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Largely overlooked by tourists, Nusa Penida awaits discovery. It’s an untrammelled place that answers the question: what would Bali be like if tourists never came? There are not a lot of formal activities or sights; rather, you go to Nusa Penida to explore and relax, to adapt to the slow rhythm of life here, and to learn to enjoy subtle pleasures such as the changing colour of the clouds and the sea. Life is simple; you’ll still see topless older women carrying huge loads on their heads.
The island is a limestone plateau with white-sand beaches on its north coast, and views over the water to the volcanoes in Bali. Most beaches are not great for swimming, as most of the shallows are filled with bamboo frames used for seaweed farming. The south coast has 300m-high limestone cliffs dropping straight down to the sea and a row of offshore islets – it’s rugged and spectacular scenery. The interior is hilly, with sparse-looking crops and old-fashioned villages. Rainfall is low and parts of the island are arid, although you can see traces of ancient rice terraces.
The population of around 60,000 is predominantly Hindu, although there is a Muslim community in Toyapakeh. The culture is distinct from that of Bali: the language is an old form of Balinese no longer heard on the mainland. It’s an unforgiving area: Nusa Penida was once used as a place of banishment for criminals and other undesirables from the kingdom of Klungkung (now Semarapura), and still has a somewhat sinister reputation. Even today there is but one source of water and many hardships.
Services are limited to small shops in the main towns. Bring cash and anything else you’ll need.