No visit to Flores would be complete without visiting at least one or two traditional villages and the highlands town of Bajawa, the largest in the Ngada district has some of the most interesting and accessible villages on its doorstep, with the added bonus of volcanoes, beautiful farmlands and lush forest thrown into the mix.
Ngada traditional culture is still very much alive throughout the district. Villagers still live in their ancestral homes and practise indigenous animist religion, in many cases right alongside the Catholic faith introduced a century and a half ago by Portuguese missionaries. At first glance, the rows of high roof traditional huts are the most striking feature of the villages, followed by megalithic stone altars used as a means to connect with the supernatural realm and to communicate with the ancestors, often by animal sacrifice. Other flat stone structures, called lenggi, represent a court where different clans of the village settle their legal disputes. Totem poles and male and female ceremonial houses called ngadhu (male) and bhaga (female) are adorned with intricate carvings and the blood of sacrificial animals. In fact, most of the houses are adorned with skulls and horns of water buffaloes and pig jaws to attest to sacrifices made by the household at various ceremonies.
Aside from the fascinating architecture and religious aspects, visiting a traditional village offers a glimpse into the everyday life of the Ngada people. It’s quite probable you will witness weaving traditional ikat or drying and processing of crops such as cocoa, coffee or candlenut. Don’t be surprised if you’re offered some betelnut, the natural drug of choice, to chew on.
It is a fascinating culture and the only way to truly appreciate it is to see it for yourself. Fortunately, there are several Ngada villages within easy reach of Bajawa that welcome visitors and the opportunity to share their culture. Important ceremonies such as weddings, plantings and harvesting are carried out semi-regularly so depending on your timing you may have the opportunity to witness one for yourself. A good guide should be able to ask around and find out if there’s one happening whilst you’re in the area. A word of warning though, ceremonies usually involve an animal sacrifice, usually water buffalo or pig, and may not be for the faint-hearted.
Word of Bajawa’s traditional villages is already out and spreading fast so there are a large number of tour companies offering multi-day, one day or half day tours from Bajawa or further afield. Most tours will combine two or more villages with natural attractions such as Wawo Muda crater, a hot spring or waterfall. If like many Flores tourists you’re following the TransFlores Highway overland, Bajawa will no doubt be on your itinerary already. Talk to your guide upfront about which villages you’d prefer to visit. If you’re travelling without a guide, many villages can be visited independently or you can pick up a local guide in Bajawa with the help of your guesthouse or hotel reception.
Most villages require a small donation to visit, amount optional, and you’ll be asked to sign a visitor’s book. After that, you’re generally free to wander although please refrain from entering any dwellings or ceremonial buildings without a specific invitation. And as always, a knowledgeable guide who can explain the culture and act as an interpreter so you can interact with friendly villagers is sure to enrich your experience.
Located only 13km south of Bajawa on a good sealed road, Bena village is undoubtedly the most visited of all the Ngada traditional villages. Apart from ease of access; it also happens to be one of the most traditional and visually striking villages. Your first view of the multi-level village nestled against Mount Inerie’s eastern flank is sure to be one of amazement. Allow at least two hours to explore the village and be sure to visit the lookout at the high point behind the village for a fabulous view over the adjacent valley.
Luba village is located along the same road from Bajawa as Bena, a few kilometres closer to the city so you’ll actually pass by it on your way to and from its better known neighbour. However, Luba village is no less historical or appealing, and has an amazing location right at the foot of Mt Inerie volcano. The villagers are friendly and welcoming so it’s worth dropping by whilst you’re in the vicinity.
Wogo and Old Wogo traditional villages
The twin villages of Wogo Baru (new) and Wogo Lama (old) are probably the second most visited traditional villages around Bajawa. New Wogo, which was established when the village outgrew its original site, is located near Mataloko village, about 30min drive east of Bajawa on a decent sealed road and is a lovely village with some fine megalith stone structures and ceremonial houses. However, the real attraction is the ancient megaliths located in a clearing at the old Wogo site about 1.5km further down the road.
Tolela & Gurusina Villages
If you have the time to explore further afield, a visit to Gurusina traditional village is highly recommended. Located in the Jerebu Valley approximately 25km’s (1-2 hours drive) past Bena village at the end of the same road, Gurusina village is one of the least visited Ngada villages. Apart from the high likelihood that you’ll be the only tourists in sight, the village is visually stunning and well worth the extra time to get there. The village also offers homestay accommodation.
Founded in 1934, the village is currently home to 33 families belonging to 3 separate clans and despite its relative newness, the village looks and feels as ancient as the beliefs on which it is founded. Conforming to traditional Ngada principles, each clan has its own soa pu’u (first or original house) indicated by a miniature house on the roof, soa lobo (young or last house) indicated by a miniature human figure on the roof, male and female ceremonial houses and megalith ancestral altar.
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Whilst Gurusina village is easily accessed by private vehicle, scooter or public transport (check timetables for the latest information), it’s also possible to hike there from Bena village. Ideally, you could hike one way and organise a vehicle pick-up for the return trip to Bajawa.
It is a lovely trek through the Mount Inerie foothills passing through the Tolela traditional village, farmlands and natural tropical forest with towering stands of bamboo, pretty orchards and vanilla bean growing wild. Stop and chat to friendly villages working in their plantations of coffee, cloves, candlenut, banana, corn, tubers and cocoa. Although the beginning of the trek from Bena is signposted, the route quickly turns into a maze of unmarked paths and trails among which those unfamiliar with the area could easily get lost. For this reason, a knowledgeable guide to lead the way is highly recommended. More often than not, Malanage Hot Springs is also incorporated into the trek. The one-way trek takes most of the day but this includes ample time to look around the villages (including Bena), indulge in a relaxing dip at the hot springs and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Homestay accommodation, staying in the home of a village family is available at Gurusina. Houses are open plan type and guests are provided with a mattress, mosquito net and a privacy curtain but will need to provide their own sleeping bag or blanket. Bathroom facilities are local style consisting of a traditional squatter type toilet and bucket shower. Electricity is available sporadically so take a torch. At the time of writing, accommodation costs were IDR 150.000 per person per night including breakfast. Additional meals such as dinner cost IDR 25.000 per meal.
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For those seeking a little more adventure, a visit to Balaraghi village offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself more fully in the Ngada culture, including staying overnight in one of the traditional homes.
Located in a narrow and secluded forest clearing with two rows of peaked Ngada houses facing each other across a grassy thoroughfare, Belaraghi looks and feels like it belongs in a Rudyard Kipling novel.
Baleraghi has sixteen traditional Ngada houses comprising of five soa pu’u (first or original houses) and five soa lobo (young or last houses). At the back of the village there are five sacred houses called loka – one for each of the clans inhabiting the village. The loka face a framed, elevated stone court called a watu lanu, used mainly for the bui loka, the Ngada new year ceremony. In addition to these traditional houses, the Baleraghi have another type of house called a sao kaka (share house) which are considered the ‘children’ of the clan’s soa pu’u and five soa lobo. The inhabitants of the kaka houses provide financial and material support to the ‘parent’ houses.
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On arrival at Beleraghi, visitors are usually taken to the sao one, the most sacred part of a Ngada house where a traditional welcoming ceremony is performed. This isn’t for show, this is the real deal; essentially the villagers are introducing their guest to their ancestors, asking for their blessing and asking the evil mountain spirits not harm the traveller. After the ceremony, visitors are free to explore the village.
Facilities are Beleraghi are limited so don’t expect anything fancy. Villagers won’t turn away a thirsty or hungry visitor but it’s best for day trippers to be self-sufficient in terms of water and food. If you plan on staying overnight it’s recommended that it is arranged in advance by your guide. Accommodation will be in the home of one of the village families. The Ngada houses are clean and cozy but there’s no electricity and only basic, local style bathroom facilities. You will however, be warmly welcomed, provided with warm bedding, tasty wholesome meals and a unique cultural experience. A small gift of money, tea, coffee or clove cigarettes on departure will be a much appreciated way of thanking your hosts. Costs should be comparable to Gurusina village being IDR 150.000 per person per night including breakfast and IDR 25.000 for additional meals.
Located about 10km’s south-west of Bajawa, Beleraghi is well off the beaten track. Travelling by vehicle, follow the TransFlores Highway towards Aimere on the south coast of Flores. After following the coast for approximately 3km’s, turn northwards at the Keligejo Junction and travel another 3km or so to Pauleni village. Here you’ll need to sign a visitor’s register for Beleraghi, then continue on past Keligejo Village to the road’s end at Paukate Village. From there it’s a relatively easy one hour hike to Beleraghi Village. All up the total distance from Bajawa is about 40km’s by road, 2.5km on foot for a total travel time of 4-5 hours.
Alternatively, Beleraghi can be accessed via a 3-4 hour, 11km hike commencing from Beiposo village just out of Bajawa. The trek passes through village farmlands, tropical forest and affords some lovely views of the surrounding countryside at certain points along the trail. Whilst not technically difficult, it does require a certain level of fitness due to the distance and likely hot humid conditions. There are no facilities along the way so take plenty of drinking water and snacks. Like most trails in Flores, it is unmarked and riddled with intercepting trails so a knowledgeable guide is essential.
If the hiking option appeals to you, consider staying overnight and either hiking back out or arranging to be collected by private vehicle or ojek the following day. Whilst it is possible to do the hike/drive combination in a single day, it will be a very long and tiring day and doesn’t leave much time for exploring the village and meeting the locals.
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