The Wamena Highlands

Many have been captivated by the story of Shangri La. It is intriguing, appealing, and almost mystifying when chatting about it among travelers. Hidden among the rising 2,500-meter mountains in the Baliem Valley in central Papua, the town called Wamena, was hailed as the other Shangri La. Among advanced travelers, this is the other ultimate trekkers’ rendezvous.

Here Wamena awaits as the starting point to a remarkable journey, prior to visiting the villages beyond the mists. At 1,600 meters above sea level, Wamena is the highest ground in Papua where furnished tourism facilities can still be found. Beyond this point, one has to expect less, and get more of the unexpected. Reality can be more compelling than even the best information on the internet. 

Imagine yourself standing on a peak surrounded by a lush green valley, screened from the world by fuzzy peaks, while down below in the canyon flows an ever rushing river.  

The beautiful Baliem valley was discovered by coincidence in an expedition spearheaded by Richard Archbold in 1938. The town of Wamena is surrounded by agricultural tribes, as recorded in travelers’ journals as early as the 19th and early 20th century. The presence of a mummy, sitting in a folding position found in a nearby village, is evidence of the longtime agricultural practices in the Baliem valley. Here, you are also encouraged to learn how salt is prepared by local women, despite the fact that the sea is on the other side of this huge island. 

Wamena became known through pictures of warring stone-age tribes. However, In the Baliem valley, in the past decade tribes have made peace with one another, and have, instead decided to hold yearly mock wars to continue to maintain strength in defending their territories. These mock wars are held during the annual Baliem Festival.  Tourism has also somewhat changed the local mindset and daily life, although their indigenous knowledge and conventions are still well practiced daily. 

Among the most famous villages are those of the Dani. There are three major tribes living around Wamena, they are the Dani, the Yali, and the Lani. They can be identified by the different types koteka (penis gourds) each wears. Until this very day, they still walk around wearing only a koteka, although when in town, they usually change into western clothes.  Despite this, you will still meet tribe members wearing koteka to the local market. If you wish to photograph them, be prepared that it will cost you some money. This destination is not cheap  to visit, but it’s worth all the money spent.

If you don’t have all the time in the world, then visit the Dani’s first, as they are the most approachable, most decorative, and are very sociable. Here you can observe staged wars, real hot stone cooking, pork feasts, as well as visit the sweet potato farms. It is a most memorable experience that can not compare with merely watching a travel video, or having a perfect snapshot on your desktop wallpaper. You will wish, though, that you had taken more snapshots with your camera while there.

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