Hiking Kawah Ijen

Kawah Ijen

Kawah Ijen is a large volcanic crater in the Ijen volcano complex on the Indonesian island of Java. Ijen was made famous when National Geographic shared images of the blue fire that burns constantly from a vent in the crater. Sulfur causes the intense blue flames that draw hundreds of people, mostly Indonesian, to visit every day. Visiting Kawah Ijen was one of the main reasons we chose to visit Indonesia, and since were already in Ubud on Bali, the volcano wasn’t far away.

Getting to Kawah Ijen from Bali is an easy enough proposition, with a few different options. A package tour is the easiest and most expensive way, with as little as 24 hours needed to get you from Denpasar/Ubud area to the crater, and back again. We found options from $145USD per person for two people or as low as $75 per person for 8+ people. We opted instead to get a public bus from Ubud to Gillamanuk, the harbor town that ferries people to Java. We caught a taxi to Ubung Bus Station where we bought a ticket to Banyuwangi, the town where most Ijen trips start from. To get the best deal on your bus ticket you’ll need to avoid the hordes of ticket salespeople that rush toward any taxi that pulls up, avoid the ticket sales offices around the buses, and get straight onto  a bus. From there you can negotiate the best price for your trip to Gillamanuk or Banyuwangi.

If you want to go to Ijen you eventually need to get to Banyuwangi, so if you find a bus that goes there they will include the ferry fee (60 cents or so) and the bus will take you all the way into Banyuwangi town, which is about 8km from the harbor. You can also get a cheaper bus to Gillamanuk, pay 7,500 rupiah for the ferry, and then grab the train or a taxi to town. We opted for an air conditioned “fast bus” and paid 100,000 rupiah each ($7.50), but probably could have done better as a ticket agent wouldn’t leave us to buy from the bus crew directly. Our bus ride took eight hours due to traffic jams and crashes, but it can take less than half that if you get lucky. We jumped off the bus in the middle of an intersection near the homestay we were going to.

After a long trip from Ubud to Banyuwangi we were happy to find our homestay and get some sleep. Banyuwangi is a sleepy town that sits in the shadow of Kawah Ijen, or more accurately the Ijen volcano complex. A taxi that we grabbed from the intersection dropped us off at Karang Asem Inn where the owner, Agus, greeted us and showed us to a room. We hadn’t booked a room or spoken with anyone in Banyuwangi to that point, but Agus seemed to know exactly why we were there and told us the rate for the room would be 100,000 rupiah ($7.50) per night for the two of us with breakfast, tea, and coffee included.

A hazy view of Ijen from the ferry as we made our way to Banyuwangi.

We headed to dinner at a shop next door that also served food, and talked with Agus about our options for heading to Kawah Ijen. The crater at the top of the Ijen chain of volcanoes became world famous when National Geographic shared pictures of the blue fire that constantly burns from a vent in the active volcano. The mountain is 2,241 meters tall, and the parking lot to access the crater is up a steep and windy road that takes about an hour to drive from Banyuwangi.

Sissy and I were the only tourists to be seen, and Agus told us that we would have to hire a private car and guide if we wanted to get right up to the blue fire. Normally we could group up with other travelers, but as there weren’t any around, we agreed to hire a taxi and any other travelers that came should join us to lower the cost. Online we had seen that packaged tours from Bali to Kawah Ijen and back would cost about $145 per person unless you had a large group, Agus was proposing we pay $95 for both of us which would include the necessary gas masks, flashlights (we had our own), the driver, a guide, and the entrance fees to the crater.

The next day we rented a motorbike and visited a nearby waterfall to swim around and cool off. Banyuwangi wasn’t as hot as Labuan Bajo had been, but it was still a bit warm for comfort in a small concrete room with a basic fan to keep cool. The first set of waterfalls was nice and we swam in the pool at the bottom for a while before we heard a loud thud a few meters from us. We looked over to see a monitor lizard laying on its back, having just fallen about 10 meters from high up on the waterfall.

The waterfall was very peaceful before the monitor lizard fell in!

We rushed out of the pool and watched the monitor climb back up the falls, this time being a bit more careful of its footing. A few hundred meters further we came to another waterfall, which was nice as well, and the walk through the jungle to get there was a highlight of the trip for us.

The monitor climbing up the waterfall again.

When we returned to Karang Asem we found another couple who was set to go to Ijen that night as well. Happy to have our price reduced, we found Agus to confirm that it would be the four of us leaving the homestay at midnight together to head up the volcano. He seemed reluctant to confirm that we’d be going together, and shortly a few more travelers came to the now full homestay as well. We had trouble getting anyone to tell us if we would all go together or what the final price would be, but were told not to worry and to head to sleep since we’d need to be ready to go before midnight.

At 11:30pm we were awake and ready to head up the mountain, but unfortunately the trip would not end up happening with all of us in one vehicle. It seemed as though the people running the show intended to split up the groups, charging more than necessary. After a good deal of arguing and a lot of unnecessary drama, we ended up agreeing to pay 500,000 rupiah ($37) for both Sissy and I to go to and from the crater and for the gas masks for the trip. Another couple intended to rent a motorbike for $4 and drive themselves the next night, skipping the gas masks as well, but we weren’t in the mood for an hour or longer motorbike ride in the middle of the night.

The road to the parking lot at the crater was well paved, but very steep and relatively narrow. We were happy to have chosen the taxi, even though it was about $33 more expensive than the motorbike. Once we reached the parking lot we were led into a room where we paid our 150,000 rupiah ($12) each since it was the weekend (100,000 on weekdays) and followed the other people nearby to the entrance gate.

Kawah Ijen
The entrance gate by day.

Guides didn’t seem to be necessary as long as you weren’t the first people up the mountain, as there were hundreds of other visitors going to the same place. As luck would have it, we did end up overtaking enough people (most were very out of shape and out of breath a hundred meters in) to be out in front without a guide, but luckily the trail was pretty straightforward and we had an offline GPS application that showed the trail as well.

The hike was only somewhat difficult due to how steep it was, but the trail was smooth and easy enough to walk on otherwise. Our headlamps were enough to get us through, but about an hour into the hike we came to parts of the trail that had a steep drop off on one side and the dim light from our headlamps ended up being barely enough to keep us on the path. In hindsight changing the batteries for the first time in half a year would’ve been smart, especially since we used them so often during that time, but we pulled through.

At the edge of the crater we hung a right and reached the lookout point quickly after. This was the only part of the trail where we really needed to use our GPS, since it would appear that going left would be the correct option. A sign and railing at the lookout point stated that tourists could not go down into the crater, however Agus and others told us beforehand that nobody worries about the sign and there is no enforcement. We could barely see a blue glow below us, so down we went to get a better look at the phenomenon we had come to see.

The path down into the crater was steep and very rough, prompting us to use our hands and scramble just a bit on the way down. If you’re reasonably fit and have done a bit of scrambling before, this part of the trail really isn’t that bad. As we descended we saw sulfur miners passing us with empty baskets on their shoulders, heading down to start a days work. The miners make somewhere around $7 per trip in and out of the crater, where they carry up to 80 kilos (176 pounds) of sulfur in baskets on their backs.

Kawah Ijen
One of the baskets the miners would carry out of the crater.

As we descended further we saw the blue fire getting closer and closer, and we ended up being the first people to reach the flames behind two locals that we had been hiking with. It was 3am and we were fully awake, partially from the two hour hike from the parking lot to the fire, and mostly because the blue flames were one of the most amazing things we had seen. Out of the jagged earth flames up to 5 meters high were roaring, an intense blue color unlike any fire we’d seen before.

Kawah Ijen
The flames burn an intense blue as they pour from the earth.

We weren’t sure how close we should or could get to the fire, but a local man was selling sulfur pieces as souvenirs and he guided us within a few meters of the flames. The smoke pouring out of the earth had forced us to put our gas masks on at the crater rim, and down here we were thankful to have them as they were absolutely necessary. Sissy had used a cloth face cover for as long as she could since it was more comfortable than the masks, but we had to switch as the smoke was choking us long before getting so close.

Kawah Ijen
The smoke was intense but the fire was too amazing to walk away from.

After 10 or 15 minutes near the hypnotic flames, the first tour group showed up. Their guide showed them a couple of ideal spots to take pictures that we had missed, so we quietly slipped into the group and joined in the fun. From time to time the smoke became so intense that we had to retreat from our spots since our eyes burned so badly and even the gas mask wasn’t enough to filter the noxious fumes.

Kawah Ijen
The tour group stopped at a few ideal spots to take pictures of the flames, so we joined.

Heading further past the flames we saw an old pipe that was left by the colonial Dutch who had worked on mining the sulfur as well. The pipes had yellow and orange hardened sulfur that had poured out of them, leaving permanent evidence of their previous use. We reached the crater lake edge within a few minutes of passing the flames and pipes, where another traveler dipped his hand into the highly acidic water. There were no immediate repercussions, however I still wouldn’t dip my foot in, much less go for a swim.

Kawah Ijen
The pipe was pouring thick gas from the earth into the air.

We spent nearly an hour admiring the incredible blue fire and checking out the lake, and now that it was 4am it was time to ascend back to the crater rim and take a 1km walk to a sunrise lookout point we had heard about. Getting out of the crater was much tougher than getting in, mainly because those hundreds of visitors we had seen in the parking lot were now filing down the extremely narrow path into the crater. The blue flames would be vanishing soon as they only show when it’s dark and sunrise is before 5am.

Kawah Ijen
Glancing back we saw visitors all around the flames and a few miners selling sulfur sculptures they had made.

After a struggle and a bit of shoving past descending Indonesian tourists (virtually everyone there seemed to be from the country) we finally worked our way around the crater rim and to the sunrise lookout. Our first glimpses of the crater as we walked along its edge caught us by surprise. We had seen tons of pictures of Kawah Ijen before, but they were all of the blue fire. The crater itself was gorgeous, with the lake being a light turquoise that took some of the purple color of the sky as the sun rose.

Kawah Ijen
The crater was much more beautiful than we had expected.

The sunrise itself was nice and colorful, but the crater kept our attention. We could see the throngs of visitors still streaming toward the sulfur vent, trying in vain to catch the blue fire. The rock around the crater looked more like Mordor from Lord of the Rings than anywhere we had seen before. A yellow color covered the area near the vent, as the sulfur had coated everything it could touch.

Kawah Ijen
Looking away from the crater and toward the sea was a nice sunrise.

Reluctantly we finally headed back toward the parking lot as clouds closed in on the crater and made it impossible to see much of anything anymore. The descent was quick and easy, and the majority of the time it took seemed to be locals wanting to take pictures with us – I suspected more with Sissy than with me until I moved out of one shot and had a disappointed boy ask why I didn’t want my picture taken with them as well. Trash on the volcano seemed to be an issue as much as in any developing nation, and just before we got to the parking lot we saw a class of children picking up trash and filling the bags each of them had. A few more groups were doing the same around the parking lot, which was amazing since they were being taught at a young age to respect their environment and clean up not only after themselves, but also after visitors to their homes.

Kawah Ijen
Our gas masks were more than simple props, they helped us endure the noxious smoke.

After all was said and done, our trip from Ubud, Bali to Kawah Ijen and back (well to Kuta Bali but close enough) had cost us $135 total for both of us including all of our food, two nights at Karang Asem (package tours do it in one night), taxis to Ubung Bus Terminal and from our final bus terminal back toward Kuta, entrance fees to Ijen, and the private taxi to and from the volcano. Had we gone with a motorbike and only spent one night we could have easily brought that under $100, but we were happy and comfortable the way we did it, and spent less than half of what we would have with a tour from Bali.

Karang Asem was a convenient place to stay since it is literally at the train station that takes you to and from the harbor where the ferry takes you to/from Bali. Agus did a good job despite the hiccup we experienced at ensuring we had options to get up to the blue fire and always kept us busy. He was happy to take us to a nearby coffee farm where luwak coffee is sold (the ethics of that are dubious but it’s something you may try the one time to say you have), he didn’t end up charging us for use of his motorbike, and was great with ensuring someone who spoke English was nearby enough that we didn’t have to struggle much. Banyuwangi is still adjusting to the recent influx of tourists, and Karang Asem Inn was a nice place that was still cheap like the non-tourist parts of the country (80 cents for mie goereng and $7.50 for a room for two) while being run by someone who understands what tourists needs are and ensures they’re met.

Kawah Ijen was one of those rare places that I had sky high expectations for and it met and surpassed all of them. If you’ve been wondering about if you should book a tour or do it on your own, it’s up to you but it’s easy and much cheaper to go it alone, and there’s really not a major benefit to pre-booking unless you’re short on time or don’t like the hassle of public transportation.

A couple of notes: if you are going to take a bus, make sure to get the ticket directly from someone who is physically standing on the bus or a member of the bus crew. This will bring your price down immensely. We were quoted 150,000 rupiah on an air conditioned bus from Banyuwangi to Denpasar by a “ticket salesman”, and ended up paying 60,000 for the same bus by speaking with a crew member on the bus. The offices around Ubung are just as bad, you need to skip them and head straight for the bus. The buses will generally include the ferry price between Java and Bali in the ticket, but it’s only 7,500 rupiah if you can only get from Bali to Gilimanuk, so don’t sweat it if you need to pay for the ferry on your own. Trips to Bromo can easily be set up from Banyuwangi as well, however we had other volcanic plans filling up our much too short month-long stay in Indonesia.

After late night hiking and stinking like sulfur, it was time for us to go relax on the beautiful Gili Air!

Gili Air
Two boat rides and a bus ride brought us to our next stop, Gili Air.