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Manado Indonesia: for a more remote Indonesian experience

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Manado Indonesia

Have you actually heard of Manado before now?  I’m willing to bet that most of you have not.  I know I hadn’t.  Like many (but definitely not all) who travel to Indonesia, Bali is the usual destination of choice.  It’s the place that’s well known, well marketed and easy to get to.

Validating this were the comments I received when I arrived home after this trip.  When I mentioned to people that I’ve just returned from Indonesia, most of them have said “How was Bali”, or “Did you go to Bali” and other comments along a very similar vein.

In addition, since posting my review of two-day trips to do from Northern Sulawesi, most of the commentary I have received involves the sentiment of “I had no idea where this was”.

Indeed, this further supports the current strategy of the Indonesian Tourism Board to try and sell the attributes of a broader Indonesia, to a much wider target group.

My visit to Sulawesi exposed me to areas that I too had never heard of, and as a result was probably highly unlikely that I would ever visit.

There-in lies its alluring beauty to those who like to visit global destinations that are still being discovered.  It’s the time to really see them in their natural light.  It’s when they are at their most authentic. It’s what makes travel exciting (or terrifying!)

Where is Manado Indonesia?

Located on the northern end of Indonesia’s island of Sulawesi, Manado is the capital of the North Sulawesi province.

We arrived at Sam Ratulangi Airport, flying from Jakarta with Garuda Indonesia, who did a good job on-board without doing anything overtly special.  The flight time was three hours and 20 minutes.

jakarta to manado indonesia

I didn’t get to explore Manado very much, but from my regular viewing point on our frequently used bus, I got a very early indication of the effects of being Sulawesi’s second largest city.

It was a city heavily congested by vehicles.  At times, all I could see was an endless stream of pale blue mini vans, used as the local taxis, packed to the rafters with people, and sometimes animals. Row after row of them just sat stagnant, unable to move.

The volume of vans, cars and the ever-present scooters (often with three people stuck together) mean traffic in Manado is quite often at a continual standstill.  5km ‘as the crow flies’ can quite easily take half an hour, or more.  In fact, on one occasion, it took us an hour just to get out of the main city area.

The city and surrounds of Manado are a mosaic of their colonial past, with Dutch influenced buildings the most prolific.  The Dutch are still one of the largest groups of inbound tourists to visit Northern Sulawesi today.

What Manado may lack as a worthwhile destination in it’s own right, it more than makes up for as a base to explore other great areas.

Minahasa Highlands

As we flew into Manado, I was so thankful that I had a window seat as the surrounding landscape of volcanic mountains was nothing short of magical.  Located inland of Manado, the Minahasa Highlands are, in my opinion, one of the reasons why you would travel to Manado at all.  For it is here in the highlands that the natural beauty and history of this area can best be seen.  It is also where you will find the Minahasa people, some of the friendliest and inquisitive people I’ve ever met.

From volcanic mountains, to burial grounds, to those incredibly steep steps leading up to the Hill of Love, here’s my take on where you can spend your time.

Waruga

Whilst visiting a cemetery is not everyone’s cup of tea, this ancient burial site in Sawangan, is a must visit.  The fascination for me was the way in which the tombstones were built and the stories behind them.  Like the Italians who build grand vaults and mausoleums to honour their families, the Minahasa people build amazing stone sarcophagi.

Resembling small houses with their roof, the stone underneath has been carved out to depict the life and death of the person.  The dead are placed inside the stone vault, above ground, sitting in a squatting position.

The entry to the Sawangan Waruga Cemetery
The entry to the Sawangan Waruga Cemetery

Another interesting feature was trying to identify exactly how many people were buried inside.  If you look closely at the photo below, you can see a “teardrop” type carving above the person’s head.  This teardrop has three parts to it (separated by two grooves).  This means that there are three people buried inside.

Warugas near Manado Indonesia
A rather grand Waruga

This burial site was not the original location.  The Warugas were moved here by the Dutch Government in the 1800s  when Indonesia was an occupied colony.

Cemetery in Sawangan, outside Manado
Cemetery in Sawangan, outside Manado

Hill of Love (Bukit Kasih)

The Hill of Love, so called because the hills are home to five separate places of worship for differing religions, offering peace and harmony as the guiding light of this area.

It is also the location of a very mean set of steps, that will take you to the top of the first peak, where a large white cross awaits you to cheer you on for making it here!  The cross is not dissimilar to the Corcorvado in Rio de Janeiro, just on a smaller scale.

It’s also a touch cruel, as there is still so much more ground to cover once you arrive here in order to get over to the other peak and then back down again.

I read on the Wonderful Indonesia site this very frank tip and couldn’t help but smile.

Tip: If you wish to walk around this compound from the second peak to the first peak, do wear comfortable shoes. The stairs are steep. This climb also requires a lot of stamina.

Some of my group had been wearing flip flops so they definitely found it challenging, especially on the steps covered in a lovely green, slimy moss!

Strong stamina is definitely required.  There are a whopping 2,435 (yes 2,435!!) steps to climb on this adventure.  They are uneven, sometimes wet, often slippery and steep (my little legs sometimes had to almost jump to reach the next step).  In some places, they are even missing, meaning you almost feel as though you’re in a game of ‘Survivor”, shimmying along timber railings, jumping puddles, and avoiding all sorts of obstacles along the way.

Then there’s trying to breathe and suck in as much air as you can.  It’s hard work, made even harder by the incredibly foul sulphur smell that permeates the air.  This is afterall a volcanic mountain, so the underground thermal heat is constant and it makes itself well known through the sulphuric mist.  I’m allergic to sulphur so I spent some of the time with my hands covering my nose and mouth, freaking out just a little too much that it would make me sick.

It was also disappointing once again to notice the significant rubbish problem that exists here.  The entire walking track was a veritable rubbish tip, mostly plastic water bottles.  Drinking water is a must on this walk but it would be wonderful if everyone could learn to keep hold of their rubbish.

 Hill of Love Manado Indonesia
The never-ending sulphuric mist over the hill

 

Going down was just as tricky, especially where the steps were wet.  I managed not to have a fall but a couple of our group did.  Nothing serious, but a definite reminder that it’s best just to take your time.

At the bottom, there are plenty of people waiting to give you a foot massage.

Note: The only thing to be aware of here is that when you arrive at the Hill of Love, there are locals there with owls that are tethered to their arms.  Their aim is to have you take a photo with them, or watch the owl “do tricks” for a small donation.  It’s a pretty horrific thing to see actually, so not wanting to endorse any such behaviour, we quickly made our way towards the steps.

Statues on Hill of Love Manado Indonesia
Looks like these statues were happy to make it up the steps too
Stunning views from the top of the Hill of Love Manado Indonesia
Stunning views from the top
Hill of Love Manado Indonesia
This is what we found at the top of the hill

Lake Tondano

Lake Tondano is the largest lake in this region, and the third largest in all of the Indonesian archipeligo.  Covering an enormous area, it is a stunning location, set in amongst the mountains.

Geographically, it is similar to the island of Santorini, with the lake formed inside a caldera.  Unlike the collapsed caldera of Santorini however, this caldera measuring some 20km x 30km is still fully intact and occupied by the lake.

Looking out across Lake Tondano
Looking out across Lake Tondano
Lake Tondano Manado Indonesia
The lilypads were moving at quite a pace here along the top of the lake

Lake Tondano is also known for its seafood restaurants, specialising in locally caught fish that is served baked.  Water spinach is also a common accompaniment (makes sense !) as is their very hot sambal.  That first mouthful of sambal produces a response that I can only describe as breathtaking!  The secret is to keep eating it as your mouth builds up a tolerance to it reasonably quickly.  That is if you like all things hot and spicy!  If not, it’s probably a very good idea to stay clear.

We ate at Astomi Restaurant and I couldn’t have been happier about the view.

Astomi Restaurant Lake Tondano Manado Indonesia
Our lunch spot on the beautiful lake – Astomi Restaurant

The area is also home to rice paddies, given the fertile volcanic soil.

Rice paddies near Lake tondano
Rice paddies

The people of the Minahasa Highlands

My first introduction to Indonesian village people came in the Minahasa Highlands.  From the moment we arrived at the Warugas, we become the centre of attention.  Whilst there is some tourist traffic in these parts, it’s not high volume, and the Minahasa people take every opportunity to come and check us out and say hi.

In what became a very well-trodden path wherever we went, we got used to being asked for a photo that included them.  Sometimes it included whole families, people at restaurants, airports and local shops.

At the Waruga, we were quite taken by a couple of young girls who were happy to interact, although somewhat sheepishly at first.  As I strolled through the nearby street, Mums with their kids came out to say hi.  Some brought food, others brought their cats and dogs.  Whatever they were doing, they all stopped to wave or say hello.

These girls below spent the whole time we were there giggling and jumping up and down on the rock wall.

Local Minahasa people
These girls followed us everywhere we went at the Waruga site

We spent some time with these kids after their Mother came out to see us.

Local kids in the Minahasa highlands
Local kids in front of their house
Local kids in the Minahasa Highlands
The kids getting to see their own “selfie” that they took. Such delight at something we take for granted.

The Minahasa Highlands buildings

I really loved seeing the buildings in the Minahasa Highlands, where house-proud owners of gorgeous timber houses line the streets.

Timber house in Sawangan
Timber house in Sawangan

Bunaken Island

Bunaken Island, part of Bunaken National Park is one of the most obvious reasons to visit Manado.  A small island, located in the Bay of Manado, it is one of the premier diving and snorkelling areas in the world.  With it’s “hanging walls” – vertical reefs that simply drop off into the deep sea are a significant feature of this beautiful place.

It was so beautiful, I dedicated a much larger article to it.  Read about Bunaken Island here.

Snorkelling on Bunaken Island Manado Indonesia
Snorkelling on Bunaken Island.  Photo courtesy of Skye Gilkeson from The Fit Traveller.

Tangkoko Nature Reserve

This is another “must do” if you have made it as far as Manado.  Located about two hours drive from the city, this is where you can swap the blue of the ocean for the lush green of the jungle.  The Tangkoko Nature Reserve is home to the Black Crested Macaques and the world’s smallest primate, the Tarsier.  You can read about the Tangkoko Nature Reserve here.

Black Crested Macaque in Tangkoko Nature Reserve Manado Indonesia
Black Crested Macaque

Where to stay in Manado

I stayed at the Manado Tateli Beach Resort, run by the Mercure.  It has a terrific pool area, direct access to the ocean, a private beach, large rooms and a relaxed casual atmosphere.  It’s downsides are it’s cleanliness (the lobby is awesome but the rooms aren’t of the same standard) and the wifi which is almost non-existent in the rooms.  It does, however, offer a great base to visit all of these places around the area.

If this isn’t your style, there are plenty of other Manado hotels to choose from.

Check the Manado hotels and their reviews here

Beer and Croissants was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism.  As always, all editorial, images and therefore opinions are all my own.  

58 thoughts on “Manado Indonesia: for a more remote Indonesian experience”

  1. Simply stunning.
    These places may not stay hidden for long if people see these beautiful pictures.A

  2. I love places that are lesser known. I only ever hear of Bali and was excited to read about another place in Indonesia. I might skip the burial grounds, but the volcanic mountain views and the steps leading up to the Hill of Love looks like something I would want to explore. Those photos of the steps were incredible!

  3. The world is indeed huge and there are so many lesser known and barely discovered destinations.

    This place is definitely one of them but has so much authenticity, culture and charm about it. I’ve been recently visiting the kind of “unseen” or not so popular destinations in Thailand.

    Hopefully I will go here if I visit Indonesia.

  4. Manado is amazing. I lived in Indonesia for 11 months as a digital nomad and one of my local friend was from Manado. I really wish I would’ve explored it but I was so busy exploring Bandung I never really made it there. Now, I def regret it – these images are beautiful. The hill of love sounds so lovely – I also stayed on top of a hill for almost 6 months – Bukit bintang (Bukit – hill, Bintang – star) It had the most awesome view of the starry night. Sigh, I miss Indonesia.

  5. This is indeed a revelation, yes never heard of this place. Looks absolutely charming, i am fascinated by the face carved on the Hill of Love as well as those statues.

  6. Wow, this seriously looks amazing. I’m with most people — I automatically think of Bali! But I think Manado sounds great! I would love to spend an afternoon at the Tangkoko Nature Reserve, because I’m a big animal fan.

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us! πŸ™‚

  7. Lovely post Kerri!

    I have not heard of Manado at all, but I don’t think I would bother with the likes of Bali. This kind of place is much more my thing.

    Though like you said, I would probably feel as though I was in an episode of Survivor and that would be kinda fun too.

    Lovely pics and love the views. The hike would definitely be a highlight.

    Great post!

  8. Oh my gosh, those stairs!! They look amazing and treacherous all at once – definitely the work out for the day.

  9. So many highlights on this list. My favorites were trying to find the face in the Hill of Love and the lady statues. They look so fierce and triumphant.

  10. I’m with you – I hadn’t ever heard of this place, but from your photos it looks like a must-see for Indonesia. Was the flight there expensive? I just wrote this down in our Indonesia list! Cheers!

  11. Suze - Luxury Columnist

    I hadn’t heard of Manado but it sounds well worth exploring. What a pity that people are leaving their rubbish on the Hill of Love!

  12. Very interesting read. I always wanted to visit Asia, but somehow I didn’t make it to this continent so far. Indonesia is a great country to explore and you are right, I haven’t heard about Manado. But then I haven’t heard about cemeteries where the dead are buried in a squat position either, or haven’t seen this kind of graves. You made me very curious about visiting this part of Indonesia.

  13. Wow, I’d love to see those statues on the hill! And the burial site, I’m into weird things like that. And you’re right, I’ve never heard of Manado before now. Great post, lot’s of good information here.

  14. Great introduction to this area! I may be in the minority, but I love visiting cemeteries as they reveal so much about a culture. This one was truly beautiful. The hike looks like a fun challenge but too bad about the garbage. Hopefully they will find a way to manage it and preserve the beauty of this place.

  15. You got some amazing photos here. I never made it there, although I lived in Indonesia for a year and did see plenty of amazing places. As always, you regret the places you didn’t get to. Never mind, there’s still time.

  16. Thanks for sharing this hidden gem with us! Reading about Bali and other well-known travel destinations can get boring and repetitive. I’m glad to be reading about some place new! I loved how you shared about their burial sites. So interesting to read about how other cultures deal with death.

  17. I had not heard of this place at all but it looks and sounds amazing! I love exploring off the beaten path places and this place sounds like it certainly fits the bill. And it looks like all 2000+ steps were totally worth it! Great photos!

  18. I hadn’t either Anda, but it made sense after being there as they all sit in a squatting position all the time – at the front of their houses, at the front of shops….it’s just in their nature.

  19. The nature reserve would definitely be at the top of my list! The hike up the Hill of Love looks like quite the climb and I’d be up for exploring the cemetery after learning about the meaning behind it. Thanks for sharing you journey!

  20. You’ve found a true hidden gem! I would have had a hard time with the sulfur, too. I was so sick visiting a Volcano crater in St. Lucia. Visiting the wildlife preserve and interacting with the locals looks fantastic!

  21. Only made it as far as Sumatra. This place looks very off the beaten path! Thanks for all the info on it! Will check it out!

  22. Great to hear about this lesser known side to Indonesia that was not so closely linked to diving as Sulawesi usually is – it made me want to visit

  23. I am rethinking going to Indonesia now. I haven’t looked because I don’t really want to go to Bali. This island looks much more my speed. That hike to the top of the mountain looks like fun.

  24. I didn’t explore this much when I visited Manado last year as I headed directly to Bitung. All thanks to your post as it invites me to see Manado again.

  25. These photos are gorgeous! I’ve been to Indonesia but never here. I’ll have to look into it for next time I’m there!

  26. Christine | The Traveloguer

    I love your photos of the locals! The Hill of Love looks like a lot of work to get to the top, but worth it. I like visiting cemeteries in different countries!

  27. You are correct. I too have never heard of Manado. So the Indonesia Tourism board is really doing something right. I hope people will get to know more of the off-the-beaten-path part of Indonesia and not just Bali or Jakarta. Thanks for sharing!

  28. Glad to know there is more than Bali for Australians πŸ˜‰ Thanks for sharing about this interesting place

  29. I must admit that I am one of the people who had never heard of Manado, but it looks stunning. Then again, I’ve never been to Indonesia so maybe that’s why. Your post has me thinking I may need to change that.

  30. Wonderful post. My friend just left for Southeast Asia and has plans to visit Bali. I’ll have to direct her to this post and convince her to visit Manado, too!

  31. Wow! What a wonderful adventure you went on there. You’re right… I’ve never heard of this place before, but I’m glad the Indonesian tourism board is trying to bring these more obscure places to the public knowledge. Incredible views and that face in the Hill of Love reminds me of the face in the mountain on the way to Machu Picchu πŸ™‚

  32. What amazing pictures. I would love to go there. You made my mouth water with your description of the seafood and sambal at the lake. I love spicy food, so this would be right up my alley πŸ™‚

  33. Tom Stevenson

    A lot of interesting architecture and scenery here! Looks like a great place to visit!

  34. What an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture. I would especially love the tour of the burial site as I am fascinated with history and ancient cultures. And that meal at Astomi Restaurant!

  35. Will be there in August! Thanks for helping me plan my stay in Manado. We’ll be diving in Bunaken, going to the Tangkoko Reserve and climbing the Hill of Love while we are there. We’ll see if we can fit your other suggestions in our schedule.

  36. Fantastic Tatiana, it’s a place not that many people get to so pleased you will be able to do so. Be sure to come back and tell me if you’ve found anything new in these spots.

  37. Thank you for such a wonderful description of my homeland. i am a native of Minahasa, and I live in Tomohon. i hope you find your way back to this land again in the future.

  38. Hi, my buddy & I travelled around Indonesia for the first time this summer for 3 weeks. Yes, we started & ended in Bali! However, wespent a week in Manado. It was an amazing time being in a suburb village. There are so many things to see & do just around the city. The zoo is small but was fun to spend an afternoon at, the waterfall in the national park is also worthy of a visit. We had an interesting time going to the traditional market early one morning.I’m looking forward to exploring more outside the city next time. I’d like to check out snorkelling at Bunaken Island.

  39. I had the privilege of traveling to Manado 20 something years ago with my Indonesian sister that I met in Jakarta. She was originally from Manado and she was extremely proud of it.
    She took me to her village. It was a tiny village on the coastline that cultivated cloves. When I arrived there the little sidewalks of the village were covered in drying cloves. It was a sight to see. I stayed with the family and was treated like one.
    They threw a huge party in my honor and made their traditional food including dog meat and bat meat which I refused to try.

    I was incredibly touched by their kindness and generosity. I saw the burial grounds of the small village overlooking the ocean.

    I saw butterflies the size of my palms and I visited the local fishermen that lived right there on the beach in small huts just like you would see in a movie.

    The experience is forever cherished in my heart. I think I got so see things tourists won’t usually see.

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