A fertile, mountainous barrier between the Savu and Flores seas, Flores comprises one of the most alluring landscapes in the archipelago. The volcanic spine of the island soars to 2500m, and torrential wet seasons result in a lushness that marks Flores apart from its scorched neighbours. It also differs religiously – 95 percent of islanders are Catholic. The most spectacular sight in Flores is magnificent Kelimutu, near Moni, northeast of Ende. The three craters of this extinct volcano each contain a lake of different, vibrant and gradually changing colours. In the east of Flores, high-quality ikat weaving still thrives. At the extreme west end of the island, Labuanbajo has some fine coral gardens and is also the port for ferries to and from Sumbawa. All of Flores’s major towns are linked by bus, but these can be slow, crowded and unpleasant. A number of private operators, including the recommended Gunung Mas, run faster, more comfortable travels (cars and minibuses) around the island, to strictly observed schedules, with hotel pick-ups – well worth the few extra rupiah.
The port town of Labuanbajo is experiencing a boom in tourism, serving as the gateway to Flores and the main departure point for trips to Komodo National Park, but it nevertheless retains a laidback village feel. You can stay in town or at one of the nearby island hotels – a pleasant option, as most of these places offer a quiet getaway with unspoilt beaches and decent snorkelling, although they tend to be pricey. You can also easily organize dive trips from one of the many dive shops in town.
Situated on a narrow peninsula with flat-topped Gunung Meja and the active volcano Gunung Ipi at its sea end, the port of Ende is the largest town on Flores and provides access to Kelimutu and Moni, though there is little in town to attract tourists other than banks and ferries to other destinations. Black-sand beaches stretch down both east and west coasts: the Bajawa road runs right along the seafront, so just catch a bemo out to Ndao bus terminal and the beach begins right there. The area around Ende is known for its ikat weaving. Ngella is a weaving village about 30km east from Wolowana bus terminal in Ende, near the coast.
The first large town after Labuanbajo is Ruteng, 140km to the east. Surrounded by forested volcanic hills and rolling rice-paddy plains, it’s a cool, relaxing place. The market just to the south is the central meeting point for the local Manggarai people, as Ruteng is their district capital. They speak their own language and have a distinctive culture most in evidence in villages on the south coast. Their traditional houses are conical and arranged in concentric circles around a circular sacrificial arena; even the rice paddies are round, divided up like spiders’ webs, with each clan receiving a slice. Most of these formations are no longer used, but a good example can still be seen at Golo Cara, thirty minutes by bemo from the central bus station, and traces of them are visible from the bus to Bajawa.
The hill town of Bajawa is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Flores, surrounded by lush slopes and striking volcanoes. Gunung Inerie is just one of the active volcanoes near Bajawa: it’s an arduous but rewarding hike, and if it’s clear you can see all the way to Sumba from the summit.
Bajawa is the largest town in the Ngada district, an area that maintains its status as the spiritual heartland of Flores. Here, despite the growing encroachment of tour groups, indigenous animist religions flourish and the villages maintain traditional houses, megalithic stones and interesting totemic structures. Up to sixty thousand people in the Ngada district speak the distinct Ngada language, and a good proportion of the older generation don’t understand basic Bahasa Indonesian.
Not for the faint-hearted are the local specialities of moke, a type of wine that tastes like methylated spirits, and raerate or “rw” (pronounced “air-vay”), dog meat marinated in coconut milk and then boiled in its own blood.
The influx of tourists to the Ngada region has led to a booming guide industry in Bajawa, with a corresponding hike in prices. A day-tour should cover at least Bena and Wogo, as well as the hot springs at Soa, but many also include a trip to Wawo Muda, one of Indonesia’s newest volcanoes. If you don’t get approached by a licensed guide at your hotel, try the guide association which operates an information office opposite the Hotel Eidelweis, though it’s only open sporadically.
Soa, Wogo and Bena are all accessible by public transport from Bajawa (though Bena only has one bemo a day); it can be hard to find accurate information about this, and guides will often inflate prices to discourage you from independent visits, so ask bemo drivers directly. Alternatively, you can rent a motorbike and explore the region for yourself. The market is a good place to look for people willing to hire out their wheels. An ojek (motorbike with driver) will be around the same price. Female travellers should be careful of the latter though, as there have been several reports of indecent behaviour by ojek drivers in the area.
Bena is the prettiest and most traditional of the Ngada villages, lying about 13km south of Bajawa. To reach it, take the turn-off past the large church at Mangulewa, 5km east of Bajawa. Here they have nine different clans, in a village built on nine levels with nine Ngadhu/Bhaga couplings. It’s the central village for the local area’s religions and traditions, and one of the best places to see festivals such as weddings, planting and harvest celebrations.
Some of the finest megaliths and Ngadhu are at the twin villages of Wogo Baru and Wogo Lama, the former lying 1km south of Mataloko (30min by bemo from Bajawa). Wogo Baru is a typically charming Ngada village, but the main attraction lies about 1.5km further down the road at Wogo Lama, where some apparently neglected megaliths sit in a clearing. All of the above villages ask visitors to give a donation, but the amount is up to you.
The most popular destination near Bajawa is the hot springs at Soa. The springs are set in peaceful surroundings, and a small but powerful waterfall provides the cheapest hot shower on Flores. Bemos from Bajawa market run to Soa village, from where you can pick up an ojek for the remaining 6km to the springs – you’ll need to ask your driver to wait if you don’t want to walk back. There are some quieter, though equally seductive, hot springs at Malanage, 3km south of Bena.
In the first few months of 2001 a new volcano erupted above the small village of Ngoranale, about 10km to the north of Bajawa, leaving a blackened crater. There are currently five small red lakes in the bottom of the crater, though they shrink to nothing in the dry season. There are no bemos to Wawo Muda, so you’ll need private transport to Ngoranale, where you can ask a villager to show you the start of the wide and easy-to-follow trail, which takes about an hour and a half to meander up to the summit.
In the centre of most villages in this district stand several ceremonial edifices, which represent the ancestral protection of, and presence in, the village. These include the Ngadhu, which resembles a man in a huge hula skirt, the thatched skirt sitting atop a crudely carved, phallic forked tree trunk, which is imbued with the power of a male ancestor. The female part of the pairing, the Bhaga, is a symbol of the womb, a miniature house. The symbolic coupling is supplemented by a carved stake called a Peo, to which animals are tied before being sacrificed.
Stunning Kelimutu volcano, with its three strangely coloured crater lakes, is without doubt one of the most startling natural phenomena in Indonesia. The picturesque village of Moni, 40km northeast of Ende, stretches along the road from the lower slopes of the volcano down to the valley floor, and makes a great base from which to hike up to Kelimutu and around.
The summit of Kelimutu (1620m) forms a barren lunar landscape with, to the east, two vast turquoise pools separated by a narrow ridge. A few hundred metres to the west, settled in a deep depression, lies a dark khaki lake. The lakes’ colours are due partly to the levels of certain minerals that dissolve in them. As the sulphurous waters erode the caldera they lie in, they uncover bands of different compounds and, as the levels of these compounds are in constant flux, so are the colours. Just as important, however, is the level of oxygen dissolved in the water. When their supply is low, the lakes look green. Conversely, when they are rich in oxygen, they range from deep red to black. In the 1960s, the lakes were red, white and blue.
Every morning at around 4am tourists ride by ojek from their hotel in Moni to Kelimutu, making it to the top in time to see the sun rise hazily over the mountains; make sure you organize this early departure the night before, though you can also go later if you prefer. Just before the car park near the summit you need to pay a park fee. There are two vantage points – you can only see two lakes from the first one, so most tourists and all the local coffee-sellers head to the second. The walk back down to Moni, which takes about two and a half hours, is a joy, especially in fine weather, providing views over rolling hills down to the sea. There’s a path to the right at the two white pillars around the 6km mark, which cuts a good 4km off the road route, taking you through some charming local villages and past the waterfall (air terjun) on the edge of Moni – a great spot for a dip. If you take this route you’ll need good shoes, as it gets very narrow and steep. Following the road, you’ll pass some hot springs in which to soak your tired feet. Be sure to take plenty of water, as even going downhill you’ll warm up quickly.
Nestling among lush rice paddies, the village of Moni exudes a lazy charm. Full of homestays and little family-run cafés, it’s a relaxed place to spend a few days, with great walking in the surrounding hills. There is no bank or post office in Moni, despite the increasing number of tourists; but you can make phone calls at the tiny wartel off the main road, and the Bintang Restaurant offers internet access. There’s a small book exchange in the nearby village of Woloara, off the road to Maumere.
On the north coast of Flores, roughly equidistant between Ende and Larantuka, Maumere was once the tourism centre of the island and its best diving resort. In 1992, a devastating earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the town, as well as the coral, though this is slowly recovering. Improved transport links and regular air services are steadily making it one of the main stops on trips around Nusa Tenggara; from here, you can organize tours that take in all of Flores’s attractions. Maumere is the capital of the Sikka district, especially renowned for its weaving, which incorporates maroon, white and blue geometric patterns in horizontal rows on a black or dark-blue background.