The Baliem Valley
For the few tourists who come to West Papua the Baliem Valley is probably the most visited place. It’s lush, green, mountainous scenery, exotic culture, easy access and (admittedly poor quality) road network make it an easy and rewarding place to travel around. A few older Dani people, still cannibals until forty or fity years ago, wear their traditional penis gourds (kotekas) and women’s grass skirts and almost all live in traditional circular thatch huts.
Flights come from West Papua‘s main airport at Sentani to Wamena, the main town in the Baliem Valley, several times every day and can be bought immediately upon arrival at Sentani or Wamena. They cost about US$100 one way and do not usually need to be booked in advance, although leave a day or two spare on either side around holiday times just in case. As soon as you’ve checked into a hotel in Wamena you should register your surat jalan (easily obtained travel permit – see this website’s main West Papua page) with the police.
Wamena is the biggest town in the interior of West Papua. However, it has a population of only 10,000 and very few cars drive its streets which are instead thronged with pedal rickshaws. From Wamena you can take public transport west of the Baliem Valley into Lani country, trek east to the Yalimo and Mek country or do a 1-month trek to the Korowai treehouse tribe in the South of West Papua. There are also irregular Missionary Aviation Foundation flights from Wamena to small grass airstrips at ex-missionary outposts in otherwise isolated areas across West Papua (see below for details). It is not true, however, that the further from Wamena you trek the more traditional things become. The most traditional dress in the Highlands is seen in the Yalimo, second most in the Baliem Valley itself. Further east near the Papua New Guinea border in the Star Mountains there are also some very traditional people but access would require a plane or about 6 weeks’ trekking from Wamena!
In general exploring the Baliem Valley does not even need a guide. Most villages are linked to the road network and have public transport running to them from Wamena. Even trekking east from Wamena towards Kiroma (the last village of the Dani people before Yali territory) there are so many villages, the path is so clearly marked and you pass so many locals walking it that you could go most of the way without a guide, say up until Yogosem.
As for choosing a guide – you will most likely be accosted by many English-speaking ones as soon as you get off the plane in Wamena. Try to ignore them and get to your hotel. Then choose a guide recommended by your hotel, as many of them are real crooks. Don’t fall for scams such as paying them all the money up front or paying extra to go to “places where nobody has ever been before”. Insist that you pay them their daily fee, that you don’t hire separate porters and cooks (your guide should be able to cook and carry your bag) and that you yourself will pay for accommodation in villages and buy food along the way such as rice, noodles, potatoes, fruit and veg which is all available in most villages. Paying 100,000 rupiah per night for accommodation during your trek, 100,000 per day for basic food dor you and your guide and paying him 300,000 should cover everything.
You can bypass the hassle of dealing with dishonest Wamena English-speaking guides if you speak Indonesian. In that case just take public transport out to Kurima, register your surat jalan at the police station and the police will be happy to find you one local to be your porter, guide and cook for 150,000 rupiah a day. He will also introduce you to people he knows during his trek and you will most likely stay with his friends and relatives along the way. If you are trekking very far from Kurima such as across Yali country or Mek country it may be better to pick up a new guide along the way who knows the route better. Or you may want to keep your old guide if you have developed a good relationship with him.
If you don’t already speak Indonesian – try learning a bit! Although the language is more complicated than some people seem to thibnk, it is true that it is one of the easiest languages in the world to get to a basic conversational level at, particularly a level sufficient for travel in West Papua where most locals themselves speak pretty broken Indonesian. Anyway, the language has no tones, tenses, conjugations, declensions, masculine / femenine, singular / plural, etc so you can get to a basic conversational level simply by memorising words and without having to concentrate on grammar. Teach Yourself Indonesian, though flawed in some ways and too over-simplified for anyone aiming for a really in depth understanding of the language, is an excellent way to quickly and easily bring yourself to a level of conversational Indonesian sufficient for travel in West Papua without an English-speaking guide. The book also has CDs so you can practice your pronunciation and listening skills.
If staying in Dani villages expect to pay up to 100,000 for a night in a honai (traditional thatch hut). One village particularly recommended is Sumpaima, 45 minutes by public transport from Wamena, where they have an ancient mummified Dani chief that can be brought out of its hut on demand.
The most recommended trek from the Baliem Valley is east into Yali country where the scenery is yet more spectacular and the traditional culture better preserved than anywhere else in the Highlands. While a road runs 14 hours west to Tiom deep within Lani country, the only road heading east towards Yali country peters out after 45 minutes at the village of Kurima, accessible by regular public transport from Wamena. Register your surat jalan (travel permit – see main West Papua page) on arrival, stay the night in a local hut or at the police station if you need to then start your trek by crossing the hanging bridge across the river and following the path. If you are young, healthy and willing to walk fast for 16-hour days without rest you can make it to Angguruk in the Yalimo within 2 days. Most travelers take it more slowly, however, and do it in 4 – 6 days. The last village of the Dani people, Kiroma, is a 12-hour walk from Kurima and there are two different possible routes onwards into Yali country from here.
If you don’t want to trek both ways (for example Wamena – Angguruk – Wamena or Wamena – Mek country – Wamena) then you should talk to the Missionary Aviation Foundation (MAF) in Wamena. They run flights to the small grass airstrips at ex-missionary outposts that you will pass once every few days during your trek across the Highlands. Examples of these airstrips are at Ninia, Angguruk and Kosarek in Yali country, Korupun in Kim-Yal country to the south, Nipsan, Eipomek and Nalca in Mek country and Langda in Una country even further east. It’s possible to charter their planes so you can trek out one way then fly back to Wamena, or vice versa. You can also try just getting a seat on the unscheduled and infrequent flights they run out to these airstrips. This is more likely to succeed on the way back to Wamena but you may end up waiting for some time (I waited six days for the next plane and even then was lucky to get a seat).
Be sure to bring warm clothing and a sleeping bag for any trekking – the elevations can be pretty high and it can get very cold at night.
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