Little known until the last few decades, the 1600 mostly uninhabited islands that make up Raja Ampat leaves visitors spellbound by its stunning natural beauty, absorbing local history and world-best marine ecosystems.
Lying just off the coast of Irian Jaya (West Papua) in Indonesia is one of the most eclectic mixes in the world of jungles, caves, lagoons, white-sand beaches and above all wildlife.
Simply put, this magnificent archipelago is mesmerizing both above and below water and its relative unknown status makes it all the more special.
Exploring Raja Ampat islands
In recent years regulation has been put in place to facilitate tourist operators making Raja Ampat much more accessible to the average traveller whilst ensuring the sustainability of human activity in the area. This is important, as in 2006 the Nature Conservancy found that over 75% of the world’s known coral species can be found in these waters, along with over 1000 species of fish.
It makes Raja Ampat the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world and a highly important conservation project. That said, the area is still very isolated and there are limited resources for the common traveller. Prepare yourself correctly though and there are few places in the world that can compare to Raja Ampat.
How to get to the Raja Ampat Islands
These islands are some of the most untouched places on our planet and as a result getting there isn’t as easy as your average holiday. To get to Raja Ampat you must first fly to Sorong, the capital of Irian Jaya, which can be done via most major Indonesian cities including Denpasar and Jakarta. Be aware that most of these flights will actually involve changing planes in either Makassar or Manado and at certain times of year it may be necessary to overnight in one of these cities.
From Sorong, your mode of transport to the Raja Ampat islands depends entirely on the form of accommodation you choose. Liveaboard dive ships are by far the most common form of accommodation and provide convenient departure from Sorong. Divers are well represented in this part of the world with diving resorts the second most common accommodation.
These usually offer pick up from Sorong by private speedboat and head directly to the island of Waisai (the capital of Raja Ampat). There is a public ferry service from Sorong to Waisai daily at 2pm and the few resorts that do not offer pick up from Sorong will pick guests up from Waisai. The least frequented accommodation in Raja Ampat is the homestays that dot various islands nearby Waisai, which have only popped up in the last decade. There is no public ferry directly from Sorong to these islands so visitors should arrange a pick up with their homestay from Waisai.
Where should you stay in paradise?
There are only three types of accommodation in Raja Ampat and by far the most popular are the liveaboard dive ships. These have been guiding eager divers to mesmerising underwater landscapes for decades and expert divers that experienced these wonders and couldn’t leave are usually the chaperons.
Departing from Sorong for various lengths of time from one week up to three months, liveaboards are without a doubt the best way to explore the spectacular marine ecosystem of Raja Ampat. Access to the best diving spots in the islands is provided using small rubber boats, whilst the ships themselves are usually warm and comfortable if not glamorous. Operators also undergo rigorous safety procedures to ensure the wellbeing of patrons.
Diving resorts are your next best bet if you love diving but aren’t interested in spending weeks living on board a ship with 10 or more other people. Resorts won’t have the range of diving sites as a liveaboard, but they will provide their own diving boats to take patrons to various sites. Visitors have more control over where and when they want to dive and as an added bonus can arrange their own trip by renting a boat. There are resorts catering to all different types of traveller from the budget backpacker to honeymooners looking for luxury so shop around to find one within your budget.
The final option for accommodation in Raja Ampat is staying in a homestay on one of the islands nearby Waisai. These cheaper options have opened up in recent years catering mainly to those who are in Raja Ampat for activities other than diving. Speed boats can usually be rented from the owner of these homestays allowing visitors to create their own day plans. Most owners will also be able to connect you with guides or tourist operations for jungle or village excursions in the area.
Top things to do on the Raja Ampat Islands
If you are thinking about visiting Raja Ampat, chances are it’s for the once-in-a-lifetime diving opportunities. This archipelago is the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world (more so than the Great Barrier Reef) with a unique combination of isolation and geography creating a stunningly colourful marine landscape.
Over 75% of the world’s coral species can be found here along with sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks and over 1300 species of fish and stingrays. Divers claim that the nudibranch here are the most diverse in the world and Raja Ampat is one of the few places visitors can dive with manta rays. Experienced divers are encouraged to try one of the many wreck dives or undertake a completely different underwater experience at night. Simply put, putting your head beneath the surface in Raja Ampat will leave even the most experienced diver stunned.
Though life underwater is certainly a highlight in Raja Ampat, the rocky islands, white sand beaches and dominating jungle above the surface is just as impressive. Some of the world’s rarest species of bird including huge hornbills and magnificent birds of paradise make their homes in the canopies of these islands and some species of the curiously cute couscous are only found in their trees.
The remoteness of this archipelago means that human impact has been limited and very little has changed here in thousands of years. Trek through ancient jungle to discover pristine waterfalls or set up camp for a night under the stars on untouched beaches. Wherever you go, you’ll be one of very few people on the planet to have set foot there.
The isolation of the Raja Ampat islands has not only impacted the flora and fauna here but also the various tribal groups that live here. The lack of outside influence is highly noticeable, with many tribes even exhibiting cannibalism until the last few decades. Life hasn’t changed much since people arrived and most still survive on a diet of locally caught fish, locally grown rice and the ever-present coconut.
The local culture displayed on these islands is both rich and diverse, with over 20 native languages still spoken. On North and West Weigeo you can see locals perform with traditional bamboo flutes. Tomolol boasts caves painted by ancient cave dwellers of human palms and local animals whilst Asmat artists teach the fine art of wood sculpture. There are very few places in the world where you can see tribal cultures as intact as they are in Raja Ampat.
How to prepare for this trip of a lifetime
The isolation of Raja Ampat is what makes it so special, but it is also what makes it a more troublesome travel destination than many others. Malaria is a big problem in the area so potential visitors should prepare accordingly. Travel insurance is a must and it would be wise to bring anti-biotic pills and cream in case of infections. Diving in the Raja Ampat archipelago is only allowed with a special permit, which can be obtained from the local Papua police station in Waisai. Liveaboards will usually provide this permit as part of the service.