Okay, so I know the title can be seen as subjective, but having been all over Indonesia I’m comfortable saying that Ijen is the best volcano in Indonesia. Known as Kawah Ijen in Indonesian, this volcano is located in the southernmost tip of Java. The thing that makes this place extremely unique is that it is actually an active sulfur mine. That’s right, there are around 200 people every day hard at work extracting the solidified sulfur from within the crust.
The closest city to Ijen is called Banyuwangi, and it’s where many people begin their journey. Whether you are planning on staying in the city for a few days, or just one overnight, chances are you’ll be here for at least a short while. From Banyuwangi it is just an hours drive to the base of the trail.
To fully experience Ijen you can’t just drive up at any time. No, you really have to plan on arriving at the base around 1-2am. This is because one of the coolest phenomena in nature can only be seen at night. That is, the famous blue flames of Kawah Ijen. As this is a sulfur volcano there is constantly sulfur gas escaping through pressure pockets inside of the caldera. So what do you need to do? That’s right…hike down INTO the crater to see the blue fire.
Remember, you are doing all this hiking in the middle of the night. Luckily you can rent gas masks, head lamps, goggles, and gloves at the base for fairly decent prices. Or you can get all that stuff included in a tour package.
I highly recommend doing a tour because unless you plan on taking your scooter up in the middle of the night, it is a lot cheaper than hiring a taxi or private driver. We only had 5 other people in our minivan so it was quite a comfortable excursion.
You can find many tours online, but they can be quite expensive. The best bet we’ve found is to just make your way to Banyuwangi and find a tour operator. As Ijen is a huge part of their economy you won’t have any trouble finding people offering rides to and from the base.
We got our tour through the owner of our guesthouse (shoutout to Mango Tree Guest Houses, it was an awesome place to base ourselves for about 3 hours of sleep). The total price, including entrance to the Volcano, was Rp.325,000. Normally it is Rp.250,000 but as we went on Christmas Eve the volcano had holiday/weekend pricing so it was a bit more expensive.
Our tour included everything we could ask for; Breakfast, gloves, goggles, gas mask, entrance fee, round trip driver, water/coffee/tea, headlamp, and a guide up and down the mountain. You don’t actually need a guide as following the trail is quite easy, but we were happy to have one. Our guide called himself Yuri and he is an ex-miner of 7 years. Talking to him was a great way to learn all about the mining industry and the Ijen Volcano itself.
From the parking lot at the base of the trail, there are a few restaurants and supply shops to get food and gear if you don’t have your own. You don’t NEED a gas mask, headlamp, or gloves, but I highly recommend getting it as we found them to be quite useful in dealing with the sulfuric gasses within the crater.
Fortunately the trail up the mountain is wide and well laid out so you won’t have to worry about getting lost. Plus you’ll be hiking with other people so it’s quite easy to just follow the group. If you don’t stop for breaks you can make it up to the crater’s edge in around one and a half hours. If you take it easy plan for about two hours.
The trail to the top can get quite steep at parts, to the point where both Cody and myself were actually feeling it, so I would not recommend this hike for people who are not in decent shape. Make sure to bring a bottle of water as well. If you don’t need it for the hike, you will want some to moisten your mouth after breathing in the sulfur fumes.
If you do get too tired to finish the hike up to the top yourself, there are locals with pushcarts you can pay to take you up the rest of the way. To me, I mean, what’s the point. But I did see some large folks give up halfway and pay the $50 or so to be carried the rest of the way.
After about an hour of hiking the trail levels out to a shallower gradient so the walk gets more relaxed. It’s still a workout but it’s not an hour of constant lunges.
When you reach the top you’ll notice that the edge of the crater has a fence around it. Of course, they do not want you falling in (and it is a steep drop) so make sure to only start your climb down in the designated spot.
At the craters edge is where you’ll want to put on your gas mask since the fumes can get really strong, especially if the wind blows them right into your face.
Hiking down is a lot less tiring, but it is much more dangerous. The trail here is basically rocks, and you really have to watch your step as you descend. This is where you’ll really want a headlamp since one false step and you’ll go tumbling down.
The hike down takes about 45 minutes to an hour. As you are coming down you’ll see the miners going up and down as well. As they are working make sure to give them space to pass. You’ll even see them carrying baskets of solidified sulfur out of the caldera from the mine inside. These miners are carrying 75-90 kilograms on their shoulders each trip. Many of them will gladly pose for pictures, just make sure to tip them Rp.10,000 ($0.75) or so since they are working really hard for very little money.
The blue flames of the Ijen Volcano are what make this volcano so special. According to National Geographic, the fires in the Ijen crater make up the largest blue flame area in the world. It occurs when the liquid sulfur and gas is ignited. The flames can reach 5 meters in height. This place would be any night photographers dream as the electric blue color of the fires looks magical with a long exposure. Unfortunately for us, we went on a pretty windless night, so there was a lot of smoke from the sulfur vents that made long exposures kind of hard.
Remember that you can only see the blue flames when it is completely dark outside, so if you start your trip to Ijen too late, you will miss out. You can take breaks during the hike, but take too many or too long, and you’ll regretfully miss the phenomenon.
This part you are not allowed to enter as it is for workers only, but you can see all the pipes they use to collect the solid sulfur. At various places in the crater you will see ceramic pipes. These are plugged into vents along the rock face which trap and condense the sulfur gas. As it cools it becomes red and molten while it descends out of the pipes and into an open area. The miners then take the cooled solid sulfur (now yellow in color) in broken up chunks out of the crater on their backs.
This was one of the coolest parts of Kawah Ijen because it looked like something out of Star Trek. Along part of the edge of the crater are some really gnarled trees…some even hanging over the edge.
I don’t know for certain that they are dead (maybe it is just how this tree species looks) but they really look ancient and petrified. This is also one of the best spots at the volcano to take pictures of the neon blue-green lake. If there is a lot of smoke then lake will look more blue, but once the smoke clears and the sun hits the surface it looks entirely mint green!
The dead tree forest is also a great place to take some cool Instagram pictures if you want to play into that adventurous other worldly feel.
So now to the part that gives Ijen it’s claim to fame (in the daytime that is). The fantastically neon acid lake. This lake is about 2 km in diameter and is the most acidic large lake in the world. In fact on a pH scale the center of the lake reads 0.13. All this is to say, as refreshing as a jump in the lake looks, you will die. So best to admire from afar.
Now, not every visitor to Kawah Ijen gets to see the true vibrance of this lake. It really depends on the winds being in your favor. The entire crater an be full of smoke, and it was for us, so you really have to hope for a gust of wind to give you a good view. We waited at the edge for over an hour before getting a full five minutes to admire the waters below.
If you are with a tour group chances are you have to follow their schedule and leave when they say it is time to go. However, if you took a private driver or rode your scooter up, I recommend staying as long as you can until you see the lake as it is truly magnificent. Plus who knows, you could get lucky and the lake will be visible right as soon as you get to the top.
Unsurprisingly coming down from the mountain is a lot less tiring that hiking up, however it can do a number on your knees. I was still shaking when we reached the bottom and it felt like I had just gotten of a boat on rough seas.
As you hiked up in darkness, now is your chance to see the actual greenery that goes all up the sides of Kawah Ijen. Not to mention a great view of some other volcanoes that are part of the Kawah Ijen caldera. Just looking at them made me tired of another hike.
Entrance Price: weekday – Rp 100,000; weekend – Rp 150,000
Hiking Time: ~6 hours (2 up, 2 down and up the crater, 1 around the edge, 1 down)
Best Time To Go: Aim to arrive at the base around 12am-1am
What To Bring: Camera (plus tripod if you want to do long exposure), Phones, Gas Masks, Headlamps, Goggles, Sweater (it can get cold at the top). If you don’t have some of the things, they can be given as part of your tour, or rented at the base.
Recommended Clothing: It is a mountain so it can get cold at the top. I hiked it in jeans and a windbreaker, Cody had khakis and a t-shirt, but we both had sweaters for watching the sunrise at the craters edge. Also, sneakers.