Plan your trip to the Derawan islands

The Derawan Islands are a paradise for underwater lovers. They are located on Kalimantan East, the Indonesian side of Borneo, and are a great alternative to Sipadan.
The archipelago consists of 31 islands, the most important being: Derawan, Kakaban, Maratua and Sangalaki.

They aren’t that well known by tourists (unlike the Gili Islands) and are mostly visited by locals. These islands have long been considered one of the best destinations in the world for diving. We were amazed by the clear water and the abundance of coral and marine life. Apparently this was even more spectacular a few years ago. You should definitely go there soon before it changes too much.

There is little information about the islands on the Internet and when there is, it is often contradicting … We had the best time on the Derawan Islands and have written this detailed guide to help you plan your holiday . We explain how to get there, where to stay and what to do… basically all the information we would have liked to have before getting there 🙂
We’ll talk more about the islands and share more photos in other posts.

Why you should go ?

The locals are very welcoming and the underwater world is beautiful around the islands. Who hasn’t dreamed of snorkelling surrounded by dozens of turtles, fish of all kinds, and all of that in the middle of colourful corals? In a few hours we swam with over 100 turtles! On top of that, you also have the opportunity to see dolphins and swim with stingless jellyfish.

Makes you wanna go hey?

The Derawan islands, indonesian side of Borneo

The Derawan archipelago is made of several islands that each have very different characteristics. The main ones and more accessible are:

– Derawan, the smallest of the islands, but also the most developed one and with the most infrastructures for tourists.

Kakaban, the jellyfish island. You can swim in a lake full of stingless jellyfish. They were confined in this lake without predators and consequently lost their natural defenses. It’s an amazing experience that you can live in only three places in the world.
And the coral is beautiful around the island.

– Sangalaki, where many turtles lay eggs, and if you’re lucky, you can see manta rays.

– Maratua, where you can swim with dozens of turtles and discover many species underwater.

How to get to the Derawan Islands, Indonesia:

It is quite long and complicated to get there. There is no public transport and it can therefore get a bit expensive.
There are two entry points. The easiest one is through Berau, on the Borneo island.

Visa

If you do not have a visa for Indonesia, on arrival in Kalimantan, you will have to fly through Balikpapan first to get one when you land at the airport (VOA – Visa On Arrival) and then get to Berau . This is your only option.

Otherwise, you can get a visa in your country, in Kota Kinabalu or Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia. If that’s the case you can pick one of two options below to get to Derawan. 

A/ OPTION 1 : From Berau, Kalimantan to the Derawan islands
berau-derawan

Step 1: Getting to Berau

a) You can get to Berau by plane or by bus from Balikpapan (you can also arrive from Bali, Jakarta, Lombok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore … with Garuda Indonesia for example)
or
b) you can go through Sabah (Malaysian side of Borneo) and fly from Tawau to Tarakan, then Tarakan to Berau

Tawau-derawan-plane

Step 2: Getting to Tanjung Batu
Once in Berau, take a Kija, a minivan, from Berau to the port of Tanjung Batu. It costs between 70,000 and 100,000IDR per person (you will need to bargain to get the correct fare)

Otherwise, you can ask a local if he knows someone who can drive you to Tanjung Batu. The hard part with this option is to make yourself understood 🙂 The price is between 100 000 IDR and 120 000 IDR per person. The journey takes 2 hours (a bit longer than with a minivan).

On the way from Berau to Tanjung Batu, you’ll see trees cut down and burned to make way for the cultivation of palm oil. It’s a sad thing and not always legal …

Overall, you will need 4h between Berau and Maratua island and vice versa. Take this into account for your return.

Step 3: Getting to the Derawan Archipelago
There is no public boat from Tanjung Batu to the islands, you will need to bargain with the owner of a speedboat. The price is often very high and varies according to the island where you want to go. But it is generally difficult to lower the price of the crossing. You have to be patient.
A fair price to go on Derawan island would be 200,000IDR for the boat, if you are 2, a little more expensive if there are more people (generally they will tell you 350,000IDR). It is indeed more expensive than other places in Indonesia. To go to Maratua, 30mn further than to go to Derawan, you will need to pay over a million … (no logic …). A boat can accomodate up to 4 passengers.

If you’re heading to a resort, ask if they can arrange transportation.

Notes:

– You should arrive in Tanjung Batu before 3pm to be able to get to the islands on the same day. The speedboats can’t come back after 6pm, when it’s dark.
– It takes about 30 minutes from Tanjung Batu to Derawan island and 1h between Tanjung Batu and Maratua, if the sea is calm. – Ask to be left at your hotel (or quote one of the hotel later in this article) to not be left anywhere with your luggage.

B/ OPTION 2 : from Tawau, Sabah, to the Derawan Island

tawau-derawan-boat

Even though it’s closer, it is more complicated to get to the Derawan islands from Sabah. It’s a long trip and you’ll certainly have to stop overnight on the way.

– From Tawau in Malaysia, you will first need to take a public boat to Nunukan (approx. 1h30) and then take a public boat from Nunukan to Tarakan (3h)
(remember that this option is possible only if you already have a visa for Indonesia)

-Some say that there is a ferry between Tarakan and Derawan, but few people managed to take it. It would be available on Thursday only … Might be good to check once in Tarakan but I wouldn’t count on that.
You will certainly have to take a private boat which will take 3 to 4 hours, depending on your final destination (Derawan, Maratua,…)

Otherwise you can fly from Tarakan to Berau (for the rest of the journey, see Option 1 above)

An airport and port are under construction in Maratua island. The airport is expected to open in June 2015. So there will probably be a simpler way to get to the islands in a few months time.

Where to stay?

Only two islands are inhabited by local: Derawan and Maratua. Here is a list of islands with accomodation:

DERAWAN

This island offers several cheap options, close from each others. The losmens are basic and on stilts over the water. There were 2 new hotels being built on either side of our bungalow. More and more of those are planned.

We stayed at Losmen Danakan, as we read good reviews online but our experience was not very pleasant …
I’ll still give you the room prices to give you an idea: 180,000IDR for a room with fan / 300,000IDR with air conditioning.
We recommend staying at the Losmen Lestari instead: 150,000IDR for a room with fan / 250,000IDR with air con.

Many losmens will raise the prices… so shop around, bargain and compare.

There is also a resort: the Derawan Dive Lodge

We only stayed one night on the island of Derawan. The water from showers and toilets is thrown directly into the sea! In addition to the gloomy atmosphere, it bothered us too much, so we went to Maratua instead. The island is already quite polluted by locals so it’s better for tourists not to add onto that.

MARATUA
It is the biggest island of the archipelago. It has three main options to stay:
Maratua Guesthouse
This is where we were stayed. We loved it! I will give you more detailed information in an another post.
A bungalow for a couple is 550,000 IDR (taxes included)

– Maratua Paradise Resort (no website)
We did not stay there but we were told it was expensive and that the staff wasn’t very pleasant.
We let you do your research on that:)

– Stay in a village
For this option, you have to walk in and see for yourself. This is entirely possible but complicated as nobody speaks English and there aren’t “hotels” advertised.

NABUCCO
There’s one resort : the Nabucco Resort
It’s a high end resort, so the cost of accommodation and food is quite high but we heard a lot of good things about the place.

At this stage, there’s no accomodation on Kakaban and Sangalaki. A new resort should open soon on Sangalaki though.

When to go?

As elsewhere in Indonesia, there are two seasons: a rainy season, usually between December and March and a dry season, the rest of the year.

The weather is usually quite good on the Derawan archipelago. However, January often brings rain and the months of July/August can be windy (these are also the most touristy months). Obviously there may be wind and rain the rest of the year too, but it doesn’t last long in general.

What to do on the Derawan Islands?

The options are:
– go on a tour: on Kakaban, Maratua, Sangalaki. For each trip, you will need to rent a boat.
– snorkel around the island where you are staying
– go diving
– ride a scooter, if you are on Maratua
– just relax!

The beaches

– The beaches on Sangalaki are beautiful.
– Derawan has a small beach but unfortunately it is not that clean.
– The one on Maratua is quite nice but disappears when it’s high tide.

Overall, don’t go on the Derawan islands only for the beaches but mainly for the underwater world 🙂 But you can check out some amazing beaches, to put on your bucket list, here.

As I said earlier, we stayed one night on Derawan and then went to Maratua island. To limit the cost of this trip (as we were only 2) we took a tour for Kakaban, Sangalaki and Maratua and we asked that they leave us, with all our bags, in Maratua at the end of the tour 🙂 Knowing that a ride costs almost the same price as a trip from Derawan to Maratua (between 1,200,000 and 1,500,000IDR), it’s not negligible.

Important

There are no ATMs on the islands so be sure to have enough money with you (Indonesian Rupiah,  and US dollars in case you don’t have enough local currency).
There is no Internet on the islands (except in Maratua’s resort and Nabucco’s, when it works).

I hope this gives you enough information. Feel free to leave a message if you have questions or comments.
And if you like this article and think it may interest other people do not forget to share it 🙂

Plan your trip to the Derawan Islands, Indonesia, Borneo

18 comments

  • nous irons en juillet prochain pour 1 semaine de plongée avec Derawan Dive Lodge = super contact par mail, pleins d’infos – en effet, il faut bien tout prévoir à l’avance en terme de “cash”
    j’ai lu du positif et du négatif sur la qualité des plongées
    alors le mieux, c’est d’aller de juger soi-même !
    de la manta résidente, des tortues, ce fameux site avec les méduses : que des bonnes raisons !
    et puis après on enchainera avec Lembeh
    A+

    • Salut Fabrice!
      Vous allez adorer! Je suis bien d’accord il faut se renseigner et ensuite tenter l’expérience pour juger par soi-même.
      Si vous avez l’occasion je vous conseille de passer quelques jours à Maratua Guesthouse.
      Et puis vous nous direz où ils en sont de leur aéroport 🙂
      En tout cas amusez-vous bien

  • From my experience in Western and Southern Kalimantan, my prediction from Insta was right: it looks complicated to reach the islands. But at least there’s several different options to get there. Didn’t know there were other places to swim with stingless jellyfish outside of Palau. And a 100 turtles?! Sold. What a comprehensive guide, thanks for publishing guys!

    • Oh thanks! I’m really happy it helped. I hope you’ll be able to go. It’s a wonderful place!

  • Thanks so much for this useful article! Will definitely be pinning it and having another look when I’m planning this part of my trip.

    • We’re happy you liked it!!!
      I hope you will enjoy your time on the Derawan islands. Keep us posted 🙂

  • Bonjour c’est un rêve de gosse d’aller en Indonésie aujourd’hui je suis prêt mais quelle langue parlée en Indonésie est ce qu’il comprenne l’arabe ? 1€=? en monnaie locale je suis cuisiner pro en France et je suis curieux sur le poulet noir et enfin peut-on habité locale pour bien s’intégrer??? merci merci merci à tous NABIL

    • Salut Nabil,

      Tu comptes partir quand? Je suis vraiment heureuse d’entendre que ton rêve va se réaliser sous peu!!!! Tu vas adorer ce beau pays.
      Certains comprendront l’arabe, mais le mieux et de parler anglais et d’apprendre quelques mots une fois sur place (bonjour, manger, eau…etc).
      Actuellement 1€=14 633 roupie indonésienne mais vérifie avant de partir car le taux risque de changer.
      Pour le poulet noir: je ne peux pas t’aider mais tu trouveras surement des informations sur google 🙂

      Bons préparatifs et tiens nous au courant de ton voyage

  • Merci beaucoup pour ce partage. Qu’en est-il justement pour la plongée? peut-on passer par l’hotel de Maratua (maratua guest house) que vous mentionnez ou par un autre club? Sur leur site ils ne parlent que de snorkeling.
    je prépare le voyage de juillet…
    Merci encore pour ces infos.

    • Un voyage en juillet! Super!
      L’hotel de Maratua n’organise pas de plongée mais ils peuvent contacter un centre de plongée qui viendra vous récupérer à l’hotel 🙂
      Penses à retirer de l’argent avant d’aller sur les iles Derawan, il n’y a pas de distributeurs là-bas. Tu pourras peut-être payer le centre de plongée par carte mais il aura surement des frais.
      Si tu as le temps fais nous un petit retour après tes vacances.
      En attendant, n’hésites pas si tu as d’autres questions.

  • Hey,

    why didnt you like Losmen Danakan?
    (besides that fact that black water is released traight to the sea?)

    R,

    Andreas

    • Hi Andreas,
      We’re not very picky when it comes to accommodation and service but our experience wasn’t great.
      The Losmen employees were not very nice, ignored us a few times, didn’t really answer our questions. We felt like we were annoying them.
      We heard that we could get free snorkelling gear as well at this Losmen and when we asked we were taken to a shop where the price per hour was outrageous.
      We believe that travel is about beautiful places and great experiences with people. We missed that second part, that’s why we only stayed one night. And I’m really happy we went to a different place. 🙂
      I hope I answered to your question.

      • Hey Rafika,

        thanks for you input. I can tell you that Danakan uses a filter system nowadays. 🙂

        I think the biggest issue might still be the language and hence, one might get a feeling that people are impolite etc. I made quite good experiences on Derawan and Co.

        Anyhow, the island is facing tremendous waste problems and if the government doesn’t doe anything soon (and/or the people who live on the island) this paradise (esp. maratua) could see its end quite soonish.

        Regards

        Andreas

        • I know, I hope the government will start helping soon. And I also hope that people realise that they have an incredible island and start preserving it.
          Hope to go to the Derawan Islands again in a few years and still see the same amazing place, people and marine life. 🙂

  • Salut ! Je n’ai pas trouvé de page contact alors je pose ma question ici. Déjà, merci pour ces infos, c’est un peu ce qu’il me manquait pour me décider à y aller cet été. Par contre le tour que vous mentionnez à la fin Kakaban, Sangalaki et Maratua c’est 100€ par personne ou pour deux ? Parceque ce sera prohibitif si c’est par personne. Merci 🙂 (vous pouvez me répondre par e-mail peut-être)

    • Salut Lauriane!
      Je suis contente que tu ais trouvé l’article utile. On a eu beaucoup de mal à trouver toutes les infos qu’il nous fallait pour aller à Derawan.
      C’est pour cela qu’on a écrit cet article. J’espère qu’il aidera de nombreuses personnes!
      Je me permet de répondre par commentaire pour aider d’autres voyageurs qui auraient la même question 🙂
      Le prix du tour est pour le bateau. En général, c’est pour 2 personnes et à peine plus cher pour 3 ou 4 personnes.
      Tiens nous au courant de ton voyage et de tes impressions.

      • Merci encore Rafika, grâce à tes infos j’ai pu réaliser que je n’aurais pas assez de temps pour profiter de Kalimantan et de l’archipel Derawan en particulier. Entre le temps qui peut se gâter et les autres personnes qu’il faut attendre pour pouvoir faire une virée snorkeling à moindre coût en partageant les frais du bateau, je pense que les 3j que je prévoyais passer sur place sont trop peu pour être sûr d’apprécier. Une prochaine fois ! Quand j’aurais mon PADI 🙂

        • C’est vrai que pour 3 jours ca peut etre un peu juste. J’espere que tu auras l’occasion d’y aller plus tard.
          Merci de m’avoir tenue au courant

          PS: Tiens je compte passer le PADI aussi. 😀

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