There are several villages in the Berastagi area where you can see examples of traditional Karo architecture including long houses that are still used. The most visited of these Desa Lingga and Desa Dokan. At Desa Lingga a guide will take you around the village and explain the meaning of the designs on the buildings and highlight different aspects of traditional village life. While some of the traditional houses are in a state of disrepair, there are still some used and are home to up to 50 people. Climbing a bamboo ladder, you can enter one of the long houses and see the living quarters - six to eight cooking areas in a large open area, with private bedrooms.
For me it was the colorful designs painted or woven onto the sides of the buildings that really caught my attention. My guide explained that there were five main colors that symbolised the five clans within the village, and to ensure healthy offspring, young people had to marry someone from outside their clan.
Set out at the crack of dawn to climb Sibayak Volcano as it will take most of the day. Towards the top be careful of the hot ground where sulphur fumes still spew out. It is best to continue down the other side and you will reach some hot springs to relax in. The path is easy to follow but you can arrange a guide from your guest house should you require one.
After the trek down Gunung Sibayak, a relaxing dip in a hot spring is just what you need. At the base of Gunung Sibayak, adjacent to the geothermal station, there are several hot springs. All offer well maintained pools, hot, natural spring water for an entrance price of between 3 and 5,000 rupiah.
Next to the hot springs are several shops selling drinks and some fruit and vegetable stalls.
Be aware that ojeks back to Berastagi are infrequent - not more than one every hour - at a price of 5,000 rupiah.
The climb up Gunung Sibayak is relatively easy, much of it on a bitumen road and the last section on steps. But if you want to take the most direct route to get to the hot springs the way down is a little more difficult. Initially there is a very steep section of loose scree - be prepared to use your hands and backside! The next section of the descent is also steep and if it has been raining, it can be quite slippery. The final section though is a really pleasant walk through bamboo forest before reaching the back of the geothermal station and the hot springs.
Overall, a good testing walk, although if you are walking alone, I'd recommend taking the road route down rather than trying this alternate route.
The area behind Pasar Buah on Jalan Gundaling is a relatively quiet section of town but it offers a variety of shopping and eating activities. There are several restaurants where you will find some of the wealthier local teenagers and visitors from Medan hanging out. There are smaller warung selling roasted corn and coffee, and others selling fresh juices. There are also several souvenir shops and some large plant shops selling potted plants and trees.
Adjacent to the area is Taman Mejuah-juah.
It is a great place for a short afternoon break.
A little more than 25km south of Berastagi, and right on the northen edge of Danau Toba, are the Sipiso-piso falls. Water appears to explode out of a hole in the cliff and cascade 120 metres to the valley floor below. There is a very steep climb down to the base of the falls from the car park but well worth the effort to feel the spray of the falls. Remember that a steep climb down means a hrad climb up, so take water with you.
In the car park area are several restaurants and seating areas from which there are great views across Danau Toba. It is a beautiful place for a picnic.
Approaching the peak of Gunung Sibayak you begin to smell the sulphur and hear the powerful force of the fumaroles as they spew gas into the air. The rocks surrounding the fumaroles are stained bright yellow from the sulphur. It is a spectacularly eerie landscape. Sitting atop a ridge as the clouds come in is a weird sensation - feeling the moisture in the clouds and not being able to see the path ahead.
When the clouds lift you can see Berastagi and surrounds. The glistening gold paint of Taman Lumbini twinkles in the distance.
It is quite a 'high' just to sit and take in the surroundings.
It is a relatively easy climb on the way up Gunung Sibayak. You can walk from the centre of Berastagi of catch and ojek to the entrance of the climb which saves a few kms. Tourists should write their names in the log book before they start the climb - although if you take a different route down, which many people do, I'm not sure why this is necessary.
The first half of the climb is along a road, with the intial bit quite steep - or so it seemd to me until the legs warmed up. There are some good views across the valleys as you climb.
When you reach a plateau section, you need to leave the road and start climbing the stairway. It can be a bit tricky finding the pathway leading off the road if there is no one to point you in the right direction.
This climb can be done without a guide, but like all climbs, it is best not done alone - people have been lost and it wasn't too long ago that a German tourist died.
If you like textiles, and Indonesia is certainly a country with a wide range of textiles, then don't miss out on purchasing some traditional Karo cloth.
In Kabanjahe, 11km south of Berastagi, there are some small outlets where cloth is woven on traditional wooden looms. This slow process is made even more so by the intricate inter-weaving of gold thread adding to the colorful designs. Depending on the detail in the design, it can take more than a day to weave two metres of cloth.
The beautiful products are worn in weddings, dances and other ceremonies.
I wouldn't say that I was a religious person, but I was feeling 'spiritual'. Having climbed Gunung Sibayak and spending time in the clouds 'on top of the world' and then havig the good fortune of an hour in the magnificent grounds of Taman Lumbini, I visited St Francis Xavier church.
The huge church is built in Karo style. As such, there are beautiful reliefs of St Francis and animals adorning the roof. Inside the church are some wonderful stained-glass windows.
The local priest was very happy to talk about the community support in building the church.
It is not too far to reach the church on foot from Berastagi township and for mine, well worth the visit.
Gundaling Hill, just 2km out of Berastagi offers spectacular sunset views looking towards Gunung Sinabung. Views from a high ledge of a hill capture the sun gradually going down behind clouds and the volcano.
You can catch an opelet from Berastagi and have a bite to eat as you admire the surrounding countryside.
Just 2 km out of Berastagi along a road that winds round and round, Gundaling Hill offers beautiful views over both Berastagi and towards Gunung Sinabung as well as a pleasant garden. It is a great place to escape the traffic noise of Berastagi.
Beside the gardens are shops selling drinks and souvenirs along with several small restaurants.
There is plenty of sitting areas and pavilions displaying Karo architecture.
It is easy to catch an opelet to the top of the hill.
I couldn't resist adding some extra photos - part of the delight of walking around Taman Lumbini is finding statues of the Buddha in various states - reading, sleeping, meditating, practicing the arts - I didn't count but there could have been close to 50 different poses.
Adjacent to the Shwedagon Pagoda are some beautiful gardens. If you want an escape from the hustle and bustle and traffic noise of Berastagi, you could do worse than spend a couple of hours relaxing in the gardens reading or just enjoying the picturesque surroundings.
The gardens have been constructed on both sides of a steep 'valley'. There are pleasant winding paths, a narrow bridge to cross from one side to the other, and seating to enjoy the views.
Unfortunately, I didn't arrive at the complex until 4, so after admiring the pagoda, I didn't leave myself as much time as I would have liked to fully appreciate the gardens. The complex closes at 5.
I was sitting on top of Gunung Sibayak looking out across Berastagi and the Karo region when I noticed a bright glimmer standing out on a very overcast day. I asked my guide what it was. He told me it was the new Buddhist temple. I was very surprised - even at a distance I could tell it was huge and to see such a Buddhist temple in a predominantly Muslim and Christian area was a shock.
Later that aftenoon we went to the temple. The complex is called Taman Alam Lumbini and the temple is a 'Shwedagon Pagoda replica'. It was officially opened in October 2010.
Entry into the grounds is free, with a donation 'the price of a candle' requested inside the temple.
It is a stunning temple. Unfortunately, as it was an overcast day, my photos do not do it justice.
Can easily get a becak to take you from Berastagi.