As I sit here, organizing my thoughts and memories of my recent 3-day adventure on the enchanting island of Nusa Penida, I realize how much I missed and how I should have given my little jaunt much more thought. Of course, I always need to remind myself that I can never see everything any location offers and it's always a good excuse to return to my favourite places, however this time, it was totally my fault. I enjoyed discovering the highlights on the East side of the island and totally relaxed for an entire day at my lovely inn, watching birds, sipping coffee, before spending the late afternoon at stunning Atuh Beach. Just thinking about my visit conjures up images of breathtaking landscapes, crystal-clear waters, and a feeling of deep calm that calls me back.
Nusa Penida is renowned for its beaches and diving/snorkelling trips. It's also a place where many go to get PADI certified. I don't dive and I suck at snorkelling... I blame asthma. I am very prone to sunburn, so a full day on a beach isn't wise -- even with very high SPF cream. I do love swimming but the mountains were calling me. I knew this island had a lot to offer with cliffs and endless rugged coastline beauty and many different species of birds. (Frankly, I did more research on birds than places to see but still failed to learn about a bird sanctuary on the island). I was going to spend half a day at the beach and I was going to do a day tour to hit the highlights with a driver/guide. I was planning a respite day after two weeks of being busy all day. I had a massage booked at a fancy spa in Ubud, Bali for the day after I left Nusa Penida. I chose an inn in the mountains, rather than on the beach.
Nusa Penida dock
From the moment I arrived at the chaotic fast boat pier in Sanur, Bali it was clear that this side trip really should have been better prepared. I decided to go only two days prior. On a whim, I had booked a package (1 300 000 IDR) that included return taxis between my hotels and the ports, the boat rides, and an "East Side of Lombok" tour. I could have booked all elements separately for cheaper but I was willing to pay a premium for convenience. I had done a quick scan of the locations the tour would take me; "The Tree House, Diamond Beach, Atuh Beach, and Telly Tubby Hills".
Tanis Fast Boat to Nusa Penida
So let's start where I did. I had enjoyed my fabulous coffee & breakfast at my month-long home at Manuabu Inn in Bali. I was expecting the taxi when I got a message saying that the road was too narrow for his vehicle. I told him where to wait for me and headed off to meet him in the temple parking lot on the corner of Jalan Raya. We had a silent ride (very weird for Balinese drivers to be unresponsive and silent). He somehow got his car through the crowds and cars to get me right in front of the Tanis Fast Boat Cruise office I needed, carried my bag to the office, when I turned to thank/tip him, he disappeared.
I had to check-in and book my return ticket. They took a photo of me to send to the driver on the other side and then handed me my boarding pass. The pass is a clear pouch worn around your neck. Inside the pouch is a card with the company name, and the colour of the cord indicates which boat you will be on. All of this was explained in Indonesian and English over a loudspeaker that squealed with feedback whenever in use. There was no information board or signs indicating where to go. Thank goodness, the system works. It's crowded and none of the travellers know what's going on but the various employees manage to funnel everyone where they belong.
This fast boat has no outside seating. There are rows and rows of airline-style seats (no reclining). Each row had 4 seats on each side of a narrow aisle running down the middle. it felt crowded but I got an aisle seat with an empty seat between me and a couple next to the window. The scheduled departure was 08:00, we left at 08:25 and arrived at 09:19. It was a short but rollicking ride. I thoroughly enjoyed myself but there were definitely a few who were feeling queasy. Arrival in the gorgeous harbour was equally chaotic and shockingly easy. My driver was easily spotted and we headed off to my hotel.
The Salang Guest House
The roads of Nusa Penida are dangerous. They are narrow: two cars will inch past each other, pulling in their side mirrors. The pavement is crumbling on the edges of the road, there is little or no shoulder on either side, there are pot holes inside of bigger pot holes. Once you leave the road along the beaches, the roads get worse but also include steep hills and blind corners. Your driver will beep their horn approaching blind corners to let everyone know there is a vehicle coming. The drive to my digs was quite terrifying.
I wasn't quite sure what I was expecting from the Salang Guest House. I paid $18 a night through Booking.com. It hasn't been opened long. It was fairly central on the island and in the mountains. From the breakfast area, there is a view of the rice terraces across the road. It is part of very small community that includes small store/gas station, residences, a restaurant with a limited menu, and an eco-resort within walking distance.
I was greeted warmly by the host and his family. I was offered tea or coffee and a bottle of water as soon as I arrived. I was also offered lunch, if I was hungry. I gratefully accepted a bowl of fried rice and went to check out my room. It was incredible. Each room is an individual bungalow with a private terrace. The bed was large and comfortable. There was a coffee-making station, a desk, efficient air-conditioning, plenty of electrical outlets, and a really nice toilet/shower room.
The hosts are incredibly accommodating. Water is available from a fridge near the kitchen area. Breakfast for me was a huge plate of fruit and a fabulous cup of coffee. The taste of fresh tropical fruit is always a big treat for me when I visit hot weather places and I indulge myself with discovering new favourites every trip, but I was especially spoiled on this trip.
The only restaurant in the area is a fairly humble warung, about a 10 minute walk down the road. The menu is limited and both nights that I visited they were missing at least one menu item but the food was fresh, tasty, and generous. I added a beer to my dinner and spent about 100 000 IDR.
The East of Nusa Penida Tour
In previous posts, I've talked about the Instagram tourism that thrives in this group of Indonesian islands. The tour I booked should have been labelled as such. The guide didn't quite know what to do when I refused to spend more than 5 minutes posing. He didn't understand that all I wanted to do was gape around me, take photos without people in them, or why I asked questions about the locals, the seismic activity, or wildlife. He also wasn't a guide. He was a driver who couldn't provide even the most basic information about the sights or the island where he lived. He did, however, tell me that he was single; women find him irresistible; a Norwegian woman had invited him back to Norway; he had 3 children (very expensive) with two different women (they cost him nothing); the women were both living with their family in Bali; the kids were with him and his family. Somehow, I resisted his remarkable charms.
I decided that I was going to learn about the places we would visit and I would spend the time travelling between each location to find out what I wanted to know. I had loaded my phone with an Airalo e-sim with tons of data that was working perfectly, so I happily googled my way between stops...thus solving two problems, my lack of knowledge and trying to find a conversation with the driver that didn't revolve around all his wonderful attributes.
Visiting Rumah Pohon Molenteng
You'll be arriving by scooter or car along really, really terrible roads. If self-driving, be very cautious. If you have a driver, there may be times when closing your eyes is a good idea. Two cars pass on the road with one driver hugging the cliff's coastal edge while the other driver hugs the rock face on the opposite side. They squeeze past each other with only a few millimetres to spare. Scooters are probably better but are constantly needing to find the least damaged area of the road and can skirt the potholes and crumbling pavement.
The Molenteng Treehouse is adjacent to Diamond Beach, with a breathtaking view of the coast. It attracts tourists who are looking for fabulous views, some fun photo opportunities, or for a true adventure, a chance to sleep in one of three treehouses in the area. Get the thought of a romantic and cozy stay out of your imagination. These are rustic shacks, accessed by a ladder, with very basic beds and a shared toilet/shower but the sunrise views make it worth a night's stay, according to many reviewers on various respected travel sites.
The tree house requires a hike down a 50-meter cliff. There are rocks and rough stairs. There is a rope that is very useful for steadying yourself or hauling yourself up on the return trip. Wear good shoes, you'll be grateful you did.
The tree house that is in all the photos is very simple and incredibly charming. Part of the tree trunk has been cut away and the house with a narrow porch sits on the junction. There is no particular reason behind the structure, beyond tourism. The owner of the property recognized that the views would appeal to visitors and built the original structure to lift visitors to the best viewing height. It was "discovered" by social media and now appears on almost every tour. My driver went off to chat with the locals while I wandered along several trails and explored the views along the way.
I really wish my photography skills were equal to the view. The aqua-blue surf of the Bali Sea roars around grand rock formations before crashing onto thin strips of sand tucked tight against the soaring volcanic cliffs. There was a strong and welcome wind at the viewpoints. I had been hiking myself up, down, and around trails for nearly two hours, when my driver came to find me because my "number" was about to be called. My number?
My driver had picked up a number to get photoshoot time on the ladder and porch of the treehouse and he was determined to take my photo but we had to hurry. The sessions are only 2 minutes long, after which a bell rings and the next person climbs the ladder. If you want photos, you can pay one of the photographers. There is a very uncomfortable waiting area that is in the shade.
It seemed like most people came down the trail, grabbed their number, and sat there until it was time. They took their photos twisting this way and that, flipping hair, sitting, perching, laughing, and looking wistfully in the distance. I handed my phone to the driver and was hustled up those steps and found myself following his directions. I laughed when reviewing the photos as I discovered that I now have all the same photos. I'm glad I explored the trails and enjoyed my time without knowing I was waiting for my photoshoot time.
Photos taken, we hiked back up to the parking lot. Lunch was provided as part of the tour. There are quite a few restaurants and warungs along the road, from very humble to quite fancy, some with incredible views of the cliffs. The one where we stopped was okay. It had no view and was fairly busy with others also on day tours. There were several menu choices and the food was okay but nothing special.
Discovering Diamond Beach
The next stop was Diamond Beach. Diamond Beach shares a parking lot with Atuh beach. From the parking lot is a walkway along the clifftop. There is a small fee (10 000 IDR - $1 CAD) to access the beaches. The fee contributes to the maintenance and preservation of this natural wonder, ensuring that future generations can continue to appreciate its beauty. Once you've paid your fee, you will be given a bottle of water and a wristband. Passing the ticket collection area are several places where you can stop to get food or drinks. Beyond that is the walkway out to the pathways down to the beaches.
For many years, Diamond Beach was not accessible from the cliffs but in 2018 a set of steep limestone stairs were built that now gives visitors a chance to visit the beach. While these stairs are steep, they were the best, and most even cliff stairs that I encountered during my entire Indonesian trip. There are places where the stairs cut into the cliffside so there are rocks over your head which made some of the people on the stairs very nervous. It takes about 20 minutes to get down to the beach but longer to climb back up. Once on the beach, there are no chairs or shelters, just beautiful sand. The surf is fairly strong, so swimming should probably be reserved for strong swimmers.
From the beach, the rock formations loom all around you. Their sheer size will thrill even the most jaded traveller. The view of the whole beach can be enjoyed without climbing down, but to truly appreciate this beach going down the stairs is necessary. As with many places on this fabulous island, the stair climb will be tough, I advise those who are less nimble to wear a sturdy pair of shoes and change into your flip-flops at the bottom. Many manage with sandals and flip-flops but sturdier shoes will make it a much easier climb. The busiest times are mid-day to mid-afternoon. Due to the strong surf and lack of amenities on the beach, most people wanting to enjoy a day at the beach will choose to spend their time at Atuh Beach.
The contrast between the white sand and the deep blue hues of the ocean is mesmerizing, and you'll be treated to warm waters, fewer crowds, and absolutely stunning rocks. For those wanting to do some snorkelling, there are coral reefs but these are best reached from the water. There are many companies that offer snorkelling and diving trips that hit several good local stops including the reefs off of Diamond Beach.
On the opposite side of the Diamond Beach headland is Atuh Beach. If you are on a tour you likely won't have time to really enjoy it, so you might want to save your legs after already having done the Tree House and Diamond Beach treks. Instead, plan to return and enjoy several hours or even the full day here. This is where I spent my beach time the day after my tour. I wish I could say that I had really good reasons for that choice but the truth is it is the closest beach to the Guest House.
Atuh Beach is a broader expanse of sand, with shaded rental loungers. There are multiple places to buy drinks or food for those planning on spending the full day. Snorkelling equipment can also be rented.
The cove is somewhat sheltered and has a reef that acts as a natural tide break keeping the strongest waves outside the main swimming area. In the middle of the beach is a simple swing that was well-used by several children who were visiting that day.
The path to the beach is a doozy. The steps are uneven and very steep. There are a few places where you can stop to take a bit of a break and there are some ropes strung sporadically along the path that are of some assistance but most useful on the uphill climb. I think a funicular could charge ridiculous prices if there's an entrepreneur out there looking for a project.
I would suggest checking the tides. At high tide, the water from the Bali Sea and Indian Ocean fills the small bowl-like cove in front of the reef and is excellent for swimming. The stronger waves are calmed by the reef. Deeper water over the reef allows a greater variety of marine life for snorkelling. If you are really wanting a good swim the best plan would be to arrive as the tide is coming in.
At low tide, the water in the cove is quite shallow and the front of the cove empties, exposing the rocky floor. You'll have to walk past the rocks before the water will be deep enough for swimming. On the other hand, checking out the little fish and crabs in the tide pools is always a great activity and you can get closer to the big waves.
The real reason to visit during low tide is how the receding water reveals an amazing rock arch. When I first arrived at high tide, this was a beautiful island and diamond rock but as the tide went out this incredible sight appeared.
I got one good swim, got very comfortable on a beach chair under an umbrella. I poked around in the tide pools, took photographs, and watched the changing of the tides, the crashing waves and watched the beach completely change. I chatted, read several chapters of my book and even had a friendly dog come and sit under my chair and keep me company as I enjoyed my beach time. She seemed to agree that it was a darned good way to spend our afternoon.
Exploring Teletubby Hills
One of the most intriguing and whimsical attractions on Nusa Penida is the Teletubby Hills, originally known as Gamal Hill by the locals due to the many Gamal trees that were used by local residents to feed their livestock. The story I was told was that after a tourist uploaded photos of the area on the internet, commenters said that they were similar to the hills in the children's film "Teletubbies" and started calling this place Teletubbies Hill. The name caught on and it is now officially known as Teletubby Hills. I wasn't familiar with the movie, and only had a very passing knowledge of the Teletubbies themselves so I wasn't particularly interested in this connection but it caught the interest of friends and family members who had young ones that "recognized" the area from my photos.
The hills here are incredibly green and very rounded. The terrain undulates with smooth curves, gentle slopes, and farmland in the valley areas. Beautiful native flowers and weeds were blooming. I hiked several winding trails that criss-crossed the hills and found several vantage points that offered beautiful views that included the lush valleys, patches of forests, and meandering rivers. It really did look like the perfect place for both real and fictional communities to base themselves. I met no tourists on the trails, only a couple of locals. It felt like a hidden paradise created just for me.
Next time, I will try to arrive early enough to catch the morning mist as the sun rises. I would also allot more time so I could explore more trails. It's a vast area. My driver was quite surprised that I wanted to do some trekking but was quite content to sit with the other drivers at the viewpoint while I did my thing.
Practical Information for Travellers to Nusa Penida
There are two different types of boats you can take from Bali to Nusa Penida: ferry services or fast boats. Most ferries leave from Sanur (about 1 hour south of Ubud) on the eastern coast of Bali and arrive at Toya Pakeh on Nusa Penida. The ride is about 30 to 45 minutes long, depending upon marine conditions. Another ferry leaves from Padang Bai (about 1 hour east of Ubud), Both ferry trips take the same amount of time.
The other option is the Fast Boat services which run from Sanur and Serangan (a little further south than Sanur). The fast boats are a little faster (possibly about 10 minutes) and cost slightly more.
The ferry and fast boat schedules is constantly changing, so check for times and schedules carefully. Keep in mind that the conditions on the water will also affect schedules, especially during the rainy season. Things often run about 15 minutes behind schedule, so patience is key. Tickets are usually available for same day purchases, except during peak tourist season (July-August) but I would suggest booking your tickets in advance and arrive at least 1/2 before departure.
Fishing/snorkelling boats at Toya Pakeh
The biggest challenge facing visitors is getting around the island. Scooters, motorcycles, and cars can be rented on the island. There are also car and motorbike taxis, private drivers and tours. Be aware that most medical travel insurance will not cover your expenses if you are injured driving a motorbike overseas, especially if you do not have a motorcycle license. If you think it's possible that you will want to rent a bike, it would be wise to check with your insurance provider. Drivers who are inexperienced and not motorbike-licensed, were involved in almost all collisions and accidents that I witnessed (at least two each week plus several bumps). At least two of those accidents required hospitalization. Be wise.
There is a sense of freedom from "winging-it" while travelling but I found my lack of research caused me to book a tour that didn't fit my style and left me unprepared for the challenges of transportation on the island. I was thinking I would rent a scooter. I am experienced and licensed as I drive a Vespa at home but after seeing the roads, I realized that I had never driven in such poor conditions and chose not to risk it. I hadn't anticipated the intensity of the climbs in the heat and humidity and was grateful that I'm fit and hike regularly. I also hadn't done enough research to know that once away from the communities along the coast that there really wasn't much to do. While a lazy day suited me on this trip, I would likely choose to stay closer to the port next time if only for greater choice of drivers, and restaurants. If I did that, I would also book a boat trip to go snorkelling and check out some of the beautiful and inaccessible beaches found all around the island. With a couple more days on the island, I could have visited the west side of the island and done some hiking.
The Atuh Beach trail
I absolutely adored the stunning landscapes and the sights that I did visit. There are not enough adjectives to describe how absolutely beautiful the island is from the beautiful beaches to the striking cliffs and the serenity of Teletubby Hills. The Salang Guest House was incredibly welcoming and provided a true respite day. I loved the (slightly) cooler temperatures of the mountains and I delighted in watching the birds in the area. I have a great excuse to return and next time, I will do it better... and I will remember my hiking boots.
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