Located on the western tip of Flores, Indonesia, the dusty town of Labuan Bajo is the jump-off point for access to the world's grumpiest lizard: the Komodo dragon. Labuan Bajo - often spelled Labuanbajo - is a rough-around-the-edges welcome for most visitors to Flores.
While not completely void of a dirty, beaten charm, the real draw to Labuan Bajo is the promise of Indonesian-style adventure. Giant bats, carnivorous lizards, and even shark-filled waters promise encounters to get the adrenaline glands working again. Experienced scuba divers brave the dangerous currents to take advantage of the marine giants moving between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Visiting the Komodo National Park
While it does possess some ramshackle charm, Labuan Bajo is mainly just a hub for visiting the Komodo National Park where rare Komodo dragons and some of the best diving in the world await.
The Komodo National Park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991. A three-day pass is required for diving or to see the dragons on Komodo and Rinca.
Seeing the Komodo Dragons
Members of the monitor family, Komodo dragons are undeniably the most dangerous lizards on Earth. A visit to either Komodo or Rinca Island can be arranged for a fee through your accommodation in Labuan Bajo. Alternatively and less-safe, you can negotiate and charter a small boat independently to one of the islands. The ocean currents swirling between the many island fragments will test the nerves of even experienced boat captains - not to mention the passengers!
While most tours visit the more popular and crowded Komodo Island, you have a far better chance of seeing Komodo dragons in the wild on Rinca (pronounced "reen-chah") where 1,300 of the world's 5,000 dragons call home. Some dive shops will arrange a visit to the island during the surface time between dives.
As warmer and cooler currents swirl at the convergence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the diversity of giant marine life in the Komodo National Park is astounding. Whales, mantas, dolphins, and sharks come to take advantage of the plankton-rich water, however dangerous currents can challenge even experienced divers.
In 2008 a group of divers were swept more than 20 miles from their dive site and were forced to fend off Komodo dragons overnight on Rinca Island until being rescued.
Tiny Labuan Bajo gets busy enough during the high season to make finding a room challenging. While some accommodation options are constructed on a prominent hill in town and have excellent views of the sea, most are barely a notch above squalor.
The perpetually-busy Gardena Hotel is a popular place for budget travelers. A gorgeous restaurant and bungalows with seaside views almost make the staff's inhospitable attitude worth tolerating! For travelers with the budget, the Jayakarta Suites is a luxury hotel with rooms for around $100 per night.
Also known as "Flying Fox Island," Kalong Island is around one hour from Labuan Bajo. Snorkeling packages often make stops here at dusk to witness swarms of giant fruit bats exiting caves at the same time - a sight that will make your skin crawl.
Around Labuan Bajo
Labuan Bajo is certainly small enough to explore on foot, however, bemos (minivans), and motorbike taxis are available. The tiny airport is located just outside of town; pickup trucks and bemos shuttle people to and from the airport. One ATM, often out of cash, is available at the BNI Bank on Jalan Yos Sudarso. Rates for exchanging money are terrible; err on the safe side and bring enough cash before arriving in Labuan Bajo.
For a map and information about the Komodo dragons, a small tourist information office can be found on the main road to the airport. The office closes at 2 p.m.
- Plane: A number of domestic flights on Indonesia's local carriers service Labuan Bajo from Denpasar. These flights, which must be booked in person from satellite offices or at the airport, are often canceled or experience mechanical problems. Merpati, Transnusa, and Indonesia Air Transport fly small planes to both Labuan Bajo and Ende in the Flores chain.
- Boat: Many backpackers and budget travelers opt to take a four-day boat cruise from Lombok to Labuanbajo. While not luxurious or comfortable (passengers sleep on floor mats), these boats break up the long journey with snorkeling, parties, and beach stops. The scenery along the shoreline is beautiful. A number of sketchy operations in Senggigi offer three to five-day voyages, however, Perama is the leading company with the best safety record. Although the boats still operate, taking a cruise during the rainy season can be dangerous.
- Bus: Tourists who are traveling the twisting, arduous highway through Flores typically stopover in Ruteng before continuing four more hours to Labuan Bajo. Buses should be booked in advance; ensure that the driver drops you in Labuan Bajo itself and not at the Garantolo bus terminal six miles outside of town.
While in Flores, consider visiting the Kelimutu Lakes - one of Southeast Asia's off-the-beaten-path places.