Have a tropical island to yourself in Togean Islands, Sulawesi

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

You must have seen those ubiquitous island vacation brochures and digital ads: long pristine beach, turquoise water, sunshine, and a frame of bright tropical greenery. Photoshopped, perhaps oversaturated as they are, the original landscape had to be photographed somewhere real. Well, the Togean Islands are one of those places. The rest of the cliches follow: the ocean is transparent and full of multi-colored marine life, the sky is blue by day and starry at night, and the seclusion is near-total. Getting away from it all is not an option here, it is a given, as most of the little islands have no cellular coverage. They are also very sparsely populated - some shelter a fishing village or two, but many are uninhabited. Except, that is, for a few bungalows and a canteen. Package tourists have never heard of this little archipelago (or, in most cases, of Sulawesi in general); backpackers arrive in a thin but steady trickle, yet there is still a chance you may get a tiny island entirely to yourself.

© Mark Levitin

What to do in the Togeans

If you are into snorkeling, the answer is obvious. There are very few locations in the world where you could see so much aquatic fauna without going deep. Diving, on the other hand, would be difficult and expensive to arrange, as there are no operators in the little archipelago. You could hike in the jungle, although trails are scarce. Terrestrial wildlife is limited too, but there are tarsiers. Island-hopping is definitely a good idea. One unique destination in the Togeans is Mariona Lake, full of stingless jellyfish. Una-Una Island is volcanic (the rest are all sedimentary), go there for black sand, assuming you have not had enough of it elsewhere in Indonesia. Bugis and especially Bajau (sea gypsy) settlements would inspire an amateur ethnographer. But mainly it is the beach, transparent ocean, clear sky, surrounding greenery, and nothing much to do. Bring a few books, and/or a partner - it is a perfect setting for a honeymoon.

© Mark Levitin


Getting there is relatively straightforward: travel to Ampana or Gorontalo in Sulawesi, then hop on a ferry to the Togeans from there. As backpackers nowadays make a small, yet visible fraction of the passengers, in both ports there are a few conmen trying to lure foreign tourists onto expensive private speedboats or sell them tours. Ignore the scoundrels. There is also a national park entrance fee of 150000 IDR (~11$), and no apparent way to avoid coughing it up. It is up to you where to get off in the archipelago. Either way, you will probably need an additional boat ride to reach one of the resorts. Most likely, one or more bungalow owners will approach you on the ferry, or as soon as you disembark. To get a free ride, you have to agree on a night or two in their resort blindly, so checking recent online reviews beforehand is a good idea.

© Mark Levitin

Other practicalities

The pristine state of the Togean Islands makes them a perfect spot for a tropical beach vacation, but it also means infrastructure is highly limited. Expect a semi-robinsonade. There is a good chance you will get a small uninhabited island all to yourself, just like Crusoe. Unlike him, however, you can have a roof over your head, food that you will not need to kill first, and, importantly, coffee. What you should not expect is modern amenities: in many places, bathrooms are essentially shacks with water pipes attached, electricity runs from a generator from 18:00 till midnight, and no connection with the rest of the world is available. Snorkeling gear can be borrowed in all resorts, usually free of charge. Avoid visiting during the rainy season in Sulawesi (Dec-Apr), when lack of sunshine may spoil your sun-tanning plans, and more importantly, frequent storms might leave you stranded on your island much longer than you expected.

© Mark Levitin

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