The Lake Toba region has been a thrilling spot for thousands of years. It has even been theorized that the super volcano was responsible for one of the largest mass extinction events 74,000 years ago. Don’t let this deter you from visiting the Toba crater. Nowadays, this region is surprisingly tranquil and peaceful but offers plenty of activities for thrill seekers, such as:
- Volcano hiking
- Hot springs
- Off-road biking
- Various water sports (Kayaking, Jetskis, Banana boats, etc.)
- Waterfall hikes
- Visiting abandoned ghost towns
- …and more
Besides the plethora of activities this vast region offers, there are also plenty of cultural and historical points of interest along the way. The locals are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
Fun facts about the Toba region
- Lake Toba is the largest crater lake in the world.
- Its island alone is almost 50 km in diameter, and there are several small lakes on the island that also have small islands. About twice the size of Malta and bigger than Singapore.
- The crater itself is about 35 by 100 km.
- It is theorized that this volcano did not just erupt 74,000 years ago, but literally exploded completely. 60% of humanity died. There were 6 years of complete darkness, and the temperature on earth was affected for a thousand years afterward.
Getting to the Toba crater
The Lake Toba region is massive. It may already look big on the map, and still, due to the road conditions and winding roads, you are still likely to underestimate the travel time. The journey to Lake Toba is already a thrill in itself. While it is only around 100 km air distance from Medan, it takes quite a while to get there. Luckily, there are thrilling, great attractions along the way
There are three main options for getting to the Toba crater:
1. Flying directly to Toba
This airport is a convenient gateway to the Lake Toba area and is only 47 km away from the port town of Parapat, where you can take the ferry to Samosir. In addition, Citilink, Batik Air, and Indonesia AirAsia operate direct flights from Jakarta. If you only have a few days to visit Lake Toba, this may be the best option. If you can spare more than 4-5 days, we would advise you to avoid the route for the following reasons:
- It may be difficult to find transportation from the airport to your destinations.
- The flight tickets are relatively expensive.
- The flights are often delayed.
- You will miss out on some of the main attractions in Berastagi.
2. Taking the Eastern Toll Road from Medan
This route is around the same distance as option 3 but around 1.5 hours faster. In total, it will take you slightly less than 4 hours to reach Lake Toba and only 3.5 hours if you decide to skip Medan and head straight to Toba from the Airport. Unfortunately, there are three disadvantages to embarking on this route:
- As a toll road, you will have to fork over some money to your driver.
- You cannot take a motorbike or scooter on toll roads.
- You will skip Berastagi.
3. Taking the mountain pass from Medan to Berastagi
This is the longest but most spectacular option and part of the unique experience that a Sumatran road trip entails. This is the definition of type 2 fun! Getting to Lake Toba from Medan using this route will take around 4.5 hours, but there are many points of interest along this route.
The mountain pass is an adventure in itself. While you may find reckless drivers on the roads of Bali or big lorries carrying palm oil on Borneo, this mountain pass features all the hazards you can think of:
- Drunk drivers
- Daredevil minibus drivers
- Overloaded trucks
- Steep potholes that can flip motorbikes
- Oil spills
- Winding, narrow roads
- Stray dogs and monkeys
- Minibusses stopping in the middle of the road
- Motorbikes driving in the wrong direction
- Kids racing on Motorbikes
There are three ways to conquer this thrilling mountain pass:
- Renting a motorbike/scooter from Medan: While it is a uniquely exciting endeavor, we suggest you avoid riding a motorbike on Sumatra unless you have several thousand kilometers on Southeast Asian roads under your belt. Keeping an eye out for all the aforementioned hazards simultaneously for five hours is draining unless you’re used to it. If you are an experienced rider, ensure the motorbike you rent from Medan works flawlessly and has a valid permit. (We rented ours from EZ rental and were provided a fantastic Honda Vario). While this may be the cheapest option, renting a motorbike from Medan is only marginally cheaper than renting one in Toba or Berastagi (you will only save around 10,000 IDR/day).
- Taking an Angkot: Angkots are pimped-out minibusses that will take you from Medan to Berastagi for as little as 15,000 IDR. However, expect to have passengers smoking and Indonesian hip-hop blasting. You may also feel nauseous from their careless driving.
- Taking a Grab: You can take an online taxi for around 250,000 IDR. This will be the most comfortable but expensive option.
Thrilling Spots in Berastagi
Once turn around the very last serpentine of the mountain pass, a cold gush of wind will greet you as you enter the bustling town of Berastagi. Berastagi won’t win any beauty contests, but don’t be fooled. It is a surprisingly charming town with delicious food and many welcoming homestays and guesthouses that cater to Western needs.
We suggest spending 1 to 3 nights here before continuing on your quest to conquer Toba. While Berastagi and some of the locals may look a bit sketchy, it is an incredibly safe town.
Here are some of the most fun activities you should pursue in and around Berastagi:
- Hiking Sibayak Volcano: The hike to the peak of Sibayak volcano is relatively easy and takes around 45 minutes if you start at the base camp. To get to the base camp, you will need a motorbike with at least 125cc. If you have a 110cc motorbike or a car, you will have to stop early and hike for an additional 30 minutes to the base camp. The volcano and the views themselves are more picturesque in real life than in photos. You will see plenty of sulfuric geysers, camping Indonesian tourists, and a fantastic view of the Karo Plateau. If the weather is good, you will get an unparalleled view of the perfectly shaped Sinabung volcano.
- Exploring the Ghost towns on the foot of Sinabung Volcano: This is a unique 2-hour trip. Rent a scooter, check out Sinabung on Google Maps and drive as close to the eastern flank of the volcano as the roads allow you to. Once there, you will find a handful of abandoned villages that were reclaimed by nature, including plenty of churches, schools, and hospitals. These towns had to be evacuated due to the imminent threat posed by the relatively unpredictable Sinabung volcano.
- Visiting the Burmese Temple: The Burmese temple is a nice little attraction that is cheap and easy to drive to from Berastagi. You can even rent traditional costumes there and take professional photos in front of the temple. Other than that, there isn’t much to do there.
- Buying exotic fruits at the fruit market: Avocados the size of honeydews, Berastagi apples, and of course, the best-tasting fruit in Asia, Mangosteen, await you.
- Picking strawberries yourself: The amount of agricultural output that Berastagi achieves is nothing short of impressive! To the north of the town, towards Sibayak volcano, you will find plenty of strawberry farms with a sign that reads “Petik Sendiri”, which means “pick yourself”. You will be given a farmer’s hat and small basket and can stroll through the strawberry fields to harvest them yourself. They are relatively cheap by western standards and taste a lot better than the sour, small strawberries we sampled in Central Java.
- Strolling through the night market: In the town center, right next to the roundabout with the monument in the center, a night market opens up every day at 6 pm. There are plenty of options for fantastic street food and desserts here. It is definitely worth checking out, as most of the ingredients are produced locally.
- Plunging in the hot springs: There are plenty of hot springs scattered across the Berastagi and Lake Toba area. We decided to skip this one, as we have done it before on Java. But, if you’ve never been to a hot spring before, you should put it on your bucket list. Beware, that the hygiene standards are quite low, and some hot springs have separated sections for men and women.
Getting from Berastagi to Lake Toba
Getting from Berastagi to Lake Toba, will take around the same time as Medan to Berastagi, but the drive is much more relaxing and picturesque. On the way there, you will drive past many orange tree farms, which allow you to pick your own oranges. One of the main attractions that are conveniently located along the way is the Sipiso-Piso Waterfall.
If your final destination is Samosir, you have four options:
- Driving the long way around Lake Toba and across the bridge to enter Samosir from the South.
- Taking the passenger or car ferry from Tigaras to Simalindo.
- Taking the passenger ferry from Parapat to Tuktuk
- Taking the passenger or car ferry from Ajibata to Tomok or Ambarita.
If you are taking a rental car with a driver and plan to stay in Tuktuk, number 3 is your best option, as your driver can drop you off at the ferry port. Once you arrive in Tuktuk, your accommodation will likely be within walking distance.
If are traveling on a fancy rental scooter, the ferry ride itself will be a thrilling experience, to say the least!
Top 7 Thrilling Activities in the Toba region
The following activities vary from nice to do to real must-trys. Please plan your itinerary carefully, as the distance between some of these activities can take multiple hours. Always check the actual driving time on Google Maps, as the sheer vastness of Samosir and the Toba crater is easily underestimated.
1. Hiking down to Sipiso-Piso waterfall
Not only will you see one of the highest waterfalls in Indonesia, but directly across from it, you will also get your first glance at the mightiness that is Lake Toba. If you have good visibility, you are in for a treat. While there, we suggest you do the following:
- Head straight toward Lake Toba, and you will arrive at a Café that has a terrace featuring the most mind-blowing views.
- Trek down to the bottom of the Sipiso-Piso waterfall to understand how the Waterfall got its name.
2. Rafting on the Asahan River
This river provides world-class whitewater rafting opportunities and is a prime location for an international rafting event. The course runs for almost 22 kilometers and is exceptionally challenging. It even features a section called “the nightmare.” You should have plenty of rafting experience if you plan on conquering this grade 5+ river. It takes a lot of nerves, equipment, and preparation. It is also located far from the other sights on this list.
3. Paragliding on Beta Hill
The hills of Samosir have reliable updraft winds. Coupled with the scenic views of the crater, this makes Samosir and Lake Toba prime paragliding spots. Just like the rafting, there are also annual events and races organized for paragliding in Lake Toba. The paragliders typically land in Bukit Beta.
4. Driving through the mountains of Samosir
In Tuktuk, you can rent various motorbikes for around 100,000 IDR. Driving on Samosir is a lot safer than on the mainland or in Berastagi. There are fewer trucks, and the road conditions are much better. Therefore, renting a motorbike for a day to ride around the hills
5. Tracking down the mysterious Batu marhosa
If you drive eastwards from Tuktuk, you will enjoy a scenic motorbike ride that takes past a waterfall. A few hundred meters after that waterfall is a unique point of interest called Batu marhosa. This is a small gap in the mossy rocks. There is a gentle gush of wind emitting from this gap. Scientists are baffled by this phenomenon and struggle to find a reasonable explanation for this. No one knows where the wind comes from.
6. Picnicking at a lake on an island in a lake on an island
Danau Aek Natonang and Danau Sidihoni are two picturesque lakes located on the island of Samosir. The journey to both of these lakes is an attraction in itself. If you are leaving Tuktuk, you may want to consider some tasty takeaway food from one of the many Warungs scattered across the main road in Tomok village.
The lakes feature lush, green hills that are also frequented by goats, geese, cows, and water buffalos. It is a fantastic date idea, but don’t expect any watersports activities. Due to the agricultural run-off from cattle farms, the lakes are not suitable for swimming.
7. Hiking the Teletubby hills
It will take around 1.5 hours to get to the Teletubby hills from Tuktuk. The name of these hills is incredibly accurate. Expect fantastic views. While the long drive may not be worth it for simply pretty views, please beware that the journey to the hills features colorful valleys, charming towns, and plenty of other attractions along the way.
If you’re looking for a similarly thrilling adventure in a completely different setting, we recommend doing a trip around West Timor. The budget and travel time is comparable to the Toba trip.