A year ago today, I was in Indonesia for 10 days, being taken around the islands by the Ministry of Tourism together with a handful of other bloggers for the Trip of Wonders campaign.
We went to a lot of places, including Lombok, Makkasar, Banyuwangi, and Bandung. It wasn’t my first time in Indonesia, too. Previously, I’ve been to Jakarta (solo in 2009) and Yogyakarta. I always wished to explore more of Indonesia; there are so many volcanoes and mountains I want to hike there and so many beaches I would like to lounge around in.
However, I didn’t know about Indonesia’s Lake Toba, and just heard of it from a fellow travel blogger.
If we were playing a word association game and Indonesia was the first word, I’m guessing Bali would be the most popular word associated.
No surprises there right? It’s a great spot. But there’s so much more to Indonesia to Bali.
I recently spent a month in Sumatra. Wow! What an awesome island that catering for those who like to relax while traveling and the adventure seekers. It’s cheap as well, no need for fancy cheap travel tricks required.
In this post I’m going to zoom in on Lake Toba.
Lake Toba is a natural lake resulting from a climate changing volcanic explosion ~74,000 years ago. With a maximum depth of 500m+, there’s a section of land that has been pushed up from the depression of the caldera (similar to a crater).
That piece of land is called Samosir Island, where I spent 12 of my 30 days in Sumatra. Interestingly, Lake Toba tourism peaked in the late 1990’s and has yet to recover to the same levels.
The tourists will return I believe (you should) but for now there’s a lack of information on traveling in Sumatra. If you’re planning your solo trip, I’ll help you out with a moment of wisdom here and there to help you navigate around Lake Toba.
Solo Travel Tips: Lake Toba, Indonesia
I can hear you already.
“Jub, I can’t sleep in a lake.”
Why yes, you’re quite right.
Everyone refers to visiting this region as Lake Toba. As a tourist, though, you’ll likely be staying in Tuk Tuk on Samosir. It’s not the largest town on the island, but is the tourist town.
Placed on a small peninsula, you can walk around Tuk Tuk in an hour with the streets lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, a couple of convenience stores, and a few other bits and pieces. Oh and views, so many good views! Walking is the primary way to get around.
Getting To Lake Toba
The best city to fly into is Medan before making your way overland to Parapat straight from the airport (4 – 5 hours). You’ve got a couple ways to get to Parapat:
- You could attempt to get a shared taxi from the airport for ~90,000 – 110,000 IDR (Indonesian rupiah) (around US$7-8).
- Take a public bus to Amplas Bus Station then another bus to Parapat (the slightly cheaper option).
Once you reach Parapat, you’ll get dropped off near the jetty. Passenger ferries leave every 30 minutes or so and cost 15,000 IDR (US$1) for the 45-minute ride.
The ferries stop at different jetties in Tuk Tuk so it’s great to have an idea on where you’re staying before you arrive. Tuk Tuk itself isn’t large though, so you shouldn’t be walking more than 30 minutes if you happen to jump off at the wrong jetty.
Where to Stay in Tuk Tuk
If you check the popular booking sites you’ll find a few places online, but there are plenty who aren’t listed online.
I stayed at Liberta Guesthouse and loved it! The rooms ranged from 44,000 to 77,000 IDR (US$3-6). For $6/night, I had a double bed in a large room, porch, western toilet, and a hot water shower. Such a good deal. The location is good with a nice atmosphere and a restaurant onsite too.
A couple of fellow blogger friends stayed at Tabo Cottages and by all reports enjoyed the place. At worst, you arrive and simply wander around Tuk Tuk looking for something that suits you.
What To Do in Lake Toba
Chill. Yes, really. The vibe is so relaxed, no one is in a rush to do anything and you’ll be surprised how often you can ‘waste’ the day away (part of the reason people tend to extend their stay here). That doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do, though.
Hike over the top of the island. This wasn’t easy, but two of us walked straight over the top of the island to Pangururan. This definitely wasn’t an easy hike, but was one of my favorite days.
Explore the island by motorbike. Motorbike rentals go for 100,000 IDR/day ($8, comes with a full tank of gas). You’ll need to return the bike around sunset and there won’t be any insurance with it.
You can circumnavigate the island, but if you want the best of the best head south past Tomok. You’ll head up the hill and get insanely awesome views as you navigate the turns. While there isn’t much traffic, be careful on the blind corners. Overall, the roads are in good condition.
See a lake on an island in a lake on an island. Such a mouthful! Sidihoni Lake is the most popular lake, but personally I liked Danau Aek Natonang better.
Jump in the lake. The lake is pretty for photos, but isn’t wow worthy to swim in. It’s refreshing on a hot day so if you have access from your guesthouse, give it a go. Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised by Sibolazi Beach (thanks to Chris for the pro tip).
Eat guacamole chapati. Avocados were in season during my visit (April) and wow, they’re good. For 20,000 IDR (US$1.5) you can find several cafes offering a chapati covered in guacamole right to the edges. My favorite was at Today’s Cafe (get the Gado Gado too).
Walk to Erafat Waterfall. This is a 4km walk from the edge of Tuk Tuk. The trail starts easy enough with a gradual incline but quickly gets narrow. While there is a steep drop off on one side, a basic level of fitness should get you to the base of the waterfall.
Check out some live music. Once the sun goes down in Tuk Tuk, you won’t see many people in the streets (not that there are many in the day). Ask the other hotel guests if there is any live music in the evening and go enjoy a relaxing Bintang.
Enjoy water sports. For those who appreciate being on the water, look into renting a jetski and hanging on for dear life to the banana boats.
Tips and Tricks to Keep in Mind When Traveling in Lake Toba
ATMs are in limited supply in the area. There are definitely no ATMs in Tuk Tuk so you’ll need to travel to either Ambarita or Tomok to get cash. These ATMs are no guarantees, however, so unless you want to travel the 50km to Pangururan on the other side of the island or take the ferry to Parapat to get more money, bring a reasonable amount with you.
Alternatively, you can also get a reasonable exchange rate with Euro and USD at the money exchange place close to Tabo Cottages.
Beware of mozzies. I’ve never been one to get overly bothered by mosquitoes but they got me in Lake Toba. Bring some spray with you and wear long pants at night.
You may have some map problems. For some reason, both Google Maps and Maps.me weren’t entirely accurate there. Keep that in mind so you don’t go crazy. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, the locals will quickly point you in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to ask!
Internet connection isn’t the best. WiFi does exist on the island, but don’t expect it to be fast nor reliable. I was able to stream the rugby once at Today’s Cafe, but the following day couldn’t connect at all. Liberta had WiFi which was good enough for basic browsing and emails. Sometimes even video!
Safety Considerations for Solo Travelers in Sumatra
Tuk Tuk is well known for magic mushrooms. I personally don’t partake in this stuff, but saw various people ‘on mushrooms’ and while they seem fine, be sensible if you dabble in that stuff.
As a solo traveler, you might be tempted to try it, or other drugs, but remember, Indonesia is known for taking a hard line on these substances. While I was there, I met someone who ended up in jail in a holding cell awaiting charges having been caught with drugs. I won’t speculate anymore as I don’t know the exact details, but that doesn’t sound fun to me (check out Locked Up Abroad to see for yourself).
As a whole, Sumatra is incredible. If you’re a solo traveler, the people will be friendlier to you since there aren’t so many tourists there. I’ll definitely be back!
Jub is the token kiwi in most groups of travelers he finds himself in. Since leaving New Zealand in 2011, he has been living and traveling around Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia with a couple of brief visits to the motherland. Always learning about himself, he loves playing a pickup game of the local sport wherever he is. As he says, his blogging journey has finally started to find a path, following what he enjoys most on the road, sports and adventure. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat.