Kawah Ijen Crater Hike - Blue Fire & Ijen Miners
Volcanoes, volcanoes, volcanoes! They’re everywhere in Indonesia, especially in Java. We love climbing them and sharing our knowledge and adventures with you. Their peaks can be seen all over the island from the Dieng Plateau to Mount Bromo National Park.
But the most unique of them all is Kawah Ijen with its extraordinary Ijen blue flames and desperate Ijen miners carrying sulphur up and down the mountain. In this post, we’ll go through how we took on the Kawah Ijen crater hike to see it all.
The Ijen Volcano Complex
Situated in East Java, Indonesia, the Ijen Crater Complex is a volcanic site comprising the Ijen volcano and a stunning turquoise acidic lake within its crater.
This acidic water body is one of the world’s most acidic lakes due to its high sulfur content, giving it its brilliant hue.
Famous for its colour and ignited sulfuric gases creating electric blue flames, the active volcano isa magnet for adventurers – and that includes us!
The complex also features hiking trails where you can see the local sulfur mining activities and the difficult lives of the miners.
Where to Stay Near Kawah Ijen
A lot of travellers rush through Java as part of an organised tour. On those types of tours, you’ll most likely be taken to Kawah Ijen immediately after you’ve hiked up Mount Bromo.
This is fine if you’re in a hurry, but these travellers miss out on experiencing another side of the Kawah Ijen crater hike.
We spent two nights in one of the many villages surrounding the volcano. The village is populated with Ijen miners and their families.
Our hosts at Ijen Adventure Inn are sulfur miners, with the husbands spending several days at a time mining for sulphur without returning home.
Ijen Adventure Inn is part of a village collective of homestays where profits are shared between the Ijen miners and their families.
The homestays have a small number of guides who also mine up at Kawah Ijen crater when their not leading tourists up the mountain side.
The village seemed a very happy place. Most families had nice houses, kids played in the street and we’d get welcoming hellos from the locals as we walked past.
We were even lucky to witness a colourful parade of costumes and music which formed part of a wedding celebration at the end of the street.
Staying at Ijen Adventure Innfelt like a genuine Javanese homestay. No frills or fancy rooms, just friendly hosts and homemade local meals.
It really felt like we were staying in someone’s home, which these days are getting harder to find with more and more hotels and guesthouses calling themselves “homestays”.
Up Early for the Kawah Ijen Crater Hike
Our alarms woke us at 2:30 am for a 3:00 am departure to Kawah Ijen by car. The reason for this ridiculously early start is so we can see the sunrise from the top of Ijen crater.
Weather permitting of course. With it being the wet season, we hadn’t had much luck with sunrises in Java but we had our fingers crossed for this one.
The other advantage of hiking Kawah Ijen in the dark is to witness the famous Ijen blue fire (often mistakingly called “blue lava”. In the darkness of early morning, the Ijen blue fire can be seen more clearly.
We were shocked by the number of other tourists parking their vehicles in the car park. Even our guide was surprised as we weren’t at all in high season.
This is a clear sign of Ijen Volcano and Java’s growing popularity. After a long queue to use the toilet facilities, we joined the hundreds of other Ijen crater hike tourists to begin our ascent.
The Kawah Ijen Crater Hike Trail
We found the Ijen crater hike trail not to be too challenging. However, there were plenty of other people puffing and panting on the side while taking a much-needed break.
The trail difficulty will depend on your own fitness level but if you really begin to struggle, there are plenty of Ijen miners ready to take you up in their wheelbarrow for a fee.
We witnessed this on more than one occasion.
We managed to complete the Ijen Crater hike trail in about 90 minutes, including a halfway stop at the only mountainside cafe.
Don’t expect to be served cappuccinos and flat whites here, instead, the cafe is a wonderful atmospheric wooden hut serving pot noodles and 3-in-1 instant sachets of tea/coffee.
Ijen miners mix with tourists as we all break from the steep Ijen crater hike.
As we got closer to Ijen crater, the stench of sulphur started to fill the air and thick sulfur gases bellowed toward us.
This was the time to put on our provided gas masks, and after some essential Darth Vader impressions, we continued toward Ijen crater.
The Kawah Ijen Miners
For the entire duration of our Ijen crater hike, we passed dozens of Ijen miners on their way up and down the mountain.
Those on their way up were pushing empty but still heavy wheelbarrows, while those on the way down had theirs full of fluorescent yellow sulphur.
These poor guys do this all day and night with only a couple of hours sleep at a time. As we were told by our own Ijen Miner guide,
“the more they work, the more they get paid.”
The father of the family we were staying with was currently working a 10-day shift.
Even though his home is only 60 minutes away by car, he and all the other Ijen miners still decide to sleep in a cold wooden hut halfway up the mountain with no comforts whatsoever.
Some nights are even spent down inside the choking crater amongst the sulfuric gases, so when they wake they can immediately get to work by chipping away at the sulphur.
Getting up and down the mountainside with wheelbarrows full of sulphur is hard enough, but navigating the loose steep rocks inside Ijen crater is another feat altogether.
The Ijen miners carry baskets of sulphur on their shoulders from the bottom of Ijen crater to its rim before loading their wheelbarrows for the long walk down the mountain.
Fatalities regularly occur due to falls down the steep incline and life expectancy is low because of the constant exposure to the poisonous sulphuric smoke.
Instead of gas masks, only rags or old clothes are used to cover their mouths.
We learned that not so long ago they didn’t even have wheelbarrows, so instead, the Ijen miners carried the sulphur down the mountain on their shoulders.
The Kawah Ijen Blue Fire
The highlight of a Kawah Ijen crater hike is to see the Ijen blue fire. Tourists come to witness this extraordinary natural wonder that can be seen only here at Ijen Crater, and in Iceland.
The Ijen blue fire is created by the extreme heat of the volcano combined with high amounts of sulphur.
You just need to look at the beautiful bright blueness of the Ijen crater lake to see that the volcano is remarkably sulphuric. In fact, Kawah Ijen holds the world’s most acidic crater lake!
It was still dark when we reached the rim of the Ijen crater, so the Ijen blue fire could be seen glowing at one corner of the lake.
Even though the area was busy with tourists, it was eerily quiet with only the echoes of Ijen miners shouting to one another in the darkness.
We visited the Ijen blue fire during Java’s wet season, so at this time of year, the volcano is highly toxic due to the reaction of cool rain falling on the hot blue flames. The reaction creates higher volumes of toxic smoke so is considered too dangerous for tourists to get a close-up look at the Ijen blue fire. But in the dry season, it’s possible to climb down into the crater, as the miners do, to feel the intense heat of the blue flames.
Caution should be taken if doing this, as cases of tourists falling to their death have been reported and pain in the eyes and throat will be felt. Our eyes were feeling sore up on the crater rim so we can only imagine what it must feel like right up close!
Do you Need a Guide for the Mount Ijen Crater Hike?
If you follow our blog, you’ll know that we prefer to do most things ourselves without using a guide. However, on this occasion, we decided to use one.
You don’t need a guide for the Ijen caldera hike. There were plenty of people walking to the Ijen Blue Fire without one.
But having a guide for this particular hike meant that we could learn about the miners and their lives.
The Ijen miners play such an important part in the experience of hiking Kawah Ijen so it’s only right to show an interest in their hard-working lives instead of just taking their photos.
With our guide being a miner himself, we were able to learn so much about the working conditions and history of the mine.
If you’re planning on climbing down into Kawah Ijen volcano to get a closer look at the Ijen blue fire, then we strongly recommend using a guide.
It’s an intimidating-looking climb and only an experienced guide will know the safest route to take and how to best deal with the choking toxic smoke. Good luck!
We didn’t get to see even a glimpse of the sun. The Ijen sunrise is supposed to be pretty epic but we had thick clouds covering the entire sky for the whole duration of our Kawah Ijen crater hike.
But we didn’t care because we’d had such an awesome experience witnessing the Ijen blue fire, the beautiful Ijen Crater Lake, and the activities of the Ijen sulfur miners.