Nusa Penida is a small scenic island off the coast of mainland Bali. I’d longed to stay a few nights on the popular island during our trip, but just couldn’t make it work with the rest of our jammed pack Bali itinerary. With a day trip being our next best option, this is how we ended up on a self-guided whirlwind tour of Nusa Penida.
I’ve been guilty of our planning trips to the nth degree. Being organised is just in my nature, but it also stems from when Dave and I both worked full-time and could only take two weeks away from the office. This meant I had to make sure we stayed on schedule to see everything we wanted to at each destination, and really make the most of our time away.
Now that we’re both freelancers and have a little more time (although still not as much as I’d like, of course), I’ve learnt to relax and go with the flow more. Some of my fondest memories of our travels since have been those small spontaneous turns we’ve made on the road that led to a new experience neither of us had expected, and I’ve grown to love those empty gaps in our travel schedule.
As such, the most I’d read about Nusa Penida before our visit was that the ferries left Sanur in Bali at around 7:30 am, and the last boat returned at 4:30 pm. That’d give us plenty of time to visit I’d thought to myself, as long as we make the first ferry.
Being a relatively frequent traveller in recent years has also made me more confident. After seeing the many organised day tours online that promised to show you the ‘best Instagram spots on the island’, I decided to discard the group experience, and confidently proclaimed to Dave that we could do it ourselves instead for cheaper.
Little did I know just how close I would come to regret that decision.
Sanur Pier – The Gateway to Nusa Penida
We decided to leave our visit for the last day of our road trip around Bali. First thing on Friday morning, we drove our little campervan from our beachside campsite towards a rough marker I’d saved on Google Maps of Sanur pier.
Over a dozen boats were anchored next to each other, rocking up and down on the shore. Opposite them, the small street was overflowing with tourists and make-shift stores that sold their boat crossing service. As we were running low on cash, I approached one of the counters and first asked if they took card payments. The man looked at me in confusion and asked if I had a reservation. It turned out they were already fully booked, and so were seemingly every other stand we spoke to after them.
We decided to find an ATM to withdraw some money, then hurried back into the street while wondering which company to ask next. As we stood in the crowd, a man in a polo shirt approached me (I can assume after seeing the lost look on my face), and asked if we had booked anything yet. He said he had a boat leaving at 7:30 am, and we could get on it if we left now. I questioned him on how that could be given it was already nearly 8 am, but it seemed that no one had really departed on time that day.
So after seeing the boat he was referring to was real, we paid 400,000 IDR / £20 each for a return trip from Bali to Nusa Penida onboard the Angel Billabong.
Bali to Nusa Penida
The crossing to Nusa Penida was relatively short, taking only around 45 mins on the fast speed boat. This is long enough for us to realise that in our hurry, we’d left our travel credit card in the ATM machine. Fuck! I cursed repeatedly and spent the journey in a bad mood while mentally punishing myself for making such a stupid mistake.
We sat strategically at the back of the boat so we could be the first to get off, and on arrival, hurried down the pier to be met with a crowd of locals offering their private tours and bike rentals.
‘How much for a bike?’ I asked the first man I saw.
‘100k’ he replied.
‘Oh, that’s too much’, I bartered. ‘How about 50k?’ I wasn’t trying to insult him, it’s just what we’d paid for our first bike back in Bali.
The man and his friend laughed at this in a good-natured way.
‘50k for a bike?’ they replied, ‘we could do 50 dollars!’.
The lightheartedness of their response snapped me out of my dampened mood a little. Even in a sales transaction, Bali had some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. It reminded me that I needed to laugh more myself, and not to let frustration always be my first response to life’s little bumps.
We walked away and ended up renting a bike from our boat company instead for 100,000 IDR / £5.80 – no haggling this time, although I did negotiate a couple of helmets.
With transportation arranged, I reached for my mobile to open up Google Maps and found the device was already on half battery, and Dave’s was even worse. Charging our phones had been a little difficult in our little camper van the past few days, and with the car now back on mainland Bali, all I could do was promptly put it on maximum battery saver mode and hope that it would be enough to last us the day.
I’d heard about the roads on Nusa Penida being difficult, but thankfully, the route was easy to follow. As one of the first visitors to arrive that day, it was also quiet. The GPS told us about 50 minutes, which seemed exaggerated given the length of the journey on the map. It all made sense, however, when we turned off the main road into what can only be described as a dirt path. Except they weren’t even dirt paths, these were previously paved concrete roads that had fallen into such bad disrepair they were now several kilometres long of nothing but loose stones, rocks, and scattered pot-holes large enough to stop your bike in – or worse, break it. We slowed to a crawl through the crevices, feeling each and every bump under our seats, wondering when it might come to an end and if it’d be faster if we just walked. Eventually, though, we made it to…
As the most famous spot on the island, I knew Kelingking Beach had to be our first stop of the day.
We parked up the bike and headed straight towards the cliff’s edge. After seeing so many photos of this spot, it was rewarding to lay eyes on this beautiful coastline for ourselves. The late morning sun hadn’t yet lit up the whole beach, but even in half-shade, the view was breathtaking.
Far below us, we could see a few dots of committed tourists who’d already made it onto the beach. We walked towards a small queue of people along the cliff who looked like were waiting to head down to join them, but on approach, I realised they were actually lining up to sit by a gap in the fence to have their photo taken. As someone with a fear of heights, seeing people dangling their limbs over a cliff edge makes me feel physically nauseous. I walked in a wide arc around them, afraid I might tip someone over if I go too close (there’s so much room for error), and began to climb down into the pathway.
The crowd had gathered slowly on this narrow path, and we all took turns getting in the way of each other’s photos before some continued their descent, while others retreated back. The path was so much more dangerous than it looks in pictures – the staircase consisted of rocks and branches dug into the ground, while wooden poles tied together against the cliff had been made into rickety handrails on either side. I noticed many people who walked past were wearing flip flops, and I prayed for their safety. The beginning section where we stood was already pretty steep, but those on their climb back were warning about ‘sheer drops’ around the next corner.
Not having the time nor the stomach for such a journey, we climbed back to the top to admire the view from above instead.
With its perfect shades of greens and blues against the unique outline, it’s not difficult to see why the nicknamed T-Rex Beach attracts such crowds.
Satisfied and feeling fried from the midday sun, we got back on the bike for our next stop.
Nearly an hour and a half of crumbling roads later, we made it to Diamond Beach.
While I’d seen so many photos of Kelingking Beach it already felt like I’d been there, Diamond Beach really took my breath away. This was the view that I came for, and it was easily one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen.
A well-constructed pathway led down to the pristine beach, where the waves crashed hard against the sand. We began our descent towards it until we realised the water was far too rough to swim in and the tide was too high, so it probably wasn’t worth the walk down.
On the other side is Atuh Beach, another stunning white sand cove with what looked like shops or restaurants built along the sand.
The time was now 1:30 pm and my stomach hadn’t stopped rumbling since we’d arrived on the island. In our rush, we’d also skipped breakfast and hadn’t stopped moving since. I’d been snacking on an overpriced bag of crisps we’d bought earlier, but really I was dreaming about nasi goreng and a toilet break.
We began to climb down another steep flight of steps towards the beach, only to realise just how high up we really were from the shore. Already aching from the bumpy bike rides and about half-way to heatstroke at this stage, we asked ourselves whether we could climb all the way back to where our bike was parked. Of course, the answer was no. And so we left the most beautiful spots on the island with a bittersweet feeling and made our way towards our fourth and final stop of the day.
Broken Beach and Angel’s Billabong
Climbing off the bike for the penultimate time, I longed to finally have a swim in the beautiful water we’d been gazing at all day. It was just our luck really, that the natural rockpool here was closed off due to strong tides.
We strolled past the restaurants that lined the main walkway along the water trying not to think too much about food. With a short cash supply and no bank card, we bought a can of Sprite to help cool off, then walked a circuit around the rim of Broken Beach.
Despite its name, there isn’t actually an accessible beach here, but the view was beautiful, and the darker ocean waters and earthy cliffs made me feel like I’d been transported back to somewhere in Europe.
Desperate for a bathroom break now, I spotted a sign for the toilet attached to a tree and followed it behind a restaurant where a local woman pointed me to two stalls. I walked into one and laughed to myself – it’s funny how glamorous travel can look online when in reality you’re paying to use a squat toilet with no toilet paper and a bucket of water and a cup as a flush.
Feeling somewhat refreshed, we sat down by the coastline to finally catch our breath.
This was by far the most crowded spot we’d been to. People were taking photos at every corner, and to my horror, even closer to the edge of the cliff than at Kelingking Beach. In the crowd, we spotted a man wearing a ripped t-shirt that was stained red from blood – clearly the result of a bike fall.
Sitting on the concrete steps facing the view, I checked the time on my phone, which was now on 27% battery. It was approaching 3:20 pm, and we felt relieved to be on schedule to make the 30-minute journey back to the pier, ready for our 4:30 pm return trip… or so I thought.
The return journey
Back at the bike, I turned on Google maps for the last time and set our marker to the pier. To my horror, the estimated journey time was not half an hour like I’d somehow thought, but 50 minutes. We hadn’t even left the beach yet, but our ETA was already 4:20 pm and we still had to return our bike and check-in.
‘Let’s just go’, I said to Dave, who wore a panicked look on his face.
‘Don’t worry about the bumps – just go’, I repeated. He’d been making an effort to slow down through the potholes all day, but with the clock against us, speed was now our priority.
The traffic had been quiet for most of the day, but we now found ourselves fighting against big SUV vehicles who travelled even slower than the bikes did through the broken roads.
‘Go around them – you can do it!’, I shouted to Dave in encouragement. We weaved around each queue of cars and the blind corners and now accelerated through the potholes instead of braking for them.
After a wrong turn increased our ETA by another 15 minutes, we rushed to correct our course and, to our luck, found ourselves driving behind a local tour guide. The locals here knew exactly how to navigate the rocky paths, and they sped through them with minimal difficulty.
We picked up our pace again and kept up with the local man as best as we could – if he swerved his bike to the left around a pothole, then so did we. Meanwhile, I kept a sharp eye on my phone, both at the directions and the dwindling battery life which decreased along with our journey time.
The local ahead of us eventually turned off the road, but we continued at his pace having now learnt that more speed actually made the potholes easier to navigate.
‘How are we doing for time?’ Dave asked me every 5 minutes. We’d managed to gain 9 minutes on our ETA, which was now 4:11 pm.
It seemed like we were going to make it until we eventually arrived at the main road towards the pier, and found ourselves stuck in a long queue of traffic. The bikes ahead pushed through any available gap between the cars until we couldn’t move any further, and everything became at a standstill. With every second counting, the minutes that passed here only made us feel more panicked.
It was now 4:15 pm, and we still had to take another turn for the pier.
I got off the bike and walked down the street to see if there was any more space for a bike to squeeze through, and spotted a small gap to the left of a car on the slither of pavement. I waved to Dave to come forward, and our small queue of bikes began to push forward one by one. I jumped back on behind Dave as we revved towards our goal, and I kept my eyes to the left. We didn’t know which street was the right one for the pier, but we took a gamble and turned down the next street towards the ocean.
Somehow, we’d found ourselves back where we started. We parked the bike and unclipped our helmets all at once. The crowd of people had already begun to move towards the boat that docked on the water, and we ran to the counter to show our return ticket to the man who was preparing to close the desk.
With fast-beating hearts and sweat trickling down our foreheads, we had made it – with 4 minutes to spare and 12% battery left on my phone.
We looked at each other and laughed at just how close we had come to having to spend a night on the island. But secretly I wondered, would that have really been so bad…?
Tips for your own trip to Nusa Penida:
- I can’t emphasize enough just how poor the road conditions are on the island. If you’re not confident driving or riding a bike, you are much better off going with a guide.
- If you do rent a bike, ask for a helmet. They don’t tend to give them out on Nusa Penida and most people don’t wear them, but I would.
- Most day trip tours are tailored to only one side of the island. In hindsight, it was very ambitious of us to cross the island, and it meant we had hardly any time at each stop. Don’t make the same mistake – unless you’re staying overnight, pick the sights on one side and stick to that so you have time to enjoy the spots.
- Book your boat crossing in advance! We were very lucky to find two tickets that morning.
- If you have time, spend a night or two here. The island is beautiful and it’ll give you the time you need to see it all. Plus, you’ll get to have the place to yourself after the daytrippers leave.
- Remember not to leave your credit card in an ATM 😉