Bizarre tiny island with swimming horses, natural pools and the ‘best hotel in the world’
VISITORS from across the globe flock to Bali for sun-drenched beaches and jungles that are wilder than the island’s notorious party scene.
But a new secret spot with miles of untouched sands, a herd of swimming horses and a mystical culture that still practices ritual sacrifice is fast becoming the new go-to destination for those in the know.
This palm-fringed paradise, a quick one-hour flight from Bali, is worlds away from the holiday with its cool natural pools, towering cliffs, and surf breaks that’ll knock your flip- flops off.
You won’t find any shopping malls, yoga barns or beer-branded singlets here.
It’s become the ultimate playground for influencers looking to up their Instagram game by saddling up, striking a pose, and snapping away – capturing perfect golden-hour moments with Sumba’s majestic swimming horses.
Tourists are such a rare sight that grinning village children run out of thatched-roof homes to greet passing open-top safari vans coming from the airport with waves and shrieks.
Locals chew euphoria-inducing betel nuts and follow a unique religious system called Marapu that gives everything a spiritual value, from natural objects like rocks and grass to the buffalo and pigs that are frequently sacrificed in funeral ceremonies.
A recent injection of funding from the Indonesian government has seen major upgrades to Sumba’s transport infrastructure, with some of the dusty tracks in rural areas now covered with concrete – although the island still only has a single set of traffic lights.
“There are very few vehicles in Sumba – horses and cows on the streets are our traffic jams,” explains Maikel Pare, who grew up in one of the local villages before moving to Bali to work for a hotel.
He says that in a country with more than 18,000 islands, ranging from the famous 10-foot bearded dragons of Komodo to the pristine beaches of Lombok near Bali, Sumba is “one of the most beautiful”.
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The 23-year-old added: “Sumba offers so many things on one island. You’ll see beautiful waterfalls, beautiful hills, beautiful people and beautiful animals at the same time.
“It’s still undiscovered and not that many people go there. It’s slowly growing, but it’s untouched and still so pretty.
“We Sumbanese love tourists, and we celebrate them in our lives. If a foreign visitor talks to a local kid, they will be in awe all day.
“We love to welcome visitors to our beautiful island to show them our homeland, our people, our culture and traditions – we are so proud of them all.”
Although you’ll find everything from deer to monkeys and near-extinct birds on Sumba, the island’s most important animals are the horses.
When a man proposes to a woman, their suitability as a partner is judged based on how many horses they have – according to Maikel, it should be at least 10.
During Sumba’s annual pasola festival, men on horseback fight with spears in ritual war games as a priest checks the sand for worms to determine the bounty of the harvest.
Andy Elliott, a singer-song writer and videographer from the Isle of Wight who packed up and moved to Bali more than a decade ago, said the festival is “pure chaos” but a “huge reason to go” to Sumba.
One place to glimpse the island’s equine population in a more peaceful setting is on Nihiwatu beach next to the exclusive NIHI Sumba eco-resort – which has twice been named the best hotel in the world and even has its own resident “horse whisperer”.
It’s an A-list haven that has drawn stars including Heidi Klum, Christian Bale and the Beckhams, while Jennifer Lawrence is said to have splashed out tens of thousands of pounds a night to stay for her honeymoon in 2019.
A great way to get to know the island’s equine population in a more peaceful setting is on horseback tour with a local guide – hop on, hold tight, and let the locals trot you through the real Sumba.
They know the land like the back of their hand, and for just a fraction of the cost of one of the island’s two luxury hotels, they’ll whisk you away on adventures that’ll make your Instagram followers greener than the Sumbanese hills.
Trips take in hidden valleys, lush green forests, endless savannas, and secret waterfalls – with the option to visit traditional villages and witness the island’s unique local ceremonies.
Away from the private plunge pools, you’ll be immersing yourself in the raw, unfiltered spirit of the island and still having a brilliant time – all without the fear of a post-holiday credit card meltdown.
Sumba is after all a reminder that real luxury isn’t measured in thread counts or hotel stars – it’s found in the untamed beauty of the land and the genuine warmth of its people.
What to know about Sumba
Sumba is around one hour by plane from Bali
The island uses Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) WITH £10 being 197,178 IDR
You must have at least six months left on your passport
All tourists need an e-visa to travel to Indonesia, which costs 50,000 IDR and lasts 30 days