For adventurous travelers, choosing between the many exciting things to do in North Sumatra isn't easy. Put off Bali's busy-yet-beautiful beaches for just a bit longer and spend some time in Sumatra's rainforest — you'll be happy you did!
The few tourists who brave Medan's pollution — it's the third-largest city in Indonesia — are rewarded with jungle trekking, active volcanoes, orangutan sightings, and friendly indigenous people who have long moved past beheading and devouring 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. Unsustainable palm oil plantations cut far and wide on the landscape.
Don't let the close geographical proximity to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore fool you: North Sumatra has managed to remain wilder and more inviting than ever for travelers who know there's more to Indonesia than just Bali.
Danau Toba, the world's largest volcanic lake, was formed thousands of years ago during a cataclysmic eruption. So much matter was thrown into the air during the explosion that it actually affected the earth's climate for years and is thought to have killed off a majority of the population at that time.
Despite the extreme depths of over 1,600 feet in some places, the lake stays comfortable for swimming because somewhere deep below that shimmering surface, fire and magma rise to meet water. Healthy minerals are pushed into the water — 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). It's literally being pushed upward as a new cone by the pressure of the volcano. Pulau Samosir is home to the friendly Batak people, descendants of the indigenous tribesmen who inhabited the area.
The enjoyable things to do on Samosir Island 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)?
Bukit Lawang, a small, riverside village northwest 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 if they're willing to walk deeper into the jungle. Chances of seeing wild orangutans improve a lot if you spend at least one night.
A whole host of other endangered species (including tigers) takes refuge inside the national park, mostly because so much habitat has been lost to palm oil plantations.
River tubing, jungle trekking, and a serene setting are well worth braving Bukit Lawang's ferocious mosquito population.
Although perhaps not the most exciting town (a large cabbage is one of the key monuments), Berastagi once served as base for climbing two of Sumatra's most attractive volcanoes: Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabung. Gunung Sinabung, the larger of the two, has been too active with eruptions since 2013 to allow for climbing.
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 relatively 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.
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. Sulfur-laden hot springs wait on the return path to soak sore legs after a lengthy downhill hike.
Berastagi is the base for tackling the mountain. 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!
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. It's been rumbling and spitting fire since 2013, prompting many evacuations.
Over 10,000 locals had to be evacuated in 2015, then an eruption in May 2016 killed seven people. The eruption flow is slow and continuous, so the volcano is pretty well off limits to trekking.
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.
Arrange transportation from your guesthouse, or even better, rent a motorbike then 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.
A nice stopover between Berastagi and Lake Toba, the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall splashes over 390 feet onto the rocks below. The photogenic waterfall is surrounded by green scenery, 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.
Although North Sumatra gets all the attention, West Sumatra is even wilder and less visited by tourists.
If you enjoyed North Sumatra and have the time, head south along the narrow island to West Sumatra where climbable volcanoes, another big volcanic lake (Lake Maninjau), national parks, and interesting culture await. The coast is held dear by serious surfers who want big challenges in exotic locales.
Although there is always a way to get around, the tourism infrastructure has only a small foothold in West Sumatra. English is a little less prevalent, so you'll get to learn some Bahasa.
Getting from North Sumatra to West Sumatra overland isn't a pleasant experience unless you're a fan of miserable bus rides. Instead, consider grabbing a flight from Medan to Padang then opt for Bukittinggi, Lake Maninjau, or one of the ecostays on the coast.