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The Natural Beauty of Nusa Penida

24 November 2015

Nusa Penida, the 200-square-kilometre 60,000-strong island of silence is a place oft-ignored by travellers that make their way to Bali. But for those looking to blaze a trail through Bali’s unique history and rugged untapped beauty, there is perhaps nowhere better in the archipelago than the biggest of the three Nusas: welcome to Nusa Penida.

I’ve been to the small bridge that connects Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan quite a few times, though I’ve never been here in the capacity that I am now. One of the few tourists, I am here, barefoot in the hive of local activity under the bridge, about to board one of the narrow rigs that will sputter me across the strait to Nusa Penida – the largest, yet most unvisited island of Bali’s three coastal getaways. More Robinson Crusoe than Miami Beach, Nusa Penida is decidedly different than its island neighbours, and while Lembongan hustles and Ceningan bustles, Penida all but whispers – a silent island off the coast of one of the most tourist-ridden islands in the Indonesian archipelago — and it is for this reason that there is perhaps no better place in Bali to get lost.

Instead the island is hot, dry, and hilly, which all lend themselves to a landscape which is painted with an equal mix of drab browns and sandy earth tones, as much as it is coloured with vibrant and cool greens, and the stunning blues that you do see when you make it to the harsh coastlines.

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Hilly, and in many parts arid, Nusa Penida offers visitors a more natural escape than its Nusa neighbours, Lembongan and Ceningan. Perfect for visitors looking for somewhere remote and simple, Nusa Penida is a short ride from Bali’s eastern coast, and an even shorter trip from Nusa Lembongan.

To get to this undisturbed island, visitors have got two options, and while I decide to charter a boat from the foot of the bridge that connects Lembongan to Ceningan (approximately IDR 150,000), visitors might also want to head to Penida straight from Bali, which can be done from either Padang Bai or Sanur. The prices at each of these two places differ, but not wildly, and you are safe in assuming a public ferry or smaller jukung (traditional Indonesian outrig boat), usually caught in Padang Bai, will run cheaper (IDR 20,000 – 50,000) than the speedboat services offered in both spots (IDR 200,000 – 400,000). The ride will take around 90 minutes depending on the boat you take from mainland Bali, but is reduced greatly down to 15 minutes if the trip is made from neighbouring Nusa Lembongan. And so, with bag in tow, I hop on the rickety boat and cut slowly across the shallow, seaweed farm-inhabited turquoise to the silent island.

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Crystal Bay is one of the most popular destinations for tourists on the island, but even still, rarely has more than a handful of guests at any given time. Several boats float off the coast for those who choose to spend their time snorkeling and diving, and a few basic warungs (side-street cafes) are in place for those looking for a simple meal or drink overlooking the white and sandy cove.

As we pull up over the glass-like water and coral below to Toyopakeh, which is the main landing spot for travellers coming from either of the other Nusas, I am immediately greeted by two heavily sunned men in ragged t-shirts and knock off Ray Bans holding keys out for me. “Motorbike mister? Good price mister.” I’m expecting, due to the low tourists numbers, to empty my pockets for a motorbike, but am pleasantly surprised when they say it’s only IDR 75,000 per day. And so, I hop onto my newly acquired bike, ask the men to point me in the right direction, and I’m off. I bumble over the polisi tidur (literally translates to sleeping policemen, or speed bumps), as they are affectionately called in Indonesia, and find myself in the centre of Toyopakeh. A two lane – though it doesn’t appear much bigger than one – road runs through this sleepy town of low-rise shops selling crisps, drinks and motorbike parts, and once you have a look around you realize you were out of town as quick as you got in. There are several small warungs (small Indonesian restaurants) that run along the beach, but aside from those, you will be hard-pressed to find much in the way of tourist accommodations. More than anything, I find that Toyopakeh is simply a landing point, and doesn’t serve visitors in much of any regard, other than renting a bike and perhaps grabbing a cheap bite when on the road. And so, in and out quicker than I can blink, Toyopakeh is behind me as I make my way towards Crystal Bay.

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A view across Crystal Bay. Amenities here are simple, and the closest accommodation is a steep 15- to 20-minute-drive away.

The first thing I notice once I am out of civilisation – if you can call it that – is the natural authenticity and ruggedness of Nusa Penida. Immediately greeted with bush, palms, winding roads and solitary temples, there is no abundance of large resorts, fancy housing complexes, or anything resembling your typical Balinese island. Nusa Penida is certainly well off of the tourist path, and I am becoming completely absorbed in that almost immediately. Roads here are lined with small Indonesian houses, and the smiling faces of those who live there and wave as you zip by into the thick of the quiet island. The scenery of Penida is unlike both Lembongan and Ceningan, and because the island is so much larger, you can easily go kilometres without seeing water. Instead the island is hot, dry, and hilly, which all lend themselves to a landscape which is painted with an equal mix of drab browns and sandy earth tones, as much as it is coloured with vibrant and cool greens, and the stunning blues that you do see when you make it to the harsh coastlines. After about 30 minutes focused as much off the road as I was on it, I find my accommodation in Sakti (Sakti and Sampalan have the most accommodation on the island), only the second I have seen on my drive, and check in. After unloading, I start to chat with the owner to get a lay of the land, “Crystal Bay, Pasih Uug, Pura Ped and Goa Giri Putri,” he says almost immediately with a smile plastered across his face. “You were going to ask about what places you should see, yes? Well that’s what they are, now let me show you how to get them and tell you how long it will take.” With tourism still in its infancy, you can guess that most people that sojourn to this rugged escape don’t know much about it, hence my friend’s enthusiasm in directing me here and there across this vast hideaway. And so after a welcome drink, accommodating myself with the map, and catching the time, I decide that my first day will be spent at nearby Crystal Bay in preparation for the long drives that will take place tomorrow – and when I get there, I am nothing but happy I made that decision.

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The main strip at Toyopakeh is simple and sells basic necessities, but not much more. The main landing spot for boats coming from Nusa Lembongan, you will find little here but a few small restaurants.

The drive to Crystal Bay, which lies roughly 15-minute-drive away from the Namaste Bungalows in Sakti, is a steep one, but for its difficulty, it rewards with beautiful palm groves and a small white-sand cove that offers little in the way of company. I park my bike and head to the beach where I find several locals washing their clothes in a creek not far back from the ocean, but realise that aside from them, the bay and the beach are mine. There are several diving and snorkelling boats moored in the bay, but no more than a handful, and none of which are host to big crowds which keeps the volume at the preferable peaceful level. The water itself is refreshing, and with the sun beating down overhead, I couldn’t have asked for better. Perhaps not the best swimming beach, there are pockets in which one can swim, but better to come equipped with a mask and fins and swim over the coral that teems with life below. Additionally, roughly 50 metres off the coast is a small island that juts abruptly from the shallow bay and towers with a small temple that sits atop. Strong swimmers may be able to make the swim, but it’s advised to hire a boat from Crystal Bay for a quick trip over. And so, after my fun in the sun at the quiet and still-preserved Crystal Bay, I decide to head back and get some rest before my next day up, down, and across the island.

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The Quicksilver Billabong at Pasih Uug is a small swimming hole that sits elevated on the sea cliffs overlooking the ocean. Navigating the road to the billabong can be difficult, so be sure to either hire a guide (can be done through your accommodation), or practice your Indonesian direction-asking skills.

When morning hits, I set my route: I’ll swing through Toyopakeh en route to Pura Ped, from where I will navigate to Goa Giri Putri, and finally, I’ll end my day with a long and bumpy trip to Pasih Uug. There are a number of other attractions on the island, such as a Bali starling conservation and volunteer centre, and several waterfalls, but  these three stops are perhaps the most alluring for visitors looking to make the most of their time in Nusa Penida. My first stop is Pura Ped, about 15 minutes from Toyopakeh, and about 45 minutes from Sakti. Pura Ped is rumoured to have once been a temple for the dark arts, but over the years, a more holy aura has blessed the temple. With a number of food options just across the road, and with central location between the two biggest towns on the island of Toyopakeh and Sampalan, this temple gets quite busy throughout the week with locals partaking in any of the many Balinese festivals, so be prepared for a decent amount of foot traffic. Another thing of note with Pura Ped is the dress code, stricter than most other temples, Pura Ped requires male visitors to wear an udeng (head wrap) and a proper sarong, and for females, a proper sarong and an appropriate top that covers the shoulders is also required. The temple itself is widespread and low, and the communal gathering area seems to be the busiest of places. Not a place anyone will spend hours in, Pura Ped is a great place to take in the iconic Balinese architecture without trekking too far into the wilderness – if you don’t already consider Penida that.

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A small shrine inside of Goa Giri Putri is one of a few different places of worship that illuminates the subterranean temple complex.

Further down the road (roughly a one-hour drive), you will come to Goa Giri Putri on the right-hand side of the road. Very subtly marked, I had to keep my eyes open to find this one, and nearly missed it, as the temple itself doesn’t stand roadside, but in a cave up to which you must traverse a good handful of steep stone steps. The temple entrance fee is by donation, and sarongs can be rented, but again, it is wise to bring your own. The curators of this temple are all very friendly, and will offer you water and help entering, so don’t feel as though you will be harangued or harassed like at some of the other, larger temples on Bali proper. To enter Goa Giri Putri, you must squeeze yourself through a roughly one-metre-wide stone hole, but what comes next is pleasantly shocking. The hole, which is used because it forces you to go to your knees before entering a sanctuary to the gods, opens up into a massive subterranean cavern which the locals have turned into a temple complex. Dimly lit, well maintained, and bigger than you’re thinking, this temple complex is serene and beautiful, and perhaps one of the most unique you will find not just in Bali, but in Indonesia as a whole. Like many of the other temples across Indonesia, however, it is still fully functional, so do respect those who may be in the midst of giving offerings or praying.

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Sunset in Sakti over the palms. Due to the lack of tourists on the island, sunsets here can be enjoyed in total serenity.

And ticking the two most popular temples off my list, it’s time to dig into what I have been looking forward to the most – Pasih Uug. To get there however, means I have to cross the thick interior of Nusa Penida, which is an experience in and of itself. Wrought with hills, pothole-laden roads and confused locals, the interior of Penida offers visitors a look at what very untouched Indonesian society looks like. I have a handle on the Indonesian language to the point where most conversations are easy enough, but here, even Indonesian isn’t spoken all that much by the older folks – it truly is the silent island. But what makes up for difficulties in communication are the smiles, stoic stares and pristine interior landscapes that are hard to find elsewhere in Bali or on the islands Nusa neighbours. The experience, though, comes to an end as I approach what turns into a fiasco of a drive down to Nusa Penida’s Pasih Uug. Pasih Uug isn’t far from Sakti, though to get there takes some navigating, as signs aren’t exactly the most prominent thing on the island. There is no way to describe just exactly how to get to Pasih Uug, other than to instruct you to search out the worst roads on the island, get lost a few times, and then you’ll magically end up there – at least this is how I’m going about it – but for a general idea, make your way to Bunga Mekar, from where you will find sparse signs now and again for Pasih Uug. My recommendation is take your bike, but if you are an inexperienced driver, or have a sensitive ass, don’t make the drive, because it isn’t comfortable. Long dirt roads stretch and wind through dusty bush country, and there aren’t any petrol stations or tire repair shops for kilometres, so do be wary about what you bring with you on your trip. But it’s all worth it in the end, at least as I arrive I think as much. Pasih Uug, or any point really on Nusa Penida’s untrammelled south coast is phenomenal. Massive cliff faces drop straight into the water that plays with so many shades of blue that you think this place has colours that are yet to be discovered. Limestone karsts and islets act as victims to the oceans battering waves which smash and explode into this centuries-old formations, and for the lucky observers, turtles and manta rays can be swim floating in the clear blue below, over the easily visible coral-ly depths. The views here are incredible, and they are such that I have trouble putting them into words – and there are very few places that I have been that are like that.

Much of Nusa Penida’s coastline is as rugged as the island interior. Ranging from limestone karsts, craggy cliff faces, dusty palm beaches and stretches of seaweed farms, Penida offers visitors a chance to get in touch with Bali’s lesser developed side.

Nusa Penida is something special. This island that was once a detention centre and destination for outcasts and exiles of the Gelgel dynasty in the early 18th century has turned its fortune from an unlucky one to an unspoiled one. This ruggedness, this natural aura, this off-the-map feel that you are submerged into once you land on this desolate piece of old Bali will take hold of you. And if you’re like me, it will leave you without adequate words.

(Featured image: The battered sea cliffs along Pasih Uug and Nusa Penida’s south-western and southern coasts are large draws for the few tourists that do make a trip to the quiet island. With beautiful colours, and chances at spotting mantas and turtles off the coast, Pasih Uug is perhaps one of, if not the, most beautiful spot on the island.)

More about Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan can be found here.

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The Natural Beauty of Nusa Penida
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Nusa Penida, the 200-square-kilometre 60,000-strong island of silence is a place oft-ignored by travellers that make their way to Bali. But for those looking to blaze a trail through Bali’s unique history and rugged untapped beauty, there is perhaps nowhere better in the archipelago than the biggest of the three Nusas: welcome to Nusa Penida.
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