The Wamena Highlands

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Many have been captivated by the story of Shangri La. It is intriguing, appealing, and almost mystifying when chatting about it among travelers. Hidden among the rising 2,500-meter mountains in the Baliem Valley in central Papua, the town called Wamena, was hailed as the other Shangri La. Among advanced travelers, this is the other ultimate trekkers’ rendezvous.

Here Wamena awaits as the starting point to a remarkable journey, prior to visiting the villages beyond the mists. At 1,600 meters above sea level, Wamena is the highest ground in Papua where furnished tourism facilities can still be found. Beyond this point, one has to expect less, and get more of the unexpected. Reality can be more compelling than even the best information on the internet.

Imagine yourself standing on a peak surrounded by a lush green valley, screened from the world by fuzzy peaks, while down below in the canyon flows an ever rushing river.  

The beautiful Baliem valley was discovered by coincidence in an expedition spearheaded by Richard Archbold in 1938. The town of Wamena is surrounded by agricultural tribes, as recorded in travelers’ journals as early as the 19th and early 20th century. The presence of a mummy, sitting in a folding position found in a nearby village, is evidence of the longtime agricultural practices in the Baliem valley. Here, you are also encouraged to learn how salt is prepared by local women, despite the fact that the sea is on the other side of this huge island.

Wamena became known through pictures of warring stone-age tribes. However, In the Baliem valley, in the past decade tribes have made peace with one another, and have, instead decided to hold yearly mock wars to continue to maintain strength in defending their territories. These mock wars are held during the annual Baliem Festival.  Tourism has also somewhat changed the local mindset and daily life, although their indigenous knowledge and conventions are still well practiced daily.

Among the most famous villages are those of the Dani. There are three major tribes living around Wamena, they are the Dani, the Yali, and the Lani. They can be identified by the different types koteka (penis gourds) each wears. Until this very day, they still walk around wearing only a koteka, although when in town, they usually change into western clothes.  Despite this, you will still meet tribe members wearing koteka to the local market. If you wish to photograph them, be prepared that it will cost you some money. This destination is not cheap  to visit, but it’s worth all the money spent.

If you don’t have all the time in the world, then visit the Dani’s first, as they are the most approachable, most decorative, and are very sociable. Here you can observe staged wars, real hot stone cooking, pork feasts, as well as visit the sweet potato farms. It is a most memorable experience that can not compare with merely watching a travel video, or having a perfect snapshot on your desktop wallpaper. You will wish, though, that you had taken more snapshots with your camera while there.


To Eat, To Buy, To Stay,

Are you up to staying with the locals? Then the Honai (the Dani’s traditional house) can be an alternative. But if you wish to stay in a hotel, several good hotels are available. Note: Street in Bahasa Indonesia is Jalan, and abbreviated as “Jl.” or ‘Jln’. The building numbering stays after the name of the street.

Photo Gallery


You can visit Merauke any time of the year, although the best period is between March and August. You will meet hundreds  of tourists during the August, when on the 10th to 17th. the annual Baliem Festival is held. The Festival is the main reason why many tourists travel to these highlands.

International travelers must be in possession of a travel permit (surat keterangan jalan) before travelling to the interior of Papua. The main Police Stations in Jayapura, Merauke, Timika, Biak, Nabire, Manokwari, and other large cities can serve you with the permit. Prepare also copies of your passport, recent photograph, and list of places you wish to visit. Better yet, ask your guide or travel agency to help you with the travel permit. They will be glad to assist.

Getting There and Around

Get Around

Hotels in Wamena are within walking distance. For longer trips, take a becak. There are not many of these becaks here and they usually disappear when it rains.

They are usually marked as A2 and A3, heading up Jalan Trikora to the market or pasar in Bahasa Indonesia. This transport is quite convenient if you wish to be in the market for real sightseeing. To visit the only museum in Wamena, take a  Becak, then 800 meters past the stone clock, you will see the museum displaying Dani clothing, decorations, and instruments. The Museum opens from 8 am to 4 pm.

Get There

Usually, travelers fly to Wamena from the nearest international or domestic airport. The Sentani Airport in Jayapura serves both as destination as well as transit point to Wamena.  The Sentani Airport Information Center will help with your inquiries on flights.  

Aviastar Mandiri serves Wamena, specializing in local government officials, plantation, mining, forestry, and tourism industry employees and guests. Trigana Air Services also offer daily flights. Other airlines are: MAF, AMA, Yajasi, Manunggal Air, and Hercules aircrafts of the Indonesian Army, TNI.