Well, Indonesia. You just keep giving and giving, don't you? Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands*. So my plan to see as much of Indonesia as I can during my time here was always going to be tough. But almost 1 year in, I've checked almost 20 of these islands off my list. That's not too bad considering I'm juggling a full-time job at the same time!
My most recent trip was an 8-day road trip in Flores with 4 friends. Our itinerary was fairly full-on, as we traversed the pothole-filled roads from Labuan Bajo in the West to Ende in the East. Our plan was to visit Wae Rebo, Riung & The 17 Islands National Park, Kelimutu Crater Lakes and all that we could in between.
And visit them we did! I have so many recommendations and tips for places to see in Flores, which I'll share in subsequent blog posts. But first I wanted to provide a few handy tips about travel in Flores generally.
Top 3 Tips for Travel in Flores Indonesia
1. Hire a driver.
No, seriously. This is a huge island with pretty terrible roads and there's no way to base yourself in one spot if you want to have any hope of seeing it. Unlike most other parts of Indonesia, when you hire a car in Flores it comes with a driver as standard. Pay a little extra and you'll get a great guide too, who can make your trip that much more special.
If you insist, there are public buses but these aren't your typical air-conditioned tour bus or minivan. These are cram-it-all-in trucks (including all the motorbike, chickens, pigs and rice you can get your hands on). Adventures on wheels, sure, but also death traps. We saw people hanging off the sides, almost falling off the roof and squished between huge sacks of rice. One unexpected bump in the road - and believe me, these are not rare in Flores! - and you'd end up in the Darwin Awards for death by being squshed under a pig under a motorcycle under a group of local grandmothers. Not a pretty way to go.
I trawled Tripadvisor forums looking for driver recommendations and we contacted a few with our desired itinerary. After a few adjustments to ensure we had the best trip possible, we went with Ivan, possibly the safest driver I have ever had the pleasure of being in a car with. Originally from Timor-Leste, Ivan has been living in Flores for 15 years and knows his stuff. We never felt like we were part of a well-trodden tourist route and his constant enthusiasm for the scenery was very welcome. He also had a pretty awesome selection of tunes in his car!
Ivan's car can comfortably seat 5 people (max 6). Your itinerary will dictate the cost but expect to pay between $60-90/day in total for a driver guide. If there's a few of you, it's well worth the expense. You can contact Ivan on firstname.lastname@example.org and expect a quick response. Oh, his car also has WIFI!
2. Confirm, confirm and reconfirm. A booking doesn't mean a booking. Plan your trip well ahead of time, if possible.
Maybe it was because we traveled during the end of Ramadan, which is peak holiday season in Indonesia, but even booking accommodation a month ahead of time seemed too late. We managed to secure bookings OK, often with the help of our driver Ivan, but on arrival at our accommodation often found that this didn't mean much and walk-ins had been given preference over us.
Our first night, after a gruelling 6-hour drive that left most of us feeling nauseous, we arrived in Denge. Despite having booked early (through Ivan), a large group of Belgians had arrived and spread themselves out over most of the rooms. What was left? 1 room. With two single mattresses pushed together. To fit 5 fully-grown women. Not ideal! Another night we had to squeeze 4 of us into a double bed as our pre-booked (pre-paid via Agoda.com!) room had been given to a solo female traveller who had arrived earlier than us.
Just because you've booked it, doesn't mean you've booked it. Book ahead and make sure you have email and phone contacts for your accommodation so you can confirm and reconfirm your plans with them leading up to your arrival or you just might find yourself sleeping in a stranger's bed.
3. Pre-order your food!
No one tells you this, but if you turn up in a small town like Riung and you don't immediately head to a restaurant or warung to pre-order your dinner, you may go hungry. On our first night in Riung we arrived early at a small place called Cafe Del Mar. A few beers later we were ready to order food. No menu. No worries! We had a choice between Mie Goreng or Nasi Goreng. All of the fish had been pre-ordered. We still hadn't caught on so we made our choices and settled in to wait for our food.
By this time the place had filled up with about 10 tables of hungry guests, some new arrivals, some fresh from a day sailing around the islands. The wafts of cooked food started to hit us and we readied ourselves for our meal. We'd arrived first and ordered the simplest meals imaginable, surely we'd be eating soon!
In a word, no.
We endured a 2 hour wait for our food after watching every single table get served before us. Sulky kids who were definitely not going to eat that entire plate of Mie Goreng that I'd ordered. Laughing groups who had no idea how long we'd waited. The food eventually arrived and was pretty delicious, but we learnt our lesson. The next morning we headed straight to a restaurant and ordered our dinner. As we ate delicious fresh Cumi-Cumi (Squid), we told a lovely European couple who had just arrived what they needed to do. Unfortunately they had already missed out on most of the fresh seafood but they were prepared for their next meal!
So there you have it, my top 3 tips for visiting Flores.
*6000 of these are uninhabited, so that helps with the 'Visit Them All!' plans. A tiny bit. No, it doesn't really help all that much, does it?