Garut's attractions

12 06 2009

The new Cipularang expressway linking Jakarta to Bandung has opened up a whole new universe of weekend getaways to the south and east of Bandung that were previously beyond the reach of all but the most determined of weekend vacationers. One of my favorite destinations to the southeast of Bandung is Garut, a hidden gem of a destination replete with volcanoes, hot springs, pine forests, lush countryside, and, if you’ve a bit more time, some fine, deserted beaches further down on the south coast.

Best of all, it’s now only a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Jakarta!

In fact, during the Dutch days, Garut was one of the preeminent hill stations in all Java, and once you pay a visit you’ll quickly understand why! The regency of Garut lies about 63 kilometers southwest of Bandung on the southern branch of the main highway to the coast, with the northern, and busier branch going through Tasikmalaya, bypassing Garut entirely.

The roads in this part of West Java are well-paved, thus making it a great place for motoring. But, given the mountainous topography, needless to say there are plenty of twists and turns. So take your time! Located in a hollow between a ring of towering volcanoes, the city of Garut itself is pretty nondescript, but, like most smaller cities in West and Central Java, it’s tidy and well-kept.

It’s also a memorable sight as you come down from the highlands early in the morning and see it laid out before you, with its towering volcanic sentinels standing guard all around in the shimmering haze. At night, the scene is transformed into a flickering sea of yellow light spread out as far as the eye can see.

Pleasant scenery, energetic pursuits

The countryside is verdant, and, with its temperate climate and incredibly fertile volcanic soil, is a veritable Garden of Eden, producing everything from potatoes and carrots to beef and dairy cattle, which no doubt explains the evident prosperity of the region and its people. Most tourists come to Garut to visit the Cipanas spa resort, just to the northwest of the city at the foot of Mt. Guntur, and a great favorite of the Dutch.

While most vestiges of the colonial era have disappeared, this is still a truly beautiful area, and offers a selection of four-and five-star hotels, all with swimming pools filled with steaming water from the springs. For those who have had enough of wallowing in the baths, there’s plenty of more energetic pursuits available around Cipanas, including hiking up Mt. Guntur, a 10-hour round trip passing the Curug Citiis waterfall.

The slopes of the mountain are unforested, however, and the sun is pretty fierce at these elevations, so definitely not for the faint-hearted. If Mt. Curug doesn’t sate your appetite for hiking up large immovable objects, then Mt. Papandayan (2,662 meters) should definitely do so. This is one of the most active volcanoes in West Java and regularly puts on displays of fireworks.

If not off-limits, the massive yellow devil’s cauldron of steaming, bubbling mud and the surrounding lunar landscapes are only a 30-minute trek up from the parking lot half way up the mountainside. The trek is well worth it for a vision of what hell is most probably like and puts everything written by Dante to shame. From the crater, its a roughly two-hour walk up to Papandayan’s summit. Once again, there’s no shade and the sun is merciless, so do yourself a favor and bring a good, wide-brimmed hat.

Now, after all that mountain trekking, how about something a little more cultural? About half-way on the main road from Garut to Tasikmalaya, roughly 30 kilometers east of Garut, is the memorable village of Kampung Naga, one of the few truly traditional thatched Sundanese villages left in West Java, and a treat to behold nestled down in the spectacularly green river valley between the towering peaks. It’s a fairly steep, 350-step climb down to the village from the parking lot near the highway, and you’ll be told that its mandatory to accept the services of a guide, although we saw plenty of visitors wandering around on their own.

Another cultural attraction in the vicinity of Garut is the Candi Cangkuang Hindu temple, which was first mapped and recorded by the Dutch in 1893, when it was in ruins. However, it was not until 1976 that it was finally restored. The temple itself is small but nevertheless impressive in a primeval, lost-city sort of way. But the real treat is the fact that you have to cross a small lake on a bamboo raft to get to it. The area is also an Islamic place of pilgrimage as Arif Muhammad, a Muslim holy man, is buried right next to the temple, so the place can get quite crowded with pilgrims.

If you’ve had your fill of climbing volcanoes, visiting temples and turning pink in the baths, then head into Garut city to sample dodol, a local, exceedingly sweet treat made from coconut milk, palm sugar and sticky rice.

Shopping in the city

You either love this or hate it but, whatever the case, it’s ubiquitous and cheap. There are plenty of places to stock up on the main road out of Garut to Bandung. Garut is also famous for its leather goods — made from cow, goat and sheep skins. The quality is good and all the stuff is dirt cheap.

You can pick up a spanking new leather jacket for Rp 700,000 compared with Rp 3 million or more in Jakarta. The styles are pretty stodgy, but download your own design from the Internet or take the latest copy of Biker magazine down with you. They can knock a smashing jacket together in only two days. For those for whom a vacation is not worth the time or effort without a trip to the beach, then a visit to the wild south coast at Pameunpeuk will be just the ticket.

About four hours from Garut along a twisting road winding its way through some of the most impressive scenery in Java, you’ll need more than a weekend to do this area justice. Among the beaches down here are Pantai Sayang Heulang, Pantai Santolo and Pantai Cijayana. There’s not much in the way of accommodation, though, so be prepared to rough it.

And for golf enthusiasts, Garut also has a little gem of a nine-hole course nestling on the slopes five kilometers to the south of the city. This was first established by the Dutch, but the original hotel and clubhouse have long disappeared, replaced by ugly concrete structures. Just ignore these and concentrate on the golf, and the wonderful views looking down on Garut.

So there you have it: Garut, a place with something for everyone and now not much more than a stone’s throw from Jakarta!




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