Welcome to your ultimate guide to Lake Toba, North Sumatra! Our personal, authentic, experience-based guide tells you everything you need to know about visiting this spectacular spot.
Samosir Island in North Sumatra is one of the most stunning and unique spots in Indonesia. This island — roughly the size of Singapore — is the world’s largest island within an island.
It rests in the centre of an enormous crater lake: Lake Toba, the largest volcanic lake on the planet.
The landscapes here are nothing short of spectacular. From anywhere on the island, you have jaw-droppping views of pine-clad mountains rising steeply from the ever-changing colours of the lake.
Reminiscent of an alpine lake in Europe, Lake Toba is a weary traveller’s haven. It has a refreshing climate, endless, open vistas that you can’t tear your eyes away from, and the relaxed, welcoming vibe that is characteristic of Sumatra.
The main destination for travel in Lake Toba is the small peninsula of Tuktuk on Samosir Island.
Tuktuk is a tiny bump. There is just one road that winds around the shore of this peninsula; it’s about three kilometres long and takes about an hour to wander around.
This is the first place I truly fell head over heels in love with Sumatra when I was travelling solo. Since then, I have returned time and time again, and the novely has never worn off.
Now, we consider this picture-perfect destination to be our second home.
Words will never to justice to describe this place. There is a palpable magic here that you feel as your brightly-painted ferry carries you from the busy port at Parapat towards this island paradise.
Lake Toba's Volcanic History
The formation and history of Lake Toba is nothing short of epic. The landcape here was formed around 77,000 years ago in a super-volcanic eruption that was the largest known explosive event to occur on earth in 25 million years.
The consequences of this eruption were chaos for our planet.
The blast resulted in a global volcanic winter which lasted for ten years. The temperatures worldwide decreased by three to five degrees Celsius in lower latitudes, and up to 15 degrees in higher latitudes.
With an area of 20,000 square kilometres destroyed, ash was deposited around the world. In some places, up to six metres deep.
The Toba Catastrophe Theory suggests that this blast killed the majority of humans alive during that time, leaving only around 10,000.
It caused a population bottleneck in some areas of the world that led to the genetic makeup of the current world population.
This theory is disputed in more recent research, but regardless, there’s no arguing that the eruption was nothing short of disaster-movie proportions.
The cooler temperatures around the globe may have lasted a further 1000 years… what!? I know! It’s intense, and super bloody amazing.
After the caldera (volcanic crater) collapsed, it then filled with water — what we now know as Lake Toba. Then, over tens of thousands of years, Samosir Island was pushed up in the centre.
If all this has you intrigued, check out this cool little video on the formation of Lake Toba.
Lake Toba's Tourism History
Indonesia itself has a rich and convoluted history, and Sumatra is no different. It makes for fascinating reading. My favourite book on the subject, by an intrepid solo female traveller (before it was even cool), is Indonesia etc. Exploring the Improbable Nation.
Understanding the current, unique vibe of Tuktuk and surrounds involves taking a quick glance at the history of this tiny village.
Tracing the history and establishment of Samosir as a tourist centre is a long story.
To summarise: the resort town of Parapat (the main point for catching ferries across to Tuktuk) was established during the Dutch Colonisation Period, some time in the first half of the 1900s.
Post colonisation, areas like Parapat, Tomok, and Tuktuk were developed as tourist destinations aimed at the foreign market. They offered a plethora of high-class accommodation options.
In the ’80s, the island hosted full-moon parties and other wild nightlife. Basically, Lake Toba was the place to be seen long before Bali started drawing in rowdy foreigners looking to party.
Tourism boomed here in the mid to late ’90s, with a massive four million tourists visiting the area in 1996 alone. This explains the number of hotels, lodges, and guesthouses squeezed together lining the shore of this tiny but mighty peninsula.
This explosion in tourists boosted the economy and shaped Tuktuk into the place it is today.
However, in the years following the boom, tourism drastically dropped away. This was due to a combination of thick smoke affecting flight traffic, an economic crisis, and some ensuing political drama in 19998.
Tourism continued to plummet over the following decades. When I first visited Tuktuk in 2013, it felt like an ever-so-charming ghost town.
The many huge hotels and resorts lay empty and unkempt. The endless procession of cafes and restaurants optimistically remained open for tourists that seldom came.
Tuktuk was a village that knew and remembered success and lay waiting to be rediscovered.
Now, Samosir’s time has come again. President Jokowi visited in 2016, proclaiming that the government would support this destination to grow; improving infrastructure, cleaning up the polluted lake, and building new roads.
There are even direct flights to nearby Silangit airport from Malaysia.
As a result, Tuktuk has had a significant makeover in the last few years. Gone is the rubbish in the streets and the potholes. The lake’s waters are clear and clean; the overgrown sidewalks are cleared, and development and construction are everywhere you look.
Every time we visit, there are numerous new hotels and restaurants, although many of the large, older resorts seem to still lie empty.
The warungs that used to charm with their authentic shabbiness are becoming a thing of the past; even the smallest roadside shack selling cold drinks has been given a makeover.
While this is a good thing for the people of Tuktuk, it does mean things are changing quickly. The government want to make Lake Toba “the new Bali,” (oh please, no!) so make sure you get there now, just in case it loses its charm in the future.
How to Get to Lake Toba
Medan is the biggest city in Sumatra, and the main point of entry for arrival.
Kuala Namu (KNO) International Airport is modern and easy to navigate. Once you arrive, you can find yourself a local bus, taxi, shared car, or private car to head to Lake Toba — around a three hour drive.
If you’re heading to Lake Toba as your first Sumatran destination, we suggest skipping the city of Medan entirely. We’ve never met anyone who has enjoyed spending time there!
Head to Toba straight from the airport, or get some zzzz’s in a hotel nearby the airport rather than heading into the city centre itself (around an hour away, depending on traffic).
Silangit airport, around two hours drive from Parapat, has been upgraded in the last few years. You can now fly directly from Malaysia (or from many domestic airports) for a reasonable price.
The airport is small but modern, and you can grab a fixed-price taxi outside to get yourself from there to Parapat for around 400,000 IDR.
Catching a Bus to Lake Toba
Bear in mind that local buses (more like mini-vans) in Sumatra often don’t feature air conditioning, and many allow smoking inside. The journey may be loud and uncomfortable, but if you’re feeling adventurous and are on a tight budget, get amongst it and travel like a local!
Unfortunately, you’ll need to wing it a bit; bus schedules in Sumatra are somewhat –ahem, flexible — and even if we could tell you the times, they would probably change tomorrow!
From Kuala Namu Airport
Exit the airport and turn right outside to find the buses. Look for one going to Amplas Bus Station — around 15-20 minutes away.
Once at Amplas, locate a bus heading to Parapat, where you’ll catch the ferry to Tuktuk. The price should be about 50,000 IDR per person.
From Medan City
Find your way (by taxi or becak) to Pinang Baris bus station and hunt down a local angkot (a small, van-like public bus) heading to Amplas Bus Station, around 40 minutes away. It should cost around 15,000 IDR.
From there, jump on a larger bus heading to Parapat.
Driving to Lake Toba
Going by private car is the fastest, most comfortable option and will cost anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 IDR.
You can get a shared taxi, but the journey may be slow and uncomfortable. You may also face long wait times while the taxi waits for enough people to fill up.
From Kuala Namu airport, exit and turn right towards the bus station. You will find shared taxi and tour companies and should be able to secure yourself some affordable transport.
If you’re staying at a hotel in Medan, chat to them about transport options.
Alternatively, you may luck out and find yourself a Grab or Go-Jek driver willing to make the trip using one of the smartphone apps. These work in a similar way to Uber and are super handy.
Getting From Parapat to Tuktuk
Ferries leave the port every hour on the half hour, from 8:30 am onwards. The last ferry departs Parapat at 7 pm.
The return trip from Tuktuk to Parapat leaves every hour on the hour from 7 am to 5 pm.
The fare is 15,000 IDR per person. Just tell the fare-collector what accommodaiton you’re staying at, and they’ll drop you on the doorstep. If you don’t know, get off at the general public “port.”
The scenic journey across Lake Toba takes around 30-60 minutes, depending on your drop-off point.
Where to Stay in Lake Toba
There is something for everyone in Tuktuk. If you want 5-star luxury with pools, cocktail bars, and luxurious king-sized beds with lake views, there are many to choose from.
But there are also plenty of budget-friendly guesthouses within a stone’s throw of the lake.
You really can’t go wrong staying in Tuktuk. And unless you’re coming during Christmas, Chinese New Year, or other major holidays, you’ll be able to find a room with no trouble by merely wandering the street.
Most accommodations offer wi-fi, though not all signals are strong, and some don’t offer it in-room.
Our home away from home has always been Reggae Guesthouse. We’ve spent so much time at this mind-blowingly gorgeous spot that we feel like family. But truthfully, it’s felt like that since day one, thanks to the warm welcome from the team at this small, family-run guesthouse.
The view from the simple restaurant/bar is the best on the island. Budget rooms are simple but lie directly on the lake’s edge. You can walk out of your room and dive straight into the Lake.
There are also some newly built fancier rooms that can accommodate larger families — the views are just as mind-blowing.
Rooms start at 150,000 IDR per night. All come with western flush toilets, hot water showers, and million-dollar views.
This is one of our favourite lunch spots, and super popular among tourists, particularly European visitors.
The food is great, landscaping is beautiful and green, the pool is enticing, and there are a range of rooms to choose from.
Annette and her Batak husband are fantastic hosts and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable or involved in Tuktuk and Lake Toba.
This is budget-style comfort. A super popular place with backpackers and the younger crowd. The restaurant has a hugely varied menu with lots to choose from. There’s a pool table and great chill out areas.
The village of Tomok is just around the corner from Tuktuk, about a 10 minute drive away.
Although there are a few accommodation options here, you most likelywon’t choose this as your home base. There’s just not that much to do, and Tuktuk is far more picturesque.
There is a ferry port here where you can catch boats to Parapat or other areas of Samosir.
Plenty of local restaurants and cafes line the main street, most offering local fare.
Tomok is the best spot for shopping. It’s lined with stalls selling t-shirts, hats, sunglasses, sarongs, bags, jewellery, statues — and everything else you might want to take home with you. Prices are reasonable.
Things to do in Lake Toba
Lake Toba is ideal for chill seekers or thrill seekers. If you want to sit and gaze at the lake all day with the occasional bintang and a nap, you’re in the right place.
But if you want to go exploring, experience Batak culture, or get active out on the lake, you’re spoiled for choice.
We’ve done a bit of everything here, and listed our favourite things for you to do. Shoot over to this blog for our Top 15 Most Awesome Things to do in Lake Toba.
Oh, and did we mention waterfalls? There’s plenty of those too. If you’re after some waterfall hunting, check out the 5 Most Beautiful Waterfalls in Lake Toba.
Getting Around Lake Toba
The best way to see Samosir Island is by motorbike (although most are what we would refer to as scooters.)
It’s easy to hire one from your accommodation or one of the many rental places on Tuktuk. The going rate is 100,000 IDR per day.
The main roads are great most of the way around Samosir. If you have buns of steel to handle the journey, you can get around the whole island in one day.
If you aren’t confident enough to ride a scooter by yourself, it’s easy to find a local guide to take you adventuring.
For larger groups, or if you’re after a bit more comfrot, you can hire a car and driver.
For shorter trips or more energetic travellers, bicycle rental is available throughout Tuktuk.
Best Time to Visit Lake Toba
In our opinion, there’s no bad time to come to Lake Toba. However, if you really want to appreciate the peaceful beauty of this place, better to avoid busy periods.
Steer clear of Chinese New Year (which varies, but tends to be in early February), and Idul Fitr, a popular Muslim holiday which changes dates year by year. Christmas and New Years are also rather hectic.
Lake Toba Weather
Because it’s an elevated region, Lake Toba is considerably cooler and less humid that other areas of Sumatra.
Dry season/high season generally falls between May and September.
Wet season/low season is from October to May.
High/dry season in Lake Toba is nowhere near crazy busy (yet). You’ll still easily find a room, a table to dine at, and a peaceful spot to relax in.
You’ll get more hot and sunny days and less rain.
If you’re someone who enjoys socialising with other travellers, you may enjoy visiting during high season more.
Low/wet season is blissfully peaceful and quiet. Although there is increased rainfall, it generally only happens in the late afternoon or evening. There are still plenty of fine and sunny days.
This is a great time to get cheaper room and tour deals, and feel like you have the island to yourself.
If you’re not yet acclimatised to the hot, humid climate of Indonesia, you’ll be more than comfortable here even during wet season. Pack a light raincoat or jacket for those cooler nights.
Food in Lake Toba
There’s plenty of food to keep even the fussiest eater happy in Tuktuk. Lots of Western options along with tasty local dishes.
We’ve tried most of them, and they are all delicious. Rather than recommend our favourites, we suggest you go exploring and taste as much as you can while you’re here!
Being pizza-fiends, we will add that there are plenty of places that do a mean pizza.
If you’re on a budget, head to a local warung to get delicious nasi campur and local goodies for between 10,000 and 20,000 IDR.
Batak Toba Culture
The Lake Toba area is home of the Batak Toba people, one of the six different Batak “tribes” spread throughout Sumatra.
They have their own beautiful language with lots of rolling “rrrrrs,” incredibly beautiful and iconic music, graceful dancing, and impressive architecture.
You’ll see the distinctive, traditional curved rooves of the Rumah Bolon (traditional Batak houses) throughout the island.
Batak Toba Culture is fascinating. Be sure to chat to locals about it, or visit some of the historical attractions to learn more.
Amenities in Lake Toba
ATMs and Banks
There is one ATM in Tuktuk from Mandiri Bank. Make sure you have enough money before you come in case it isn’t working or isn’t compatible with your credit card.
Further ATMs and banks can be found nearby in Ambarita or Tomok.
There is once clinic in Tuktuk. Luckily, we’ve never needed to use it, but have met a few visitors who were happy with the service. For basic medical supplies, the local shops have you covered.
There is very little police presence in Tuktuk itself. It’s a peaceful place with no need for one. The nearest police station is in Ambarita – around a 10-minute drive from Tuktuk.
Nearly all the restaurants, warungs, and accommodations have free wi-fi. There are a couple of internet cafes offering computers and printing facilities.
Like everything in life, good things take time. Our travels, website, and guides are a work in progress, and we still have so much exploring to do!
If there are things missing from this epic guide that you think should be added, or burning questions unanswered, contact us and let us know!
Love Lake Toba or dying to visit? Comment your favourite adventures, restaurants, or guesthouses below. We would love to hear from you!