Papua Travel Information - Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat: Indonesia's Most Beautiful Archipelago

Right in the heart of East Indonesia, where Maluku meets Papua, the stunning Raja Ampat Islands have only really been discovered by tourism in the last decade or so. These days however, they are probably the country's most-wanted and most expensive diving and cruising destination. Those who can afford it will find a stay at one of the dive resorts, or a cruise on one of the pinisi-schooners operating here money well spent, for the scenery and the marine biodiversity of these pristine islands are second to none. In the meantime those on tighter budgets will find cheaper accommodation and transport options also exist, making these islands increasingly accessible to all.


Attractions Activities Local Culture Safety Getting There Accommodation Food

Main Attractions

Stunning Scenery

Probably the most publicized image of Raja Ampat is that of the lagoon in Wayag, a spectacular group of rock islands in the extreme northwest of the region. Around Southeast Misool, at the archipelago's opposite end, the scenery is if anything, even more spectacular. Both of these spots are remote and won't be seen by most visitors who stay at the most accessible resorts or bungalows in the most visited central part of Raja Ampat, but similarly breathtaking scenery can still be found there, too. Kabui Bay and the Mayalibit Bay of Waigeo, the "hidden bays" of Gam and Penemu offer similar rock formations, with each one having its own, unique charm.

Activities

Diving & Snorkeling

This is what most people come to Raja Ampat for! Several surveys by marine biologists have found that these islands, sitting right at the heart of the "Coral Triangle", have the very highest marine biodiversity in the World, with a profusion of coral and fish unmatched anywhere else. There are now about half a dozen dive resorts scattered in the islands, and most cruises also offer diving. Snorkelers, who should bring their own gear, have it even better, as they can explore reefs pretty much anywhere, unlimited by the existance of facilities.

Birdwatching

The mostly still pristine rainforests of Raja Ampat, even on smaller islets, teem with exotic birdlife. The most visible species are various noisy cockatoos and colorful parrots, many of which are widespread in the rest of Papua and Maluku as well, but there are also several species of birds endemic to Raja Ampat, that is found nowhere else on Earth. These include 2 beautiful species of birds of paradise, Wilson's and Red, a set of newly discovered species on Kofiau, and the recently rediscovered brush turkey of Waigeo.

Hiking

While not a popular activity among most visitors who tend to focus on the coastal scenery and the underwater beauty, the larger islands of Raja Ampat all offer hiking possibilities to those determined enough to seek them out, and able to go with local guides who may not speak any English. Unlike in most of Indonesia, pristine rainforests here can often be found just inland from the coast, and there's a decent chance of seeing a good cross-section of the islands' wildlife (especially birds) on any hike.

 
Local Culture

The People of Raja Ampat

Most people you will meet in the islands' villages are Biakese, descended from early migrants from the island of Biak in the Cendrawasih Bay off northern Papua. They now outnumber the various smaller ethnic groups native to these islands, who live scattered mostly on the larger islands of Waigeo, Misool, Batanta, Salawati and Kofiau. Traditionally, these islands have also had close links with Maluku, and mixing with people from there is very obvious in the features of the coastal people of Misool and Kofiau in particular. The Malukan influence has also brought Islam to some of these islands, though the majority of the islanders are, like most Papuans, Christian. Being so exposed to outside influences, traditional culture is less strong in Raja Ampat than in most other regions of Papua, but a visit or stay in one or more of the islands' friendly villages is still likely to provide a memorable experience. Indonesians from the rest of the country are mostly concentrated in the regional capital of Waisai, or wherever mining, fishing or construction projects have created a large number of jobs that the local Papuans can't or won't fill.

Safety and Warnings

Malaria!

Despite what many visitors seem to believe, malaria is very common in Raja Ampat - a friend of mine who had just arrived from Europe caught it within  days here, and locals also often fall ill with it. Those who spend most of their time on a cruise and only go on shore rarely and briefly are probably at a minimal risk, but anyone planning to stay on land, whether in a resort or in villages, should take the usual precautions.

Getting There and Around

By Air

An airstrip is now under construction on Waigeo and once finished, may have flights Manado in North Sulawesi, and from various other places in Maluku and Papua. For now however, the closest airport is that of Sorong on the mainland of Papua, and most visitors to Raja Ampat start their trip by flying there.

Public Boats

Public transport to and within these islands remains very limited, and this is probably the main reason why they have so far largely remained the preserve of those going on cruises or to stay at resorts that pick them up in Sorong. The only place with reliable, daily boat links to Sorong is the regional capital of Waisai on Waigeo. Less frequent and more irregular passenger boats now also go to Misool from both Sorong and Seram in Maluku. Even less frequent, and more irregular, not to mention filthier are the Perintis ships that do their rounds stopping at more remote islands, often as part of a longer voyage betweeen Sorong and Maluku, once every few weeks. Finally, village boats tend to go to both Sorong and Waisai whenever the locals feel like doing so, and those who speak Indonesian may be able to catch a (paying) ride with people returning home from the city.

Chartering

If you've arrived on one of the islands by public transport, you'll find that you will probably still have to charter a boat of some sort to take you anywhere else. If you've prebooked your stay at a bungalow operation, your host may come and pick you up as part of the deal, and such pick-up services, while not free, may well be the cheapest way to reach Kri, Mansuar or Gam from Waisai. Otherwise, you need to shop around locally. Charters around Raja Ampat won't come cheap. You may find a boat for a daytrip to nearby islands for a few hundred thousand Rp, but for any longer trip, necessary to reach far-flung islands like Wayag or simply to explore more islands, you are looking at a million Rp per day and up. I can't give any more definite estimations as the price you pay depends on numerous factors, namely what kind of vessel you hire, how far you want to go, whether or not you speak Indonesian and of course on pure luck, too! Cheapest to hire are the canoes powered by a long-tailed engine, known as ketinting, but these are slow and only travel along the coast. Next step up are longboats powered by 15-45 HP engines which can travel faster and manage longer crossings between islands, though are still quite uncomfortable and exposed to the sun. Fastest and most expensive of all are the speedboats that could even reduce Wayag to a (rushed) daytrip from Waisai. If you are at all concerned about the price, don't even think of looking for these on the internet - the cheaper boats will only be found by asking around locally, talking to boatmen who speak no English! When negotiating, make sure any price quoted is for the boat, not per person, and it includes fuel and crew. There's absolutely no reason for a boat-owner to charge per passenger rates, and if you get a quote not including fuel, you may well find that in the end you pay several times more for the fuel (with no idea how much fuel is actually needed for your trip). If you fail to find anything suitable that way, the local tourism department in Waisai also has speedboats available for chartering, at prices that are reasonable enough as far as speedboat charters go.

Cruises

For those who can afford it, taking a cruise on one of the yachts plying these waters can be one of the most comfortable ways of seeing various islands in Raja Ampat. Most are traditional Sulawesi "pinisi" sailing schooners turned into tourist vessels, and offer comfortable accommodation, good food, diving facilities and in better cases also knowledgeable guides for diving or shore excursions on board. Some operate tours that anyone can sign up to join, but many operate as private charters. Traveling this way, you are sure to see more islands than those who choose to stay at a resort or bungalow operation, and can also dive in more areas. Nights are usually spent anchoring at beautiful, quiet locations. The disadvantages of being on a cruise can be limited shore excursions to visit villages or explore the islands' interior - if these are important for you, ask in advance about them! If you are not a diver, try and find a cruise that focuses on snorkeling or shore excursions, otherwise you may spend a lot of time bored on board while most other passengers are diving.

I only have personal experience with one yacht offering charters in this area, which I can highly recommend: the Raja Laut

Accommodation

Resorts

Resorts, mostly focusing on diving, now exist in about half a dozen locations on the islands of Kri, Mansuar, Pef (off Gam), Batbitim (off Misool), Birie (off Batanta) and Waigeo. All but the one at Waiwo on Waigeo are very expensive. As such, you can expect comfortable accommodation, usually in vaguely "local-style" bungalows, good food,  English-speaking staff and diving excursions. Additional programs like visits to villages or birdwatching may be arranged, partly depending on your resort's location. Note however that if you spend your entire time at one resort, you will only see the area surrounding it - they don't usually take guests to islands far away. So if you were lured to visit Raja Ampat by images of far-flung Wayag's rock islands, be aware that you probably won't see them if you stay at a resort as most resorts are on islands relatively close to Sorong to be able to offer quick transfers. The resort in the most scenic location is the one on Batbitim. The others are still good for a diving and beach holiday, of course. Also remember that all the resorts are owned/run by foreigners or non-Papuan Indonesians, though all employ local staff, too.

Bungalows ("Homestays")

In recent years, the boom in tourism to Raja Ampat has luckily also lead to the opening of locally-owned, simple beach bungalows similar to the ones you can find in much of Southeast Asia. For some strange reason these tend to be called "homestays" in Raja Ampat, even though none are real homestays (where you stay in a local family's home) but are bungalows built specifically for tourists. Most are on a beach either in or close to a village, offering you more insight into local life than the resorts or cruises would. And of course, your money will go entirely into the natives' pockets, making these the ethically best choice, too. Most are still rather simple affairs, possibly with mats on the floor and no electricity for much of the day, though western toilets now seem standard. For the facilities offered, they are still not cheap, costing between 200-500.000 (usually 300.000) Rp per day either per person or per room - if it's per room, meals are extra! For longer stays, rates are usually negotiable. Most can't be booked, or even found online, though the Raja Ampat Tourism Office in the Meridien Hotel in Sorong can call ahead and book you into those that do have cell phone coverage. Note that their list of "homestays" is NOT comprehensive - there are many more out there!

Hotels & Guesthouses

Cheap hotels and guesthouses, as known in the rest of Indonesia, can only be found in Waisai. Though not exactly nicely located, they offer the cheapest and best value accommodation in Raja Ampat, with rooms starting at 150.000 Rp and up.

Staying in Villages

If you somehow end up on islands without formal accommodation, you can usually stay in a local home, or in a communal building. In such cases you should ALWAYS offer a donation, even if locals are too embarrassed to ask for it outright. This should be AT LEAST 50.000 Rp per person if you just sleep on a mat on the floor, but more like 100.000 if you were also given meals. Don't abuse and ruin local hospitality by freeloading, or by offering ridiculously small amounts like the 10.000 Rp (which won't even buy them a pack of cigarettes) suggested by a silly guidebook author.

Food

Eating Out?

Most villages have small shops selling basic foodstuff like biscuits, instant noodles, tea and sugar, but little else. When available, local fruit and freshly caught fish may be offered, too.If you plan a multiday island-hopping tour by chartered boat, bring supplies with you from Waisai. Waisai itself is the only place with warungs offering cooked meals and a decent  market selling a variety of fruits, fresh fish and cakes. No places sell the delicious, traditional Papuan food, but you can sponsor a traditional earth-oven feast in some villages.