Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world and as you sit with your legs dangling into its cold water, the imposing crater cliffs give a sense of what that means.
We set off for Lake Toba after spending one night in Medan at Pondok Wisata Angel Guest House. The guesthouse was comforting only in the fact that we saw the faces of fellow travellers, each with a story of why chance had caused the need for a night in the sprawling urban mess that is Medan. The rooms themselves were OK at best, the sheets were clean but the aroma of the city made its way up through the floor and the stained windows painted a picture of the streets below. Ultimately the accommodation filled our needs and the local food of the downstairs restaurant did more than just buy our time on the WiFi. We booked our trip to Lake Toba through the reception for 100,000 Rupiah and with a few exchanged smiles between ourselves and the guesthouse owner, we left early in the morning with our spirits and expectations high.
We were joined in the car by a young French couple and together we faced the terror that was a young Indonesian man in dark glasses and a devil-may-care attitude towards death. This guy flung his old square-doored black six-seater down single lane roads in a way which would only make sense if he had the power of premonition. Blind corners, blind rises and oncoming traffic were of little consequence as he careered his little vehicle between whatever came our way. After roughly four hours of driving through the fertile countryside, the vegetation began to change and we started to climb upwards out of a valley of thick green Sumatran flora and up to the ridge of the crater of the old super volcano.
Lake Toba was formed by a massive volcanic eruption around 70,000 years ago and now sits inside of the massive crater it left behind. In the middle of the lake is a large island called Pulau Samosir, an important cultural hub for the Batak people, a Sumatran tribe who are now largely Christian. The island is vast and its lush hills are open to exploring through scooters, bicycles and hiking; although accommodation and dining options are mostly centered around a little area called Tuk Tuk which has been built up with tourists in mind. There are a multitude of options for the kind of travelling you want to do, with basic fan bungalow establishments neighbouring hotels with pools and cocktails. What really makes Toba special is that no matter what you’re willing to pay you’re guaranteed an unobstructed view of the lake Budget was our primary concern and there was no shortage of options as we made our way around the little bubble of Tuk Tuk. We eventually settled on a guesthouse called Sibayak which had a comfortable bed and a cold shower for 40,000 Rupiah a night.The owner was welcoming; happy to add our meals and beers to the overall tab as we discovered the area over the next few days.
Our time in Lake Toba was mostly made up with slow walks around Tuk Tuk as we attempted to find new and interesting places to eat and drink. We were there in low season and there were very few other travelers on the island. Most establishments sat empty, with upbeat music failing to make up for the lack of patrons. Our persistent meanderings yielded some notable results though. Jenny’s Restaurant became our go-to morning stop, with delicious breakfast sandwiches topped with Avocado, grown locally throughout the island, ensuring our return each day. Granadillas (passion fruits) also grow throughout Palau Samosir and so we enjoyed many of the sweet fruits on the side or thrown into one of the delicious smoothies they make at the restaurant. Further up the road from Jenny’s we found a place called Maruba which probably gave us the most delicious meal of our trip in the form of a Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato baguette topped with more of the island avocado.
If we weren’t eating then we were relaxing and the island’s slow moving atmosphere was set up for exactly that. Our guesthouse had hammocks and chair where we would spend afternoons drinking beer and playing cards with our friends who had reached the island a few days before us. Up the road from us was the mandatory rasta bar of the island which had comfortable chairs and tasty snacks to pass the day with as we watched clouds roll down off the crater rim into the lake. When we’d left enough of an impression in the rasta bar couch cushions we’d head on over to Samosir Cottages which allowed you to use their pool at the cost of a drink from the bar. One day while stealing a little sun on the hotel deckchairs we watched as rain drops stirred up the lake from a distance. The wind picked up quickly and swept the rolling water across the lake towards us as we took cover under the pool gazebo until the storm passed. We made small talk with the barman as he brought fresh beers to help the rain pass, his information useful in the plans for exploring the island the next day.
Palau Samosir has got a lot going on; view points, hot springs and waterfalls to name a few activities. Keep in mind the island is huge and the driving time to see and do everything that catches your eye can be hours just one way. We started a drive with big ambitions but after 45 minutes we realised we were going to have to cut it short and settle for what we could. First we stopped at the Museum Inkulturatif. This Christian museum isn’t much, it has a few interesting Batak objects but my memory is strained in even remembering what they were. Outside there are a few traditional Batak houses which are interesting to look at but ultimately the surrounding nature is far more eye capturing. We drove for another 30 minutes or so after the museum with beautiful views of the lake on our right and tall green hills on our left. We turned off the main road to Pantai Pasir Putih Parbaba, a beach which which is popular with the locals and has tubes, canoes and jet-skis for hire. The ever-lingering clouds didn’t help but the beach itself doesn’t really capture the imagination. The shore is lined with little shops and local restaurants, and the beach has a collection of people peddling their water activities. We did a customary walk down the sandy strip but quickly decided our time was better spent back on the scooter. We’d let the day pass us by and as it moved into late afternoon we gave up on further adventures and made our way back home.
Lake Toba was a fantastic way to wind down from the travels and stresses of the previous travels but we never quite found the adventure and intrigue that other travelers write about. We found great food and were appreciative of the experience of being able to dip our toes in such a geographically unique and powerful place, but ultimately decided that our three full days were more than enough time to really experience what the island had to offer. I’d recommend setting out to see the attractions of Palau Samosir early and speaking to locals to make sure the roads are intact and waterfalls are flowing.
We organised our taxi ride to Bukit Lawang through Raja Taxis from a travel agent on the island, paying 190,000 Rupiah each. The next morning we woke and ate breakfast early, going down to the nearest docks to wave down the ferry as it made its morning ride past Tuk Tuk.
Lake Toba – the lake is just literally awesome, the scenery is stunning and absolutely unique. Couple that with the explosive way it was created and what other word is there for it than awesome?
The Weather – those clouds seemed a permanent fixture over that lake. As much as I’ve seen photos of sunshine bursting through we didn’t get one day where the thick grey clouds didn’t cover the landscape.
Getting In and Out
Get to the town of Parapat by either public tourist bus (50,000 – 60,000 Rupiah) or private taxi (100,000 Rupiah).
The ferry to Palau Samosir from Parapat costs 15,000 Rupiah and leaves roughly every hour until late afternoon. Don’t get swindled by anyone, go to the colourful ferries at the dock and wait on board. They will collect your money after the ferry has left. Tell them the name of your hostel to get dropped close to where you need to be.
The ferry leaving the island also goes past every hour or so but they won’t stop at every point unless you get their attention. Look up the ferry times and be sure to be there at least 15 minutes before and wave your arms frantically. (15,000 Rupiah)
Taxis back to Medan or Bukit Lawang can be organised on Tuk Tuk through a ‘travel agent’. We paid 190,000 Rupiah to get to Bukit Lawang. A taxi to Medan which can stop at the airport on request can cost 100,000 Rupiah.
Public tourist buses leave from Parapat regularly but speak to a local to be sure of the times, you don’t want to get stuck in Parapat as our friends did as they are not set up to entertain travelers.
Take your time looking for accommodation, there are a lot of options out there and 40,000 Rupiah a night can get you a lot more for a room than others. Our friends had trouble with noisy guests at Reggae guesthouse but this was purely luck of the draw.
There are mushrooms everywhere, places will even rent bikes and sell mushrooms simultaneously. I couldn’t tell you the grams to cost ratio but a decent sized bag looked to be around 100,000 Rupiah. The locals will tell you there are no police on the island and we certainly didn’t see any in our three days. BE CAREFUL. If you’re doing something against the law anywhere in SEA, you are leaving yourself open to the chance of scams.
It’s a big island, the drives take a long time and it gets hot out there on the roads. Plan accordingly; bring a lot of water and lather up with that sunscreen.
Sibayak Guest House – +62 625 451161 (Free WiFi)