Gorontalo: Gateway to North Sulawesi
Occupying prime rice growing real estate on a fertile, plain, the Gorontalo region boasts a rich local culture, historical remains and handicrafts, magnificent scenery, an extensive 600-kilometer-long coastline, rare endemic fauna and flora, panoramic mountains, forests and valleys and numerous other natural attractions.
Most travelers who visit North Sulawesi usually fly out without visiting Gorontalo, even though it is connected to the rest of the elongated horizontally-shaped northern Minahasan peninsula by road. No matter from which direction you arrive--from Ampana in the south or from Bunaken in the north--it is a welcome place to recover from the punishing overland journey.
Located on the province's south-central coast, Gorontalo city is the second largest urban center (population: 153,000) in North Sulawesi and shares the same name as Gorontalo Province of which it is the capital and most important commercial, educational and government center. Because of its conservative Islamic culture (95 percent of the population), Gorontalo is known as the 'Verandah of Mecca'.
Gorontalo city consists of one main north-south street Jalan A. Yani as well as several principle east-west running roads. The area for visitors is downtown where the most frequented hotels, restaurants and shopping venues are all within walking distance of one another. Homesick for Italian food? Check out Magic Pan Pizzeria, Jl. A. Yani 55. The big modern mall on Jl. Sultan Botutihe, with a Matahari department store, shops and chain stores is a major landmark.
Budget travelers head right for the multi-story New Melati Hotel (Jl. Wolter Monginsidi 1, tel. 0435-822 934) the long-running backpacker standby with great value Rp150,000 rooms in the rear original older building. A walk up the road is the more basic Hotel Karina at Jl. A. Yani 28 (tel. 0435-828-411) with clean a/c rooms going for Rp150,000-Rp200,000 including Indonesian-style breakfast. Large, modern Hotel Quality on Jl. A Yani offers spacious midrange (Rp400,000-Rp1,000,000 incl. breakfast) rooms with good beds, TVs, convenient location. Rates are bargainable. The Maqua, Jl. Sultan Botutihe (tel. 0435-859-2676) is considered the city's top end hotel.
All major banks are represented by half a dozen ATMs, the most convenient along Jl. A Yani. A small internet café is beside the New Melati Hotel. A friendly and efficient immigration office, Rp20,000 by becak (pedicab) from town, issues same-day tourist visa extensions. The post office, just south of Karina Hotel, is on the corner of Jl. 23 Januari and Jl. A. Yani. The Garuda office is in the commercial center south and in the same block as the mall. Catch ferries to Ampana from Gorontalo Harbor.
The province is renowned for its dive sites featuring caverns and overhangs--Sponge Wall, Jin Caves, Sand Channels, Helicopter Bay, Shadowlands, etc. Get suited up at the Tomini Diving Center. Jl. Sam Ratulangi 11, tel. 081-1431-421; www.tominidivingcenter.com; Miguel's Diving, Jl. Yos Sudarso, tel. 0852-4004-7027, http://miguelsdiving.com.
With its strategic location facing the Gulf of Tomini to the south and the Sulawesi Sea to the north, this peninsula has been populated since the 8th Century Kingdom of Suwawa. The area was dominated by the Ternate sultanate under whom the vassal King Matolodulakiki declared Islam the state religion in the 17th Century. A federation of principalities emerged in 1673. The Gorontalo district came under Dutch control in the 1890s. During the country's struggle of independence from 1942 to 1944, H. Nani Wartabone proclaimed it a sovereign self-governing region.
A statue of this anti-Dutch hero is located in Lapangan Nani Wartabone square adjacent to New Melati Hotel. Fine specimens of Dutch provincial architecture include the art-deco Mitra Cinema on Jl. S. Parman 45 and the General Hospital on Jl. A. Yani. The Baiturrahim Grand Mosque, supposedly modeled after Medina's mosque, displays graceful Arabic calligraphy. At dusk the call to prayer in distinctive Gorontalo dialect can be heard.
Vicinity of Gorontalo
Not yet fully developed as a tourist attraction, Gorontalo's assets would be more attractive if taken more seriously and better maintained. Rubbish everywhere is a problem. All the best sights are accessible by local transport, hired car or motorcycle. Ask for directions and fares first at your hotel.
At the outskirts of Gorontalo at Lekobalo, Otanaha Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1525 and seen in the province's crest, symbolizes Gorontalo's long history. It is believed that the fort's towers and blockhouse were built from sand, plaster and coral strengthened by the egg whites of maleo birds. An easy excursion, half an hour (8 km, Rp100,000 return) by car taxi or 20 minutes by scooter (use Google Maps). Entrance Rp5,000. An access road saves walking up the long staircase. Stunning views from the top overlooking Lake Limboto, the Raja Ilato cemetery and surrounding mountains.
The Lombongo Hot Springs is located 17 kilometers east of Gorontalo at the western edge of the 2,871 square-kilometer Bogani Nani Wartabone National Park, the single most important conservation site for Sulawesi wildlife. The main feature is the water swimming pool, but a nicer spot is the swimming hole at the foot of a 30-meter waterfall, a 3-kilometer walk up the mountain.
Laid back with chickens and goats wandering the beach, the Olele National Marine Park is 25 kilometers (30-45 min.) west of Gorontalo at the end of a scenic winding road. To reach the Jin Cave (almost no current) and Traffic Circle snorkeling and dive sites, split the cost (Rp600,000) of renting a glass bottom boat between 12-15 people. Clear visibility down to one meter with lots of fish but most famous for its weirdly shaped Salvador Dali coral. Rent basic snorkeling equipment from families of fishermen where you may also shower, change clothes and use the restrooms. The coastal waters off Botu Barani, on the way to Olele, is frequented by whale sharks that are so docile that you can swim among them.
The small island of Saronde in the northern Gulf of Kwandang is widely known among domestic and foreign tourists for its charm and simplicity white sand beaches, healthy coral reefs, water skiing, surfing, diving and snorkeling. Even more pristine are the breathtaking, near empty Raja, Popaya and Mas Islands off the coast of northern Gorantalo.
Limboto, Gorontalo largest lake, offers unique biodiversity, rare flora and avifauna and picturesque scenes of fishermen casting nets and setting traps. Swidden rice, maize and sago gardens--the region's main staples--dot the perimeter. The environs are the habitat of 40 bird species, 14 of which migrate from Europe, Russia, Alaska and Siberia every September and October. As a result of silting, much of the surface of this shallow lake is now covered in water hyacinths. Efforts to dredge sediment, reforest, shore up embankments, construct a sluice gates and dykes are underway to stave off an environmental crisis, improve the quality of the water, prevent it from drying up and restore the lake to its former natural state. At Iluta village, 10 kilometers from Gorontalo, is a historical museum dedicated to Sukarno, not far from the site where Indonesia's first president landed in a Catalina seaplane during the revolution.