How To: Surfing Mentawai Islands on a Budget

by Sam Odario

When Metawai islands were discovered as a surfing destination, the only way to get there and surf was by boat. So the first available way for an average surfer to go there was to book a boat trip. Boat trips are still super popular in the Mentawais, but they do come with quite a price tag. By the way, here you can find a list of all the Mentawai boats provided by the Mentawai surf pioneer Indies trader. Later land resorts started opening on the islands. Opening a surf resort on one of the Mentawai islands is not an easy task. Islands are still far away from civilization and everything you need must be brought there by boat. Especially if you want a level comfort that these foreigner run resorts offer, western food, air conditioning, wi-fi… It does not come cheap. So obviously surf resorts are also expensive. Finally locals also joined in and began offering home stays that progressed in local run surf camps. These are more affordable.

Regular Mentawai Trip vs. Independent Trip on a Budget

Mentawai islands are far away from everything. When you get there after numerous flights and boat rides it feels like it’s almost off the worlds map. But fortunately (or unfortunately 🙂 ) there are many more options for staying and surfing there than there used to be. You can either go the traditional way and book a boat trip or a land surf resort. They will pick you up in Padang or sometimes even organize your flights to get there, they will bring you to your room, feed you, take you to the best waves and deliver you back to your home flight all surfed out. In this case, expect to pay. If a worry free surf trip is what you are looking for and if you can afford it, this might be what you want.

On the other hand, if you are willing to organize it yourself, if you are prepared for a bit of hustle and if you are not a 5 star hotel only traveler, then you can do it cheaper. Even much cheaper. Mentawais are not only rich surfer or once in a lifetime destination anymore. In this “Surfing Mentawai islands on a budget” guide I will give you tips on how to surf the Mantawais and at the same time, how to do it without braking the bank.

Why Go to Mentawai Islands?

If you are a surfer asking why to go to Mentawai islands then you are probably not the one that should be going there. Mentawai Islands are a chain of about seventy islands that lie off the central coast of Sumatra about 150 kilometres (93 miles) away from city called Padang. Largest island is called Siberut (not much surf there) and second larges is Sipura where the main city called Tuapejat lies.

Mentawai islands were “discovered” (at least when it comes to surfing) in the early 1980’s. At that time the only known surf in Indonesia was in Bali, G-land and Nias. Martin Daly believed there must be other places. Pouring over nautical charts he set sail for the Mentawai Islands and surfed them in May of 1983 (One Palm Tree Point). Until early 1990 the islands were kept more or less a secret. Only few surfers knew about them. But slowly the word got out and perfect almond shaped barrels started appearing on surf magazine covers. With such high concentration of perfect waves Mentawais really are THE mecca of surfing. Warm water & perfect waves.

This is how smaller uninhabited islands in the Mentawais look like from above

Are Mentawai Islands Suitable For Beginner Surfers?

No. There are no easy beach breaks in Mentawais, just coral reefs. There are a few “easier” waves, but none are suitable for complete beginners. You could try and surf an odd corner here and there, but I don’t really see the point in going to Mentawais to do that. You will have way more fun and will progress faster if you go to one of the more beginner friendly locations. For intermediates (and also everybody else) – keep it in mind that in Mentawais you are far far away from the nearest hospital. If you wouldn’t take the risk dropping into a 6ft wave over shallow reef at home then the Mentawais isn’t a good place to start. There are some easier waves here, but none of them are really easy.

Are Mentawai Islands Suitable Only For Really Good and Pro Surfers?

No. When the big swells hit the main spots and people get shot out of stand up with hand raised barrels it might not be for everyone. But swells are not huge all the time and even when they are, with all the islands and swell directions there is always some corner that is more manageable.

How To Get There

Padang

City of Padang is the gateway to the Mentawai islands. If you want to go to Mentawais, you have to go to Padang first. Padang has an international airport so flying there is the best option. You have plenty of daily flights going there from Jakarta, another popular starting point is also Kuala Lumpur. If you want to hop from Bali to Mentawais then you have to go to Jakarta first.

There is not really much to do in Padang, you can eat out, go for a massage and check if there is any surf in the nearby beach break of Air Manis (Mentawais block the swell from reaching beaches around here). So try to minimize your time in Padang and hop on the ferry as soon as possible. To do that you will have to organize your trip around ferry schedules (check Mentawai ferry schedules below).

First you will have to decide which part of the Mentawais you want to visit. All three parts are reached from Padang. As far as I know there are no ferries in between the islands. You could get a local boat to take you, but because of the distance it would be very expensive! This is why it is best to decide where to go while you are still in Padang. For northern Mentawais (surf spots like Kandui, Rifles, Bank Vaults) you have to go from Padang to Siberut. For central Mentawais (surf spots like Telescopes, Lances Left, Lances right..) you have to go from Padang to Tuapejat and for southern Mentawais (spots like Macaronis, Green Bush ) you will have to go from Padang to Sikakap. Check ferry schedules and plan your incoming and outgoing flights so you are not stuck in Padang waiting for the ferry for too long.

Padang Tips

  • Taxi ride from Padang airport to Padang takes around 45 minutes.
  • It’s best to sleep somewhere near the Mentawai Fast departure point so you can get some extra sleep in the morning.
  • There are plenty of places to stay in Padang, check Bridget’s house, Yani Hostel or just use Booking.
  • I recommend that you ask your host to organize the airport transfer and the transfer to ferry port for you. So you won’t be looking for a taxi at 7am in the morning when the fast boat leaves.
  • There are no ATM’s in Mentawais (except Tuapejat) so you need to stuff your pockets full of rupiah in Padang. If you are on a tight schedule and you won’t be staying in Padang for more than a day, check your daily ATM withdrawal limit before you leave home. You might not be able to withdraw enough money.
  • ALWAYS hide your PIN when making ATM withdrawals. Even though Indo ATM’s often have a keyboard cover, camera can be mounted under this cover. Use your hand to hide your PIN, card scanning is common in Indo. It happened to me or my friends 3 or 4 times already.

Padang Ferry to Mentawai Islands

There are two companies operating ferries to the Mentawais. There is the fast ferry that is called Mentawai Fast (I think it’s a Japanese company) and local “public” ferry. Mentawai fast departs early in the morning (check the schedules below) and needs around 3h to get to Siberut while the Gambolo slow boat departs in the afternoon/evening (check the schedules below) and drives all night. If you are on a budget use the slow boat, it’s much much cheaper and if you get a ticket with a bed and sleep on the ferry you will also save on Padang accommodation costs. Slow boat is however a bit unreliable. Sometimes it breaks down and doesn’t operate for days or weeks. Public boat schedule is also often subject to changes due to the company itself without any forewarning.

Even though Mentawai Fast ferry schedule is fixed and doesn’t change I would double check both schedules (check Mentawai Fast website for MF) and also check with the place where you will be staying in Padang, they will usually be up to date with ferry departure times. Triple check, better safe than sorry, especially for the public boat.

Slow Boat (Gambolo/Ambu Ambu) Overnight Ferry Schedule

Slow boat or so called public ferry leaves from the Teluk Kabung port at Bungus which is around 20km south of Padang. You will need to take a taxi to get there, it takes around 40 minutes and it will cost you about 100.000-150.000IDR per taxi.

SCHEDULE (Day / Route /Departure Time / Boat Name)
Monday Tua Pejat–Padang 8pm Gambolo
Tuesday Bungus–Sikakap 5pm Ambu Ambu
Wednesday Bungus–Siberut 7pm Gambolo (one stop in north Siberut)
Wednesday Sikakap–Padang 5pm Ambu Ambu
Thursday Bungus–Tua Pejat 8pm Ambu Ambu
Thursday Siberut–Padang 4pm Gambolo (one stop in north Siberut)
Friday Bungus–Siberut 7pm Gambolo
Friday Tua Pejat–Padang 8pm Ambu Ambu
Saturday Bungus–Sikakap 5pm Ambu Ambu
Saturday Siberut–Padang 7pm Gambolo
Sunday Bungus–Tua Pejat 8pm Gambolo
Sunday Sikakap–Padang 5pm Ambu Ambu

PRICE: Price for a ticket ranges from 50.000IDR (basic seat) to 125.000IDR (air conditioned room with beds), depending on what kind of seat you want. Air conditioned room sounds nice, but in reality it will be still quite hot, bright lights the whole night and 50 other people inside talking, coming, leaving…

Mentawai Fast’s Schedule

Mentawai Fast departs from the city of Padang itself, from the last river at the edge of Padang towards Air Manis beach. So you need like 10min max to get there from Padang center.

DAY DESTINATION TIME
Monday Padang – Tuapejat

Tuapejat – Padang

06.00 am

15.00 pm

Tuesday Padang – Sikabaluan

Sikabaluan – Siberut

Siberut – Padang

07.00 am

12.00 am

14.30 pm

Wednesday Padang – Tuapejat
Tuapejat – Padang
07.00 am

15.00 pm

Thurday Padang – Siberut

Siberut – Sikabaluan – Padang

07.00 am

12.00 pm

Friday Padang-Tuapejat
Tuapejat-PadangPadang – Sikakap
Sikakap – Padang
07.00 am

14.00 pm
07.00 am

13.00 pm

Saturday Padang – Sikabaluan – Siberut

Siberut – Padang

07.00 am

14.30 pm

Sunday Padang- Sioban (Katiet)- Tuapejat

Tuapejat – Padang

07.00 am

15.00 pm

Going to and from Siberut (town, this is where you want to go), ferry sometimes stops in north Siberut (island) near town called Sikabaluan.

Going to and from Tuapejat, ferry sometimes stops in Sioban (same island as Tuapejat, but more towards south east (Katiet)).

PRICE: 295,000IDR per person. But! Mentawai fast also charges for board bags, depending on the weight of the board bag. Here are the prices:

Surfbags between 10kg-15kg 230.000IDR
Surfbags between 15kg-25kg 460.000IDR
Surfbags between 25kg 690.000IDR

Since bringing a heavy board bag can raise your ticket price considerably, make sure you move heavy things to your backpack/suitcase and just leave your boards inside the bag (other luggage is free, no matter the weight). When going back from Siberut, you pay a fixed price per board bag (around 320.000IDR, they don’t weight the bags).  For Tuapejat and Sikakap I am not sure if it’s the same. Also, save the ticket, you will need it to collect your board bag when you arrive to your destination.

Mentawai Surf Tax

Once you land, you will have to pay the Mentawai surf tax. The idea behind the surf tax is that local communities don’t really benefit from all the surfers coming to Mentawais because the majority of surfers either come to foreign run land resorts or they arrive on boats. So this is quite reasonable. On the other hand it is unclear if this tax then really makes it to local communities. Talk to locals if you are interested and hear what they have to say. Anyway – the tax is 1.000.000IDR or around $70 for 14 days of surfing which is quite expensive by Indo standards. 14 days is the only option. You will get a receipt and a rubber hand band proving that you have paid it. Save the receipt. The hand band is more of a souvenir, you don’t have to wear it. If the officials ever come to check on you,  they arrive to places where surfers are staying. They never check you in the water. If they arrive, you will have to show them the receipt. But they arrive rarely as they “catch” all the surfers in the harbor. Also, if you are staying for more that 14 days, just pay for 14 days. No one will bother you after that.

Boat Rides in the Mentawai Islands (Surf Spots and Transfers)

OK, so you made it to Mentawais. Now what? It really depends on which part of Mentawais you have picked. Cheapest option is Tuapejat. If you landed in Tuapejat you can take a car from Tuapejat harbor to the North of the island and you will be surfing Telescopes in no time. There are also cheap places to stay there. If you landed in Siberut you will need to get a boat to take you to one of the smaller islands where the surf spots are. Boats are used for surf trips and transfers in Mentawais.

Inter island boats are expensive. Partly because gas is 4 times more expensive in the islands as it is in the mainland gas stations and partly because locals have set the prices and they keep them fixed. This is why it is always better to share the boat with a few other people than to go alone – price is always per boat. A few price examples for boat transfers in the northern Mentawai islands:

Siberut – island of your choice (usually Masokut): 1.500.000IDR one way

Then you have to pay the boat to take you to surf spots:

Masokut – Burgerworld: 1.500.000IDR

Masokut – Playground: 1.500.000IDR

Masokut – Nipussi: 800.000IDR (you can also walk)

etc…

Closer surf spots are cheaper, but never cheap.

If you have already booked a place to stay, then just tell the owner when you are arriving and he will wait for you and pick you up in Siberut harbor. If you are with a group of friends, you will share the boat cost. But if you are alone it’s a bit of a gamble. You can be lucky and some other people will be arriving on the same day so you will split the cost. You can also be unlucky and you will be alone and pay for the whole boat. You can also gamble and don’t order the boat to pick you up. In this case, you can try and join a boat from one of the other surf camps/homestays. There are people coming and leaving with every ferry. But, sometimes these boats are full or they don’t take people that don’t stay in their camp. It’s all the same to them as they get the same payment. It’s up to you how you decide. Also, transfer price might already be included in the price you are paying at the surf camp. More on that in the next chapter.

Where To Stay? Mentawai Cheap Accommodation (Local Surf Camps & Homestays)

One of the bays with lots of cheaper local accommodation in Mentawais

Accommodation prices in Mentawais range from 300.000IDR to $400 per day. Things that influence the price:

  • electricity (comes from power generators) – only in the evening (for light) / whole night (you can run the fan while sleeping) / day & night
  • air conditioning / fan
  • wifi (mostly there is no mobile phone signal in the islands, so you can not use your phone + Indo sim card for internet)
  • food & food quality
  • and maybe the biggest factor – boat transfers.

Expensive resorts have all that and more included in the price. Local owned and cheaper surf camps do not. The biggest difference in price are the boat rides. Camps & resorts that have boat rides included in the price will take you on two boat trips each day. One in the morning and then one after lunch. It does not matter how many people are there in the camp, even if you are alone and they are loosing money, they have to take you. If you stay in a camp where boat rides are not included in the price, you will have to pay for them every time you want to go surf off the island. If you are staying on an island that has surf spots within walking distance you can surf there most of the time and save a lot of money. Or you can join with other surfers to share the boat ride costs.

Considering all this, you can expect to pay:

  • 300.000-700.000IDR per day for a surf camp without boat trips and transfers
  • 800.000 – 1.400.000IDR per day for a surf camp with boat trips and transfers included
  • from around 1.400.000IDR up you can also expect air conditioning and then the level of comfort rises, there are resorts with private pools etc…

Where to find places to stay and cheap surf camps in Mentawai islands? It used to be word of mouth, sharing emails and phone numbers… but today even the cheaper local surf camps are almost always online. So use google, check Airbnb, Booking and Agoda. If you are willing to gamble a little bit with the boat ride, you can also make it to the islands without booking anything. You can walk from local to local and even bargain a bit, an you will probably get a better price than online.

Food and Cooking: Where To Eat?

One thing that you do NOT have to bring to Mentawais are coconuts :)!

Once you leave the last small Mentawai towns (like Tuapejat, Siberut…) your eating out options disappear. There are NO restaurants and NO shops* on the smaller islands where you will probably be staying. So the easy option is to go for full board package, when you book your place to stay. You will get 3 meals a day, food quality and volume depends on the surf camp. Above mentioned prices are all for full board accommodations.

If you want to go extra cheap, you can book a room without food. That will lower the above prices considerably. But this means buying and bringing all the food to the island. If you are friendly you can usually also give the locals your shopping list and money when they go shopping to the bigger island and they will bring you what you want. You will also have to use their kitchen. Check in advance if they are ok with that. After two or 3 surf session a day and with all the heat people usually prefer to have meals already included in the price.

*there are some tiny shops in a hut that sell cigarettes, chocolate, cookies and coffee (until they run out).

Dangers in Mentawai Islands

Palm tree jungle, watch out for coconuts.
  • The reef, obviously. Be very careful about infections and bring a broad spectrum antibiotic!
  • Malaria. No one I know takes anti malaria pills in the Mentawais. Malaria is very rare. But every now and then you hear about a malaria case.
  • Dengue fever. Avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. There are no mosquitoes on boats (a plus for boat trips) and there are not that many mosquitoes in places that are right on the beach. The deeper you go into the jungle more mozzies are there. All beds come with mosquito nets. Bring extra strong repelent.
  • Snakes. There are poisonous snakes in the sea and on land. Both are really shy, so probably you won’t see any during your trip.
  • Sun. You are almost on the equator and the sun is scorching hot, so take care. Wear sunscreen, zinc, hat…
  • Coconuts. Did you know that more people die of falling coconuts each year than… haha. But the danger is real. You will hear plenty of  “thumps” in the jungle when a coconut falls from the palm tree. And if it hits your head you are more or less gone. So never stand under coconut palm trees. There are millions of them everywhere.
  • No medical help. It depends on where you are, there are some doctors in various towns in Mentawai, but the closest hospital is in Padang. So take care.

What To Bring: Mentawai Surf Trip Packing Guide

Packing – Bring Dry Bags and a Waterproof Backpack!

It rains all the time in the Mentawais (even in the dry season). They say rain has babies in Mentawais. Boat transfers and boat trips also get very wet. Lots of surf camps also don’t have a pier for the boats to land. When you arrive to the island you will have to jump from the boat into the sea. If the swell is small you jump in knee high water. But if the swell is super huge you might have to swim from boat to shore. Crazy way to start your Mentawai surf adventure :)!. So the most important piece of advice here is to make sure you bring some dry bags! You will need them for all the boat trips and boat transfers. I suggest this three different sized dry bags pack. They will protect your towel, phone, camera, snacks, sun screen etc… during boat surf trips and you can stuff them with your expensive electronics when you are making transfers with all your luggage to and from the islands.

Make sure you take some dry bags to your Mentawai surf trip. These come with shoulder straps, the bigger one can act as a simple waterproof backpack.

To go even a step further, for the whole Mentawai surf trip I feel the safest if all my gear (clothes and electronics) are in a waterproof backpack. This part of Sumatra, Padang and Mentawai islands are notorious for rain showers and tropical rain storms. Combine that with the above mentioned boat rides and it is best if all your gear is stuffed in a waterproof backpack. I use the  DryTide 50l travel waterproof backpack that was designed with Indo trips in mind.

Pro tip: There is so much moisture in the air that even dry clean clothes with soon get humid and smelly even if they don’t leave your room. So I just leave them in a closed before mentioned backpack and they stay dry (locals use huge covered plastic boxes for instance). Watch your dirty clothes as well, dry them out and store them or get ready for mold.

This 50 liter backpack will hold all your gear during your trip. No need to move things into the dry bags when things get wet.

Surf Gear

  • Bring at least two boards, your regular shortboard and a step-up/back up board. You can not get boards on the islands, but you might find someone to fix a ding for you.
  • Bring your ding repair kit.
  • Have a spare for every piece of surf equipment that you need – spare fins, wax, leash (nothing is available on the islands).
  • Wax needs to be tropical or base wax (super hard), ocean is super warm.
  • If you go on boat trips then usually you don’t need booties (you enter/exit water from the boat). If you walk over reef from land then you might need them.
  • Bring lots of sunscreen and zinc. I get tanned easily and I start with SPF 50 and after a week with SPF 30.
  • Bring a surf hat and a lycra or an old t-shirt.
  • For shallow reefs, sun protection or rainy windy days a thin wetsuit top is also very useful. Water is super warm, but if it is cloudy and rainy it might feel good to put it on.

Medical

I am not a doctor, this is just some common sense advice that I have picked up during my surf trips:

  • Bring a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Even tiniest reef cuts or even mosquito bites that you scratch too much can get infected. If the cut is increasingly painful, and there is redness, and swelling in the affected area it’s probably infected. Deep cuts get infected even faster. So if you notice any of these and it’s getting worse, start taking antibiotics. Take the whole box. Get help if things don’t improve in a 2-3 days after you started with antibiotics. Don’t fuck around with infections.
  • Bring something to disinfect the wounds. Lime works fine right from the start when you get the cut and come from the water. But you will have to REGULARLY disinfect all the wounds that you have. They will probably not close until you stop surfing every day. So bring iodine, Chinese medicine (that brown sauce called Die Da Yao Jing) or pro surfers swear on this stuff.
  • Bring bandages, wound patches…and lots of them. Surfing twice a day will wash them all away two times a day :). I still haven’t found a really waterproof patches that would survive a 2h surf session.
  • Bring some paracetamol tablets and something for diarrhea.
  • Even though people don’t take anti malaria pills when on Mentawai islands it is a really good idea to bring them with you. Pills like “Malarone” are also used for malaria treatment in an unlikely event of getting sick. Read the instructions!
  • Have a really good travel health insurance that will cover your helicopter evacuation if you need it.
  • Build up your immune system and also your fitness before you go.

Other

  • Clothes, but you don’t need many. It’s warm day and night. Bring T-shirts, tank tops and board shorts. Wearing a clean t-shirt is impossible, you will sweat it up in no time. So there is no point in changing all the time. Bring a light and super waterproof rain jacket if you have it. Actually a plastic one works best. For mosquito protection people also wear really light long pants and long sleeves (morning and especially evening). Long sleeve is also useful when walking through the jungle during the day.
  • If you only have electricity in the evening/night bring a power bank. Also bring enough charging cables, chargers and power socket splitters to charge all your electronics at the same time.
  • Bring a book, Kindle, laptop or something. There is not much going on during surf sessions.
  • Diving fins and snorkel mask if you are into snorkeling or also a spear gun, there is plenty of fish.
  • Mosquito repelent, jungle version, 40% DEET or more.

A List of Mentawai Surf Resorts

While writing this guide it kind of turned from how to surf Mentawais on a budget into quite a comprehensive Mentawai surfing guide. So, to finish it off, here is a list of the more well known and popular Mentawai land surf resorts (the more expensive ones). There is by no means a complete list.

Northern Mentawai Surf Resorts and Camps

That’s it. A conclusion for spending as little as possible would be to go with a group of friends, so you can share your boat rides. At least 4 people, 6 would be ideal. Boat rides are the biggest variable when it comes to cost. Either way, I am sure it will be an adventure :).

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