Finding the ‘Real’ Bali on Nusa Penida

I’ve said this before but I’m a bit ambivalent when it comes to Bali – mainland Bali, that is. The islands that sit off the southeastern coast are another story. Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan are three rugged little gems.  If beautiful landscapes, perfect beaches and Balinese culture are your thing, then I highly suggest visiting these islands.

I first traveled to Nusa Lembongan last year, during my two-month backpacking trip around Indonesia. I remember falling head over heels in love.  The thatch-roofed bungalows were like something out of a dream, the scenery was absolutely stunning and it was so much less touristy than the mainland.  It really did feel like paradise.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Back then I was semi-aware of Nusa Penida, the largest and least visited of the three islands.  I remember seeing it on a map and thinking it dwarfed Nusa Lembongan and Ceningan.  But I’d never met anyone who had actually been there.  I was having so much fun motorbiking around Nusa Lembongan and Ceningan that all thoughts of traveling to Nusa Penida quickly dissipated.

A little over a month ago, Aaron and I booked three nights at the Ring Sameton Inn – one of the few hotels on Nusa Penida – on a whim.  Because so few tourists travel there, I couldn’t find much information about things to do on Nusa Penida, which I suppose was part of the appeal.  All I knew was that there are supposedly some hidden waterfalls, a beautiful beach and tons and tons of pigs all over the island.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush
There really are pigs everywhere!

As we waited for our ferry to take take us from Sanur to Nusa Penida, I watched as boatloads of tourists shuttled toward Nusa Lembongan.  Our boat, however, was filled with a dozen locals and one other traveler.  As we puttered up to Nusa Penida I was shocked at how close the island was to touristy Nusa Lembongan.  If it weren’t for the vicious currents it might even be possible to swim it, though I wouldn’t suggest doing that.

Traveling to Nusa Penida was like stepping back in time.  I found myself in the middle of a sleepy fishing village. It was a place where modest, thatched-roofed huts and towering palms line the beach instead of sprawling resorts.  It was something special.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush
The beach, which extended as far as the eye can see, was beautiful.  I can’t say it was much of a swimming beach, seeing as the water is used by locals to harvest seaweed (the primary source of income for the island’s inhabitants).  Even though there was a storm rolling in, the setting was magical and we could even spot Bali’s massive volcanoes poking through the clouds.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Because so very few tourists actually travel to Nusa Penida, it’s a great place for independent travelers.  I’m not a huge fan of tours, so whenever possible Aaron and I like to explore places on our own and Nusa Penida is the perfect place to do just that.

The next morning Aaron and I rented two motorbikes and armed with a crude map we set out to explore what we would soon find out is a massive island.  As we sped down the surprisingly well-paved roads (a rarity around these parts), I struggled to keep up with Aaron because I was so distracted by the groves of enormous palm trees, the quaint villages and the curious children we were whizzing past.  In 30 quick minutes we went from tranquil coastal village to vibrant green jungle to picturesque Crystal Bay.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

You know a place is undeveloped when there are no hotels on the island’s biggest tourist attraction.  You also know a place is undeveloped when you have it virtually all to yourself.  Aside from a few small fishing and tour boats that were docked off shore (Crystal Bay is a popular spot for snorkeling and diving), we had the place practically all to ourselves.

At that moment I couldn’t help but wonder why people don’t travel to Nusa Penida, because it is amazing.  There was a Balinese-Hindu ceremony being performed in the temple complex located on the beach front.  With the Balinese music floating through the air and the turquoise water shimmering in front of me, it was one of those special travel moments I’ll never forget.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

After we’d had our fill of all the prettiness, Aaron and I continued on our journey.  We had big plans to visit Guyangan and Temeling waterfalls, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan.  After we sped away from Crystal Bay we realized that motorbiking around Nusa Penida is complicated because the island is actually really big – it’s roughly 200 square kilometers.  It didn’t help that the roadways were incredibly confusing or that our map wasn’t all that accurate.

But one thing about getting lost on tropical islands is that it makes for some truly memorable travel days – and our day spent motorbiking around Nusa Penida was certainly that.

Realizing that we had passed the turnoff for Temeling Waterfall we pulled over to study our map and figure out where we’d made a wrong turn. Suddenly three teenage girls, piled on one motorbike and dressed in their school uniforms, appeared next to us, eagerly offering to show us the way.

This same scenario would occur a dozen more times that day.  People on Nusa Penida were genuinely nice and had a childlike curiosity about us.  Grateful for the kindness of strangers, Aaron and I followed them through a series of complicated turns and after 10 minutes they pointed the way, smiled broadly and waved enthusiastically as they sped off toward their village.

Of course we somehow passed by the very obviously marked sign and instead dead ended into this…

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Worse mistakes have been made.

We backtracked a few minutes and made our way down a steep, jungle-clad hillside.  Aside from the fact that Aaron crashed his scooter going down one of the hills (he’s fine!) we did ultimately make it to the waterfall.  Because it was the dry season (we visited in April) the waterfall was pretty much non-existent, but the natural pools were cold and refreshing.  And the setting could not have been more amazing.  Bless Nusa Penida for being so tourist-free because the best part was, we had the place all to ourselves.  Well there were monkeys there, so technically we did have company.

We were surrounded by limestone cliffs and the lush jungle canopy.  There was a crystal clear swimming hole overlooking this stunning cove and the sound of waves crashing against the craggy rocks.  It was like being in a lost world.

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

Traveling to Nusa Penida, Bali - Travel Lush

After we’d cooled off at the pools and recomposed ourselves following the accident we set off to find waterfall number two.  Spoiler alert:  we never did make it there.  We kept getting increasingly more lost.  Once well-paved roads would turn into rubble, dirt and then grass.

But it was a blast!  I must say I motorbiked around Nusa Penida like a rock star that day – and it was so much fun.

Sometimes getting lost is the best way to see a new place, because we kept running into more amazing viewpoints and traditional villages.  We passed by men and women clad in traditional Balinese sarongs.  Men donned traditional hats while women strolled lazily down the streets balancing everything from baskets full of rice to giant gourds to children’s toys on their heads.

Finding ourselves way off track, somewhere in the middle of the mountainous island, we hopped from village to village.  As we passed by rows of modest homes, small children would go crazy whenever we zoomed by.

They peered over gates, hoisted themselves onto windowsills and sprinted into the street; they waved manically, mustering all of their energy to boom, “Hello!” all in hopes of getting a wave in return.  I (with my not-so-good motorbiking skills) was too scared to lift my hand off of the handle bar to wave in return.  But, honestly, after seeing the look of disappointment on the first few children’s faces I quickly gained confidence to return the gesture.  I was rewarded with big gap-tooth smiles, a chorus of laughter and jumps up and down.

But that’s the thing about Nusa Penida.  It might not be 100 percent off the tourist radar, but it’s about as authentic as Bali gets.  It’s that untarnished Bali visitors flock to Ubud and Kuta to experience but rarely find.  If you ask me Nusa Penida is a truly magical place.

Practical Info about Traveling to Nusa Penida:

Getting to Nusa Penida: We took a ferry from the main pier in Sanur.  There aren’t as many daily boats that go to Nusa Penida as go to Nusa Lembongan, so it’s best to arrange a ferry one day before you leave.  We took Maruti Express, which supposedly charges 250,000 rupiah for foreigners and 150,000 for locals.  We paid the tourist rate going to Nusa Penida, but were only charged 150,000 for the return trip.

Where to stay on Nusa Penida: We stayed at the Ring Sameton Inn and paid around $35 USD for a double room through Agoda.com.  Because there are very few hotels on Nusa Penida, lodging tends to be pricier than in other parts of Indonesia.  This place was a steal for $35.  The rooms were enormous and clean, the grounds were beautiful and tranquil, there was a huge pool, great restaurant and 5-star service.  I can honestly say that I highly recommend it.

Renting a motorbike on Nusa Penida: We arranged one scooter through our hotel for 50,000 rupiah (a great deal for Nusa Penida).  If you’re renting a scooter through Ring Sameton Inn, make sure to arrange your motorbike rental ahead of time because they have a limited supply.  To get a second scooter we had to inquire at the pier.  It was easy but we were charged a bit more, 80,000 rupiah. For some safety tips on riding a scooter, check out this post. I wouldn’t suggest riding a motorbike on Nusa Penida unless you are an experienced driver. The roads get really, really bad and no one I know has made it to Nusa Penida without crashing their scooter, including myself.

For more information about things to do on Nusa Penida, check out my full guide

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About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

20 thoughts on “Finding the ‘Real’ Bali on Nusa Penida

    1. It was insane to just stumble upon those cliffs. It was unreal to see it in person. I was thinking it looked like Ireland too 🙂 It also reminded me a lot of Big Sur in California. Ha, the pigs were so funny but they seemed kind of aggressive. I swear all three of those pigs in the picture were just about to charge me!

  1. Nusa Penida looks gorgeous! We didn’t make it there as we focused on Lembongan instead (in part because we were planning to do a lot of diving), which I already thought was like “olden tyme Bali”, but Penida looks even better. I can’t get over how beautiful the water there is—your photography is particularly lovely in this post. 🙂 I’m sure that Penida won’t stay developed forever… it’s way too pretty to remain untouched, I fear. Glad you are getting to enjoy it while you can!

    (Also, I really think the dodgy ferry crossings are the reason why these islands aren’t as overrun as they otherwise might be. We actually saw a ferry boat sink offshore the day before our trip to Lembongan, which wasn’t confidence booster, that’s for sure!)
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…On Grand Expectations & Grand Canyons

    1. I didn’t think anything could be better than Lembongan either, but I really fell for Nusa Penida. Aside from a seeing three tourists at our hotel and a small boat of six divers at Crystal Bay, we didn’t see any other tourists around the island the entire day. It was crazy! I also couldn’t believe the scenery. The cliffs are incredible on Lembongan, but Nusa Penida was unreal. When Aaron and I were looking down at that crazy clear water from the bluff we even saw a giant sea turtle. It must have been huge considering how high up we were!

      I can’t believe you saw a ferry sink! That’s frightening. I did notice both times I’ve made the crossing that the swells get really big. I’ve never really experienced anything like it when riding ferries before…

    1. Isn’t it incredible?! I really do love getting lost in foreign places. I guess that’s a good thing because it’s pretty much impossible not to get lost on Nusa Penida. Man, that island was confusing but it’s such a wonderful place to get lost 🙂

  2. I’ve been obsessed with visiting here ever since I took a diving trip from Bali and saw it from the ocean. It looks just as beautiful from land as I’d imagined! And I seriously thought given the lack of competition the prices would be higher. Great post.
    Francesca recently posted…Hostel Hacks: On dorm room sex

    1. I highly recommend it Francesca. It really is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Bali. The people were so friendly and the bluffs where out of this world. Hopefully you get there soon 🙂

  3. Great article. Thanks really. We are flying over to Bali in August and are thinking about staying at Nusa Penida and visit other close island from there. How long do you think we should stay there? We have in total 12 days on Bali and would be glad if you could give me some idea about the intinerary you would recommend. We plan about 3-4 days on Nusa Penida, 3-4 days in Ubud – visiting places around, 2 days around lake Batur and Tulamben then about 1-2 days in Menjagan proximity area. What do you think about that? We are most interested in Balinese culture, snorekling and jungle trekking.

    1. Hi Martin! That sounds like a great itinerary! And I think 3-4 days on Nusa Penida is great. There should be some great snorkeling around Crystal Bay. I haven’t personally been to Lake Batur or Menjagan but it seems like you’re allotting a decent amount of time to each place. Bali is a super easy place to navigate. You’re going to have so much fun 🙂

      1. Hi Justine. Thanks for the quick reply. I hope it is, because we plan on renting a car. Although last year on Borneo havent cause driving on the right side seemed scary and everything interesting was easily accessible via buses or cheap taxis. But it seems to me that if we want to see untouristic Bali, we just have to rent a car and travel. Have you been to Ubud? We do not know how long to stay there, we do not plan to spend much time there but more to travel from Ubud to interesting places in South and East. But I have also heard that traffic can be really depressing in Ubud. But I hope it is not that way everywhere on Bali.

        1. Hi Martin. It is actually REALLY easy and cheap to just hire a driver. Last time I was there my three friends and I hired a driver for the entire day (8 hours) and I believe it cost us $60 US total. It is a cinch to arrange a driver through your hotel or on the street (you’ll be approached)…even your airport taxi driver will likely offer to take you around. So if you’re nervous about driving on the left and coping with the slightly insane drivers maybe that’s a good option for you! I have been to Ubud. I wrote about it if you want to do a search on my site. Probably allot 2-3 days, so you can see the town, the rice terraces, etc. It’s no my personal favorite place in Bali, but most people seem to love it. I suppose it just depends on your tastes. As far as traffic goes you’ll notice that it will be bad in touristy places like Kuta. I didn’t think it was all that bad in Ubud…Once you get to more rural places it shouldn’t be bad at all.

          1. Hello Justine, me and my girlfriend will be on Nusa Penida from 25 to 29 August. Could you please advise what to see and visit there? And if we should also visit Nusa Lembogan or focus on Nusa Penida? Thank you.
            Martin

          2. Hey Martin. I’m actually going to Penida and Lembongan in a couple days. So if you remind me, I’ll give you a better idea. But Broken Beach, Akun Beach (I think), Crystal Bay, all seem amazing. But I’m sure there’s a ton more! I plan on investigating in a couple days 🙂 Lembongan is well worth it. How long do you have? A few days on both is good enough.

  4. Hi Justine,
    I am gonna travel to Bali in May so its just 35 days from now until I will take my flight. I have 12 days, planing to visit Ubud for 2 days than gili 3 days and the rest of the time I wanna go to nusa lembogan and nusa penida. Your articles where so inspiring that I decided to take my time to find the “real” bali. I wanna have contact with some natives so do you think nusa penida is a good choice? route starting at ubud-> ghili -> nusa lembogan -> nusa penida is a good one? any tipps for me?
    Is it easy to find something to sleep there or would you recommend to book everything before right now or just notice the “street” go there and ask if they have a room for me?
    Would be nice to get help 😀 thanks !!!

  5. I love this article!! I am traveling to Nusa Penida in December to work on a volunteer project — I am going to be working on sea turtle conservation! After a bad day today, I was looking for a simple article about the small island to pick me up, and instead I found your piece…so much better than what I was looking for! I cannot wait to embark on my own adventure to this magical island, as you said. I wish it could come sooner. So glad to hear that a fellow traveler enjoyed the island so much. Yay!! Love this.

    1. I’m glad you liked it! I’m actually in Bali now and I’m going back to Nusa Penida in a few days! My trip there was far too short and there’s so much left I’d like to see. I’m so excited to go back and I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it soon. Your volunteer opportunity sounds amazing! Good luck 🙂

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