The Tribes and Mummies of the Baliem Valley, Papua
There are remote places in Indonesia, and then there are remote places in Papua, Indonesia, a land of rich traditions and exotic tribes often referred to as Indonesia’s Last Frontier. The Baliem Valley is perhaps one of the relatively more accessible places in Papua, from where foreigners can gain insight into the cultural complexities of this part of the world.
The differences between Papua and the rest of the country are stark, starting with the appearance of the Papuans themselves, who are ethnically Melanesian, but comprise of several tribes who speak over 250 different languages. Few Papuans actually follow a modern life-style, and a further difference is that Papua does not have the Islamic heritage pertaining to most of Indonesia.
So, when you are traveling across the Baliem Valley, Papua, you might be forgiven for feeling that you are no longer within Indonesia. Cannibalism and head-hunting continued to be practiced in Papua right up to the 1970’s, and the region is still considered to be well behind modern times, having been described as “20th-century Stone-Age” upon discovery.
Worried about being hacked during your travels? Stay connected and secure with ExpressVPN.
Having trouble booking internal flights in Indonesia? Try using Nusatrip!
Where is the Baliem Valley?
The Baliem Valley is located in the highlands of Papua, on the easternmost side of Indonesia’s archipelago, and was only ‘discovered’ in 1938 during an expedition on the island. The highlands are mostly occupied by tribal people. The main town in the valley is Wamena which serves as a base for venturing into the highlands, and is the gateway to visiting the Dani, Lani and Yali tribes.
Getting to the Baliem Valley
Traveling to the Baliem Valley is time consuming and relatively expensive, but not especially difficult, since Wamena is home to an airport which receives flights from Jayapura, also on Papua. Airlines fly to Jayapura from the major airports in Indonesian cities such as Sorong, Jakarta, Makassar and Surabaya. Flights to Wamena and Jayapura can be booked here.
There are no roads leading to Wamena, so currently, the only way of getting there, is by taking a flight.
What can I do in the Baliem Valley?
Trekking is the reason for which most people head to Baliem Valley. Trekking in the region not only provides fantastic views over the valley, it’s rivers and lush landscape, but is the best way (and in many cases the only way) of coming across members of the different, remote Papuan tribes.
There are few to no roads outside of Wamena so the more remote parts of the Baliem Valley, and areas outside of it can only be explored on foot.
Costs for trekking expeditions with guides are often incredibly high and prohibitive to most people traveling on a restrictive budget. Although hiking some parts of the valley in the village area without a guide is possible, hiring a guide in this region, one who knows the area and is familiar with tribal customs and dialect, is highly recommended.
Tribal warfare continues to be practised in the valley and conflicts are common, and although this is not directly targeted at tourists, the risk of getting caught in a cross fire is high, especially if you are not aware and familiar with your surroundings. The situation could potentially become very dangerous and indeed, during our time in Wamena, guides were refusing to take trekkers to one particular area of the valley because of some violent incidents pertaining to tribal conflict.
Even more so, trekking without a guide in the remote jungle is definitely NOT recommended. The jungle is deep and dense, and getting lost here is not something that should be on your bucket list! Assistance and any notion of ‘search & rescue’ is, at best, primitive.
Cost for English-speaking guides range from about 1,000,000 IDR (about €60) to 1,500,000 IDR (about €90) per day – this usually also includes food, accommodation in homestays within the village, and sometimes porters (often the guide’s own kids). Prices are negotiable, especially if you do not want to use porter services, but a hefty deposit will need to be paid upfront. Some of the more professional guides will also provide a contract, which is something useful to insist upon before disbursing that kind of money.
If you choose to hike independently, it would be wise not to deviate off the main paths leading to the villages. A knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia is absolutely necessary in the case of independent trekking, as there’s no way that you are going to find locals who speak English or any other western language once you are out of Wamena (it’s rare even within the town itself).
Once you are trekking independently, and you can speak the language, the costs are reduced considerably since you will be able to negotiate an affordable price for a place to sleep in the village and buy some food. Water bottles can easily be refilled with boiled water in the villages, whilst food is basic, with meals often consisting of potatoes and noodles. Not much else will be available. A Steripen can be used to purify stream water en route.
Unfortunately, both Nikki and I were suffering some back and leg injuries by the time we got to Wamena, so we decided to not go trekking for fear of making our injuries worse, and having to forgo the rest of our travels. Instead, we opted for a scooter and set off to explore as much of the valley as we could on two wheels!
From the research we had conducted before arriving in Wamena, we concluded that If you are an experienced trekker, a 3-4 day trekking trip in the Baliem Valley along the most common routes will not be exceedingly difficult, but trekking poles are highly recommended for less experienced trekkers.
Trekkers we met in Wamena recommended carrying sleeping bag even if sleeping in villages since, very often, you are provided with little more than a hard floor and it could get really cold at night in the highlands!
Markets in Wamena
The main town of Wamena is home to three main markets. The markets are as local as can be, with sellers displaying their wares on the floor, most notably the ‘Red Fruit’ (Buah Merah), which grows only in the mountain regions of Papua and is said to cure a variety of ailments. Chickens, pigs and children run around freely in the dirt, whilst some parts of the market are dedicated to meat (and other animals parts), and fish.
Exploring traditional markets is one of the activities we like to experience, especially in the more remote parts of Indonesia, where ‘foreign’ items have not yet made their way in, and where the items on sale are produced locally. Shoppers carry a Noken (traditional hand-made bag) suspended from their heads to carry their purchases.
Traditional Tribes and Villages
Trekking doesn’t only provide amazing views – it also gives an insight into the culture and lives of the tribal villages dotting the valley. The more remote villages and tribes probably deliver the best cultural experiences, but truth is that you don’t need to move too far out of Wamena to come across similar experiences.
What is so particular about villages in the Baliem Valley?
Males traditionally wear a Koteka to cover their penis, and little else. A koteka is a penis sheath made from dried gourd (yes, the vegetable) and is normally tried to the scrotum. The idea of this contraption made Nikki squirm and he wasn’t sure whether he would feel comfortable spending much time with the tribes wearing such attire.
The way in which a man wears his koteka can give an indication as to what tribe he belongs to, and different kotekas are worn on different occasions. Admittedly, I found it hard to meet the villagers without staring at their kotekas since I found it to be such a weird item of clothing. I felt embarrassed for staring so intently at their private parts, but they did not seem at all bothered! Nikki did fine too 😉
Women are often bare-breasted and wear grass skirts as do some of the children.
You will notice that many of the older women in Wamena and in the villages of the Baliem Valley are missing some of their fingers. The ancient practice (which is now banned) sees a woman having her fingers amputated to mark the loss of a relative, symbolising the pain after the loss. It was normally performed by a village ‘specialist’ using a straight-edged stone, after striking the woman’s elbow with a stick to numb the nerve, and thus reduce the pain of the procedure. The chopped-off finger is burnt along with the body of the deceased.
Two villages, Jiwika and Aikima, located just outside of Wamena, house ancient, 200-300 year-old preserved mummies belonging to powerful past chiefs. The mummies are thought to bring good luck to the villages and are simply kept inside one of the thatched huts. The mummies are brought out on special occasions. A visitor to the village who is ready to pay a fee is also considered to be a special occasion!
Jiwika Traditional Village
This is perhaps the most accessible village from Wamena and the easiest to get to, the only issue being that it is not 100% authentic. Despite knowing this beforehand, we decided not to skip it since we were very curious to understand what a ‘touristic’ village in Wamena, where there are so very few tourists, could be like. And we also wanted to see Wimontok Mabel, the Jiwika mummy.
Since a scooter was unavailable on our first couple of days, we made our way to Jiwika using public transport, which was not difficult but slightly frustrating. First up was getting a bemo to the bus station located just outside the town, next to one of the markets “Pasar Baru”, for 5,000 IDR (about €0.30) each. Once we got to the bus station, the ‘fun’ started since no one could indicate which bemo was headed to Jiwika. They all knew there was one going at some point, but nobody could show us which, out from the tens of bemos that were parked at the station, it was, preferring instead to offer us private transfers.
Finally, one guy just ushered us inside a ‘mini-bus’. In any other part of the world, including the poorer countries, the rusty ‘can on wheels’ would certainly not be classified as being road worthy. Many non-essential parts of the vehicle, like interiors, bumpers, windows, mirrors, door locks and steering wheel had all been improvised with a mix of duct-tape, string and wood.
Building up some courage, we remained until a few more people came along and the bemo filled up. This must have taken about 90 minutes, during which time we sat there without knowing whether we were on the right van at all, which was ok because the bus station is right outside the north market, and observing the locals as they went about their daily life was a treat in itself.
We just told the driver that we wanted to stop at Jiwika (if you don’t speak Indonesian you can even try telling him ‘black mummy’) and the 30-minute ride cost 15,000 IDR (about €0.90) each and we were stopped right outside the path leading to the village.
A man ‘dressed’ in traditional clothing met us along the path. We had heard that here in Jiwika, people expect to be paid (dearly) for posing and having their pictures taken, and this was our first encounter. The man was asking for 10,000 IDR (€0.60) per picture which we had read is a standard price, so we took a couple, assuming that the money was his only source of income and would also be of some benefit to his village.
When we entered the village, we noticed that some of the villagers were already wearing traditional clothing, whist others ran into their huts to get dressed undressed as soon as they saw us. First up was our encounter with the mummy, which is what we had actually come for. This cost us 150,000 IDR (about €9.30) each. The villagers then started to surround us and ask for their photos to be taken. Each click cost 10,000 IDR (€0.60)! We decided on taking 6 photos with Nikki’s Canon since it is superior to mine.
Touristy as the village may be (it is), we did not really mind paying money to the villagers. What made us uneasy, had more to do with the fact that ancient traditions are being exploited so severely, and that they quickly seem to be losing their significance. Perhaps we should not have contributed to this by paying for the experience, but would it have made any difference?
A Sidenote: The Censorship Incident
Regular readers and followers of our Facebook page, may be already familiar with some of the above photos, though having seen only a heavily redacted version. Following our publishing of this same content on Facebook, we have been warned that we were in breach of the site’s T&C’s on nudity, and had our account temporarily suspended.
Nikki and I respect that some members of our audience may be of a tender age, and we take extra precautions with what material we publish. It is our belief that the photos in this post, though not conventional, provide an educational insight into cultures which are different to what we are used to. There is no disrespect to, and no denigration of cultures or the human body on Cheeky Passports, nor will there ever be.
It is really not uncommon to find local villagers wearing traditional garments in the Baliem Valley – the photo below was taken at the airport!
Aikima Traditional Village
This little village was more difficult to find than Jiwika. We got there by scooter the day after we visited Jiwika, by following a little path off the main road leading from Wamena. We couldn’t find the village at first, but we met a man tending to some crops who happily showed us the way and then invited us to look around.
The village was pretty much deserted, but we asked to see the mummy which was brought out for the fee of 100,000 IDR (about €6.10) each. Other than that, and the spectacular Baliem countryside, there was not much else going on, since most people seemed to be out of the village, probably tending to their animals and crops. We did feel that this was more of the real deal than Jiwika was.
Riding a scooter around the Baliem Valley
Unless you are trekking, this is probably the best way of moving out of Wamena to get an idea of life outside the town. We first drove towards the northeastern side of Wamena, along a road snaking through lush vegetation, as the landscape became more and more rural, with larger villages giving way to small thatched, conical shacks and people wearing less and less clothes.
Indeed, as we drove further afield, it became common to see people in their traditional dress, men wearing only the koteka and bare-breasted women and naked children, who were definitely not ‘dressed’ in this manner for the benefit of tourists, since quite frankly there weren’t any around here. They were as incredulous to see us passing by, as we were with their dress, but they were very friendly and mostly waved to us after staring for a while.
The road became less well-maintained as we drove further away from the main town and crossed streams along wooden bridges, with little dirt paths leading the way to tiny settlements of a few houses and a couple of buffalo grazing around them.
Driving along the northwest was more difficult, since the road was a lot worse and with many more craters. This part of the Baliem Valley seemed even more rugged and raw, with locals looking up from their work in the fields when they saw us pass by. We observed lots of older tribal men wearing the koteka around here too.
Accommodation in Wamena
We stayed at Hogorasuak Guesthouse (quite a mouthful to pronounce) a little place run by Rut and her husband, in a very clean room with a shared (and also spotless) bathroom and a kitchen which we could use to make our own breakfast.
Drinking water, bread, noodles, jams and other breakfast items were provided by the host. The room cost 375,000 IDR (about €21.50) and was one of our more expensive accommodation expenses in Indonesia, but we should point out that almost all costs in Papua are a lot higher than in the rest of Indonesia.
The guesthouse can be contacted on the following email address: email@example.com
If you would like to stay in a hotel, the best option and that used by almost all the trekkers is the Pilamo Hotel . Again, this hotel is more expensive than those of similar standard on other Indonesian islands, but comfortable especially after a multi-day trip in the jungle!
If you’re looking for luxury, your best bet would be the Baliem Valley Resort which seems to be the highest-rated accommodation in the area.
Things to know before you travel to the Baliem Valley
This is essentially a travel permit which you need to purchase to access some spots in Papua. You can obtain the permit from the police authorities in some cities in Papua such as Jayapura and Sentani. The permit can also be made in Wamena itself and will allow you to travel in the Baliem Valley. We always intended to make the permit at the Wamena Police Station, but kept forgetting to do so every time we passed by.
We were not sure whether it was mandatory to have a permit or not (due to conflicting information) when staying in Wamena, but it seemed to be required mostly for going outside of the main town. The permit SHOULD be free of charge, but it is not uncommon for a fee to be charged. If you need the permit, bring along two passport photos. You need to list every place outside of Wamena that you intend passing through, which sounds like quite a hassle if you are planning a long trek.
Once you have your permit, be sure to make several copies of it. When you arrive to the main town of the regency you are passing through, head to the local police station with your permit to be registered.
If you hire a guide, he should be able to help you with all Surat Jalan formalities.
March – August sees less rainfall, but it can rain at any time in the Baliem Valley and rain should not be a deterrent to your plans. Be sure to carry around a good thin waterproof rain jacket in Wamena, and a thicker jacket if you are trekking to a higher altitude where the nights tend to be very chilly.
Renting a scooter
Scooter rentals are awfully expensive in Wamena, and very difficult to find. Our guesthouse owner arranged our rental from a friend and this was only possible after asking around a couple of days. None were available before. The rental set us back 250,000 IDR (about €15) a day which would be an outrageous price anywhere else in Indonesia, but actually a good deal in Papua, where everything is so much more expensive. The scooter was sparkling new!
There are very few places which are still unexplored on our planet. The Baliem Valley is probably not one of them, but the area surrounding it may certainly be! Even now, in the 21st century when travel has been made so easy, visitors to Papua are few, and not many people make it to the very remote tribal lands.
Although we didn’t get to go too far out of Wamena, the Baliem Valley has got to be one of the most special places that we have traveled to, and this thanks to the unique culture that makes the region so incredibly rich, and colourful. If you’re looking to travel to one the world’s last frontiers, Wamena would make a good base!