There’s no doubt Mother Nature was at the top of her game when she created the remote Raja Ampat archipelago, a scattering of jagged limestone islands topped with lush green foliage, fringing white sand beaches, azure seas and gorgeous lagoons. Then she endowed it with an amazing array of wildlife, both above and below the water.
According to Conservation International, Raja Ampat ranks number one in the world for marine biodiversity and is quite possibly home to the richest coral reef ecosystems in the world; a phenomenon that can be attributed to its location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and the convergence of coral and fish larvae between them.
Little wonder Raja Ampat has long been a diving mecca but for non-divers the snorkelling is as good as it gets; the water is so clear you don’t have to get beneath the surface to appreciate the stunning marine life.
There is however, much more to see and around the 1500 or so islands the comprise Raja Ampat. Kayak4conservation, a community based tourism venture offers a range of guided sea kayaking trips ranging in length from 3 – 10 days and with varying difficulty levels so even beginners can enjoy the magic of paddling in paradise.
Onshore offerings are abundant, particularly around the four largest islands, the “Four Kings” for which Raja Ampat is named; Waigeo (the regency capital), Misool, Salawati and Batanta. Trekking options range from 2-3 hour coastal walks, climbing to the top of one of the islands for magic views or multi-day jungle trekking and camping. Wildlife spotting, birdwatching (you’ll find the majestic bird-of-paradise here), waterfalls, pristine rivers, caves, ancient rock art galleries and burial grounds, overgrown WWII relics and abandoned jungle villages are all on the table. For a truly cultural experience, arrange a guide to take you on a village tour.
There’s really no end to Raja Ampat’s attractions but of course, it’s also the perfect place to simply do nothing but relax into a tropical paradise imbued contentedness, troubled only by thoughts of how you’ll ever manage to tear yourself away when the time comes to leave.
But first you need to get there. The easiest way to visit Raja Ampat is to take an all-inclusive liveaboard cruise. There are numerous operators offering cruises starting from Flores, Maluku or Sorong and whilst I have no doubt they are fabulous, many travellers just don’t have US$1,500-$10,000 to drop on a 6-14 day cruise.
Fortunately and despite popular perception, you can do Raja Ampat independently and for significantly less than the cost of a liveaboard. The mainland gateway town of Sorong is well serviced with regular scheduled flights from a variety of destinations including Jayapura, Manokwari, Babo, Fakfak and Tembagapura (West Papua), Ujung Padang (Makassar), Ambon (Maluku) Manado (Sulawesi) and Jakarta. You can find and book flights on tiket.com or Traveloka.
Once you arrive in Sorong grab a taxi down to the port and catch either the slow local ferry (4 hours) or the express ferry (2hours) to Waisai on Waigeo Island, the pick-up/drop-off point for most of the accommodation options in Raja Ampat. Ferries run morning and afternoon some days, afternoons only other days but the schedule changes pretty regularly. Alternatively, you can charter a speedboat for the crossing but it will set you back hundreds of dollars.
Over the last five years or so a good selection of homestays have started popping up throughout the islands. The bulk of them are owned and operated by locals in an effort to generate some income for their community. For 350.000-800.000Rp per person, you’ll get your own bungalow, 3 meals a day, boundless local hospitality and million dollar views.
The homestays are a bit of a mixed bag with varying standards and facilities. Some are on land (all with beach views though) and others over water. Some have double beds, single beds or mattresses on the floor, ensuites (basic) or separate facilities, maybe generator power (usually for limited times of the day and night) and possibly mobile phone reception.
Just about every homestay offers add-ons such as boat trips, transfers and land based tours such as bird spotting and hiking. Boat trips are expensive and can easily end up costing more than your accommodation. Generally, you’re charged by the trip rather than by person so the obvious way to keep costs down is to travel with a small group and split the costs.
StayRajaAmpat has done all the hard work for us in terms of putting together an excellent and very comprehensive guide to Raja Ampat including a detailed list of homestays, facilities, add-ons, booking information and contact details. When you’re checking out the homestays, be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the page for recent traveller reviews.
Although homestay hosts usually provide meals, it’s a good idea to take some snacks with you plus anything else you might need like insect repellent and sunscreen. Bring your own snorkelling gear and life jacket if you feel you need one. If you’re lucky, you may strike an English speaking host but that’s the exception rather than the rule so take an Indonesian phrase book with you just in case.
Although you don’t need a travel permit for Raja Ampat as of February 2015, you need to obtain a Raja Ampat Marine Park Entry Permit (PIN). PIN’s can be obtained at the Raja Ampat Conservation & Tourism Information Center in Sorong (across the road from the airport), the Waigeo Island Tourist Information Centre, located in the ferry port in Waisai and the UPTD KKPD Office in Waisai. The permits are issued as plastic tags which you should keep with at all times. The cost per person is 1.000.000Rp for foreigners or 500.000Rp for Indonesians. You’ll need to have your passport and cash ready when you apply.
In addition to PIN fees, some communities have started charging unofficial access fees. The latest information is that Wayag is charging 1.000.000Rp per boat plus 400.000Rp for the compulsory guide whilst Painemo (Penemu) is charging 300.000Rp per boat. The not insignificant charges are a sore point for many travellers but the communities, who see very little benefit from the PIN revenue, see it as a way of deriving some much needed income from the use of their ancestral lands and seas. Time will tell if the practice spreads to other communities but the message here is to make an allowance in your budget and be sure to have some cash handy when you go island hopping.
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