Berastagi: Cloudy with a chance of Sulphur

After the steamy jungle of North Sumatra, the cooler climate of Berastagi, which is situated over 1300m above sea level, will be a welcome respite. Although being a fairly unremarkable city in itself, Berastagi is best known as the base for treks up the popular Mount Sibayak and the ferocious Mount Sinabung, and as such it is a regular focal point for backpackers on their Sumatran adventure.

Some people exclude Berastagi from their Sumatran itinerary, but I enjoyed my short time here; it was a great to way to experience local life. In all small Indonesian towns (especially those in Sumatra), you really get a sense of the local community and indigenous culture, and for me that’s one of the best things about travel! It’s just fascinating to watch the traffic and experience the sounds and the smells! There were even some marvellous examples of Karo Batak architecture beside the roads.

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In general, Berastagi was like a hill station of India: much cooler and very colonial. However, pollution was a problem, not only from the sulphuric volcanoes nearby, but also from the petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles clogging up the tarmac. Generally in Berastagi, and this is true all over Sumatra from my experience, everybody has either a moped or a van. Doesn’t seem to be many cars, and if there are, then they are probably taxis.

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Being deep in the Barisan Mountains here in northern Sumatra, it should as no surprise that the major reason tourists flock to this area is to see a volcano or two – and being Indonesia, these volcanoes are obviously active! In fact, Mount Sinabung erupted viciously in February 2014, only one month after I had been there myself. It was quite a lucky escape in many ways! I never climbed Mount Sinabung, and I guess I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now anyway!

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I did take a few hours to hike up the pretty scenic Mount Sibayak, which is probably the number one rated activity for tourists in the area. Sibayak is to Berastagi what Lake Toba is to Parapat. I was asked to pay 3000 Rupiahs to begin my climb, and it seemed even local people were being asked to pay, too, so I am not sure if this was a scam or not. Anyway, I paid the “asking price” and along with a few other travellers, went about my climb. To my surprise, there was a mixture of lunar landscape (a bit like Mount Bromo over in Java) and a bit of lush vegetation, which was something interesting to look at as we were making the admittedly simple ascent. Once at the summit of the volcano, you will see a very sulphuric crater below you, and while the volcano last erupted over 4000 years ago, I was still thinking of the fumes I was inhaling here. Any moderately-fit climber should reach the top of Mount Sibayak in around 3 hours, and it only took me 90 minutes on the way back down.

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