Last updated on February 13 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The area is also home to rice paddies, given the fertile volcanic soil.
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.
We spent some time with these kids after their Mother came out to see us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beer and Croissants was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism. As always, all editorial, images and therefore opinions are all my own.