Indonesia - Sulawesi Explorer

Indonesia - Sulawesi Explorer

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 15 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


The enormous and oddly shaped island of Sulawesi is one of Indonesia’s cultural treasures, but often neglected by western tour companies in favour of better known Bali or Java. Yet it holds a wealth of treasures that should be on every serious traveller’s itinerary, with fascinating ethnic groups following elaborate social practices which cannot be seen elsewhere. Our trip to this remarkable land encompasses both the north and south of the island, starting from the bustling capital Makassar and heading into Tanah Toraja, an area of highlands where traditional architecture and practices are at their strongest. We explore villages with amazing carved houses where we hope to see some of their tribal festivals, we visit incredible ‘hanging graves’ and walk along picturesque rice terraces to reach little visited communities. In Sulawesi’s north we visit parks and reserves in search of the island’s unusual wildlife, including the tiny Tarsier, and enjoy traditional meals cooked for us by the inhabitants of local villages. We see the unusual ‘waruga’ sarcophagi of the Minhasa Highlands and explore colourful local markets where anything is considered food. This is an intriguing and almost mysterious part of the Indonesian archipelago with unique and complex social customs that are unlike anything you will have seen before. This two week trip encompasses the very best of this fascinating island, and will leave you wanting to explore more of this vast and varied region.

Tour Rating

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●●●○ | Culture ●●●●● | History ●●●○○ | Wildlife ●●●○○

Tour Pace


Tour Highlights

  • The sheer beauty and variety of the landscapes offered by the island
  • The scenic expanse of Lake Tempe with its many species of birds
  • The fascinating region of Tanah Toraja with its traditional houses and intriguing culture
  • The tranquil reserve of Tangkoko with its engaging wildlife

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mix of Comfortable hotels
Included Meals: Daily breakfast (B), plus lunches (L) and dinners (D) as shown in the itinerary
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Makassar
End Point: Manado
Transport: Minibuses, motor boats, internal flights
Countries: Indonesia

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not just passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK as we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be necessary to change the guide at one or more points during the tour.

Day 1 - Makassar

On arrival in Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi, you will transfer to your hotel. Depending on your time of arrival it may be possible to stop en route at Paotere harbour, with its dozens of traditional wooden ships. The rest of the day is at leisure. Overnight at Aston Hotel or similar.


Makassar (called Ujung Pandang between 1972 and 1999) is the lively capital of Sulawesi and due to its central location the city has functioned as a gateway to the eastern islands of Indonesia for centuries. Makassar also has a rich historical past with two powerful kingdoms that were able to resist the Dutch colonial forces for many years. The fort of Rotterdam (Benteng Ujung Pandang) in the centre of Makassar is a well-preserved reminder of that past. In the evening the boulevard comes to life and people gather at the pavilions and hand carts selling snacks appear. A part of the boulevard is closed to traffic, and impressive sunsets can be enjoyed here.

Day 2 – Maros

Today we drive to Maros, situated in an area of limestone cliffs, rice fields and small villages. We spend our time exploring the area on foot and by boat before returning to Makassar in the evening. Overnight at Aston Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 3 – Malino - Bira

Leaving Makassar we head to the refreshingly cool market town of Malino, which lies on the lower slopes of Mount Bawakaraeng, and was once the favourite weekend retreat for the colonial Dutch. We walk alongside the rice fields and visit a traditional Bugis house, stopping for a drink at a villa in the area. We continue to the site of a local waterfall where we take lunch in a nearby restaurant, and drive on to Bira. It is a pretty village situated on the coast and we will arrive in the late afternoon / early evening. Overnight at Bara Beach Hotel or similar. (BL)

Day 4 – Bira

This morning is at leisure, leaving you free to relax by the beach or take a walk in the forest close to the hotel, where monkeys are often seen. In the afternoon we visit the village of Tanah Beru, which is known for the traditional wooden pinisi boats which are made here, and we may be lucky enough to see some of the craftsmen at work. Overnight at Bara Beach Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 5 - Sengkang

After breakfast we travel north to the small town of Sengkang, stopping on the way to visit the village of Tanah Tua, the home of the Kajang people. Overnight at BBC Hotel or similar. (B)

The Kajang people

The Kajang live according to traditional rules, in harmony with nature, and most things used in daily life are collected from their natural surroundings. Food is cultivated, houses are made of wood and palm leaves, and clothes are woven by the people themselves and coloured with a dark natural dye. You will be able to walk through the village (dressed in black clothes, which you should bring with you) and visit some of the houses which you must enter barefoot. The Kajang have accepted some changes but their traditions are still deeply held.


Sengkang is a small town through which  the Walennea River flows, and has a population of Islamic Bugis, living mainly in traditional wooden pile dwellings. It is the capital of the district of Wajo, one of the most influential Bugis states of the 16th century.

Lake Tempe

Lake Tempe stretches for at least 1000 hectares in the dry season, and expands to around 35.000 ha during the wet season, when all the surrounding area is flooded. Local fishermen use a variety of methods to catch fish here, including nets, rods and enclosures, and more than 20 species of water birds can be seen at this lake. Some of the fishermen live in floating houses near the edge of the lake.

Day 6 – Lake Tempe – Tanah Toraja

Early in the morning we board traditional colourful motorised canoes, travelling along the Walennea River to Lake Tempe. The lake is very scenic and is home to a number of species of birds, who share it with local fishermen, some of who live in floating villages where we will take tea/coffee in one of the floating houses. Before we leave Sengkang we will visit a silk weaving shop making beautifully coloured local garments. From here we will travel to the highlands of Tanah Toraja, home to some of Sulawesi’s most intriguing customs, and a stronghold of traditional architecture. Lunch is taken in the home of a local family. We pass Palopo driving onwards through Toraja to the market town of Rantepao. (approx.5 hours). Overnight at Heritage Hotel or similar. (BL)

Tanah Toraja

This mountainous district is the homeland of several ethnic groups who are called Toraja (Toraja means ‘the people of the mountains’ or ‘the people of the west’). The Toraja call their traditional religion Aluk to Dolo (rites of the ancestors) and they live according to rules defined by their ancestors and gods. These include the impressive rituals that accompany the burying of the deceased, which involve pig and buffalo sacrifices, and can last for many days. There is a very good chance that you will witness part of one of these ceremonies. The region is also known for its beautiful carved houses with the remarkable roofs, “tongkonan,,” which are also built according to the principles of Aluk to Dolo. The Toraja were among the last people in Indonesia to submit to colonial rule, resisting until well into the 20th century. Although most Toraja are Christian nowadays many of the original traditions still live on.

Day 7 – Tanah Toraja

We spend today exploring this remarkable region to gain a picture of the culture of past and present Toraja. We visit picturesque villages located in an amazing mountainous landscape dominated by rice terraces and bamboo forests. We see the different ways the Toraja bury their dead, including the traditional ‘hanging graves’ and the well-known stone graves guarded by puppets, “tau-tau”, high up on rocks. We also see huge richly carved traditional houses with their rice barns. For lunch we visit a small village where local people prepare a typical Toraja meal for us. Overnight at Heritage Hotel or similar. (BL)

Day 8 – Tanah Toraja

Today we will explore the area further, walking and driving through the countryside, which will offer a further insight into the rural life of the region. Overnight at Heritage Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 9 - Makassar

A long day of driving takes us by a different route through interesting and varied scenery back to Makassar. We will pass through the rice production centre of the island and travel alongside the coast. Overnight at Aston Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 10 – Manado - Tangkoko

Fly from Makassar to Manado in the north of Sulawesi and transfer to the Tangkoko Batuangas Reserve, where we take an afternoon walk (approx. 2 hours) in search of its unusual wildlife, including Tarsiers and Cuscus Bears. Overnight at Tangkoko Lodge or similar. (BD)

Tangkoko Batuangas Reserve

The reserve itself is a beautiful park, filled with fruit and palm trees and the forest is home to a large number of mammals and birds, many of which are endemic to Sulawesi. One of these is the Black Crested Macaque, groups of which are usually easy to spot. In addition are Cuscus, a marsupial relative which also live in Papua New Guinea, the Maleo, a rare megapode bird, Red Crescent Hornbills and the Tarsier, the world’s smallest primate just the size of a human hand. It feeds during the night and will only return to its sleeping tree just before sunrise.

Day 11 – Tangkoko - Tomohon

This morning we take another walk in the forest in search of wildlife (approx. 3 hours), before continuing on. We explore the fascinating Minhasa Highlands along the way, with its relics of traditional culture. This evening we visit a local home for some typical Minhasa food. Overnight at Mount View Lodge or similar. (BLD)

Minhasa Highlands

At an average altitude of around 700-800 metres this district holds a wealth of treasures for visitors to explore. Most notable are the ancient waruga sarcophagi in which important people were buried sitting in a foetal position – these can be seen in the small town of Sawangan. In Woloan we can see how people construct wooden houses to break them down again and  sell them as a ‘do-it-yourself-pack’. The region is known for its cuisine which includes such delicacies as rat kebabs and fried bat wings. The people of the area were renowned as headhunters, although that practice no longer survives, having been eradicated by missionaries from the 19th century onwards.

Day 12 – Mahawu Volcano

This morning we will visit the colourful market of Tomohon. The Minhasa are known for eating most things and you will find some unusual "ingredients" ready to take home and cook. We then head to the rim of Gunung Mahawu, an active volcano which gives us great views of its crater lake as well as of the surrounding area, including the nearby island of Bunaken. We reach it by a combination of driving and walking (it entails climbing around 250 steps) After descending the rest of the day is free to explore the town. Overnight at Lokon Boutique Resort or similar. (BD)

Day 13 – Manado

Transfer back to Manado. The rest of the day is free to relax or explore this interesting cosmopolitan city – the market in particular is well worth venturing into. Overnight at Sedona Hotel or similar. (B)

Day 14 – Bunaken Island

Today our destination is Bunaken Island off the northern tip of Sulawesi.The island is part of Bunaken Marine Reserve, and the sea around here is alive with stunning marine life including turtles, whales, dolphins and rays. We take a boat out to snorkel and then take lunch on the beach before heading back to Manado. Overnight at Sedona Hotel or similar. (BL)

Please note: A local permit is payable locally of RP50.000 and snorkel equipment can be rented for approx. RP100.000

Day 15 – Manado

Transfer to the airport for your onward flight. Tour ends. (B)

Arrival and departure transfers
Domestic flights
Transport throughout
All accommodation
Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary unless otherwise stated.

International flights
Any airport taxes
Travel Insurance
Bunaken Island permit (approx. £5, payable locally in Indonesian Rupiah)
Snorkelling equipment