Dotted with smoking volcanoes and covered in a glossy, dense rainforest, Sumatra is one of the last two places in the world where you can see orangutans in the wild. Thanks to its forbidding terrain, much of the island is sparsely populated, and vast swathes of wilderness are protected in national parks where you might glimpse other rare endemic species. The jungles, ravines and coursing rivers also offer ample opportunity for hiking and tubing.
The capital city of Medan is the major transportation hub for the island and it frankly lacks the natural appeal of the rest of Sumatra — you won’t find beaches or mountain backdrops here. But a guided tour of the city can reveal a little of authentic urban Indonesia, including crumbling Dutch colonial buildings, the Sultan’s Palace and street-food stalls that come alive as the sun goes down.
About 100 km (62 miles) northwest of the capital, Bukit Lawang is a riverside village on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park. The hotels here are simple, rustic even — not much more than four walls, a roof and a bed — which can make a visit feel adventurous or austere, depending on your preferences. The narrow wooden footbridge over the river also adds a certain intrepid frisson to any river crossing.
The village was once the site of an orangutan sanctuary and, though it’s long gone, the clever, long-lived creatures remember when staff fed them regularly and return to the area often. This makes it a good base for orangutan-spotting jaunts into the UNESCO-listed park, one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
A private guide is essential, both to help you locate orangutans in the dense canopy and to protect the delicate ecosystem. Some human viruses can jump to our evolutionary cousins, and careless contact could cause a catastrophe.
Because these are wild animals, sightings are never guaranteed, but we work with experienced, responsible guides who are intimately familiar with the jungle and orangutan habits.
Your guide can also point out some of the many other primates that inhabit the area: gibbons, baboons, langurs, slow lorises and tarsiers. Mischievous and light-fingered, long-tailed macaques are so common that they’re regarded as a pest (we advise you to watch your belongings around them in the village).
As well as primates, the park is home to hundreds of species of other mammals and birds, most of them rare or endangered. Though you won’t see them, it is great to know that your visit helps to protect an ecosystem which still supports the endangered Sumatran tiger, which is distinguished from its relatives by its heavy black stripes and smaller, fleeter frame. Only a few hundred remain in the wild.
Other endemic (and severely endangered) species include the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran rhino and Sumatran ground cuckoo.
Deeper in the park’s jungle, Tangkahan is smaller even than Bukit Lawang. The hotel here is also simple — the only heated water comes from a nearby hot spring and the slender suspension bridge sways gently as you walk across. But, its location is ripe for tubing on the pristine Bamboo River as well as hiking into the park.
Because Tangkahan is so small, you’ll have privacy on the root-lined paths. Though you almost certainly won’t see an orangutan, the quieter rainforest lends itself to spotting other wildlife. You might hear gibbons calling to one another from the canopy and see butterflies flitting through the spears of sun that pierce the leaf cover, or reptilian-looking hornbills sporting strange, bright protrusions on their oversized beaks.
Best time to visit Sumatra
The best time to go to Sumatra is during the dry season, which begins in May and ends in September (though you should still expect some short and heavy storms). Between October and April, you’re likely to encounter more heavy and frequent rains.
Places to visit in Sumatra
Featuring heavily on our experiences of visiting Sumatra, these selected places are destinations that also prove consistently popular with our travellers. Our specialists can help you choose how to include them in your wider trip, based on your preferences.
Suggested itineraries featuring Sumatra
Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Sumatra, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.