Sumatra, the world's sixth-largest island, spans over 1,200 miles in the western part of Indonesia and is split in two by the equator. The few tourists who brave Medan's pollution are rewarded with jungle trekking, active volcanoes, and friendly people who no longer behead and eat visitors as their ancestors once did.
Blessed with unmatched natural beauty and potential for adventure, Sumatra is equally cursed with devastating geological disasters and a serious tourism slump.
Despite the close geographical proximity to Penang and Singapore, North Sumatra has managed to remain wilder and more inviting than ever.
1. Lake Toba
Danau Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake and was formed during a cataclysmic eruption which subsequently killed off much of the Earth's population. Today, visitors enjoy Lake Toba's beauty and mineral-rich water by staying on Pulau Samosir -- a new, volcanic island formed in the center of the lake.
Samosir Island is actually an island within an island, and the tranquil setting is enough to keep people around for far longer than expected. Friendly Batak descendants are always willing to share their culture; impromptu guitar sessions break out almost nightly.
2. Bukit Lawang
Bukit Lawang, a tiny, riverside village north of Medan, is the base in North Sumatra for jungle trekking in Gunung Leuser national Park. Travelers will encounter both semi-wild and wild orangutans, along with a whole host of other endangered species that take refuge inside the national park after habitat loss to palm oil plantations.
River tubing, jungle trekking, and a serene setting are well worth braving Bukit Lawang's ferocious mosquito population.
Although not the most attractive town, Berastagi -- three hours from Medan -- serves as base for climbing two of Sumatra's most attractive volcanoes: Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabung.
Unfortunately, most travelers get out of town quick after their day of trekking, but Berastagi is surrounded by villages, waterfalls, and natural attractions. The cool climate is refreshing to those who have been sweating around Southeast Asia for weeks.
Berastagi is a great place to visit traditional Karo houses to learn more about local customs.
- Read this Berastagi travel guide.
Gunung Sibayak is easiest of North Sumatra's volcanoes to climb, however, the rewards are great. The views of the green, expansive Karo Highlands are spectacular. Climbing Gunung Sibayak can be done in five to six hours return; hot springs wait on the return path to soak sore legs.
The base for tackling Sibayak is the town of Berastagi -- only three hours from Medan. Many travelers opt to climb Mount Sibayak without a guide, but weather can change on the volcano so team up with someone else.
- Read more about climbing Gunung Sibayak.
At 8,000 feet high, Gunung Sinabung is the tallest volcano in North Sumatra and the views are even more impressive than those from neighboring Sibayak. Mount Sinabung is located 16 miles west of Berastagi; the climb plus return takes between 10 -- 12 hours, depending on the condition of the trails.
Climbing Gunung Sinabung requires a guide to help negotiate the crisscrossing and steep trails. Travelers have perished in the past attempting to climb alone.
Gunung Sinabung surprised everyone with an eruption in 2010 after having been dormant for 400 years.
6. Visit Karo Villages
When your legs can no longer handle another volcano trek, take in daily life at one of the many Karo villages dotted around North Sumatra. The traditional thatched-roof longhouses are adorned with buffalo horns.
Ask in your accommodation about arranging transport, or rent a motorbike and grab a map.
- Percen Village: Closest to Berastagi (2 km) Percen has six traditional houses; the oldest is 120 years old.
- Lingga Village: At 16 km away from Berastagi, Lingga is nicer to visit than Percen. The king's house -- the primary attraction -- is 250 years old.
- Dokan Village: Dokan, 30 km away from Berastagi, is the least touristy of the Karo villages.
7. Sipiso-Piso Waterfall
A nice stopover between Berastagi and Lake Toba, the Sipiso-piso Waterfall falls 120 meters onto rocks below. The waterfall is surrounded by mountains, jungle, and rice fields.
Find the waterfall just two kilometers from the main road junction in Simpang Situnggaling -- one of the bus changes on the way to Lake Toba.