Adventure, Wildlife and Culture in Sulawesi, Indonesia

Sulawesi is one of the largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago, but it's often overlooked by travelers due to concerns about safety. Nomad Morgan offers her tips on exploring this misunderstood island.

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A traditional Torajan village in South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo © iStock.com/fbxx

Travel safety in Central Sulawesi

The long-standing political and social tension in Central Sulawesi has put travelers off visiting the entire island. While tensions have calmed down recently, there is still a risk of sectarian violence. It's always important to check for up-to-date travel information prior to your departure and be aware of your surroundings, as the situation can change quickly.

Safe places to visit

While Central Sulawesi might be unstable, the rest of the island is safe for travelers. In fact, as the 11th largest island in the world, there are plenty of places to explore.

Of the island's six provinces, the North, West, South and South East provinces of Sulawesi offer safe travel and stunning natural beauty.

North Sulawesi is the perfect stepping stone to discovering wildlife on land and in the sea, while West Sulawesi offers the chance to experience traditional village life.

South Sulawesi is the gateway to the famed Toraja highlands, where the predominatly Christian population still carry out traditional funeral rites, drawing thousands of tourists each year. South East Sulawesi, the most geographically remote province, will fulfill your fantasy of deserted tropical islands. 

A pristine beach on the island of Sulawesi.
Beach in Sulawesi. Photo credit: iStock.com/John Crux

Adventure activities

One of Sulawesi's biggest drawcards for many travelers is adventure. The city of Manado in North Sulawesi is the perfect base to explore the Minahasa Highlands, and to trek the active volcanoes of Mount Lokon and Mount Empung.

For some of the best diving in the world, there's the Bunaken National Park, in the coral triangle in North Sulawesi.

Located off the south-eastern leg of Sulawesi, the Wakatobi National Marine Park is challenging to get to – you may have to travel by small plane, ferry and canoe – but it's worth it for the unspoiled reefs and almost deserted islands.

A coral reef in Wakatobi National Marine Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Wakatobi National Marine Park. Photo credit: iStock.com/Velvetfish

Wildlife experiences

The Tangkoko National Park in North Sulawesi offers an authentic jungle experience. Here, you'll have the chance to spot wild tarsiers (super-cute primates) and the black-crested macaque.

Many of the wildlife experiences in Sulawesi are only possible with a guide; it's important to always choose a reputable and ethical tour company when visiting any nature sites in Sulawesi.

A wild Tarsier clings to a branch in North Sulawesi.
Wild Tarsier. Photo credit: iStock.com/marcophotos

Cultural encounters

The Bugis are one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia and traditionally occupy the southern part of Sulawesi. Tied to the sea, the Buginese are known for their ocean travels and have settled along coastlines across Indonesia.

For an insight into local life, visit some of the traditional Bugis villages, where the houses are still built on stilts over the water.

Tana Toraja culture

One of the major cultural rituals that attracts visitors to Sulawesi is the funeral rites of the Torajan people in South Sulawesi. According to custom in Toraja, the dead are kept in mummified states in the house for years, while the family raises money for the burial.

Funeral ceremonies are a big deal in Toraja, and are only held during the dry season months of June to September.

A word of warning if you're planning on visiting Toraja during funeral season, as there's a mass slaughter of buffalos to accompany the dead into the afterlife.

Backpackers visiting a Torajan village in Sulawesi.
Backpackers visiting a Torajan village. Photo credit: iStock.com/fbxx

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2 Comments

  • Nicola Jaeger said

    Nicely written and great travell recommendation! It really draws you in and makes us want to travel to Sulawesi again right now! We felt safe the whole three years we lived there (Wakatobi). Unfortunately, we have only seen the Minahasa Highlands, Lembeh and Wakatobi region.
    Sulawesi offers some of the best diving of the world.

  • David Kearns said

    You're missing what the locals know. Makassar, the largest city on Sulawesi and in the eastern half of the country, is known as a foodie town. Good to set aside a few dsys to try some local specialties like Coto Makassar, Konro, Ikan Bakar, and a dozen ways to enjoy pisang (bananas). And that's just the tip of the culinary iceberg.

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