshore for a few hours until the water is high enough to safely reach the coast.

The Berlin Nakroma leaves Dili for Pante Macassar, Oecusse, every Monday and Thursday afternoon at 2:30, returning the following afternoon. The journey takes 8 to 12 hours and sees you arrive in the early morning hours.
The Laju Laju goes from Dili to Oecusse every Saturday afternoon, returning on Sunday.
The speedy Dragonboat (run by the same Malaysian company that runs the Laju Laju) does currently not go to Oecusse. If it did it would do the journey in about 4 to 5 hours, making it a serious alternative for buses and planes.

Where to buy boat tickets

In Dili, tickets for the Berlin Nakroma are available at the Dili port, either a day before departure or on the morning of.

The Dragon Star office for Laju Laju tickets is located in the small mall near the Timor Hotel, next to the Burger King and the sports bar.

To get your tickets in Oecusse, go to Pante Macassar port, which is about 2.5 km East of the town. There is usually no need to buy tickets ahead of time. Simply get to the port before 2 pm.

Dili – Oecusse flight

By far the most convenient way to get to Oecusse is by plane.

ZEESM TL leaves from Dili airport to Pante Macassar every morning (apart from Sunday) and returns after a short 30-minute break to Dili.

Though Oecusse is currently building an international airport, the small plane lands after the 45-minute flight on a dirt piste between the new runway and the sea.

The one-way ticket costs USD65 or USD75 (half of the tickets are sold for the lower rate) and are available at the airport just before the flight or, at Dili airport, at the ZEESM TL office next to Burger King. Usually, people call ahead to reserve a ticket and then pay when they get to the airport.

Dili – Oecusse by bus

This option is cheap and convenient for anyone entitled to the visa waiver for both, Indonesia and East Timor. Anyone else will have to get a visa approval letter for East Timor prior to their journey.

Check my East Timor travel overview post for more details.

Timor Tours & Travel runs a bus service between Dili and Pante Macassar. Buses leave at 8 in the morning.

Since buses are not allowed to cross between East and West Timor, you’ll change buses twice and walk across the Wini and Batugade border crossings. Neither is very busy and traveling with mostly Timorese people meant that there is little to no trouble explaining what you are doing here.

My only annoyance was the double-lunch as our West Timor driver stopped with us at a restaurant in Atapupu (great rendang, though!) and then the East Timor driver stopped again at the Loes roadside restaurants.

The journey takes about 7 hours and the bus will drop you off at your hotel.

A one-way ticket costs USD20 and is available from the Timor Tours and Travel office in Fatuhada in Dili and the Loja 21 Junho convenience store in Pante Macassar (next to Irmao Timor guesthouse).

Where to stay

Oecusse’s main city, Pante Macassar, has a surprising number of hotels and guest houses. And since the region doesn’t see a lot of tourist (yet) you can easily arrive without prior booking and won’t have problems finding a bed for the night.

I spent my first night at the Hotel Paloma Blanca – a name that’s a bit exaggerated considering they only have four rooms – because they offered hot water but moved because for USD35/night I wanted to at least be able to switch off the light in my room completely.

I then stayed for another three nights at the Vitoria Leal. Here, USD25 bought me a simple, clean, en-suite single room with air conditioning, a TV with local stations, and breakfast but without hot water.

I only found out after chatting with one of the nuns that the Dominican Café across the street from the Vitoria Leal – also has a guest house. Rooms start at USD25/night with breakfast and if the café is any indication it’s a very good pick. Inquire at the café (there is no signage for the guest house).

If you prefer to be a little outside Pante Macassar, closer to the port, check out Oe-Cusse Amasat. The expat-run guest house was recommended to me by the Dive Timor Lorosae staff. For the active traveler, they also offer snorkeling equipment and kayaks for rent.

If all of these sleeping options are booked or none of them tickles your fancy, scan through Google Maps or the ZEESM brochures for at least half a dozen other accommodations in Oecusse.

Where to eat

While there are several restaurant dotted about Pante Macassar town that serve typical East Timorese dishes like fried rice and nasi campur an grilled fish but also foreign fair from Filipino to Thai to steak, I ended up going to the same two places every day:

During the day until early evening, the Dominican Sisters run a café in their compound between a small park and vegetable fields, aptly named Dominican Café. They serve fresh juices, Timorese coffee specialties and homemade pies and cakes at reasonable prices.

While – typically Timor-Leste – there is no WiFi, this a great spot if you need to get some work done. The tables/chairs are comfortable enough to set up a computer for a few hours (they have plugs to stay charged) and there’s a constant breeze keeping you comfortably cool.

In the evenings, I would go over to the beach boulevard to Café del Mar Betawi restaurant for a pizza, a gin and tonic, and to watch the latest sports events on the small TV set up outside.

Every night, about a dozen Portuguese expats would gather on chairs by the beach across the street for a sundowner before coming over and having dinner. As the manager told me: “Yes, they come every night. Sometimes one of them goes away and never comes back to Oecusse.”

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Learn all you need to know to organize a visit to the Timor-Leste enclave Oecusse, a place that's stuck somewhere between the past and the future. The comprehensive guide includes things to do, transport options, accommodation, and food.
#timorleste #offthebeatentrack #southeastasia

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