It had happened almost by accident. I hardly ever watch TV but carelessly zapping around on that dark and grey Sunday afternoon, between cheesy television films and the guy with his way too white teeth selling the latest Ab King Pro on the shopping channel, suddenly something caught my eye. Kawah Ijen. It looked so surreal my finger automatically stopped hitting the forward button. The bright yellow of the sulphur, the blue fire lighting up the pitch black night and the almost blinding green of the acid lake popping out of a landscape of nothing but rocks. Tens of thousands of rocks, randomly leading up to the top of the crater.
Then I saw the people. And the despair in their eyes. The miners working in the heart of the crater with hardly any form of protection. Breathing in the toxic gasses every single day. Carrying up baskets with more than 70 kg of sulphur on their bare shoulders. Risking their lives. For 14 euros a day…
I’m not a bucket list kind of girl. I don’t want to impose myself a list of “40 things to do before I’m 40” or turn my life into a contest to visit as many countries as possible before my first wrinkle appears. We all change, our hopes and expectations evolve and I believe that living for the moment is far more rewarding than ticking off items off a list you pinned to your fridge 7 years ago. But the images of Kawah Ijen whirled around in my head for
days weeks, and for the first time in my life I think I had an actual “things-to-do-before-I-die-list”.
A few months later, what started as a search for a short trip to somewhere in Europe ‘accidentally’ turned into a 3 weeks’ trip to Indonesia – € 360 for a return ticket from Belgium, need I say more?!? – and 2 seconds after clicking “book”, I was searching for the best way to visit Kawah Ijen.
A FULL PRACTICAL GUIDE
Kawah Ijen is slightly off the beaten path and many people seem to skip it because they have insufficient or incorrect information. I think nobody should skip this amazing place, so let me give you all the practical information you’ll need to plan your visit and show you lots of pictures to convince you to go, too!
Full guide means long guide, so here are the different chapters to make it easier for you to navigate. Click on each link to go straight to that part!
- Where and what is Kawah Ijen?
- Climbing the volcano, descending into the crater and getting back out
- When to go
- Kawah Ijen without a tour
- Kawah Ijen with a tour
- Why I think the local tour is the best option
- Insider tips
- Got more tips or questions?
For the story behind the guidebook, and to know how I felt during those two days in the miner’s village and up on Kawah Ijen, check out this post:
WHERE AND WHAT IS KAWAH IJEN?
Kawah Ijen is an active volcano on the east side of Java, that last erupted in 1999. Inside the crater you’ll find the biggest acid lake in the world – the pH of the water is around 0,3 on a scale of 0 to 14 – blue flames caused by the burning of the sulphur gasses and one of the last still operational sulphur mines in the world. The sulphur is extracted and transported to the top of the volcano fully manually, and the environment is toxic because of the sulphur gasses. It’s a combination of out-of-this-world scenery and a human experience where you get to see what is without any doubt the worst job in the world that make this place truly unique.
CLIMBING THE VOLCANO, DESCENDING INTO THE HEART OF THE CRATER AND GETTING BACK OUT
I’m no great athlete, hiker or anything like that so if you are don’t take me as a reference, but climbing Kawah Ijen is physically one of the hardest things I have ever done. The hike up the volcano is 3 km and takes a total of about 2 hours. It can be divided into 3 sections, each of which are about 1 km long.
- Part 1: moderately steep – takes about 20 minutes
- Part 2: if it were any steeper, you’d probably fall backwards… In this section, you climb from 1900 to 2400 meters, so that’s an average slope of almost 50 degrees… By the end of this part you’ll probably start smelling the sulphur. It took me about 1h20 to finish it, including a 10 minute break at the ‘bar’ located halfway up.
- Part 3: nearly flat, takes another 15-20 minutes.
There’s only one path so you can’t go wrong. The path is unlit and unpaved but not slippery if you wear decent shoes (I wore hiking shoes). I visited end of May and there were quite some other visitors on it but not enough to make the hike unpleasant and I could still perfectly determine my own speed for climbing up the volcano.
To descend into the crater, either follow your guide or the other visitors. There’s no real path so don’t try and find your own way, unless you want to get stuck and climb back up for no reason. Trust me, the whole thing is hard enough as it is. It takes about an hour to get right next to the blue flames, bringing the total duration of the hike to about 3 hours. This part over the rocks can be slippery – I slipped several times and fell, I didn’t get hurt but be careful! – so again, make sure to wear decent shoes.
To get back out of the crater you – obviously – need to climb all the way back up over the same rocks, which takes about 2 hours. You can also follow the other visitors if they’re still there (most of them seem to just have a quick look at the blue fire and leave again) or one of the miners. From there, the same path leads you back to the base of the volcano in about 45 minutes to 1 hour – it’s super steep so even going down demands a bit of an effort.
WHEN TO GO
Kawah Ijen can be visited all year, but the best time is during dry season, approximately from May to September. The chance of getting amazing views from the top of the crater are highest during this period. It does however get cold at night inside the crater, with temperatures descending to around or even slightly beneath the freezing point, so come prepared!
As to the best time of the day, this is definitely at night. That way, not only do you avoid having to walk in the sun, the blue flames caused by the burning of the sulphur gasses, although present all day, are also only visible before sunrise. With a hike that takes around 3 hours, you need to start hiking around 2 am at the latest to get to see the flames. Trust me, it’s worth getting up early for!
KAWAH IJEN WITHOUT A TOURdd
How to get there
There’s several ways to get to Kawah Ijen independently, either from Banjuwangi or Bonsowoso.
Banjuwangi is located on the east side of Kawah Ijen, and is the town where ferries to/from Bali depart (if you come from Bali, know that there’s only 1 main road and there can be considerable delays due to heavy traffic, so it might be best to do this part of the trip the day before your actual visit). It also has trains and busses to/from other cities on Java and an airport, but at the moment there’s only flights to and from Surabaya.
There’s no public transportation from here to Paltuding, at the base of Kawah Ijen, because the road is too steep and buses simply can’t get up there. You have two other options: either hire a 4×4 with driver or pay a motorbike driver. You can easily find one in the city or at the ferry terminal. A 4×4 costs around 600.000 IDR, a motorbike around 250.000 IDR and the trip takes about 1,5 hours by 4×4.
Bondowoso is on the northwest side of Kawah Ijen and further away from it than Banjuwangi. There’s no airport (the closest airports are Malang (170km) and Surabaya (200 km)) and no train station. The only way to reach it is by bus/minibus from Probolingo, Situbondo or Jember or by private car from wherever you are.
There’s however more transportation options to reach Kawah Ijen, but only if you have lots of time. Here’s all the options for getting to the crater independently:
- Organize your own transport by 4×4 or motorbike. A 4×4 should cost between 400.000 and 600.000 IDR, a motorbike around 250.000 IDR.
- It’s also possible to get to Kawah Ijen by minibus. Well, sort of… First you have to take a minibus to Blawan, which takes 3 to 4 hours and costs around 15.000 IDR/person. Buses leave from the bus station each morning around 11 am. Once you arrive in Blawan, located almost 20 km from the crater, the road gets too steep for the bus so you need to find somebody with a motorbike or 4×4 to drive you to the base of Kawah Ijen in Paltuding. Minibuses back from Blawan to Bondowoso leave around 6 in the morning.
Where to stay and eat
I absolutely recommend you stay at least one night in one of the villages around the volcano. Cheap guest houses and homestays are available in most of them (ask locals, your driver, …), and while most of them are very basic, it really is an amazing opportunity to get a glimpse of local life. Places to stay in the bigger cities can easily be found and booked online, which might be your best bet to avoid rip-offs, but in smaller villages you’ll probably just have to show up and ask.
In the villages, restaurants and shops can be rare so it’s a good idea to bring some ’emergency food’, just in case. If however you have the chance to go to one of the tiny local restaurants or food stalls, don’t hesitate, the food I’ve eaten here is without any doubt on my top 5 foods in the world list! Try one of the dishes with freshly prepared sambal – if your taste buds can handle it – or some delicious peanut sauce. To drink, ask for curcuma lemonade.
KAWAH IJEN WITH A TOUR
Truth be told, I hate tours. I don’t care for spending more time in the local jewelry shop than at the actual sight and I don’t like how most of them almost exclusively focus on breathtaking sights but never on people or the truth behind the tourist attraction. So to be honest my very first idea was to visit Kawah Ijen independently, without a tour. Then I read about Ijen Miner Tours…
Before I continue, let me tell you that this tour was fully paid for by yours truly and the tour company was unaware that I’d be writing this article at the time of my visit. All opinions are my own and straight from the heart, as always.
Long story short: if I was going to visit Kawah Ijen on a tour, I absolutely wanted one that supports the miners and their families as much as possible, and for the whole experience to be 100% respectful. I wanted it to be about exchange, and never consider them as a tourist attraction. To get to know the people behind the amazing place that is Kawah Ijen rather than just enjoy the views, grab a quick look-how-strong-I-am-I-can-also-carry-a-basket-with-70kg-of-sulphur-for-a-whole-second selfie and get out of there.
I knew on the other hand that it wasn’t about what I wanted and that meeting them was a privilege and not a right in any way. So the only real option was a local tour, with a focus on the people.
As I just said, these were not really an option for me as none of the tours I looked into focused on the people and all of them seemed to be rushing it way too much. But let me tell you what I know about them anyway, in case you prefer booking one of these!
Traditional tours to visit Kawah Ijen can be booked in mayor cities such as Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Jakarta and other cities on Java. Most of the tour companies have websites and the tours can be booked online in advance. Many options are available, but these tours often last several days and include other visits such as Dieng Plateau or Mount Bromo. They might be a good option if you’re short on time but you’ll probably be spending more time in a bus than visiting the actual sights.
You can also book a tour in Banjuwangi or Bondowoso and here you’ll find more shorter tours that only visit Kawah Ijen or for example a combination of Kawah Ijen and Mount Bromo. I haven’t looked into this option very thoroughly but I did ask for some prices, just for you guys! 🙂 They obviously vary in function of the tour company and the exact package, but for a tour with a planning similar to the tour I did with Ijen Miner Tours (see below), these are some average prices:
- 2.000.000 IDR for a single person
- 900.000 IDR/person for a group of 2 people
- 650.000 IDR/person for a group of 3 people
Bigger groups are often not possible because on these tours, transportation to and from the volcano is also by 4×4.
Ijen Miner Tour Company
Ijen Miner Tour started out as a school project to support the local miners. The goal was to employ miners and their family to not only guide tourists around in the mine but also welcome them in their village and give them a taste of local life. Today it’s turned into a business, but still only employs locals as tour guides. My guide was Chong, who’s father is a miner and who lives in the miner’s village with his wife and twin boys.
On their website you’ll find a range of different tours, each of which can be altered to suit your wishes. The tours are private but very affordable, and they’re very flexible, so a lot is possible.
This is an overview of my tour, which was just perfect!
- DAY 1:
- Pick-up around noon in Banyuwangi (wherever you want). Meet your guide and driver.
- Drive for about an hour to the village (in my case with Indonesian pop music and lots of chatting), arrive at the guesthouse and lunch with your guide and host.
- Visiting a waterfall, coffee plantations and rice fields around the village. I got lucky to be invited to a local wedding but with only 400 people living in the village I don’t think this is on the official list of things to do you can pick from…
- Catch sunset over the rice fields and have dinner with your guide and host.
- Go to bed early because you have to get up at 0.30 am.
- DAY 2:
- Leave the guesthouse at 1 am and drive for an hour to the base of the volcano. Not so much pop music and chatting this time, mainly just sleeping.
- Start hiking at 2 am, arrive in the heart of the crater around 5 am.
- Watch the blue fire for basically as long as you want. I stayed about an hour, which is much longer than all the other tours. Yep, when I finished this part of my visit, the crater was almost empty.
- Around 6 am, go further down to meet the miners.
- After this – around 7 am – start climbing back up to the top of the crater. Arrive there around 9 am.
- Walk down to the base of the volcano and drive back to the village. Arrive here around 10.30 am.
- Chill out at the village, walk around and chat some more with everyone around.
- Somewhere in the afternoon – my guide kept on telling me I could stay as long as I wanted so there was really no rush – drive back to Banjuwangi. Ask to stop at the tiny restaurant along the way for some rice with vegetables and peanut sauce and that curcuma lemonade I talked about earlier. The perfect end of a perfect tour!
So I guess you want to know how much this all costs? You’ll probably be surprised to hear this tour was actually much cheaper than the traditional tours I got prices for…
- 1.200.000 IDR for a single person
- 750.000 IDR/person for a group of 2 people
- 600.000 IDR/person for a group of 3 people
WHY I THINK THE LOCAL TOUR IS THE BEST OPTION
It’s been 3 months since I visited Kawah Ijen and I’m still impressed with the quality of the tour I picked and the whole experience in general. I’d never seen anything like it, and I’ve rarely had an experience as complete as this one. It was a constant balancing act between the biggest smiles and bursting into tears, and I was able to experience it in my own way thanks to my guide Chong who shared a part of his life with me and not once during those 2 days told me to hurry up or that it was time to go.
I saw exactly 4 other tourists in the whole miner village and got to exchange some amazing moments with its people. I arrived in the mine at the same time as hundreds of other visitors, but by the time I’d finished about half of my visit, I was basically the only one left. Instead of quickly dropping me off back in Banyuwangi after the tour like many guides would, mine literally held my hand when the climb got hard and asked me to stay a bit longer on day 2 to chat some more.
I hate tours, but this was one of the best experiences of my life.
Although I knew from the start there was no way on earth I was going to Indonesia and not visit Kawah Ijen, I must admit I had some stress about the climb and the conditions down in the crater. And while the climb is definitely strenuous, if I can do it I’m sure basically anybody without a medical condition can do it, too, and there’s nothing else to really worry about either. Let me give you some of my insider tips to reassure your and make your trip as comfortable as possible!
- The first time you smell the sulphur it’s very penetrating and apparently it can hurt your eyes, too (I’ve been told it’s best to wear glasses instead of contacts, too). How bad it gets mainly depends on the wind but when I visited it wasn’t that bad at all. I did the visit without a gas mask – except to go right next to the flames – and had no problem breathing or pain in my eyes.
- Depending on how easily you get cold, bring at least a pair of long trousers and a fleece, and maybe a (light) jacket. I didn’t need my jacket and only wore my fleece during the very first part of the hike up the volcano and in the heart of the crater where it was cold but not freezing (visited end of May) and I sat down for almost an hour to watch and photograph the flames.
- Wear good shoes. I’d recommend hiking shoes with a good grip but if you don’t have any, wear something decent as it can get slippery.
- Bring a torch as the path up to the top of the volcano isn’t illuminated.
- Make sure you have a gas mask, either through your tour company, or rent them somewhere else.
- The only toilet is at the base of the volcano, so be prepared.
- Drinks can be bought at a bar about halfway up the volcano.
- Bring some candy for the miners, it stops their throat from itching and you’ll get the biggest smiles in exchange.
- The entrance fee is 100.000 IDR (150.000 IDR on holidays) for foreigners and there are no real opening hours, you can just come whenever you want.
GOT MORE TIPS OR QUESTIONS?
Please tell me all about them in the comments or send me a message through my contact form. I look forward to hearing all about your experience and answering your questions!
Disclaimer: This tour was fully paid for by yours truly and the tour company was unaware that I’d be writing this article at the time of my visit. All opinions are my own and straight from the heart, as always. Prices, driving times and all other practical information was accurate at the time of my visit (May 2016) but should be double-checked before future use.
For the story behind the guidebook, and to know how I felt during those two days in the miner’s village and up on Kawah Ijen, check out this post: