For adventurous travelers, choosing between the many exciting things to do in Sumatra, especially North Sumatra, is frustrating.
Ideally, you'll have enough time to enjoy the biggest highlights: swimming in the largest volcanic lake on earth, spotting an orangutan, and seeing — or even better, climbing — an active volcano.
Sumatra, the world's sixth-largest island, spans over 1,200 miles in the western part of Indonesia and is split across the middle by the Equator. The few tourists who brave Medan's pollution — it's the third-largest city in Indonesia — are rewarded with jungle trekking, active volcanoes, and friendly indigenous people who no longer behead and devour visitors as their ancestors once did.
Blessed with unmatched natural beauty and full of adventure potential, Sumatra is equally cursed with devastating geological disasters and a serious tourism slump.
Despite the close geographical proximity to Penang and Singapore, North Sumatra has managed to remain wilder... and more inviting than ever for travelers who know there's more to Indonesia than just Bali.
01 of 07
Danau Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake and was formed during a cataclysmic eruption. So much matter thrown into the air during the explosion actually affected the earth's climate for years and is thought to have killed off a large portion of the population.
Despite the extreme depth, the lake stays comfortable for swimming because somewhere deep below that shimmering surface, fire and magma are still meeting water. Healthy minerals are pushed into the water, giving another great reason to take a dip.
As if Lake Toba wasn't interesting enough, a new island has formed in the center of the lake: Samosir Island. Pulau Samosir is home to the friendly Batak people, descendants of headhunting tribes.
Samosir Island is actually an island within an island. The enjoyable things to do there and a tranquil setting are enough to keep travelers around far longer than planned. Local residents are always willing to share their culture; impromptu guitar-and-singing sessions break out... almost nightly.
What better place to relax for a while than on an island (Samosir) that's on an island (Sumatra)?
02 of 07
Bukit Lawang, a small, riverside village to the north of Medan, is the base in North Sumatra for jungle trekking in Gunung Leuser National Park.
Visitors to the national park have a chance of seeing semi-wild orangutans that have been reintroduced back into the wild. A lucky few get to see wild orangutans, more so if time is alloted to trek deeper into the national park and spend at least a night.
A whole host of other endangered species (including tigers) takes refuge inside the national park, mostly because so much habitat has been lossed to palm oil plantations.
River tubing, jungle trekking, and a serene setting are well worth braving Bukit Lawang's ferocious mosquito population.
03 of 07
Although perhaps not the most exciting town (a large cabbage is one of the key monuments), Berastagi serves as base for climbing two of Sumatra's most attractive volcanoes: Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabung.
Unfortunately, most travelers get out of town quick after their day of trekking, but Berastagi is surrounded by villages, waterfalls, and natural attractions worth seeing. The cool climate in the region is refreshing, particularly if you've been sweating around Southeast Asia for weeks already.
Berastagi, around three hours from Medan, is a great place to visit traditional Karo houses to learn more about local culture.
04 of 07
If you're looking to climb an active volcano, Gunung Sibayak is the easiest of choices in North Sumatra; it can be climbed in a day — independently without a guide, if you're experienced enough.
Although Gunung Sibayak hasn't erupted in a while, its nearby neighbor, Gunung Sinabung, is always causing trouble. Despite the lack of eruptions, the small caldera on top of Sibayak is an interesting hell of volcanic gases blasting at high volume from vents in rocks. Trickles of sulfur-tinted water literally boil beneath your feet.
The views of the green, expansive Karo Highlands from the top of Gunung Sibayak are spectacular. Climbing Gunung Sibayak can be done in five to six hours, including the return. Hot springs wait on the return path to soak sore legs after a lengthy downhill hike.
Berastagi is the base for tackling Sibayak. Many backpackers opt to climb Gunung Sibayak without a guide, but only those with sufficient experience should attempt; team up with others — don't go... alone!Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
Standing a little over 8,000 feet high, Gunung Sinabung is the tallest volcano in North Sumatra and one of the most interesting volcanoes to climb in Indonesia. The views are even more impressive than those from neighboring Sibayak.
Make no mistake, Gunung Sinabung is extremely active. The mountain surprised everyone with an eruption in 2010 after having been dormant for 400 years.
Over 10,000 locals had to be evacuated in 2015, then an eruption in May 2016 killed seven people. The eruption is slow and continuous, so the volcano may be off limits to trekking during your visit.
If the area is open, climbing Gunung Sinabung requires a guide to help negotiate the steep, crisscrossing network of trails.
06 of 07
Visit Karo Villages
When your legs can't handle any more volcano treks, take in daily life at one of the many Karo villages dotted around North Sumatra. The traditional thatched-roof longhouses are adorned with buffalo horns.
Ask where you are staying about arranging transport, or rent a motorbike and grab a map. Learning a bit about the indigenous culture will certainly enhance your trip.
A few of the villages to visit include:
- Percen Village: Closest to Berastagi (2 km) Percen has six traditional houses; the oldest is 120 years old.
- Lingga Village: At 16 km away from Berastagi, Lingga is nicer to visit than Percen. The king's house — the primary attraction — is 250 years old.
- Dokan Village: Dokan, 30 km away from Berastagi, is the least touristy of the Karo villages.
07 of 07
A nice stopover between Berastagi and Lake Toba, the Sipiso-piso Waterfall falls over 390 feet onto the rocks below. The waterfall is surrounded by mountains, jungle, and rice fields.
Find the waterfall just two kilometers from the main road junction in Simpang Situnggaling, one of the places to change buses on the way to Lake Toba.