3 weeks itinerary to visit Java and Sulawesi: Toraja and Pulau Bunaken
This 3 weeks travel itinerary in Indonesia between the island of Java and Sulawesi is planned to see some off-the-beaten track attractions. I made and traveled this itinerary with my parents and it was already their third visit in Indonesia, so we had seen the usual suspects such as Bali, some Java sights and also Flores. We had set our eyes to Sulawesi and since they had a couple of extra days and I was still working, they used them to visit Java. This trip was initially 1 month but I cut out the time they spend resting at my home and spending quality time together, so it would be more accurate for an independent traveler without a home base in Jakarta.
Java island itinerary:
No-one can be travelling in Java and not stop at Yogjakarta, the former capital city. It’s very famous for batik, the palace ground and if you know how to sniff them among the tourist Knick knacks, authentic shadow puppet made from buffalo leather. And of course! The Borobudur temple which is on the UNESCO list and dating 9th century. It’s massive and an absolute must to visit.
In Yogjakarta, the city center is walkable with narrow street and loads of picturesque white walls. If you snoop around you can find modern batik shop – the kind of batik cut clothing that you could be wearing back at home, not the pure holiday elephant pant style! Indonesian do wear batik regularly, and Friday in every office is Batik day!
Around the city you can organize trips to do canyoning, white river rafting (in season) or see Mount Merapi volcano. The complex of Prabanan temple is another must see temple complex.
Sights outside of the city are wide apart and take time to get to, it’s not recommended to do them in motorcycle, so I would hire a car with driver or join a tour, or rent a car if you have a suitable driving license. A driver per day cost between 500,000 and 600,000 IDR.
To find one, either check the cost from the hotel you will be staying, otherwise join a local expat Facebook group and start using the search function – many times phone numbers or more detailed cost can be found there.
In Java the most famous volcano is Bromo mountain, I was however keenly aware that my parents are not super good at handling touts and con artists and Bromo is HYPER touristy. To send them into this trap without a private (super duper expensive tour) would not give them a great experience. My mother was adamant she wanted to see a volcano so I settled down for the much less travelled and more authentic Mount Ijen further South. The closest airport is Banyuwangi – a couple of flights depart from Surabaya and Jakarta only.
The hotels seem like the kind in the middle of the rice paddies with great vibes and isolation. That’s the kind of places I like and I know my parents would as well. Even if isolation means being dependent on the hotel tour & services. In the end it didn’t cost as much as we thought and certainly much less than a somewhat private tour for Mount Bromo.
My parents told me that it was not an easy hike up to Mount Ijen but they did manage it and if you can’t, there are apparently very strong Indonesians who offer to push you UP the hill in some sort of push carts. They mentioned a superb sunrise and interesting sulfur sprouts. They were proud to have climbed it up & happy of the overall experience.
Banyuwangi is close to Gilimanuk and the ferry to Bali. If you want to stay in this area of Indonesia, you could continue by land to Bali. It’s apparently also famous for surfing along the Indian ocean side of java. So why not exploring further if you have your own transport?
Sulawesi island travel itinerary:
From Java we flew together to Sulawesi to visit first Tanah Toraja and then dive and rest in Pulau Bunaken.
Tanah Toraja is where this famous ethnic group with the house in the shape of a horse shoe live and who have very different burial traditions. Indeed, every community has a cliff in which they either dig holes and burry their dead in or they hang the coffins on the cliff. Then once every couple of years they take all the bodies out, bring them home, clothe them again and “air” them outside to finally put them back in their graves.
When you visit Toraja, you aim to understand this specific culture and I really think that paying for a guide here is worth every penny. Also, the infrastructures are really limited and no real directions to find the nicer villages or when a livestock market, or a funeral ceremony is being held can be found.
The burial grounds and sites are exceptionally interesting to see and to date, it’s one of my best trips I have done in Indonesia. We had a very knowledgeable guide with us and a good driver to find the remote burial grounds.
To get to Tanah Toraja is taking some time. There is apparently a small airport in the town of Palopo which is a handful of hours drive away. But most take the land route from Makassar to Rantepao (in the heart of the Toraja country) and that’s about 10 hours each way.
The private tours from the hotel would cost you about 1,000,000 IDR per day. The transport with a private transport from Makassar is 1,500,000 IDR per car per way. For what I wanted to do the hotel was quoting me something close to 10 million rupiah.So, after doing all my calculations, I found that to be a little expensive. I decided to seek what an Indonesian would pay for such a service. I headed to the local expat facebook group page and searched for someone who would have done this trip and who would have phone number of a guide / driver to share. I ended up on a 6 months old post of a very pleasant expat who was looking for people to share the ride to Toraja. I asked her by private message how she had been there and the contact that she had. That’s how I found a good driver and a great guide for a total of 6,750,000 IDR for 5 days picking us up and bringing us back from Makassar airport. No surprises, no extra – just that. If you wish to know the contact information, please send me an email, I would happily recommend them.
We saw some independent travelers with their own motorcycle at some burial sites, the ones closer to Rantepao and they seemed to have a hard time finding the sites. To be honest they are really not easy to find and the best ones where inside villages that you hide to walk to them or hike a bit. It’s not something you can find from the road side. That’s why it’s better to get there with a tour or a guide.
If you are lucky, you can see a funeral ceremony ( it’s a public affair – you will have to buy some presents such as cigarettes to offer the family to be allowed in) where they sacrifice beef and pork as offering to the deceased and wear traditional costumes. Or another unpredictable treat is the traditional livestock market that happens usually before a funeral and your guide will find out the village and the date to bring you there.
Driving in the countryside of Tanah Toraja is beautiful, the villages are very picturesque and it’s mountainous so there are amazing views along the roadside.
Once you have had your fill of cultural marvels, we can head towards one famous dive spot which is Pulau Bunaken at the very northern tip of Sulawesi. Manado area is also famous for muck diving in Lembeh strait (for another time).
Pulau Bunaken it’s absolutely fantastic for beginners, aquarium conditions, no current and mainly wall diving. And if you don’t see at least 50 turtles in one dive you are unlucky… You can enjoy great snorkeling, super easy diving and some beach time. It’s a good spot to end the holidays before heading back to Jakarta with one of the direct flights from Manado.
Sulawesi is a lesser travelled island of Indonesia and yet it’s one that holds loads of riches. We still have a few spots to see there and on my bucket list in Sulawesi are: The Togean island and Lembeh strait to see the funny critters. Another worthwhile spot in Sulawesi is the UNESCO listed park of Wakatobi in South where amazing diving awaits.