Indonesia, Travel

A Guide to Visit Ijen Crater from Surabaya

Mount Ijen is definitely one of the most famous mountains in Indonesia. Not surprising though: Ijen Crater offers a sight that you can only see in two places in this world – the blue fire.

Image credit: National Geographic

The blue fire is a natural phenomenon that happens when the sulfuric gas comes out from the vents and meets oxygen and can only be seen before sun rise.

Planning a trip to see this rare sight? Read on!

How to Get to Mount Ijen

We took a train from Gubeng Station in Surabaya to Banyuwangi, the nearest city to the first climbing post of Mount Ijen, Paltuding.

gubeng station surabaya

The train that runs between Surabaya and Banyuwangi is called the Mutiara Timur train. It departs twice a day at 9AM and at 10PM from Surabaya and will reach Banyuwangi at around 3PM and 4AM respectively depending on which stop you alight at in Banyuwangi. It will be best if you check the location of the hotel you will be staying at (if any) and find out which station is the nearest to alight.

You can purchase tickets from the official train website or, if you can not speak Bahasa Indonesia, from other ticketing sites like tiket.com. Purchase your tickets early as seats often run out especially during the holiday season.

There are three classes of seat to choose from: economy, business and executive. As a local, I would highly recommend taking the executive one as the price is not very expensive (ranges from ~15 SGD to ~25 SGD one way). It is also the cleanest and gives you the most comfort. When you have chosen the class you want, you need to choose a subclass. For executive class, there are subclasses A, H, I, J and X with subclass A being the most expensive (also meaning the most comfortable).

We took the night train and sat the executive class, subclass A. Each ticket costed us 250,000 IDR (~25SGD) one way. The train was very clean and the seats were comfortable even though the train was old. The facilities were surprisingly quite okay. There were power plugs for you to charge your phone if you needed and they also provide each passenger with a clean set of pillow and blanket for the journey.

The train departed on time at 10PM and made many stops in between making it quite hard to sleep because before every stop, there will be an announcement made in Bahasa and in English, each twice. The staff also kindly turned off most of the light in the seating area and left some lights on for those alighting but it was still too bright for me to sleep. Lesson is, bring your eye masks and earplugs if you are taking the night train and want to get some sleep or just take the afternoon train.

From Banyuwangi, you will need a car to go up to the camping grounds of Paltuding where the hike up to the crater begins. You can either rent one and drive it yourself or rent a car with a local driver (recommended). The road up to the camping ground is not a nicely paved one and it can be quite dangerous if you are not familiar with the roads since you will need to drive up in the dark – yes, no street lamps too! Rental starts from 500,000 IDR (~50 SGD) per day inclusive of the driver service and petrol.

The Hike Up to Ijen Crater and Important Tips

We stayed in a hotel at the side of the mountain and it took us around an hour to Paltuding. You should aim to reach Paltuding before 1AM if you want to catch the blue fire. The ticketing office opens at 1AM and only after purchasing the ticket will you be allowed to start your hike so the best would be to arrive by 12.30AM.

Before the hike, you need to decide on whether you want to hire a guide. You might be thinking that you do not need any help in walking and can just follow the crowd to reach the peak so why do you need a guide?

The guide will be very, very helpful when you are walking down to the crater from the peak. The journey down to the crater is one that is steep and dark and only the guides will know the best way down. He will prevent you from dangerous steps that can possibly make you slip and fall off the cliff and he will even hold your hands to help you down. So unless you plan to stay up in the peak and not come down to the crater, please hire a guide.

The blue fire | Photo taken by Mr Yayan, our guide

Our guide, Mr Yayan was very helpful. He went up and down the steps to fetch and guide each one of us down the steps for our safety. Even when the sulfuric smoke was so thick, he went past the smoke just to take photos of the sulfur that was covered by smoke to show us. You can hire Mr Yayan as your guide in Ijen via phone at +62853 3359 5321. His services cost 200,000 IDR (~20 SGD) and is worth every penny. He also rents out the masks at 25,000 IDR per mask (~ 2.5 SGD), something you need to have when you walk down the crater.

The next thing to decide is whether to hire a trolley for the hike up to the peak or hike yourself. What trolley?! Yes, the locals provide trolley services for those who are not-so-fit and still want to see the blue fire. You will basically be sitting in the trolley while one person pushes from the back and one or two more pulls the trolley from the front. A two-way ride will cost around 550,000 to 700,000 IDR (~ 55 SGD to 70 SGD) depending on whether it is low or peak season while a one-way ride to the top costs ~500,000 IDR (~ 50 SGD).

Sulfur miner at Ijen
This is how they carry the sulfur. Just imagine having to go up and down the mountain with 80kg on your shoulder!

You may feel bad for the people pulling and pushing you up but really, when asked, they said they would rather do this to earn money because the alternative for them is to mine sulfur. According to them, during the low season when there is low demand for trolleys, they need to mine sulfur as a living. They would go up to the peak and down to the crater, mine sulfur until they collect around 80 kilograms (Yes, 80!) and carry it all the back up and walk down. They need to do this 3 to 5 times in the same day to earn a living because each kilogram is only priced at less than 10 cents! Crazy eh?

Now before you decide, you need to know what the hike up is like. The hike up to the peak, before the descent to the crater, is around 3 kilometers. The first kilometer is the ‘warm up’ as the ground is still relatively flat but there after, the path will be steeper and goes up to 60 degrees inclination. If you do not exercise regularly, do not attempt the hike and just hire one trolley. If you wish to try, you can do so and just in case you need the trolley half way, there may be some locals offering their service along the way too. Just remember, after you reach the peak, you still need to walk down 1 kilometer to the crater and walk back up back to the peak for heading down.

We decided to hire the trolley two-way and lucky we did! One, the ride up takes around an hour to 1.5 hours whereas if you were to hike on your own, it would probably take 2.5 to 3 hours. Second, being the inexperienced hikers we are, we took around an hour or 1.5 hours to walk down to the crater so when we reached it was already around 4.30AM and we only had around 45 minutes to try to see the blue fire.  Third, after our hike back up from the crater, most of us had no energy left for the walk down!

The person who pulled my trolley was very kind and decided to come down with us and help guide our way to the crater. Eventually he also helped us with all our bags and said that it was nothing to him (well yeah, compared to the 80kg x 4 trips he have to normally make)! You can reserve his trolley in advance by contacting Mr Yanto at +6282 332 233 52. Be sure to reserve a day in advance if its holiday season!

At Ijen Crater

Photo with the famed blue fire, taken by Mr Yayan, our guide

When we arrived at the crater, the blue fire was still burning but that day, the sulfuric smoke was horrible! The smoke from the vents made it hard to breathe (actually the hike was hard because of this) and covered up the blue fire so we could only see it for a few seconds every few minutes. Most of our time at the crater was spent trying to breathe and waiting for the smoke to clear up.

What you do when the wind blows your way: Wear your mask and do not face the smoke

TIP: The smoke can cause irritation to your eyes too. So if you have sensitive eyes, bring your swimming goggles along! Some people walked half way down to the crater and gave up because their eyes were too sore from the smoke. If you do not have one, just do not face the smoke when it blows on you to minimise the effect.

ijen crater

At around 5.30AM the sun began to rise and we could see the crater (and everything else around us!). It was a magnificent view (minus the smoke!) that melted all the sorrows of standing in the smoke and dark away. You could also see how sulfur looks like and try to carry the 80kg of sulfur if you want!

Whatever you do, do not fall or drop anything into the ‘water’ of the crater. The ‘water’ is very acidic and is estimated to be around 700 degrees! You can see the evaporation smoke coming out of the ‘pond’ and even metal will melt if it falls into it.

After spending a little more than an hour at the crater taking photos, we started to climb back up to the peak. One thing for sure, the climb back up was easier than the descent because we could see where we were going!

Conclusion

The path to see the blue fire was definitely not easy but it was an eye-opening experience and totally worth it! If you are going to climb on your own, be sure to train hard a few months before. Do not climb up to the peak without coming down to crater because not much can be seen from the peak and it would be a waste of effort! Oh and remember to wear warm clothes as the temperature can fall below 10 degrees centigrade at the top. A windbreaker and gloves would definitely help too! Have fun!

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