Nestled away in the karonese highlands, just 3 hrs from the bustling city of medan you will find the beautiful town of Berestagi. Famous for it's rich Karo culture, two imposing volcanos, stunning mountainous horizon and delicious fruit and veg Berastagi should definitely be on your Sumatran itinerary!
Berastagi's History and Karo culture
Made famous in the 1920’s for it’s two impressive volcanos, hot springs, undulating farm land and a colder, crisper climate, Berastagi has long been one of the firm North Sumatran favourites for travellers. Along with the town’s mountainous location, Berastagi’s commanding Karonese architecture has always been a point of interest for many visitors, along with their traditional dishes such as BPK (Babi Panggang Karo- BBQ’d pork usually served with stewed pork, sauteed cabbage, rice and zesty blood sambal sauce).
Although there are now many cultures/ethnicities found in Berastagi (Malay, Jawa, Chinese etc.) the population is predominantly Karonese, which is one of the many Batak societies[i]. In the early 21st century, most Karonese followed Protestantism, however in recent years there has been a large conversion to Islam. The karonese tribe is divided into five different clans (marga), representative of the original five Karo brothers, Karo-Karo, Ginting, Sembiring, Tarigan and Perangin-Angin. Each of these clans is then further divided into sub-clans and finally families.
Located along the volcanic ring of fire, Berastagi is home to two impressive volcanoes. The smaller of the two, Mount Sibayak’s reaches to an impressive 2,181m above sea level, offering up some incredible views over the mountainous region. It last erupted over a century ago, however it continues to spew sulphuric gasses; although the volcano is still geo-thermally active, it is safe to climb. We always suggest attempting a sunrise hike as the views from the summit at this time are exceptional. The 3 hour hikes’ difficulty depends very much on the weather and visibility; it can be rather slippy and the route over the final rocky stage is hard to navigate alone, so we strongly recommend going with a guide.
The second volcano, Mount Sinabung reaches even higher into the clouds, at 2460m above sea level. Unlike Sibayak, Sinabung is still very much an active volcano, and erupted as recently as 2014[i].
Since then there have been no major eruptions, only bursts of hot gas from the crater which can reach a whopping 1,000 celcius! These pose no threat as long as you are nowhere near the crater of the volcano; hence, climbing Sinabung is strictly forbidden.
Berastagi and food
Berestagi actually takes its name from the Karonese words ‘beras’- rice and ‘tagi’-questions, meaning ‘asking for rice’. Historically this town had to ‘ask its neighbours for the grain’ as it’s very difficult to grow rice at the high altitude. Although this may be the case for rice, many other fruit and vegetable varieties thrive in the colder climate, which, coupled with the nutrient rich, volcanic soil results in some of the sweetest, most delicious fruit you could imagine.
We therefore highly recommend sampling some of the familiar and tropical produce at the famous Berastagi market. Our firm favourite is the kesemek (Japanese Persimmon), an indulgent mix between a mango and papaya, whose peel looks as though it’s been dusted with icing sugar; the Toba Manggo, and Jeruk Madu (Honey Orange) are also always on our shopping list! If you prefer sticking to what you know, you could always try the super succulent strawberries, apples and pears!
If you’re looking to try some local street food, you should head to Pasar Kaget; every night the street is filled with the aromas of beef soup, fried noodles, baked chicken and other traditional Sumatran dishes. If you’re feeling brave you could even try ‘Te telur’ or ‘Egg tea’, a Karonese specialilty where (you guessed it!) an egg is cracked into your cup of tea, and stirred until cooked!
When it comes to guesthouses and hotels, there is huge variety to be found in Berastagi, catering to all needs and budgets. We have enjoyed staying at the 4* Hotel Sibayak International, who’s central location and lovely grounds, buffet breakfast and swimming pool (though be warned, its unheated!) make it a very comfortable place to stay. However, if you’re looking for something more simple, and set within a quieter but equally stunning area of town, we suggest Sapo Rumbia.
The location is simply breathtaking, however please be aware locals like to stay at this establishment, so on weekends (especially Sunday morning) there might be some karaoke until the small hours!