Hot Springs and Mount Sibayak in Berastagi with Kids

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Have you hiked up on active volcano? We have. We hiked up Mount Sibayak in Berastagi with kids. It was a trip. You see, it’s only an hour away from Mount Sinabung that has erupted several times since September, 2013. We didn’t scare kids with this fact, but were thinking what if ourselves.

Hot Springs and Mount Sibayak in Berastagi with Kids

Mount Sibayak in Berastagi

After our recent foray into the jungle, we left Bukit Lawang for another adventure. This time we moved onto somewhere that felt even further off the beaten path. Berastagi, home to numerous volcanoes — both simmering and extinct.

Road from Bukit Lawang to Berastagi

We had considered renting our own car for all this driving, but man-o-man are we glad we didn’t. Not only are the roads of northern Sumatra in terrible condition, but the winding mountain ascent from the lower rainforest to the cooler climes of Berastagi was full of hairpin turns and insane driving.

We saw cars, motorcycles and even tour buses attempt to overtake three or four cars at a time — often on blind curves and at ridiculous speeds. Sometimes the guy made it, but other times he would need to slam on the brakes to avoid slamming head-on into a logging truck and then swerve back into the appropriate lane at the very. last. second. Deep breath…

Bats Berastagi_Sumatra with kidsFruit bats

Along the way, our driver asked if we wanted to stop and see some fruit bats. We did of course, and the driver stopped at the first stand he saw. Soon we had huge flying mammals clinging to our arms as we fed them bananas.

Then the shop owner told us their fate. They were being sold as “medicine,”  as many locals believed that their heart and liver cures asthma.

The bats we were petting — seemingly as tame and curious as puppies (these were raised in captivity) — would soon be bought and slaughtered, their organs boiled into a soup.

Fruit Bats_Sumatra with Kids

Nachelle Homestay

After another hour or two of Mad Max mountain driving, we arrived at Nachelle Homestay Berastagi, with our hosts, Mery and Abdy, waiting at the door.

The homestay is actually Mery’s parents’ house, but the third floor and the rooftop rooms are available for rent. Mery was so pregnant that we thought she would just pop right then and there, but she nimbly showed us to our rooms and we made arrangements with her for a volcano hike the following day.

Active Volcano Hike

We awoke at 3:30AM (again with the early mornings!) and met Abdy and a driver out front. After a chilly 45-minute drive, we were halfway up Mount Sibayak, an active volcano. We saw a sharply steep walk ahead of us — first pavement, then jungle, then barren moonscape. At the onset, the trees and vines made a canopy so thick that at times I felt like we were in a cave.

Sibayak Jungle trail_Sumatra with kids

No sun to be seen

After sweat-leeching heat and humidity of our Southeast Asian lifestyle the last year, the bite of cold we felt here was quite a shock. Aside from light jackets and a krama, we had nothing for warmth. Once we broke through the tree line, the wind made it colder, but the peak was near.

Our goal was to watch the sunrise from the top, and we made it! But there was one problem: no sun. Weather is unpredictable at these heights, and cloud cover enveloped the entire area. There were occasional breaks in the clouds, but they were fleeting. This is the best shot I got during one of them.

Mount Sibayak_Sumatra with kids

During the following descent, we decided to warm up near a steam vent. Mount Sibayak doesn’t spew lava, but there is plenty of other geothermal activity. We saw boiling mud and screaming, sulphur-encrusted steam valves that sound like a jet taking off. They stink, too, but living in Japan and going to hot springs for so long has probably raised our crew’s rotten-egg-smell tolerance levels above and beyond the average human family.

Breakfast in a hot spring

Once back at the van, we actually drove to a nearby hot spring for a soak and breakfast. It was unlike any hot spring that I had ever experienced. There were about four outdoor pools, all facing the volcano we had just climbed down from, and you could eat your breakfast as you sat in the tub!

Next to the main tub was a blocked-off area with about fifty rabbits (go figure). We sat in the tub with our fried noodles and Sumatran coffee (yum) watching rabbits in the foreground and a steaming volcano in the background. Surreal.

hot spring family breakfast_Sumatra with Kids

A guide with full of information

Abdy, our host, was also a great guide, full of information and good humor. From the hot springs, he took us to a Burmese temple and then onto a traditional Karo house. Being Karo himself (and growing up in one of these houses), he gave us insight that we really found fascinating.

Abdy speaks multiple languages, including fluent French — studying there for 3.5 years before returning to build an organic farm in Berastagi. He was patient to explain and answer questions, but also goofed off with our boy when he needed it. When we returned, it was hard to believe that it was only around lunchtime.

And that’s when Abdy got the call: his wife Mery was in labor! The baby was coming today! He rushed off, apologizing for not spending more time with us, which made us laugh and push him out the door. We spent the rest of the day in town, taking local transport to the market and then finding some dinner.

Berastagi tourist market_Sumatra with Kids

Markets in Berastagi

Our first stop was the “tourist market.” The fruit here looked amazing, but it was completely overpriced and domineered by agro-merchants. They were ready to prey on rich locals from the city of Medan (“tourists”) who drive into town to buy the region’s famous fruit.

There were no deals  — and no love — for travelers like us. So we walked down to the local market, where we felt more at ease. Sure it was dirtier, smellier and louder than the perfectly placed market up the street, but the fruit here was almost half the price, and people here seemed genuinely thrilled to be interacting with a foreigner.

Berastagi local market_Sumatra with KidsOur girl was less than thrilled, though. She had mud and fish guts in her flip-flops within minutes of arrival, but she bounced back after a few minutes once we hosed her toes off and headed back to Mary’s for a very deep night’s sleep.

Berastagi for your next Sumatra travel

We had hired the same driver for excursions the following day, and told Abdy not to worry about us and just be there for his wife, which I think put him at ease. I’ll explain more about our time in Berastagi in another post, but I can say that if you go to Sumatra with kids, you might want to consider a day or two in Berastagi. Don’t forget to bring something warm, though!

I’d also recommend Nachelle Homestay, with one main caveat. We stayed in the rooftop room, which was clean, simple and comfortable, but the house itself sits on a fairly busy road, and it was quite loud until late at night. This doesn’t bother Keiko or the kids — they sleep through just about anything — but I was glad that I brought some earplugs for myself.

Abdy’s guidance and Mery’s recommendations in town made a huge difference in our trip. We’d definitely stay with them again if we return, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the street noise. Bring earplugs, or stay in the third-floor room, which is better insulated from the street (the roof room is quite literally on the roof).

Read what others say about Nachelle Homestay.

Ok, one last shot: the Burmese Temple:

burmese temple_Sumatra with kids