Mount Ijen is a volcano in East Java made famous (at least for me) by National Geographic and a Human Planet documentary narrated by David Attenborough. I remember watching Human Planet around 10 years ago so when I found out that you could actually visit Ijen, I had to do it.
For context, Mount Ijen is famous for 3 things: blue fire, a turquoise acidic lake and the sulfur miners that work in the crater. If that means nothing to you then read on, all three are incredible in their own rights.
Get the boring stuff out the way first, though it’s not boring if you’re looking into doing this trip!
Ijen volcano is in East Java, between the regencies of Banyuwangi and Bondowoso. You can fly into Surabaya and make your way East for 7 hours, though a popular route is from Bali.
Visiting Ijen from Bali:
There are two main options if you’re looking to travel to Ijen volcano from Bali:
- An overnight trip.
If you’re in for example, Canggu, you leave at 7pm. You drive for around 4 hours to the North East of the island to get the ferry from Gilimanuk (45 minute ferry) and then drive another couple of hours to Ijen. You then climb the volcano in the early hours and head back down after sunrise. Reverse the trip back and you’ll be in Canggu in time for an afternoon surf.
Group tour cost: 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 IDR ($100 – $130) depending on the size of the group
Private tour cost: 3,500,000 IDR ($225 USD)
2. Ijen and Bromo Tour
As the name suggests, this is a longer your (3 days, 2 nights) which also takes you to Madakaripura waterfall and Mount Bromo. Most tours appears to make the long drive to Bromo first (7-8 hours from the ferry port) and then head to Ijen the next day before heading back to Bali. I did it the other way round, essentially having a longer travel day at the end instead of the start.
Group tour cost: 3,500,000 – 5,000,000 IDR ($225 – $350 USD)
Private tour cost: 5,300,000 IDR ($350 USD)
Note that costs vary substantially between operators. You will also want to check whether they include accommodation, entry and food.
Climbing Ijen Volcano
You’ll arrive at the base of Ijen at around 1.30am – 2am depending on where you’ve travelled from. It’s a small car park with some local shops and a few fires going to keep people warm. It’s substantially colder than the coast so make sure you have a jacket and some warmer clothes!
The gates open at 2.30am. I would strongly advise getting to the gate at 2.20am to try and be the first ones on the trail – there were loads of people starting the trail at 2.30am. I had been warned that the climb feels a little like a procession of people so I wanted to avoid that. There are also no lights. Most tour operators will provide you with a torch, but if you have a head torch that would be ideal. My guide had already sorted out gas masks for us before we started so that may be something you need to pre-organise or at least give yourself enough time at the base to find/hire.
It’s a relatively steep 3km trail up the volcano. It’s a well warn path so there’s nothing technical about it, though if you’re visiting in the rainy season I can imagine that the path can get very slippy! The only real commentary I have on the climb is that it’s a bit of a calf burner.
I opted to speed walk the first half to clear the crowds and whilst this may have meant a substantial amount of perspiration, it paid dividends not only during the walk but also later on. As you ascend, the landscape becomes more and more barren and it is incredibly quiet. The fact that I was ahead of the crowds meant it felt like I was the only one on the mountain (if that’s your thing).
Reaching the Crater Rim & Descending into the Caldera
If you’ve taken my advice and raced up, you could easily be the first ones up at the crater rim. I passed a sulphur miner that was having a snooze on the ground next to his cart but apart from that, I reached the edge at about 3.30am.
It’s going to be dark, obviously, so you can’t make out much of the crater. However, it is eerily quiet up there. The echoes from the caldera are impressive and without sight of the whole crater it’s somewhat mysterious as to the size of the thing. I at last enjoyed those 5-10 minutes at the crater rim by myself whilst I waited for the guide to catch up.
You then follow the path down and to the right, about 200m along the rim before descending down into the caldera. It’s a steep 700m descent following a thing path that picks its way through the rocky face. Watch your step and take it easy.
Ijen’s Blue Fire
The first thing we did was to get down to the base of the caldera, put our gas masks on and stop near the lake to see Ijen’s famous blue fire. This is where sulphur gas that vents out through the rock has ignited and burns with a blue flame. It’s one of only two places in the world where you can see this natural phenomenon, though it’s not guaranteed to happen every night. It’s also one of the main reasons why you start the climb at 2.30am – the blue fire isn’t visible once the sun comes up.
I was lucky enough to see Ijen’s blue fire, thought the guide did say that the area covered in blue fire can often be larger. In fact, National Geographic mentioned that the flames can be up to 5m high! The fire was only about 20cm when I was there and that was impressive enough…
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it exceeded whatever those expectations were. You can hear the gas hissing out of the vents and the noise of the fire, not unlike a bunsen burner. This is a spectacle in itself but the interesting part for me is that you can also see molten sulphur flowing out vents and flowing down, surrounded by the electric blue fire.
Ijen’s Sulphur Miners: The Hardest Job in the World?
The blue fire was a pretty amazing thing to see. However, for me, it pales in comparison to the sulphur miners working within this active volcano.
To provide some context: as the sulphur gas vents out of the rock, it condenses to form sulphur deposits. They’ve installed pipes to help with the formation of the sulphur, though you have to bear in mind that the pipes (and the surrounding rock) are continuously spewing at huge, thick clouds of sulphur gas. Even with gas masks you can feel the impact of the gas in your nose, that and lungs. If the wind changes and you get covered in one of these clouds of gas, it burns your eyes and lungs.
These miners work in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day, using metal rods to pry out large blocks of sulphur. These yellow blocks look like insulation you might find at a building site – they even have that squeaky texture/sound when touched or dragged over the ground. As such, I was expecting the blocks to be light and powdery. Nope – it’s hard and as heavy as rock.
So….these miners work alongside and within thick clouds of acidic gas to harvest the sulphur in an environment where tourists are only advised to spend 10-15 minutes. You can hear them coughing and spluttering because of the effects of the gas on their respiratory system.
If that wasn’t bad enough they then fill their baskets with sulphur – two woven baskets attached by a thin strip of wood/bamboo. Not exactly the most comfortable thing to carry on one shoulder.
I was told that they would often carry 80-100 kilograms (180 – 220 pounds) in one go. I imagined that this was hyperbole for the tourists, especially considering that’s more than I weigh, suspended across one shoulder with no padding. How wrong I was. I tried to pick up one of the bags that a miner was filling and could barely get it off the ground. 100 kilos might still be an exaggeration, but 80 kg is definitely legitimate. I can’t quite explain just how uncomfortable these baskets are. I picked up one 50kg basket and after perhaps 15 seconds, it was becoming incredibly uncomfortable on my shoulder/neck.
These sulphur miners, having spent time inhaling acidic gas to break up the sulphur, then carry these baskets 700m up and out of the crater, followed by the 3km trek back down the volcano. All for the princely sum of 1,250 IDR per kilogram. That’s about 8 cents.
Some miners do one trip, some do two trips a day. Whatever it is, the daily wage does not match the working conditions and risks.
I don’t say that the sulphur miners are the main attraction out of some sort of morbid curiosity. Perhaps I do, but that’s not the intention. Instead, it’s a humbling experience. I get frustrated with my own job. Some days I would consider ‘hard’. My experience isn’t in the same galaxy as these workers. It’s hard to get your head around the whole thing.
Day break and the acidic crater lake.
Before you know it, it’s time to head out of the crater.
I don’t want to sound like a broken record but we were the first ones up the volcano. As such, we were the first ones to the bottom and managed to get 15 minutes of the blue fire and sulphur mine all to ourselves.
As we headed back up to the crater rim, there were perhaps 150 people making their way down to the bottom. I was incredibly glad that we would avoid the crowds that would have no doubt been jam packed near the blue fire and the mine – it’s less than the size of a tennis court.
Anyhow, we headed back up the crater rim in time for sunrise.
As you get to the top you can take a left along the crater rim and find what I can only imagine are burnt/petrified trees along the rim. They’re a popular photo spot and a great place to watch the sun rise and unveil the world’s largest acidic crater lake far below.
We were somewhat unlucky with rain clouds (and rain!). For the first hour or so, we could only make out the lake through the clouds and sulphur gas. Most people headed back down but our persistence paid off as the clouds cleared for 20 minutes and we could see the full extent of the turquoise lake, supposedly so because of the concentration of hydrochloric acid (0.3 ph).
It’s a real sight to behold. Not only the colour of this extensive lake but the size of the caldera itself as well as the sulphur mine and gas in its depths.
As the rain clouds rolled back in, we headed back down to the car park and on to Madakaripura Waterfall.
Are tourists exploiting the sulphur miners?
This is a question that did come up in conversation. The idea that the popularity of Ijen as a tourist attraction is in some way forcing the miners to work in these torrid conditions.
There may be some truth in that, though from my understanding the mine has been operating for the better part of 50 years.
Sure, there are some people selling trinkets and mini statues made out of the sulphur. Some miners at the crater rim may offer you to try to pick up the basket for some cash. All in all though, it just felt like the miners were getting on with their job…..with or without the tourists. If there were no tourists the miners would still be there, so it didn’t feel exploitative to me.
Should you visit Ijen?
To say that Ijen volcano is impressive is an understatement. All three major elements, the blue fire, the sulphur miners and the turquoise lake and worth it as stand alone ‘attractions’. Put all three together and you have a humbling and frankly, unmissable place to visit.
There are very few places like it.
It’s not the cheapest trip you can do. It’s cold at points, you are up for most of the night and it’s the better part of 8 hours journey each way. It’s all worth it though.
What’s more, you can be back in your comfortable beachside villa within 24 hours.
If I could offer some advice, I would say:
- Be the first ones up. You get the volcano to yourself for a short period of time and avoid the crowds as they descend to the mine and blue fire.
- If you interact with the miners, perhaps to try and pick up a basket, break up some sulphur or ask questions, make sure to tip them. You’re interrupting their job and considering the price per kilo, it seems fair.
- Avoid public holidays like the plague. There were perhaps 200 people on the volcano when I was there, which felt like enough. The week before I went it was a public holiday and there were supposedly 7000! That would really take the shine off the whole experience.
- Head into the crater. There was a considerable amount of people that seemed to only climb the volcano for the view of the lake and then head back down. If you don’t go down into the caldera to see the blue fire and mine, you’re missing out on something spectacular.