The 1500 islands, cays and shoals that make up Raja Ampat lie on prime real estate at the heart of the Coral Triangle, a biodiversity hot spot where the Pacific and Indian Oceans collide.
Likened to the “Amazon of the seas,” this tropical labyrinth holds one of the world’s highest densities of marine life with over 1000 species of fish and three-fourths of all known corals. Divers and snorkelers alike dip into the aquamarine waters here in search of wildly-patterned carpet sharks, massive manta rays and pygmy seahorses. Up above, they find bungalows perched over the ocean and palms curving toward pearly beaches devoid of any footprints.
Each of the main islands – or “Four Kings” as they’re known – hides its own wonders, including mesmerizing mushroom-shaped outcrops, placid turquoise lagoons and misty hills where flamboyantly-feathered fowl parade across the canopy in search of a mate. To visit now is to experience a virgin paradise on the verge of discovery.
Here’s everything you need to know to plan the perfect trip to Indonesia’s Raja Ampat.
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Waigeo is home to the region’s small capital
If sleepy Raja Ampat has any whiff of a buzz, you’ll find it on Waigeo or its satellite islands Gam, Kri and Arborek. Home to the region’s diminutive capital, Waisai, this is the most logical base from which to plan journeys further afield. Waigeo is the place where British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace based himself in 1860 while studying the birds-of-paradise, a group of 44 lavishly attired birds only found around New Guinea and north-eastern Australia. Research in the jungles here played a pivotal role in his landmark theory of evolution through natural selection, which was published jointly with the more famous Charles Darwin. You can find Wallace’s subjects fluttering about in the hills on the island’s southern edge, as well as on neighboring Gam.
Explore the secluded lagoons around Misool Island © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Misool is the most isolated of the “Four Kings”
Misool is the most visually arresting of the four main islands. It’s also the most isolated at the southern end of the archipelago. Its southeastern edge is a veritable fortress of towering karst formations that rise out of the sea like shards of green glass. Many of these formations hide secluded lagoons that are perfect for snorkeling or kayaking. Yet, the main draw here is scuba diving in the crystalline waters of the 300,000-acre (1220 sq km) Misool Marine Reserve, established in 2005. The island also features pearl farms, caves, prehistoric rock art and two lakes where you can swim with thousands of (harmless) golden jellyfish.
Salawati and Batanta are the least visited of the “Four Kings”
Despite being closest to mainland New Guinea, Salawati and Batanta are the least visited of the “Four Kings.” Salawati is an untouched island that lies directly across the Sele Strait from the Bird’s Head Peninsula. It has little in the way of tourist attractions or infrastructure. Batanta is a long, thin island just north of it that’s home to a few tiny fishing villages. You’ll also find a handful of homestays and dive resorts along Batanta’s northern edge, as well as on the smaller satellite islands just off the coast.
Diving is one of the main activities in Raja Ampat © TONY MYSHLYAEV / Stocksy United
What to do in Raja Ampat
Dive (or snorkel) in Misool’s protected waters
Divers from around the world flock to Raja Ampat’s clear waters to spot soaring manta rays, giant clams, iridescent parrotfish, rare dugongs and swarming schools of yellowback fusiliers. Its unspoiled reefs are home to more than ten times the number of hard coral species found in the Caribbean. In the protected waters of the Misool Marine Reserve, you can find blue staghorns, orange sea whips and chunky brain corals, among countless others. The reserve’s disparate dive sites are best visited from a liveaboard boat or a Misool-area dive resort.
Hike to the birds-of-paradise
Walk in Wallace’s footsteps in search of the aptly named birds-of-paradise, whose elaborate courtship dances were a highlight of the BBC’s original Planet Earth series. The southern coasts of Waigeo and Gam offer the best chance for sightings, with forests that harbor two species. The larger red bird-of-paradise has crimson wings, emerald cheeks, yellow shoulder tufts and wispy purple tail feathers, while the smaller Wilson’s bird-of-paradise has a startling cyan cap, a red-and-black body, blue feet and tail feathers shaped like a scissor handle. Local guides run tours to see the birds along private-access trails that often begin behind their homes. Accommodation providers can arrange trips, which typically involve a pre-dawn hike up to a crude viewing blind near a popular mating area.
And there are plenty of snorkeling opportunities for non-divers © Rudhie68 / Shutterstock
Visit Arborek Village
Tiny Arborek Village (population around 200) offers a glimpse of more traditional Papuan culture, with elders who still make a living weaving and children who have revived Papuan dancing. The people who live in Arborek (an island just off the coast of Waigeo) migrated here from the hills of the mainland in the 1930s, and their dances tell the story of the transition from being hunters to fishers. Meanwhile their woven crafts – made from the dried leaves of the pandanus tree and local dyes – often take the shape of manta rays and other sea creatures found in the nearby waters. You can frequently spot kids rehearsing dances in front of the town church, while crafts are sold directly from the homes of weavers.
Climb Pianemo Hill
Want that classic Raja Ampat shot with pincushions of bush-clad rock floating in the turquoise sea? You’ll need to climb to the top of Pianemo Hill, a hunk of honeycombed karst in the Fam Islands group (between Batanta and Waigeo) that’s covered in spindly pandanus and gum trees. Some 250 wooden steps lead through the dense vegetation up to a platform at the top, where the five points of a star-shaped lagoon come into view. Two overlooks nearby jut out over the edge for picture-perfect panoramas. You can find similar views 30km (19 miles) beyond Waigeo at Wayag, a remote collection of atolls often featured in promotional materials.
Choose between budget homestays to luxurious waterside bungalows © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Where to stay in Raja Ampat
The quality of homestays varies
The cheapest and most authentic way to sleep in Raja Ampat is to book a village “homestay.” The name is a bit deceiving; you won’t actually sleep in anyone’s home, but rather in a bungalow nearby. Stay Raja Ampat is like the Airbnb of family-owned budget options, giving an online presence to rural accommodation providers. Most homestays come with full board, though hospitality standards and quality vary widely. Recommended options include Kordiris Homestay and Corepen Homestay on Gam Island, as well as the more remote Mandemor Homestay on Batanta.
Dive resorts range from comfortable to luxurious
Dive resorts were the first to put Raja Ampat on the map, and they remain the most comfortable – often downright luxurious – options around. Some have overwater bungalows and beach bars; others spas and farm-to-table restaurants. The best properties, such as Misool Eco Resort and MahaRaja Eco Dive Lodge, have been instrumental in safeguarding some of the most biodiverse reefs on earth through conservation initiatives and community empowerment.
Liveaboard boats are ideal if you want to explore the archipelago
Resorts and homestays typically tie you to one island, but if you want to tour the entire archipelago, there’s really no substitute for a liveaboard boat. Several Indonesian cruises include quick stops in Raja Ampat, but to spend more time here, you’ll want to book an option departing from Sorong. Most ships run five- to 11-day itineraries with a focus either on diving or land excursions. Others, such as SeaTrek, invite experts onboard for themed trips in search of whale sharks or the elusive birds-of-paradise. In general, rates for liveaboards start at around $140 per day, all-inclusive.
Getting to Raja Ampat and around
Raja Ampat lies off the west coast of the world’s second-largest island, New Guinea, which is shared between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Most visitors arrive by plane at Domine Eduard Osok Airport in Sorong, which lies in Indonesia’s West Papua province and receives regular flights from Jakarta. Daily ferries depart from Sorong’s harbor to Waigeo, while twice-weekly ferries head to Misool. Chartered speedboats are available at the harbor for more direct trips to your accommodation.
Local carrier Susi Air flies light planes (with a 10kg/22lb baggage allowance) from Sorong out to Marinda Airport in Waisai (Waigeo), the only airport in the archipelago.
All visitors will transit Raja Ampat Marine Park and must pay the Environmental Services Fee (700,000 rupiah). Visitors to select tourist sites will have to pay an additional 300,000 rupiah for the Raja Ampat Visitor Entry Ticket, introduced in 2019.
When to go to Raja Ampat
There’s no bad time to go to Raja Ampat, which lies on the equator and enjoys relatively consistent temperatures of between 31ºC (89ºF) and 25ºC (78ºF). June, July and August are historically the wettest months, but the monsoon seasons here are not as dramatic as elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Rainfall is often short-lived and localized. Higher winds between mid-June and mid-September can make the typically calm seas turn choppy. During this time, diving outfits may close and inter-island travel can become temporarily suspended.