The turquoise acid lake deep inside Kawah Ijen (Ijen crater) looks like it could be home to one of James Bond’s diabolical foes. Incredibly beautiful, but possessing the strength of car battery acid, Kawah Ijen is the world’s largest sulfuric acid lake.
Traveling to this remote part of East Java Indonesia, I was overwhelmed by the scenery and humbled by the men who earn their living here. Kawah Ijen is the site of an extremely labour intensive sulfur mining operation. Watching the miners go about their daily work—a job so physically demanding and dangerous— you’ll think twice before complaining about your job again.
The Hike to Kawah Ijen
From the car park at Pos Paltuding, the 3 km hike to the rim of Ijen crater is well marked and not particularly difficult, but it is uphill. It’s best to visit in the dry season (April-October) and hike early in the morning before the clouds roll in and obscure the view.
The first section of the hike is on a wide, well-worn track and travels through a tropical, misty forest. At 2 km, you come to a small shelter that is used as a sulfur weighing station. Beyond there, the trail narrows but the views open up to lush forest slopes and the volcanic landscape of the Ijen Plateau.
You’ll notice the distinct, unpleasant sulfur odor as you approach the crater’s rim. Bring a bandana to cover your mouth and nose. The view from the rim is stunning. The 200 m deep lake sits inside the Ijen crater and its garish blue-green colour contrasts sharply with the sheer, grey crater walls.
The Ijen Sulfur Miners
Two hundred meters below the rim, near the edge of the lake, miners work in inferno-like conditions. Molten sulfur drips slowly from the end of ceramic pipes and pools on the ground where it cools, solidifies, and turns bright yellow. Workers use crowbars to break the sulfur into chunks that they load into large baskets. The fumes are intense but miners use no protective equipment. Most wear only thin t-shirts, cotton pants, and flimsy rubber boots.
When baskets are filled, miners walk back up to the rim on the perilously steep trail carrying 60-80 kg loads. They deliver the sulfur 3km down the mountain, and then they walk back up and do it all over again. The Ijen miners are paid by the weight of sulfur they transport each day. The average wage is 10-13 US$/day.
The miners and their huge yellow burdens provide great photo opportunities, but ask permission. Most are fine with having their pictures taken, but appreciate a bit of change. These men are truly amazing, and they’ll stay in your thoughts long after you’ve left Kawah Ijen.
How to Get to Kawah Ijen
The approach to Kawah Ijen is from Bondowoso from the west, and Banyuwangi from the east. Be prepared for a long, bumpy ride. The majority of visitors come on chartered transport or tours that include accommodations. This is easy to arrange from Yogyakarta, Malang and Surabaya on Java or from Bali. Many tours offer a combined Mount Bromo and Kawah Ijen excursion. Helios Transport has a good website with lots of information about getting to Ijen, places to stay, and maps.
Where to Stay When Visiting Kawah Ijen
Tours usually stay at one of three places. The least expensive are Catimor and Arabika homestays. We stayed at Catimor. The rooms are basic and not very clean—my son describes them as horrible. Ask to see a few rooms and pick the best of the lot. Better, but at considerably higher cost, is the Ijen Resort. Check with tour operators about where they stay.
Despite the discomfort of getting to Ijen and the miserable accommodations, I’d go again in a heartbeat (my son would not agree).