When a vacation destination offers the opportunity to see eight-foot dragons in the wild, you know it'll be anything but ordinary. In Indonesia, the curious and adventurous can walk alongside Komodo dragons in their only habitat on earth.
The Komodo dragon is not just any lizard – it’s the largest living species of lizard, typically weighing between 150-200 pounds. They can be found on only five islands in Indonesia, but it’s said that the biggest among them live on the island of Komodo. With a tour guide, visitors are able to observe the carnivorous dragons from a safe distance. Lucky sightseers will not only spot a few during their time on the island but may even witness a fight or feeding (they can impressively consume up to 80% of their body weight in one feeding). Before you get too close for a selfie, know that their top land speed is 12 miles per hour, so keep your distance!
Thousands roam free, but that’s only due to the government’s conservation efforts. Komodo National Park – which includes Komodo, Padar, Rinca and a number of smaller islands – was originally established in 1980 to help protect the dragons from encroaching threats. In 1991, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, sustainability and ecotourism remain important factors in the species’ continued existence.
While these scaly, forked-tongue lizards are the area’s main attraction, the surrounding waters are impressive in their own right, boasting rich marine biodiversity thanks to the park’s protected status. Avid divers and snorkelers come far and wide for the opportunity to swim alongside sea turtles, manta rays, and colorful coral reefs. Local companies offer a variety of tour options – like day trips, multi-day liveaboard excursions and PADI dive courses – that take visitors to world-class scuba diving and snorkeling spots in the area.
Komodo National Park isn’t uninhabited, though. People were already living in the area before it was declared a national park, and the villages have remained. These native islanders and others who have relocated to the area are mostly fishermen by trade. Some have also taken up wood carving to supplement their income. If you want to support the local woodworkers and purchase one of their pieces, be sure to carry cash.
Getting to Indonesia and Komodo National Park
First, of course, you need to book a flight and pack your passport. Affordable daily flight options from the U.S. continue to make Indonesia very accessible for Americans. Top U.S. and international carriers are offering incredibly enticing fares – sometimes lower than a round-trip ticket to Europe. However, you won’t be paying European prices in Indonesia thanks to a lower cost of living and favorable dollar-to-rupiah exchange rate. Local meals are in the range of $3-5 and a 4-star hotel room with breakfast for two will set you back only $50 a night.
Taking a direct flight to Bali’s capital, Denpasar, is your best option, as you can then easily get to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores (your “base camp” for Komodo National Park). Labuan Bajo Airport, also known as Komodo Airport, is the local airport and services daily direct flights to and from Bali. This short hop between islands takes about an hour and costs less than $100 round-trip during the cheapest months. From there, you can join any number of organized tours or charter your own boat for a private excursion to Komodo National Park. Talk to other travelers for recommendations and ask potential service providers plenty of questions to ensure you’ll get the experience you want.
Your long-haul flight from the U.S. to Indonesia will surely be your biggest expense, but there are easy ways to snag cheap fares. If you have hard travel dates, you can create a price alert that will let you know as soon as airfare drops on your particular route. For those who have a flexible schedule, use Skyscanner’s “cheapest month” option instead of selecting specific dates to find out when the lowest prices are available. If you aren’t ready to book, you can still keep an eye on the fare by setting up a price alert.
There’s one more thing that will make your trip planning even easier: you don’t need to worry about getting a tourist visa. Americans can travel around the country visa-free for 30 days. Though, once you arrive and walk among dragons in this picturesque archipelago, it’s tempting to stay longer and explore further.