Gunungsitoli –The center of Nias
Gunungsitoli is the name of a municipality and the largest town on Nias Island where 130.000 people live. The harbour, airport and many businesses located here makes this the economic heart of the island. Even though Gunungsitoli has no authority over the rest of Island anymore, it is still seen by most people as the capital of Nias. Important meetings are held here and the best hospitals and schools are all located in town. Even though small by Indonesian standards Gunungsitoli has a busy city center where the hustle and bustle rivals other regional towns in Indonesia. During the earthquake in 2005 much of the center was laid in ruins. Ironically the earthquake was a trigger for an economic boom for Gunungsitoli when many international aid organisations moved into town and set up shop for the reconstruction of Nias between 2005 -2012. Today foreign visitors are rare in town as most people head straight for the beaches and surf areas. Tourists usually don’t come to Nias primarily to visit Gunungsitoli but many visitors touring the island spend a night or two here. The main reason visitors come to town is to visit the Nias Heritage Museum or to use the town as a base from which to explore the north and east. Gunungsitoli is also known for its readily available cheap and fresh seafood. Being a very small town traditional village life and beaches are only a short drive away from the city center. In fact Gunungsitoli is not only the urban center but also includes six sub-districts with a distinctly rural atmosphere. There are a number of interesting places to visit in and around Gunungsitoli town and surrounding areas.
Museum Pusaka Nias (Nias Heritage Museum)
This Museum is a great introduction to Nias. Most tours of the island start or end here, and visitors will get a comprehensive overview of the diverse cultural heritage of the island. The centrepiece of the Museum is an exhibition which showcases the highlights of a collection of 5000 unique artifacts. This includes traditional weaponry, dresses and many interesting ceremonial and house hold objects. The Museum is recognized as one of the best in Indonesia and in 2014 the founder received an award for “best conservationist of cultural heritage” from the Indonesian ministry of culture.
The Museum is much more than just the exhibitions rooms, there are many other things to see and do here. On the museum grounds there are four original traditional houses from different parts of Nias as well as many megaliths and statues. The gardens are the most well kept on the island and includes a zoo with native animals and a traditional herbal garden. There is a small beach here which is very popular during afternoon and weekends. The Museum Café serves snacks and simple meals. Visitors have the opportunity to stay overnight in one of the traditional houses. The Museum is a peaceful oasis in busy Gunungsitoli and you can easily spend a few hours here. On Sundays hundreds of local people come here to spend their day off. The Museum is located 1.5 km north of the city center, before the port area.
All the things produced around Nias are brought to Gunungsitoli. Local vegetables, fruits, seafood and meat are bought and sold at a number of traditional markets. If you are interested in what is grown on Nias and what local people eat you should visit the markets in town. Herbs, produce, live chickens and haggling locals create a cacophony of colors and sounds. If you can handle the smell and the noise you can see some really interesting things here and it is a great place for photography. Hold your breath, look where you put your feet and get ready for some gentle heckling from the friendly market ladies.
The main markets located along Jalan Sudirman in the center of town and are called Pasar Beringin and Pasar Nou.
The main fish market is another riot of colors and odours where anything living in the ocean is sold. The Pasar Luaha fishmarket (also known as TPI; Tempat Pelelangan Ikan) is only a few minutes’ walk from the other markets and is located at the waterfront next to the bridge over the river Nou. Marlins, Barracudas and other large game are sold here as well as other more obscure sea critters.
You can’t leave Nias without some shopping! Gunungsitoli is the best place to stock up on souvenirs and presents for friends and family back home. Popular Nias souvenirs include replicas of ancestral spirit statues, traditional weaponry, miniature traditional houses, traditional medicine and T-shirts. In the more specialized galleries many more unique objects and Nias artwork can be found.
Toko Waristo – This shop in the middle of town has a wide range of souvenirs and Nias handicraft. The selection range from T-shirts and knick-knacks to traditional weapons and beautiful sculptures. There are many kinds of souvenirs in this shop and it is well worth a visit. Jalan Sirao No 21.
Kedai Elisabeth – A few shops down on the same side of the street is another smaller souvenir shop worth a visit. Jalan Sirao No 24.
BPWN – Badan Pembedayaan & Warisan Nias (Empowerment for Nias Heritage). This small museum and art gallery houses some of the most unique and well-made art work and souvenirs on Nias. The idea behind BPWN is to preserve Nias culture by making replicas of antique artefacts. This is a way for Nias artisans to maintain their skills. Anything from intricate Nias jewellery to huge solid wooden statues and furniture can be found here. Wealthy Nias people often pre-order traditional dresses and accessories for weddings here. Customers also include international art galleries specializing in ‘primitive’ and ethnic art. All the items for sale are made using local materials and techniques under the supervision of the owner, who has been involved in heritage preservation on Nias for a long time. If you are looking to buy authentic Nias artwork this is the place to go. BPWN is only five minutes’ drive from the city center on Jalan Makam Pahlawan, Mudik area.
Museum Pusaka Nias – The shop at the Museum (and Café) sell books about Nias culture and history, traditional medicine, T-shirts and a few souvenirs.
Avoid buying anything made of tortoise shell, seashells and coral. Also don’t buy really old things, even if offered. According to Indonesian law any object over 50 years old is considered ‘antique’ and must be turned over to the government.
Swimming in town
The best place to go swimming in town is the Museum Pusaka Nias. After the entrance turn right and walk through the Museum compound until you see a pier. There is a little beach here suitable for children. Adults usually jump in from the pier next to the beach. Changing rooms and toilets and a café is available nearby. There are a number of beaches in town, but most of them are ‘working’ beaches meaning this is where fishermen launch their boats and clean their nets.
There are two viewpoints at either end of Gunungsitoli. Apart from offering nice views of town and the surrounding coastline they are nice places to relax and have a cold drink or a coffee.
RRI Lookout – viewpoint perched on the edge of a hill with sweeping views over Gunungsitoli. At the viewpoint there is also a very well maintained traditional house where you can buy cold drinks and coffee. This is also a great spot for watching eagles and other raptor birds. RRI (Radio Republik Indonesia) is the name of the radio station which has its offices on the top of the hill. To get here follow the sign to RRI and look for the large antenna. At the radio station there is a sign (Obyek Wisata – tourism attraction) at the turnoff to the viewpoint.
Puncak Laowomaru – this hill in the south end of town has near vertical sides and offers nice views of the beaches south of town. There is a café on the top, but this is usually only open on weekends. Many raptor birds can be seen soaring in the skies around this viewpoint. To get there go south of town past an area called Fodo. There is small seaside café at the bottom of the hill.
Eating out in Gunungsitoli
There are many of small eateries and food stalls around town. If you are used to travel in Indonesia this will all be familiar to you. But for a first time visitor it can be hard to tell what’s what and where to find the right place to eat. Just like in any Indonesian town you will find food from other parts of Indonesia; saté sticks, bakso soup, Padang food, etc. This type of food is available on almost every street. Below is a list of some of the more popular restaurants and cafe’s in Gunungsitoli.
- Lazara Point – Mixed Indonesian and western food in a very contemporary styled restaurant in the Ilir section of town.
- Kaliki – Huge outdoor restaurant with mixed Indonesian and western food. The restaurant belongs to a hotel in the ‘pelabuhan baru’ (new port) area.
- Grand Kartika – Seaside restaurant with mixed Indonesian and western food, located behind the military base in the center of town. When its not raining, and there is no Karaoke singing going on, this is a very beautiful setting for a evening dinner.
- S’Three Restaurant – Nice modern restaurant at the bottom floor of the Hotel with the same name. Extensive menu, but doesn’t serve beer. Located south of town center along the main road Jalan Diponegoro at Km 3.
- Waroeng Fodo – Local restaurant with a range of dishes but specialized in Ayam Penyet (a kind of fried chicken) Ikan Bakaar (fried fish) and Java Burgers. Situated a bit south of the town center along the busy Jalan Diponegoro.
- Cafe Mister – Brand new cafe style restaurant, a mix of fast food joint and upscale cafe’. The first place of its kind on Nias. This is a nice place to escape the midday heat in the center of town at Jalan Sirao No 24.
- Qwi Tin Wan – A local attempt at copying KFC style fried chicken which actually comes pretty close. Not far from Celia Supermarket on Jalan Dipnegoro.
- Rumah Makan Nasional – Among many Muslim Padang food restaurants in town, this one is considered the best. Center of town on Jalan Sirao No 87.
Lunch is often eaten at café style eateries. Some of the better ones are; the Nias Museum Café, Caritas Café and Warung Tip Top. Visiting Indonesians rave on about the abundant supply of cheap and fresh seafood here. Some of the simple looking places actually serves the best seafood, such as Rapi Seafood near the bridge in the center. Nearby is Rani Seafood which is also good. Pondok Malta is a simple but nice place for seafood north of town with a great sea view.
There are a few small super markets in town which are good places to stock up on snacks and toiletries. The better ones are:
- Celia Supermarket – Jalan Diponegoro No 230 south of the city center.
- City Mart – Jalan Gomo in the center of town.
- Golden Mart – Jalan Diponegoro south of the city center.
- Anggrek – Jalan Sirao No 111 in the center of town.
- Caritas Market – Jalan Diponegoro No 187 just south of the city center.
Out of town and surroundings
There are a few beaches to the north and south of town. Avoid the beaches near the city center as they always busy, being used by local fishermen. Some beaches near the city, such as Panta Fodo, is nice for an afternoon drink but for swimming is better to get out of town.
Pantai Hoya is 15 km north of the city center and is one of the most popular beaches near town. The beach is over a kilometer long and pine trees provide nice shade here. The south end has two piers and a number of little picnic shelters popular with couples and families. There is also a good Café here. The north end of the beach is wilder and it’s a nice walk to just follow the coast line. After 2.5 kilometers you reach the river Sowu, which is the border between Gunungsitoli and North Nias Regency.
Pantai Malaga 15 km south of town is a popular weekend beach. There is a hotel here (Malaga Beach Resort) and non-guests can use the beach as long as they buy a buy something in the café.
Further north there are a number of nice beaches in North Nias Regency. If you don’t mind the one-hour drive there are some nice options here such as Fofola, Asi Walo and Seriwao beaches.
Most of the week the beaches on Nias are empty, but on Sunday afternoons the public beaches around town get very crowded. Great fun if you want to meet locals, not so much if you are looking to relax on an empty beach.
Draso Waterfall – A unique and beautiful three level waterfall c. 25 meters high. The most interesting feature of this waterfall is that it includes a cave like cavern which two plunge pools inside. There are two small falls inside the cavern, The second plunge pool is deep and cool, perfect for a swim on a hot day. The inner plunge pool can be reached but requires a bit of a rock scramble on slippery rocks. The plunge pool closer to the entrance of the cavern is not as deep but still enough for a dip. The cavern and the two waterfalls are great for photographs.
There are a couple of more waterfalls around town, but they are not as accessible and require walking on steep and slippery tracks.
Humogo waterfall near Fadoro village in Gunungsitoli Idanoi is a beautiful place to spend a hot day, but you need local help to find this place.
Gamo waterfall in Gunungsitoli Utara is also nice, especially after good rain.
Tögindrawa Cave – If you want to stretch your legs a bit and get a glimpse of the green interior of Nias, a hike to Tögindrawa cave is good way to spend a couple of hours. This cave is also the most important archaeological site on Nias, where a series of excavations have found proof of human habitation from 12.000 years ago. The walk to the cave starts 3 kilometers from the city center in Lelewonu Niko’otano village. The walk up to the cave along the paved path takes about 30 minutes. The cave itself is very interesting with several large chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites. In the end the cave becomes a narrow tunnel that disappears into the mountain. Villagers claim that the tunnel connects with other caves several kilometers away.
Even though Gunungsitoli is the most modernized area of Nias Island, there are still some very interesting cultural heritage sites within easy reach of town. There are two distinct types of traditional houses (Omo Hada) on Nias, the Southern and the Northern style. The southern style is rectangular and houses are built wall to wall. Northern houses are oval shaped (unique in Asia) and freestanding. With Gunungsitoli as a base it is easy to find interesting examples of this unique style of vernacular architecture. Compared to the south, villages in the north are much smaller and individual traditional houses can be seen in random locations outside of town. This is a list of small villages with traditional houses in good condition.
Tumöri is the most accessible traditional village near Gunungsitoli, only 15 minutes’ drive west of the city center. There are ten traditional houses here between 50 to 120 years old. Despite the age the buildings are very well preserved. What is unique about Tumöri is that this is really a living village, but still kept in the traditional style. Houses are brightly painted and have both electricity and plumbing. What makes Tumöri special is the combination of new and old.
Sihare’o Siwahili village is only 5 minutes from Tumöri. The houses are in similar style but more traditional. It offers an interesting contrast to Tumöri.
Lölölakha village in Gunungsitoli Selatan was until recent roadworks very hard to get to. Now it is possible to drive here in c. 45 minutes from the city center. This settlement has five very original traditional houses, and some ‘hybrid’ houses where new and old styles are mixed. The old houses here are very well maintained but not modernised.
Dahana village in Gunungsitoli Idanoi is located 30 minutes driver south of town, near the airport. This village is fairly spread out, but there is a cluster of five traditional houses here. On top of the hill near the main cluster is a very interesting megalith with human features.
The Road to Alasa is a very easy way to see traditional houses near town. From the center of town just drive west, from the main hospital towards Alasa in Nias Utara. In the first half hour you will see a number of traditional houses along the road. It is interesting to see the different ways they are kept; some are obviously falling into disrepair while others are incorporated in more modern houses.