Flores offers visitors stunning scenery both below and above water, but traveling here can be a challenge. If you're expecting Bali-quality accommodation and food, you'll be disappointed, but if you're looking to see a slice of Indonesia that's away from the crowds, this may be just the place--as long as you're prepared for high prices and long overland journeys.
See and Do
Komodo National Park is what originally put Flores on the map, and it's still the top tourist destination both for its dragons and its underwater life. Most easily accessed from Labuan Bajo, the park consists of two islands--Komodo and Rinca. The dragons live on both, but are said to be bigger on Komodo because there's more food. That also means that the ones on Rinca are more aggressive :o)
There are tons of options for visiting the park. You can take the Perama boat from Lombok, but it's expensive and several travelers we ran into got bedbugs, so we suggest making your own way to Labuan Bajo and organizing your trip there.
Seeing the dragons is a bit of a letdown, since they pretty much just lie around and stare at you. But with a good guide, which we had for our Rinca trek, you can learn a decent amount about these prehistoric animals. Here are some fun facts:
- Komodos are completely solitary and selfish, so much so that they would eat their babies. (To be fair, they can't identify their young, but that doesn't change the fact that they're cannibals. It also explains why the population is so small.)
- They only need to eat once every two months and their favorite meal is buffalo. To score one, they need to sneak up behind it and bite. Then they have to wait one month for it to die. Talk about a long wait time for a meal! And then some other dragons might get to the animal before the one who bit it finds it, so the meal isn't always guaranteed.
- It takes three days and 20+ dragons to finish a buffalo. The biggest dragons get it on the first day, then the medium on the second, and the children get the scraps on the third day.
- Female Komodos lay eggs once a year, always in the same place. They camouflage the real nest by digging lots of similar holes nearby. They only stop coming to the nest once they're menopausal.
- Komodos grow up to 3 meters, but can climb trees and catch monkeys until they're about 1.5 meters. They can also accelerate 10 meters per second.
We combined our trek on Rinca with two dives, but you can also charter a boat. These trips typically include snorkeling around a few islands along with the dragon stop. The other option is joining an overnight trip.
Expect to pay about 1,000,000IDR for a two-dive trip with a stop at Rinca. This is the same cost as a three-dive day trip, but it doesn't include several fees: 20,000 entry fee to the area, 75,000 dive fee, 50,000 Rinca entry fee, and 50,000 camera fee, which basically adds up to US$20 on top of the US$100 that you're already paying. In other words, diving here is expensive, although the pass does last for three days.
People rave about the diving in Komodo National Park, but I think Sipadan spoiled us for good. Our first dive was at Manta Point, and that one didn't disappoint. We saw about eight mantas, including two huge black ones that cast the most eerie shadow on the sandy bottom of the ocean. Watching these majestic creatures soar was amazing, and perhaps worth the steep diving prices. Sadly, we only got above water photos.
Our second dive was a letdown. It was at Bonsai, or Lonely Tree, and although the coral formations were beautiful, the marine life lacked in... well, life. We did see a giant Napoleon fish, a crocodile fish, unicorn fish, and a humongous crawfish. But it was nothing like the schools of fish at Sipadan and the incredibly strong currents cut our air, and dive, short.
In terms of dive schools: Labuan Bajo is full of them, so we really suggest walking around and meeting a few of the instructors and dive masters before making a choice. We dove with Diver's Paradise Komodo and, unfortunately, it wasn't a great experience. Overall, the staff was good, though largely new, which meant our dive leader didn't know the site as well as we would have hoped. But what really ruined the day was the boat: it was slow the whole day, but on the way back to Rinca, it completely broke down and instead of getting us another boat, the staff just kept fixing it all the way back, which meant our 1.5 hour trip took 4 hours. This added to the fact that the dive boat was set up horribly for a dive boat and that one of the instructors cut our Rinca trek short because she wanted to get back to land put a bad taste in our mouth. In other words, avoid this shop.
Our next port of call after Labuan Bajo was Bajawa, which is a horrid town set amidst beautiful surroundings, including several volcanoes. Rent a bike and head to the Mengeruda hot springs up north (14,000IDR), which race through a stunning canyon before giving you the massage of your life.
Then head south to Bena, a traditional Ngada village complete with ngadhu and bhaga. If you're lucky, a local will tell you more about the village than your guidebook. The coolest thing we learned is that the building of a new house used to require the sacrifice of 20 buffalos. Their heads are still displayed outside the front door.
From there, head to Nage hot springs. Don't let the rutted road scare you away from the amazing nature up ahead. You'll encounter are two streams, one super hot and one super cold, that crash together and make a perfect place to rest for an hour or two. Try not to go in the late afternoon, which is when all the locals bathe.
Moni is the base for your Kelimutu experience. The volcano is famous for its three different colored crater lakes and makes for some fun photo opps.
Most people go up in time for sunrise (leave Moni at 4:30am by your own car or with a driver), but the best views were actually around 8am when the clouds started to pull back.
Either way, make sure to get there in the morning, as the clouds are always bad in the afternoon. You may also want to allow an extra day in case the weather isn't cooperative. We had several friends on tight schedules who literally saw nothing but rain the morning they went up. The locals believe these three lakes hold mystical powers, but they didn't exactly take our breath away--though they were pretty to look at.
The hot springs at Moni are forgettable, but the waterfall across from Rainbow Cafe is pretty for an afternoon stroll. Stop in at the bakery next to Rainbow for some delicious green pancake stuffed with coconut and palm sugar. If you're interested in buying some ikat or just learning about how it's made, ask for Juwita. She speaks great English, knows a ton about the area, and has some amazing pieces for sale.
Ende is hot, which is a welcome relief from Bajawa and Moni. It's also a good place from which to check out the black sand beaches that line the town's shore. Expect lots of excited kids, some with interesting artistic skills.
If you want to visit the famous blue stone beach, head west (towards Bajawa) for about 25km. You'll see the beach and then pass a village that has roads leading to it. If you'd like to avoid the villagers, stay on the road and park on the curb a kilometer up. This beach is a beautiful place to relax and listen to the water gurgle over the rocks. The blue stones are incredible in their variety and nobody really knows where they come from, which makes the beach that much more special.
If you're interested in human fossils, plan a stop at Ruteng for the hobbit cave. And if you want even more islands, you can head up to Riung from Bajawa. We heard mixed reviews though, with the biggest negative being the lack of decent sleeping and eating options.
Accommodation in Flores sucks. It's expensive and shitty, which makes for an overall unpleasant traveling experience. Unfortunately, the island's guesthouse owners seem to suffer from neglect syndrome. They want your money, but they don't want to clean their rooms.
Here's where we stayed, though I wouldn't necessarily recommend any of these places.
Labuan Bajo: Suraya Hotel - 225,000 IDR for AC room with partial bay view. Breakfast could have been worse. Bajawa: Hotel Johnny - 90,000IDR for a room in a half-finished hotel. To say it was sketchy would be an understatement, though the owner did take a liking to me and offer me lots of freshly baked donuts. Moni: Maria Homestay - 175,000IDR for a decent room with no frills. Damp but otherwise fine, with a big bed. Ende: Hotel Ikhlas - 120,000IDR for an okay room in a hotel with WiFi!!! Actually had a pretty social vibe and you could literally walk to the airport from here in about 10 minutes.
All these rooms had cold water, crappy breakfast, and no character, though they were all relatively clean. Other travelers experienced the same issues (especially with any place in Lonely Planet). Book ahead as it's popular.
Eat and Drink
The eating situation is similar to the hotels, especially outside of Labuan Bajo. Moni is particularly hard-hit, with all options sucking. Your best choice is at the Flores Hotel outside of town, where you can get decent fish for a good price. Don't expect luxury, but the meal is satisfying and fresh.
In Bajawa, the Depot restaurant close to Hotel Johnny had okay food and delicious sirsat shakes for reasonable prices.
In Labuan Bajo, you can have a feast, but it won't be cheap--at least by SE Asian standards. We really liked The Corner for their delicious sandwiches, mashed potato instead of rice option, and free WiFi. Treehouse was also good, though more expensive.
If you're splurging, head to The Lounge for burgers and Made In Italy for pizza. Avoid Otto Moro, which is nothing like how it's described in Lonely Planet.
In Ende, we ate at the popular Warung Bangkalan, just down the road from Hotel Ikhlas. Our plates of nasi sayur (rice with a variety of vegetarian dishes) cost us 8000IDR each. It was quite possibly the best deal we found in Indonesia.
Ahh... the bane of Flores' existence. We've never paid so much for so little, and with so much drama.
Local buses suck and are known to drive around the town for hours before leaving, so you're better off getting a shuttle. In fact, it might even be cheaper. Our shuttle from Labuan Bajo to Bajawa cost 170,000IDR, but it's 150,000 if you book direct (200,000IDR all the way to Ende). This is a ton to pay for an 8 hour trip, but it was the best deal we could find. The phone number for Gunung Mas, a reliable shuttle company, is 0385-41899. Get your guesthouse to call and make the reservation.
We took the local bus from Bajawa to Ende, and they tried to charge us 70,000IDR each, which is more expensive than the private shuttle. We told them to go to hell and threw them 100,000IDR, which is what the locals at Bajawa told us it should cost.
From Ende, we arranged for a motorbike rental at Hotel Ikhlas. We paid 250,000IDR for three days, and it was worth every penny for not having to talk to a Flores bus driver ever again. We went to Moni with the bike, which also saved us money on hiring a driver to get up to the volcano.
In other words, if you're making a loop back to Labuan Bajo, we would highly recommend hiring a bike. Not only does it let you see more (since you have to leave any of the cities to see anything worth seeing), but it also gives you maximum flexibility and saves you from getting ripped off at every corner. We've never dealt with such bad public transport as in Flores, and unfortunately it had more to do with the people than the buses themselves.
Flores didn't blow as away, and we were left wondering whether the travelers who say it did were under the influence of "the emperor has no clothes" or a similar affliction. That's not to say it wasn't pretty--it was, as you can see by the photos--but traveling here wasn't pleasant and the payoff didn't justify the trouble.
Not only was Flores pricey, but getting here involves an investment of either time for overland travel or money for flights. And you have to see a lot of "ehh" before you get somewhere good. Add to the the fact that the locals are so hungry for your money that they stop behaving like decent human beings, least of all Christians--which 80% of the island is, and you're stuck on an island that's more hype than substance.
So should you go? If you really want to see the specific sites outlined and if you're not giving up somewhere else to come here, then sure. But if you're between Flores and another awesome place, I'd say give it a miss. There are just so many outstanding places in the world. Intrepid travelers shouldn't settle for "okay."
Interested in seeing what Flores has to offer without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Flores photo tour.
You can also share your tips for budget travel in Flores and Indonesia by leaving a comment!