The local airport boasts a sign with the phrase, “Welcome to Gorontalo, The Hidden Paradise,” although my site partner and I called Gorontalo a “hidden gem” multiple times before we noticed this sign. The slogan refers to the incredible underwater life and diving in the Gulf of Tomini. While it is true the marine flora and fauna is spectacular and unique to Gorontalo, I call my new home a “hidden paradise” for very different reasons.
Most tourists treat Gorontalo as a stopover town on their way to or from the Togean Islands, and are only “stuck” here while waiting for the biweekly ferry or the next flight elsewhere. Some may come for the diving, but most don’t venture too far beyond the Melati Hotel and the small number of local attractions. These include Lombongo Hot Springs — a swimming pool filled with hot spring water — and Bentang Otanaha, an old fort overlooking Danau Limboto assumed to be built by the Portuguese.
Indonesia’s tourism website lists a few other attractions, including local monuments and mosques, but it still focuses on the handful of beaches and diving spots outside of town. Lonely Planet doesn’t say too much about Gorontalo, and its restaurant suggestion highlights food from Makassar – not the local dish, Milu Siram (a corn and tuna soup with basil, chili, and lime.) Why is Gorontalo not given much attention as a tourist destination?
In my opinion, the things that make the city so spectacular are rarely seen by tourists.
Gorontalo is home to some of the most friendly and curious people in Indonesia. Opportunities here are tied to who you know and who they know. For example, my counterpart is friends with another local English teacher who is a member of a cycling club in Gorontalo. He invited me to join one of their Sunday morning rides after learning that I, too, enjoy cycling. We rode through town and around beautiful rural scenery to a swimming pool and zip-line in the middle of the mountains, and were home again before noon. I doubt many, if any, tourists have been there before – let alone by bicycle.
I have also had the opportunity to get involved with a nature society, K.R.P.A., comprised of members from a local university and my school. My first adventure with them was a hiking trip in the nearby mountains. After a 20-minute motorcycle ride, we parked the bikes in a local family’s yard and started our trek. We hiked through hillside villages for a few hours until we reached the house of the mayor (or, “mayor of tiny village” as they all referred to him), asked his permission to spend the night on the mountain, and walked about 5 minutes further to a purpose-made campsite. The atmosphere was remote, yet we were still very close to the city.
K.R.P.A. invited me to Saronde Island about a month later. Saronde is a tiny, white-sand, beach-fringed island in the Celebes Sea, a 45-minute speedboat ride from the city of Kwandang (2 hours north of Gorontalo city). I am surprised Saronde isn’t mentioned on any tourism sites, as it was probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever been! The water was every imaginable shade of blue and turquoise and truly a tropical paradise. The island is slowly being developed for tourists: I was lucky to see the newly-built dock, and the long-term plan is to build several sea cottages. Currently there are very few structures on the island, so we camped on the floor of the main pavilion and paid for our stay by picking up trash on the beach in an effort to keep the island clean.
Another reason Gorontalo may be an overlooked tourist destination is because it takes effort to get to, especially when compared to the convenience of Bali’s international airport. Not only does it take more time and energy to get to Gorontalo, it takes a little investigating to discover what the area has to offer once you do arrive.
While I have the luxury of “knowing the right people” who invite me to the hidden but beautiful tiny seaside or hillside villages tucked away in the twists and turns of Gorontalo’s coastline and mountainous roads, some of the most beautiful sites I have stumbled upon were only minutes from my house in kota. Palm tree forests, sawah (rice paddy fields), and the quiet Danau Limboto are all easily accessible. Maybe the hotels in Gorontalo should start offering bicycles for rent?
As I have mentioned, many of these locations are not listed on any tourism site or guidebook, yet they are every bit as spectacular and stunning (if not more so) than the attractions that are listed. If you are looking for a unique vacation destination in- and outside of the water, visit Gorontalo. This “hidden paradise” is worth your time.
About the author: Kelsie Miller is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Gorontalo, Indonesia. She is from Urbandale, Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University in May 2013 with a degree in Kinesiology. Upon completion of her Fulbright grant, she will attend Mayo School of Health Sciences to pursue a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree.