Long revered by the Balinese people as a mystical place, sparsely populated Nusa Penida is emerging as a destination for the adventurous traveller, with its jaw-dropping coastline, deserted white-sand beaches and colourful culture.
Words by David Burden Photography by Tommy Schultz
The two islands of Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan off the east coast of Bali are already popular tourist destinations, but despite dwarfing both in size, neighbouring Nusa Penida has remained curiously off the radar for visitors until recently.
It might be less than an hour’s boat ride from Sanur, but from whatever angle you approach, the first impression is one of an isolated island paradise that feels far removed from the mainland bustle.
I begin my trip in the harbour town of Toyapakeh, which is the principal entry point for most visitors going ashore. As I step off the boat and onto the soft white sand, I’m greeted by my guide, Pak Yudi, who has agreed to show me around for the next couple of days by way of a motorbike tour. Due to the island’s size and lack of anything resembling public transport, the bike proves to be a very efficient way to travel between sights, although cars can be easily arranged for those who may not be particularly confident on two wheels.
Penida’s main roads are surprisingly smooth, but as I discover on the way to our first destination of Raja Lima on the island’s eastern side, once you leave the asphalt behind, most routes through to the coast become fairly bumpy. The unsealed track twists and turns for a good few kilometres, before we emerge at a viewpoint that looks out across a number of steep limestone rock cliffs, pinnacles and islets. The scene is as dramatic as it is precarious, with sheer drops on all sides as we descend to a rocky promontory that is even more vertigo inducing. A lone treehouse looks out across the water, which Yudi tells me is available to rent as a guesthouse. It’s pretty basic, but there’s no question that spending the night down here and waking up to a sunrise over Raja Lima would be quite an experience.
We leave the bikes and set off on foot to nearby Pantai Atuh, where a narrow set of steps wind steeply down to the half-moon-shaped beach, hemmed in by a series of jagged limestone rock formations. After a paddle in the crystal-blue water, we order up a simple lunch of fried noodles washed down with a fresh young coconut at one of the quaint warungs that line the beach. Initially we have it to ourselves, but over the next hour or two a steady stream of other tourists trickle down to bask on the powder-white sand. The lack of a road down to Atuh ensures that this little slice of paradise remains gloriously peaceful for now, but Yudi tells me that all around the island plans are a foot to improve access to Penida’s coastline and encourage tourism.
Traditional weaving is an art form in Nusa Penida, with its own distinctive motifs woven onto beautiful naturally dyed fabrics. In Desa Tanglad, we meet Ibu Gede Diari – one of the area’s best-known weavers busy at work behind a huge manual wooden loom. Diari tells us that some pieces can take up to three months to complete, selling in artisan boutiques in places like Ubud for as much as US$500. Buying direct from the source is understandably cheaper than that, and I can’t resist taking home a small souvenir from the shop in front of her house.
Next on the day’s itinerary is a visit to what is affectionately known as Bukit Teletubbies a series of peculiar rounded hillocks that do look remarkably like the set for the popular toddlers’ TV show. There’s not much else to see, however, so after a quick photo we’re on our way again, following the east coast road back up towards the famous Giri Putri temple. Yudi tells me that along with Pura Ped and Pura Puncak Mundi, Giri Putri is famous for being one of the three holiest sites on the island that every Balinese Hindu should visit at least once during their lifetime. For a visitor, Giri Putri is by far the most impressive of the three, primarily because it is located inside a huge underground cave. Access inside involves literally crawling through a tiny opening, no bigger than a manhole, before it opens out into a series of gaping caverns. A natural spring inside is considered to produce holy water, which is used in ceremonies by visiting Balinese to cleanse and purify both mind and body.
For the next day’s outing, we head over to the island’s rugged west coast – once again contending with rough unsealed roads to get through to the cliff edges that afford sublime views back across the Lombok Strait towards Bali. Highlights on this side range from the spectacular Kelingking beach, Saren cliff, Broken beach and Angel’s Billabong, to the downright terrifying Guyangan waterfall.
Formed from a sacred spring located at the bottom of massive sea cliffs, the falls are accessed by scrambling down the world’s most precarious stairs – often with nothing between the gaps except the crashing blue ocean hundreds of metres below. If you’re not good with heights, consider skipping this one altogether and making for the far more accessible (and safer) beaches of Crystal Bay and Gamat Bay in the north.
Aside from the scenery and unique local culture (the dialect here is very different from mainland Balinese), Penida’s other big drawcard is its clear waters and pristine coral reefs. Snorkellers and scuba divers flock to five-star dive sites all around the coast, where sightings of giant manta rays and oceanic sunfish (known locally as mola-mola) are a daily occurrence. The following morning I jump aboard a dive boat heading for Manta Point in the southwest of the island, keen to see for myself these majestic ocean wanderers. It takes a good 30 minutes to get there through rough seas and rolling swells, and although we set off early, the small bay is already busy with other boats. Despite the large number of snorkellers, however, we spot six enormous mantas gliding around serenely, clearly unfazed by the frenzied splashing going on around them.
Mesmerised for a good hour, we eventually jump back on board and motor around towards Toyapakeh, stopping off at the dive site known as ‘SD’ (short for sekolah dasar – ‘elementary school’). One of the best-known sites in Penida, SD is a vast drift dive over glittering corals, populated by countless species of underwater creatures.
I bid farewell to Yudi at the same beach I arrived on only three days earlier, and although it’s been an action-packed magical mystery tour, I still feel like there is plenty more waiting to be discoveredvon this enchanting island.
JAKARTA TO DENPASAR
Frequency Frequency 91 flights per weekk
Flight Time 1 hour, 30 minutes
5 Senses – Sight
GIRI PUTRI CAVE
A unique and incredible temple hidden in the caves on the hillside. The entrance is deceptively small and hides the spacious and magnificent cave inside. There are many temples arranged neatly within, there is even one up a stairway into the second floor of the cave. The cave temple is a blend of both the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Giri Putri is a most holy and spiritual experience for those looking for cleansing and meditation.