The vertical distances involved are immense and most tourists will struggle with the walk without any weight on their back at all.
The men of Kawah Ijen walk three kilometres and 400 vertical metres up to the crater lip from the car park at Pos Paltuding, the location that tourists arrive at to begin their journey. From the crater lip, the workers descend into the crater and end up at an acidic aquamarine crater lake some 300 metres below, where big pipes funnel sulphuric gases so that water can be used to cool it down and thus solidify it.
The lumps of solidified sulphur are then loaded into the workers' bamboo baskets at which time the journey back up to the crater lip commences. The baskets weigh anywhere between 50 and 115 kilograms, with the average being 75. This bounty is then hauled up to the crater lip at a relatively slow pace on the men's shoulders with most men taking a break along the way. From the top of the crater, the men make the three kilometre journey back to the main parking area where they are paid directly for their work -- an astonishing 625 rupiah per kilo. When enough sulphur is produced, these men make a second journey to double their earnings for the day, making them very well paid compared to other manual jobs in Indonesia but presumably at the expense of poorer health outcomes.
Visitors to Kawah Ijen must report to the ticket office at Pos Paltuding, which is where cars and motorbikes drop passengers. The entry fee is 15,000 rupiah, with a camera fee of 30,000 rupiah also charged. At Pos Paltuding there is a canteen with the usual array of snacks such as biscuits and coffee on offer. From Pos Paltuding, the dirt path towards Kawah Ijen is gruelling and those without a reasonable level of fitness will find the going extremely difficult. It is worth noting that if you aren't thirsty at Pos Paltuding, it is better to wait until the two kilometre mark to buy your drink, as here another canteen offers an array of simple food and drink and reasonable prices -- this way you can save on weight in the most punishing section of the climb. From the canteen, the track flattens out and the views open up. Stunning views of Gunungs Merapi and Raung surround the path at this point as well as distant views of the southeastern tip of Java.
The view experienced upon arriving at the crater is incredible with the 300 metre-plus sheer walls descending directly into a massive aquamarine crater lake. On the near side of the crater lake the miners of Kawah Ijen toil away and a steady stream of men can be seen slowly bringing their haul back to the top.
Despite the signs forbidding entry to the crater, guides (men going to pick up sulphur) will offer to take you right to the location where the sulphur is formed. It's a tough walk down the slopes into the crater and the fumes at times are overwhelming and some might say dangerous. But with an experienced guide, it is made much safer, especially when the wind changes direction and you are enveloped in sulphuric gases. This results in a total whiteout: yours eyes will water, with the tears then crystalising into sulphur on your eyelashes, you'll struggle for breath and have a general feeling of "this could be the end"! For this highly recommended guide service, expect to pay 50,000 rupiah per person -- an astonishing experience. We believe the 50,000 rupiah is a great insurance policy in an otherwise potentially dangerous environment.
The walk back to Pos Paltuding is much the same as the climb up but less strenuous. The whole adventure from Pos Paltuding to the crater lake and return should take about four hours, with an hour of this spent climbing in and out of the crater itself.
There is no need to arrive at Ijen at sunrise as the clouds don't really roll in until about midday, at which time views of the surrounding area may be obscured. Our suggestion is to commence the walk from Pos Paltuding at about 06:30.
How to get there
The 40 kilometre journey from Banyuwangi to Kawah Ijen is probably the best approach for those travelling solo or travelling from Bali and wanting a hassle-free tour. The two options for this approach are a 4WD organised through your hotel for approximately 500,000 rupiah or an ojek from a local driver for 150,000 rupiah.
Following the road to the town of Licin to the west of Banyuwangi, signs appear pointing the way to Kawah Ijen. At this point the road begins to climb gently through clove and coffee plantations and the going is fast because of the great road surface. But all of a sudden, tarmac gives way to rubble and the fun really begins, particularly if you're on a motorbike.
For the next three kilometres, fist-sized rocks, boulders and gravel have to be navigated by whatever mode of transport you are using and it is impossible for passengers to stay on motorbikes; they must dismount and walk up the steeper, rockier sections until the road becomes navigable once again.
This happens about 10 times on the journey by motorbike to Kawah Ijen and it makes for a very tiring journey. You will cheer when the road finally becomes good again, but by this time you have reached Pos Paltuding, the Kawah Ijen parking area, where a fee of 15,000 rupiah is payable per person as well as a 30,000 rupiah camera fee. From here, the walk to Kawah Ijen begins.
Most visitors to Kawah Ijen use the Bondowoso approach as this is the approach preferred by tour operators. As an independent traveller, this approach requires a minibus from the Bondowoso bus terminal (only departing in the morning) for the journey to Sempol (2.5 hours/25,000 rupiah) and then a connecting ojek for the half-hour onward journey (30,000 rupiah one way). Those travelling in pairs may be able to convince a single ojek driver to take both passengers, but it is likely you will be charged extra.
Thankfully, the road from Bondowoso is not as bad as that from Banyuwangi but this needs to be balanced with the extra distance that needs to be travelled. Regardless of the approach, unless you take a tour, an ojek will be required to visit Kawah Ijen.