Togean Islands: the Ultimate Guide
The Togean Islands truly are a slice of paradise. It’s a small archipelago in the gulf of Tomini, in between northern and middle Sulawesi, consisting of 57 islands. Almost all of the 10.000 people living on the 37 villages are Bajau people, one of the several ethnic groups of sea gypsies that live around the world. Most of the villages are built against the rock formations and consist of houses built on poles that go straight into the sea. Additionally, this archipelago is home to Indonesia’s largest area of coral reefs, mostly in pristine state, except for some parts that have suffered from dynamite or cyanide fishing. Also, it is the only location in Indonesia that has all three of the major reef environments: atoll, barrier, and fringing reefs.
When we went to the Togean Islands it was our first time in Asia and our first-time snorkelling and nothing has ever topped this place. With a handful of ‘resorts’ scattered throughout the archipelago offering a basic bungalow right on the beach, with three home-cooked (delicious and fresh) meals a day, and amazing snorkelling directly in front of the beach, there is not much more a beach bum or life under water enthusiast could wish for. Add to this the cheap prices, friendly locals, and wonderful daytrips to snorkelling hotspots you will never forget and it makes for a perfect holiday getaway that will make an everlasting impression
A simple map of the Togean Islands, made by Iris.
How to get to the Togean Islands
Before getting into the nitty gritty of how to get to the Togean Islands, let’s be clear about one thing: the Togean Islands are truly in the middle of nowhere. This means that getting there is quite a hassle and will take more time than getting to the Gili Islands for example. It will be so worth it though.
There are two main gateways to the Togean Islands: you can either take a boat from Gorontalo or a boat from Ampana. The boat from Gorontalo sails directly to Wakai; whereas the boat from Ampana sails all the way to Dolong, the island furthest away from Ampana, stopping at every stop. From the arrival port in Wakai you can stay for a few nights there, charter or take the public boat to one of the beautiful islands.
We arrived in Manado by plane and took the bus to Gorontalo from there. As we came down from Manado, which is in the north of Sulawesi, we took the boat to Wakai and chartered a boat with six others to get to Malenge. The rest of our island-hopping adventure of three weeks we did by taking the public boat headed for Ampana getting off at one of the other islands.
Getting to Gorontalo is easier than getting to Ampana as it has a working airport and is well connected with the rest of Northern-Sulawesi. Ampana has an airport as well, but with spotty and unreliable service to Makassar. However, a lot of people visit Tana Toraja in Central Sulawesi before traveling further north to Ampana, which is a good option as well. Additionally, Ampana has two cities with better flight connections approximately a six-hour drive away: Luwuk and Poso. There are lots of options, but no itinerary is perfect, which fortunately helps keeping this beautiful slice of paradise so well hidden.
Beautiful scenes from the resort at Malenge
As per January 1st 2020 the ferry schedule is following: every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday (except the first weekend of the month) the public ferry Tuna Tomini leaves Gorontalo city harbour at 17:00, taking approximately 12 hours to reach Wakai. An economy class seat costs 64.000 IDR (4,28 euros), which gives access to the deck and the airconditioned closed of space at the front of the boat. Make sure you reserve a mattress when you buy a ticket (called tatami), you’ll be assigned a number, otherwise you might end up sleeping on the deck. You can also opt for an airconditioned cabin for two or four persons, which costs 500.000 IDR (33,50 euros) but these need to be booked through a travel agency and are limited to 8 per boat. So, this is best done in advance.
The boat from Ampana leaves at 10:00 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and sails all the way to Dolong, stopping at Wakai, Katupat, Malenge and terminating at Dolong. On Mondays and Thursdays, it leaves at 09:00 and sails directly and solely to Wakai. On Fridays there is no boat service from Ampana. The price of the boat trip to Wakai is about 52.000 IDR (3,48 euros) and going all the way to Dolong takes approximately 10 hours. Wakai is about half that.
Sunrise at the dock where the public ferry leaves and arrives in Malenge
Some general advice
Sail to the furthest islands first
The best advice, which we were also given when we were traveling there, is to sail to the furthest island you want to visit first, before making your way towards your harbour of choice on the mainland. It takes some planning and maybe chartering a private speedboat, which costs around 450.000 IDR (30 euros), but it is well worth it. From here on you can ask the owners about the ferry schedule of boats moving between the small villages and plan accordingly.
Take your time
Another piece of advice is to make sure you have time. This is for two main reasons: first, if you even have the slightest interest in going there the islands will be more beautiful than your wildest dreams. There are so many day-trips you can go on with superb snorkelling, fresh lunches on secluded beaches, fishing, spotting dolphins, divine, swimming with jellyfish that don’t sting. And all for a per person rate that is lower than 5 euros. The second reason is that ferries do break down, unexpected weather can occur and, well, you are in a very secluded robin Crusoe kind of place.
Bring your own snorkeling equipment
Third and perhaps equally important is to bring your own snorkeling equipment. Most resorts have some gear you can rent or use for free, but you will have a way better experience using your own. We didn’t bring our own because we did not plan on going there, but it is one of the main reasons we want to go back. However, even with goggles that occasionally fill up with water and straps that become loose, the things you will see when snorkeling are amazing. So, if you’re reading this and are already in Sulawesi unable to buy your own gear, go regardless.
Bring enough cash
Our last piece of advice is to bring enough cash. There is no ATM and only the higher end resorts have credit/debit card payment system, which only work when there is a faint mobile signal. Which is almost never.
Canoeing from island to island around Katupat
The best islands and resorts
Our favourite place on the Togeans was Poya Lisa, a small resort on their private island just off the coast from Bomba. They have a couple of bungalows perched on a cliff with magnificent views of endless ocean, which cost between 16 and 20 euros, depending on the season and your haggling skills. We even saw a couple of dolphins from our balcony! If you want, there are some cheaper options as well on the beach, with shared bathrooms, but we recommend you to opt for a cliffside bungalow.
Sunsets at Poya Lisa
Besides the lovely views and great accommodation, there is good snorkeling right in front of the island, the three meals you’ll get every day are top on the list of best food you’ll eat in Indonesia (it’s actually four meals as they also bring you an afternoon snack around 15:00), the snorkeling trips are dirt cheap and with a group of six you won’t pay more than 3 euros each, and the owners are extremely hospitable and friendly. They really go out of their way to make your stay as best as possible. The three snorkeling trips we did took us to an atoll an amazing city of coloured reefs and fish, a drop-off that you could swim along for hours and a reef that was right next to a beach where we had lunch with a huge monitor lizard.
Snorkeling trip in Poya Lisa
The island Malenge is our second recommendation, staying at Lestari Cottages. Just as Poya Lisa it has great snorkelling right at your doorstep. The bungalows are on the beach and are a bit nicer than the ones in Poya Lisa, lacking the views though. Right on the other side of the water lies Pulau Papan that is connected to the bigger island with a bridge that goes straight over the seawater. Truly a sight to never forget and a wonderful experience of walking down on it.
Pulau Papan; a beautiful sea village connected to the resort's island by walking bridge over the seawater.
Left: views of the iconic bridge from hammock at the dock of the resort/hostel
Right: close up of one of the houses in Pulau Papan
The food is great too, a bit simpler than Poya Lisa, except for the Krupuk (an Indonesian starch/prawn cracker) which was served sizzling hot before dinner. And man, did we love those Krupuk; it was probably the thing everyone on the island looked forward to the most after a day filled with snorkeling or reading on the jetty in one of the many hammocks. They also do snorkel tours and have a Laguna at the backside which is great for spotting birds. There is also a canoe that you can borrow to move around a bit, which is a really nice way of spending your afternoon. And the owner is really good at catching the famous coconut crab, an indigenous species of crab that is big and strong enough to crack a coconut (!). Very interesting creature to see from up close.
Coconut crab, a very strong species of crab that is strong enough to crack a coconut.