What it is:
Carved out of ancient limestone by wind, waves and rainfall, the Raja Ampat Archipelago consists of more than 1,000 sparsely populated and impossibly beautiful islands. Draped in dense tropical foliage and fringed with pristine mangroves and kaleidoscopic reefs, the islands are an ecological treasure-trove that may very well represent the pinnacle of tropical beauty in Southeast Asia.
Above the waves, a resounding symphony of songs from rare birds of paradise and other exotic creatures saturates a densely forested interior. Trekking on these little-explored islands offer visitors the opportunity to potentially encounter creatures and plants that have yet to be formally identified.
The cultural intrigues of Raja Ampat are rich and diverse, too. From relics of the Era of the Four Kings (for which the islands are named) to Neolithic cave paintings and remnants of the Second World War, the history of the islands is fascinating. Natives of the region, known as West Papuans due to their proximity to New Guinea, exist mostly as they have for centuries, living off of the islands’ riches as traditional fishermen.
Below the waves, Raja Ampat is unrivalled. The reef-ridden waters surrounding these islands are widely regarded as the best in the world for diving and snorkelling. Raja Ampat is the crown-jewel of a region of the world known as the “Coral Triangle,” which is roughly equivalent, in aquatic terms, to the Amazon Rainforest. It is said that the reefs surrounding Raja Ampat contain 75% of the world’s coral species, and an equal amount of darting tropical reef fish.
For land exploration, there are a variety of things to see and do in the Raja Ampat Islands. Aside from the diving, Raja Ampat is most famous for its stunning diversity of bird species, particularly birds of paradise. The absolute “must see” is the Alfred’s Bird of Paradise, considered by many to be one of the world’s rarest and most beautiful birds. After its discovery by famous British naturalist Sir Alfred Wallace on the islands of Waigeo and Batanta, more than 250 species of birds have been found to live on the islands- many of them endemic.
The four biggest islands of Raja Ampat (Waigeo, Salawati, Misool and Batanta) harbour an incredibly diverse wildlife in similarly diverse habitats. With a bit of time, patience, a sharp eye and fortitude enough to explore some of these islands’ more wild areas, it’s possible to catch glimpses of some of the jungle’s larger and more bizarre inhabitants, such as the Waigeo cuscus or Paulino. Even on the smaller islands such as Gam, Kri and Mansuar, jungles afford opportunities to have amazing encounters with wildlife.
For unrivalled views of Raja Ampat, head to Mount Pindito in the heart of Wayag’s emerald-green rock islands. Here you’ll find the definitive image of the Raja Ampat islands. Wayag is sometimes closed during off-season, though. If that’s the case, the karst island seascape of Piaynemo is nearly identical.
Most who visit Raja Ampat will do so mostly for what lies beneath the waves, and for good reason! For perspective on just how spectacular diving here can be, Raja Ampat currently holds the world-record for the most number of species to be found in a single dive site -284 at Kofiau Island. The benchmark for “excellent” dive sites is 200, which is surpassed by 51% of Raja Ampat’s dive sites- another world record. If that isn’t enough to make you want to get your fins wet, the islands are also home to more than 600 species of coral, yet another world record.
How to get there (basic info):
If Raja Ampat seems pristine and untouched, it’s for good reason- the islands aren’t known for being particularly easy to get to. From Jakarta, it’s more than a six-hour flight to the gateway of the islands in West Papua, but it is very much worth the journey.
By Plane: Flights run from Jakarta or Bali to Sorong, with connecting flights in Makassar or Manado offered by Sriwijaya Air, Express Air, Lion Air and Garuda Indonesia.