Nusa Penida still feels relatively untouched by tourism compared to much of Bali. It’s often viewed as a day-trip destination from Nusa Lembongan, but we saw it as far more. My partner Elizabeth and I decided to stay on the island for five days, explore all that we could, and meet the people who call it “home.” So, we left Bali, hired a scooter from the port, and began our journey across the island.
Nusa Penida rests on azure waters, towering over neighboring Nusa Lembongan and Ceningan. Its northernmost beaches face Bali’s Mount Agung, which is still smoldering from the eruption in 2017. But the verdant island seems like a different world to Bali. Its people are open and intrigued by travelers, and although you can see that hotels are on the rise, the natural beauty of the island and the sense of escape you feel as you walk upon its shores are just a short boat ride away.
Made up of only 14 villages, the vast island is connected by narrow, and often unpaved, roads. Located on clifftops, beaches, and hillsides, these villages harvest cassava and corn, but little else can be grown there due to the abundance of limestone in the soil. During our exploration, we were lucky enough to stumble upon a family sorting through the day’s corn harvest as the crops glowed in the sunlight. But Nusa Penida’s most important industry is seaweed farming. Each day, the seaweed is cultivated in the low tides on the island’s northern and eastern shores, and is then collected and left by the roadside to dry in the sun before being exported. The roads that connect the villages are lined with drying seaweed, and it’s common to see farmers walking out of the sea with baskets while others head out further in white fishing boats.
Knowing we had time to explore the island at a slower pace, we ventured east from the harbor village of Toya Pakeh along the coastal roads, toward the Hindu cave temple of Goa Giri Putri — a place known as the holy site of the god Shiva. We climbed down through the manhole-size opening in the cliff face and into the vast cavern of the temple, taking in the magnitude of the cave and listening to echoing voices as they grew louder. We ventured deeper into the space, and found ourselves in the midst of a sacred Hindu ceremony. As we were enveloped in song and the ringing of bells, a local priest blessed us with holy water.
From the temple, we continued further south to watch the villagers collect seaweed and admire the island of Lombok from the clifftops. We bought fresh bananas, mangosteens, rambutan, and sweetcorn from the Toya Pakeh and Sampalan markets; the smell of fresh fish and offerings wafted through the busy streets. As we drove along the island’s eastern coast toward Atuh Beach, we found a lonely red joglo perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean below. There, a family gathered corn. The eldest daughter ran up to us and asked us questions in English. It was a true reflection of family life on the island.
On the inland route back, we stopped to ask for directions in Tanglad, an area of the island known for its traditional sarong weaving. As we found ourselves surrounded by women who were laughing, joking, and talking about their lives, we realized that it was International Women’s Day — it was the perfect experience to honor the day. Although the women spoke very little English, and we only knew basic Balinese, we were still able to make a connection and laugh with them as we took photos and played with their children. We even stayed for a while, watching as they made ornate offerings for their evening village ceremony.
As we spent our final solitary sunset at Manta Point, we reflected on our time in Nusa Penida and concluded that it is the people themselves that make the island so special. After visiting the natural beauty of Kelingking, Broken Beach, and Guyangan, we were most moved by the farmers, market vendors, and local villagers who take the time to stop, slow down, and embrace those who visit. It is a truly a special place.
All photographs were taken by Robin’s travel companion, Elizabeth Curtis.