West Papua is divided into two provinces called West Papua and Papua, which can certainly create a bit of confusion as both names are also applied generally to the entire western half of the island. For the sake of clarity, where we’re referring specifically to one province or the other, we’ve used the word “province,” otherwise our comments apply to the entire region. Now with that out of the way…
West Papua province comprises the western half of the territory, specifically the two large peninsulas of Vogelkop (commonly known as Bird’s Head) in the north-west, Bomberai to the south and a suite of offshore islands including Raja Ampat located off the western tip of Bird’s Head. Sorong, a thriving city of 200,000 is located on the mainland opposite. As well as being the gateway to Raja Ampat, it’s the logistical hub for Indonesia’s eastern oil and gas fields.
The provincial capital is the busy port city of Manokwari, located on the opposite side of Bird’s Head on the northeast coast. It’s one of West Papua’s major tourist hubs with plenty of resorts, hotels and tour operators.
The remainder of Indonesia’s West Papua territory is encompassed in Papua province, essentially the entire central region east to the border with Papua New Guinea. It includes the mountainous interior comprising some of Indonesia’s highest mountains and the Biak Island group, a popular laid back tourist destination that lies off the north coast about 200km due east of Monakwari.
Papua’s provincial capital is Jayapura, a pleasant coastal city overlooking Yos Sudarso Bay, a superb natural harbour surrounded by palm fringed beaches. It’s located on the north coast just inside the Indonesian border. The airport is located in the nearby town of Sentani and it’s from here that you can catch flights into the central highlands. Wamena, the biggest town in the interior is a popular choice. It’s a buzzy little town with basic tourist infrastructure and a colourful mix of indigenous highlanders and Indonesian immigrants but its drawcard is the gorgeous Baliem Valley, home of the Dani tribes people. From Wamena it’s only a bus ride to into the Yalimo, Mek or Lani tribal homelands.
In the southwest, Timika is the rather ugly logistical hub for the massive Freeport gold and copper mine which has been the focus of much of the OPM’s guerrilla activities. There’s nothing there of any interests to tourists but it does have a decent range of accommodation on account of the mine workers and is the logical gateway to southern attractions such as the Lorentz National Park and the Asmat tribes.
West Papua is not the easiest place to get around. Towns in the most populous areas are generally well connected to the surrounding villages with roads (of a sort) and public buses, but there are no road links with adjoining regions. Roads are generally poor and become impassable after even a small amount of rain. There’s a heavy reliance on air transportation, particularly in the highlands, and local ferries and river boats in the lowlands.
Given the difficult logistics and the fact that almost everything has to be brought in from elsewhere, West Papua is very expensive compared to the rest of Indonesia. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to shell out for regional airfares to some extent and you can expect to have to pay up to three times what you pay in say Bali or Java for just about anything else. Having said that, it’s still cheap compared to what most of us pay at home and with careful planning, such as travelling in a small group to split the costs of guides, charter flights or charter boats, it is possible to do West Papua on a budget.