Samosir island within the lake is an island within the island of Sumatra.
Lake Toba is an immense volcanic lake covering an area of 1,707 km² (1,000 km² bigger than Singapore) with an island in its centre.
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 suggests that there were only a few thousand individuals that survived its catastrophic eruption.
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 the Batak tribe who are now mostly Christians.
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 sky rocket.
Indonesian, known as Bahasa Indonesia. There are also local people who live in Toba region called Batak; they speak the local language Batak. Just say for the whole greetings HORAS means welcome, good morning, farewell and etc.
As of Sep 2012 here is only one Cirrus/MasterCard ATM on the island (at the white beach entrance) so you should get enough cash at Parapat before crossing the lake to the island.
The road signs are pretty much useless, as is asking the locals for directions. Anyway, if you are going to Tuk Tuk keep going, even though it may seem to be taking forever and you have been in the Kijang for 8 hr with 10 other people, but you will get there and the hosts will be wonderful.
Do not try to drive out of Samosir Island by going up and over the top to the land bridge. The road is very bad.
You can get from Medan airport to Lake Toba entirely by public transport if you wish. First, you must go from the airport to Amplas bus terminal. Walk through the car park and go out of the main car exit of the airport. Cross the road and turn left after the petrol station, and then turn right (about a 10-15 min walk altogether). There, you can catch a yellow public bus, number 64, or number 63, to Amplas Terminal for Rp 3,000.
From Amplas terminal, you can get a public bus to Parapat for Rp 22,000. So you can get from Medan airport to Parapat for a total of Rp 25,000 (September 2012), and then get a ferry out to Samosir island for Rp 7,000/person. The boat drops you at your hotel.
Another great way to get to Lake Toba is by train. Two or three trains leave each day in that direction and you want to get off either at Pematang Siantar or Tebing Tinggi (The train stops at one or the other).
If you want to get to the train directly from Medan airport, get a taxi or becak, and tell them or write Lapangan Merdeka and Setasiun Kereta Api Medan. From the station there's only 2 trains leaving Medan to Permatang Siantar (or Siantar) at 11:00 and 19:25. The fare is Rp 12,000 per person and the journey takes approximately 3-4 hr. Trains stop at almost each station. Once you reach the Siantar station double check the schedule for the train for going back to Medan. Then take a Becak or walk to the bus/taxi hub to travel to Perapat. The train is a wonderful way to travel if you like to learn more culture on their daily living and lifestyle. Once you are in your seat and have a stream of buskers, food vendors and friendly local passing by you will know why this is often the best way to travel overland. From Siantar (1 hr by taxi) or Tebing Tinggi (2 hr taxi) you will need to hire a taxi or a bus for road transport to Parapat.
Parapat is connected to Tomok and Tuk Tuk on the Samosir Island by a ferry that runs every hour for Rp 10,000, the last one at 19:00. The place to catch the ferry to Tuk Tuk is called "Tiga Raja" harbour/jetty. The ferry man will drop you at the place you're staying at in Tuk Tuk. Try to use the ferry with a wooden bench inside and that's coloured light green. Those are the ferries that charge Rp 10,000 and that the locals take to cross over. Tuk Tuk is the main town to stay on Samosir. Use the boat service not the large ferry, they will drop you directly at your Tuk Tuk resort.
The ferry ride over is fantastic, just truly peaceful, apart from the car radios playing, the ladies selling peanuts, bottled water, mie 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. Alternatively use the boat service but 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.
From Medan Polonia airport you can fly directly to Silangit with Susi Air daily. Flights take approximately 30 min and are a safer way than the road trip. In Feb 2013, the flight cost Rp 425,000, (c. US$42) one way. Transportation options from Silangit airport are limited; it is a good idea to pre-arrange a driver to be waiting; From Silangit Airport to Parapat is 2 hr drive. To Silangit airport from Parapat there are many transport providers available around the ferry terminal area. Costs to/from Silangit and Parapat should cost around Rp 300,000 each way per vehicle.
By private hire vehicle
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It may be obvious but just remember there are no taxis around Tuk Tuk. 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.
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).
Public Boats from Parapat and surrounding areas sail from either Ajibata or Tigaraja to Tuktuk or Tomok at Samosir Island. The fee is Rp 10,000 per trip.
There is also bigger ship which transports Cars and Busses sailing between Tigaraja and Tomok.
A popular way for tourists to get around Samosir Island is to hire a motorcycle. 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.
Hire a motorcycle for a day or two for Rp 85,000 per day including full petrol. You can bargain down to Rp 80,000 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 charged 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 Tuk Tuk 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 centre 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 because of the higher elevation, but the sun will be intense by mid-day.
Most of the cottages and guest houses at Tuk Tuk will rent you a very serviceable bicycle for a nominal fee, 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.
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 fee to enter to the surroundings is Rp 2,000. The pools are free, there's some special foreigner pool for Rp 10,000.
Kick back and relax 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.
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.
There is one discotheque on Fri and Sat nights - expect the latest 80s music. Better to drink at your guest house generally.
Saturday night is often the highlight on the local calendar. You can hear a chorus of parties going around the Tuk Tuk area.
There are a number of fine spots around the Tuk Tuk area to catch a sunset beer.
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 are numerous hotels and guest houses, mainly in Tuk Tuk but with a few scattered in other small towns around the island. During Chinese New Year (end of Jan/early 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.
The local Batak people are very respectful. Some of the local males may try to turn on the charm too much.