When we think of the archipelago of Indonesia, we immediately think of Bali, its most famous island, but in reality this country consists of more than 17,000 atolls and islands where nature reigns uncontested. Its surface area has been shaped by the 127 volcanoes currently active and its underwater backdrops are so spectacular that you feel like you’re in a movie. Combine all this with the magnificent specimens of Indonesian wildlife and you will have in front of you one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the world. In this article I will list the 10 experiences to do in North Sumatra in a period from February to October, during the equatorial climate truce.
The island of Sumatra perfectly represents everything that is Indonesia. With an extension of 473,481 square km and its position in the western end of the archipelago, perfectly arranged along the line of the equator that cuts it almost in half, the island is not only the sixth largest island in the world, but it’s also one of its most seismic areas. In 2004, off its coast, there was the epicentre of a devastating underwater earthquake that caused a violent tsunami whose traumas are still evident in the eyes of locals: when I was in the northern city of Banda Aceh, I received the testimony of a survivor of the tragedy, who told me that in that dramatic circumstance he lost all his family. A story that gave me chills and shiny eyes, disorientating my perception, because at Banca Aceh the waves of the tsunami caused 170,000 deaths.
My adventure in the north of Sumatra began in the most absolute spontaneity, with a plane ticket from Kuala Lumpur taken two days before setting the departure date. The beauty of travelling is also linked to the irrepressible impulse to leave to know new places! Moreover, to my great amazement, I found no trace of my countrymen in the various registers I had to compile. So I can say that I am one of the few Italians who climbed the Sibayak volcano, a memory so exciting that I get goose bumps every time I think about it!
If you want to venture into the rainforest in search of wildlife, then Sumatra is definitely the place for you!
Let’s get started!
#1 VISIT THE CITY OF MEDAN
Medan is the third largest city in Indonesia and is also the capital of the Sumatera Utara province. Medan is often regarded by travellers as the gateway to Sumatra, from which to visit other places on the island. However the city is recognized by local tourists as the culinary capital of Indonesia and this is a good reason to make a stop. In Medan in fact, you can easily spend a day eating local delicacies such as Soto Ayam Medan, a chicken soup cooked with herbs, spices and coconut milk, or as the delicious Nasi Padang, a meat/fish dish, vegetables, spicy sambal and served with steamed white rice. In the city you can also visit attractions such as the Istana Maimun, the sultan’s house where you can get to know the history of the family, dress up in vintage clothes and take pictures in the ornate throne room. The church of Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni and the Great Mosque are also worth a visit.
#2 SAIL ALONG LAKE TOBA
In a period between 70 and 74,000 years ago, an ancient super volcano gave rise to a gigantic explosive eruption that researchers believe to have been one of the most catastrophic natural events of the last 25 million years. With a magnitude of “8”, this event has been classified as a mega- colossal eruption capable to disrupt the climate of the planet: temperatures around the world decreased from 3 to 5 degrees Celsius at lower latitudes and 15 degrees at higher latitudes. Practically the Earth has been enveloped by a perennial winter that is believed to have lasted about ten years. . The power of the eruption caused the collapse of the entire volcanic building, forming an 87 km long caldera that over the centuries filled with water to the point of forming the present Lake Toba. Sailing along this volcanic basin gives back the vastness and power of that ancient catastrophe, even if today the panorama has a large number of pines that rise along the volcanic walls that dominate the changing colours of the lake. You can reach this extraordinary place in five or six hours of travel, starting from Medan via a public bus (at a cost of 40000 IDR) or via a shared taxi that leaves only when it is full.
#3 STAY IN SUPERVOLCANO CRATER: SAMOSIR ISLAND
The island of Samosir, located in the middle of Lake Toba, was formed during the decades following the eruption and now occupies much of the basin with its magnificent views, its lively culture and a fascinating history. It is home to the Batak, the descendants of a powerful Proto-Malay people who until 1825 lived in relative isolation in the highlands surrounding Lake Toba. Having never been able to unite into a single people, today the Bataks live in six cultural divisions. They practice a form of bridewealth, in which the goom pays a marriage compensation to the wife’s family; once a particular number of agreed goods are reached, the bride becomes an official member of the husband’s group. For their ancestors, owning plants, animals and other inanimate objects meant guarding the souls of departed loved ones. To be able to talk to them, they used some priests helped by women who, in trance, communicated with the dead. Cannibalism was once practiced on this island, but the victims of this practice were mostly intended for prisoners, particularly incest offenders. At the beginning of the 21st century, few Bataks continued to practice the local religion; most of them converted to Protestant Christianity introduced by Dutch missionaries and in part to Islam. To reach the island you have to take a ferry moored at the pier of the island of Parapat. The cost is 15,000 IDR and there is a ride every hour.
#4 VISIT ONE OF INDONESIA’S HIGHEST WATERFALLS
If you are visiting Sumatra you cannot miss the beautiful waterfall Sipiso-Iso which with its height of 120m is one of the highest in Indonesia. Located near the village of Tongging about 35 km from the town of Kabanjahe, this waterfall is surrounded by lush vegetation. Here it is really worth stopping to take some photos from the viewpoint located at the top, where the parking lot is located, but if you have time you can go down a very long staircase that will take you to the bottom of Lake Toba, which the waterfall feeds with its powerful jet. You can reach this place by scooter or by bus. If you choose this option, you must first take a bus that in two hours takes you from Medan to Kabanjahe, then you must take a second one to Siantar (about 30 minutes more). The entrance price is 5,000 IDR.
#5 SCALE THE SIBAYAK VOLCANO
You don’t often get the opportunity to go to the top of a volcano and pitch your tent at the top of the crater, but in Sumatra you can do this. Mount Sibayak is a stratovolcano that dominates the city of Berastagi and erupted for the last time more than a century ago, in 1881. However it remains geo-thermally active, through sulphur sprays, hot springs and the presence of a sulphur lake. It is also one of the most climbed volcanoes on the island thanks to an accessible path that starts from Berastagi and reaches the summit after an easy 2-3 hour trek that you can walk even without a guide. Once you get to the top of the crater, the view you enjoy from there will reward you for the effort you have made! The view in front of you is nothing short of phenomenal, with the fumaroles coming out from the crevasses and a lake of sulphur located inside the crater that is said to have healing properties thanks to the volcanic minerals present inside. On a clear day you can see the Gunung Sinabung, another active volcano located nearby. The entrance to the volcano costs 10,000 IDR and the ascent to the crater you can do it with a guide or by yourself.
6 SEARCH ORANGUTANS IN BUKIT LAWANG
The rainforest around Bukit Lawang is part of Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest and most diverse forest and tropical ecosystems on the planet. Orangutans are the most famous residents, but the park is also home to leopards, baboons, macaques and Thomas monkeys. The best way to see the animals is to do trekking together with a guide choosing, among the various options, an excursion of one or more days.
#7 CROSSES THE ACEH BAND TSUNAMI SITES
Banda Aceh was the city most affected by the tsunami of 2004. That day, an earthquake of magnitude 9.1 with the epicentre off the northern coast of Sumatra, generated waves over 20 meters high that submerged Banda Aceh under the weight of their power. In the end, the toll of this cataclysm was 170,000 dead. Now, after more than sixteen years, it is worth stopping in the city at the touching Tsunami Memorial Museum, to try to understand the horrors experienced that day. Around Banda Aceh you can still see the signs of tragedy: a boat that has been brought inland and that now rests on the roof of a house, the floating power plant that was lifted by the giant wave and deposited three kilometres from the sea where it still remains or one of the numerous cemeteries where tens of thousands of unidentified bodies were buried. But this city is not only a theatre of death but also of life: it is a place famous throughout the country for its coffee, so be sure to try it at its most famous bar called Warung Kopi Solong. Due to several internal conflicts for independence, Banda Aceh before the tsunami, was closed to tourism. It has also become the only region of Indonesia governed by Sharia law, following a peace agreement with the central government that ended a ten-year separatist war through a series of autonomous measures.
#8 SEE THE BEAUTIFUL ACEH BAND MOSQUE
The main mosque was built on the basis of a building erected by settlers in 1881 and expanded several times over time until 1995, when a minaret was added. Following the devastation caused by the tsunami of 2004, the building suffered severe damage, but was virtually the only one in the district not to be wiped out by the wave, thus serving as a refuge for hundreds of Banda Aceh inhabitants. The fact that the mosque survived, along with many other mosques in the province, was interpreted by locals as a sign of divine grace. This mosque is worth a visit because it is one of the most beautiful that I have seen, especially at night when the lights are on. I advise you to maintain a respectful attitude and have proper clothing that is compatible by the local culture.
#9 SWIMS IN PULAU WEH SEABED
Pulau Weh is an island of volcanic origin of a lush green, whose beaches are white and the sea is crystal clear. It might not be the first place you’d think of when you imagine you’re on a tropical island where you can snorkel and scuba dive; Yet Pulau Weh offers all these things but above all it is less crowded than many other islands and is among the most authentic of Indonesian destinations. The island has several accommodation facilities, as well as some beach cafes that are the ideal place to watch the sunset. There are two options to reach the island: the fast ferry that leaves at 8, 10.30 and 14 at a cost of 80,000 IDR and the slow one that takes about two hours and leaves at 10.30 or 14 at a cost of 27,000 IDR. Schedules are susceptible to variations so it is always best to ask.
#10 EAT INDONESIAN FOOD
In general, Indonesian food is fresh, tasty and spicy. Rice and noodles are the staple foods and are mixed with a variety of vegetables, meats and eggs. The food varies from curry, stewed in Nasi goreng (fried rice) and satay. In many restaurants and hotels you will also find a good variety of Western food, but once you get out of the big centres, you will struggle to find even a loaf of bread. Fresh milk is also a rare commodity, so get ready for an essentially dairy-free holiday. The most used meat in the kitchen are chicken and fish. Beef is available, but not always; you will find it more easily in tourist areas and larger cities. Here in Sumatra the traditional foods are the Nasi Goreng, a traditional dish made of fried rice, chicken, shrimp and sometimes vegetables or the Mie Goreng, a dish of fried noodles. I tasted pergedel, a delicious sweet potato cake found in most places. I also drank the Tuak, the local drink also called “palm wine”.
If you are a person who loves nature and adventure I can only recommend this wonderful island.