“Is is a difficult hike?”, I asked our guide Tony from Blue Flame Tour the night before our trip to Ijen Plateau.
“Very steep, yes, but you go up at night, so you can’t see how steep it is”, he responded with a cheeky smile on his face.
After a long day of hiking up, down, and around Mt Bromo the day prior, my body wasn’t all that excited to wake up at 1am to commence our hike to the Ijen Plateau.
Ijen Plateau, known as “Kawah Ijen“, is a volcano complex located in East Java and is regarded as one of the unmissable sights in Indonesia. Ijen is a quiet but active volcano, set amidst a stunning landscape of volcanic cones and a beautiful turquoise coloured sulfur lake.
But that’s not the only attraction that makes Ijen famous…
Travelers, us included, flock to Ijen for what’s know as the “Blue Fire”, an electric-blue flame that appears from the combustion of sulfuric gases. The gases emerge from cracks in the volcano at high pressure and temperature of up to 1,112°F (600°C), igniting when they come in contact with air. The blue flames can reach up to 16 feet (5 meters) high.
The hike up was tough, but rather short (it took us no more than 1.5 hrs to reach the top), just as expected. The most grueling part of the hike and the reason for my mixed feelings about the experience, was the long descent and then ascent to the base of the crater. What once was a hidden gem of East Java is now a fully fledged tourist trap.
We shared the narrow steep rocky path down to the bottom of Ijen Crater with at least 300 others. There was no time for photos, no time for distractions. Every step was carefully calculated to avoid tripping over another person or sliding down on lose rocks. I have to admit, it wasn’t the safest activity we’ve ever participated in. Thankfully, our guide from Blue Flame Tour was holding my hand the entire time, leading Max and I down the safest path to the heart of the crater.
When we reached the bottom, things only got worse. The wind was strong and the sulfur gas clouds would at times cover us head to toe, making us eternally grateful for our high quality gas masks. But even with the gas masks on, we were still uncomfortable, coughing away when the sulfur fumes seeped through the masks and caused our eyes to water.
And the Blue Flame… well… maybe we didn’t get lucky. Or perhaps the whole blue flame promise is more hyped up than it should be. Despite our struggles to capture it on camera, the flame was definitely there. At times the blue flames would peak out from the cloud of yellow surfur smoke, sending the crowd of observers into a syncronized “wow”…
Was it an incredible mind boggling sight? I’m sorry to say, but for us, it wasn’t. Sure, it was cool, but the scary climb down and the subsequent grueling climb up combined with the dangers of being exposure to sulfur flames just wasn’t worth it. Our group surfaced at the top with a unanimous conclusion: the last 2 hours probably shaved at least 5 years of our lives (a bit of an exaggeration, please don’t freak out, Mom), but the consensus remained true: in hindsight, we would have all been better off without seeing the Blue Flames.
But before you close this page and cross Ijen Crater off your Indonesia to do list, let me share the reason why we thought the hike to Ijen Plateau is an ABSOLUTE MUST!
After ascending from the bottom of the crater to the Ijen Crater rim, we sat down patiently awaiting the sunrise. Cold (did I mentioned it’s freezing at the top?), grumpy, and irritated by the overrated Blue Flame experience, I wasn’t too stoked for sunrise. I’ve seen a lot of great sunrises in my life and didn’t expect this one to be anything extraordinary.
Boy, was I wrong…
The views were ABSOLUTELY BREATHTAKING…
As the sun rose above the horizon, the sky transformed from crispy blue to a kaleidoscope of pink hues. It was the most beautiful sunrise we have ever seen.
The descent was rather uneventful (other than the excruciating pain caused by the blisters on my feet), allowing us to take in the views around us and really appreciate the surroundings.
If there was one thing that touched us more than the stunning views of the Ijen Plateau was the truth behind sulfur mining at Ijen.
Sulfur collectors at Ijen work for a minimum wage and in visibly terrible conditions. They hike up early in the morning, work straight through until around 1pm when the clouds roll in and make it impossible to navigate the plateau. Most of them use wet cloths to protect themselves from the sulfur flames and it’s not uncommon to see miners carrying 40-50kg of sulfur back up to the surface without any footwear on.
We were told that the going rate for sulfur is only about 800 IRP (less than AUD $0.08 per kilo), so a 2-3 hour return trip with 40kgs of sulfur would only make the workers about AUD $3.
The demand for sulfur is only increasing as cosmetic companies around the world continue to use it as an ingredient to treat acne, seborrheic dermatitis, rosacea, eczema and dandruff. The mineral found specifically at the Ijen Crater is known to be purer and more desirable, so in the eyes of the Chinese mining company that operates in the area, its commercial benefits far outweigh the exploitation of miners and the horrendous working conditions they endure at Ijen on a daily basis.
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Have you ever questioned your visit to a highly rated sight or destination like we have with our visit to the Ijen Crater? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts!
Essential Travel Info
Ijen Plateatu can be accessed via the towns of Bondowoso in the west or Banyuwangi in the east. We started our trip from Banyuwangi on a tour with Blue Flame Tour company, which cost us 250,000 IDR each + 100,000 IDR entrance fee.
While we are typically not big supporters of tours, this is one tour that we would highly recommend purely for safety reasons. Our guide was phenomenal at making sure we descended to the bottom of the crater safely. He held my hand the entire time! The tour also included a rental of gas masks, which are an ABSOLUTE MUST when visiting the crater.
We took an hour long ride to the base of the crater from Banyuwangi and commenced the hike up at around 2am. We reached the crater rim around 3-3:30am and spent another 2.5 hours descending down to the base of the crater to view the blue flames and then making our way back up to the rim for sunrise at 5:30-6am.
We were back in town by 8am and were then dropped off at the Ketapang pier for the ferry crossing to Bali. The Blue Flame Tours not only dropped us off at the pier when we were finished which saved us renting a taxi. But they also picked us up the night before near the pier when the bus suddenly stopped and made us get out 20 minutes before the main town, they are simply great people.
If you plan on hiking anywhere in Indonesia, and specifically to the Ijen Crater, we highly recommend that you take out travel insurance before you embark on the trip. This hike is not a walk in the park and reduced visibility at night certainly raises the risk levels. For this trip, we were covered with Budget Direct Travel Insurance, although unfortunately, it’s an option available only to Australian citizens/residents.