Known the world over for its gorgeous sunsets, super-friendly locals, and spectacular resorts, lush, laid-back Bali is one of those places you always hear other people talk about and think to yourself, "Maybe one day..." But with airfares being what they are ($2429 roundtrip from New York in January? No thank you!) and an abundance of top-tier resorts (Oberoi, Anantara, Four Seasons, and the recently announced Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which will open in 2015) promising the "quintessential" Bali experience for upwards of $600 per night, it's easy to be tricked into thinking the idyllic southeast Asian island is for big spenders and honeymooners alone.
But to experience the island's secluded lagoons, jungles, and white sandy beaches – namely, everything you're there to see – it's possible, and in many ways, necessary, to venture out of the five-star resorts and explore Bali's nature spots on your own. The island is literally teeming with bustling wildlife reserves, beginner-friendly diving spots, and ethereal rice terraces. Below, we've picked a few of the island's most accessible, locally-favored, and,visually stunning nature spots that you can experience all on your own: and cheaply, too.
Take note, a camera will come in handy!
Climb rice terrace fields
Surrounded by lush greenery, the Tegalalang Rice Terrace in Ubud snakes downhill in the traditional, step-like fashion. It takes about 20 minutes to travel from Ubud center to reach the fields; once there, the ancient process of irrigation is a feast for the senses. Nearby Kafe Karsa offers fresh papaya smoothies, which you can sip overlooking the vibrant panorama of terraces. Alternatively, trek across the slippery hillsides and muddy paths, but beware of overpaying: access to paths generally costs 3,000-8,000 IDR (about 50 cents), though some locals try to charge more.
See indigenous birds
Located a quick walk on Tjampuhan Ubud right near the Tourist Service center and Monkey Forest St., visitors can spend a day chirping with the birds in Bali Bird Park. The tour begins at 9 a.m., when a bird expert leads participants on a 5k walk along ponds, clifftops, temples and forests. Journeying through Bali’s dense forest, you may encounter up to 100 indigenous species of birds, ranging from cranes, storks, pelicans, eagles, and even a Komodo Dragon. The tour costs $37, lasts about nearly four hours, and including lunch.
Spend an afternoon along Campuhan Ridge
In the midst of rice terraces and distant volcanoes, Ubud’s best-known trail is the Campuhan Ridge Walk, whose expansive countryside translates to sparse crowds and stunning vistas. Pay nothing to enter, or, for a small fee, enjoy a guided tour to help navigate the varying paths, which can get a little tricky. The easiest way to begin the ridge walk is to enter near the Ibah Hotel; the Pura Gunung temple stands guard at the trailhead, and extends through the countryside. Passing through dense forest, the hike itself takes less than two hours, perfect if you've spent the past three days at the beach and need a change of scenery.
Hang out with monkeys in the jungle
If the thought of 600 crab-eating Macaque monkeys leaping and screeching around you doesn't sound like a complete turn-off, then a visit to Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest is definitely in order. To reach the forest, stroll down Jalan Monkey Forest Road – about a half-mile walk from the Ubud Royal Palace. The tour costs only 20,000 IDR (about $1.66 USD), which isn't such a bad deal considering you get to spend an entire afternoon with monkeys. Sightings are guaranteed, with the long-limbed critters strolling through the pathways, dangling on one of the 115 species of trees, or hiding in the park's temples.
Climb Mount Batur
Towering 5,633 feet over the island, Mount Batur is a sight to behold. The active volcano, which last erupted in 2000 (the explosion shot almost 1,000 feet of ash into the air), yields incredible views above the cloud line, and can be hiked in about two hours. (The level of difficulty is medium, so the experience is doable for most.) Kintamani Tour offers a popular Sunrise Trek ($50 per person), which picks up participants from their hotel at 2 a.m., followed by the two-hour hike, and a 6 a.m. breakfast at the peak including "volcanic steamed eggs."
Learn to scuba dive at Nusa Dua
A full team of divers is available year-round at Nusa Dua, one of the island's many popular diving sites, not to mention one of the most accessible, easily reached from any of the hotels along the island's eastern side. Beginners can sign up for an Introductory Dive ($135 per person), which lasts from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and covers the basics of diving equipment, underwater communication signals, safety procedures, and pool training – by afternoon, you'll be submerged in Nusa Dua's crystal clear waters, gliding alongside manta rays, coral reef, and a rainbow of coral fish.
With additional reporting by Tom Burson