Lake Toba known for its volcanic history, cooler weather and breath taking landscape has long been a North Sumatran travel favourite. Read on to learn everything you need to know about how best to enjoy this beautiful Batak island.
74,000 years ago one of the largest, and most deadly volcanic explosion the world had ever seen, tore through the heart of present day Lake Toba. The volcano blasted out 5,000 cubic kilometres of magma, and plumes of volcanic debris which, once settled, blanketed the whole of South Asia with 15cm of ash. This ash coverage coupled with darkened skies destroyed current and future crops, plunging the earth into a decade long volcanic winter, killing off nearly the whole of humanity.
Vising modern day Toba, you would be forgiven for thinking the prior paragraph was about an entirely different Toba; the vast lake, stunning architecture and dreamy pine covered mountains, show almost no remanence of it’s violent, volcanic beginnings. Ever more shockingly, you can’t even see a volcano. And that is because you are in it.
Ever since the Toba catastrophe rainwater that ran off the surrounding mountains collected in the Toba caldera, forming the biggest crater lake in the world. At some point, Toba’s magma chamber refilled and surged up through the water to form the present-day island of Samosir. So, Samosir is the island in the lake, in the volcano!
Due it’s cooler climate, fun acoustic night life, cheap living and stunning scenery, Toba saw an immense boom in tourism during the 1990’s. Millions of western travellers came to participate in the legendary full-moon/boat parties, whilst making their way along the old ‘hippy trail’[i]. Hundreds of guesthouses and hotels were built to accommodate the growing guests, and Toba was set to become an internationally acclaimed holiday spot.
[i] Aceh- Bukit Lawang – Berestagi – Toba – Sipirok – Pulau Banyak – Padang - )
Suddenly, in 1997, Indonesia found itself engulfed in flames, as forest fires raged across the island nation. The heavy smoke even brought down a plane, killing all those aboard; hence, all air traffic was grounded and most flights cancelled. Indonesia became somewhat blacklisted, and when flights and tourists started to return there was already a new and improved party location: Bali.
Ever since then, Toba has lived in the shadow of it’s former self, and many of the empty guesthouses sadly, fell into disrepair. Recently, the area has seen a real increase in investment, and the improved roads and guesthouse restorations have revived the tourist town of Tuktuk.
One of the first things to strike all those who visit Toba, is the enchanting yet dominating traditional Toban architecture. Modelled off the horns of a buffalo, the typical Toban roof arches into two dramatic tips, and originally would have housed several families, along with their livestock down below. Many guesthouses (such as Tabo cotages, and Reggae guesthouse to name but a few) have remodelled these imposing structures into spacious and modern guestrooms, allowing you to really get a feel of the Toban way of living.
To gain a better understanding, many guests visit the cultural village Hutu Siallagan, where traditional living, carving and dancing is demonstrated. A guide is included in the entrance fee to the site, and tours can be conducted in English and Dutch. Many consider the king’s ancient stone court to be the highlight of the experience, namely when you learn it was here that the Batak Tobans practised their acts of canabalism! We shan’t spoil the story, just make sure to get yourself there!
Toban culture could not be discussed without the mention of ‘Tuak’, or palm wine. This is a drink that all the Batak cultures (Batak Karo, Toba, Pakpak, Mandailing and Simalungun) enjoy, one which usually sparks an impromptu, heartfelt acoustic performance. The Batak people are renowned throughout Indonesia for having incredibly powerful singing voices, and the Tobans do not disappoint. They have their own type of flute (suling) who’s pacy melodies feature heavily in all their tunes. Many who hear Batak Toba music for the first time mistake it’s spicy beat and layered ensemble for South American music. If you’re interested, have a listen to anything by ‘Marsada Band’; our favourite songs include ‘Rosita’, ‘Mardua holong’ and of course, ‘Pulo Samosir’.
How to get to Toba
How you get to Lake Toba depends very much on where you are coming from. The tourist bus runs two different routes into Toba, one from Medan and the other from Berestagi. This is to say that even if you get the tourist bus from Bukit Lawang to Lake Toba, it will run through either Berestagi or Medan as there is no direct route from Bukit. If you have the time, we always suggest stopping off for a night or two in Berestagi; you can read about the Karonese capital a little more here. Below you can find the tourist bus prices (per person) from Medan, Berestagi and Bukit Lawang. Alternatively, you can always charter a private car (from Medan, Berestagi, Bukit Lawang) which although is more expensive, it’s a significantly quicker and more comfortable option. Please contact us directly to arrange this for you.
Although most tourists access Lake Toba over land via private car or tourist bus, there is also a little-known international airport just two hours from the island. Sisingamangaraja XII International Airport (previously known as Silangit) runs weekly international flights to and from Singapore. Domestic flights are more frequent however, once again they do not run everyday (Jakarta, Batam, Bali, Solo and Surabaya). Flying from here saves you the 5 hour drive back to Medan. Please remember to factor in the ferry time when planning your trip to the airport.
There are three different harbours that run ferrys to the island Samosir. Each harbour offers a different type of boat and foot passenger/car capacity. If you are travelling on foot, we suggest you take the smallest ferry from Parapat. Register and pay your fare at the kiosk, and simply tell your captain which guesthouse you are staying at, and he will take you to their getty or dock. Please note, the final ferry leaves at 1600, so make sure to keep to the drivers schedule to make sure you arrive in time! Let your guesthouse know when you plan to leave Samosir, along with the ferry you would like to take (7am, 8am, 9am etc) and they will book you onto the roster. If you are planning on catching the tourist bus from Lake Toba, all busses leave at 9/10 from the harbour. There is a nice market with many local warungs, so if you arrive too early you can keep yourself entertained!
If you are touring North Sumatra with us you will most likely take the boat ferry from Ajibata or Tigaraja harbour. The times of these ferries are a little stricter, so please take heed of your guides time keeping to make sure you arrive in time!
Where to stay in Toba
Due to the sheer amount of guesthouses in Toba there is a vast array of prices and amenities on offer, so you are sure to find somewhere perfectly suited to your needs and budgets. We must admit, we don’t have a huge list of suggestions, as we got lucky and found the perfect spot on our first visit: Reggae guesthouse.
Positioned on the waters edge, with the most breath-taking view over the lake and surrounding mountains, Reggae guesthouse is strategically located within the tourist town of Tuktuk. Reggae offers a variety of different rooms and prices to suit every budget, and each room has at least one private balcony with stunning views over the lake. Having said this, most of the rooms are only accessible by descending a steep set of stairs, making access a little tricky if you have young children or elderly members with you. We have also had some reports that their cheaper rooms are in need of repair, and that their restaurant is not always stocked. However, as it is located so centrally there are many local warungs and other guesthouses within a five minute radius, which will no doubt allow you to explore more of the quant town. Put simply for the child-free and care-free travellers who really value a room with a room we highly suggest taking a look at their accommodation!
Since having our son, we have always stayed at the famous Tabo cottages. The rooms are much dearer that Reggae, and only a few are actually positioned along the waterfront. Having said this, we were very pleasantly surprised by their extensive menu, beautiful grounds, charismatic staff and child friendly facilities. The Tabo Cottages are mostly repurposed traditional Toba houses, many of which were bought off site, taken apart, transported to the location and then reconstructed. This homage to the Toban culture along with the layout of the complex makes it feel as though you are living in an old Toban village. The owner Anette is incredibly friendly, and will be no doubt happy to share with you her story, along with any insider tips of how to spend your time in Toba.
What to do in Toba
As its name suggests, Lake Toba offers a huge spectrum of water side activities for all the family to enjoy. The deep, clean water and lack of waves makes it perfect for swimming, kayaking, supping, jet-skis and banana boats. Many guesthouses even offer boat rental, allowing you to explore the island from the lake; you can even make visits to some dramatic waterfalls, and sometimes even bbq on board.
Along with its beautiful lake, Toba sports one of the best roads in the whole of North Sumatra; the road loops around the whole of the lake, offering stunning views of the waterfront and mountainous horizon. Coupled with the cooler climate, this makes Toba one of the nicest places to bike around, with many rental shops offering push bikes and scooters. If you’re staying in Tuktuk, cycling or driving down to the southernmost tip (Onan Runggu) is a lovely way to spend a day, offering up some of the best views of the island. For those who prefer to hike, we would definitely suggest the short climb up to Bukit Holbung, or the more intense Pusuk Buhit. If you can manage the 5hr hike you’ll be able to experience the legendary location, the birthplace of the very first Batak king!
If you’re one to get your dancing shoes on, Tuktuk several live music bars which are definitely worth a visit. Our personal favourites are Roy’s bar and Hot Chilli, where you will hear a selection of local and western music. If you’re eager to explore more of the local night life, get yourself to the Tuak bar and enjoy the local mens rendition of some of the most famous Batak balads. Either which way, you’re sure to have a wonderful evening!
To conclude, you definitely don’t want to miss out on Lake Toba when travelling through Sumatra; with it’s fascinating culture, beautiful scenery and cooler climate it’s the perfect place to chill out and relax after a hard jungle trek!
P.s. If you would like to find our more about Toba or Sumatra in general, make sure to take a look at our good mates Carly and Agung's YouTube page, Exploring Sumatra for the most up to date and in depth travel tips!