The Sulawesi Explorer Small Group Holiday

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 (the accommodation is rather basic at the Tangkoko Reserve)
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 flight.
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 – 8th June- Makassar

On arrival in Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi, you will be met and transferred to your hotel. 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 – Makassar

Today will be spent exploring Makassar by public transport accompanied by your guide. We begin with a visit to two markets in Makassar, a fish and a vegetable-fruit market, where you will purchase the necessary ingredients for a cooking class later today. We will cross the river by local ferry to a small village, where the cooking class will take place in the traditional kitchen of a local Bugis house. It is a rural setting, surrounded by rice fields, fish ponds and abundant gardens, so you feel as if you are in the countryside. In the village you will see many traditional Buginese houses on stilts. We will return to the centre and see some of the sights of Makassar including Fort Rotterdam, and Paotere Harbour, with its dozens of traditional wooden ships. Overnight at Aston Hotel or similar. (BL)

Day 3 – Rantepao, Tanah Toraja (323 kms, approx. 9 hours)

After breakfast we leave Makassar for 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 Enrekang driving onwards through Toraja to the market town of Rantepao. 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, known locally as “tongkonan,”. 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 4 – 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 5 -Tanah Toraja

Today we will continue to explore the area, 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 6- Sengkang (204 kms, approx. 5 hours 20 mins)

Leave Tanah Toraja for the small town of Sengkang where we will visit a silk weaving shop making beautifully coloured local garments. Overnight at BBC Hotel or similar. (B)


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.

Day 7 – Lake Tempe- Malino (223 kms, approx. 6 hours 30 mins)

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. We continue 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. Overnight at Villa Tengah Sawah. (BL)

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 8 – Malino

Today we will take a walk through the surrounding area of Malino, approx 4-5 hours. We will start from your accommodation following a path uphill and downhill, crossing a small river via a bamboo bridge or if broken (which often happens!) by wading through the river. We will pass the Biroro waterfall with the chance to bathe- the views are amazing. A simple lunch will be served at a local home from where there are views towards the river and the Ta’kapala waterfall. After lunch it will be an hour before we reach the end of the walk. A car will pick you up and will take you back to your guesthouse, and enroute we can stop at several waterfalls for a swim.Overnight at Rumah Tengah Sawah (BL)

Day 9-Maros- Bantimurung National Park- Leang Leang Caves- Makassar (140 kms, approx. 5 hours)

Begin our return to Makassar with a visit to the lovely Bantimurung National Park, situated in an area of limestone cliffs, rice fields and small villages. The park is celebrated for its butterflies and waterfalls, and we can explore on foot and by boat. Nearby are the Leang Leang caves known for their surviving ancient paintings. We will continue on to Makassar in the evening. Overnight at Aston Hotel or similar. (BL)

Day 10 – Manado – Tangkoko (70 kms, approx. 2 hours 30 mins)

Fly from Makassar to Manado in the north of Sulawesi (2 hours) and transfer to the Tangkoko Batuangas Reserve, where we take an afternoon walk (approx. 3 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 (70 kms, approx. 2 hours 30 mins)

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 Highland Lodge or similar. (BD)

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 (60 kms, approx. 2 hours)

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 Cocotinos 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 Cocotinos or similar. (BL)

Please note: Snorkelling equipment can be rented for approx. RP100.000 (£6)

Day 15 – Manado

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


Arrival and departure transfers

Domestic flight from Makassar to Manado

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



Donations during possible ceremonies.

Snorkelling equipment on Bunaken Island – approx. Rp 100,000 per person (£6)