Sulawesi’s largest city is Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi. Perched on the island’s far south-west coast, almost smack bang in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, it’s one of the nation’s busiest ports.
It was a major trading centre for the Dutch East Indies, prompting the construction of Fort Rotterdam in the 1600’s, one of the few remaining landmarks of the colonial era. These days Makassar is a sprawling, busy port city and although it is the main gateway to Sulawesi, the city itself has little to interest the average tourist.
The provincial capital of North Sulawesi, Manado, is located on the island’s northern tip. It’s a modern, well serviced city and the second most popular gateway to Sulawesi. The city itself is not over-endowed with attractions but it does provide very convenient access to a bounty of nearby attractions including Tomohon city in the Minahasa highlands and the Bunaken-Manado Tua Islands.
A popular strategy is to enter Sulawesi via Makassar and exit via Manado or vice versa. The real challenge is what to do about the bit in between. Sulawesi is big, has a challenging topography and many parts of the island are remote. Accessing the interior and south eastern peninsular is not hard per se but it does require some determination. If you can afford it, flying between regions will make life easier and save time but if you really want to explore Sulawesi’s interior and more remote regions, some long and tiring road trips are unavoidable.
From Makassar, most tourists head north via the Trans-Sulawesi Highway which winds painstakingly across interminable mountain ranges for a full 1,700km to Manado. It’s not a journey for the fainthearted and best undertaken in chewy bite size chunks. The highway is sealed but once you leave the South Sulawesi coast and until you near Monado, it’s narrow, winding and heavily trafficked. Top speed is barely 30km per hour. The first 325km to Tana Toraja (Rantepao) is in reasonably good condition but the journey will still take 8-10 hours.
Continuing northwards from Rantepao, the highway snakes across the central highlands to the port of Poso, the main transport hub for north-eastern Sulawesi due to its central location at the bottom of the Gulf of Tomini which separates central Sulawesi from the north. The road has been upgraded in recent times but still a challenging journey, taking a solid day to complete the 340km section.
Being a reasonably well serviced town flanked by quaint coastal villages and gorgeous coastline, Poso is a popular stopover for travellers heading east to east to Ampana town, the jumping off point for the Togian Islands, inland to Lore Lindu National Park (then north to Palu port) or northwards via Ambesia, Gorontalo and Tomohon to Manado.
If you’re wondering why we haven’t mentioned the southeastern peninsula of Sulawesi it’s because there is currently no major road link connecting it to the rest of Sulawesi. That probably only partly explains why few travellers explore this part of the Sulawesi, skipping over the peninsula in favour of the fabulous cluster of islands to the south, including the Wakatobi Marine Park. Ferry travel to and from the islands, the mainland and the rest of Sulawesi is the preferred form of transport, or flying if your budget extends to it.