The tribal villages that dot the steamy forests of Flores Island still fit the descriptions explorer Alfred Russell Wallace scribbled in his notebook during his seminal 19th-century journey to this ecological spectacle. Unlike its more famous neighbors Bali and Lombok, Flores is more famous for its proliferation of unique species than for its selection of beaches: In 2003, the island became the object of international attention after the discovery of remains of extremely tiny ancient humans, dubbed hobbits, in a jungle cave.
The hobbits are part and parcel of the sheer ecological strangeness that is Flores, which is also home to dragons (of the Komodo variety) and primordial forests thick with clouds and mystery. But the natural world isn't the only fantasy. The Manggarai people, a local tribe, have built their cone-shaped "mbaru niang" houses, alien constructions of palm fibers and wood, into a remote village. The surreal town of Wae Rebo offers visitors a chance to bed down in one of the world's strangest ecosystems after hiking three hours through jungle.
The mountain views are bracing and the Manggarai – both men and women dressed in the distinctive and colorful "ikat" sarongs of Flores – are worth a second glance. They chase chickens and children around the grassy lawns between the drum houses of the village and work in nearby taro and coffee fields beneath clouds of massive butterflies. In contrast to Labuan Bajo, the nearest major city, which has embraced tourism by attempting to ape nearby Bali's branding strategies, Wae Rebo is the same as it ever was. Water flows through the caverns underground.
Travelers hiking into this forest need to be fit and decked out in closed-toe shoes to make the uphill climb that local octogenarians make with ease; guides are an absolute must. Paths are confusing and can rapidly become a labyrinth. The problem with living in a fantasy is how difficult it can be to find a way out.
More information: Getting to Wae Rebo is necessarily involved. The best system is to rent a car in Labuan Bajo and drive toward the forest with a guide who can locate both the trailhead and has relationships with local leaders. Call Leonardus Nyoman at +628123662110.