If you find yourself traveling in Sumatra, Lake Toba is a must visit.
The picturesque Lake Toba – known in Indonesia as Danau Toba – is the largest volcanic lake in the world, covering an area of 1,707 km2. That officially makes it bigger than several countries, including Singapore. It was formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption that’s estimates to have occurred 70,000 year ago and happens to be the largest volcanic crater on earth.
That gigantic volcanic eruption is at the heart of the Toba Catastrophe Theory, with studies attributing it as the cause of the previous ice age, climate change, and the largest human bottleneck that ever occurred. Estimates suggest that the eruption killed most of the human population that existed at the time, leaving only a few thousand survivors.
Today, there is no hint of the catastrophe that may have once occurred there. Instead, you’ll find a beautifully serene retreat that’s become a favorite of travelers looking to unwind and enjoy the peaceful nature and culture that exists at Lake Toba. You’ll find endless waters reflecting endless clouds and in the middle of the lake, a little island called Pulau Samosir which exists as the cultural center of the Batak tribe.
About Pulau Samosir
Pulau Samosir, or Samosir Island, is a Singapore-sized island situated in the middle of Lake Toba. Fun fact: Samosir Island is the 5th largest lake island in the world and it exists inside of the 6th largest island in the world (Sumatra). The island was formed by a new volcano cone pushing up through the existing Lake Toba volcanic crater.
You’ll most likely be staying on Samosir Island, since most of Lake Toba’s tourism is centered on this little island inside the lake. There are plenty of guesthouses, restaurants, cultural centers, and even some bars to keep you occupied between refreshing dips in the lake. Samosir Island is also the cultural center of the Batak tribe, who are now mostly Christians and maintain several Batak cultural sites on the island. It is highly recommended you check them out!
Best Time to Visit Lake Toba
Honestly, the best time to visit Lake Toba is after a few days of fun but rigorous jungle trekking. 🙂
But the best seasonal time to visit Lake Toba is during the dry season – between May and September. The month of May is probably the best – since that’s when the weather is changing from slightly cool to warm. As the summer months progress, it’ll get hotter and there may even be sudden rains (although these are quick, fast, and passing).
It’s a good idea to avoid the winter months, since there is a lot of rainfall here. Also, the Chinese New Year (January or February) tends to bring in hordes of tourists and Lake Toba can get crowded and expensive.
How to Get to Lake Toba
To get to Lake Toba, it’s best to fly into Medan Polonia International Airport and then travel overland from Medan to Parapat, which is the closest town to Lake Toba. It’ll take you around 4 hours by private car or taxi and around 5 hours by public bus.
The public buses are a great deal for budget travelers – costing around 35,000 – 40,000 IDR ($4 USD). Please keep in mind that public buses can get very crowded and that smoking is allowed on public transport, which might be a bit much to endure on a five-hour journey. If you’re not on too tight a budget, we recommend using a taxi service to get to Parapat. You won’t have to pay the full cost – these taxi services are more like mini-vans and seat up to seven passengers. You can book a spot in one through your hotel in Medan.
Both the buses and taxi service will drop you off at the ferry departure point in Parapat. Ferries leave every few hours so you can cruise through Parapat and explore its various markets and restaurants. The cost of the ferry is around 7,000 IDR (less than a dollar) one way. Just tell the ferry driver the name of your hotel.
Keep in mind that the last ferry is around 6 PM, so you’ll have to spend a night in Parapat if you arrive late. Don’t worry, though, Parapat is quite interesting in itself.
How to Get Around Lake Toba
The main method of transport is by boat and it costs around $1 USD per trip. Hiring a motorcycle is also a possibility, but keep in mind that the roads are not very well-paved and it’s going to be a bumpy ride. For nearby trips, a bicycle is also an option and you can find a few places to rent these.
Things to See in Lake Toba
Lake Toba is mostly sought after for its tranquil beauty, but you’ll also find plenty to see and do. Here are some of the popular things to see in Lake Toba:
Tuk Tuk is the center of most of the tourism on Samosir Island. It’s a great place to walk around, shop and catch some fantastic views of Lake Toba.
Tomok is around 5km from Tuk Tuk and it is a quieter area where you can experience the more local culture. There’s great food here as well as several stalls where you can find souvenirs for cheaper prices than in Tuk Tuk. You can also check out the grave of King Sidabutur while you’re here – he’s significant to the now-Christian local Batak tribe since he was the Batak King that introduced Christianity to his people.
Ambarita’s claim to fame is its stone chairs. These chairs are around 300 years old and are thought to be remnants of a sort of criminal court where the fates of criminals were decided. If you’re okay exploring the more morbid parts of history, find yourself a guide and explore – the guide will explain that serious crimes back then were dealt with equally serious punishments. The criminals were beaten and then lemon and chilli were rubbed into their wounds for further pain.
As the final punishment, criminals were beheaded and their bodies were thrown into Lake Toba. But before that – his dead body is chopped up and parts of his flesh are cooked with buffalo meat. The ‘meal’ was then served to the tribal council who paired the ‘meal’ with some of the victim’s blood.
The stone chairs, the place where the prisoners were kept, and even the boulder on which prisoners were beheaded are still there today – Ambarita is shocking and blood-chilling, but it is worth checking out.
Museum Huta Solon Simanindo
This museum is a must-see for anyone wanting to know more about Batak culture and tradition. You’ll see some great examples of traditional Batak houses as well as be able to catch a Batak dancing performance is you go in the early afternoon.
As the country with the largest population of Muslims in the world, Indonesia might be the last place you expect to find Christian paraphernalia, but oddly enough – you’ll come across more Christian paraphernalia in Toba than in the American Bible Belt.
You can see it everywhere – women wear gold cross necklaces, most Batak homes have at least one Jesus-themed tapestry, and even the rice paddies and villages are built next to and around Protestant-style churches and tombs.
Things to Do in Lake Toba
Lake Toba has a lot to see and take in, but in terms of things to do…seriously, the best thing to do in Lake Toba is to just relax. Chill by the lakeside, take a dip in its pleasant, mineral-rich waters, pick up a book at a second-hand bookstore and chill some more.
If you really must do something more active, take a kayak out to explore the lake or plan an overnight party with some other travelers.
Or you can…
Swim in the Waterfall
Just above Tuk Tuk, you can find a waterfall that you might want to take a refreshing swim in by the time you reach it.
in by the Hot Springs
There are hot springs around 40 km from Tuk Tuk and the water is really hot. You might be able to scoop it up and maybe even stand in it, but it is generally not swimmable. But it is a beautiful, scenic drive the whole way there!
What to Eat in Lake Toba
You won’t go hungry here. There is no shortage of delicious Indonesian food as well as European offerings. You can even find magic mushrooms and an assortment of ‘happy herb’ pizzas to appease your taste buds.
Lake Toba Travel Tips
As of September 2012, there is only one ATM on Samosir Island and that ATM only accepts Cirrus and Master Card. Make sure to get enough cash at Parapat before crossing the lake to the island.
If you have money to exchange, you can find money changers at Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island but their rates are not good – our advice is to do this at a bank in Medan before starting over toward Lake Toba.
The same rules apply here as elsewhere in Indonesia – sun and mosquitoes is a fact of life here so bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent (preferably from your own country since the local mosquitoes get immune to the local sprays).
It’s also a good idea to have a raincoat or umbrella since sporadic rainfall is a possibility here. If you don’t have those, though, you can also find them here.
And as always – travel insurance can a traveler’s best friend. Don’t go without it.
We highly recommend World Nomads. You can buy and claim online, even after you’ve left home. They cover travelers from over 140 countries around the world, offer great rates, and cover a range of travel-related costs from the more commonplace – lost baggage and cancellation costs – to the more severe – emergency medical and evacuation assistance as well as coverage for a wide range of adventure sports and activities. Click here for rates!
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