Ruteng, in the Manggarai region of inland western Flores, is not the most inviting town in Indonesia. The best hotel is in a convent, 90% of locals think you merely exist for their English practice, and local transport tends to be an ear-splitting sound system on wheels. However, with patience you will find that the surrounding areas are beautiful, hobbits existed locally (albeit 10,000 years ago), and that the best coffee shop in Asia is just around the corner.
Our first impressions of Ruteng were not great. We arrived after a gruelling six-hour bemo ride, found our hotel of choice was full, booked into a grubby shithole, and got harangued by an aggressive local youth wanting to know if we were Catholic or not.
After checking in to the hotel, we headed back out on the streets and got pestered at every turn by groups of young guys wanting to practice their English. They also seemed to want us to go on tours and bombarded us with local information. One dude asked us where we were heading so we told him, ‘to Kopi Mane Cafe’. ‘May we accompany you for coffee’, came the reply. We were used to the friendly nature of Indonesians in out of the way places but this was getting silly! ‘No!’, I yelled somewhat shittily. They looked confused and sauntered off. Two minutes later another group attached themselves to us with the same lines. This was getting weird! There must be some scam going on here!
Turns out that Ruteng has a famous high school that runs courses in tour guiding! There are literally hundreds of kids learning to be guides. They were only practicing English. Doh!
Kopi Mane Inspiration: The best goddamn coffee in Asia
Kopi Mane is the only cafe in Ruteng that gets rave reviews on TripAdvisor. It was thankfully a few minutes from the hotel and a pleasant respite from the wannabe tour guides. And, wow! I couldn’t imagine a more unlikely place to find ‘the best damn coffee’ in all of Asia. It was a nondescript rattan shack on a dusty little side street. But, inside it could have been a trendy little cafe in Seattle. It was full of students with faces buried in laptops and the sweet aroma of great coffee.
The coffee was astounding! Over the next couple of days we got to know the owners quite well. Bony is an avuncular fella with the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we have rarely seen in Indonesia. He is absolutely passionate about coffee, the local area, and really seemed to know what tourists want. Damn shame he hasn’t opened a guesthouse yet!
He finds the best coffee in Flores and roasts it in tiny batches. Apparently, his finest roast won an award for ‘Best Coffee in Indonesia’ at a recent convention in Jakarta. This was the only place in Ruteng where we ate and drank. I suspect you will do the same when you get here.
We wanted to head out to a local village called Wae Rebo. It is a coffee growing village in an astounding mountain setting. You have to hike several kilometers uphill from the end of the road. The trailhead ain’t easy to get to by local transport. There is only one truck a day that goes there and the return truck leaves at 2am. Bony called up the truck driver for us and gave us the lowdown. He even offered to drop us off at the bus station after coffee, naturally, the next day. We went to bed much happier than when we had arrived.
Next day, we met Bony at the café and supped down a cup or two of his finest Arabica. He took us to the out of town bus station, found the truck for us, and negotiated the local price for us. I am loving this!
120 Decibels all the way to Wae Rebo. Er, no thanks!
Obviously, the truck left on Indonesian time. We got to know a bunch of locals at the station and after a three hour wait we were beckoned on board. The truck was super uncomfortable. The seats were wooden benches and there was barely enough room for our legs. No worries, we haven’t gone local for some time. We will cope. Then, they turned on the truck sound system.
Now, I don’t mind a fat sound system but no truck needs a bunch of twelve inch bass speakers to keep the passengers entertained. The whole truck shook. Worse, the highs and mids were right at ear level and were seriously irritating my tinnitus-ravaged ears.
Laura stuck her fingers in her ears. It was sickening. Fuck, I figure that the FBI had given Waco less of a pummeling! I signalled my discomfort to the driver. He turned off the sounds. Unbelievably, the locals, including the sixty year old woman sitting in front of me, started complaining. We knew exactly what would happen here. Two minutes into the ride, once we had paid up and were captive, the bass would return. We jumped off the truck.
No village was worth that! We were bummed but we are at the point in the trip when we can be choosy about how we travel and what we want.
We headed back to Kopi Mane. Bony seemed a tad surprised but understanding once we had related our story. He mumbled something akin to ‘peasants’ under his breath, laughed, and served up some fine Arabica.
We decided to move on to Labuan Bajo, the hub for Komodo National Park, for dragon spotting and diving. As luck had it, Bony was heading that way the next day so offered to give us a ride. Except we really wanted to see the Hobbit Cave and Spider Web rice terraces outside Ruteng. The rice terraces were on the way so that was sorted but Bony said that the Hobbit Cave is in a different direction. Damn! We had missed out on Wae Rebo and now the Hobbits.
Hobbits in Flores. Honest!
Our disappointment must have been palpable because as soon as we met Bony the next day he offered to drive out to the Liang Bua “hobbit” cave. OK. Maybe our luck is changing again. The cave is the site of a major archaeological find that forced scientists to reconsider the development of the human race. Instead of the convenient and moderately straightforward evolution from Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens, the finding of Homo Floresiensis introduced an intriguing side branch. The skeleton, and subsequent finds, pointed towards a branch of humans that were a mere three feet tall at full adulthood. Hence, the nickname ‘Hobbit’.
The drive out was beautiful, the cave atmospheric and fascinating, and the bones and museum informative. It is quite cool that one of the most important finds in the study of human evolution still remains close to where the bones were found.
Sadly, the road back proved that some humans have yet to evolve. We drove through a village where there appeared to be some sort of handout of government funds to rural villagers. We have gotten used to the lack of orderly lines in official places in Asia as well as ridiculous road manners. But, this was completely disorderly! Utter chaos on a single track road. Road blocked in both directions and motorcyclists conspiring to make it worse by the second.
The police were off eating donuts or whatever, the local headmen were filling their pockets before everyone else arrived, and locals were parking motorbikes on top of each other. Bony was having none of this. He jumped out, found the local headmen, enticed the pigs out with tasty pastries, and started ordering people about. It looked like things might get a bit ugly at one point but I guess everyone would benefit from a bit of order so even the dudes in ‘Fuck’ or ‘Death Mental’ tee-shirts stepped aside.
We drove on, Bony muttering, ‘Peasants’ under his breath again! After another coffee stop at Kopi Mane, we headed out towards the rice terraces.
The Spiderweb Rice Fields of Cancar
Paul will be supporting Man City before Laura gets bored of photographing rice terraces! I have to say though that the spiderweb terraces of Cancar are spectacular. I could bore you with how these terraces came to be but instead I shall dazzle you with Laura’s fine photographs!
A Few More Rice Terraces
The great thing about having a private car is that you can stop for photos. The great thing about traveling in Flores in April is that the rice terraces are still green. Combine these two facts with Laura’s love for terraced rice fields and you can guess that we made a few photo stops! The rice terraces a little west of Ruteng were lush and spectacular under the moody afternoon skies.
Roadside Flores Coffee
Well, a champion coffee roaster is never going to take the risk of trusting a local warung to serve up a fine cup of his favorite pick me up! An hour or before Labuan Bajo, Bony pulled over at a little shady rest stop on the roadside. He dug around in the trunk of his car, pulled out a gas stove, three cups, a kettle, several pastries, and, of course, a packet of his home roast. Probably the finest and least likely cup of coffee ever!
Ruteng: Final Thoughts
A huge thanks to Bony for showing us the best side of Ruteng and the surrounding areas. Do yourself a favor before you book into a hotel in Ruteng. Drop into see Bony at Kopi Mane. He has a friend who owns a homestay. I reckon it will be your best bet in town. Bony will, for sure, give you the real low down on the Ruteng area. It goes without saying that you need to try his coffee. You can buy the beans or ground coffee to go too. Heavenly! His wife’s cooking is fantastic too… unmissable spot!