Kawah Ijen was never part of our original travel plans – simply because we hadn’t heard of it. But once we did learn of its existence – ‘it’ being the largest acidic crater lake in the world, of turquoise colour and that shoots ‘blue flames’ at night – well, we had to go!
Getting there was our first hurdle. We were in central Java, and the Ijen crater was all the way in East Java. We decided to do it as a loop, visiting Ijen first and then to Mt Bromo before heading north to fly out. We covered the longest part of the journey by train, figuring this was the most comfortable approach. It took 11 hours to travel from Surakarta to Jember, where we then got a taxi to Bondowoso – a common starting point to access Ijen.
Our second hurdle was finding somewhere to stay. Ijen crater and Mt Bromo are often lumped together as part of tours that you can do over several days. Being a busy time of year, we were concerned that we wouldn’t find anywhere to stay. We called every listed accommodation in our Lonely Planet and emailed whoever we could, but no one got back to us or were fully booked. One finally replied, and we secured the room – to then be told as we were about to leave the hotel in Bondowoso – “But that hotel is not in Sempol (the village nearest the crater) – it is more than one hour away. No transport to Ijen.”
Fortunately, they saved our bacon and called one of the other homestays we’d previously tried – who lo and behold had changed their number – and managed to get us a room that night! Hooray!
Arriving at the local bus station, we boarded a minibus bound for Sempol, crammed in with other locals. Our train ride the previous day was almost luxury compared to our three hour journey to Sempol. The minibus made frequent stops picking up more passengers (honestly how many people do they want to cram in?!) as well as their shopping, and the road to Sempol was a windy, pot-hole filled journey.
Nevertheless, we finally arrived in Sempol just after midday, and were stoked with our comfortable room. There was no rest for the wicked though – after travelling a day and a half, we were leaving the next morning – so our only opportunity to trek up to the crater was that afternoon.
Nearly all tours, websites and blogs promote the traditional Ijen experience of trekking during the night – leaving at 1 or 2am, trekking in the dark under the stars to reach the crater, seeing the blue flames during the night and then watch the sunrise. To be honest, this completely sounded like hell to us… (ok, to me…) As we aren’t morning people, the idea of embarking on what we read was a pretty exhausting trek in the middle of the night, tired, in the freezing cold, to then wait up top for a few hours for the sun to rise didn’t sound all too much fun. Then we read that the blue flames were visible as soon as it was dark – not just in the middle of the night – but as early as 6PM. We were settled – we’d trek in the afternoon, watch the sunset, stay for the flames, and then trek back down and be in bed by 9PM. Heaven.
We organised for a driver to drop us off at the starting point of the trek, in Pos Paltuding and to return at 7.30PM to pick us up. All too easy to organise. That’s when the fun started.
It’s a 3km trek to the crater – most people say the first kilometre is the toughest, and then it evens out after that – and that it should take you about an hour, hour and a half at most. I’ll tell you now… that is bull. It’s tough the ENTIRE way. The incline of the trek is around 45 degrees, and when you haven’t exactly been too ‘adventurous’ of late, it’s pretty tough going. That being said, I managed to get to the top in two hours with frequent stops (and I’m super unfit) – and it does even out, but only about 10 minutes from the top of the crater.
I have to say, it was pretty cool finally arriving at the top. The scenery the entire way is amazing – seeing the volcanos around you, the expanse of the vegetation, the clouds – the things you wouldn’t see trekking during the night. On arrival at the top, gazing down into the crater and seeing the perfectly turquoise coloured lake was unreal, with the sulphur clouds billowing into the sky. There was not a single other person there – another plus to not doing the trek at sunrise.
If you turn right once you reach the top, this is where you can trek down into the crater – about another 30 minutes, quite dangerous, and where the fumes become quite toxic. Or, turn left, and you can continue up to an even higher point and view the entire lake as well as an uninterrupted view at sunset.
This is what Mike did – and what I should have done. Upon reaching the crater, I announced I wasn’t taking a single step more and plonked my backside down to watch the clouds. Mike continued to trek up to the left to get a higher vantage point. Over the next two hours, I sat shivering (it was freezing and I had nothing more than a long sleeve shirt), inhaling the sulphur gases as the wind kept blowing it towards me, all by myself. I freaked out, never having felt so cold and miserable and tired in my life. It was only 5PM but I did not want to stay on that crater one moment longer than I had too. Mike on the other hand enjoyed the beautiful warmth of the sun from the higher point, extensive views of the lake, didn’t smell the sulphur for a second and saw the entirety of the sunset.
Mike came back down just after the sun disappeared, and this is when I promptly burst into tears and said I didn’t want to stay for the flames and just wanted to go. Mike obliged (I’m fairly sure he did so begrudgingly, but thanks anyway babe!) and we started to descend only to bump into one of the sulphur miners making their way up to the crater. As night had just fallen, he told us that the blue flames would already be out and he could show us if we wanted, would we like to come?
I’m sure you know what happens next. I stayed put, and Mike went off to see the blue flames – which he was able to see, at just 6.15PM. Once again, I let my emotions and fatigue get the better of me and missed out on another experience.
Mike returned, raving about the incredible sight of the flames and what an amazing day he’d had and just how much he’d enjoyed Ijen – and just what an incredible spectacle of nature it was. All I could think about was how cold I was, hungry, that I needed a toilet, how much my legs hurt… and how much of a total noob I was being. I apologised to Mike, feeling bad for letting my emotions get the better of me and not being able to share the total experience with him. He forgave me – used to it I guess!
The trek downhill was incredible under the starry night – it was amazing just how much you could see. It took us an hour to go downhill – a hell of a lot easier than going uphill, but not without slipping and stumbling every other minute! The gates exiting the park were definitely a welcome sight however, as was our driver waiting for us – it had definitely been a long, emotional day!
- Getting to Ijen
We came to Ijen from Bondowoso in the west, or you can access from Banyuwangi in the east. From Bondowoso, we paid 40.000 Rp per person to take a minibus bound for Sempol – the village nearest Ijen. It’s meant to take two hours, but can take up to three. The minibus leaves Bondowoso several times a day, departing once full.
- Where to stay
We stayed at Arabica Homestay – a very common spot for most tourists. The staff were incredibly helpful. This website lists the accommodation available in the Ijen area – not all the numbers work, but it’s a guide for once you arrive in Sempol if you haven’t booked anything.
- How much does it cost?
Once you arrive at the departure point for the trek, you will be required to buy a pass – this is currently priced at 100.000 Rp per person. You can buy hospital type surgical masks here to help with the gas if you wish.
- What to wear
Ladies – on the bus ride to Sempol, wear a sports bra – you will thank me later! If you’re trekking during the day, a t-shirt will suffice as it gets hot and sweaty very quickly. But PACK SOMETHING WARM. It is freezing at the top. A jacket won’t go astray. Something to also keep the sulphur out is handy. Sneakers with good grip are a must for trekking up and down.
- Sunset vs sunrise?
We are totally happy with our experience of trekking at sunset – making our way up during the daylight, seeing the sun go down, seeing the blue flames as soon as it was dark and then descending back down and having an early night. However, sunrise I’m sure would be just as magical – albeit a little colder! If you’d like to trek at sunrise, we recommend Kristin’s guide at Be My Travel Muse – she tackled Ijen at sunrise, and her article was the one that inspired us to see Ijen in the first place!