Want a great island break from Indonesian city life? Put Karimunjawa on your Indonesian bucket list right now! We spent 5 days here after visiting Halef’s family in Bandung and we discovered that there are so many awesome things to do in Karimunjawa that we had trouble narrowing it down to just our top 10.
If you haven’t heard of Karimunjawa (or Karimun Jawa or Karimun Java) then you’re not alone. The vast majority of people who visit Indonesia come for the beaches and partying on Bali. But we think you really should consider this group of islands off the northern coast of Java.
Where is Karimunjawa anyway?
Karimunjawa is an archipelago about 80 kilometers north of Jepara in Central Java. It’s most well-known for the Karimunjawa National Park – a marine conservation area that just happened to be the main reason we went there.
Karimunjawa National Park is famous for mangrove forests, beaches, and coral reefs. To get here, you can either fly (on Friday, Sunday, or Monday) or take the Karimunjawa Ferry from Jepara.
10 best things to do in Karimunjawa
The best reason to visit Karimunjawa, at least for us, was to just get away from the city – specifically the traffic in Bandung, where we happened to be at the time we decided to go. But there are a lot more reasons to visit than just get away from the craziness of the city.
In our opinion, these are some of the best things to do in Karimunjawa:
1. Kemojan Mangrove Forest
Did you know that Indonesia is the home to 25% of all the world’s mangroves? One-quarter! That’s insane! Mangroves are often called the nurseries of the ocean because a lot of fish species come to them to lay their eggs.
They also protect delicate ecosystems from storm surges.
Here you can walk along a huge boardwalk through a mangrove forest. These boardwalks go deep into the mangrove forests which span over 200 hectares.
The boardwalk route is about 2 kilometers, so be sure to have water with you when you do it. In addition to that, if it’s wet, the boardwalk can be slippery. Wear good shoes. Flip-flops don’t fit the bill.
I was wearing flip flops. Trust me on that one!
Mosquitoes in the mangrove forest: Yes, you’ll probably notice the mosquitoes here, so be sure to apply mosquito repellant before you go. We always recommend one with a high DEET content, like this at 40%. By the way, studies show that after 30%, it doesn’t get much better anyway. So if you find one for 30%+, you’re good.
2. Bukit Love
OK, we admit that this is a
bit of a tourist trap. I’m not sure if I would put much effort into going to Bukit Love if I didn’t have to. That said, (Bukit) Love Hill is one of the most popular things to do here. And it’s the most popular Instagram site in Karimunjawa.
If you need a better reason to visit Bukit Love, come during the early evening. Love Hill in Karimunjawa offers the perfect vantage point to catch a view of an equally perfect sunset.
It’s only Rp. 10,000 to enter, so why not? At least get that shameless selfie.
And even if you don’t care about sunset photos or selfies, you’re covered. Bukit Love has a bar and restaurant, so relax with a beer or coffee while everyone else takes their selfies!
3. Karimunjawa Square / Alon-Alon Night Market
If you’re a fan of fresh seafood, then Alon-Alon is one of the best things to do in Karimunjawa at night. There are over a dozen stalls at the Karimunjawa Alon-Alon Night Market. They open up at around 6 pm and they sell everything from grilled fresh fish to grilled corn and sate ayam to pisang goreng (deep-fried bananas in batter).
Our favorite stall was that of a man on the corner making sate ayam. We were here for a few days and I went there three times – so good!
There are very few tables here though. Buy your food and sit on a mat in the field and eat with everyone else! Or sit at one of the tables by the stalls. You’ll take off your shoes and sit on the ground. This way of eating is called lesehan.
There is a small downside. Sometimes the grills get quite smoky. You might end up smelling of grilled fish smoke by the end of the night if you stay here too long.
Nothing a quick shower and a change of clothing can’t fix though.
Before you go: Here’s a quick introduction to Indonesian food!
4. Scuba diving in Karimunjawa
Not gonna lie. If there’s scuba diving to be done anywhere in the world, even if it’s mediocre, I’m probably going to do it. Fortunately, mediocre doesn’t describe scuba diving in Karimunjawa.
What I loved most about the scuba diving in Karimunjawa is how healthy the corals are. You probably won’t see many big animals here, but you’ll see very colorful coral, plentiful schooling fish, and several varieties of nudibranchs.
We did three great dives in Karimunjawa with Salma Dive Center. They were great. Not only that, but the owner (well, we think he was the owner) is a member of the Coast Guard and one of the people who makes decisions on ferry schedules. He can help you with the unpredictable ferry in Karimunjawa.
5. Snorkeling in Karimunjawa
If scuba diving is not your thing – or if you just haven’t taken the time to get certified – the second-best way to see Karimunjawa underwater is with a mask and a snorkel. Karimunjawa has some of the best snorkeling in Indonesia. In many areas, corals sit just 3 or 4 meters beneath the surface, making the coral reefs here very accessible to snorkelers.
Remember, look but don’t touch. Prolonged exposure to human skin can kill a coral and some of the more sensitive ones can die on contact.
Sunscreen and snorkeling: Obviously, you don’t want to be as red as a lobster after a day in the water. One of the downsides of many sunscreens is that they contain ingredients that kill coral systems. Be sure to wear what’s called “reef-safe” sunscreen. We use Burnout Ocean-tested sunscreen and recommend it to everyone.
6. Island hopping and beaches
I admit that, initially, I wasn’t excited about this. Island-hopping sounds like an overly touristy thing to do and I just wasn’t looking forward to it. But after island-hopping in Karimunjawa, I can understand why so many tourists recommend it!
Karimunjawa is home to plenty of nearby islands, so there’s a lot to hop!
People who visit love to hire a boat for the day and just skip from island to island to soak up the sun and relax for the day.
You can join a boat tour for anywhere from Rp. 150,000 to well over Rp. 2,500,000 depending on what you want to do and how private you want it to be. Here’s an example of a company that does such things (we have no experience with this company, but we just wanted to provide an example to get you started).
Our Karimunjawa island-hopping boat, which we hired privately cost Rp. 1,020,000. That included the fee to hire the boat (from 8 am to 5 pm), snorkeling equipment, a guide, a visit to a shark sanctuary and turtle conservancy, and 3-4 different islands. We split that cost among 4 people. In other words, about $18 US each for an entire day.
Although it sounds touristy, it was one of our best days in Kawimunjawa. Highly recommended.
Karimunjawa Island Hopping recommendation: We hired a young guy named Pak Rofik (Mr. Rofik) to take us island hopping. He came to our hotel, sat with us, and we worked to customize our day. Pak Rofik was terrific. We also ended up renting his motorcycle and hiring him to drive us to the airport. You can reach Pak Rofik at +62-852-9071-4146.
7. Karimunjawa Turtle Conservancy
This was a bit of a wonderful surprise, at least to us, because we didn’t even know it existed before we went there. We stopped by the Kawimunjawa Turtle Conservancy while we were on our island-hopping excursion (above). Normally, it’s not a side trip that’s included, but we were offered the option and took it – because, well, it’s turtles!
When you exit the boat and walk up the dock, you’ll see a kind of net basket on the side of the dock that includes hundreds of baby and juvenile turtles.
The person leading our boat tour even took a couple of the babies out of the water to let us hold them.
I’m no turtle expert, but I’m pretty sure this would be against the rules in the U.S. and other countries. But the turtles were handled very carefully by everyone.
To visit the conservancy (which is really just a beach with not much to see besides the turtles themselves) costs about Rp. 20,000 (about $1.50 US).
8. Pasar Karimunjawa
If you want to visit Pasar Karimunjawa – or Karimunjawa Market – you’ll have to get up early. While there may be people there at other times of the day, the market generally is open from 5 am to 7 am each morning.
People gather here to sell mostly fresh fish, but you’ll also find everything from children’s snacks to clothing.
The prices at the market are very inexpensive, as the majority of the people who shop here are local. This is definitely not a tourist market, so you’ll be able to find bargains here that you might not find at some of the touristy places around town.
9. Masjid Baitul Muttaqin
Normally, I wouldn’t put a place of worship on a list of things to do (unless it was somewhere famous for them like Vatican City, Jerusalem, or Mecca or something).
It’s not because I have anything against them. As I often tell people, I’d much rather go to see a beautiful place of worship than to hang out at a theme park any day of the week!
It’s just that churches, mosques, and temples aren’t really places you can spend much time at. They’re usually a quick hit and leave.
But Masjid Baitul Muttaqin (sometimes referred to as Masjid Agung Karimunjawa) is really a beautiful complex. The unique green minaret on this mosque towers over this modest island. This mosque on Karimunjawa really stands out from everything else.
10. Rent a scooter and just drive
In all honesty, Karimunjawa is a beautiful, quiet place, and one of the best things to do in Karimunjawa for me was to rent a scooter and just explore the island by myself. Currently, scooter rental prices in Kawimunjawa are about Rp. 75,000 per day.
Most of the best things to do in Karimunjawa involve boats and food, but renting a scooter in Karimunjawa is a sure way to be independent while you’re there.
Just remember, they drive on the left here!
Relax, you’re in Karimunjawa!
Seriously, you don’t have to go all the way to Bali to experience beautiful beaches and amazing scenery. Karimunjawa doesn’t see anywhere close to the number of tourists as Bali does, and it doesn’t experience the rowdiness and partying you get there either.
If you want “drinking and partying,” this probably isn’t the place to do it.
Your vacation in Karimunjawa is going to be peaceful and relaxing.
Final note: Avoid shark farms in Karimunjawa
Because we had heard so much about it, we decided to visit a place in Karimunjawa that houses sharks. I already knew that I was likely to recommend against visiting, but I decided to spend the $1.50 to check it out and be sure that I knew what I was recommending against – just to be sure.
This is what it looks like – nothing more than a pen with a bunch of blacktip reef sharks, a few white tips, and a guitarfish. No reefs, no other fish. Nothing.
Sharks are meant to live freely in the ocean. I think that’s obvious. But just in case anyone believes I am against captivity in all cases, that’s not true. I’m not against the proper display of sharks in aquariums (I was an enthusiastic volunteer diver at Georgia Aquarium for a couple of years). But if you’re going to house sharks, it’s got to be in a place where the sharks (or any marine animal) gets proper veterinary care. Water quality needs to be monitored constantly. Dietary needs need to be met.
As much as it might “look” like the sharks are OK in these places (and it kinda does, to be honest), they are not. They don’t have any of the proper care that they need. Basically, exploiting sharks is just a way for locals to make money.
This is money they need, by the way. But capturing and displaying sharks in an unregulated, unprofessional environment is just not the way to do it.
Please stay away. Looks are deceiving. Just because a place looks well-maintained does not mean the sharks are OK.
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Michael is originally from Canada but now resides in Atlanta, GA with his husband, Halef, who also writes here. He is a Couchsurfing expert. Michael has traveled to over 50 countries learning how to experience more for less as he travels.