If I say Indonesia, I am sure Bali is the first thing to come to mind. Bali is what best sells and most travelers start their journey to Indonesia at this beautiful island. Many do not visit any other island, and I can certainly understand why. However, with over 17,000 islands, Indonesia has so much more to offer! I will introduce you to an off the beaten path place in Indonesia that you should not miss: the Togean Islands of Sulawesi.
While planning my trip to Indonesia, I also made the ‘tourist mistake’ and thought of only visiting Java and Bali. Fortunately, a couple of days before flying to Jakarta, I met another Spanish girl on the road, who told me that the absolute highlight of her 9-months journey in Southeast Asia was the time she spent in an Indonesian star-shaped island I had never heard of before: Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes).
Her eyes lit up while talking about the Togian (or Togean) Islands, located in central Sulawesi. In particular, she recommended a small island called Poya Lisa Bomba. The name made me curious (it sounds really funny in Spanish!). But when she explained that this is an island in the middle of nowhere, with no Internet and no phone signal (only peace, palms, and an incredibly crystal clear sea), I made up my mind. After a quick research, I decided to change my plans and include Sulawesi and both the Togean and Poya Lisa islands to my itinerary. I was determined to see this fabulous off-the-beaten-path paradise with my own eyes.
Sulawesi (Celebes) – Unknown paradise in Indonesia
Although not as well known as Java or Bali, Sulawesi is one of the main islands of Indonesia and the eleventh largest island in the world. In the center of the Indonesian archipelago, Sulawesi’s star shape is easily recognizable. This massive, and completely underrated, island has a lot to offer to the traveler from extraordinary cultures to an unexplored mountainous hinterland and several unspoiled first class diving-spots.
Nowhere in Sulawesi is much more than 100km from the sea. Despite having stunning beaches, what will really take your breath away is all what is hidden under its crystal clear waters: an incredible underwater wonderland, filled with colorful corals and all kinds of fish. While the north and the south ends of the island are ideal for scuba divers, the center and the Togean islands are perfect places for snorkeling.
Togean is an archipelago in the Gulf of Tomini, south of the Equator in the Pacific. As there are no airports on the islands and traveling by bus takes a long time in Sulawesi, the Togean are difficult to reach. To get to the islands, first you will have to either reach Ampana (south of the islands) or Gorontalo (in the north of Sulawesi), which is a challenge by itself. The truth is, it is very difficult to get to the Togean… But believe me, it is even harder to leave them! Once your feet touch the sands of this unspoiled paradise, you will want to stay forever.
Getting to the Togean Islands
I don’t recommend attempting to go to the Togean islands unless you have time to spare. Getting there will take you a few days and it is very tiring. As mentioned above, there are no airports closer than 5 hours away by bus from Ampana (the main port to the Togean).
The nearest airports to Ampana are Poso and Luwuk but, being small airports, flights tend to be pricey. Lion Air offers low cost domestic flights to Poso, Luwuk, and Palu (via Makassar) from major cities in Indonesia.
The cheapest way I found to get to the Togean is flying to Palu and then catching a public bus to Ampana (11-12 hours drive). However, be prepared for an endless trip in a van without air conditioning through a poor winding road while listening to loud traditional Indonesian music (all the way!).
When you finally get to Ampana, I recommend staying the night at Marina Cottages. A friendly guy called Edy works there and will be happy to help you to arrange the ferry trip to the Togean islands.
Public ferries to the Togean leave almost every day from Ampana. At the time of writing (April 2015), ferries run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 10:00 am. Bear in mind that schedules change often withouth notice.
Poya Lisa Cottages
Poya Lisa is the small island where I stayed at the Togean. Located in front of Bomba Island and sandwiched by two white sand beaches, the island is so small that you can walk around the whole thing in no more than 5 minutes. Considering that all the island has to offer are 15 cottages and the incredible two beaches, Poya Lisa is a true haven of peace. With no cars and no traffic, the silence of the sea is seldom interrupted by the sound of a ship.
Another thing to consider is phone signal does not reach Poya Lisa and there is no Internet either. This is a perfect place to disconnect and forget the world and all its problems! (Something we all really should do at least once a year). It is also important to know electricity does not work 24 hours a day, and there is no running water on Poya Lisa island. You will only have electricity from 6:30 pm to 11 pm and water is stored in buckets that the island staff fills often for you.
The cottages in Poyalisa are pretty basic: all they include is a bed, a mosquito net, and a small wardrobe. But honestly, who cares about this when you are in paradise? The important thing is all the cottages have sea views and a hammock on the veranda where you can relax; reading while listening to the gentle sound of the waves as a background.
Besides the fabulous scenery, the best of Poya Lisa Cottages is its price. The price per person per day ranges from 125,000 to 175,000 IDR (around 9€ and 12€) including everything! (Accommodation, three meals a day, a mid-afternoon snack, and unlimited coffee, tea, and drinking water).
The food is simple but truly delicious. It usually consists of rice and salad with fresh grilled fish. If you are vegetarian, no problem! There are always vegetables, tofu or tempeh for you. I promise you will not starve and everything is yummy.
In short, Poya Lisa Cottages is an absolute paradise, affordable to all wallet sizes, and the perfect hideaway for those who want to get away from the tourist trail and want to experience beautiful Indonesia at its most authentic. I can’t recommend this place highly enough! For reservations, you can send an email to Edy at: firstname.lastname@example.org
What to do at Poya Lisa Cottages and Togean Islands
There is not much to do in Poya Lisa but this exactly the reason why we came here! A normal day at Poya Lisa usually consists of: sleeping, having breakfast, relaxing in the hammock, swimming, having lunch, taking a nap in the hammock, snorkeling, having dinner, and going back to bed. Does not sound bad, does it?
But, besides lazing around, the Togeans are the best place you could dream of to explore the most amazing underwater world. All around Poyalisa island (no more than 15 to 45 minutes by boat) you will find beautiful reefs where you can spend hours snorkeling and swimming together with fishes of all kinds.
Poya Lisa offers daily trips (half or full day) to nearby reefs. The boat trip price is 300,000 IDR (around 20€) to be split among all the guests joining the tour (with a maximum of 8). But, if you stay on the island for 10 or more nights, all the trips you make are for free. Do you need more excuses to stay here forever?
– Remember there are no shops or anything similar in Poya Lisa, bring everything you may need.
– When traveling in Asia, it never hurts to have a couple of toilet paper rolls in your backpack.
– It is very important to bring enough mosquito repellent containing DEET. Mosquitoes here are pretty nasty and there is a risk of both malaria and dengue.
– Luckily, I did not see any, but there may be some rats on the island. Just in case, never leave food in your room!
– Do not forget your flashlight! The light is poor at night and the electricity is limited.
– For snorkeling trips, Poya Lisa offers snorkel gear that you can use for free. However, their gear was all banged up from use, so it is worth it to bring your own.
As I said, every morning and afternoon, Poya Lisa offers boat trips to nearby reefs (Bomba Atoll, Katrin, Petri-Heidi, etc.) or Taupan Island. Of course, it is also possible to snorkel at Poya Lisa Island itself. Corals around Poya Lisa are not as impressive, but you can still see interesting things. I was surprised to see that the various fish families each have their own territory and they were always in the same place. Every time I snorkeled around Poyalisa, I saw the same kind of fishes in the same exact places, as if each family had their own house and I happened to visit them every afternoon.
Apart from nearby reefs, you can also visit the village of Tumbulawa, where at sunset it is possible to see a flock of hornbills returning to their nest. I did this trip as well but got distracted in the village (so humble but lovely!) and missed the arrival of the birds.
In total, I spent six incredible days on the island of Poyalisa. I have to admit it took a lot of determination to leave. It is a place that really captures and conquers you by its simplicity and the small details of the family running the business.
One of the things that struck me most when I arrived to Poyalisa was that all the other guests staying at that moment (all Westerners) were repeating on the island. All of them had already stayed in Poyalisa one or more times before; I was the only new guest in the island. The fact that everyone repeats says a lot about the magic of this place, but another surprising fact was that many of these guests could speak Indonesian language fluently. I was amazed by this and asked them how came they could speak Bahasa Indonesian so good. Their response was they had come to Indonesia so many times before that eventually they learned the language. One of the guests told me, “I’m sure this will happen to you too,” and the truth is, after those magical days, I’m not sure if I will ever be able to speak the Indonesian language so well, but I do know that I will definitely repeat in Poya Lisa and this fabulous country many, many times… And I hope you do too!
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