The case for Bali… and where to start
Laying sunkissed on white sand beaches scrunching sand between your toes, trekking through lush jungles ready for adventure, ancient temples floating in the sea, spiritual discovery… these are the reasons people are called to Bali. All these things and “Eat Pray Love” (as much as we hate to say it). The image of Bali seems to conjure up the same enchanting dream for all of us travel junkies.
Admittedly, we were not reluctant converts from the very beginning; we were already under Bali’s spell well before we arrived, which is why we planned to spend more time in Bali than anywhere else during our travels (a whole two months).
People say that Bali is one of Mother Nature’s “energy vortexes” (not us, but people) and that it is a hot spot for magnetic energy (stay with us here) that falls along invisible crisscrossing lines called “Ley Lines.” If this is the first time you’re hearing about these, you’re not alone, but think along the lines of crystal healing and earth chakras and you’ll get the point. We don’t subscribe to this particular belief, but we also can’t deny that there’s something in the air, a vibe, if you will, in Bali. In Bali, "coincidences" seem to happen all the time very… unexplainably. We're not big believers in crystal healing (they're all over Bali, eye roll) or magic, but we believe there really is something to these "coincidences." Bali does fall along one of the most active volcanic arcs in the world, so maybe it’s the powerful seismic activity we’re sensing? Or perhaps it’s the positive energy effect of the local people of Bali, who, to us, are the most spiritual, peaceful, and hospitable people in the world.
But what is Bali? It’s Bintang on the beach, it’s sunrise hikes up volcanoes and through rice terraces, it’s the scent of incense wafting through the streets, it’s waking up to the sound of gamelans and chanting, it’s (at the risk of sounding cliché) chasing waterfalls, it's lizards creeping into your room at night and waking you up with their loud chirping it’s the land where Julia Roberts found love (or at least she did in a movie).
Bali is all these things and more, so how could one possibly take it all in in one visit? Well, we still haven’t figured this one out, but we do know the reason why people never leave. Like the tectonic plates moving far beneath the surface, Bali exudes a kind of magnetism that will pull at your heart forever.
Now that we’ve convinced you to visit Bali, we’ve compiled a sort of flowchart how-to to help guide you in your early planning stages.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
I want a beach
I want the jungle
I want yoga culture/to get in touch with my ~spiritual~ side
I want adventure
What is more important to you, less crowded or better weather?
This is the tropical beach town of your dreams. Canggu is a party town with a surfing problem (or maybe a surfing town with a drinking problem...we're not sure which came first). It marches to a slower pace than the neighboring towns of Seminyak and Kuta, and gives off a boho-chic hipster vibe with an intense coffee culture. The beach is lined with macramé clad cafes and ritzy beach clubs that are given names that millennials flock to (ourselves included) like “The Lawn” and “Old Man’s.” Without a doubt, the place to be is Finn’s Beach Club (according to us and Trip Advisor). Its infinity pools are open from 9am-11pm every day, and you need never leave; the bars are located in the pools! Watch one of the world’s most spectacular sunsets while sipping a trendy cocktail (or if you’re cheap like us, a Bintang). Perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Finn’s does is shining two massive stadium lights at the ocean to illuminate the water for late night surfers. Prices in Canggu are similar to the neighboring beach towns, but definitely more expensive than the average prices you’ll find inland and the north and east coasts, although at Finns, there is a great buy one get one free special in the evenings.
This beach town is on the southern peninsula of Bali, and is the up-and-coming beach destination of the island. Enjoy slightly lower prices with all the western comforts and less crowds. Uluwatu is more laid back even though it’s nestled between some of Bali’s biggest resort complexes. It’s not as walking friendly, but you can weave up and down the coastal mountain roads by motorbike and pop in and out of trendy cafes. Drifter Surf Shop Cafe and Gallery serves some of the best coffee on the island and Bukit Cafe has a menu that would rival any in the US for low costing healthy options (they have ZOODLES!!!). There are many cute bars along the beach to enjoy a smoothie or cocktail at one of the southernmost points in Bali. Uluwatu is a diamond in the rough, but is developing according to all of the construction we witnessed on the beach. We predict that it will be the Canggu of the south in the next 10 years.
If you want the hustle and bustle party scene that Bali has to offer, look no further than Seminyak. Seminyak is to Australians as Cancun is to Americans sans toucans and sombreros. Come to Seminyak to drink, and stay for the good food and beaches. You will be hard pressed to find better happy hours on the whole of Bali. Beware rush hour traffic can make for long and expensive rides anywhere outside of town.
Jimbaran is a quiet town that is home to Bali’s most massive resorts (i.e. the Four Seasons) and offers the best fish and seafood in Bali. There are restaurants in the form of shacks lined up along the beach that serve the day’s fresh catch. At night, each restaurant carries tables and chairs right up to the water’s edge for a beautiful candle lit dinner by the crashing waves. To order, you must go to the front of the restaurant, choose your fish or seafood by pointing at it, and then take a seat (which is a custom apparently everyone knew about but us). Jimbaran beach is firm, so it’s ideal for morning beach runs (Lauren’s paradise). Jimbaran caters to an older crowd due to the resort culture, but because of this there are several Michelin rated restaurants in the area that serve some of the best Balinese food on the island. Most people come to Jimbaran for the fresh seafood and Rock Bar (a very chic bar sprawled across oceanside cliffs). Rock Bar boasts unobstructed sunset views that live up to the hype, but beware the location comes with a hefty price tag for drinks and snacks, and is known for becoming quite crowded. Jimbaran is the place for people who love resort life, or like a quiet beach town with the perks of staying in a resort.
Nusa Penida is an island off the southeastern coast of Bali. It’s drier than mainland Bali, but it also offers some of the most stunning coastal views of the whole island. The most popular location is one you’ve undoubtedly scrolled past at least a dozen times in your instagram feed: Kelingking Beach. The view of the headland from above looks very reminiscent of a T-rex engulfed in crystalline turquoise waters, which should have warned us of the treacherous cliffside “path” down to the beach with nothing more than tree branches to serve as a railing. Kelingking beach is stunning and worth the trek, but is not for the faint of heart or for those who have a fear of heights. The waves are massive and the current will sweep you away faster than Eminem can rap, so swimming is hazardous. We recommend making the journey as early as possible in order to beat the stifling midday heat, which we clearly did not do.
The other popular destination on Nusa Penida is Diamond Beach, which features giant pointed rocks jutting out from the ocean that makes for a very dramatic setting. Diamond Beach is on the “other side” of Nusa Penida, and gets less tourist traffic than many of the other beach destinations. Angel’s Billabong is a crystal clear natural infinity pool framed by rock cliffs and Broken Beach is a sea arch (that is also actually a natural bridge) that allows the water to flow into a pool. For swimming, we recommend Crystal Bay, which has an island in the middle of the bay that you can swim to with stairs leading up to a temple. If you’re lucky and are able to stay late enough, you might catch the local people coming out to the beach for their evening ceremony. In order to fully explore everything the island has to offer, we recommend staying for one to two nights. Note that you cannot go to Diamond beach and Kelingking beach on the same day if you're coming from Bali. Bring lots of sunscreen; you will sweat it out in the sweltering heat of this island. Getting around is easy with a motorbike or taxi, but note that some roads are a little sketchy and definitely stretch the meaning of a “two lane” road. Ferries to and from the mainland are available everyday and there are two options, the normal ferry and the speedboats. A trip to Bali would be incomplete without a visit to Nusa Penida.
About an hour north of the bustling beach towns of the south, is the yogi capital of the island (more on that later), Ubud. Not only is the pace of life slower here (minus the motorbikes whizzing by), but it is also surrounded by jungle. Located a short walk from the city center is the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, which is home to 1049 resident monkeys. This isn’t even the only monkey forest near Ubud, and there’s two species of monkeys on the island. A visit to the monkey forest will cost you around $6 USD and practically a rite of passage to Ubud tourists (Lauren went three times). In addition to contemplating stealing a cute baby monkey (we would not recommend), you’ll be treated to picturesque stream side temples surrounded by ancient trees. Fun fact: every temple in Bali has its own sacred spring, emphasizing the importance of water in the Balinese tradition of Hinduism. Because Ubud is surrounded by jungle, there are endless choices for jungle spa retreats, and you will be hard pressed to match the generosity Balinese hospitality, especially in this area.
If you’re looking to experience “old Bali,” then look no farther than north Bali, the island’s virtually untouched jungle oasis. We like to say that it’s the “jewel” of Bali because it’s covered in striking volcanic mountains covered in dense jungle and has been unspoiled by tourism. It is mostly made up of wilderness sprinkled with narrow, winding, dirt roads that lead you to secret spots that are the best Bali has to offer. Because of the difficult roads, its remoteness, and its distance from the party towns of the south, not as many tourists make it up to the stunning locations of north Bali. (If you go, we would highly recommend hiring a driver.)
We would have followed suit if we hadn’t have wanted to visit Sekumpul, the tallest waterfall on the island that requires a small trek and a questionable motorbike ride to visit. What we didn’t know, was that the Sekumpul waterfall is actually close neighbors with two other stunning waterfalls: Fiji waterfall and another waterfall we can’t remember the name of for the life of us (and several earnest google searches also came up empty) but made us feel as though we were on an adventure with Indiana Jones (which maybe its anonymity adds to). The trek down includes a considerable number of steps and makeshift bridges that can be a little dangerous when wet. The excursion was a little more difficult for us because Rachel’s knee was still healing from our recent motorbike accident, and what promised to be an adventure of Indiana Jones proportions, the reality involved a lot more hobbling and careful wound treatment around the bacteria infested waters than forging across streams and blazing through jungle trails. Still, this series of waterfalls is arguably the most beautiful display of falling water we’ve ever seen, and decidedly the best on the island.
There are more waterfall destinations in the north, such as Aling Aling, Git Git, and Banyumala Twin. Most of these waterfalls allow swimming and the area around Aling Aling even offers natural water slides and jumping points. You can’t swim in the waters of Aling Aling because the waters are considered sacred, but there are plenty of adventure points along the way. One thing of Bali is certain; there is no shortage of waterfalls, each stunning in its own unique way. A general piece of advice: the best way to visit them is as early as possible to beat the crowds.
You don’t have to search far for yoga anywhere on Bali, the island is sustained by the myriad of yoga retreats around every corner, but the epicenter and pilgrimage site for yoga and spirituality on the island is undeniably Ubud. It’s no surprise that the kindest people on earth can be found here. The streets of Ubud are filled with a mixture of moomoo wearing yogis with heads full of dreadlocks and Russian instagram models. We are admittedly neither, but this town quickly became our home away from home. You can sense the spirituality in the air (literally you can smell the incense burning from the twice daily offerings), and it truly inspires an overwhelming sense of calm, no matter your creed. We are by no means yoga experts (Lauren has actively disliked yoga in the past), but a trip to Ubud would be incomplete without a visit to the renowned Yoga Barn. We were forced (due to our aforementioned motorbike accident) to take it slow on the yoga, so we moved outside our comfort zones and tried a meditation class for the first time on a whim. We got really lucky; our instructor (who we lovingly refer to as our “yoga mans, Greg”) loves to incorporate sung chants in his meditations, which we really jived with. We ended up trying to attend every one of his Kundalini yoga classes that we possibly could. He even has a website that offers his guided meditations and yoga classes for free: https://www.sacredheart.yoga/
Ubud, and the surrounding area are scattered with temples. Every village has its own temple and the ceremonies, a frequent and fascinating traffic jam, seem to happen almost everyday. With most smaller temples, you can’t enter without being invited by a local and wearing the traditional sarong. There are still many temples, however, that allow tourists to enter during non-ceremony times, but the dress code is always enforced for men and women. About a thirty minute drive from Ubud is a water temple called Tirta Empul, which is known for its holy spring water and where Balinese Hindus and tourists alike go for a purification ritual known as “melukat.” The ceremony involved repeating the action of washing the face, mouth, and head with the sacred water over 40 times to cleanse the mind and soul. Along with the spiritual cleansing, you may end up with a clean face and giardia #justbalithings. It was made a particularly memorable experience because the ceremony was interrupted by a water snake swimming into the pool through one of the water spouts making for a lot of panicked temple goers. But hey, what’s a good spiritual cleansing without a little drama?
Pura Lempuyang is the most sacred place of worship on Bali and is considered one of the “six sanctuaries of the world.” Tucked away atop a holy mountain in East Bali, it is one of seven temples that are connected by a network of hiking paths. As is customary, a sarong and scarf must be worn at all times (for men and women), which makes for a less than ideal hiking outfit. This location is also one of the most iconic and frequently photographed in all of Bali, known as the “Gates of Heaven.” The gate structures frame the volcano, Mount Agung, which you can see on the rare occasion it’s not covered in clouds. If you want to snap a picture here, arrive early, and prepare to queue for a while (we waited for two hours), so bring a snack. Luckily, they do have covered pavilions to wait under while you listen for your number. Listen carefully, because they don’t always announce the numbers loudly or clearly, but if you miss your slot for whatever reason, you have to start the process all over again. The iconic mirror image you’ll often see on your instagram feed is sadly a sham (which we knew before visiting); it’s created by a man holding a mirror underneath your phone camera to manufacture the effect, which we think we should all have a good laugh over.
Possibly the most photographed location in all of Bali is a temple built on a rock island in the 16th century that holds heavy spiritual significance for the Balinese people. Tanah Lot, literally “land [in the] sea,” is one of seven such sea temples, each built within view of another forming a chain along the southwest coast of the island. The temple is supposedly guarded from evil by a giant venomous sea snake, but the only danger you have to worry about here is being heckled to death by the souvenir city that surrounds the temple area. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the spiritual importance of the area due to the hordes of tourists and the small metropolis of vendors you have to pass through to see it. The temple itself has undergone some serious restoration. It was crumbling into the ocean, so over a third of the island on which the temple is situated is actually artificial rock. Many write Tanah Lot off as a tourist trap (which is not wrong), but it remains one of the most highly venerated of the sea temples for the Balinese. If you go for sunset, just know that you won’t be enjoying it in solitude. There are several smaller temples in the surrounding cliffs that are lobbed in with the Tanah Lot entrance fee that may offer a slightly more spiritual experience. This is not an ideal destination for the “off the beaten path” traveler, but if you’re looking to make a pilgrimage to the site, it can be worth the visit during the low season (mid-January through mid-April or mid-September through mid-December).
The eastern part of the island is also less built up than the south and has less jungle than the north, but there’s still lots of adventure to be had. There’s many beaches off the beaten path to explore. We found our adventure on this part of the island while getting our open water diving certifications. We entered the ocean James Bond style walking into the surf with our equipment and explored arguably one of the best dive sites on Bali and also one of the best sunken shipwrecks in the world! Her name is Liberty, and she was compromised by Japanese torpedoes during World War II. The ship was taking on too much water, so in order to salvage cargo, they beached it on the east coast of Bali where it stayed until the 1963 eruption of Mt Agung. The eruption pushed the vessel off the beach and under water where it has remained ever since. We can’t wait to get our Wreck Diver certifications and go back to explore the shipwreck more ~intimately~!
In addition to hiking around the seven temples connected with Pura Lempuyang, or “Gates of Heaven” (which you can read about here), the nearby Tirta Gangga, a former royal palace, is not to be missed. The palace, and more notably its water gardens, are named after the Ganges river, sacred to Hindus. Hop between stepping stones in the spring fed pools and feed the massive resident koi fish during your trip to the eastern side of the island.
For an introduction to the waterfalls of the north, see here, but the adventure doesn’t stop there. There are two main volcanic mountains on the island, the larger Mount Agung and its shorter sibling Mount Batur. Previous to 2017, guided treks up Agung were available, but due to recent eruptions climbing the volcano is now closed indefinitely. The trek up Agung takes ~11 hours and because of Bali’s heat and humidity (insert dad joke here), most mountain treks occur in the dead of night to see the sunrise from the summit. We can’t wait for the day when the floor isn’t lava and Agung reopens.
Its neighbor, Mount Batur is still climbed everyday and takes about 1.5-2 hours to reach the top and has the best view of Agung at sunrise. When we hobbled up Batur (are we sensing a theme here?), we were some of the first up the mountain and it was cold up there, so take a jacket. While we were waiting for the sun to do it’s thing, our guide brought us a breakfast of egg sandwiches and hard boiled eggs (good thing we love eggs) and we sipped on some watery percolated coffee. After the sun rose, we explored around the top and our guide did some tricks with a match to draw out the volcanic steam (if someone can explain this one for us that would be fab). Afterwards we were taken to an area by the lake that has hot springs (each establishment boasting that they are the “best”).
Nearby is the Bali image that blew up on instagram, the Ulun Danu Water Temple, which is a temple/island that appears to serenely float on the water’s surface. The images might lead you to believe that the temple is located out in the middle of the lake, but in reality it’s located about 30ft from the water’s edge. If you’re there during the right time of year when the water level is high, it’s an absolutely magical scene. Unfortunately, we went when the lake was a little dry and the effect was lost. We recommend getting there as early as possible to beat the crowds and have some tranquil moments with the temple and gently lapping water.
About thirty minutes from Ubud is traditional agriculture turned tourist destination, these hillside terraces offer one of a kind panoramic views of what used to be Bali’s entire economy before tourism on the island blew up: rice. These days the villages who own the hillsides make their money from the tourists that show up rather than the rice that they grow. They’ve gotten creative with their revenue sources in the form of “instagram parks” that include nests as well as the Bali swing on each overlook. There is a small entrance fee to park your motorbike/enter the rice terraces, and you might think it would stop there but due to the division of property amongst the villages and different families, you will be asked for a “mandatory donation” (something that is quite common around Bali) at every turn. Make sure to bring lots of small bills with you because you will be charged for every bridge you cross and every overlook you want to see. We were annoyed with this practice of nickeling and diming at first, but we remembered that this is the only way that some of these people can put food on the table for their families, and at the end of the day it’s a couple bucks.
It’s a pretty popular spot, and it’s not hard to understand why. We went a couple times and learned that it is most beautiful at sunrise. You also have the place to yourself (besides a few instagram models) and beat some of the Balinese bridge trolls to the chase.
Check out the amazing adventures Nusa Penida holds here.
Bali truly has something for everyone, but one thing we wish we would have known and had more time to explore were the other nearby islands. Lauren did a liveaboard in the Flores islands while Rachel was gone for Christmas, and she can’t stop talking about going back! Not only is it home to Komodo Island, the only place in the world where Komodo Dragons live, but the landscapes and hiking are some of the best there is.
We’ve also been told that Lombok and the Gili Islands are a breath of fresh air after the hustle and bustle of Semiyak and mainland Bali. They supposedly embody what the early days of tourism in Bali looked like and have stunning beaches and hiking. We’ve been told that if we think the people of Bali are nice, the people of these islands are even more generous and kind, which truthfully is a little difficult to believe (the people of Bali are already the nicest most genuine people we’ve ever encountered). With recommendations like these we can’t wait to get back for the next adventure!
Bali’s tourism has blown up over the last decade and it’s not hard to understand why. While the rise in tourism has been an economic boom for the island and generally a positive impact, you can sometimes lose the magic of the island when you’re looking for it with thousands of other people. We are always advocates of shoulder and off seasons because we hate feeling like cattle in large crowds.
The low seasons in Bali are mid-January through mid-April or mid-September through mid-December, but let’s talk about why. Rainy season starts in January and ends in April, so if you choose to visit during this time, expect full on down pours. The season starts with rainfall during the night, then it increases to a portion during the day, but sometimes the rainfall is relentless full on monsoon style. The season has its ebbs and flows and is a little more unpredictable these days due to climate change.
September through December is the hot season- when we say hot we mean really hot. The heat might be a deal breaker for some but this is the time we chose to visit. It’s important to wake up early and get the exploring done at the beginning of the day because the midday heat is sometimes unbearable. We got used to the heat, but having a beach or a pool to dip in can sometimes feel like a necessary luxury. Our homestay didn’t have a pool, but we joined a community center that had a pool and it also doubled as our work space. Even though this is the hot season, Bali is always hot, and heat exhaustion doesn’t discriminate, so take care of yourself in the high temps and drink lots of (bottled) water.
So you don’t mind the crowds and prioritize good weather, so island life awaits you during the summer months! The Bali tourism machine is in full swing during the high season and whether you want a laid back vacation, a yoga retreat, or an action packed adventure, it’s all at your fingertips. We recommend still taking advantage of the island’s hot spots as early as you can for cooler temps and to beat the midday crowds. The party towns of the south are booming during the high season. The best time to dive in Bali is from May to November (but beware, hot/dry season is in full swing in November) and the best time to see Manta Rays is in April and May. Bali is in full bloom during the summer months and we can’t wait for you to have the adventure of a lifetime!
We hope you have been able to glean something useful from our little Bali flowchart/how-to turned open love letter. What we learned was that you will probably never have enough time in Bali, so we always say quality over quantity (generally good advice), and make your moments in Bali where you can.