Lake Toba is an immense volcanic lake covering an area of 1,707 km2 (1,000 km2 bigger than Singapore) with an island in the center. Formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago, it is probably the largest resurgent caldera on Earth. Some studies say it might have been associated with causing previous ice age/climate change and the largest human population bottleneck ever. Genetic estimates suggest that there were only a few thousand individuals that survived the catastrophe. The island in the middle - Pulau Samosir - was joined to the caldera wall by a narrow isthmus, which was cut through to enable boats to pass; a road bridge crosses the cutting. Samosir island is the cultural centre of Batak tribe who are mostly Christians nowadays.
Lake Toba was perhaps once more popular than it is nowadays, but for many it remains a firm fixture on the Banana Pancake Trail. It is a great laid back place to chill out for a few days after jungle trekking etc. The location is very popular with Chinese tourists around Chinese New Year, when availability drops dramatically and accommodation costs skyrocket. In its effort to promote tourism, government has greatly improved the infrastructure.
Now, Lake Toba is unhealthy for swimming due to excess of fish feeding, mainly for locations near fish floating net cages.
The local people who live in the Toba region are called Toba Batak, or simply Batak, and they speak the local Batak language, but everyone also speaks Indonesian. You may want to use the Batak greeting, horas, which means welcome, good morning, farewell, etc.
Lake Toba is served by 1 Silangit International Airport (DTB IATA), at Siborong-Borong in the southern part of the lake. As of April 2018, the airport serves domestic & international airport as follows:
- Batik Air from/to Jakarta
- Citilink from/to Jakarta (via Halim Perdanakusuma Airport)
- Garuda Indonesia from/to Medan, Jakarta and Singapore
- Wings Air from/to Medan and Jakarta
- Sriwijaya Air from/to Jakarta
You can also fly to Medan's Kualanamu International Airport and continue to Lake Toba by land.
There are 2 routes to reach Lake Toba from Medan:
- Kabanjahe route
- Pematang Siantar route
The Kabanjahe route is by far the shortest route and the only road to offer several options to reach Lake Toba. The route passes through Berastagi town and Kabanjahe city till it reaches Merek town (about 2.5 hours' drive from Medan). Once you reach Merek, there are 3 options: go to Tongging in the northern part of the lake (30 minutes' drive), to Parapat in the eastern part (2 hours' drive) or go through Sidikalang and continue to the western part to reach Samosir island via the only land bridge. This route is recommended to those who wish to explore Berastagi, Kabanjahe and Lake Toba in one go.
The Pematang Siantar route is the most popular route if you choose to head for Parapat or the southern part of Lake Toba. It takes about 5 hours by bus from Medan and will pass through Pematangsiantar. Due to opening of a toll road, the travel time may be cut by 30 - 45 mins. If you are flying to Kualanamu Airport, then most likely you will use this route.
If you want to go by bus, go to Amplas Station in Medan and ask around.
There is no direct train to Lake Toba. The nearest train station is at Pematang Siantar. The train (Siantar Ekspres) departs from Medan every day on 14:00 and the trip takes about 4 hours. Ticket price is Rp 22,000 one way (as of April 2018). From Pematang Siantar, you have to continue by bus to Parapat, which is another 1 hour ride.
Using car is the easiest and safest way to go around, but you have to rent from either Medan or Pematang Siantar. Use car with high ground clearance and preferably with lots of power. The majority road around Lake Toba is unpaved, save for the major road. Even the paved one conditions may be very bad with lots of potholes.
Local transportation around the lake takes the form of boats (cheaper, school boats with limited schedules and more expensive public boats that operate throughout the day).
Several harbours on the mainland have ferry connections with Samosir island. Most common is the Parapat - Tomok route. Public boats from Parapat and surrounding areas sail from either 2 Ajibata harbour or 3 Tigaraja harbour to Tuktuk or Tomok at Samosir island. The boat runs every hour, with the last one at 18:00. Some ferry owners are tourist hunters and will overcharge you. Try to take the ferry with wooden benches inside and the light green ferry. Those are the ferries that charge Rp 10,000 and the locals take to cross over. Self-proclaimed 'tourist hunters' may befriend you on the boat but are harmless and often helpful. If you are staying at Tuktuk, you can ask the ferryman to drop you directly at your resort. Watch out for the guys that ask for the fee before you embark — they do not work for the operators. You pay on the boat.
The large ferries KMP Tao Toba I & KMP Tao Toba II operates between Ajibata and 4 Tomok daily, carrying passengers as well as vehicles. On non-peak season, usually only one of the ferry operates. The ferry ride over is fantastic, just truly peaceful, apart from the car radios playing, the ladies selling peanuts, bottled water, noodle or pretty much anything else. Normally some of the passengers and vendors will be able to speak English. Landing at the other end of the 1 hour ferry journey is daunting, but again, behave like everyone else in Indonesia and just push, ever so politely, but firmly and eventually you will get off the ferry and onto the main road. If you are not bringing vehicles along, better use the boat service as it's faster.
Other large ferries routes are (as of January 2018):
- 5 Sipinggan (1 hour drive from Tomok) connected to 6 Muara, the ferry (KMP Sumut II) runs once a day every Saturday & Sunday. Trip last about 50 minutes with capacity of 40 people and 8 vehicles.
- 7 Simanindo (30 min drive from Tuktuk) by KMP Sumut I connected to 8 Tigaras which runs 7x trips daily. Trip last about 45 minutes with capacity of 16 vehicles.
- 9 Onan Runggu connected to 10 Balige by KMP Sumut II, runs once a day every Monday & Friday. Trip last about 90 minutes.
Public boat routes (passengers only) are (as of January 2018):
- Tomok - Ajibata, 14x daily
- Tuktuk - Tigaraja, 8x daily
- Onan Runggu - Balige, once daily
- Onan Runggu - Ajibata, 5x daily
- 11 Nainggolan - Balige, once daily
- Nainggolan - Ajibata, once daily except twice on Monday
- 12 Mogang - Balige, once daily
- Mogang - Ajibata, once daily
- Simanindo - 13 Haranggaol, once daily
- 14 Pangururan - Haranggaol, once daily
- 15 Lopo Parindo, Tomok - Tigaraja, 10x daily
If you have cash to burn, you can charter a speedboat and tour around Lake Toba. Rent are Rp 500,000++.
By public transport
It may be obvious but just remember there are no taxis around Lake Toba. Public buses exist, but there is no specific schedule. Ask the locals which bus to take as it may be confusing or you can flag a bus and ask the driver. State clearly your destination to avoid misunderstanding.
Hire a motorcycle for a day or two and get out and about Rp 70,000 per day including full petrol. You can bargain down to Rp 50,000 per day in low season if you hire for several days. Most of the motorcycles available for rent are the owner's own transportation, so you may need to return it to them before sunset (depends on owner) or you may be charge for an extra fees. Take a map. There are no police checking licenses and there is not much traffic - just watch out for the big trucks, buses and diabolical bridges. Honking around is a norm to indicate that there's incoming car from the opposite or there's a car bypassing you from the back (in driver's point of view). A good journey to take on a motorcycle would be to travel North from Tuktuk around to the western shore, stopping at the tourist sites along the way such as the many and varied traditional houses and villages. The roads are very bad in the center of the island (bumpy and washed out) and it takes half a day to cross this way (verse 1–2 hours by coast road which is more scenic anyway). You can expect to ride at least up to 100 km in the day. If you're going around the island with motorcycle or bicycle, be sure to put on some sunblock as when you venture out in the morning things can be deceiving due to the cooler temperatures in the morning cause of the higher elevation, but the sun will be intense by mid-day.
Most of the cottages and guest houses at Tuktuk will rent you a very serviceable bicycle for a nominal fee (for locals, it's about Rp 100.000), this is a very much preferred way to get around, but be very careful for the cars as nobody looks and there does not seem to be any right side of the road, even when its the left side.
Sure you can walk the small part of the island in an hour or so but if you are heading out for the night plan ahead on how you will get back home. The locals are very friendly people who will go out of their way to help. However, some corners of the island are very quiet at night and you may find yourself on a long long walk. Most part of the island also lack road lights, combined with bad road condition makes driving at night is misery!
- King Sidabutar Grave, Tomok. The Batak king who adopted Christianity is buried in Tomok, a village 5km southeast of Tuktuk.
- Batak Tombs. Many large tombs scattered in the (often rice) fields as family graves. This is typical for Toba Bataks but also other Bataks (e.g. SE of Berastagi).
- Batak Museum, Simanindo. At the northern tip of the island there is a Batak Museum with traditional dance performed twice daily at on 10am. Rp 50.000.
- Stone chairs and old houses, Ambarita. 8am-6pm. Stone chairs used for judgement and executions on a village square, in front of a line of old Batak houses (about 50-100 years old, but look older). Many houses are still in use.Entrance fee of Rp 5,000 (June 2017)
- Or you can just enjoy the scenery which is breathtaking!
- 1 Sipiso-piso falls (Air terjun Sipisopiso), Tongging, Merek (30 min drive from Merek, turns right when you see the sign. Continue until you meet a gate to pay entrance fee.). 24 hours. Highest waterfall in North Sumatra. You can climb down to get near to the waterfall or just enjoy the vista from top
- 2 Monument of King Silalahi (Tugu Makam Raja Silahisabungan), Silalahi, Paropo (Continue down the main road along the lake from Tongging village (not back to Merek road) until Silalahi village, on the left side of the road). A grave of Batak King Silalahi, contains well-preserved Batak traditional house.
- 3 Tele observation tower (Menara pandang Tele). Offer a view of Mt. Pusuk Buhit and the whole western side of Lake Toba. There is a small souvenir shop just beside the tower. The road to here are narrow and offer limited parking place.
- 4 Holbung (Bukit Holbung), Harian, Samosir (Head down the road from Tele tower to Panguruan, you will see branch to the right that is heading down. Continue along the road passing some villages and Efrata waterfalls. You will pass over a hill and then back down to a vast rocky field to your right. You'll see the road start climbing high again. On top of the road is a parking place and small post to denote the place.). A splendid rolling hills that offer breathtaking view of the western part of Lake Toba. Also a popular spot for camping. Only parking fee which is voluntary.
- 5 Simarjarunjung hill (Bukit Indah Simarjarunjung), Jl. Simarjarunjung (Between main road of Parapat and Merek). Another spot to view the eastern side of Lake Toba
There are hot springs on the western side of the island just across the causeway from Pangururan. The water is HOT. Locals usually use their hands to get some water out of the pool, standing in the pool is possible, but you probably won't be able to swim. The entrance fee to the surroundings is Rp 2,000. The pools are free, there's some special foreigner pool for Rp 10,000.
Replace after the frenetic atmosphere of Indonesia. Swim in the volcanically warmed waters of the lake or arrange an overnight 'party' boat out on the lake if you can get enough volunteers together. A beautiful place to do nothing at all. Plenty of second hand book shops to stock up on reading material. Traditional Batak Dance in Restaurant Bagus Bay every Wednesday and Saturday from 20:15 onwards. After the dance, sit back and enjoy the folk songs done by a group of men.
Rent a scooter to get around. Scooters cost about Rp 80,000 -100,000 per day. Petrol is approx Rp 9,000 per liter as of June 2017.
Do visit the west! Especially the viewpoint at the northwest tip called Pantai Batu Hoda. Very chill place with a couple of huts to relax and have coffee in. It's away from the roads and bustle of touristic jet skis.
Get to the viewpoint in the northeast, after Tomok near Latihan Paralayang, for a good accessible view over the lakes while up on the hills. Take a right fork after passing Tomok town. Roads are good. The road on the left fork is not paved.
Fishing Rental of a fishing rod (Rp 120,000 including bait) is possible.
The adventurous travelers may find many opportunity to explore the wilderness. Lake Toba offers plenty of rainforest with hills and mountains.
- 1 Pusuk Buhit (Gunung Pusuk Buhit), Sianjur - Pangururan. A sacred mountain for Batak people, legend said that the Batak people's origin is from this mountain. With a height of 1982 m, this mountain is the most accessible mountain to be climbed around Lake Toba. The climbing is easy and can be completed in less than a day. Climb from just after midnight to time your arrival at summit before sunrise to get best experience.
- 2 Sibuatan (Gunung Sibuatan), Merek (From Merek, head to village of Naga Lingga as start point). Highest mountain in North Sumatra with a height of 2457 m. Located in northern part of Lake Toba, the mountain is covered in thick rainforest. A guide is needed and the climb is hard. Not very popular with climbers. Usual climb will take 2 days.
The main road around Tuktuk is lined with small restaurants of varying quality. Also on offer is magic mushroom and various "happy herb" pizzas if you want that.
- Cotney Restaurant (by the Samosir resort). Rendangs, curries. Internet is available at a reasonable local price.
- Jenny's Restaurant (There is only one or two roads so simply ask for Jenny's.). Restaurant with view of Lake Toba. Curries, fresh lake-fish, steamed or grilled, western food such as schnitzel (breaded pork or chicken chop pan fried). Desserts include fresh papaya that grows in the back-yard or a golden-brown banana pancake with chocolate sauce and a sprinkle of coconut. Once all the guests in the small place with only about 5 tables are fed and happy, Rinto will take the guitar from the wall and entertain his patrons
- Joe's (about 2 km from Tuk Tuk towards Ambarita). A family restaurant with a kind, friendly owner. Chicken à la batak Rp 25,000, banana chocolate cake Rp 80,000 (for a whole cake). Also has fresh vanilla for sale (Rp 70,000 for 100 grams) and motorbike rental.
- Marco Polo, Close to the northern tip of Tuk Tuk (Walk north past most restaurants, about 15 min from Carolina). Views and reasonably priced food. Make sure to try the avocado sandwich for Rp 10,000, the avocado tree can be seen from the balcony. The owners are extremely nice and helpful but don't seem to get many customers as they are past the main tourist area.
- Maruba Restaurant, Tuk-tuk (In between Amberoba Hotel and Rodeo Accommodation). Traditional Batak and Indonesian food and a variety of Western meals such as schnitzels, real homemade burgers, pasta and roast chicken with fresh herb stuffing. Brown bread, burger buns and baguettes baked most days. English breakfast with smoked bacon is delicious. You can order a Batak feast one day (or less) in advance. Some choices are boneless fish curry, ikan na neura (very fresh raw fish marinated with candlenuts, spices & lime juice), napi nadir (a Batak style curry made with grilled chicken), saksang (chopped pork cooked with Batak spices and fresh pig's blood (blood is optional). Also available to order – delicious Lake Toba freshwater lobster (crayfish) at a very reasonable price.
- Orari Restaurant, Tuk-Tuk (Next to Anju), ☎ . Restaurant with traditional Batak, Indonesian and European cuisine. Spaghetti bolognese, nasi goreng 'special', beef rendang, BBQ fish. Restaurant has a view of the lake. Motorbike rentals also available for Rp 60,000.
- Tabo Cottages, Tuk-tuk, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Free wifi, western-styled food served, the extensive menu is possibly pricier than other options. They have baked goods and European quality natural yoghurt. Fish is caught directly from the lake. from Rp 215,000.
- Today's cafe, Tuk-tuk (5mins walk from samosir guesthouse). The owner of this small cafe, Juliet, is very friendly. Main meals from Rp 20,000-35,000. Wifi for Rp 100,000 an hour.
- Leo's Restaurant (In Tuktuk, walk in the direction of Ambarita. Some 100 m before Toledo Inn, the restaurant is above the street.). Batak food, including pork and lake fish with local spices. Large Bintang Rp 35.000, 100 g fish Rp 8,000, served with fried potatoes (one portion of fish is 500 g normally, but they might have bigger ones, too). Family run, used to be one of the first restaurants in Tuktuk, then closed for some time and reopened in 2010 by the son of the previous owner.
- 1 Sitopsi, Tongging (From Tongging market, turn to left and follow the small road). Offer fresh seafood with a very cheap price. You can choose either grilled or fried. Do try the lobster! Very packed with people around lunch time and serving time seems to take forever.
- 2 RM Muslim Suroboyo, Tongging (Just adjacent to Sitopsi). An alternative to Sitopsi if the latter is packed full. Offer more or less similar menu, price and services.
This area is in a depressed tourist state but is actual a wonderful gem that should be on the world stage. So while some places may look like not much is going on- just go in - and the momentum will build into a fun filled night with new friends. There is one discotheque on Fri and Sat nights - expect the 80s music. Better to drink at your guest house generally. There are a number of fine spots around the Tuk Tuk area to catch a sunset beer. Especially on Saturday night you can hear a chorus of parties going around the Tuktuk area.
- Samosir Cottages. you will provide a wonderful local Batak performance that is a mixture of traditional dances and fantastic drinking songs.
- Reggae Bar. is perched high up looking over the lake.
- Hibiscus Bar. on main street is hosted by two wonderful local girls and plays cool tunes.
There are numerous hotels and guest houses, mainly in Tuktuk but with a few scattered in other small towns around the island. During Chinese New Year (Jan/Feb), many Indonesians come for vacation and will pay generously for their rooms (about triple the rate). To accommodate these guests, some guest house owners may ask their existing guests to vacate their rooms, but only giving them very short notice. Therefore, when arriving before Chinese New Year, check with the guest house owner to ensure your stay will not be interrupted.
- 1 Bagus Bay, Jalan Tuktuk, Samosir, ☎ . Next to the lake. A dark wood and bamboo bar/restaurant gives the place a relaxed feel. The most rooms are basic. They have a restaurant and internet and WIFI. Rp 30,000-175,000.
- Barbara`s Guesthouse, Ambarita, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Small quite relaxing place a few km from Tuktuk with lovely scenery and good swimming. Rooms are clean and located in several houses. Western and Indonesian style food is served in the restaurant or on the terrace. Tourist information and good tips about Sumatra. From Rp 70,000.
- 2 Hotel Carolina, Tuk-tuk Siadong, Samosir, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. 49 rooms set in a beautiful tropical garden. It has a restaurant with a verandah overlooking the lake. Staff are very helpful. Small Batak style cottages up the hill have cold water only. Luxury rooms on the lake shore come with hot water, a bath tub and a fridge. They have a lake area for swimming with a diving board and pontoon to relax. The hotel can organize travel, trips and motorbike rental. Computer room and free Wi-Fi in the restaurant area, though the speed can be very slow. Rp 45,000-150,000+10%.
- Ebikel's Homestay (just next to Hotel Carolina). Homestay with a decent room and affordable price. The owner Ebikel is a helpful and willing guide to Samosir Island.
- Christina Guesthouse, Tuktuk, ☎ . A small relaxing place with lovely scenery and good swimming. Rooms are clean and located in several traditional Batak-houses). Internet and Skype access are available for reasonable price. Western and Indonesian style food is served in the restaurant. General tourist information and good tips about Sumatra. From Rp 50,000.
- 3 Liberta Homestay, Jl. Lkr. Tuktuk, Samosir, ☎ . It has quiet private cabins on the lake. Traditional Batak houses, good atmosphere. The room No1 is a good choice, because of the view and terrace. Friendly owner Mr Moon will sing, cook, and go out of his way for you. He also provides a herbal blend against diarrhea. Rp 60,000+.
- Mas Cottages (about 2 km from Tuktuk towards Ambarita). Closer to the ancient ceremonial stone chairs than downtown Tuktuk. Variety of accommodation options all directly on the lake including suites and traditional Batak houses. Prices are a bit higher for this secluded location. Rooms with hot water, but the hot water is unreliable. Good breakfast. No Wi-Fi or internet, and the nearby internet café seems always to be closed. Rp 60,000-70,000.
- Romlan, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Small guesthouse with 12 rooms including 2 batak cottages in both a single and a 2-storey building. The rooms are clean and comfortable with attached bathroom. All rooms have a direct lake view. Good for swimming and relaxing. Local and Indonesian food including some German meals. Free Wi-Fi. Private boat dock. Cottages Rp 40,000 (must ask), rooms Rp 150,000 (Rp. 120,000 low season).
- Samosir Cottages, Tuktuk, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Good for those who arrive late in Parapat, there is usually a representative to take them to the cottages. The waterfront is clean, and the large restaurant food and drinks. Batak music provided every Wed night and Sat night. If you walk outside the hotel you can use a local cafe which may offer some more variety and cheaper prices. They also own Samosir Villa Resort 5 mins drive away. Its sister resort has new rooms, free internet, a pool and a restaurant providing food and drinks. From Rp 200,000.
- Tabo Cottages, Tuktuk, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rooms are clean and quite modern by Sumatran standards. Free Wi-Fi. Western-styled food served in the restaurant is good. From Rp 120,000.
- Tony's Guest House (ask any local). Nice people and nice double room. Vegetable taco for Rp 21,000. From Rp 25,000.
- Aman guesthouse, Tuktuk (Next to Tony's). Traditional Batak houses with hot water shower. Rp 40,000-50,000 per room.
- Parnas Homestay and Bar, Tuktuk Siadong - Samosir Island, Parapat 22395, Indonesia, ☎ . A very chilled out place on the left wing of the peninsula Tuktuk. 4 very spacious and beautifully furnished rooms with bathroom, direct access to the lake and stunning views. There's a huge Bar and restaurant with a communal room. free pool billiards, table tennis, darts. Live music, scooter rental, BBQ, laundry. Rooms between Rp 60,000 in low season and Rp 150,000 in high season (note: confirm the agreed room price in writing as it may change when you get the bill).
- Haraira (Close to Jennys Restaurant). Large very clean rooms with hot water shower (Rp 80,000-100,000/night). Well maintained garden in front of the rooms towards the Lake. Really nice view, good swimming.
- 4 Tuk-Tuk Timbul, Jl. Lkr. Tuktuk, Samosir (along the road from Tuktuk to Ambarita), ☎ . Basic bungalows along the Lake Toba shore, with a small restaurant.
- 5 Taman Simalem Resort, Jl. Raya Merek - Sidikalang Km. 9, ☎ (marketing office), , e-mail: email@example.com. Taman Simalem Resort is Indonesia's first agro-eco-tourism destination that has the magnificent Lake Toba as the backdrop at some 1400 m above sea level. Some unique features of the resort comprise Indonesia's largest loquat farm, an organic vegetables farm, a 9-hole golf course set in a tea and coffee estate and a twin waterfall in the 130-ha jungle that surrounds the resort. The resort is still under development but accommodation is available; ranging from the 4-bedded rooms with detached bathrooms to villas set in the jungle. For the more adventurous, camping packages are also available. A minimum 2-night stay is recommended to be able to enjoy most of the resort's facilities. Windbreakers and sweaters are recommended as the temperature averages below 20°C year round. Start from Rp 1,900,000.
- 6 Hotel Tiara Bunga, Jl. Tuktuk Tarabunga, Desa Tarabunga, Toba Samosir, ☎ , , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. One of the best hotel located at southern part of Lake Toba, the hotel can only be reached by boat from Cafe Bunga Toba (across Hotel Ompul Herti) at Balige village. The hotel offers great view and peaceful atmosphere due to its isolation. Start from Rp 650,000.
- 7 Sapo Juma, Tongging (From the gate to Sipiso-piso waterfall/Tongging village, turn right where signboard mention Bukit Gajah Bobok and Sapo Jumma. Follow the road passing flower garden until reaching Sapo Jumma about 15 min), ☎ . A home-stay consists of 8 standard rooms, this can be a very cheap alternative to Simalem Resort if you want to enjoy the same view as this is located adjacent hill of Simalem Resort. The owner also has extensive flower garden just across the hotel. Staff are very friendly. There's a camping ground as well. Rp 450,000++ per room.
The local Batak people are very respectful. Some of the local males may try to turn on the charm too much.
A popular way for tourists to get around Samosir Island is to hire a motorcycle Rp 70,000-80.000, a lower rate may be available if rented for a longer period. Care should be taken if choosing this option as the roads around the island are in poor condition and medical services very limited if you have an accident requiring medical treatment.