The Minahasa Highlands begin about one hour’s drive inland from North Sulawesi’s capital city of Manado. And while most visitors fly into Manado for its world-class diving venues, the Minahasa Highlands offer something completely different: volcano trekking, white-water rafting, extreme cuisine, moss-covered jungle hikes and glorious waterfalls are just some of the choices. And if you’ve got an extra day to spare, you might even take the two-plus hour drive to the other side of North Sulawesi’s crazy-peninsula-arm toward the town of Bitung for a chance to gawk at the world’s smallest primate, the Tarsius, at the Tangkoko-Batuangus Nature Reserve.
But first, a bit about the town of Manado itself.
Manado, a coastal city of approximately 430,000, is often described as an unappealing town, suffering from poor city planning, overcrowded streets, major waste disposal issues and an increasingly reclaimed coastline that has all but destroyed the once postcard-and-snorkeling-worthy waters. Nowadays, visitors arrive in Manado mostly to leave as soon as possible for the Bunaken national marine park an hour by boat off shore or, alternatively, as a stopover en-route to the eastern side of the peninsula, where more world-class diving is found around the Lembeh Straits.
Having lived in Balikpapan, Kalimantan for the past year, I can’t actually say that Manado deserves this indictment any more than other cities in Indonesia. For example, Balikpapan has more than its fair share of trash and completely ruined beaches, and unlike Manado, it also happens to be the most expensive city in Indonesia in which to live, so one might think more funding would go into waste management and city planning. One might think….
At any rate, Manado is indeed a bustling, somewhat congested city (and yes, dirty, too), though we enjoyed our time there and actually expressed a wish that Sam’s job could be in Manado instead!
Another interesting thing about Manado is that it has the distinction of being mostly Christian, so instead of seeing Mosques on every street corner as is the case in most towns in Indonesia, here, you see churches. It’s funny how strange churches and Christian symbols look after 13 months of elaborate minarets and golden, onion-shaped domes! But then again, some of the stuff we saw really was just plain strange, such as the giant Jesus statue of which Manado is renowned and this one of Saint Francis … with a crab holding up a crucifix?! If anyone knows the story on that, Sam and I would very much like to hear it.
The Minahasa Highlands Day Trip
On to the Minahasa Highlands, which begin around the vegetable-growing town of Rurukan (about 3 miles before the highlands town of Tomohon). Here, beautifully tiered gardens climb along volcanic-rich hills, like manicured steps for a giant. Getting there is challenge enough for a motion-sick-prone individual like me, but if you can keep your vertigo in check, the first stop, the Mahawu volcano, will make it worth your while. Or, alternatively, stop along the way to browse the rattan and wicker shops that line the road to Tomohon.
Getting to Gunung Mahawu is easy by private car (check “Fast Facts” below for information on that, as well as a link for public transport options), but bring some small change as an “informal” fee is imposed at the guard gate before entry. I can’t remember how much we paid, but it was a trifle — probably around 15,000 Rupiah — a little over 1 USD. Once inside, start from the parking lot and climb the many steps through the forest to reach the view above. The climb is a good little workout, but not too difficult (though, alas, not handicap accessible); it probably took us about ten or so minutes, but we were definitely panting by the top! Once at the crest, you can choose to walk the [overgrown] perimeter around the crater … or not.
For those who wish to descend into the crater, a guide is suggested. We didn’t do that and turns out, we didn’t miss out on much because Bukit Kasih offers a user friendly up-close-and-personal encounter as the whole site is actually inside a crater. More on that later. And if you just can’t get enough of volcano hiking, there are a few more in the area such as Gunung Lokon and Gunung Empung. Incidentally, both Mahawu and Lokon volcanoes are still active!
From Gunung Mahawu, we drove to the Highlands town of Tomohon, perhaps best known for its wooden house production and macabre market. I’ll cover the market in the next post as we mostly tackled that on our third day … and are still recovering. You’ll understand why in the next post!
As for the wooden houses, we didn’t take a tour but we passed dozens of these traditional Minahasa-style homes with their delicate lattice detail. They come in all shapes and sizes, from simple cottages like this one to two-story villas (the one here was photographed at Bunaken Island). Apparently, it’s all the fashion to order such a home and have it shipped pre-fabrication-style for reassembly. Hmm. Maybe one day? They are cute.
Lake Linow (Danau Linow)
From Tomohon, we continued south-west toward Lake (“Danau”) Linow, a sulfurous lake famed for its changing colors (the lake actually fills a volcano crater, hence the sulfur). A strange little stop before the lake collects a small entrance fee, and in return, one receives a coupon for a cup of hot tea or coffee at the terrace cafe beside the lake.
They also have a lunch menu, and after noticing the popularity of various fried banana snacks, we decided upon Pisang Goreng Cokolat (chocolate fried bananas). Turns out, these things are delicious; they actually reminded me of New Orleans’ famous beignets, only … er, banana-ier. With chocolate. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound like the best comparison, but it reminded me of them nonetheless.
After gorging ourselves on yummy bananas and so-so coffee, we decided to burn off a few calories by climbing the stairs from the restaurant to the parking lot above, then climbing back down the natural slope toward the green, smoking lake.
Halfway down the verdant hill divided by fissures (“Were these made from eruptions?” we speculated), we heard a tremendous clapping noise. We looked up to see at least seven of the cafe staff rigidly clapping their hands together (this is a polite form of catching a person’s attention in Indonesia) and shouting “Stop! Danger Area!” while several tourist families watched us with horrified eyes from their tables of fried bananas. Our attention gained, the well-meaning waitstaff flailed their arms while gesturing toward the smoking sulfurous banks, then resumed their repertoire of “Stop! Danger Area!”.
Embarrassed, we turned around and headed back to the car, but I will say this in our defense: there were several teams of ducks bobbing about in the water and waddling along the banks, so even if, in fact, it was DANGER AREA!, the ducks seemed to be doing fine. But in retrospect, I see why those peope were concerned and I appreciate the attention they gave to our safety, so thank you, kind people of Linow Lake!
Kawangkoan Japanese Caves
Next stop, the Japanese Caves at Kawangkoan. Now, I will say this: growing up for several years in Bandung, Java, Indonesia, there were some fierce Japanese caves there that probably ruined any comparable experiences for me, if for no other reason than because you had to really work to get to them. But here, you just follow the main road due southwest and then, voila! The caves greet you at the side of the busy road.
“Bring a torch,” as the guidebooks would say, because despite the easy access, once inside, it gets creepy in a hurry. We didn’t explore a fraction of it, but these things are built (by forced labor) into the side of a mountain, with all that velvety-blackness-oh-my-god-what-lives-in-here mystery that goes with it. Several main entrances, such as the ones featured here, funnel into a main channel paralleling the entrance ways and road outside, with multiple channels feeding off the main chamber every twenty or so feet. What we saw was enough though: lots of stale-air-darkness, a few tiny bats clinging to the rounded roof, two or three swiflet (“walet” in Bahasa) bird nests — these are the things that sell for crazy money in some parts of the world –, and a huge, no, freaking huge spider that I’m pretty sure has genetically mutated from lack of sunlight. That’s when I said to Sam, “Let’s go.”
We did just that, one with more eagerness than the other, and continued further south on our journey toward the holy spot called Bukit Kasih, which, depending upon what translation device one depends upon, more or less means Hill of Love. Here, a five-sided monument akin to an obelisk, rising just before a steaming caldera, celebrates the five main religions of the area: Islam, Buddhism, Protestantism, Hindu and Catholicism.
This is a curious place. Beyond the monument-thingy, there is a rundown walkway encircling the area which we did not take, but promises amazing views and a stop or two at the top of the hollowed-out volcano hosting a few temples and churches. Also, there are a ton of stalls surrounding the area tunneling that rotten-egg-sulfurous-steam via PVC pipe to their establishments so that for a mere few cents, you, too can boil an egg in “lava water” … or corn … or peanuts … or, well, anything, really.
We just hiked around the caldera, inspecting little steam vents where sulfurous gas wafted in clouds about our feet, with the main goal of getting closer to the face monuments in the hill for a better look.
These faces are of Toar (male face on right) and Lumimuut (female face on the left), the ancestors of the Minahasa people. I’ll post the Legend of Toar and Lumimuut separately as this post is getting long enough for a novella!
What we still are not sure about, however, is what on earth these statues purport to be.
We thought they were of Toar and Lumimuut as well, but when we hiked over for a closer look, our new friends insisted that this was Adam and Eve, which brings us to an interesting point. Because at first, I considered Adam and Even to be potential contenders (she’s got a fig-leafy-looking frock on, after all) and Bukit Kasih celebrates diversity of religion, so that makes sense, right? But then another option presented itself: the tale of Toar and Lumimuut in many ways parallels the Christian creation story, so in a way, it could be that Toar and Lumimuut are considered one and the same as Adam and Eve. Not sure; either way, that guy definitely needs to fix his loin cloth!
From Bukit Kasih, we began our return trip, looping north-east-ish toward Lake (“Danau”) Tondano, and stopping along the way at the tiny village of Pulutan, which is famous for its pottery. Being Sunday, most of the home-based factory shops were closed, but we chanced upon this friendly man mending a pile of gold-smelting pots.
He explained it takes one potter approximately one week to create 300 of these pots, which are sold to various companies and individuals for gold processing in — mostly — Borneo, including Indonesia’s area of Kalimantan as well as Malaysia’s northern provinces of Sabah and Sarawak. The clay is grey in color prior to kilning, but turns terracotta afterwards.
For the larger pots, it takes one potter about one week to finish one pot (including the kilning and lacquering process). Two large pots sell for about 750,000 Rupiah (less than $70 USD for the pair) which is crazy huge money in Indonesia.
Danau Tondano (Lake Tondano)
Continuing our return route to Manado, we drove along Danau Tondano, which is a huge caldera lake (approximately 20 kilometers by 30 kilometers), mostly visited by tourists during lunch hour for the plethora of scenic restaurants perched over its banks. We didn’t stop to eat, but we did stop by a pretty fishing area where tiny, wooden houses hovered on stilts above lily pads.
Dining on Sate Babi
That night, we walked to a local food warung and ordered up some sate babi (pork satay), one of the specialties of the area that we were happy to sample. And it was delicious. Definitely on the greasy side, but we were so sweaty ourselves that we just embraced it, then walked back to our comfy, air-conditioned room and had a nice, hot shower.
As for the other gastronomic delights Manado has to offer, I’ll leave that for an upcoming post on the Tomohon market (Pasar Tomohon) … and the far more pleasant experience of hiking to the gorgeous Kali Waterfall.
- Manado Hotel: We booked Hotel Aryaduta in downtown Manado (booked through Agoda.com via Skyscanner.com) and overall were very pleased with it. The room was a bit mildewy smelling, but the AC worked well, the room was huge, the views were great and the staff super friendly.
- Private Car: Booked through Manado Private Tours. Franky speaks English and is very responsive via email. One full day for a private, air-conditioned car cost 900,000 IDR (approx. 70 USD) total. firstname.lastname@example.org. BUT, if you want to travel locally and have the time to coordinate changing out angkots, check out Jo Travel Guide here for helpful details on the how, when and where.
- Taxi: Another option for day-tripping (beyond booking a tour package, which are widely available but expensive), taxis are a viable alternative. Blue Bird taxi has the best reputation, and they can be found pretty much everywhere. While it is customary to use the meter, if you want to book for a day-trip, bargain ahead of time for a flat rate. For example, for our third day in Manado, we booked a taxi to take us to the Tomohon Market and then to Kali Waterfall. The whole trip took about five or so hours, and we paid him the flat rate of 450,000 Rupiah.
- Airport Transportation: Since we were arriving in Manado quite late and leaving early, we arranged airport transport with our hotel for 200,000 Rupiah each way. Even though we arrived nearly at midnight, there were tons of taxis about. I’ve read that you should agree upon the price ahead of time as many do not use their meters.
- Bunaken: For info on catching a boat to Bunaken, check out my post on Snorkeling Bunaken Island.