Papua Travel Information - Central Highlands
The Central Highlands: Rugged Mountains & Traditional Villages

Most visitors to Papua make the rugged, remote, and very scenic Central Highlands the main destination of their trip. The primary gateway here is the famous Baliem Valley, first "discovered" by the outside world only in the middle of the last century, and then found to be home to a huge population of "Warlike Cannibals Still Living in Stone Age". It made headlines throughout the World, and the legend still manages to live on. Well, times have changed! Today, cannibalism has been replaced by Christianity of one form or another, grass-skirts and penis-gourds, still common right until the end of the 90es, have largely been replaced by cheap, western-style clothing, stone axes by steel ones, and shell money by the rupiah. And yet, the Highlands still remain a place like no other. Beneath the thin veil of modern clothes and western religion, traditional values and lifestyles remain very strong. Villages are still mostly made up by traditional, thatch-and-wood round huts where the women take care of their beloved pigs and the men gather in smoky men's houses. The gardens blanketing the hillsides are tended in the traditional way, with the traditional foodstuff, sweet potato, still being the staple of the Papuan diet here. Babies and produce alike are carried in traditional noken (net bags) by the hard-working womenfolk. Tourism is now a regular part of the local economy in the Baliem and in a few more popular areas nearby, but even these are far from being overrun. In fact the once legendary Grand Valley itself is now largely given a miss in favour of areas that look more remote on the map. Most budding explorers are limited by their own limited time or budget though, so areas more than a week's walk away from Wamena very rarely see visitors. In any case, being further from Wamena doesn't necessarily mean "more traditional", as most blessings of the modern era arrive in the Highlands by plane to tiny airstrips which are all over the region. So don't dream of discovering untouched primitives, just come here to enjoy the splendid scenery, the remoteness, and the real, present-day culture, and you are likely to return home with lasting memories.

Attractions Off the Track Tourist Traps Local Culture Getting There
Main Attractions

Baliem valley

Most tourists head for this large valley in the central highlands of Papua as soon as possible. Its major town, Wamena is the most easily accessible gateway to the interior today, yet it was only discovered by the outside world in the 1930es. It is located around 1800 metres above sea level, and is heavily cultivated by the native Dani people.

Lani Country

The area west of the Baliem Valley is home to the Lani people. They are friendlier, though somewhat less traditional than the Dani. Several towns in this area, such as Tiom and Karubaga are now accessible by road from Wamena and have become popular bases for trekking.

Yali Country

The highlands east of the Baliem Valley are much more rugged than those to the west. Trekking here is much harder, but very rewarding. There are no regular flights here, though missionary airstrips do exist. The most popular destination in this region is Angguruk, centre of the Yali, who are one of the most traditional highland groups. Angguruk's teeming markets are an unforgetable sight - even though like everywhere in Papua, the percentage of traditionally-dressed people has dropped sharply, from about 95% during my first visit in late 1999 to about 5-10% by early 2008.

Off the Beaten Track

Lake Habbema

This lake in the alpine highlands at an altitude of over 3000 metres above Wamena is a tempting hiking and birdwatching destination. Unfortunately police often ban tourists from going to this area, while local villages along the most common route up have also been known to collect high fees for letting you pass.


Ilaga is one of the main towns in the western highlands, and is best known as the starting point of the hike up Puncak Jaya. The broad valley around here is home to both the Lani, and the more colorful Amungme tribe. Partly to stop unauthorized climbs and partly because the OPM guerillas operate in this region, it is generally closed to travellers.

Mek Country

Several days further east beyond Angguruk, surrounded looking over steep limestone hillsides, is Nalca. It is the main centre of the Mek people. Very few tourist get this far, but if you do you, will be able to rest up in a former missionary home.


Further east is the missionary post of Eipomek. The Mek people around here preserved their traditional dress and the art of carving longer than around Nalca.

Una Country

The centre of the Una people, Langda is on the southern side of the eastern highlands. It is close enough to the central heights to see patches of snow! It is so far from Wamena that locals didn't even know how long it takes to walk there. Nevertheless Dutch missionaries made them quite educated here. There is a missionary guest house to stay in.

The Star Mountains

The easternmost part of the central highlands used to be off-limits, and as a border region has been subject to heavy Indonesian presence. It is not noted for traditional culture these days, but during a brief visit to the northern foothills of this region I was surprised to find interesting traditional villages where the architecture is a mix of both highland and lowland styles, and some women and girls still wore grass skirts.

Tourist Traps

Organized Tours

Organized tours to Papua, mostly focusing on the Highlands, tend to be outrageously priced.
To justify the high cost, some will even claim truly ridiculous things, such as "first-contact" encounters with "lost tribes" - readily available several times a year! :p
It is best not to take any prefabricated package-tour, as English-speaking guides are readily available in Jayapura and especially Wamena. While these will often try and rip you off too, they still won't charge you as much as a tour-operator booking in advance would.
A tour won't be able to offer much extra anyway - hotels and transport are easy to find in the towns they visit, and if you go trekking, you will live very basic anyway.
If you do need to take a tour, shop around carefully.
Remember that no matter what they say, they will take you to places which are regularly visited by them, and which can easily be reached by tourists who are not able to make too much effort.
Also, accomodation and food options are limited outside Jayapura and Wamena, so paying more won't get you better facilities where those don't exist!
It is therefore silly to pay through the nose for promises of special service or "going where no one else has been before".
As the obvious alternative, just book your ticket to Indonesia, and fly on to Jayapura, then Wamena once there.
Domestic air tickets are easy to get on these regular routes.
Once in Wamena, you can easily hire local guides to organize your trek - but see the warning in the next tip!
If you are able to speak at least a little Indonesian, you certainly won't need either tours or guides.

Guides in Wamena

Most tourists with too little time but too much money head straight for Wamena in the Baliem Valley, where their arrival is eagerly awaited by hordes of English-speaking guides who will latch onto new arrivals as soon as they step off the plane.
They will try and charge you something like 100 USD/day or even more for trekking, which is more than many Indonesians (let alone Papuans) earn in a month.
Not only will you be quoted a very high price to start with, once the trek is underway, it is very common to demand more money in the middle of it. Leaving trekkers stranded in the middle of nowhere is not unheard of either, and is in fact a sadly common threat used to push you into paying up!
Another common scam is promising to take you to very remote places (either because you wanted to go there or they suggested it) but in the end only going to villages much closer and more easily accessible. As there are no signs, you may not even know where you are anyway!
If you do need English-speaking guides, test them on a shorter hike before agreeing to hire them for a longer trip. This, combined with insisting on paying for everything (food, porters, accommodation in villages as well as the guide's fee) yourself separately as you go, rather than handing over a wad of cash in advance to "save trouble by letting the guide sort it all out" is the only way to ensure you will be less likely to be ripped off!
Alternatively, learn some Indonesian before coming here, and you can bypass these guys completely by taking public transport out to the villages and hiring local villagers as porter-guides there.
Those not speaking English will be invariably more honest.

Local Culture

Men's houses

A common institution in Papua is the men's house. These buildings, bigger than all other houses, tend to dominate the villages. Traditionally, men live in these together with other men, and only visit their wives and kids in their smaller, individual houses occasionally. The system is under pressure from modern ideas of both the Indonesian authorities and the foreign missionaries, but is still alive and well in many remote regions, especially the Highlands. Male visitors (tourists) in the villages may well be expected to overnight in the men's house in places where these are still used, while women may be banned from entering altogether - they should certainly ask permission if wishing to do so!

Bakar batu

"Bakar batu" (baking stones) is the traditional Papuan way of preparing food in many areas. People will prepare a pit in which they make a big fire with stones placed in it. Once all the wood has turned to ashes, the stones will have become very hot. At this point, the various food items, from sweet potatoes to meat, will be placed among the hot stones wrapped in leaves. They will then be baked this way. On this picture Dani women are opening up the prepared food - the reason they wear those strange capes on their backs is rain.

Communal feasts

For major events like festivals, celebrations or sometimes just on Sundays, big communal feasts may be held in villages. This often involves a huge "bakar batu" in the highlands, or consuming "ulat sagu" in the south. All people in the village contribute to the meal according to their resources, and the feast is prepared together. Visitors who happen to pass by are usually welcome to join - this the chance to taste Papuan cuisine at its most authentic.

The Dani

The Dani of the Baliem are one of the most traditional highland groups of Papua. Though modern influences are creeping in, many traditional customs are still preserved - for example women smearing themselves with mud, as seen on the second photo for this tip, at the time of mourning. Some older people still wear traditional dress (or the lack of it), though to see many of them dressed traditionally, you will either have to pay them to "dress up" or be lucky to catch a special event!


There are three remaining mummies of Dani chiefs that passed away long ago and now serve as tourist attractions in the villages of Aikima, Jiwika and Pumo. The first two are accessible by road from Wamena. All three can be seen and photographed for a fee.

Getting There

By Air

The main gateway to the Central Highlands is Wamena, served by several flights every day from Sentani. There are also scheduled flights from Nabire to the western part of the Highlands, but these can be less reliable and hard to get on. There is also a public flight between Wamena and Dekai in the southern plains. Missionary flights serve plenty of remote airstrips throughout the region out of their bases in Sentani, Wamena and Nabire, but while these may be worth asking about, they certainly can't be depended upon as a public transport option for travellers as locals enjoy a priority on such flights when already scheduled. However, those with plenty of cash can charter missionary planes, or those belonging to other private operators, to fly them wherever they wish.

By Road

The only road that connects the Highlands with the coast is the one between Nabire and Enaroltali. I have heard conflicting reports on whether this is actually in useable condition, but the latest word was that in good weather conditions jeeps can make it through in 3 days. The road between Jayapura and Wamena has been on the planning board for well over a decade now, but it seems that in recent years more of it has been swallowed up by the jungle than has been been newly built. Don't count on it till you hear that it has definitely been finished and put into use. Within the Highlands, there is an interesting network of roads that fan out of Wamena to all directions, all of which finish in a dead-end sooner (southwards) or later (westwards). They are serviced by some of the most run-down and jam-packed minibuses you will see anywhere, but can be useful for getting to trailheads. In Wamena there are plenty of becaks that can not only take you around town, but also to villages around the relatively flat Grand Valley.