INDONESIA – Hiking the active & toxic Ijen volcano with its sulfur miners and blue fire

INDONESIA - A wonderful 2-3 week Indonesia itinerary: Jakarta to Bali across Java

When I read about the Ijen Volcano it was without doubt that one way or another it had to fit into my Indonesia itinerary. Look at the picture above; isn’t it like an alien world? I travelled with my daughter. Was it wise to go? In the weather conditions that day probably not but we survived; I’m not sure about a Chinese tourist who fell into a small ravine. Was it worth to go? Hell yes. I’ll take you on this dangerous hike!

How to get to Ijen Volcano?

I did a two-week trip over Java and Bali together with my daughter which included a visit to the Ijen Volcano. The volcano is located on the eastern tip of Java, Indonesia. Normally a trip over Java would go over land from Yogyakarta towards the Bromo Volcano and then to the Ijen Volcano with maybe two stops in cities on the way. I skipped the Bromo Volcano for two reasons. One reason being that I want to visit it together with some other places of interest on Java. The second that I wanted to spend some quality beach time on Bali with my daughter. Another volcano would be too much of the same.

 

As the Ijen Volcano is located on the eastern tip of Java it’s also easily visited as a two-day trip from Bali. This is what I did with my daughter. We took the ferry from Bali to Java (a ferry goes every 30 minutes) and we stayed overnight at the Ijen Resort & Villas. It’s the best hotel in the area I was told but lacks several things like airconditioning and WiFi. Even if you prefer luxury like I do I would not recommend staying there. Stay at a cheaper 3 or 4 star hotel without volcano view as that’s basically what you pay for. The view you can see from many places and you won’t have time at the hotel a lot. The view didn’t look promising as the top was covered in clouds; this would be a tough hike. We arrived at 4PM at the hotel and at 6PM the light was out as at midnight the hike would start.

Hiking an active & toxic volcano

Climbing the Ijen Volcano can be dangerous at times. This depends on the wind, possible rain and your own preparation. It’s not the average tourist attraction where your safety is taken care off. I climbed in the rain with winds going in the wrong direction; more on that later. My daughter of 10 joined me; she’s so cool and just does this kind of activities. To see the blue fires as described below one needs to start hiking at about midnight. It’s dark so bring a flashlight. You won’t see anything without it.

The drive from the hotel to the base of the volcano was about an hour. At the base of the volcano it’s recommended to buy water and something to eat. Make sure you don’t dress up in your most expensive clothes as the sulfur could ruin them. At the top you can rent gas masks which you MUST use; do not save money on them. You are allowed to go inside without a mask but be prepared to possible die. The gasses are toxic. The best is to rent the best one there is like the one Bagas has on in the photo below. From the base it’s a 2 hour steep climb in the dark to the rim of the crater; this is not a rough path but just steep. It was still a terrible hike in the drizzle and darkness but to see something unique that’s easily overcome.

Once you arrive at the crater rim there will be locals offering you gas masks for rent. Make sure you get a good one as gasses are toxic in the crater. There won’t be anyone controlling if you use one but I suggest not going in without one. The wind highly influences the gasses as was the case this day. The wind was blowing from the opposite of the crater towards the entrance. This made gasses go up the crater where the descent into the crater takes place. You might think why this is a problem? Look at the following image and keep in mind you are descending in the dark! This photo is taken during the ascend to the rim on the way back in daylight. It turns within seconds from pretty clear visible sight to seeing NOTHING. Your eyes will burn if you don’t close them so you won’t see anything. So don’t walk! Grab on to something as otherwise you get disoriented. Stay put till you feel that the hot gasses are gone and open your eyes again. You don’t want to walk without seeing where you go as you can see in the 2nd photo. The descend is more rock-climbing than walking.

 

It was scary at times I must admit; standing there with closed eyes for several minutes till the smoke clears. The climb down takes about 45 minutes in good weather but it took for sure over an hour in the bad weather. Once you reach the crater lake you can see the sulfur miners, the lake and if lucky the blue fires. The lake is the largest acid lake in the world with a pH of 0.5 just like the battery in your car! You pass a small bridge over a ravine 5 meters deep. No railings. Gasses came every 10 minutes filling up the crater and people got annoyed that they could not see around. I saw a Chinese tourist walking towards the bridge when the gasses came; he kept walking and just walked into the ravine. Words like “aaaah… aah” and a hard bouncing sound was what I heard before it went quiet. He did move and crawled through the ravine towards the lake; I think he survived. This proves how carefully you must be! People do die in this crater each year. Now it’s time to see what it’s all about: blue fires & sulfur miners.

Blue Fires

Blue fires are ignited sulfuric gasses which escape from the crater surface. With temperatures of over 600 degrees Celsius sulfur takes it gas form. When it ignites this gives a blue color. These flames can reach several meters high and are a beautiful spectacle to see. If you can see them! During my visit the wind made the smoky gasses go over the blue fires hiding them. During the descend I had some glimpses of them with one going sky-high. Once at the bottom it was more difficult to spot them and even more difficult to make photos due to the smoke. Only one photo turned out to show the fires a bit. The Ijen Volcano has the most intense and biggest blue fires in the world. I was told by the local guide that only on Iceland there are also blue fires. It was an unique experience to see these blue fires; only the weather prevented me from taking good pictures.

Meet sulfur miner Bagas

Sulfur mining started at Ijen Volcano over half a century ago. Work is still carried out by hand the same way as it was back then. There are 200-300 sulfur miners who work at Ijen Volcano. Bagas is one of them. He carries two or three times a day, six days a week baskets full with sulfur from the crater. Each basket is about 75-90 kilogram and will earn him 3 to 5 euro. He is one of the lucky ones that can afford a gas mask. It makes the work just a bit more bearable.

The miners channel the sulfuric gasses through pipes in which the sulfur turns liquid. It is then collected in small pits where it hardens. Bagas, like the other miners, make the big chunk to smaller pieces with metal pins. One big piece goes into a basked and it’s then filled with smaller pieces around it. You can experience the heat yourself down there. It’s hard work! When the basket is full Bagas will bring it up the crater rim which is a tough steep climb. Even with my camera gear which was about 10 kilograms it was a tough climb. Imagine carrying 75-90 kilograms! Bagas told me that the mine workers earn a descent amount of money for local standards. The conditions they work in however are so bad that life expectancy is about 50 years. Most miners have back problems and lung problems. Still they continue the work as they need to support their family.

 

Bagas has two kids and a wife which he supports by working in the sulfur mine. He doesn’t want his kids to go work in the mine so he pushes them to get education. Will the work conditions change? Probably not in the near future as earnings are high for local standards. Changing from manpower to machines is also not an option as manpower is cheaper. Bagas his children have the option on a good future. They go to school and probably play in the water as the kids in the above picture. This is however not for all the kids and the work under these difficult conditions continues.

It’s possible to visit during the daylight too. The difference is you won’t be able to spot the blue fires but it will be a more easy visit. If you are not up to the hike up, the sulfur miners are happy to carry you up in their small wagons. I do suggest everyone to visit but keep in mind the safety precautions. It’s a unique yet dangerous place on earth with an alien look. Well worth it!

I continued my journey back to Bali where I would stay two more nights at the Hard Rock Hotel Bali to relax with my daughter. Clean air, no sulfuric smell and sunshine. We started on Phuket, continued to Kuala Lumpur and visited Java and Bali in Indonesia as part of my Indonesia road trip. A trip I will never forget.

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Did you visit Ijen Volcano too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!

Gallery Ijen Volcano

Check the gallery for more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.

GPS Track Ijen Volcano

During my trips I make GPS tracks (sometimes they do not show, click download to open in Google maps). Feel free to download them and see how we moved around and see the time frames at the various places. Hope these maps are of help for you when planning your trips.