A world apart from mainland Sumatra, the enticing jungle-clad Mentawai Islands lie 150km off the west Sumatran coast. Separated half a million years ago, the islands are as famous for their world-class waves now as they are being home to a unique tribal culture and a wealth of endemic flora and fauna – including langurs, macaques and the long-armed Mentawai (Kloss’ gibbon). Both, however, are under serious threat – from illegal logging and a government seeking to integrate the Mentawaian tribes into the Indonesian mainstream.
The best travel tips for visiting the Mentawai Islands
The traditional culture of the Mentawai Islands is based on communal dwelling in longhouses (uma) and subsistence agriculture, while their religious beliefs centre on the importance of coexisting with the invisible spirits that inhabit the world. Mentawai people generally welcome tourism as a way of validating and preserving their own culture, although due to the mainland’s long-time monopoly on Mentawai tours, locals have received little financial benefit from it.
Fortunately, independent travel has become increasingly feasible. There are a handful of basic homestays at the port of Siberut, the largest island (4000 square kilometres), where local guides may be hired, and surfers may choose from numerous all-inclusive surf camps across the islands, in particular Sipora Island.
Best things to do on the Mentawai Islands
The four Mentawai Islands have a basic, nascent tourism scene, so when it comes to things to do, remember that this isn't Bali. You're most likely to land on Siberut Island, a bio-reserve. Be respectful of the local tribes and leave only footprints.
#1 Meet a Mentawai tribe
Organised tours of Mentawai are loudly marketed in Bukittinggi. Most tours centre on the southeast of the island, where you’ll be able to watch and join in with people going about their everyday activities, such as farming, fishing and hunting. Be sure to obey guidelines you are given about how to behave as the locals have a complex cultural system of what is taboo.
#2 Surf some waves
Indonesia is one of the world’s premier surfing destinations, with an enormous variety of first-class waves and perfect breaks. But only intrepid wave catchers make it to the tubes that curl alongside the Mentawai Islands. The activity, however, is becoming increasingly popular. Visit in June and July for the best and most consistent surf.
#3 Go jungle trekking
The entirety of Siberut Island, the largest of the four Mentawai Islands, is a UNESCO-protected National Park. A mixture of primary forest, swamp, coastal forest and mangroves, this really is a natural heaven. Sixty-five percent of the mammals here are endemic alongside fifteen percent of the fauna. A jungle trek can take you to the heart of the island where four species of primates, including the pig-tail snub-nosed monkey, are only found here. Tread carefully.
Where to stay
There are a handful of basic homestays at the port of Siberut, the largest of the four islands. Head to Masokut Island for cheap, all-inclusive surf camps or the north of Sipora Island for basic hotels and homestays with unbeatable views.
Best restaurants and bars on the Mentawai Islands
There’s not much of a restaurant and bar scene on the Mentawai Islands. Some of the more upscale resorts, like Aloita Resort, will serve up restaurant-level buffet food and wine, but with fresh fish in abundance here, the majority of visitors eat where they are staying.
How to get there
It takes around four hours to get to the Mentawai Islands from the west coast of Sumatra, longer on the ferry. Note that the crossing can be rough.
From Padang, there are three boat services to Siberut throughout the week: the Mentawai Express speedboats; Sumber Rezeki boats; Ambu-Ambu boats; and the more-recent KMP Gambolo.
Ferries also link the islands’ other ports, such as Tuapejat on Sipora Island and Sikakap on North Pagai Island. These generally take around 12 hours with some overnight crossings.
How many days do you need?
You could, should you wish, see enough of the Mentawai Islands in two days. Get the boat across from Padang, spend a day on the beach and a night in a bungalow, and then go back. Most people will stay a week to 10 days, particularly surfers. If you plan to surf, sunbathe and explore Siberut Island National Park, give yourself at least five days.
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Tips for getting around
There are no cars on the Mentawai Islands, so everyone gets around by boat or canoe. The ferry stops at each island giving visitors the chance to island hop but on the islands themselves you’ll need your own two feet. This really is paradise.
Best time to visit the Mentawai Islands
As an equator-hugging tropical paradise, the hot and sunny weather remains consistent year-round on the Mentawai Islands. The days are warm and humid with slightly cooler nights and the occasional tropical storm rolls in.
If you’re here to surf, visit in June and July for the best and most consistent waves. The weather is a little less predictable around Christmas and New Year but this is a popular time to go. Pack a mac if you’re worried about the odd tropical downpour.