East Timor’s largest town, population 150,000, is beautifully situated along a crescent beach at the base of steep hills. One end of the bay is dominated by a 27- metre/80-foot statue of Christ, the other by a centuries-old lighthouse.
It’s a busy, bustling place with a frontier-town flavour. Restored Portuguese colonial buildings, some painted in rather odd colours, unfold gracefully along the Esplanade while on the beach opposite residents meet to socialize, shop for fresh fish and graze their goats and pigs. The two main streets offer a dozen or so shops and one or two sidewalk cafés serving very respectable cappuccinos and sandwiches. Wander a little further though and you’ll find the occasional charred ruin dating from the violence in 1999, as well as the thatched dwellings and stalls more typical of the rest of the country.
Traders have been coming to Dili from China, India and
the Arab world for centuries, resulting in a wonderful cultural medley that
includes a range of very good restaurants and traditional sights such as a
lovely old Chinese cemetery and a Balinese Hindu shrine. Other
things to see include the Cultural Centre, the Xanana Reading Room,
the Tais Market (selling crafts from around the country), the Motael
Cathedral (blessed by John Paul II in 1989, and proud guardian of two
saltwater crocs) and the Santa Cruz cemetery, a key spot in Timor’s
recent history. Accommodations run the gamut from hostels to floating palaces
- literally, as one of Dili’s two luxury hotels is an anchored cruise ship.
The best local beach is Areia Branca (‘White Sands’), where the Purple
Cow bar/restaurant attracts a crowd in the evening. Just down the road, the
347 steps up to the base of the enormous statue of Christ on Cape Fatucama
are worth climbing for a sensational view of the town and the coastline. ‘Cristo
Rei’, as it’s called locally, was built by the Indonesians to proclaim their
support for the Catholic Church, but its height - 27 metres - was bitter reference
to East Timor’s status (until 1999) as Indonesia’s 27th province.
Atauro Island lies about 30km/19 miles off Dili’s shore. You are almost guaranteed to see dolphins and pilot whales at the southwest corner of the island, and the coral walls below the surface offer some of the best dives in Asia.