Indonesia has long been a favourite with travellers of all budgets, and for those in the know about this island nation, they recommend exploring the lesser-known island of Sulawesi. It’s the eleventh largest island in the world, and surprisingly untouched by the development seen in parts of Java and Bali. Beaches, national parks, ancient history, and cultural diversity are all the markers of this hidden gem in the world’s largest archipelago. Here is a travel guide for everything you need to know to plan your backpacking around Sulawesi.
Beaches in Sulawesi
Sulawesi is dotted with smaller islands that have paradise beaches, along with some stunning mainland strips. A Sulawesi tour guide will be able to help you figure out which destinations suit the type of trip you’re dreaming of, but be sure to ask about these destinations.
Five hours south of Makassar is Bira. The main town beach is lovely, with a pier for jumping off and warm, calm shallows for all day wading.
Hire a motorbike or have your tour guide arrange a driver and get yourself out to Pantai Mandalaria. Impossibly clear water, white powder sand, and perfect seclusion await. Between the sea and the sky, you will see more shades of blue than you thought possible.
Gorontalo is a quaint former colonial town, with easily accessible beaches. Located on the northern ‘leg’ of the island, your Sulawesi tour guide can organise a trip to watch whale sharks and go snorkelling at Olele and Batubarani beaches. Jungle, rock, beach, then ocean form the perfect backdrop on these quiet beaches.
Sulawesi’s Surrounding Islands
For more of the aquatic life, hop over to some of the islands off the coast of Sulawesi. Sulawesi tour guides are really knowledgeable about where to head and can help you put together an itinerary that makes sure you don’t miss a selfie scene.
Bunaken island sits north of Manado, the island’s second city. Traditional beaches aren’t so numerous on this island, but the snorkelling, diving, and sea life are up there with the best in the world. 76% of coral species in the world can be found around Bunaken, and they are guaranteed to be protected by the National Marine Park status.
Skip your attention to the south of Sulawesi and your Indonesian tour guide can show you Wakatobi Islands. This collection of five islands are idyllic and barely touched by human development. The sand is clean and soft, the water turquoise and calm, and for the more active traveller, the snorkelling and diving are world-renowned.
National Parks in Sulawesi
Taman Leang Leang is one of the most important sites in human history. Hire a Makassar tour guide to take you the 15km to this peaceful country site. In the limestone, sea shell speckled caves you will find the oldest artwork known in the world. Stepping in the caves takes you back to 40,000 years ago, where human’s first decided to leave their mark on a wall.
To get the most out of Tana Toraja, meet the Torajans and witness their iconic funerary rites. Across the Takabone National Park, there are many Torajan towns that have a plethora of funerals that include cave burials and animal sacrifice. Not for the faint-hearted, and definitely an education. Arranging travel to the area best done with a tour guide, the flight schedule can change quickly due to the weather, and if you’re keen to see one of the famous funerals, a tour guide can help get you to the right village.
Through the Centre of Sulawesi
Whilst heading north up the spiral shape of Sulawesi, a stop off at Tentena is a must. It’s a small town that’s tucked on the shores of Lake Poso, the third largest lake in Indonesia.
Here, peace reigns and to add adventure into your inland sojourn, take a trip to the perfectly Instagrammable Saluopa waterfall. There are 12 levels of rock pools, you can climb all the way to the top and get in a great swim.
From Tentena, your local tour guide will recommend a visit to Lore Lindu National Park. There are some rare birds, long jungle treks and a slice of human history to light up your journey. Dating up to 4000 years ago, the carved monoliths in the park add another layer to the story of humanity that is waiting to be discovered in Sulawesi.
The capital of Makassar can sometimes be left too quickly since it’s the gateway to so much nature, culture, and history.
Makassar can provide some Western relief if you’ve missed creature comforts whilst hitting the road. Mal Ratu is great to stock up on supplies of mosquito spray and first-aid supplies, and international cuisine is on hand. Slurp down a bowl of Cotto to reconnect with Indonesia after your mall trip, a tasty local soup that is served on every street corner.
It’s worth planning with your Makassar tour guide to spend a couple of days exploring if your schedule allows. A day trip over to Samalona island, 7km out to sea, is a highlight of the city. The beach is clean, the water like crystals, and the convenience of a 30-minute boat journey is surprisingly pleasant.
The northern jewel in Sulawesi’s heady crown is Manado. Manado has a large Christian population: the mosques of the rest of Indonesia are swapped for churches and a big statue of Jesus. There is also a marked ethnic Chinese minority in the city, Taoist temples like Ban Hin Kiong show off a different side of Indonesian culture.
Seafood, especially tuna, is the culinary star of Manado. The beachfront strip is dotted with delightfully fresh caught fish. Simply grilled with sambal on the side is the classic way to try the island’s cuisine.
"Jo has been through many incarnations since first arriving in Asia ten years ago. From backpacker to English teacher, then tour guide and travel writer, she loves the adventure and diversity of Asia."
Image details and licenses: Bira: https://flic.kr/p/dBGwHN (Andrey Samsonov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Olele beach: https://flic.kr/p/UcCEmg (KrisNM,
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Bunaken: https://flic.kr/p/pokTeo (Andrey Samsonov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Wakatobi islands: https://flic.kr/p/9a7syF (Tom Demeyer,
CC BY-NC 2.0), Taman Leang Leang: https://flic.kr/p/CC1xUb (Australian Embassy Jakarta, CC BY 2.0), Lake Poso: https://flic.kr/p/q5Lxo5 (Axel Drainville,
CC BY-NC 2.0), Samalona islands: https://flic.kr/p/2TwRhc (Hiroo Yamagata, CC BY-SA 2.0), Manado: https://flic.kr/p/9SuNCN (B10m, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)