how to visit kawah ijen

How to Visit Kawah Ijen – Seeing Blue Fire at Ijen Volcano

Travellng to Kawah Ijen on Java independently takes a little planning, but is easy.  Here’s how to see the sulphur spewing volcano at night.

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Bali to Java

We left Bali by way of the public ferry at Gilimanuk, literally minutes after arriving on the bus, pulling away from the dock at 14:50.

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The ferries here run 24 hours a day and the distance is short to Java.

ferry gilimanuk to java

The time to travel is significant however, because there are too many ferries for the berths. So most of the time spent is just sitting in the middle of the channel. Our supposed 20 minute travel time was actually 90 minutes, we arrived at 1620 Bali time.  Which is 1520 Java time, so perhaps we were only 10 minutes late after all and speed swallowing the cup noodles we bought on board in a hurry was silly.

On Java, in the port of Ketapang, we’ve hit the first of seven carnivals that we’re about to bump into.

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Ketapang Port to Banyuwangi

We discount the first tempo (public transport pickup) driver that we find, when he says he wants 100,000 IDR to go to the hotel we’ve picked out but not booked (when we travelled you couldn’t book it online.  You can now).

At worst it’s about 5 kilometers, which in the middle of the carnival that we join to shouts of “Bule, Bule”, might take the rest of the night.

Eventually, we exit the carnival, a tempo driver finds us and extracts his 15,000 per tourist person (i.e. that’s the two of us) and a few minutes later we’re at the Hotel Permata Indah Permai, that we found through Facebook.

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We’re in Banyuwangi, the ferry port that we came into up the road is called Ketapang. And we’re here because of a volcano called Ijen, which we’re going to walk up in the dark.

Kawah Ijen is an active volcano famous for its sulphur mining.

Getting there turns out to be much easier than finding out how to get there.

Options for Visiting Kawah Ijen Independently

First, a few folks write about it, but not how they got there. Second, it has the potential to be expensive. Third, many folks come from the west, on a trip from Yogyakarta, taking in Bromo, Ijen, and then being dropped in Bali. We were heading in the opposite direction, traveling independently.

So, we found a Banyuwangi Tourism site on Twitter and got a response within a day.

Sadly it wasn’t what we wanted.   A driver and car to Ijen and back to Banyuwangi was 550,000 IDR plus entrance fees.  If we wanted to go to Ijen and then get dropped at Bromo it would be 1,500,000 IDR.  Yowsers.  I didn’t want to BUY the volcanoes!, but if you do, ping them on Twitter or call Mr. Trip on (Indonesia) 081249830249

Where to Stay in Banyuwangi

Hotel Permata Indah Permai – Rooms and Trips to Ijen

Then we found the Hotel Permata Indah Permai, sent them a message – their reply arrived in time but we don’t have an Indonesian SIM card and there was no available wifi until we got to the hotel, otherwise they would have picked us up at the ferry.

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We took a fan cooled room with twin beds (the double bed room was particularly claustrophobic), with a private bathroom and a cold water shower.

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The hotel is on a noisy road and is designed to funnel all the noise into the rooms.  Still, after a quick dinner at the cafe downstairs we were just going to lie with our eyes closed ignoring the noise until 0030, when we’d get up and take the hotel 4WD at 0115 towards Kawah Ijen.

When we traveled you couldn’t book rooms here online.  You can now.

Book the Hotel Permata Indah Permai here

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Where is Kawah Ijen?

Ijen is 34 kilometers or about 90 minutes from Banyuwangi, up a nicely paved – but narrow in places – road. There’s no public transport or any other option other than taking an organized tour, a shared 4WD or van or a private transfer.

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We opted for the shared 4WD at 175,000 IDR each and shared with the Indian-French couple in the room next to us. We would be back in time to have our included breakfast, take a shower and get a free lift to the bus station – we’re all heading to Gunung Bromo next (although via different routes) and we need to catch a bus to Probolingo sometime before lunch.

Banyuwangi

Banyuwangi to Kawah Ijen

The drive actually takes 75 minutes – and it’s 0230 when we arrive at the gates of the National Park. Our hotel host has provided us all with torches(we’ll be walking up in the dark) and a face mask for the fumes when we get higher up the volcano. We’re wearing long trousers and fleeces. We have our hiking shoes on, some folks walk up in sports sandals, those in flipflops should turn around now.

Entry fee and Ticket Check

It’s a 100,000 IDR fee per person to enter the park and there’s a small ticket office followed a way up the trail by a ticket check.

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Now, you walk.  Up Kawah Ijen

Then the walk begins. The trail starts reasonably flat, then rises. It’s not *that* hard – but underfoot is a fine volcanic sandy dust. It’s slippy. It’s dark, it’s like skiing in a white out. Uphill.  While breathing is difficult because of the dust.

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In the third week of August there are perhaps 20 others walking up at this time, but it’s spread out.  For much of the way we’re by ourselves, just seeing the occasional flash of torches. By 0300 we’re reaching for the face masks. A scarf would probably suffice, but it’s really dusty.  In certain parts of the path there are definite down flows of gassy nasty tasting air that burns our eyes too.

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We rest for a few minutes at a shack that opens later to sell tea, then after a short climb, the trail flattens out and is easy, although we’re still walking by torchlight.

Kawah Ijen Crater Rim

By 03:50 we’ve reached a plateau that marks the crater rim. At this point there are no signposts, and as it’s dark it’s hard to figure out a defined path, so we keep following other torches. Some are tourists, more are the sulphur miners.

We head off to the right and then spot the trail down.

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Hiking DOWN into Kawah Ijen’s Crater

And then – ignoring the sign that says visitors are not allowed to go down into the crater – we descend into the depths of hell. Because that’s what it looks like. And this is one of those points where I wish we had a camera good enough to show you this.

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This is what I picture hell to be like. It’s still dark, but we can see by the ghostly glow of flickering torches.  There’s a trail of workers, plying their trade, down into the bowels of the volcano.  An occasional flash of blue flame catches our eye.

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The blue fire is caused by ignited sulphuric gas, emerging from cracks in the volcanic rock at up to 600 degrees Celsius.

Dark skinned, white eyed sulphur miners rest their 80 kilo baskets on the way back up.  They brace the skinniest legs against rocks, airing their lungs with the ubiquitous Indonesian cigarette.

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And so we clamber down. There’s no need for a guide here, it’s obvious which is the way to go (where everyone else does, worker and visitor). If you’re unsure someone will point you in the right direction.

It’s a little slippery. It’s mainly rock now with a little volcanic sand, so it’s climbing rather than walking. Each miner, whether they’re heading up or down, that we pass offers us a “photo, photo” or a “souvenir, souvenir” – either a small piece of sulphur, or a moulded yellow item. Income supplementation is rife.

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It’s 300 metres from the crater floor to the rim. Miners carry baskets that weigh between 75 kilograms to 90 kilograms. Most miners make two trips a day.

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There are around 200 miners removing around 14 tonnes of sulphur each day – just 20% of the daily deposit.

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It takes us around 30 minutes to clamber down. Here is where they “mine” the sulphur.

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At the bottom of the Kawah Ijen Crater

There’s an active vent on the edge of the crater lake, where escaping volcanic gas is channeled through ceramic pipes, which condenses the molten sulphur, turning from a deep red when its molten to bright yellow when it cools and solidifies.

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The miners break it up, load up their baskets and head on up. They must carry it up to the top of the crater, then load it into wheeled trolleys and wheel them down to the bottom, where we started, in order to get paid.

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The sulphur is bought by a local factory that is used to bleach sugar, make matches and fertilizer and to vulcanize rubber.

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What Miners Earn at Kawah Ijen

The work is well paid considering the cost of living in the area, with workers earning between US$5.50 – US$8.30 a day. However, it’s incredibly hard and dangerous work. Once they’ve carried the sulphur up to the crater rim, they have to take it down 3 kilometers to get paid.

Still complaining about that desk job?

As the sky begins to lighten as dawn approaches, it’s easier to see.

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The number of visitors increase (there were at maximum perhaps 60 there while we were there), the miners continue with their work. The blue flames continue to flare.

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The Lake at Kawah Ijen

Here in the bottom of the crater there’s a kilometer wide lake.

The lake is the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world.  It has an acidity of 0.5, about the same as battery acid. It will dissolve clothes and eat through metal. Paddling isn’t on the list of activities here.

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We watch (from a distance) the water change color as the sun comes up, take our last look at the sulphur pipes and head to the crater rim.

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Walking Back to the Base Area

Our shared 4WD driver will leave at 0730 and it’s a difficult walk back down, even though it’s now light.

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Of course it’s warmer. We’ve used the face masks while in the crater and we use them a little on the way – the air doesn’t choke us, but it’s unpleasant (if you don’t have a face mask you will NEED a scarf at least).

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The clouds are not steam, but hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide gases so concentrated they burn the eyes and throat, and can eventually dissolve the miners’ teeth.

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The trail is extremely slippery, not because its wet- it’s actually dry – but fine volcanic sand is very slippery.

We pass one tourist who walking downhill at a normal speed, skidded off into the brush at the side of the trail and who is now nursing several bleeding scratches. It’s a work out for the calves and thighs and we make it down by 06:45 (having left the inside of the crater at 05:15) to sleep in the back of the 4WD while we wait for our fellow trekkers to arrive back.

We’ve passed several folks on their way up now that daylight has reigned. Even as we leave the parking lot, there are more folks arriving.

You should see Kawah Ijen at night.

Do yourself a favor. Get up at half past midnight, walk up in the dark. See Dante’s Hell, see the blue flame, watch the sun rise from inside the crater. You can’t see the blue flame in daylight.

Visiting only in daylight means you’ll miss a huge part of the experience.

Kawah Ijen is spectacular, the numbers of folks there are relatively small, once you find your shared ride it’s easy to get there independently.

Any hotel in Banyuwangi can get you there, so can the Banywangi Tourist folks.  Our driver from the Hotel Permata Indah Permai was the best driver we’ve had in 17 months in the whole of SE Asia.

Our volcano appetites are whetted, so we’re off to Bromo now…

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There’s more volcano hiking in our guide to hiking Bromo here and our guide to hiking the South Korean volcano, Hallasan.

Travel Tips for Exploring Indonesia

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