Updated November 20th, 2017.
Located four hours from Sumatra’s main city of Medan lies the mystical volcanic crater lake, Lake Toba. An 1800 square km, 500-meter deep lake surrounded by masses of lush green mountains with an Island in the middle the same size as Singapore. There is no denying the beauty of this place and on arrival, you will understand why this was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia during the 1960s and 70s on the infamous hippie trail. The thing that will leave you gobsmacked is that compared to its 1970s heydey, barely anyone visits this truly stunning destination anymore!
The local Batak people who inhabit Lake Toba are some of the friendliest and most welcoming you will meet on your travels, so don’t be surprised if you are randomly invited to a wedding or someone’s house for dinner.
Lake Toba has the ability to make days blend into weeks as you spend the days swimming, exploring the Island on motorbikes, eating the delicious seafood and generally relaxing a little too much. This destination is a must for anyone craving some relaxation, friendly locals, amazingly cheap seafood while also looking to get a bit off the beaten track.
Places to stay in Lake Toba
The majority of guesthouses are situated in the town of Tuk-Tuk on the lake’s only habitable island, Samosir. The area is littered with waterfront restaurants and guesthouses where you can relax in a deckchair while enjoying the remarkable scenery on offer. If you have not booked accommodation in advance you will no doubt be hassled on the ferry by a tout for one of the guesthouses or hotels, they are friendly enough but can be persistent. The ferry will either drop you at a random wharf in Tuk-Tuk or at a specific guesthouse if you request it.
- Merlyn Guesthouse:
Located in the heart of Tuk-Tuk and positioned on the waterfront this is a great place to stay. At Merlyn Guesthouse you have the option of a traditional Batak house for 90,000Rp (hot water and bathroom included), or a private bungalow for 120,000Rp.
Located on the waterfront Samosir Cottages is a great place to stay if you are looking to meet other travellers. The waterfront area includes deckchairs and diving boards while the large restaurant has Batak music and dance nights on Wednesday and Friday. Rooms starting at 100,000 Rp.
Owned by the same people as Samosir Cottages, Samosir Villa Resort caters for the more high-end travellers. The accommodation includes buffet breakfast, a swimming pool, modern rooms and lake frontage location. Prices start at 350,000Rp.
- Bagus Bay Resort:
A nice quiet resort with lake frontage, Bagus Bay resort offers Indonesian and western food, clean but basic rooms and weekly Batak dance and music nights on Wednesday and Friday. Prices from 130,000Rp.
Things to do in Lake Toba
Explore the Island by Motorbike: Without a doubt, the best way to experience Lake Toba is via a scooter. A popular day trip is riding from Tuk-Tuk across to the Hot Springs located just outside of Panguruan on the other side of the Island. If you are a skilled rider you can ride to the source of the hot springs at the top of the mountain. This is also the best spot for a view of Lake Toba so bring your camera as the views are amazing!
Exploring by motorbike is the best way!
Visit an ancient Batak Village: Located a 10-minute drive from Tuk-Tuk is the village of Ambarita. It is here that you can visit a traditional ancient Batak village and also see the stone chairs where the local king would hold meetings. Your local guide will also happily play the executioner role as you get a photo on the ‘chopping block’, where as the name suggests executions were held. Entry will cost you around $1 depending on how well you negotiate.
Visit a lake inside a lake: A lake inside a lake you ask? That’s right; Lake Toba is home to one of the world’s only lakes inside a lake named Lake Sidihoni. However getting there can get quite difficult, if you want to see this place we recommend asking your guesthouse for a guide to take you as it is near impossible to find without prior knowledge.
See a traditional Batak dance and music show: Bagus Bay and Samosir cottages both offer regular music and dance nights on Saturday and Wednesday at 8 pm. The show starts off quite tame as you enjoy your dinner, however, by the end expect to be dancing and enjoying some fun drinking songs.
Getting to Lake Toba
Getting to Paparat (the pier on the mainland)
- Train: The majority of people make their way to Lake Toba from the city of Medan, however, most major towns will offer bus service to Paparat (the town where you catch a ferry to the Island of Samosir). You can catch a train from Medan to P. Siantar, which is a 1-hour bus ride from Lake Toba. The train leaves Medan at 10.05am and arrives in P. Siantar at around 12.45pm.
- Bus: For a fun and entertaining journey take a public bus from Medan to Parapat. Please note that smoking on the bus is very common so if you are not a fan of 6 hours of second-hand smoke, a private car may be a better option. Like most public buses in Asia, they are constantly stopping to pick up and drop off people, which adds significant time to the trip. The trip costs 18,000Rp and takes around 4 – 6 hours.
Read our article – 5 Emotional Stages of Long Distance Bus Travel in Sumatra.
- Car: Private cars are also an option; Tobatransporter.com offer return trips with pick up from the airport starting at 100,000Rp per person for a 5 -seater car and 80,000 Rp per person for a 7-seater van.
- Getting to Samosir: A ferry is your only option to get from Paparat to the Island of Samosir and it is a truly stunning journey. The ferry leaves every hour up until 19:00 and costs 100,000Rp (takes 1 hour). If you know where you want to stay tell the driver and he will drop you at the closest wharf to your guesthouse.
Where to next?
- Berastagi: A great stop over while on route back to Medan. Berastagi is home to some great Volcano trekking. Gunung Sibayak is a great day trek and you do not require a guide however it is recommended for safety as the weather can change rapidly in this region and it’s quite easy to get lost. Minibuses leave frequently from Paparat ferry wharf for Berastagi costing around 120,000Rp.
- Medan: The fourth largest city in Indonesia Medan is generally not a favourite city for many travellers. It’s noisy, dirty and lacks any must see attractions. Masjid Raya Medan is a beautiful mosque to visit especially at sunset, however, besides this Medan is more of a stopover city.
- Bukit Lawang: A popular destination for travellers looking to encounter wild orangutans; Bukit Lawang is home to some amazing jungle treks and the setting on the river its truly beautiful. Jungle treks options range from 1 day to 7-day treks where you camp by the river and enjoy the relaxing nature of Gunung Leuser National Park.
About the authors: Kael and Georgie, of travel blog Nomadic2, are a young couple who packed up their lives in Sydney, Australia to go backpacking around the world!