Mount Ijen is just one of almost 150 volcanoes that span the archipelago of Indonesia. Volcano hiking is among the most popular activities for tourists who visit the islands (including me) – and Kawah Ijen is no exception.
FYI – Kawah means crater, Gunung means mountain!
The intriguing thing about the Ijen volcano is its night time shenanigans – if you visit in the wee hours of the morning, you get to witness bright blue flames shooting from vents in the rock, which is just as mind boggling as it sounds. It’s to do with the magic of chemistry: high volumes of sulphur are constantly being expelled from the volcano, and this combusts in the air at high temperatures, causing that pretty (but deadly) blue fire, and what looks like blue lava too.
Ijen’s sulphur is a big business as well: it’s not just tourists that you’ll meet down at the crater. Sulphur mining is a huge industry for the people who live around the Ijen crater, and you’ll come across plenty of workers hacking away and lugging it back up to the crater rim. They carry the stuff up in bamboo baskets of unbelievable weight – about 60 kilograms a pop.
I can only sympathise: it must be a real pain to have to cart it past a whole hoard of gaping tourists.
But you can help them out, too – many of the miners sell sulphur creations as a side-gig: hand carved ornaments in the shape of turtles and flowers and even miniature bamboo baskets.
I bought a little turtle off a friendly miner who shared the hike up with us. It spent several weeks stinking out my bag before I left it in a hostel in Yogyakarta.
Lots of people take a tour to conquer Mount Ijen – often in combination with Java’s other popular volcano, Mount Bromo – but it is quite possible to do without a guide or a tour, and we did just that. If you want to save a bit of cash, and have a bit of an adventure, then I would wholeheartedly recommend you do the same.
Read on for how to hike kawah Ijen independently!
Mount Ijen is usually accessed from the small town of Banyuwangi, which is about half an hour from Katapang ferry port, and has plenty of good train links.
There are actually several options for getting to Banyuwangi from Bali.
Option 1: Combined ticket, including the bus to Gilimanuk, the ferry across to Java, and the bus to the station on the other side in Ketapang. Then get a Grab/Gojek/Uber to wherever you’re staying in Banyuwangi.
For this option you will probably have to get to Mengwi, rather than going from Denpasar bus terminal – at least, we couldn’t find a way of getting a combination ticket from Denpasar. The people in the bus terminal in Denpasar told us that this was the ‘new route’.
Still, Mengwi is convenient enough if you are going from somewhere like Canggu, Kuta, Legian, Seminyak etc.
Costs: 85k for combined ticket from Mengwi to Ketapang bus terminal, about 28k for the Grab to our homestay in Banyuwangi. The bus from Denpasar Ubung to Mengwi cost 8k, in case you start from Denpasar!
Option 2: Separate tickets for each leg of the journey: a bus to Gilimanuk, a ferry from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, then a Grab/Gojek/Uber to wherever you’re staying in Banyuwangi.
Costs: 50k from Denpasar to Gilimanuk, about 15k for the ferry, around 30k for the Grab to your homestay.
Banyuwangi has pretty good train links and it’s not a massive town, so the best option is to get a train to one of its stations and then stay in one of the myriad homestays that have sensibly been set up directly opposite. This will also probably make your departure a lot easier (unless you’re Bali-bound, in which case it doesn’t make much difference anyway).
We stayed at a homestay just opposite Karangasem train station, and there were plenty of places to rent scooters from around there.
Costs: from Probolinggo economy class is 27k, and executive class is 120k (and FYI economy class is more than comfortable).
Preparing for the journey
- Rent a scooter. Scooters are the best way to get up to the crater if you’re travelling independently, and pretty much the only way if you want to go early enough to see the blue fire. We paid 75k per scooter – in general, scooters tend to cost more in Java than in Bali.
- Hire a gas mask (if you want to go down into the crater). The fumes down in the crater are pretty heavy going, and it is much nicer if you don’t have to inhale them. Also less dangerous. Our masks were included in the price of renting scooters.
- Wrap up warm. Even if you don’t think you’ll get cold at the top of the volcano, I promise that the scooter ride will be chilly. I’d highly recommend wearing gloves and a jumper, and probably a wind jacket as well.
- Consider downloading an offline map like MapsMe of the area – just in case you get lost. You can also use Google Maps easily enough, but you might get out of signal range at certain points in the journey.
- Make sure you have reasonable shoes (good grip is important, especially for going down into the crater!), and a torch or headlight. There are headlights for sale at the park entrance though, so don’t worry too much if you don’t have one.
- Set an alarm. Or 10. For 11.45pm, no joke – allow more time than you think you need for the journey!
Making the journey up to Kawah Ijen
So you’ve done all the prep, now all that’s left is the journey itself.
Here’s how you do it:
Driving to Ijen car park
- Aim to set off by about 12, even though it’s not all that far. You don’t know the roads, and it’s dark, and the earlier you get there the more you will avoid the tourist masses. The journey will take around an hour and a half, but of course this varies depending on where you are staying and how slow you drive. And whether you get lost…
- From Banyuwangi, Kawah Ijen is signposted fairly well to start with, so follow the signs. Once you get inland a bit more, it’s pretty much all one road. There will also be other vehicles heading to the same place as you, so you can always follow them, or ask someone (you’d be surprised how many people you see around the roads at 1am).
- It’s a pretty steep road once you near the volcano, so be prepared for that!
- Way before google maps says you are anywhere near, you’ll reach the car park. Here you’ll be able to park your scooter (alongside loads of others), and get your entrance ticket from the office (150,000 rupiah).
Walking up to the crater rim
- There will be plenty of people offering you a guide service – and possibly telling you that you absolutely need a guide – but you can just politely decline, and start walking. If you can’t figure out where the start of the path is (its fairly obvious, but it could happen), then just ask one of the guys fencing woolly hats, and they’ll be able to point you right.
- The walk up to the crater rim takes around an hour, and is reasonably easy if you are fairly fit. (At least, we found it easy given that the last volcano we hiked was Mount Rinjani).
Heading down to see Ijen’s blue fire
- Once you arrive to the crater rim, there will probably be a bunch of people hanging around the start of the path down into the crater. Again, you might get people telling you that you need a guide to go down with, but generally nobody is too pushy. The path slopes down to the left, and is fairly steep but very easy to follow. Just make sure to watch out for and give way to the miners trudging up the path.
- Be VERY careful going down. It really can be pretty hazardous: in places it’s sand covering loose rock.
- You will probably want to don your mask by about half way down. The smell is apparent even from the top at times, but it starts to really stick in your throat when you near the bottom.
- There are people going right up close to the flames at the bottom, but it’s up to you how close you feel comfortable with going. Be warned, though: if the wind changes and blows the sulphurous smoke in your direction, it is really very unpleasant.
- Once you’ve had your fill of staring into blue flicker flames (and grimacing at the eggy fumes), you can head back up.
Seeing the sunrise on Mount Ijen
- Now you can walk round the crater rim for the sunrise. Carry on round the path you came up on, and you can walk round to the other side for the best view. You have to wander into the bushes a bit, but don’t be alarmed – you are going the right way.
- There is an unfortunate mountain that blocks out most of the sunrise (unless we were just standing in the wrong place, but I’m pretty sure we weren’t), so it’s more of a question of being there for the sky to get all pretty than actually seeing the sun rise. Still good though.
- The view of the crater is best from this side, anyway, so don’t forget to take a few pictures once the sun is up!
A note on getting back to Banyuwangi
As you may have noticed, the roads from Banyuwangi to Ijen volcano are pretty steep. On the way there, you were probably so excited by the thought of those beautiful flickering blue flames that you didn’t think about what the way back was going to be like.
Well let me tell you, it’s a bit tricky. This is where you will put your scooter to the test, and pray that you got a good’un.
OK, I’m exaggerating a bit but it is a hectic downhill adventure. Make good use of those brakes, and think about stopping to give the bike a rest now and then. And get some caffeine in your system if you can – that 11.45 wake up will start to really hit once you head back into the city. Tiredness kills… or something.
I would definitely recommend sleeping a bit once you arrive back to your homestay if you want to retain normal function for the next couple of days.
On the other hand, we boarded a train to Probolinggo at 9am (en route to Mount Bromo), so that’s a possibility too. At least the train was a comfy place to nap.
Hopefully this has been helpful to anyone wanting to make the journey to Mount Ijen without shelling out for a tour. As always, comment if you have any questions!