Sulawesi is a fascinating island to visit. It has just the right combination of mountains, volcanoes, beaches, snorkeling and culture. This island is not as touristed as other spots in Indonesia and personally one of my favorite places in the region.
To cover the entire island from the northeast to the southwest you need at least four weeks, otherwise you spend too much time on transport compared to the time actually being in the places. Actually there is really only one travelled route that nearly all tourists take. You can either start south in Makassar as most people do – or begin in Manado at the northeastern tip of Sulawesi. The latter is what I am going to describe. The stretch from Gorontalo to Tentena is not covered daily by public transport which means it pays to plan ahead.
Manado has an international air connection to Singapore via Silk Air. Note you cannot travel into Indonesia visa-free when arriving in Manado, you will need to pay for the visa-on-arrival. Other than that you can connect from Jakarta or Surabaya, where people from many nations can actually enter Indonesia visa-free for 30 days.
Manado is just a transport hub, not many reasons to stay here for the traveler. You might go on a day trip to Tangkoko National Park to watch macacques and tarsiers, but this is very expensive and the reason why I have not done it. Have a taste of klappertaart in Manado, a Dutch-Indonesian coconut tart, and local Minahasa cuisine.
2. Pulau Bunaken
Take a public boat to Bunaken Island and an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to your final destination. Alternatively it is much easier to have private yet expensive transport arranged from your resort which picks you up at Manado harbour. Most accommodations are resorts, not too cheap. Bunaken’s real treasures are beneath the water surface. It is most famous for its premium diving sites with a great variety of corals and other species. Snorkelers will enjoy this place too. Stay for 4 or 5 days to relax and to appreciate all the different reef and diving sites.
Tomohon is a nice hill station about one and a half hours away from Manado. It can be reached by public bus from Manado or by private metered taxi (around 200,000 Rp). You can get around in Tomohon by using mikrolets or bemos as they are called elsewhere in Indonesia. These minibuses all end at the Beriman terminal close to the infamous market where you see the the extremer variations of Minahasa cuisine like fried dogs or bats – if you do not want to support these practices, you should not go there.
Anywhere there are much nicer things to see and do in Tomohon. Stay two or three nights walking the paved steps up to Mahawu volcano or even seeing the mightier Lokon volcano (climbing actually forbidden). The Danau Linow is a sulphuric lake with varying shades of green and blue, beautiful to watch.
From Tomohon you need to go back to Manado by bus or taxi. A bus to Gorontalo from Manado takes at least 8 hours, often more. Buses that leave Manado in the early morning usually do not arrive early enough to catch the ferry to the Togian islands which means you have to stay a night in Gorontalo.
A flight from Manado to Gorontalo can be a good alternative to get from Tomohon via Manado airport to Gorontalo in one day and reaching the ferry in time. Note that the carrier Wings Air only allows for 10 kilogram of checked-in baggage so you might need to repack a lot into your hand luggage.
The ferry leaves only on Tuesdays and Fridays at 8 pm, sometimes even earlier, sometimes a bit later. This is anything but a luxury boat. There are three classes, ekonomi seats, business I which means AC seats or business II which means bunk beds in the non-AC ekonomi section. If you want a private cabin you might try to approach the staff on board, I have heard stories where people got a captain’s suite for 500,000 Rp.
5. Togian Islands
After 11 to 13 hours the ferry reaches the main port of Wakai on the Togian Islands. There is no reason to stay here. You can try to catch the public ferry to Malenge via Katupat which leaves only 3 times a week. Other than that boatsmen will approach you and you usually share a private boat with other travelers to reach one of the nicer islands. Kadidiri is the closest and recommended for divers but did not make such a nice impression to me.
I stayed on Malenge which was lovely, however is at least three hours away from Wakai. Other places that looked nice or where I heard good things were Bomba and Bolelanga. Note that many of the islands do not even have a mobile phone connection, so you are basically cut off from the outside world when in Malenge for instance. The Togians are an idyllic island paradise. There are beaches, jungles, local sea gypsy villages, nice snorkeling spots. Many people stay at least for one week.
There is the public ferry three times a week. From Malenge it takes 8 hours on this horrible boat to reach Ampana, about 4 hours from Wakai. Ampana is a small town and you probably do not want to stay there. The private travel agency in a hut next to the harbour may help you finding onward connections. Sometimes there is a night bus which passes Ampana and drops you off in Tentena. Going to Poso is possible but then you are stuck there which is not recommended. We took a private car – depending on luck and negotiation skills you can get it for 450,000 to 800,000 Rp. It takes you to Tentena in about 5 to 7 hours.
You could try reaching Rantepao in one long haul but this is pretty exhausting. The little lakeside town of Tentena is a nice stopover on the way from the Togians to Rantepao in Tana Toraja.
You might stay there for one or two nights, for instance in the Victory Hotel which has friendly staff. In Tentena you can see the lake, a nice waterfall, a Balinese village, churches, and burial caves.
To get from Tentena to Tana Toraja there is only one overnight bus connection in the evening which can be arranged through your hotel. The ride is more or less uncomfortable. Due to road constructions it can take up to 16 hours to get to Rantepao (as of May 2016).
8. Tana Toraja
Tana Toraja is the land of the Torajans, a unique culture famous or infamous for their funeral ceremonies and certainly a highlight of the Sulawesi trip. The main tourist town is Rantepao which is a good as a base for exploring the surroundings. Other than that Rantepao is not a really pleasant place itself.
To get around renting a motorcycle is a good idea. Otherwise there are bemos which usually all end in the Bolu terminal, about 2 kilometers from Rantepao. Sometimes we were lucky with the bemos, other times not at all. You can also try to arrange an ojek or use a bentor (a small riksha – becak motor taxis) for rides within town.
There are different opinions whether you need a guide or not. The funerals themselves are more or less public events. However it can be difficult to find out where there is a funeral ceremony. Local guides can take you there and help with the formalities. Most interesting villages and burial sites can be reached with your own transport. Popular places are Kete Kesu village and Batutomonga. You have to pay entrance fees for most sites. To cover the most important places you might stay 2 to 4 days.
From Rantepao several bus companies offer rides to Makassar at either 9 am or 9 pm. The ride takes 8 to 10 hours. The roads here are in a better condition than in the center of the island.
Makassar is the largest city on Sulawesi. There are not many reasons to stay here longer than you really need. You can fly to Jakarta or Denpasar on Bali from here. There is also an international connection with Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur.