Sulawesi: Our 3-Week Itinerary

We spent 3 weeks in Northern Sulawesi, a still-preserved gem away from mass tourism that captivates with its nature, biodiversity, unique culture, and hospitality. We embarked on a loop from the turtle-filled island of Bunaken to the paradisiacal Togian Islands, passing through the mountainous town of Tomohon, the underwater landscapes of Tumbak, and the Tangkoko Nature Reserve. This journey was incredible in every way!

Sulawesi is undoubtedly a destination for the most adventurous, taking us off the beaten path and providing a beautiful experience. In this article, you’ll find our complete 3-week itinerary in Northern Sulawesi, practical information for moving from one place to another, and what to do at each step. Have a nice trip!

 

Summary of the blog post

Our itinerary
Infos
→ When to go ?
→ How many days ?
How much?
→ Which insurance ?

Our itinerary in the north of Sulawesi:

North: 3 weeks ⤵

Bunaken: 4 days
Togian: 6 days
Tomohon: 3 days
Tumbak: 2 days
Tangkoko: 1 day
Manado: 1 day

 

I. Our 3-Week Itinerary in Sulawesi: Step by Step 

Here is our step-by-step itinerary for our 3 weeks in Northern Sulawesi. I’m presenting the itinerary in the order we followed because it aligned with the ferry availability to reach the Togian Islands, which operates only three times a week. You can organize your itinerary differently based on the number of days you have and the flow of your journey.

Bunaken Island: 4 days with our heads underwater

Bunaken itinéraire Sulawesi

 
 

Our very first stop on the journey was the small island of Bunaken. Located off the coast of Manado, Bunaken had caught our attention for its renowned underwater landscapes, considered among the most beautiful in the world. I can tell you right away that we were not disappointed!
We spent 4 days exploring the Bunaken National Park, diving and snorkeling to observe the underwater cliffs, plunging over 100 meters deep (the reefs), thousands of fish, dozens (or hundreds?) of turtles, and even blacktip sharks… It was incredible! Our days were filled with marine excursions, but I also enjoyed strolling around the island, interacting with the locals, and savoring Bunaken’s unique atmosphere.
It’s important to note that Bunaken isn’t a typical paradise beach destination, so it took me about 24 hours to truly appreciate the island’s unique atmosphere, especially thanks to the wonderful encounters that led to evenings around a beach bonfire with a guitar in hand. In short, the first step was a success, and we’re more motivated than ever for the rest of this journey.

 

How to reach Bunaken ?

To reach Bunaken from Manado:

  • Public Ferry Daily (except Sundays!) – Ask for Luca
  • Departure at 2:30 PM (please check on-site as schedules may vary)
  • Daily return at 9:00 AM Price: 50,000 IDR per person (€3.40)
  • Option to charter a private boat or arrange through the hotel (~350,000-500,000 IDR)
What to do on Bunaken island ?

The main activity is diving, and most travelers who visit Bunaken come here to explore beneath the surface. However, snorkeling is also an option, along with enjoying sunsets and local life.

Info: Where to sleep? Where to dive ?

To sleep

Accommodation is mainly in the south of the island, with options in the village (west coast) or in resorts on the east coast.

Blue Sharks Divers
(See on Booking)

We stayed (and dived) at Blue Shark Divers, a full-board homestay (with absolutely delicious meals).
An authentic experience in the middle of Bunaken’s local life. The only snag, I have to admit, is that the Homestay is located right next to the Bunaken Church, which woke us up every day around 4.30am for prayers recited over the microphone… Earplugs couldn’t help…

Other recommended options

Sunset Guesthouse & Bar
(See on Booking)

Novita Homestay
(See on Booking)

 

To dive

Blue Shark Divers
The Blue Shark dive centre was top notch! However, I’d like to warn you that safety standards depend on the instructor and I wouldn’t advise diving in Bunaken for the first time, as there can be a lot of current!

4 Sisters Divers
There are also diving centres in some of the island’s resorts: one thing’s for sure, there’s no chance of missing out!

 

 

The Togian Islands: 5 days on the paradise islands of Sulawesi

Togian iles itinéraire Sulawesi

After these initial immersive days in Sulawesi, we set off for another dreamy destination: the Togian Islands! Located in the Gulf of Tomini, they are often dubbed “the paradise islands of Sulawesi.” These islets, mostly disconnected from the world, boast beautiful white sandy beaches, rich and diverse underwater landscapes, and, above all, a peaceful and unique atmosphere that adds to their charm. Getting to the Togians is an effort (a day and a night of transportation, including taxi and ferry), but once we step off the boat upon reaching our first accommodation, we’ve already forgotten all about it!
We split our time between two islands: Batudaka Island (next to Bomba) and Malenge Island (a favorite for us). In our 5 days, the agenda included plenty of relaxation, reading, walks along the beaches during low tide, swimming, snorkeling, visiting Bajau villages, and moments of exchange with fellow travelers from around the world (mostly from Europe).
In the Togians, disconnection is total: no network, no internet, and only a few hours of electricity per day to recharge our phones. A perfect destination to start or conclude a journey!

How to reach the Togian islands?

There are 2 options for reaching the Togian Islands: from the north and from the south of Sulawesi.
In both cases, the Togian Islands can only be reached by boat, disembarking at the archipelago’s only port: the port of Wakai (see on Maps).

  • From the north: Take the ferry from the port of Gorontalo (between 2.30pm and 5.30pm on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays).
  • From the south: Take the ferry from the port of Ampana (Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; fare: 50,000k €3.50).

Reaching this paradise on earth was no mean feat; it took us over 36 hours to get there, and to leave we had to wait over 5 hours for the ferry (which had initially been cancelled) to return to Gorontalo.

During our journey, we came across other travellers who had problems with the ferry. It’s always good to know so that you don’t have to plan a flight the next day, for example… Be flexible 🙂

What to do on the Togian islands ?

You can take advantage of the Togians to do nothing, but you can also have very busy days:

  • Lazing on the beach
  • Snorkelling
  • Diving
  • Visiting Bajaus villages, a maritime ethnic group with a lifestyle linked to the sea. The Bajaus villages, built on stilts above the water, gave us a better understanding of their culture and their way of life based on fishing and sailing.
  • Jellyfish Lake: We also had the opportunity to visit Jellyfish Lake, a lake filled with harmless jellyfish, a unique experience despite a few initial jolts.

 

Info: Where to sleep ? How to move ?

To sleep

Small bungalows, often with limited comfort and full board
It’s best to book in advance because there aren’t too many options.

To move around
It’s by boat, and often a small private boat.
It’s best to get help from your accommodation
Prices range from IDR 150k to IDR 2-3 million in some cases

 

Tomohon: 3 days at the foot of the Lokon volcano


Tomohon Sulawesi

 

We arrive in the town of Tomohon after a very long journey back from the Togian Islands. What a joy to arrive in this town that looks more like a small village at the foot of Mount Lokon. Tomohon is a volcanic region located 25 kilometers south of Manado. It doesn’t take us long to appreciate the atmosphere of Tomohon and especially the incredible view of the smoking volcano in front of us (it is actually closed to visitors due to the risk of eruption).
Tomohon has a unique style and surprised us upon arrival with the smiling faces of its residents, distinctive food, and the number of churches present on every street. We set out to explore the surroundings of Tomohon on a two-wheeler.
In our 2 days, the agenda included hiking, visiting waterfalls, circling the crater of Mount Mahawu, scooter rides, Lake Tondano, markets, street food (discovering Bakso, a Japanese-origin dish that we will encounter in Java as well), sunset over the volcano… And plenty of “hello miss” and “hello mister” and cuddle moments with kittens. In short, we really like it here!

How to reach Tomohon ?

From Manado :

  • In taxi – Grab: 
  • By scooter (rental)

From the Togian islands or the South:

  • Tomohon can be reached from Gorontalo (and vice versa) by private car. Prices range from IDR 800k to IDR 1.5m per car.

 

What to do in Tomohon ?

I’ll be completing this part very soon!

  • Hiking and waterfalls
  • Tomohon market
Info: Where to sleep ?

Rimba Eco Resort
(See on Booking)
We stayed at the Rimba Eco Resort for 2 nights (but initially planned for 3 nights – change due to a compulsory visit to the immigration office in Manado to renew our visa).
These are small bungalows in the middle of nature, powered, like the rest of the town, by geothermal energy (the heat from the volcano transformed into energy, it’s great!).
We had a great time here!

Tumbak: 2 days in the heart of a mangrove

 

Our journey continues a bit further south, towards the village of Tumbak, where we set out to sleep in the heart of a mangrove. It was a surprise destination as Romain had discovered the address by gathering information on the Facebook group “Sulawesi francophones,” and we had found little information before setting off. The mangrove is located in the middle of the Molucca Sea, 15 minutes by boat from the village of Tumbak. For 2 days, we were once again cut off from the world, even though we could see the coast from our bungalow.
We had a unique and unusual experience, with very basic comforts – just like the locals. The main attraction here is snorkeling to observe the magnificent corals and thousands of fish. We were fortunate to see clownfish, blacktip sharks, and a crocodile fish.
This rustic experience, though simple, allowed us to have an alternative and different moment during our journey. Adventure was the keyword, and it was an experience we will remember for a long time.

Info

I explained everything on my blog post “On a dormi 2 nuits au coeur d’une mangrove” only available in French at the moment… Sorry 🙂

dormir sur une mangrove Tumbak Sulawesi

Tangkoko:1 day in the nature reserve to observe tarsiers and macaques

Tangkoko_Sulawesi_

 

Tangkoko_Sulawesi

Tangkoko is already our last stop… We initially planned to stay for two days, but fatigue and the desire for a real (hot) shower got the better of us. So, we only spent one night in Tangkoko, which turned out to be sufficient for what we wanted: a guided tour in the natural reserve spanning over 8,000 hectares to discover the numerous wildlife it houses.
The morning after our arrival, we wake up at 5:00 AM to begin the forest tour as the sun gently rises. We stroll until 9:30 AM and encounter several species: the Sulawesi bear (a marsupial called Bear Cuscus in English), black macaques (with their cute pink buttocks), the Minahassa Masked Owl (an owl), a Green-backed Kingfisher (a beautifully colored bird), but the highlight is him: the Knobbed Hornbill (a type of toucan) that we waited for an hour, eyes fixed on the hole in its tree. After all these beautiful encounters, we are ready to return, have breakfast, and slowly make our way back to Manado…

How to reach Tangkoko ?

🚙 Tangkoko is 1 hours from Manado.
The taxi fare is IDR 400k, but you can also come by scooter (for hire in Manado).

Info: Which guide ? Where to sleep ?

💰 Entrance to the park costs IDR 100k (weekdays) and IDR 150k (weekends).

🕵🏽‍♂️ To be visited with a guide who knows the area
(Price ~200k IDR per person)

🐾 Macaques, tarsiers and many species of birds can be seen, as well as couscous, snakes, owls and many insects.

🌿 There are daytime and evening tours (I only did a morning tour from 5.30am to 9am and it was great).

To sleep

Tangkoko Ranger Homestay
(See on Booking)

My opinion on Tangkoko

The reality behind these photos is that after spotting the tarsiers and the cobra, we arrived in an area where there were several guides and travellers… far from being Indiana Jones lost in nature… there were a few too many of us around the monkeys (Romain would even say that there were almost more humans than monkeys).

Overall, I really enjoyed this morning, but it’s true that the nature reserve looks more like a giant zoo than a natural area where animals can live in freedom…

 

Manado: 2 nights to recharge the batteries

We ultimately spent our last 2 nights in Manado before departing for another Indonesian island. We needed to settle in a hotel with Western standards after all these extraordinary but sometimes challenging experiences. By Western standards, I mean a hot shower and a bed with a blanket. We made this choice because we were on a long journey and needed some moments of respite in between the adventure and discovery.
Let’s not sugarcoat it; it’s a bit of a shock to arrive in the city after 3 weeks of being disconnected from consumer society… In Manado, there are shopping malls, fast food, fast fashion, and plenty of plastic!
Being in the city, I take the opportunity to get a pedicure (less than €5 for the pedicure and semi-permanent polish) and a traditional massage that feels good on the back after all those hours of car travel.

Info: Where to sleep ?

S Loft Manado
(See on Booking)

What to do in Manado ?

I’ll come back soon

 

Conclusion: What if we could do it all again?

As we left Sulawesi, we took stock: our pace was “reasonable”, but we sometimes had the impression that we were flying over certain stages (the Togians, for example). Sulawesi is a very large island (the 4th largest in Indonesia) and the journey times are not to be underestimated. The most time-consuming is the Manado-Gorontalo-Wakai (Togian) trip, which we made twice. On this trip, we realised that the Gorontalo region offers some superb scenery, which we would have loved to have been able to stop at if you’d known…

My only regret is that we didn’t have the time to go all the way to Toraja country (so that’ll be for another trip), but you have to make choices if you want to enjoy and soak up each place you visit.

 

Practical information for travelling and organising your itinerary in Sulawesi

When to go to Sulawesi ?

  • Sulawesi lies on the equator and therefore enjoys an equatorial climate: so it’s hot and humid all year round. It rains often, which makes it a lush green island, but there is a dry season between May and September (when it rains less) and a rainy season from October to April.

How many days do I need to visit Sulawesi?

  • Unfortunately, we only chose to visit the north of the island due to time constraints. We would have needed at least another week to reach the south and discover Toraja country, so that’s for another time (I’ll share more details in the practical info section below).
  • It seems to me that 3 weeks is the minimum duration for a loop in North Sulawesi. If you also want to visit the south with the Toraja country, the recommended time is 4 weeks unless you take internal flights without passing through the Togian islands, for example. For a 2-week trip, you can opt for the south or the north (without passing through the Togian Islands). If you have any questions about your itinerary, don’t hesitate to leave me a message in the comments section ☺️
    The distances are long and journeys can take a very long time in Sulawesi… If you have Bali in mind, imagine that Sulawesi is 32 times bigger than Bali.

Sulawesi:  a destination off the beaten track?

  • The island of Sulawesi is not very touristy – especially outside Indonesia. Is it a destination off the beaten track?
    Yes and no. Yes, because the tourist infrastructure is not really developed, or at least much less so than in Java or Bali. No, because in the end all travellers follow more or less the same itinerary. That said, travelling in Sulawesi means travelling outside your comfort zone and coming up against Indonesian standards most of the time.

How much does a trip to Sulawesi cost?

  • Our total on-site budget is €1,200 for 2 people for 21 days (not including the Bunaken dives), i.e. a budget of €28.5/day per person (excluding air tickets).


What insurance do I need for my trip?

  • Before you leave on your trip, don’t forget to take out health and cancellation insurance, which covers you even when you’re travelling outside Europe. I always go through Chapka Assurance for their tailor-made CAP Assistance 24h/24 insurance, which I recommend. It also includes remote consultations with a doctor, which is very useful when you don’t speak the language 🙂
  • If you book CAP Assistance Chapka insurance directly via this link, you can benefit from a 5% discount on the total amount of your quote thanks to Reporter on the Road. Make the most of it!

 

Friendly advice for a trip to Sulawesi

After more than 3 weeks exploring North Sulawesi, Indonesia, I can say that this island has been a real “coup de coeur”, but here are a few more tips ♥️

  • The distances aren’t necessarily long in terms of kilometres, but they are in terms of journey time. It takes about 3 hours to cover 100 kilometres. The roads are not always in good condition and you have to be patient when driving behind lorries because there is only one lane.
  • In Sulawesi, as in the rest of Indonesia, you drive on the left.
  • The water is not drinkable, but you can refill your water bottle at any accommodation or take a filtered water bottle to avoid buying plastic bottles.
  • It’s best to travel with a pair of earplugs because you never sleep too far from a mosque or church, so you can hear the prayers as early as 4 a.m.
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