Most backpackers who go to Indonesia end up on Bali or the Gili islands.
But if you’re looking for a bit of a new frontier, look no further than the island of Flores! I spent two weeks in Flores and loved every bit of it.
The island is known mainly for its star attraction: the Komodo Islands, home of the world’s largest lizards. But if you have enough time, it’s highly worth exploring deeper into Flores as well.
Mind you, Flores is a pretty low-key destination. Unlike Bali, it doesn’t always have loads of backpacker tours, tons of accommodation options, or tourist-only vans to take you between locations.
Of course, that might just make Flores all the more rewarding to explore. I know this word gets overused, but it really does feel a lot more authentic.
Flores is sparsely populated compared to Java or Bali. It has only one main road running through it. As you pass through small villages in the countryside, you’re often greeted with friendly curiosity and choruses of ‘hello mister!’. (To the amusement of some girls I was travelling with, the children will call you mister regardless of your gender.)
The dominant religion on Flores is Catholic, as opposed to the mainly Hindu or Muslim islands elsewhere in Indonesia. Just as you might have gotten used to hearing the morning call to prayer on Lombok, you might just wake up to the sound of church bells on Flores. It’s this cultural variety that makes Indonesia so interesting.
The Komodo Islands
The Komodo Islands are by far the biggest attraction drawing people to Flores; in fact, many fly to Labuan Bajo only to for the Komodo National Park, before heading back to Bali or Lombok.
The national park is famous for two reasons:
1. It’s home to the Komodo dragon, the largest lizard on Earth, a ferocious animal that you can see in the wild on some of the islands here.
2. The waters around the Komodo Islands also happen to be overflowing with nutrients giving them some of the largest marine diversity anywhere in the world. The snorkeling and scuba diving is phenomenal.
While the dragons are what made the park originally famous, it’s now equally renowned for its underwater wonders.
Seeing the Komodo dragons
To visit the Komodo Islands, all you have to do is go to the small port town of Labuan Bajo on Flores, which is the main hub for any Komodo Islands activities.
Labuan Bajo has a small airport with many flights to Bali, which take about an hour. Another way to get to Labuan Bajo, a method popular with backpackers, is to go on a multi-day boat journey from Lombok. If you’re getting to Flores this way, you can visit the Komodo Islands as part of your boat journey. There are more details on these options at the end of this post.
The two islands where you can see the Komodo dragons are Komodo Island and Rinca Island. While the Komodo dragons are notoriously fast and ferocious predators, they are unlikely to be in hunting mode during your visit. Expect to be mainly looking at some lethargic and unimpressed animals. The park rangers are there to always keep them at bay, should they suddenly stop being couch potatoes.
In the high season months (mainly June and July) it’s mating time which makes it more difficult to spot komodos within the park itself. I visited around this time and saw only one in the forest. There were a handful of others at the visitor’s center, drawn by the scents coming from the staff kitchen. This wasn’t really the wildlife experience I had in mind, but perhaps you’d have better luck seeing them in natural environments during other months of the year.
I preferred Rinca Island over Komodo Island. The latter is more heavily forested, making it more difficult to spot any lizards. It also felt a bit like a tourist trap, with many souvenir shops and picnic areas near the docks. Rinca has more open landscapes and felt somehow more inviting. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go with Rinca.
Snorkeling and scuba diving
The waters in the Komodo national park are teeming with marine life. Snorkelling and scuba diving tours leave from Labuan Bajo daily, and there are plenty of operators around. All you have to do is walk the main road in town, walk into any dive shop, and sign up.
I went snorkelling around the national park as part of my boat trip from Lombok. I saw countless species of fish, sea turtles, sharks (don’t worry, not the dangerous kind), a school of squid, a Mantis shrimp, several moray eels, and countless other creatures. The corals are lush and healthy everywhere. This is pretty much as good as snorkelling is going to get.
On one occasion we also anchored near a small island where we could swim ashore. While relaxing on the white sand beach, I suddenly heard some rustling and grunting the bushes behind us. Our guide joked it must be a Komodo dragon, but in fact it turned out to be a wild hog. It was surreal to be on a beach together with a wild hog, but it just goes to show that you might encounter all sorts of animals.
From a hilltop, I spent some time watching some impressive eagles swoop over the bay. There are also some spots in the park where at dusk you can witness thousands of bats coming out of the mangroves—it’s a cool little spectacle that feels like something out of a nature documentary. (Again, you can experience these as part of day tours offered in Labuan Bajo, or during a backpacker boat trip originating in Lombok.)
If you want to go scuba diving, it helps to already have a few dives under your belt. I spoke to some of the local dive instructors who told me the conditions at the dive sites change dramatically throughout the year. Sometimes the waters are calm, other times even the most experienced divers avoid certain sites. The dive shops will know which sites are appropriate given the weather and time of year.
If you’re not an advanced diver, the dive shop can still find appropriate reefs for you to dive. If you’ve done some dives, the dive sites at Komodo are not necessarily that challenging. I had done about 40 dives at this point and had faced much worse currents before, though this admittedly depends on the moon cycle and other factors. At one tricky dive site we were told to strictly stick very close to our dive buddy, but that was about it.
Many dive sites offer a good chance of seeing manta rays. I went on three dives looking for mantas and saw none, but others saw as many as 12 on a single dive. Cross your fingers and maybe you’ll be so lucky!
Labuan Bajo is a small port town from which tours to Komodo depart. When I visited in 2015, it seemed a mostly unremarkable port town though clearly on the cusp of a tourism boom. It struck me as a pretty typical backpacker hub with various hostels, tourist restaurants, dive shops, and souvenir shops by a main road that runs along the coast. There’s a lot of traffic on this road, so you may want to find some accommodation up the hill from where the port is, or even further away.
Since I’ve not been back in Labuan Bajo for several years, I recommend checking out this blog post with some recent tips on things to do.
There are now a lot more accommodation options available in Labuan Bajo than when I first visited, including several backpacker hostels. Based on its reputation, I can recommend staying at La Boheme Bajo. I stayed at their other hostel on the Gilis and loved it. If you’re more into guesthouses, check out Manta Manta Homestay.
There isn’t that much entertainment in town, though the Paradise Bar just out of town has a nice view and regular live music. For a great cheap eat, go to the night market along the docks on the western side of town for some great seafood. I swear I had the best damn fried calamari in the world.
Exploring the rest of Flores
After visiting the Komodo Islands, many people simply turn back to Bali or Lombok. That’s a shame as the rest of the island of Flores is wonderful to visit.
I recommend Flores if you travel for the immersive experience, and don’t mind being slightly off the tourist trail. There are only a handful of actual sights to put in your Flores itinerary, but what I enjoyed most were seeing the landscapes and meeting so many friendly people.
Renting motorbikes is a great way to see Flores and one that’s been recommended by several travel guides. It can be difficult to find rental motorbikes in Labuan Bajo however, with no actual rental shops in town when I visited. Some people I was travelling with had to ask around for a few days, and ultimately one of the staff at the Paradise Bar hooked them up with two motorbikes.
In brief, I’ll mention a few places of interest on Flores, all easily reached either by private motorbike, public bus, or unscheduled minivans which go along Flores’ main roads throughout the day.
Ruteng is a small town a few hours east of Labuan Bajo. It’s fun to explore the surrounding area by motorbike, and it’s easy to rent these here as there are at least two or three rental places in town. The spider web rice fields are pretty interesting and make a great excuse for a day trip. There are several traditional villages nearby, which are also worth a visit.
In Ruteng I stayed at the Kongregasi Santa Maria Berdukacita, a convent that also rents out a few rooms to visitors. It’s a peaceful and clean place, where nuns will make you a simple breakfast in the morning. The doors get locked sometime in the evening, but if you don’t mind this it’s a great place to stay, and something a bit different from your usual guesthouse or hostel.
Visiting the traditional village of Todo, about two hours from Ruteng. We were warmly received and paid for a home-cooked meal.
The spider web rice fields. I was here in June; earlier in the year the rice fields are greener and they say the view is better.
Moni is a small town near Ende, rather peaceful among the rice fields. It’s a very rural place and a great base from which to visit Kelimutu, a volcano with three crater lakes with different colored water. While I came to Moni for Kelimutu, I actually ended up remembering it more for the nature and villages around it. Be sure to spend a day just walking around as it’s a chill and friendly place.
Maumere is another scuba diving hotspot that several travelers recommended to me. I sadly didn’t have a chance to go, as I was at the end of my trip and had to catch my flight back.
Ende doesn’t really have much going on and is mainly a base from which to take a flight back or from which to take a ferry onwards to West Timor.
Something that I most enjoyed about Flores is just driving around on a motorbike and waving or high-fiving all the kids that greet you everywhere. The locals seem excited to see foreigners and will greet you friendlily everywhere you go. All this attention can become a little exhausting and eventually annoying, but for the most part I appreciated all the good vibes.
How to get to Flores
There are essentially three ways to get to Flores. Since most international arrivals come to Denpasar airport on Bali, I’m going to assume that Bali is your starting point.
Flying from Bali
This is the quickest and easiest option. There are daily flights from Bali to Labuan Bajo, the town closest to the Komodo Islands. There are also a handful of flights going to Ende or Maumere further east on the island. The flight should take no more than 45-60 minutes if going to Labuan Bajo.
Boat from Lombok
A few companies operate regular 3- or 4-day boat trips from Lombok to Labuan Bajo. On the plus side, these sailing tours will pass through the Komodo Islands, letting you visit Rinca and Komodo island and snorkel in many places. On the downside, this trip is not for the faint-hearted. The sea-worthiness of my boat wasn’t 100% confidence-inspiring and the trip is not entirely without its risks as this blogger’s story attests. You might not get extremely solid sleep with all the noise from the engines at night.
That said, it’s still a wonderful adventure. I’ll never forget all of us singing songs on deck under the starry night sky, seeing an orange glowing moonrise on the horizon, or jumping in the waters in the morning to look at all the incredible sea life below. If you are a backpacker and don’t mind a little adventure then going by boat is an excellent option.
Overlanding via Nusa Tenggara
This is not an easy route, according to those who have done this. Expect a combined 30 hours or so of sitting in cramped buses. I have not made this journey, but for what it’s worth, I spoke to some German travellers who did and they wished they had taken the boat or plane.