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HOW TO GO TO WAE REBO WITHOUT A TOUR

Wae Rebo Village

Wae Rebo is a traditional village in the district of Manggarai on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Hmm… That doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? A village, okay, so what?

Well, what makes this little village special — apart from its unique conical houses — is that it’s located in the crater of an ancient volcano some 1,100 meters above sea level, and is completely surrounded by mountains and dense forests. The only way to access it is by trekking uphill for 3 – 4 hours from the lowlands. And that’s only after you make the 4-hour drive from the nearest town (either Ruteng or Labuan Bajo).

So, imagine a magical land hidden in the clouds where nobody other than the native tribe has ever set foot in. Okay, that’s not exactly true (many visitors have made the journey to this village since it was first discovered by a traveler years ago). But it’s still relatively isolated and unspoiled. It has received the UNESCO Top Award of Excellence for the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. The surrounding forest is rich with flora and fauna, including wild orchids, ferns, monkeys and songbirds.

Me with Wae Rebo Village in background
It really was hidden in the clouds

How to Get to Wae Rebo

Most people who visit Flores arrive in Labuan Bajo and use it as a base to explore the surrounding areas. So if you’re from Labuan Bajo and traveling in a group, the easiest (and probably cheapest) option is to take a tour package. I’m not sure how much it is exactly, but in general, the more people you have in your group, the less you have to pay per person. Plus, everything will be arranged for you, so you can sit back and relax and not worry about anything.

However, if you’re traveling solo, it gets a bit more complicated. If you’re lucky, there might be another group of solo travelers you can join. But this is very unlikely, especially in the low season. I went to almost every travel agent I could find near my hostel in Labuan Bajo, hoping that one of them might already have a customer waiting for someone to split the cost with. No such luck. I would have to hire the whole car for myself.

Quite possibly, there was only one guy operating the Wae Rebo tour at that time, because every travel agent that I went to would make a phone call to someone to ask for the price, and the answer was always the same. It was Rp2.5 million (USD175). I could have flown to Japan and back with that amount of money.

So I asked around to find out about public transportation to Denge, the last village before the uphill trek to Wae Rebo. Answers I received were pretty vague, either because they really didn’t know, or because they just wanted me to take the private car. Generally, ojek (motorcycle taxis) wouldn’t go there, because it was too far.

Finally, I got a helpful answer from one of the store owners. There were no direct buses from Labuan Bajo to Denge. But there was one to Ruteng, a town further east. From Ruteng, I could get another bus to Denge. The only problem was that these buses were only available in the early morning (around 6 am). It was already 8 am then. My next best option was to take a shared taxi to Ruteng and spend a night there.

From Labuan Bajo to Ruteng

So a shared taxi it was. But first, I had to take an ojek to the parking lot where the shared taxis were waiting. This could cost anywhere between Rp 5,000 – Rp 20,000, depending on your haggling skill.

The shared-taxi business is an extremely competitive one, it seemed. The drivers would be waiting outside their taxis, and would practically pounce on you like vultures as you arrive. I’m not exaggerating. They were running across the road to grab at me and trying to pull my backpack off me while I was still on the ojek! It can be quite a shock if you’re not prepared for it. Just be firm and stand your ground. Hold to your bag tightly and tell them no if they try to grab it from you. Agree on the fare before you get into the taxi. The journey from Labuan Bajo to Ruteng should cost between Rp 80,000 – Rp 120,000, but this also depends on how many passengers are already in the taxi (it should fit 7). 

If you’re prone to motion sickness, make sure you bring anti-nausea pills, as the journey would take you on winding roads for 4 hours. There would only be one rest stop. I was recovering from food poisoning that morning (was actually throwing up in the hostel before checkout), so I spent the whole 4 hours trying to keep my stomach content from spurting out (from either end). It didn’t help that the radio was blaring at top volume the entire ride.

About halfway through the journey, you would pass by a junction leading to Denge. You can ask your driver to drop you there if you want, but it would take another two hours or so to reach Denge from there. You can either hitchhike or ride an ojek if you’re lucky to find one. I didn’t want to take the risk, so I continued on to Ruteng.

rice fields with mountains in the background
View from the car window

By the time we got to Ruteng, there were only three people left in the car — the driver, his girlfriend, and me. He insisted on sending his girlfriend to the bus station first although he could have easily dropped me off before that. That left only him and me in the car. I was starting to feel uneasy, and also annoyed, to be honest, because this was like the third or fourth time I had got myself into that kind of situation where I was alone with a horny driver. It was not funny anymore. Read about my experience in Surabaya on the way to Bali.

However, it turned out that he only wanted to persuade me to hire him as my driver/tour guide for the next day. He was quite persistent, almost as persistent as he was when trying to get me into his taxi earlier that morning. I said I’d think about it and we exchanged phone numbers. When I paid him the fare, I saw that he shortchanged me, but I couldn’t be bothered to point it out.

Where to Stay in Ruteng

Centro Hostel signboard

In Ruteng, I stayed in Centro Hostel. It was Rp 100,000 per night with free breakfast. Totally worth it. The facilities were okay, but what really stood out was the service. The two ladies working there were exceptionally friendly. Not the expecting-a-big-tip kind of friendly, but really, genuinely friendly. As an Asian traveling in Asia, you sometimes get snubbed by sellers or service providers, because they think that Caucasian tourists are more worthy of their attention, but this was not the case here. They went out of their way to make everybody feel welcome.

Me with one of the staff members
With one of the staff members

I was the only guest when I arrived, but throughout the day, several others joined me. There were one solo male traveler and two or three couples. Because mine was a female dorm, I got the whole room to myself. I spent most of the afternoon sleeping off my nausea. It was almost 5 pm when I went out to get dinner. Apparently, there was a traditional village within walking distance called Kampung Pu’u, and an airport, from where I could get an amazing view of rice fields. But it was getting dark, so I only managed to get a glimpse of the rice field before I had to turn back.

Me with rice field in the background
A glimpse of the rice field

From Ruteng to Denge

To get to Denge, I had to take the morning bus departing around 6 am. There was only one bus per day with no fixed schedule. So you just have to go to the bus station and keep your fingers crossed. Fair enough

BUT, I had another problem. To get back to Ruteng from Denge, again, there was only one bus per day, departing at 4 or 5 in the morning! So that means, if I wanted to spend the night in Wae Rebo, I’d have to start the hike down at 2 or 3 am. In the dark! Alone! So, no, thanks. Alternatively, I could spend one night in Wae Rebo and another night in Denge and get the bus the day after. This was not an option for me though, because I didn’t have that much time to spare. I needed to get back to Labuan Bajo early as I had already booked a cruise to Lombok.

So that left me with only one choice: to take a motorbike. Because I’m one of those people who can’t drive a motorbike (or any vehicle, for that matter), I had to hire a driver too. Luckily one of the hostel staff is married to an ojek driver. So this guy would take me to Wae Rebo and back for Rp 400,000. Not cheap, considering that motorbike rental would only cost me Rp 50,000 per day, but good enough. We started the journey at 7.30 am, and made two stops along the way:

Cancar Spiderweb Rice Field

Located 17km west of Ruteng, the Cancar rice field has a unique spiderweb pattern, instead of the usual rectangular ones you see throughout Asia. The reason for this shape is that centuries ago, the rice fields were shared by the entire village. To allocate the plots fairly among the families, they shaped them into pie charts, with each family owning one slice of the pie. The size of each slice is determined by the number of people in the family, so that everybody would be equally fed. As time progressed and the number of families grew, the rice fields were further subdivided and eventually took the shape of spiderwebs.

To see the spectacular pattern, you need to view it from above. I believe there must be several viewpoints on the surrounding hills, but tour guides seem to favor only one. I’m not sure if that’s because it has the best view or because it is the most accessible. Probably both. It has concrete steps to take you from the main road to the top of the hill (about 5 to 10 minutes’ climb). If you’re taking the public bus from Labuan Bajo, you can also tell your driver to drop you here.

Please note that there’s an entrance fee of Rp 25,000 to go up. Exactly what the fee is for, I have no idea, because it’s only a lookout point where people spend at most 5 minutes. But that’s the thing with Indonesia — there are entrance fees everywhere, even to enter some of the beaches. So, that’s something you have to get used to if you’re traveling in this country. 

Spiderweb-shaped rice field

Me with spiderweb rice field in the background

Todo Village

Our next stop was Kampung Todo, another traditional Manggarai village with those conical houses. So if you don’t have the time or energy to hike to Wae Rebo, this is an alternative to consider. There’s no entrance fee here, but it’s mandatory to rent a sarong, which is Rp 50,000. (See what they did there?) The lady who collected the money was also quite rude when I didn’t want to order any coffee or tea from her. If I were on my own, I would have walked off. But with a driver, I felt obliged to go in, since we had come all the way.

There wasn’t much to see either. On my visit, the houses were not open to visitors, because somebody in the village had recently passed away, so a few places were considered off limits. The only saving grace was the local guide, a man named Rizki. He was apologetic about the houses being closed and — as if to make up for this — really took the time to explain the history of the place and answer all my questions.

Me with the guide at Todo Village
With Rizki, the local guide at Todo Village

As a bonus for me, Rizki proved to be an excellent photographer. Even with my cheap phone, he managed to produce some really good photos. In fact, he was the one who discovered that my phone camera actually had the panoramic mode. And I thought I was pretty tech savvy *facepalm*. He refused to take any tip though.

Me sitting on a stone with Todo traditional houses in the background

A panoramic view of Todo Village

Hiking to Wae Rebo

The next part of the journey took us along the coast. You could see another island not too far away. After that, we passed through more villages and rice fields. It’s a very scenic drive that I think is worth doing even if you don’t plan to go all the way to Wae Rebo.

Close to noon, we reached Denge. If you’re driving a car, this is where you need to park, as the road ahead is inaccessible on four wheels. There’s also a homestay there if you wish to spend the night. Otherwise, you can go ahead and begin the 9-kilometer hike to Wae Rebo, which will take you around 3 – 4 hours. Pak Blasius, the owner of the homestay, can arrange a guide for you if you don’t already have one.

If you go by motorbike, your hike will be considerably shorter (1.5 hours) as the motorbike can go further through the dirt road. You will park your bike at a clearing after the bridge. The start of the trail is right next to it.

Signboard welcoming visitors to Wae ReboThe hike is fairly easy but it does go uphill all the way, except for the last part. Bring some snacks and at least 1.5 liters water as it can get hot and humid up there. Please note that there will be no phone signal anywhere on the trail or in Wae Rebo village.

As you get closer to the village, the trail will start to go downhill. You will reach a hut with a sign that says “Welcome to Wae Rebo”. Inside the hut is a percussion instrument made of bamboo, that you’re supposed to strike a few times to announce your arrival to the villagers. However, my driver cum guide didn’t do this, so perhaps it was not really compulsory.

Arriving in Wae Rebo

Me with Wae Rebo conical houses in the backgrounf

Just before you make the final descent to Wae Rebo, you’ll be rewarded with this view. It’s the best spot to take a picture of the village. In fact, it looks more impressive from this vantage point than inside the village itself.

So technically, you can hike up to this point, take pictures and leave without having to pay the entrance fee. I have read in some other blogs where they did exactly that, either because they were on a budget or because they questioned the motive behind such a high fee*.

*WAE REBO ENTRANCE FEE

Day Visit (with lunch): Rp200,000.

Overnight Stay (with dinner and breakfast): Rp325,000.

However, according to local customs, nobody is allowed to take pictures of the village without first asking for permission from the spirits that roam the place. So, the first thing a visitor has to do is to visit the ceremonial house and meet the elders who will perform a special prayer. Only after this ritual will the visitor be allowed to proceed with any activity in the village, including photography. (The photo above was taken at the end of my visit.)

A signage saying how Wae Rebo has benefited from tourism

Wae Rebo profit distribution chart

To the skeptical minds, this could be just another ploy to make money. I have to admit that I did have that inkling too. Who knows, it could be true. But at the same time, it just didn’t feel right to visit someone’s home and disobey their rules. I was tempted to do what the other bloggers did, but it would feel like trespassing to me. I guess, to each his own.

After the ceremonial house, we went to the visitors’ house, where we were served lunch — rice with egg and veggies. Arranged along the walls were mats for overnight guests to sleep on. There were only two other guests besides us — a middle-aged couple from Switzerland. They said they really enjoyed the peace and quiet and were looking forward to spending the night there.

Plates of rice and dishes on a straw mat

After that, we were free to walk around and mingle with the locals. Life there was very laid-back, as there were no TVs, phones, and internet. Most people spent their time outside, tending to their plants, drying their coffee beans or simply hanging around, playing music.

Four men playing music on the grass

I was also pleasantly surprised to find lots of puppies. There were some children too, but I prefer animal babies to human ones.

Puppies running around on the grass

A sleeping dog in Wae Rrbo

Me playing with a dog in Wae Rebo
Me playing with a dog in Wae Rebo

The Journey Back

At 3 pm, we decided to make a move. The weather was very cloudy, and we didn’t want to wait until it got too dark. On the way down, we met a group of about 20 Indonesian tourists making their way up. It looked like the Swiss couple was not going to have a quiet time after all. About an hour later, we reached our motorbike and began the 4-hour ride back to Ruteng. Somehow it felt a lot longer, probably because we didn’t break it into a few stops as we did in the morning. Most of the roads were unlit. We reached the hostel at about 8.30 pm.

The next day, I joined another solo traveler who booked a taxi to go to Labuan Bajo. The taxi picked us up at the hostel and only charged us Rp100,000 per person despite us being the only passengers. On top of that, the driver was very polite and a lot more professional than the one who took me to Ruteng. He gave me his phone number so I could recommend him to my friends. So I’m going to do that right here. If you need a driver in Labuan Bajo or Ruteng, give him a call at: +62813-5384-3463. His name is Herri. 

Conclusion

Is Wae Rebo worth visiting?

Well, if you’re only interested in conical-shaped houses, there are at least two other villages with similar architecture: Kampung Pu’u and Kampung Todo. Both are closer to Ruteng, cheaper to enter and don’t require a hike. Wae Rebo is more suitable for those who like a good challenge. And that was precisely why I made the journey there. The harder it was to get to, the more compelling it became to me. The entrance fee is a bit too expensive in my opinion, but it’s not so bad if you’re spending the night there, as you only need to add a bit more to get a one-night accommodation, dinner, and breakfast.

Several options for going to Wae Rebo from Labuan Bajo:

a) If you’re traveling in a group: It’s more convenient and probably cheaper to go on an organized tour.

b) If you’re traveling solo and can drive a motorbike: You can go directly to Wae Rebo from Labuan Bajo. There’s no need to go to Ruteng first. However, to attempt this, make sure you’re really, really confident and comfortable on a motorbike, as some of the roads are narrow and unpaved. Get a travel insurance before you go (I highly recommend World Nomads – one of the best out there). If you need a rest from the long drive, or if you arrive too late in the evening, you can spend the night in Denge. AdventureViv has a comprehensive guide on how to drive from Labuan Bajo to Denge.

c) If you’re traveling solo and can’t drive a motorbike: 

  • DAY 1 – Take a public bus/shared taxi from Labuan Bajo to Ruteng. Spend the night in Ruteng.
  • DAY 2 – Take a public bus from Ruteng to Denge. Hike to Wae Rebo and spend the night there.
  • DAY 3 – Have breakfast in Wae Rebo. Hike down to Denge. Spend the night in Denge.
  • DAY 4 – Get the early morning bus back to Ruteng.

d) If you’re short on time, you can make a day trip on a motorbike from Ruteng (on your own or with a hired driver). Start early if you don’t want to drive in the dark on the way back.

So have you visited Wae Rebo? Was it worth your money? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Posted in Adventure, Indonesia

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