A day in the Minahasa Highlands, North Sulawesi – 1

Getting a sense of the history and culture of a place is an important part of all our travels. Sulawesi was no different. So after hubby had had his fill of muck diving in the Lembeh Straits and I was done with birdwatching in the Tangkoko Nature Reserve, we planned for a day in the Minahasa highlands.

This hill country, located in the extreme northern-eastern part of Sulawesi island is named after the Minahasa people, an overarching ethnic group from North Sulawesi, with an ancient and multi-layered history. Minahasa means ‘to become one’ in a local Minahasa language and is symbolic of the various tribes that came together in the 17th century, to present a united front before the Dutch colonists.

A short 10-minute ferry ride from our resort on Lembeh Island to the port city of Bitung on the Sulawesi mainland, was followed by a 2-hour circuitous car journey, to get to the historical and cultural sites in the Minahasa region. This region being an upland, has a cool climate and the descriptor ‘mist-covered’ pretty much applies to everything here!

These are the highlights from our day in the Minahasa highlands…..

Waruga, Airmadidi district


The waruga site in Airmadidi district

From the 9th till the early 19th century, the Minahasa placed their dead in a cubical stone tomb, covered with an engraved stone roof. These were known as waruga and the body was placed inside, in a crouching position. The waruga were always constructed facing north as the Minahasa believed that their ancestors came from that direction. The carvings on these sarcophagi reveal the social status or occupation of the person inside, while the notches on the side indicate how many family members were buried inside.


The engraving on this waruga shows a woman giving birth, which indicates that she died during labour.

The waruga practice was stopped by the Dutch colonial government in the 1860s, for fear of diseases spreading from the rotting corpses inside. There are well over 100 waruga graves in this location including those of some colonial soldiers/officials entombed in the early 1800s. These tombs are empty, with the remains having been removed a long time ago.


Waruga depicting a colonial officer/soldier

It definitely felt like we had stepped through a time portal!

Japanese Caves

Following the Japanese occupation of some parts of Sulawesi in January 1942, the Japanese Army constructed a set of interlinked caves, along the road between the villages of Kiawa and Kawangkoan.


A peek into the caves created by the Japanese Army during WWII

The cave halls were used to store food and ammunition, and tunnels connected them to neighbouring villages. Forced local labour was used in the construction of these caves, with the construction process taking about a year (1943-44). While these caves are a reminder of the brutality faced by the Minahasa people, it is a more peaceful place today, fenced off by local authorities and many swallows have made their nests inside.


One of the many swallow nests inside the caves


Signage at the site of the Japanese caves

Mount Mahuwu

The minute you arrive at the car park of Mount Mahawu, you are welcomed by an ear-splitting buzz. The insects here are that noisy! If you have sensitive ears, you’ve been warned.


Entry point at the base of Mahawu mountain


One of the gazillion noisy critters at Mount Mahawu!

Mount Mahawu is a volcano that had its last recorded eruption (albeit a small one)  in the late 18th century. So it is pretty safe to walk along the rim of the crater.


The crater of Mahawu mountain


The height above sea level at the crater rim

We started with our walk around the rim but the annoyingly shrill insects got the better of us.

Tomohon Market

The Minahasa highlands are a predominantly agricultural region and the market in Tomohon city is a must visit.


The slopes of Mount Mahawu used for growing vegetables


The fresh produce section at Tomohon market

We nibbled on some fried snacks while we debated about venturing into the meat market.


Sweet, fried snacks at the Tomohon market

Pasar Ekstrim (or Extreme Market) as it is known, has the reputation of being one of the grisliest markets in the world, with locals selling forest creatures like pythons, monkeys, mountain rats, among others. Even dogs (which are considered a delicacy here) are available in this market. Definitely not for me!


The Pasar Ekstrim (Extreme Market) at Tomohon

There was heavy military presence during our time at the market and we were later informed that Indonesian President Joko Widodo would be visiting the next day.

By this time, we were ravenous and stopped for lunch. The restaurant on the outskirts of Tomohon had a spectacular view of Mount Lokon, an active volcano that last erupted as recently as August 2015. While the eruption did not cause any fatalities, the thick volcanic ash had led to flights getting delayed or rescheduled.


View of the mist-covered Mount Lokon from the restaurant

Our meal became even more interesting at the thought of possibly witnessing some volcanic activity. But no such luck! 😦

As you can well imagine, this was turning out to be a really long day! For more about our post-lunch activities in the Minahasa highlands, click here.

Our thanks to the team at Lembeh Resorts for organizing this fabulous day trip 🙂

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