ERMERA AND LETEFOHO
Southwest of Dili is East Timor’s prime coffee-growing area, where the country’s principal export - to the tune of 10,000 tons of beans each year, mostly high grade organic arabica (ask for it at your local Starbucks, blended under the Verona label). Timorese are great coffee drinkers (black, very strong) and during the harvest (June-August) you’ll have to veer around patches of drying beans on the roads. The Portuguese set up the original coffee plantations and, as their lovely but deteriorating buildings at Ermera suggest, profited nicely from it. Ermera’s most famous son was Resistance hero Nino Conis Santana. His house, with its concealed meeting rooms and escape tunnels, is open to the public.
It’s a very nice walk from Ermera to Mirtutu through
coffee plantations and forests of fruit trees (mangostines, pineapples, plums).
Along the way, Petilete is a tiny village with gorgeous views down the coast
and a sacred site where monthly ‘Meeting the Sun’ rituals take place at sunrise
amid much singing and drumming.
Set in the foothills of Mount Ramelau, Letefoho, which means ‘Mountain Top’, is one of the most interesting towns in the area - and at 4800 feet/1480m above sea level the highest in East Timor. Largely rebuilt post-1999, it offers a mix of uninspired modern structures with traditional thatch housing (mainly Mambai style) and some nice but somewhat decayed Portuguese buildings. The town is dominated by a brand new church with a steeple shaped like a pair of praying hands. Massive though it is, it overflows on Sundays with a congregation estimated at over 2000 people. In the typically Timorese way, the very same congregations hedges its hopes in ancestor/spirit worship: sacred sites in Letefoho include trees, springs and totems, which are particularly busy at coffee harvest time and at the onset of the rainy season in October.