Sulawesi travel guide

Colonised over the years by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, Sulawesi is an intriguing cultural mix even before you get to the animist religious traditions that persist in the south. The island is also a legendary destination for diving and snorkelling of course, especially off the volcanic northern peninsula.
Snorkelling safaris and dive trips are frequently combined with nearby Borneo or Raja Ampat. The marine wildlife here in the Coral Triangle is absolutely extraordinary.
Sulawesi is also highly regarded for its coffee, with the most prestigious coming from the Tana Toraja highlands where tribal funerals follow ancient animist traditions. For many visitors, the chance to witness such an event first-hand is a cultural highpoint of their trip. Read our Sulawesi travel guide for more details.
Sulawesi is/isn't

Sulawesi is…

the centerpiece of the ‘Coral Triangle’, a world class destination for diving and snorkelling.

Sulawesi isn’t…

as developed yet as other parts of Indonesia, and the south of the island remains an intoxicating hotbed of tribal customs.

Sulawesi map & highlights

Comprised of four peninsulas stretching out in different directions, Sulawesi resembles the octopuses that are to be found in its waters. The island lies in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, and forms part of the famous Coral Triangle, with exceptional diving around its reefs and islands, especially in Bunaken National Park. Key cultural destinations include the cosmopolitan capital, Makassar, with its Dutch colonial influences; Lake Tempe; and the stunning karst landscape of Maros Pangkep. The mountainous interior remains thickly forested at higher altitudes, but at lower levels rampant deforestation tragically continues. Sulawesi’s southern peninsula remains largely undeveloped, however. Flights will usually arrive into either Manado, at the tip of North Sulawesi, or Makassar in the south. Road and boat transfers are typically used between destinations, with the occasional domestic flight.
Bunaken National Park

1. Bunaken National Park

Bunaken National Park lies in the center of the Coral Triangle, one of Earth’s richest marine habitats and an exceptional location for diving and snorkel safaris. The biodiversity here is mind blowing: over 70 types of coral, countless species of tropical fish, sea turtles, whales, dolphins and even saltwater crocs. The park lies an hour by boat from Mandano, with resort accommodation on islands including Bunaken itself and Siladen.
Lake Tempe

2. Lake Tempe

Close to the town of Sengkang, Lake Tempe is a large body of freshwater renowned for its many species of water bird. There is a small floating village on the lake that moves around to follow the seasons and fish stocks, while the lake itself expands every year as it floods surrounding areas. Boat trips take you out to explore the communities, and watch the fishermen at work with rods, nets and bamboo fences.
Maros Pangkep Karst Area

3. Maros Pangkep Karst Area

Maros Pangkep is a vast forest of rock formations, the second largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Immense blocks of limestone burst out of rice paddies, and the prehistoric paintings found on cave walls here are thought to be some of the oldest existing artworks. A river runs through the area, so it can be explored both by boat and on foot.
Mount Mahawu

4. Mount Mahawu

Hikes around the rim of Mount Mahawu, an easily summitted stratovolcano in North Sulawesi, let you peer down at the crater lake. The smoking fumaroles and powerful fumes of sulphur can be off-putting, but good preparation for the rigours of exploring the Tomohon Market nearby. Bats, dogs, snakes and rats are among the ‘delicacies’ to be found amid the chicken and fish here. You’ll need a strong stomach.
Tana Toraja

5. Tana Toraja

The culture in the balmy Tana Toraja highlands originates from animism, and some of Sulawesi’s most riveting customs are to be encountered in this region. Death is a big preoccupation here, and funeral ceremonies involve much feasting, drinking and dancing. The ‘hanging caves’ on cliffsides, effigies guarding graves and traditional architecture make Tana Toraja a memorable place to explore.
Tangkoko National Park

6. Tangkoko National Park

The wildlife of this nature reserve at the very tip of North Sulawesi is very diverse, but the biggest attraction is one of the smallest. Tarsiers are just half the size of an adult human hand, and their future is in serious doubt due to deforestation. These wide-eyed, nocturnal primates live in trees, but come down to feed on insects in the mornings or the dim light of dusk.

Our top Sulawesi Vacation

Sulawesi vacation, 13 days

Sulawesi vacation, 13 days

A unique insight into the fascinating island of Sulawesi.

From £1899 13 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Sulawesi or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fabio Lamanna] [Is/Isn't: Victoriahk94] [Bunaken National Park: Christian Gloor] [Lake Tempe: Francesc Genove] [Maros Pangkep Karst area: Wibisono. Yamin] [Mount Mahawu: Christian Gloor] [Tana Toraja: Arian Zwegers] [Tangkoko National Park: Niek van Son]