Bali

A Complete Guide to Flores: 72 Hours in Labuan Bajo

A GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO

Often, I get asked about the beaches in Bali- it’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the idyllic island. When people envision Bali, they dream of paradise, in every sense.

The beach reality is often rocky or grey sand with cloudy, cool waters. Not exactly the turquoise water, white sand stuff daydreams are made of.

Fortunately, Indonesia has plenty of alternatives, some of which are quick and easy to reach from Bali.

Enter: Flores.

On our trip to Flores, we celebrated my 32nd birthday. As such, we booked the trip to be a bit longer than you really ‘need’ because we wanted to be truly off the grid, relaxing.

We went to Labuan Bajo for 4 days, 3 nights, which was the perfect amount of time to relax, connect, and sightsee.

If you’re visiting on a stopover during a holiday to Bali though, you could easily see and do the best bits in 2-3 days and 2 nights.

Why did we love Labuan Bajo so much?

Located on the island of Flores, Bajo was once a remote fishing town. It’s rapidly becoming a popular tourist destination, and with good reason. Home to breathtaking Komodo National Park, ace diving and some of the most awe-inspiring scenery I’ve ever seen, Flores is captivating.

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Unless you’re doing a liveaboard dive, Labuan Bajo will be where you stay during your time in Flores. The town is small, dusty and rapidly changing.

We enjoyed the quaintness of it, but be forewarned- it’s tiny, nothing at all like more commercialized places in Java, Lombok or Bali. You’ll find upmarket cafes and eateries, but not at the same scale as elsewhere in Indo.

And, for that reason, we enjoyed Bajo. We liked wandering the streets, seeing locals go about their days, and even contemplated renting a motorbike to see more of the island. Ultimately, we only decided against doing so to spend more time relaxing.

Whether you come for a few days or longer, you’ll discover Flores is every bit the picturesque paradise.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO: WHAT TO DO

Go Diving: Although we didn’t dive in Bajo (long story), we did spot plenty of sea turtles, mantas, and fish while snorkelling on our day trip (more on that below).

Komodo National Park is renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful dive sites. Because of a strong current in the park, dynamite fishing is impossible, so many of the coral reefs have remained intact.

Penga Kecil and Karang Makassar are the most visited reefs. Expect to see small reef sharks, turtles, loads of fish and sea stars in all kind of colors and sizes, dolphins, and even whales sharks.

Take a Day Trip to The Region’s Best Sights: I’ve written a full review of the tour I took with Red Whale here, but I’ll say this much- it was the best day trip I took in Indonesia, and possibly all of SE Asia.

We booked with Red Whale, and I can’t recommend them enough. They’re small group tours, operated on speedboats to help maximise your time in Flores.

The reason we booked with Red Whale? They visited every site I wanted to see, and I was impressed with their approach to sustainability – no plastic bottles, cutlery, etc. provided on the tours.

As a guest, you’re given a reusable water bottle, which they refill throughout the day for you with purified water, and at lunch, you’re served a delicious homemade Indonesian meal in reusable flatware.

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On one of their tours to Komodo National Park, you’ll have the chance to-

  • Hike Padar Island: A tri-colour beach viewpoint made famous by Instagram, hiking Padar is on everyone’s list of things to do in Komodo. It’s a tough climb to the top, best to start early am, but once there, you’ll be rewarded with an incredible view of rugged landscape, sparkling sea and colourful beaches
  • Relax at Pink Beach: Some travellers complain this beach isn’t ‘pink enough’, so our expectations were low, which may be why we were so impressed. The beach is unquestionably pink, especially where the water touches the sand. And, if you tired of lounging on the soft sand, you can go for a swim or snorkel in the clear waters
  • Trek Komodo Island: Ah, the reason most people head to Komodo- for the chance to see the world’s longest lizard, which can reach 3 meters in length and only lives on two islands (Rinca and Komodo) in Indonesia. As part of the day tour, you’ll trek the island for 30-40 minutes, during which time your guide will be on the lookout for dragons. When we visited, because it was mid-day, most of the dragons were sleeping near the guard office, which made them easy to find at the end of the trek. And lest we be disappointed, on our walk back along the beach to our boat, we spotted another, which was awake and walking around. You’ll be assigned a guide to take you around the island, be sure to heed their caution and directions- the Komodo Dragons are usually quiet during the day, but remain a predator- their toxic bite can be fatal
  • Explore Taka Makasar Sandbar: I never thought a sandbar would take my breath away, but this crescent shaped beach in the middle of the sea is stunning- the perfect spot for relaxing and snorkeling
  • Swim with Mantas: Snorkeling with these gentle creatures was nothing short of incredible, a definite trip highlight
  • Snorkel Turtle Bay: A beautiful coral garden, and the opportunity to swim with turtles? Yes and yes, please

Red Whale also offers the option to create your own itinerary if you’ve got a group of people sizable enough to take your own tour. We didn’t dive with Red Whale, but I’ve heard (and read) great reviews of their dive trips as well.

In total, our trip was $100 USD per person, including several national park fees. Our day started at 6:30 am with a hotel pick-up, and ended nearly 12 hours later with a hotel drop off.

A long day?
For certain, but also the best way to see a lot of Flores in a short amount of time, and an awesome crew to do so with.

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Wander Town: Labuan Bajo may be small, but there’s plenty to do and see if you’re observant and willing to chat up locals. One of my favorite memories from our trip? Stopping to watch schoolboys play soccer, and exchanging pleasantries with locals watching as well.

Chill at Le Pirate’s Private Pool: Located in the heart of town, Le Pirate’s rooftop hosts a daily happy hour. Often, there’s live music or accompanying food specials. Even if you’re not a guest, you can access the rooftop for happy hour.

Rent a Motorbike, Drive the Island: Best way to see how locals truly live and discover some beautiful viewpoints? Driving yourself around Flores. One spot you shouldn’t miss? Love Hill- situated 6 km outside of town, the sunset view from the top of the hill is incredible.

Go Off the Grid on a Boatel: Dive fanatics, you’ll be interested in doing an actual liveaboard.

Looking for a simple off the grid experience that can be had in only a day or two? Le Pirate’s Boatel may be more your speed.

The boat itself is a 10-15 minute boat shuttle from the harbour, which seems convenient at first. But, we actually found ourselves wishing it was further. The harbour is fairly polluted, and we didn’t feel super great about how close the boatel is to all of it.

Once onboard the boatel, you’ll be shown to your room- a cabin with a large, comfortable double bed. Bathrooms on the boat are basic- there are two toilets for men and women, each, plus showers. Don’t expect clean facilities or hot water. Although on a boat, I did feel there was more the crew could have done to keep these facilities clean for guests.

Whether in your room, on your own balcony, or on the upper deck, there are plenty of spots to lounge.

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We enjoyed our time on the boatel, but felt one night was enough. To us, it was worth the stay to be able to be in such beautiful surroundings- the pink sunrise we caught, in particular, was incredible.

And, while I’d recommend it for the unique experience if your expectations are appropriately set, there are a few things you should know-

  • The rooms have sheer curtains and thick, zipped panels. If you close the panels, there’s no airflow and the rooms become unbearably hot, so using them isn’t really an option. The curtains would be fine if there weren’t multiple boat docks, which are operational from late night to early morning. We happened to be situated by one of the docks, and as such, had people staring in our room constantly, which left us feeling exposed and uncomfortable
  • The crew doesn’t speak English, even transactional/conversational English. This is obviously an issue in case of an emergency and not advertised
  • At the time of our stay, there was a roach infestation- any time we moved our bags at night, multiple baby ones (plural) scattered. I get there’ll be bugs- it’s a boat, we’re in nature, but the amount of roaches we saw in our room felt unnecessary
  • There’s only one dinner option each night and no way of catering to allergies or intolerances. Albeit, you can reach town pretty easily, it’s still an inconvenience
  • Although they advertise a similar drink offering, including fresh juice, to their mainland counterpart, that’s not the case- they’re not equipped to do much beyond well drinks and beers
  • Should be a given based on above comments, but no wifi or air-conditioning. Wifi is advertised, but it’s actually just someone’s phone hotspot and doesn’t work

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These points aren’t meant to put you off staying there, but more-so ensure you go into the experience understanding what it’ll be like. Before our stay, I’d seen tons of Instagram photos, and even a few blog write-ups that made it seem like utter perfection, and while it’s a great experience, there are a few kinks to be sorted.

Staying at the boatel is best if you want to disconnect, be immersed in nature, and aren’t really fussed (as we weren’t) with the minor issues mentioned above. Le Pirate also has open air, rustic bungalows available to stay at on a private island near Flores, if that’s more your speed. Think, camping but private island chic.

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO:

  • Le Pirate: Confession, we mostly ate at our hotel- we were that chilled out. Plus, I loved their vegetable quesadillas and fresh juices
  • Happy Banana: Cute spot for sushi and fresh vegetable bowls
  • La Cucina: Good pizza in Bajo? Yep, it exists- order a mariana with a coconut on the side
  • The Night Market: Located by the pier on the main road, Jl Soekarno Hatta, the market is seafood heaven We perused the daily catch, and eyed up other stalls offering Indonesian classics, like Nasi Campur

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO:

  • Carpenter Cafe & Roastery: Brewing Flores, Sumatra and Java beans, this cafe was my favorite because, 1) air-conditioning, 2) friendly staff, and 3) blazing fast wifi. Also, delicious coffee drinks
  • Labajo Flores Coffee: Good coffee option, next to Red Whale’s office
  • Bajo Bakery: Great pick for breakfast, including your first cup of brew
  • Starbucks: New to Bajo, as of late 2019, the Starbucks in town is all the rage, and it’s easy to see why- it’s a beautiful location and employs a local staff. We came here once to check it out, but mostly stuck to local owned and operated places because I believe in supporting local businesses as a means of travelling ethically

THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO:

Neither of us were drinking while we were in Labuan Bajo, but even if we were, I wouldn’t have a ton of recommendations to share on this front.

Bajo is a dive town- things shut down early because boats leave in the early morning. Our hotel, Le Pirate, hosted a nightly happy hour and played lively music until 9/10 pm, but that was the extent of the party scene we witnessed.

If you are looking for a tipple, just walk the main street of town- loads of places advertise drink specials.

THE GUIDE TO LABUAN BAJO: EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS

  • Language: Transactional English is spoken at upmarket places. If all else fails, Google translate
  • Currency: Indonesian rupiah
    • If you can, withdraw before you come to Flores- in Bali or Lombok. There are a few ATMs in town, but I didn’t spot any at the airport, and most places were cash only. Modern resorts may take cards, but they’ll likely have a minimum spend
  • Budget: Generally, I found things to be more affordable than the equivalents in Canggu, Seminyak or Ubud in Bali. But, everything you’ll find has been marked up for tourism, and will be more expensive than other places in Indonesia 
  • Getting There: 
    • Flying: The easiest way to get to Bajo is by plane. There are daily flights from both Lombok and Bali. AirAsia, my favorite Asian budget carrier, recently started operating a daily return from Bali for under $100 USD (book ahead for best rates). 
      • From the airport, it’s a flat-rate 100k IDR into town. Extortionate for a 5 minute ride? Yes. Negotiable? No. 
    • Boat: More time, but on a budget? You can reach Flores by a multi-day boat trip via Lombok. I haven’t done this method of transport personally, but I’ve heard Perama Tours and Wanua Tours are the best providers
  • Getting Around: If you stay in town, you can easily walk- the town proper is small. And, if you’re staying at a hillside hotel, check to see if they offer a shuttle into town. You can also rent a motorbike if you’re keen to explore more of the island
  • Where to Stay: I stayed in Le Pirate in town centre for two nights, and then did one night on their boatel. In town, we paid $25 USD per night, and on the boatel, it was $30 USD for our one night stay. You can find much cheaper, or way more expensive places in and around town, depending on your budget. We chose to spend a bit more than we normally would because we were celebrating my birthday. I’ve shared more about the boatel experience above, but we enjoyed our time in Le Pirate’s central location- rooms are small, but you don’t spend much time in them. The bed was comfortable, and shower was great. Plus, everything was beautifully decorated, and the hotel has fun theme nights (live music Mondays, taco Tuesdays, etc.)
  • When to Visit: During the dry season, April to December. Opinion on the best time to dive varies, but I generally saw recommendations for March – October. We visited in late October and were lucky with several days of beautiful sunshine and hot, but not too humid temps
  • Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Indonesia. If you go on a day tour, the crew may ask for a tip, but it’s at your discretion whether you give one to them
  • WiFi Access: We were thankful for cell service in Flores- our hotel only had wifi in the common areas. The best internet I found in Labuan Bajo was at the Carpenter Roastery- super fast (for Flores), and the cafe crew doesn’t mind if you post up with a laptop for a few hours (plenty of seats and a few plugs, as well)
  • SIM Card Options: Flores’ airport is tiny, don’t expect to find a whole lot of amenities here. We had SIMs from Bali, which we used in Flores. I believe there are top-up spots in town, but I wouldn’t count on it

Have you ever been to Labuan Bajo? What would you add to this guide to Labuan Bajo?

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