Jaco Island: East Timor’s Deserted Tropical Island

Jaco Island: East Timor’s Deserted Tropical Island


Jaco Island is a tropical paradise.

Imagine stunning, white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise water and rustic beach bungalows overlooking a deserted island.

That’s Jaco, an unknown and untouched island that’s part of the small nation of East Timor, a country that sees few foreign visitors and even fewer tourists.

I had travelled overland from West Timor- the Indonesian side of this divided island- to visit Dili, the capital of East Timor. In the city, I heard from the few travellers I met that at the most easterly point of the country I could find an island that was straight out of a tourist brochure, a place with white sand beaches and pristine coral, and a place utterly devoid of tourism.

It wouldn’t be easy to reach, but I had travelled to East Timor for an adventure and this was it.

Jaco Island is part of the country’s only national park. It’s a small island, just a short boat ride away from the mainland, and it is absolutely deserted. Local traditions and customs hold Jaco to be sacred, and no one lives on the island or is even allowed to stay overnight. Local fishermen will happily take tourists over in their boats to lounge on the beaches, explore the dense forest and snorkel the coral by day, but by nightfall the island is empty.

Jaco Island is a long way along rough roads from Dili. The country is poor, underdeveloped and far from easy to navigate independently. East Timor was colonised by the Portuguese for hundreds of years, then in 1974 when they declared independence, Indonesia invaded and occupied this small country until 1999. South East Asia’s newest nation is still recovering from years of neglect and oppression, and lack of roads and infrastructure are just a few of the problems the East Timorese face daily.

The journey took me two days along potholed, crumbling highways, through rural villages and along spectacular, isolated coastline with not a single other tourist along the road. I overnighted in homestays, staying with local Timorese families, before finally arriving in the village of Tutuala, the last stop before Jaco Island, and the most easterly point on mainland Timor.

From here I could see Jaco Island, out across the small stretch of sea, almost within swimming distance, and on the short boat ride across the water became clearer and the sand whiter as I neared its shoreline.

This sacred island is a rarity. It’s pristine, it’s clean, it’s untouched and it sees few tourists or even local visitors on its long sandy beaches. Sinking back into the soft sand while the sea lapped at my feet I felt a moment of peace and accomplishment after the long, arduous journey.

It was a feeling that I’d long been searching for in Asia, yet had found difficult to really find elsewhere. Perhaps it was the adventure, perhaps it was the natural, untouched scenery that I was seeing, or perhaps it was simply the quiet of this deserted island. All I knew for certain was that the last place I’d expected to find an island like Jaco was little, unknown East Timor.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Jaco Island East Timor's Deserted Tropical Island - Jaco Island Beach

Jaco Island Beach

WSE Travel - Jaco Island East Timor's Deserted Tropical Island - Jaco Island blue sea meets the sand

Jaco Island blue sea meets the sand

WSE TRavel - Jaco Island East Timor's Deserted Tropical Island -Jaco Island from the sky

Jaco Island from the sky

WSE Travel - Jaco Island East Timor's Deserted Tropical Island -Jaco Island's clear waters

Jaco Island’s clear waters

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GO – Getting There

Jaco Island is really off the beaten track. It’s not quick or easy to travel to. The first step is travelling to Dili, the capital of East Timor and the only city in the country with international flights. There are several flights a day from Bali in Indonesia, and less regularly from Darwin in Australia. It’s also possible to travel overland by bus from Kupang, the largest city on the Indonesian side of the island of Timor.

Jaco Island is 250 kilometres east of Dili. The nearest village is Tutuala but no public transport runs direct from Dili to here. It is possible to take a Bemo- a local bus- to Los Palos, a journey of at least 9 hours from Dili over rough roads. From here there are occasional pickup trucks and Bemos heading to Tutuala, usually early in the morning. Once in Tutuala the beach and Jaco Island are actually 8 kilometres away, down a long, winding and steep dirt road. This can be walked, or hitchhiked.

The other option is to rent transport in Dili or organise a private driver.

Roads from Dili are rough, and many are still under construction after years of neglect. It is not a quick journey, but there are plenty of beautiful spots to stop at along the way to break up the journey. I stopped over for two nights along the way from Dili.

Once at Tutuala, local fishermen down at the beach will ferry across passengers and arrange a pick up time for the return journey from the island

WSE Travel - Jaco Island - East Timor's Deserted Tropical Island - Map

Jaco Island – East Timor’s Deserted Tropical Island – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

The main activity is exploring Jaco Island. A white sand beach surrounds this tropical island and it’s completely deserted apart from the odd intrepid tourist. It’s possible to walk the entire circumference in a day.

Jaco Island is surrounded by beautifully clear water, and pristine, clean coral reefs abounding with marine life. Take a mask and snorkel and just a few metres out from the beach, the coral begins.

Jaco Island is part of East Timor’s only national park. The park encompasses the island and a large stretch of wetlands on the mainland. Local villages in the park can be visited to see traditional houses and Lake Ira Lalora, the country’s largest, freshwater lake is a beautiful spot. Just watch out for crocodiles.

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Stay – Accommodation

On the beach opposite Jaco Island are two accommodation options, both next to each other, easy to find and overlooking white sand beaches. Just turn left at the bottom of the hill down from Tutuala.

The first option is the Valu Sere Beach Bungalows, a set of locally owned, community-run bungalows. These are basic, with shared bathrooms, and few amenities. There is a set price of 20 USD for each bungalow- only singles and doubles are available, no twins.

Next to Valu Sere Beach Bungalows is a privately owned hotel, the Lakumorre Guesthouse. These rooms are more expensive, but are more upmarket, with ensuites available. Rooms here cost 25 USD per person.

The budget option is to stay in Tutuala at local homestays. A few locals offer out rooms, including a lady who owns a small shop directly opposite the turnoff to the beach at the top of the hill. She only charges 10 USD per person, including a huge breakfast and dinner, although she only has one spare room. These homestays don’t advertise but asking around it’s easy enough to find someone with a spare bedroom for the night.

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Eat – Restaurants

There are no restaurants in Tutuala or on the beach. If staying at a homestay in the village, you can expect to get a locally cooked dinner and breakfast for a small fee, or included. Down on the beach, the lovely ladies that look after the community-owned bungalows will cook a basic meal of fried noodles and eggs for a few dollars, while it’s also possible to bargain with the fishermen to source some freshly caught fish.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

East Timor experiences a wet and a dry season. The best time to visit is the end of the dry season, around September/October, when the water is clearest and it is not too hot.

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Safety – Possible risks

East Timor is surprisingly safe, especially outside of the cities in the rural areas of the country. Locals are unaccustomed to seeing tourists but are intrigued by and welcoming to visitors.

The only real danger comes from the roads. While traffic is sparse, the roads themselves are in massive states of disrepair, with few sections sealed.

East Timor has a large population of Saltwater Crocodiles. While Jaco Island sees few crocodiles, the lakes and waterways near Tutuala on the mainland are home to the country’s densest concentration of crocodiles. It is unlikely you will see one, but avoid swimming anywhere on the coast without asking locals first if it is safe, and don’t even think about swimming in the freshwater lake near Tutuala, no matter how inviting it might look.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

East Timor is a poor country, but things are surprisingly expensive in comparison to neighbouring Indonesia and other South East Asian destinations. Accommodation is always basic, with no hot water or wifi, and will cost USD 10 for a basic homestay, and USD 20 for a bungalow at Tutuala. In Dili, expect to pay even more. Prices for foreigners are generally inflated due to the large number of multinational and NGO workers operating in the country on expenses.

Local transport on buses is cheap, at just a few USD per trip, but renting a motorbike will cost a minimum of USD 16 per day, up to USD 25. Car hire is a minimum of USD 100 per day.

The only way to travel across to Jaco Island is by a fishing boat, and the local fishermen at Tutuala charge a set fee of USD 10 per person, for a return journey.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

When travelling through East Timor, it is possible to stay at local homestays and community-owned projects where the money goes directly back to local people, to help fund more business and entrepreneurship in this very much developing country.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Jaco Island is literally breathtaking. It’s beautiful, it’s deserted and it’s unique. East Timor though is not an easy place to travel around. Infrastructure is seriously underdeveloped and the vast majority of the population earn very little. The country suffered through years of colonial neglect, and then through a harsh and oppressive Indonesian occupation, but they are slowly but surely recovering.

It’s an adventurous destination, few people speak English, and public transport never runs on time, but make the effort and the long journey across the island to Jaco will be a reward in itself, and the journey will be an experience unlike any other in Asia.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

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