Hiking Kawah Ijen is a once in a lifetime opportunity
For may travelers, the draw of Kawah Ijen is it’s notoriously electric blue flames which are ignited by the sulfuric gas emerging from the cracks of the crater. Known by the locals as ‘Api Biru’, these brilliant flames rip out from inside the sulfur crater to heights of up to 5 meters. Indonesia is one of two places in the world you can see this magical 'blue fire'.
The Ijen volcano complex is located in Banyuwangi, East Java, closest to Bali. A 3km hike from the base to the top of the crater ridge, in pitch darkness. Follow that up with a 1km descent into the crater.
Depending on where you are staying you might need to leave your accommodations anywhere between 11pm - 1am. Prepare to start hiking around 2am in order to reach the inside of the crater by 3:30 or 4am.
The hike starts off quite tame, taking you up a trail, where you'll walk with other travelers and miners adorned with headlamps and flashlights. The trail then starts to become very steep, very quickly and you'll see people posted up on the side trying to catch their breath. It’s not so much a difficult hike but a strenuous one.
About 2km into the hike, toxic sulfur gases can begin to surround you so a gas mask is recommended as the smell gets stronger the closer you get to the ridge. Once you reach the ridge you will begin the descent into the crater. This is where the hike starts to get a bit tricky as you climb down loose gravel, boulders and natural rock staircases.
INSIDE THE CRATER
As you get closer to the bottom of the crater, you will begin to see faint blue shimmers in the darkness. Everyone is trying to get a shot of this amazing beauty, but you'll need a high quality camera and a tripod to get a solid photo.
Note: You are not guaranteed to see Api Biru. Sometimes the wind is so slight that the entire belly of the crater is filled with sulfur gas making it nearly impossible to see the blue flames.
Once in the gut of Kawah Ijen, as you walk closer to the flames, you become immersed in the billowing clouds of sulfuric gasses. This is when you'll be really happy to have that gas mask.
Unless you are visiting Ijen in July, we advise you to stay within the crater and watch the light change as the sun slowly rises in the east behind the much larger Ijen volcano. You can only see the sun actually rise in the month of July due to subtle shifts in the sun's position. Some choose to hike up anyway, but we found staying inside the crater was well worth it.
As the light of the sun fills your surroundings, and the walls of the crater come into sight, the feeling is otherworldly. The bright yellow sulfur rocks slowly emerge and the color pops against the dusty white hue of the crater rocks. As the sun continues to rise and the winds shift, you begin to see the opaque milky turquoise of the giant crater lake.
We felt we could have spent hours down there taking in all the colors and impressive views of the crater. This is a reason it's good to go on your own, so as not to be on someone else’s schedule and to be able to make the climb back up when you feel ready.
There are local miners working the mines at night and through dawn so it's best to stay out of their way. Each miner makes 3-4 trips per shift carrying anywhere from 70-100 kilos (150-225lbs) of sulfur rock per load. They carry the loads 1km up steep and strenuous terrain to the ridge of the crater where they exchange the shoulder baskets for trolleys. Then they walk the sulfur filled trolleys down 3km to the base where it is piled up for sale. The worst part, they are paid about $1,000Rp ($0.07 USD) per kilo. Very few men are given gas masks, while others wear wet scarves to cover their mouths to protect themselves from the gas that can singe your throat, lungs and eyes and can even dissolve your teeth.
If you would like a photo of a miner, consider paying them between $10,000-20,000Rp as the work they do deserves a lot more then the minimal wages they receive to support their families.
On your way back down, it is hard to believe that you had previously hiked such extreme terrain, with 100m cliffs falling off the sides of the paths you were once navigating in complete darkness. For your reward, 180° views of the Ijen volcano complex spanning across East Java.
This was by far the most memorable hike we had ever been on, far exceeding our expectations. Well worth the 14 hour train ride it took us to get here from Jogja. If you can do one hike during your trip to Indonesia, make this the one.
DO I NEED A GUIDE?
You do not need a guide to hike Kawah Ijen. If you are happy to arrange your own transport to and from the base, it's possible to climb on your own.
We opted to have a guide as it was included in the rate of our guesthouse and we were traveling as a group of five. Our guide, Danny, provided flashlights and gas masks for each of us, transport to and from Kawah Ijen and breakfast upon arriving back to the guesthouse.
WHAT TO BRING
- Headlamp or flashlight - necessary for the hike up to the ridge and down to the crater.
- Gas mask - we saw lots of people who didn’t have this, but personally we would recommend. If you cannot find one, a surgical mask will certainly help, but we would recommend also bringing a handkerchief and some water to wet it with in case the smoke is particularly bad that day.
- Sunglasses - although we didn’t experience it, we heard the smoke can singe your eyes, so come prepared.
- Proper footwear - you don’t need hiking boots, but you might want something with a bit of tread for the trek down into the crater which can be a little slippery at times.
- Layers - the hike starts out quite cold, so you will want to have layers you can add and remove as you are hiking. A long sleeve shirt and a light jacket will do the trick.
WHERE TO STAY
We chose to stay close to Kawah Ijen to avoid waking up unnecessarily early. Many of the accommodations can be one to two hours away. We chose to stay at Kawah Ijen Guesthouse located here, within 30 minutes of Kawah Ijen base.
Note: If you happen to arrive a day early, or need a day before you hike Ijen, this guesthouse offers a day tour of the rice fields, rubber plantations and a set of three waterfalls.
For more information about Kawah Ijen Guesthouse please visit their website.
MORE PHOTOS OF OUR TRIP TO KAWAH IJEN