A beautiful volcanic lake in the Sumatran interior, Danau Toba is touted as one of Indonesia’s most scenic mountain settings. It covers more than 400 square miles of water and sits roughly 3,000 feet above sea level.

In the old days, this was a wild party destination for backpackers and bohemian travelers. That crowd has since embraced the islands of southern Thailand, leaving Danau Toba with more infrastructure than it needs. The result is plenty of low-priced hotels in a quiet and beautiful setting.

Another unsung treat in Danau Toba is the chance to interact with the Batak culture. This ethnic group developed here over time and learned early how to strike a careful balance, catering to tourists without forfeiting their cultural identity. Spending time with the Batak allows for plenty of laid-back celebration and usually a glass or two of the local distilled beverage.

At the center of the lake is Samosir Island, a site with plenty of cultural attractions. The greatest of these is the Batak Graves, a collection of distinctive headstones and mausoleums, some of which are several stories high. The most celebrated of these belongs to King Sidabutar, credited with adopting Christianity for the Batak people.

Another interesting place to learn about the Batak is at the Huba Bolon Simanindo Museum. It is found on the northern shore of Samosir and hosts an array of indigenous artifacts alongside relics left behind by the Chinese and Dutch. Tourists can also travel to the Samosir countryside to view the Stone Chairs, a centuries-old arena once used for tribal deliberation.

Otherwise, a visit to Danau Toba usually involves a day or two of reconnecting with nature. The lake is surrounded by grassy fields that aren’t well maintained, but anyone with a penchant for hiking will find trails worth following. There are also a few hot springs heavily touted by locals.

Getting There & Away

Parapat is the gateway to Danao Toba. Tourists can fly into Medan International Airport (either via Jakarta or another capital city in Southeast Asia) and then transfer by bus or minivan to Parapat (4 hours). From here it usually takes less than 2 hours to ferry to Samosir Island, where the main attractions are located.

On Samosir Island, everything slows down. Bicycles are a popular means of getting around, while traveling from one lakeside village to the next is accomplished by boat. Larger boats can be chartered, while small paddle boats can be hired by the hour or day.