Bunaken Island, just one hour by boat off the coast of Indonesia’s North Sulawesi city of Manado, is touted as one of the world’s top-ten dive spots. I also discovered while researching our weekend getaway destination, that, with some exceptions, most “resorts” on Bunaken cater solely to divers (as opposed to land-lubbers or even snorkelers) and as a result, non-diving visitors lament there is little else to do there. With that in mind, I thought I’d do a post from the perspective of snorkeling Bunaken Island.
In terms of lodging at Bunaken, for those on a budget like us, the guest homes we could afford were described as “rustic.” Apparently, this means sketchy (or none at all) electricity during the day and most do not offer hot water, air conditioning or an in-room fridge. As for a grocery store on the island or restaurant choices? Forget about it! Most “resorts” offer full board for their guests but are not open to visitors (I know because I went to several at lunch time to ask if they were open), and as far as I could ascertain, the small village areas on the island offer some pretty tasty seafood but that’s about it. (Although I did discover that there is a super-friendly wine shop on the island, Manado Wine Shop, that will deliver for free to your hotel in downtown Manado.)
Now, I’m not knocking these facts; I get it: Bunaken retains a genuine-small-island vibe that would be ruined if big groceries, hotels and international restaurants opened up. And I can see how these things would be ancillary anyway if you’ve just come to Bunaken to dive. But I’ll admit it: when I’ve got three days to vacation in a place that hovers near the equator, I really, really like my AC. And fridge. And it may defy logic, but a hot shower is important to me, even in the tropics.
Since we ended up staying on the mainland in Manado and taking a day trip to Bunaken instead of staying on the island, I can not verify first-hand everything that I read on those review sites. What I can verify is that Bunaken has an amazing reef system, and in our humble opinion, snorkeling here is fantastic. So even if you don’t have that PADI certificate, you can still have an unforgettable, world-class experience at Bunaken.
This post is more of a how-to/informational piece as I spent hours online before our trip, trying to sort out the how, why, and what of arranging a weekend trip, fitting in Bunaken as well as volcano/highland tours, being close enough to the airport that our ingress and egress wouldn’t be prohibitive for such late and early flights, etc. I’ve pasted a basic map showing the locations mentioned here, so hopefully, this post will help someone else who’s in our shoes down the road!
Three Days, Four Nights: Flight and Hotel
For Sam and me, we had a long weekend to spare and lucky us, we discovered through the handy-dandy Traveloka (which is kind of like an Indonesian version of Orbtiz, except you have to have a local bank card to actually book anything), that the budget airline Lion Air has a Friday evening flight from Balikpapan (Indonesian island of Kalimantan/Borneo) to Manado (Indonesian island of Sulawesi), and an early morning return flight departing at 6:00 a.m … thereby allowing us a whole Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Manado, and getting Sam back to Balikpapan just in time for work on Tuesday!
Flight booked, we moved on to the matter of hotels. We knew we had three days, but we were less certain how we wanted to spend them. We wanted to visit Bunaken for the snorkeling, but we were also interested in visiting the Minahasa Highlands near Manado. Solution? A hotel in downtown Manado with close access to the public pier for our boat trip as well as easy pick-up for taxi/private car to the highlands, and reasonable distance to the airport for our late and early flights. After a lot of research, we ended up choosing Hotel Aryaduta for several reasons: excellent location, great ocean and city views from the room, nice pool overlooking the sea, yummy buffet breakfast included in the price, AC, wifi, room fridge, etc., … and all of this for about 40 USD a night! (We booked through Agoda.com, which was much cheaper than the hotel’s posted rate.)
Do-it-Yourself, How to Book Your Own Boat
Even though Bunaken is only an hour or less away from Manado, there isn’t a lot of helpful information that I could find on transport, other than very pricey hotel and tour packages and the fact that a (much less expensive) public ferry departs daily from Manado to Bunaken from 1 to 3 in the afternoon (except Sunday) and returns from Bunaken to Manado at around 7 to 9 in the morning. The public ferry — an excellent deal at a little over 1 USD per person one way — didn’t work for our schedule unless we stayed overnight on the island, and since we only had three days, we wanted to settle on one hotel to relax and make the most of our time instead of commuting with our bags from island to mainland. (Also, many resorts on Bunaken wouldn’t reply to my email inquiries as evidently, they’re only interested in guests staying for two or more nights.)
We decided on a private boat for a round-trip to Bunaken and back with two snorkeling stops along the way and a break for lunch; we just had to be back in Manado by around 5:00 in the afternoon. This package, booked through Manado Private Tours, cost us a total of 900,000 Rupiah — roughly 70 USD. If we’d had more time, we probably could have found a better deal in person at the Manado pier, but this was half the cost most of the hotels were offering, and even some blog posts from Indonesians touristing the area said they were charged around one million Rupiah for a round trip voyage! Honestly, the best price I encountered online, other than the public ferry option and what we booked, was a snorkeling package through the super-popular dive resort Tasik Ria, who’s posted rate for a full day snorkeling trip is 39 USD per day/per person. Not bad, but with our option, we could just walk the ten minutes to the public pier instead of fussing with transport options to the resort’s departure point, we could leave whenever we wanted and we had the boat to ourselves!
Snorkeling Trip to Bunaken
Saturday morning we slept in, had a nice buffet breakfast and then walked to the Manado Pier (see map below post), arriving a little after ten in the morning. Hint: if you have trouble finding the pier, it is just behind the bright yellow Hotel Celebes (“Celebes” is the old name for Sulawesi). Most locals will know where that is if all else fails.
Our friendly boat driver, Asoy, and his cute son, were waiting for us at the pier and in under ten minutes, we were in our cheery wooden speedboat and on our way! Before we left the pier, I did ask where our life jackets were (safety first, you know) and to our great amusement, Asoy had his son scamper over to another boat docked alongside, and told him to bring back a life jacket. I shook my head and called in Bahasa, “Please bring two!” then realizing Asoy had no intention of having a jacket for himself or his son, called “No, bring four!”
Asoy’s son threw some orange vests at us and scampered back to the boat. The engine revved to life and then we were off before I’d had a chance to examine said “life jackets,” which was no doubt fortunate for Asoy because here’s the thing: All these jackets were made of was bright orange nylon stitched together in typical vest-like fashion, with pockets inside where chunks of Styrofoam were slipped in! Sam felt confident they’d work in a pinch — and I suspect the other boats didn’t have anything more substantial either — but still, I’m really glad we didn’t have to use them!
Our first snorkel stop was about three-fourths of the way to Bunaken’s west side. We weren’t sure what to expect when Asoy killed the engine and told us to “dive here,” but we obediently donned our snorkel gear and dove/rolled/slipped into the water. As soon as my mask went face-down, I saw we were surrounded by technicolor; a jungle of living, swooping coral and sponges, starfish, sea urchins … and as we swam away from the shallow area and closer to where the reef drops so deep into the blue sea that you can not see the bottom, a layered reef wall teaming with more coral, schools and schools of brightly colored fish of every shape, size and color, and at least a dozen turtles greeted our amazed gazes. Below us, we could see scuba divers getting up close and personal with the reef shelf, but for us, swimming among clouds of jewel-colored fish that morphed and scattered and reformed, then waving at a turtle sloping past was a-freaking-mazing! I didn’t expect it, but we both agree: it was much better snorkeling than the reefs off Tongatapu in Tonga, where we lived from 2011 to 2013.
The whole time we snorkeled, Asoy patiently kept the boat waiting a safe distance off, but close enough to throw us a bottle of water when I asked for it. Nice! We had a great time, and after about 45 minutes of swimming, we climbed back on board where Asoy then took us to the north-western side of Bunaken, where his friends/family have a little seafood stall … I think the place was called Nelson’s.
We weren’t really ready to eat just yet, and we wanted to see what other options might be available, so we took the crumbling cement path that follows the coastline southward, walking through stalls selling nick-knacks and renting every fashion of scuba and snorkel gear one can imagine.
We soon discovered that none of the resorts on that side were open for lunch to visitors, and that the local food stalls all served the same combination of rice and fish, just with varying prices, so we returned to Asoy’s stall and had a tasty meal. I picked out our main course from a stash of various locally caught seafood on ice. We settled on a parrot fish, which has a really nice firm, yet flaky texture, and the seasoning rub and charcoal grill resulted in something absolutely delicious. But I have to admit, it felt kind of creepy eating a parrot fish after having swum beside them an hour before….
Aside from the food, there were a lot of hungry dogs running about; they were harmless enough but it made us a little sad to see them so skinny.
On a happier note, we also tried a local snack called Halua, which, apparently, is made from palm sugar and a local tree nut similar to an almond called Kenari. The two are combined together, wrapped in pandanus leaf and then roasted. The result is a smokey-sweet, chewy, slightly-burnt tasting nougat. Not bad! Perfect energy snack, actually, for the snorkelers and divers who, unlike us, actually spend all day in the water.
After lunch, we hopped back on board and Asoy took us to the public pier on the south end of Bunaken, where the public ferry also makes its stop. Technically, I suppose Asoy should have driven us to the east side where we wanted to snorkel, but he seemed eager to go back to his village for a little while and we didn’t mind taking the walk from the pier to the east side as we got to see some of the island that way.
For those that do end up taking the public ferry from Manado, this is where you will be dropped off. A nice little sidewalk winds from the pier, then through a tiny village, then follows the mangrove-lined coast along the east side. Many visitors hop on the back of a motorcycle/scooter or take one of these groovy things to find their resort.
Also, you, get to see stuff like this along the way: a man carrying a pig in a sack, or the local cemetery.
We followed the sidewalk along the east side for about a kilometer, searching for a good spot to swim. I’d read that one of the selling points for resorts on this side of Bunaken is that you can swim straight from the beach/mangroves — no boat needed — and after about three or four hundred feet, you hit the coral wall. Unfortunately, I’d also read that salt water crocodiles bathe occasionally in these parts.
The operative word here is occasionally. So, we settled on a shady mangrove area just beside another resort under construction (Maybe in the hope that the nice man working on that patio would hear me screaming and run to rescue us if needed?), put on our snorkel gear and headed out. True to what we’d read, for several hundred feet, nothing but sea grass and starfish could be seen. The water was warm and a bit murky, and I confess that every three seconds, I darted my head about like a caffeine-addled chicken, which I guess I more or less would be anyway from a crocodile’s perspective.
Happily, we did not encounter any salties, but what we did find trumped my temporary unease. It was astonishing to snorkel through creepy sea grass, thinking whilst breathing in panicky breaths that those people who posted their trip reviews must have been on crack if they thought this was decent snorkeling, when all of the sudden … bam! The reef was as amazing as the first, with a similar coral wall plunging deep into the the abyss, teaming with life. We didn’t spot any turtles here, but the variety of fish and coral was equally impressive to the first “dive.”
After a while, we returned to shore, dried up and straggled back to the pier where Asoy met us at four o’clock for our return trip to Manado. We laughed at our unease about the salties and agreed that a greater threat was the boats darting to and from the coast, giving little regard to nearby swimmers. In fact, had Sam not heard the engine and signaled for me to swim away on one occasion, we may have found some part of us tangled in the blades of a boat motor.
So that’s our day trip to Bunaken for the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. I truly didn’t expect to be so impressed, perhaps because as a kid, I lived for a few years in Kupang, Timor, where, at least back then, the coral waters were pristine and tourism had yet to make its impact. But even there, I do not recall such a huge variety and sheer mass of ocean life (although I do remember seeing a lot more sea snakes!).
Thanks, Bunaken, for an unforgettable day!
- Manado Hotel: We booked Hotel Aryaduta in downtown Manado (booked through Agoda.com via Skyscanner.com) and overall were very pleased with it. The room was a bit mildewy smelling, but the AC worked well, the room was huge, the views were great and the staff super friendly.
- Boat Booking: Booked through Manado Private Tours. Franky speaks English and is very responsive via email. One full day for a private boat and two snorkel stops cost 900,000 IDR (approx. 70 USD) total. firstname.lastname@example.org
- The public ferry leaves daily from Manado (except Sundays) anywhere from 1 to 3 in the afternoon and returns from Bunaken anywhere between 7 to 9 in the morning.
- Bunaken Island and the surrounding waters are a national park, and an entrance fee of 50,000 Rupiah per day (or a calendar-year pass for 150,000 Rupiah) is imposed on foreign visitors.
- Airport transportation: Since we were arriving in Manado quite late and leaving early, we arranged airport transport with our hotel for 200,000 Rupiah each way. Even though we arrived nearly at midnight, there were tons of taxis about. I’ve read that you should agree upon the price ahead of time as many do not use their meters.