An important port town on the remote island of Flores, Labuan Bajo has grown significantly in recent years due to tourist trade. Its airport has even attained the title "international", even though no overseas flights actually land there. Yet most tourists fly in from Java or Bali and immediately hop into a boat to Komodo. This is a criminal mistake: Flores in general, and its western part, Manggarai, in particular, are among the most beautiful regions of Indonesia. The sea is warm and transparent, the hills further inland are full of waterfalls and caves, and the Manggarai tribal culture is rich and mainly unspoiled. This is also a perfect place to look for wild beaches, and diving offshore is reputed to be exceptional. The town itself is rustic, slightly unkempt, rather cute, and conveniently outfitted with dive shops and tourist agencies. And the landscape around is fantastic in the literal sense: some of the natural features make you wonder which planet you are on.
The town of Labuan Bajo is strung along the seashore for a few km. The best places to stay are near the southern end, next to the ocean. The beaches in that part of town are semi-wild, rather pretty in the dry season (i.e., European summer), but in winter, strong winds bring high waves, mounds of flotsam, and garbage from the port. Head north for the town center (basic civil infrastructure, one fancy mall and restaurant overlooking the sea, and a massive port) - the starting point for Komodo trips. Further north lies a smaller fishing port with the adjoining fish market - come early in the morning for the best shots of fishermen unloading their iridescent catch, loads of edible biodiversity. Continue for another few km, well out of town, and you will come to a string of hills overlooking the marina: grassy hemispherical hillocks looking like green breasts of some Earth goddess. The tallest one has a sort of designated viewpoint on top (going under the names of Bukit Amelia or Bukit Silvia), marked by a parking lot below and usually a guy selling coffee off a motorbike cart, but otherwise, you are free to choose your own and climb. Each hill provides a slightly different yet inevitably stupendous sunset view of the surrounding land, shiny yachts in the marina, and boundless ocean dotted with islets. Photographers will want to drag a tripod along and stay for the blue hour.
Within the town premises, up in the hills, lies the intricate cave and canyon system of Batu Cermin. Technically, the name refers to a specific rock in one of the canyons and translates as "mirror stone" - a crack in the canyon wall projects a beam of sunlight onto that rock, polished by time and erosion, making it shine like a mirror. But it is the whole system that makes a visit worthwhile: crawling through narrow underground passages, squeezing through canyons so narrow you have to go sideways, and climbing limestone cliffs to stand proudly on natural bridges above. The setting is otherworldly, worthy of a sci-fi movie - although none have been filmed here, perhaps because the place is too remote and unknown outside Indonesia. On the way to Batu Cermin, there is Batu Payung, "umbrella stone". Guess what, it is a stone shaped like an umbrella. Not much to see, but it sort of complements the powerful impression of Batu Cermin system.
This is yet another place Hollywood producers should have used for some fantasy or adventure movie. Johnnie Depp, in his Sparrow Jack role, would fit right in, as would Davie Jones. Set in the middle of nowhere and only accessible by boat, Goa Rangko is a natural cave hiding a lagoon at the bottom, with stalagmites rising out of the acryl-blue pool. The water is salty - it is essentially a subterranean section of the sea. The submerged part of the cave is at least as long as the upper one, but it would require scuba and speleo-diving skills to explore. With a bit of bravery, you can swim into the darkness, then maybe dive as the ceiling descends to the water surface, but there is a limit to how far you can go. Local boys, who have probably already grown gills, seem to have no such limitation. The sea in the cave is the same temperature as outside, that is body warmth - expect one of the best and the most unusual swimming experiences on the planet. For those who prefer to swim under the sun, there is a wild beach right outside Goa Rangko and some nice karst landscape for a walk if you have time left before returning to Labuan Bajo.
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