The island of Sulawesi in Indonesia was an intriguing mystery to me before I touched down to explore it in person. Sulawesi’s history reads like the pages of a dramatic novel; coloured by tales of pirates, Spice Wars, colonial clashes and civil struggles. Today, it is an exciting frontier of a different kind. With so many things to do in Sulawesi it should come as no surprise that tourism is on the rise. An adventure traveller’s delight, tours cover jungle trekking to eco exploring and day trips to world-class Sulawesi diving and snorkelling sites.
The wishbone-shaped island of Sulawesi is located north-east of Bali, across the Makassar Strait from Borneo. It is one of the Malay Archipelago’s Greater Sunda Islands. The history of Sulawesi (previously known as Celebes) region is equally colourful and complex. In brief, Sulawesi has historically been an attractive target for foreign occupation owing to its geographical location on the maritime trade route and rich abundance of natural resources such as spices (namely nutmeg and cloves) and iron. Powerful Sultans ruled the region in the 14th century, the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, the Spanish soon followed and the Dutch settled in the Makassar in 1607 with their colonial control continuing to spread for centuries. The Japanese occupied Sulawesi during World War II before Sulawesi went on to join the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. Internal political disturbances have been reported since with the redrawing of new provincial and district boundaries an attempt to ease the unrest. The world’s eleventh largest island, Sulawesi is now divided into six provinces. We were lucky enough to visit North Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi and South Sulawesi.
Related: The Ultimate Guide to Jakarta
Things to do in Sulawesi
When it comes to things to do in Sulawesi you will experience a mix of cultural activities, explaining more of the history of the different parts of the island, some of which intersects with our own in Australia. There is also a lot of adventurous activities to do from jungle treks to eco tours in the jungle, beach days spent at beach clubs and taking a tour to experience some of the best diving in Sulawesi thanks to some enthusiastic and knowledgeable loca guides.
- Find our North Sulawesi travel guide here.
- Read about our trip to Bunaken Island off Manado North Sulawesi here.
- See some of the most beautiful beaches in Indonesia with our trip to Palu Central Sulawesi here.
- See why you should visit Ambon Maluku with our Ambon guide here and detailed article here.
Travel to Sulawesi
- Travel to Sulawesi is a little more complex than a typical direct flight to Bali. I flew from Brisbane via Sydney to Jakarta with Qantas. After a stopover in Jakarta we travelled on to Manado in the early hours of the following morning on Garuda. Garuda also offers direct flights from Bali to Manado, Palu or Makassar. Around the island, we flew Wings Air from Manado to Palu (via Luwuk), Garuda Indonesia from Palu to Makassar and on to Maluku. There aren’t any direct international flights into Palu, just yet.
- You may need to pay an entry tax of about $US35 per person when in arrive in Indonesia. The fee has been scrapped for Australia and 145 other countries. Check your exemption here. Indonesian airports generally accept cash or credit cards (with about a 3% surcharge).
- The departure tax of Rp 150,000 ($15) should now be included in the cost of your plane ticket. Confirm with your airline before you travel.
- Bring some IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) with you to Sulawesi. Most restaurants and shops are cash only, with the exception of the bigger hotels.
- Unlike Bali, ATMs are not on every corner in Sulawesi and Maluku, so plan ahead and a little carry cash with you.
- Hotels and banks are probably the safest places to change money should you need to. Indonesian banks advertise their rates daily online (you can also do a quick estimated using this tool). Always check your money at the counter before walking away.
- There are so many fun things to do in Sulawesi. However, a car is essential. I would highly recommend booking some Sulawesi tours too. It will help the local economy but we also found the local guides to be very knowledgable, friendly and they spoke great English too. A driver, car and petrol will set you back about Rp 700,000 per day (about $AUD70) in North Sulawesi. Prices can vary. Steven Menthol from Manado Tourism can help you book transfers, a car, scooter or a guided tour from Manado.
- In Central Sulawesi and South Sulawesi, Theo Mantung from Vifa Holiday can arrange transfers cars, scooters and tours firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
- For a very local experience when you visit Sulawesi, try the blue mikrolet minibuses. Each bus seats 9 and they are not air-conditioned. Most leave from the central bus station, Terminal Karombasan in the city centre.
- Public buses are also an inexpensive option for those on a tight budget.
- Motorbike taxis or Ojek are also available. Stands are identified by a sign reading, Pangkalan Ojek. A short trip will cost about Rp. 5,000 (about $AUD 0.50) and is paid on arrival. Due to safety concerns (and writing many devastating news stories on accidents), I rarely hire motorbike taxis or hire scooters while travelling.
Health and Safety in Sulawesi
- Check Smart Traveller and register your trip before you go.
- DO NOT consume the tap water in Indonesia. Always drink bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Hotels will generally provide you with bottled water each day. If you swallow the water, you will get sick. I personally err on the side of caution and only drink pre-bottled drinks in restaurants and bars too and leave the ice out.
- Sulawesi brought back memories of my early trips to Bali. There aren’t any fancy Western-style restaurants around these parts. While you will find some Western dishes on a room service menu, expect to be dining on Indonesian local dishes in a Warung for most meals. Be sensible about your food choices: only drink bottled water, choose cooked over raw dishes (vegetables over salads), beware fish and meats that may not be fresh.
- Carry a broad-spectrum antibiotic (as prescribed by a doctor) as well as products to treat a potential bout of food poisoning. I always carry Imodium, Buscopan, Mintec and Hydralyte that I grab from the pharmacy, similar products are available globally.
- Pack adaptors (power supply is 220V), mosquito repellant, a hat and sunscreen, aloe vera gel, comfortable closed-toe shoes(sneakers) and training gear for any trekking or active tours you may do.
- Travel insurance should be a non-negotiable for any trip. You can easily compare policies online. If you plan on riding on or hiring a scooter or going diving, check with your insurer that you are specifically covered for scooters and diving.
- Check with your doctor in case you need any specific vaccinations (hepatitis A, B and typhoid, tetanus and possibly rabies vaccination (if going near monkeys) are examples of some vaccinations recommended for Indonesia).
Internet and Phone
- Wifi is patchy in Sulawesi. Don’t expect to stay connected all the time and you won’t find a lot of cafes with free wifi (except Starbucks at the airport). Of course, switching off is part of the charm of these new unchartered tourist destinations.
- Prepaid SIM cards are cheap and easily available (ensure your phone is not locked on a plan like mine was). Picking one up on transit in Jakarta is probably the most convenient option. Although you can get them in Sulawesi. Be aware you may need to cut the SIM down to fit your iPhone.
Related: Snorkelling in North Sulawesi
Cultural Considerations in Sulawesi
- Sulawesi Indonesia is predominantly Muslim. As such, I would encourage you to dress more conservatively where possible. The atmosphere is very different to Bali where bikinis are often worn in the street. In Sulawesi, reserve your skimpier outfits for the hotel pool.
- You will also need to curb your enthusiasm for a cocktail. While you are able to purchase beer at some stores and occasionally something stronger at the big hotels, don’t expect to be offered alcohol at restaurants.
- Bargaining at markets is expected and encouraged.
- Learn a few phrases in Bahasa and try them out of the locals. They will love it. The important ones will be: Thank you = Terima kasih, Good morning/evening = Selamat pagi /malam
- We were hosted at a range of hotels during our visit, each considered among the best in their corresponding area; the Mercure Manado Tateli in Manado, Hotel Santika in Palu, the Ibis Makassar in Makassar city. This accommodation is best suited to the backpacker or budget traveller.
- From what we saw, the island doesn’t have the infrastructure expected of a luxury destination, just yet. I expect as the crowds discover the beauty of the islands, investment in the luxury market will follow. Watch this space.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry for Tourism for this trip to Sulawesi and Maluku. As always, the opinions, imagery and words are authentically our own.
Skye is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Fit Traveller. She is a journalist, writer, photographer, intrepid traveller and a former personal trainer with a passion for helping others reach optimal health. As a TV journalist and producer, Skye has worked for household names such as 60 Minutes, Sunrise, TODAY and Nine News. She has also written for Women’s Health, Fodor’s Travel and Yahoo7 Travel, among many others.
Skye created The Fit Traveller as a beautiful online space and community where people feel inspired to escape the desk to move and explore more.
Equally comfortable in a 5-star resort or hiking a far-off mountain, Skye loves the unexpected and enriching life experiences that each trip brings and can often be found in a backstreet chatting to locals with her camera in hand.
Skye is based in Sydney, working to master the balance between motherhood and her insatiable appetite for adventure.