Dili coasts

Little is known of Timor before 1500, although Chinese and Javanese traders visited the island in search of plentiful sandalwood and beeswax from the 13th century. Portuguese traders arrived in 1509, and in 1556 a handful of Dominican friars established the first Portuguese settlement at Lifau, in the present-day Oecussi enclave in East Timor. Dutch-Portuguese rivalry in the region saw continued skirmishes, resulting in the 1859 Treaty of Lisbon that divided Timor, giving Portugal the eastern half of the island, together with the north-coast pocket of Oecussi in the west.

East Timor’s capital is a pleasant, lazy city with Portuguese touches such as villa-lined beach roads and the massive old garrison, built in 1627. Most of Dili was destroyed in 1999 and just about every remaining building bears some sort of scar from the violence. The long stretch of waterfront remains a place of commerce and leisure, and a focal point for evening walks and weekend outings.

This strongly Catholic city has plenty of churches, and a massive statue of Christ gives the hilltop headland at Cape Fatucama a touch of Rio de Janeiro. There are magnificent views from the hilltop, but as muggers have been active in the area it’s best to check the current security situation before setting off.

The Dili region has several good beaches, with decent snorkelling below the headland. The most popular area is the sheltered cove of Areia Branca, also known as Pasir Putih (or ‘White Sands’ in English), about 3km east of Dili town. Atauro Island - visible from the waterfront - is easily accessible by boat, including a ferry service once a week which gives you several hours on the island - time for a look around a swim.

Heading west from Dili, along the beautiful coast road, there are some good beaches, and fruit and fish stalls at intervals along the road. Liquica, an hour away from Dili, was the site of a massacre in the church in 1999 and is gradually recovering. There’s a black-sand beach with some welcome shady trees.

Baucau, the second-largest town in East Timor, is still charming, despite the ravages of 1999. The two-hour drive east along the coast from Dili via Manatuto is gorgeous, with clear water and beaches along the way.

Heading south to Suai takes around four hours along a road that usually becomes impassable during the wet season. The forests in this region were important sources of sandalwood, teak and vanilla during Portuguese times, but unsustainable logging practices during Indonesian rule have whittled away this valuable resource.

The isolated former Portuguese coastal enclave of Oecussi, also known as Ambeno, is politically part of East Timor, but geographically and culturally part of West Timor. It was about 95% destroyed in 1999. The small population is scattered throughout the province in hamlets, with aid agency shelter kits having largely replaced the villagers’ traditional bee-hive thatched huts.

Pantemakassar, more usually known as Oecussi town, was the first permanent Portuguese settlement in Timor and, as such, is of great significance to the East Timorese. It is a sleepy coastal town sandwiched between the hills and the coast. The reef about ten metres off-shore in the clear water offers spectacular snorkelling.

The old hilltop fort known as Fatusuba is 1.5km south of town. It survived the 1999 destruction and is a quiet place with good sunset views. A shrine is maintained and local religious festivals are celebrated there. Lifau, 5km to the west, is the site of the original Portuguese settlement on Timor. There’s a good beach and a monument to the first landing.