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.
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 Nusa 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.
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 foreigner. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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:
How to get 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 scooter 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.