I recently returned from a trip to Indonesia, which was easily one of the most amazing trips that I have ever taken. Before going, I knew little about the country and what to expect, and even though I did my research ahead of time, nothing compares to jumping into the experiences feet first. I started off the trip by visiting the beaches in Bali (which were full of Australian tourists), but if I were to do it over again, I would skip the beaches and focus on exploring more of the country. Beaches are the same everywhere, so if you want a nice beach, just pick a location that is cheap and close by to where you live. For me, since I was traveling across the globe, it was far more rewarding to experience the unique landscape and culture of Indonesia, such as traveling from city to city, experiencing the temples and hiking the volcanos. The most incredible experience of the trip was definitely hiking the Ijen Crater in Banyuwangi on Java island.
Ijen is one of two highly acidic sulphur craters in the world and it was unlike anything I have ever experienced. There are a few things that are good to know before you hike Ijen.
- Hike for the sunrise: I was there during rainy season, but since it doesn’t usually rain in the morning, hiking for sunrise was a good choice. We left the hotel at midnight and started the hike around 2am, which allowed us around 3 hours to get to the top, but we made it to the top in about 1.5 hours. It takes another hour or so to hike down and back into the valley to see the blue flame.
- Hike during rainy season: Rainy season ended up to be a good time of year to hike because it is actually less slippery than trying to hike up the dry dirt during dry season.
- Bring googles: It sounds geeky, but I wish that I had googles to protect my eyes from the sulphur smoke.
- Bring a warm drink: Nothing sounded better than having a warm drink at the top of the brisk crater, so if I was going to do it again, I would have brought a thermos of hot chocolate.
- Be in shape: If you don’t exercise regularly, this probably isn’t the climb for you. It was tough on the legs, both from hiking up the steep incline, but also hiking down into the valley where the blue flame was.
- Plan for (at least) 5 hours total: It took 1.5 hours to get to the top, another 25 minutes to hike into the valley to see the blue flame, then 25 min back up, we took at least 30 minutes for pictures at various points, and then a little over an hour to hike down to the bottom.
- Hire a driver: it cost about 600,000 rupiah for someone to drive us from our hotel in Banyuwangi to the crater, which is less than $50. We had the hotel arrange for a driver for it and it worked out great.
- Hire a guide: Even though the climb isn’t difficult to navigate (there’s only one path), it was helpful to have the guide to show us how to get down to the blue flame and show us where to be during the sunrise to see the crater. The guide cost 200,000 rupiah, which is $15.
- There will be crowds: Don’t be surprised by the mass of people who will also be climbing up to see the crater. I would say that at the top there was at least 50-75 other people.
- There is coffee at the bottom: This was a significant motivator for me to get through the night of hiking. Ask for “kopi su su” which means coffee with sugar.
The best part about Ijen was the element of surprise. There were so many moments were I was overwhelmed by things that I was not anticipating. The hike up the volcano starts when it is pitch black. You really can’t see a thing. In fact, within the first 15 minutes, I fell into a 3 foot hole. Ha. Go figure. So you spend 1.5 to 2 hours using a flashlight, carefully watching your steps, up the steep slopes, not knowing what you are going to find at the top. It’s not much more than that on the way up. I consider myself a fit person, but the hike was challenging. Even though the air was cool, I was hot and sweaty at the half-way point and my legs were definitely feeling it. When we got to the top, it was still dark and we hiked down into the valley where the sulphuric blue flame was. The crater is so acidic and toxic that it creates a large blue flame at the base where miners collect the sulphur. The flame is fascinating to see, so if you are going all the way up there, you mind as well go when it’s dark to see the flame. After being in the valley for 10 or 15 minutes, the wind shifted and we quickly got attacked by sulphur smoke. Looking back, I laugh because it was mass chaos as everyone started coughing and running from the smoke. There were people hunched over couching and spitting onto the ground, completely blind from the smoke. It felt like a horror movie where everyone was desperately trying to get out of danger, but there were so many people that no one could move fast enough. My eyes were watering like crazy and I couldn’t see, but I knew we had to get out of there if it was going to get better.
The climb back up from the flame was steep and slippery and one missed step would leave you tumbling down the side of the mountain. It was incredible to watch local Indonesian people hike wearing flip-flops or sandals, where I was struggling even with my hiking boots. Once we got back up to the peak, we sat down and rested, ate some food and waited for the sun to rise. Around 5am we started to see some light and watched as the sulphuric lake began to appear from the darkness. As soon as I started to see it, I wanted to take pictures and capture the vastness of the lake, but as it got lighter and lighter from the sun, I was more and more in awe of the color of the lake. The sun continued to rise and the texture of the cliffs began to emerge, which was just absolutely incredible. One of my favorite parts was watching the people lined up at the very top of the peak (which was even higher than where I was) and knowing that each of those tiny figures were experiencing the same awe that I was experiencing. There’s something so pure and humbling about having that kind of connection and experience with strangers. Appreciating beauty is such a universal bond.
After lots of pictures, we eventually started the hike down. I enjoyed this part of the trek almost as much as watching the lake emerge from the darkness, because I was so shocked by all of the beauty that we had been passing on the way up, but had no idea because it was pitch black. The mountains were lush and laced with mist curling around its figure. The air was still brisk and lively, accented with notes of birds singing softly in the distance. I was on a hiking-high the whole way down and got lost in the beauty of the landscape. It was unreal.
Once we got to the bottom, we were able to get a hot cup of coffee before heading back to the hotel. I should have slept the rest of the day after hiking all night, but I could not shake the adrenaline rush of the experience. I highly recommend to add hiking Ijen to your bucket list, if it is not on there already.