The waters of Kawah Ijen's turquoise-blue lake count as both pretty and pretty dangerous.
As you make the trek up to the lip of the crater overlooking the waters, the acrid smell of sulfur begins to thicken in the air, prompting an increasing rate of coughing fits as you ascend. Rest assured, the effort is worth it.
Arrive before the dawn, and you can descend down from the crater lip to see the sulfur fumes in the air burn in an eerie blue flame.
Wait long enough for the sun to rise and the clouds to clear out, and you'll see it: a body of water in an almost alien hue, in the middle of a massive, cloud-wreathed crater.
Before you experience these sights, first you have to get there - which we'll explain how below.
4X4ing from Banyuwangi to Paltuding Base Camp
Our own trek up Ijen began about 40 km southeast from the peak, in Banyuwangi on the east coast of the Indonesian island of Java. (From the seaside Ketapang Indah resort, our base in Banyuwangi, you can literally see Bali across the strait.)
A midnight wakeup-call finds us standing sleepily at the Ketapang Indah lobby, waiting for our rides to the Paltuding base camp at the start of the Ijen trail. Between the two jump-off points to Ijen – Banyuwangi or Bondowoso, about 60 km west of the mountain – Banyuwangi is closer, although the road to the top is a little more challenging.
The rugged SUVs we board at Ketapang Indah take about an hour and a half to make it to Paltuding. The steep, winding, lightly asphalted trail is barely wide enough for two vehicles passing one another; it's a relief to disembark at Paltuding, located about 1,600 masl, though at 2-ish in the morning there's little to see except for the well-lit toilets and the arch leading to the start of the trail.
This is the point where you pay the entrance fee (about IDR 150,000 for foreigners, or US$11; read about money in Indonesia) before proceeding to trek to the crater.
Climbing the Ijen Trail the Easy Way… or the Hard Way
The short but arduous three-kilometer trail leading from Paltuding to the Ijen crater takes about one to two hours to negotiate, depending on your fitness level. Considering the 500-meter ascent and 17° incline involved, the Ijen trail requires a moderate amount of exertion; couch potatoes need not apply.
The trail itself is well-worn, used daily by both trekkers and Ijen's famous sulfur miners. The latter take wheeled trolleys up and down the trail, bringing large loads of sulfur down from the crater in the daylight hours. At 3am, you'll already find miners heading up the slope with empty trolleys in hand.
Some of them will offer to take hikers up to the crater in their trolleys, er, “taxis”… for the “reasonable” amount of IDR 600,000 (about US$50) per way. When approached, we politely rejected their sales pitches – the idea of heading to the peak like a baby in a pram felt somehow demeaning.
“Sure, it'll only cost you $50,” I heard a fellow hiker chuckle, “and your self-respect, too!”
The Sulfur Miners of Ijen: Backbreaking Work
I don't begrudge the Ijen miners for trying. Mining sulfur from Ijen is a hard living, supplemented by whatever income they can make from the steady stream of backpackers sharing their trail.
About 300 miners climb up to Ijen every day, armed with metal poles to break hunks of sulfur off.(Source) They don't wear much protective gear; most get by with just wet rags over their noses and mouths. My fellow traveler Aleah Taboclaon asked one how they get used to the acrid sulfur-saturated air – the miner replied that a heavy habit in kretek (clove-flavored cigarettes) helps!
A full load of sulfur weighs about 150-200 pounds; each miner transports this load in twin baskets balanced on a pole mounted on his shoulder, before transferring the load to wheeled trolleys they roll down past Paltuding to a nearby processing center.
Moonlighting Miner, Kawah Ijen
For this backbreaking work, Ijen's miners collect a relative pittance: 10,000 rupiah (about 70 US cents) for every 22 pounds (about 10 kilograms) of sulfur. They earn an average of US$11 a day braving sulfur fumes, heavy loads, and treacherous trails.
Every little extra bit of income helps: that's why you'll find moonlighting miners selling little sulfur gewgaws up near the crater for about IDR 10,000-20,000 apiece. Buy them if you will, but be aware that some airlines – Garuda Indonesia among them – forbid their passengers from bringing these hunks of pure sulfur aboard!
Reaching Kawah Ijen's Crater
About three hours after embarking on the trail, I finally reach the lip of the crater overlooking the lake, where one can choose either to descend closer to the lake (to see the famous “blue fire”), or climb higher to the highest point to wait for sunrise.
We didn't have the best of luck, having arrived at almost 5am to the dot. The majority of the blue-fire chasers had begun to climb back to the crater lip, preventing me from descending the opposite way the narrow path. The sunrise trail, too, was too long to reach in time for dawn. And haze blanketed everything, covering even the lake from view.
Considering all this, the steadily brightening view from the crater lip still catches in the throat (or maybe that's just the stifling sulfuric odor in the air). Dead vegetation clusters on one side of the path while the other side steadily descends into the mist blanketing the lake.
In Search of Kawah Ijen's Blue Fire
Fumaroles on the southeast bank of the lake create Ijen's signature sulfur deposits. Miners and tourists descend down the same steep, rocky path nearer the volcanic lake, albeit with different purposes. The miners come for the sulfur. The tourists come for the blue flames produced by the sulfur deposits.
There are only two known sites where you can see sulfur spontaneously combusting like this: Ijen and Iceland. In Ijen, the flames are mostly visible between 3-5am, as they're too faint to see against any kind of daylight.
While a simple face mask is enough from Paltuding to the crater lip, descending to see the blue fire (closer to the lake) requires the use of respirators; luckily, you'll find guides around the crater helpfully renting out respirators for about IDR 30,00-50,000 (US$2.25-$3.80).
Try to arrive before 4am to go with the flow of the crowd, not against it; by 5am, dozens of other blue-flame seekers will be ascending the trail, preventing latecomers (like myself) from making their way down.
Seeing Kawah Ijen in the Daylight
As increasing temperatures in the daylight hours lifts the mist that covers Kawah Ijen, the latter's full beauty reveals itself. The roundish Ijen crater lake creates a stark contrast from the surrounding rock, with a blue-green color derived from the saturated sulfur and heavy metals in the water.
Imagine a large lake filled with battery acid: that's Ijen, thanks to its abnormally low pH levels. Prolonged contact with Ijen's acidic waters can dissolve flesh and corrode metal. A single outlet on the western side flows into Banyupahit (Bitter River), occasionally causing fishkill downstream during increased seismic activity near the crater.
When Ijen acts up, it spares neither miner nor tourist. On two separate occasions – 1976 and 1989 – increased volcanic activity in Ijen suffocated miners who were unlucky enough to be working at the time. To this day, climbing is prohibited past 2pm to forestall any similar events in the future.
Travel Tips for Kawah Ijen Hikers
We took the standard Ijen early-morning hike that starts at midnight (from Banyuwangi) and ends as soon as you make your way back to Paltuding after sunrise. The 3km trail from Paltuding to the Ijen crater overlook can take between 1.5-3 hours to complete, depending on your fitness level.
For a sample travel package to Ijen, check out my fellow Ijen traveler Firsta's group tour from Banyuwangi.
What to bring: as a somewhat active but not too fit visitor, I took trekking poles as insurance; they helped me negotiate the trail faster, and allowed me to arrive in better shape at the top than if I'd gone without. I also brought a headlamp (there's no guarantee your tour provider can rent you one onsite).
Here's a more-or-less complete list of Ijen essentials to take with you:
- trekking poles
- warm clothing for 5-10°C climate (gloves, layered clothing or thermal underwear, knitted beanie)
- trail shoes
- bottled water
- pocket money
A respirator may be rented onsite, but it won't hurt to bring your own.
Where to stay: You'll find comfortable accommodations in Banyuwangi and Bondowoso (on opposite sides of Ijen), but travelers who want to stay closer to Paltuding can find resthouses in the immediate vicinity. The resthouse pictured above – right in Paltuding itself – charges 250,000-300,000 for the use of their spartan quarters.
When to go: The dry season between May and October minimizes the risk of slippery trails, but Ijen is actually quite accessible all year round. Avoid weekends and holidays, when locals swell the crowds to unmanageable levels.
The trail opens at 1am and closes by 2pm.
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