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In Indonesia’s vast and diverse archipelago there are always opportunities to discover more, especially if you venture away from the bustling hubs. It’s a destination that gets under your skin and tempts travellers back again and again to explore further into the raw, wild landscapes of the country’s lesser-known corners. Sulawesi is just such a place. Often seen only fleetingly through stopovers in the vibrant port of Makassar, en route to the archipelago’s remote eastern regions, it’s rich with tradition and natural beauty in its own right, and deserves dedicated time. 

Tana Toraja, Indonesia
Tana Toraja, Indonesia
kids play at Tana Toraja, Sulawesi
Rice terraces Sulawesi, Indonesia
guide in sulawesi
Sulawesi funeral, Indonesia
Funeral, Sulawesi
Lake Tempe

Perhaps you’ve already immersed yourself in the highlights of Java and Bali, or sailed around the pristine islands of Komodo National Park, and are aching to see a different side to Indonesia? Or perhaps you’re planning your first visit and have your heart set on seeing the archipelago’s less-lauded islands?

Whatever your starting point, wandering through Sulawesi can open your eyes to a different facet of Indonesian culture: the slow-paced, steadfast rhythms of rural life; striking, boat-shaped Tongkonan houses; intense death rituals and exuberant warrior dances. Taste fiery seafood dishes served as fresh as its possible to be from beachside pop-ups, track tiny tarsiers in Tangkoko nature reserve, canoe through Sengkang’s stunning karst cliff landscape, and dive into Bunaken’s underwater beauty. There’s no pretence here, and no tourist-centric sheen, just genuine, unspun moments which bring this extraordinary island into full focus.

Trading places, ports and lakes

Having been a jumping off point for Indonesia’s eastern quarter for centuries, Makassar’s streets are infused with tales of spice routes and high seas that have sparked enduring legends. If you head here first, Makassar feels like many other laid-back port towns, but after exploring the island’s most rural corners its contrasts feel that much sharper. Feast on crisp jalangkote pastries and syrupy pisang epe bananas from stalls along Losari Beach. See traditional phinisi boats bobbing on their moorings at Paotere Harbour. Stay on the sand to see the sunset, or head into town to sip a sundowner at one of the city’s chic sky bars.

Inland, and further north, the market town of Sengkang buzzes at a different pitch, and is a wonderful counterpoint to Makassar’s heady mix. On the eastern shores of Lake Tempe, Sengkang is a place of deep-rooted tradition that you can feel from the moment you arrive. It’s an ideal stopover point en-route to the Toraja highlands, with a gentle vibe and rich culture of its own. Settle into your accommodation and head out on the lake to revel in the serenity of this calm waterside community.

Tongkonans and mountain air 

The Tana Toraja region feels instantly distinct. Through a landscape of bamboo forests and rice terraces, the high, curved roofs of the traditional tongkonan houses rise like boats in a sea of swaying green. There’s an immediate sense of the region’s strong character and Torajan culture. Rantepao, the region’s capital, is small and welcoming; it’s position as the gatekeeper of Torajan culture is mixed with Dutch Colonial influences, and there’s plenty to explore. See the city’s intricate architecture and witness the unique, grand burial ceremonies that define the region.

This trip is all about giving yourself time to fully discover the depth and breadth of Sulawesi, and this is the point to really slow down the pace. We’d recommend 3 or 4 nights here, to allow you to properly explore Rantepao before heading out into the surrounding villages to learn about the region’s rural life, trek to caves and waterfalls, and enjoy the hospitality of a local family at a welcoming homestay. Learn more about the region’s refreshing and open attitude surrounding death, and observe traditional rites where the deceased are reverently laid to rest in hanging graves carved into steep cliffs, guarded by life sized tau tau effigies.

Through the trees and beneath the waves...

Away from the bustle and hum of the busy towns, across the Makassar Sea, right on the far end of the island’s long Minahasa peninsula, is another totally different side to Sulawesi. The Tangkoko Nature Reserve is a gentle, wild landscape unspoilt by human influence, where rolling hills and valleys brim with wildlife. Stay in a guest house right on the edge of the reserve, and wake each morning to a symphony of birdsong. Walk through the forest with an experienced ranger, keeping a lookout for monkeys and wild pigs. At sunset, watch fruit bats swoop overhead and catch a glimpse of the reserve’s most famous residents: the tiny, wide-eyed tarsiers. 

Winding down your trip on Sulawesi’s far eastern tip means a languorous few days in the stunning Bunaken Marine National Park. This glorious cluster of small islands, reached in style by speedboat from Manado, is the jewel in Sulawesi’s unspoilt coastal crown. Crystal waters lap against pristine sands where you can sunbathe, swim, snorkel and dive over spectacular coral reefs, walls and wrecks. See colourful schools of fish, barracuda, turtles and even reef sharks, as you explore the sparkling world beneath the waves.

A note on cost…

The guide price of £1,590US$1,890 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Makassar, 1 night Lake Tempe, 3 nights in Tana Toraja, 1 night in the Tangkoko Nature Reserve and 4 nights on Bunaken Marine Park; all in our favourite mid-range hotels & lodges.
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