Conservation, low-impact, local. Long before the term “ecotourism” was coined, places like Belize, Costa Rica, and the Galápagos Islands were trying to protect the environment while allowing visitors to enjoy the beautiful scenery. They became—and remain—some of the most sought-after vacation spots in the world. Now up-and-coming destinations are trying to follow their lead.
Until a few years ago, no one was traveling to East Timor. The Southeast Asian country makes up the eastern half of the island of Timor. The Portuguese first colonized it in the 18th century. The East Timorese people eventually declared independence in 1975, only to be invaded by the neighboring Indonesians. The brutal war that followed lasted more than 20 years and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. Rebuilding is a long process, but they now get to decide how they want to do it.
Atauro Island is taking the ecotourism route. The island is located 25 kilometers north of the capital, Dili, across the Wetar Strait. It’s name means goat, for the large number of goats kept on the rugged island. It’s also home to lots of birds that live in the evergreen forests and marine animals that inhabit the vibrant coral reef surrounding the island.
After arriving on the ferry from Dili, head inland to hike sacred Mount Manucoco, Atauro Island’s highest point. You pass grasslands and traditional gardens, hillside villages and the dense forest, olive-headed lorikeets and bar-necked cockoo-doves before reaching the summit. From here, you can see steep slopes, eucalyptus forests, and crushed coral beaches. It’s beautiful and unspoiled.
Exhausted from the hike, you’re ready to cool off by the water. Ride a bike along the eastern coast from Vila Maumeta, the largest village, to North Point, on the tip of the island. Here the water is so clear that the reef is plainly visible. Ride a traditional outrigger to see pods of dolphins and migratory whales. Learn how to fish with a spear—your catch will be roasted over hot coals later. Go scuba diving in Manta Cove, where light passes through the underwater ridges, creating an amazing light show. Then find a perfect beach on the quiet western side of the island. The bright white coral sparkles like snow.
East Timor—and Atauro Island—is bound to change. As more and more people realize that the now-peaceful country has pristine reefs and stunning beaches, it will be added to must-visit lists. Hopefully those will be lists of the best ecotourism destinations.