Kawah Ijen's Epic Sunrise But Slightly Disappointing Blue Flames
Only two days after we were in Cemoro Lawang where we walked across the Sea of Sand to hear Mount Bromo’s roar and the next day hiked up a mountain for an hour in the dark to watch the sunrise over Bromo and his brothers…
Our next big adventure would be a guided tour to Mount Ijen in Banyuwangi, in the East of Java. The tour included transport to the volcano, gas masks, torches and a guide to hike up to the rim and down into the crater. I was a bit nervous because we payed so much money but we didn’t know what we were getting into.
Well, I have a lot of mixed feelings about our trip to the Ijen volcano...
What we were expecting
The expectation was to be guided up the volcano and then into the crater where we would see the iconic electric blue flames glowing. There’s also a beautiful green lake, recognized as the largest acid lake in the world, corrosive enough to dissolve metal. Then, right before the sun went up, walk back up to the rim for a stunning sunrise over the volcano. Sounds incredible, right?!
How we got there
We booked the tour with our guesthouse (Sritanjung Homestay) where we were told it was just us and 3 more people from the guesthouse but of course we expected a lot more people from other tour companies to be at the volcano. We bought some snacks and water from the local shop and packed it in our backpack for the trip, along with toilet paper and our wind-breaker jackets. We could’ve taken our headlights as well but they provided torches.
The tour included entry to the park, a jeep ride to the site, gas masks, torches and a guide.
So the 5 of us left at 3am next day in a jeep and shortly after we left we discovered there was another jeep joining us, making us a group of 10... great. We drove through a dark forest on a curvy, road and I’m pretty sure we were going over the speed limit. All this with a driver that was falling asleep the whole time. I guess he had to follow the common theme of Indonesian drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Ugh, think about taking a train in Indonesia. As always, only Joris and I noticed and we tried to keep him awake. He almost missed a curve at one point.
After what seemed like eternity we finally arrived at the site. Ugh... you know what? At this time, I lost all hope of this being a fun excursion like the awesome safari in India. All we saw under the light of the moon was minivans, jeeps and cars parked all over the place, not to mention the hundreds of people covering every corner.
We had a quick breakfast and were then given our gas masks and torches. I should’ve checked my gas mask...
The very steep hike up the Ijen volcano
The first part of the excursion was hiking up a very steep, curvy road. And when I say steep I mean steep. A large group of people had already left and we also joined a crowd of at least a hundred people. We felt like cattle. It was such an uncomfortable walk. There was nothing charming, nothing peaceful or magical about it like the hike to Bromo...
Oh, and at this point something else became clear to us... there was no need for a guide! The path was a man made road and led directly to the volcano. Are you thinking: “Well, maybe you need a guide to take you down the Ijen volcano crater?” Not really guys. The massive line of people going down the crater is so long that you can't go off the trail, just use some common sense and you’ll get there.
So first, let’s talk about our way up the mountain. Of course everyone walks at a different speed, so our group split up. Two young guys left the group early and sprinted up the mountain. Joris would’ve too but I can’t keep up, so at our own pace we made our way and eventually even managed to pass the masses.
Like I said, I’m not a very fast hiker and I suck at walking up steep roads. Nevertheless, I’ve learned a trick. The key is to walk slowly and at a constant speed, just pick a speed you can handle and when you can’t keep going, stop but for less than a minute. This way your muscles won’t get cold and and your heart rate won’t slow down too much, making it easier to resume walking. Trust me, it’s better to stop more times for a shorter amount of time, than pushing too hard and then having to stop for longer.
The hike up the mountain was annoying as hell. It was too crowded. We saw so many people on the way that had pushed themselves to hard and had to stop on the side of the road, sick and throwing up. A bunch of the locals were smoking their stinky cigarettes and selling rides on a modified wheelbarrow. I couldn’t believe it but people actually lied down on those things and let themselves be dangerously wheeled up and down the mountain *facepalm*.
Another annoying thing was that we were forced to stop a few times on the way to regroup with our useless guide. On the last stop, we were waiting too long and we had enough of it! With so many people in front of us and the clock ticking, we still had to go down the crater and up again and we didn’t want to risk missing the sunrise from the rim. Our group was incomplete anyways. We kept going leaving the group and guide behind.
If I remember correctly, it took us nearly 1.5 hours to hike up the crazy steep mountain. And I mean, we climbed volcanoes before so…
Still in the dark, the next step was to find the path down the volcano’s crater to see Ijen’s electric blue flames. Like I said, the path was marked by an incredibly long line of people so it was easy to find. There were just a few ‘little’ problems…
Gas mask or no gas mask to go down Ijen's crater
Earlier in the story I said I should’ve checked my gas mask. It turned out to be a terrible mistake not to. Even before we reached the volcano, the sulphuric gas entered our lungs and started burning our eyes but it was bearable; later, when it was time to go down the crater though, the sulphur smell intensified and made our eyes tear and our lungs burn. It was time to use the mask but the filters were damaged and I could barely breathe.
It was a recipe for disaster... No mask meant breathing the dust and sulfuric gas but wearing the mask barely let me breathe at all. Everything was even worse when I got a runny nose.
Going down the crater was a total nightmare for me; holding my gas mask with one hand so I could switch between on and off and the torch in the other hand.
The trail down into Ijen's crater
The path was only a pile of rocks, some of which didn’t look very stable. I thought it was pretty scary in the dark. But worst of all, because there where so many people stirring up the place, the volcanic dust was everywhere.
There were in fact so many people, that the scary path actually became dangerous sometimes. Step by step we made our way down hopeful at least to be amazed by the beautiful electric blue flames we had heard so much about.
The blue flames of Ijen
The famous flames can only be seen at night and that’s why everyone goes there at the same time. The characteristic blue glow comes from the combustion of sulfuric gases that come out of the cracks of the volcano.
And so you can imagine, the expectations were high and when we finally got down there... “Where is it? Wait, is that...? What!? Are you kidding me...?”. I think I almost died of disappointment.
So this is what we saw: a faint blue light. Ok, there was a lot of smoke that day covering up the blue glow but still...
On top of that, we heard some locals talking about how the miners in the area often throw sulfur in the the crater to feed the flames and make them grow bigger and brighter as a way to attract more tourists.
The miners are people from nearby villages that work during the night to avoid the heat of the day. They’re constantly climbing up and down the crater carrying the unusual big chunks of yellow sulfur on their shoulders. It’s a dangerous job they do. Not only because they have to juggle through a bunch of tourists with a heavy load on the slippery rocks but because they breathe the sulfur acid constantly. We didn’t see any of them wearing a gas mask and most had only a piece of cloth around their noses and mouths. The carry up to 150 pounds on their shoulders!
They also sell carved sulfur pieces to tourists and they will pose for a picture in exchange of money.
Being at the bottom of the crater all I wanted was to go back up. We didn’t go further in because we it wasn’t worth it. Instead we decided to go back soon so we would have enough time to pick a good spot on the rim for sunrise.
Halfway after we started the climb, we saw our useless guide coming down with the rest of the group and when he saw us and the 2 German boys, he was quick to yell at us. “You no matter! You no part of group anymore! I don’t care about you! Go away!” Wow, apparently the guy got mad because we didn’t wait with the rest of the group. What would’ve been the point to wait, I wonder. Anyway, we tried to explain we didn’t want to miss the sunrise and that because there where so many people we were afraid we wouldn't make it on time. It was no use, he kept yelling so we yelled back “We don’t care either!”, then ignored him and kept going.
The task of hiking up those rocks, in opposite direction of hundreds of people still coming down, was a difficult one. Adding the fact that I was choking with or without the gas mask and you'll get the picture. Joris offered his but at this time my nose was so runny, I couldn’t keep it on anyway. Both of our masks were drenched in sweat... The air was cold. We were coughing because of the dust. I was exhausted and feeling sick.
We probably took 3 times longer to climb up. The trail was jammed with people going up and down and some even just standing there clogging up everything.
Little by little we literally squeezed through and this path became the longest most difficult thing I’ve ever had to conquer. For me, it was the ultimate ordeal...
We made it to the top, sweating, coughing and panting but so grateful to breath the fresh mountain air and being away from the chaos.
The sun didn’t take long to make its appearance. After half an hour, the light allowed us to see the mountains in the distance. The landscape came alive; first covered in mist and then pink, orange and purple clouds. We could also see the acid green lake at the bottom of the crater. It was all like a beautiful dream.
With the light, we were able to appreciate how vast the rim of the volcano was. Some people had stayed down in the crater or where still trying to come up. Even so, the amount of people around us was unbelievable but at least we didn’t feel trapped as there was plenty of space for everyone to find a good spot.
I suppose it was redemption.
The end of a great Mount Ijen adventure
And so we ended a long night with some peace of mind and beautiful sights and then headed back the long road down the mountain. We couldn’t believe that we had walked all that earlier. Insane. Again, we saw a few tourists going down on those weird wheelbarrow thingies pushed by a local. They were looking very scared by the way, because going downhill in one of those was like riding a rollercoaster that could end up in flying off the cliff. Oh dear!
After reaching the bottom and having some snacks, back we went with our sleepy driver. The end of our journey happened with no more incidents and we where happy to be back at our guesthouse to relax and talk about the trip.
So, would you still go to Ijen? Hah!
Actually, if you like to walk and hike and are ready for a good adventure, I would totally recommend this. The views are epic at sunrise and the blue flames are, all and all, a cool sight to behold. Just don't take a tour to visit Ijen and it's crater!
How to go to the Ijen Volcano crater and more practical information
Book a tour and guide or not?
Well, it's not difficult to find a tour. Hundreds of people visit the Ijen crater each day and most of them book a tour. Now, to find a good one might be difficult and honestly, now that we've done the tour to Ijen, we wouldn't recommend it. The biggest problem is that you're going to end up in a crowd of people all trying to hike up like cattle... If you do want to take a tour, don't pay more than 150,000 rupiah per person and just ask the guesthouse or hotel where you're staying.
Visit the Ijen crater without a tour
Just go by yourself! The hike is super easy and you'll enjoy it a lot more. As for the hike down in the crater; yes, you have to be careful! It's not super dangerous but especially when there's a lot of people and in the dark you have to watch out where you step because it's a rocky trail down.
So, in our opinion the best way to visit the Ijen volcano and crater is to just rent a driver to bring you there whenever you want. He'll wait while you do the hike and take you back when you're done. You don't need a guide if you use your common sense!
What you do need is a gas mask. You can rent one where you'll start the hike but it's cheaper to rent one at the Tourist Information Center in Banyuwangi for example. And don't forget a torch! You should be able to get all of this for around 500,000 to 600,000 rupiah. This time we think it's definitely worth to pay this amount of money but... there's another option:
Visit Ijen by motorcycle or scooter
Well, if you're comfortable on a motorcycle or scooter and riding in the dark then do it. Definitely! The road to Ijen is not too difficult and it will save you a lot of money. Not to mention the freedom you'll have. Every time we rent a scooter we use Maps.me to navigate and it has never ever let us down because it doesn't need mobile internet!
Should you go see the blue flames?
Honestly, we think it’s not worth all the hassle. The flames are not that spectacular and you might miss the amazing sunrise on the crater’s rim if there are a lot of people going down the crater. If we would visit the Ijen volcano again, we'd just go for the sunrise and then afterwards go down to explore the crater and watch the sulphur miners. The blue flames are just a thing to attract tourists but it's not what the Ijen crater is all about…