After spending a month in Bali – relaxing in the hipster capital Canggu and travelling to the beautiful rice terraces and waterfalls of Ubud and Munduk – we felt the itch to be back on the road again! So we decided to head to East Java, not only to get another picture of Indonesia outside of Bali, but also to see the volcanic landscapes of Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo, East Java’s main touristic draw.
We soon found out, that East Java is just a whole other world compared to Bali! East Java definitely lacked in backpacker or traveller infrastructure, meaning no or few budget hostels/guesthouses with good services (if you’re lucky its at least quite clean, but they won’t have much information for you or speak much English). It was also hard to find nice cafés or even good streetfood stalls (and basically the only dish you’ll find is Nasi Goreng, Indonesian fried rice – its okay but Nicole got soon tired of eating Nasi Goreng for basically breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Another thing we read about a lot in many traveller’s blogs and also in the Lonely Planet are the many scams to be aware of: Apparently some people in East Java are quite creative in tricking foreigners and backpackers. We read a lot of reports about being overcharged, being let into fake ticket offices, fake police officers, fake bus terminals (!), mysterious bus breakdowns and robberies in guesthouses. We were literally approached by a guy at the bus station in Probolinggo promoting his business with “no mafia!”. That obviously sounds trustworthy! So we were a bit prejudiced about travelling in East Java and over-cautiously. In the end, nothing happened to us and all went very smooth. But we would still advice anyone planning a trip to Bromo to be very careful and only rely on their own information!
Getting from Bali to Banyuwangi, East Java
Our journey started with a bus ride all the way from Mengwi station in Denpasar (Bali) to Banyuwangi (East Java). Obviously, we went for the cheapest bus option without AC and lots of locals crammed into an old, rusty bus. The bus ride also included a short ferry ride from the very west of Bali (departing in Gilimanuk) to Banyuwangi. It took us overall about six hours for this 125km journey and some tons of sweat – so all we wished was a good shower and some rest when we arrived in Banyuwangi…good that we still didn’t know what to expect in Banyuwangi!
Lonely Planet described Banyuwangi as “a pleasant, growing city (…) worthy of a night or two” – we really don’t know how they came up with that idea :D. The city was neither beautiful, nor had it good food places or hostels. The first guesthouse we booked through booking.com simply didn’t exist and we were stranded in some no man’s land around town. We tried to ask the people in the neighbourhood but no one had heard of that guesthouse.
Eventually we drove to Baru Hotel (for some reason recommended in the Lonely Planet) and were simply grateful to have found a place to stay. This motel-style hotel was also more or less cheap, but everything was very dirty and quite disgusting! In fact, it was probably the worst hostel experience we had in our travels so far. At least, the staff could help us with organizing the tour to the Ijen volcano which would start at midnight, so it was a short “night” of only three hours anyways.
Hiking INTO the sulphuric Ijen volcano crater
The Ijen volcano is a 2,799m high active volcano with a 722m wide crater and a 1km wide acidic crater lake. In the local language the volcano is called “Gunung Merapi” which means “Mountain of Fire” because of the volcano’s blue flames (!) – a unique phenomenon which became only recently known to the wider public after National Geographic published a report about the electric-blue flames of Ijen in 2014. The blue fire ignites because sulphuric gas emerges from the crater (at temperatures up to 600°C) and reacts with the air. As you can see the blue flames best in the dark, the volcano is usually visited at night, meaning to get up at midnight and hiking for two hours up to the edge of the crater and another 30 minutes down into the crater.
But it’s not only the blue fire that makes Mount Ijen so stunning – the view of the cracked sulphuric white-yellow surface, the huge turquoise crater lake and thick white-yellow steam billowing over the whole area was a super-apocalyptic and breath-taking (literally!) experience. The crater lake is also considered as the largest highly acidic crater lake in the world and has a pH-value of 0.13 (so better not to jump in!).
Even more interesting, the crater is also an active mining site for sulphur: Sulphuric gases are channelled through big pipes which then melt and become a liquid orange-red coloured substance. Once the liquid emerges from the pipes and cools down, the sulphur solidifies, turning into a bright yellow colour. The miners would then break the sulphur into large pieces and carry the heavy load in baskets on their shoulders all the way down from the volcano to the next village.
The work is very arduous and bears a lot of health risks due to the toxic gases! When we visited the Mount Ijen, we had to wear gas masks and it wouldn’t have been possible for us to breathe without them. But the workers had none!
Hiking into the crater of Ijen was an once-in-a-lifetime experience. But we have to admit that we were also glad once we were out of the crater again and could breathe normally. At one point down in the crater very close to the flames the steam got suddenly so thick that we couldn’t see anything, our eyes burnt and we had the scary feeling of suffocating and getting blind!
Getting from Mount Ijen to Mount Bromo
Our next destination in East Java was Mount Bromo. The nearest village and base for exploring the volcano is Cemoro Lawang, which in turn was located near the city Probolinggo. After opting for the cheapest bus the day before, we took the premium train from Banyuwangi to Probolinggo after returning from Mount Ijen. And it was quite luxurious! Arriving super relaxed in Probolinggo the city surprised us with its cleanliness and bright colours. Houses and shops were painted in all possible shrill colours from pink to yellow, blue, green and purple. After the disastrous Hotel-Baru-experience in Banyuwangi we were relieved that the pink house (a big entirely pink building) was excellent! Although the staff had no further information for us on how to get to Bromo, we had a nice, clean room with functioning AC and a shower that you actually wanted to get in ;).
Getting to Cemoro Lawang was less tricky than we had expected. We got a minibus (actually mini!) to the Bayuangga bus terminal in Probolinggo and walked to the place outside of the terminal where maps.me indicated “Mt. Bromo public bus”. Tickets cost 35,000 IDR per person, but the bus would only leave when full (and it’s a bus for 15 people). As only foreigners take this bus to Cemoro Lawang, it means usually having to wait for some hours. After waiting for about 1.5-2 hours we were finally nine foreigners and decided to share the total costs of the bus among us rather than wait for another six persons, which drove the price up to around 60,000 IDR.
Leaving the hot air in Probolinggo behind, it got cooler and cooler while the bus winded its way up the mountains to Cemoro Lawang. It was so nice to breathe some cooler air and not sweating constantly! In the village we spontaneously teamed up with two other backpackers from Indonesia and Thailand and basically rented a flat for four persons for a very reasonable rate at the Otix Guesthouse.
Exploring the Bromo volcano and the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park (without ticket)
Visitors to Mount Bromo usually hike up (or take a jeep) very early morning to nearby Mount Penanjakan for sunrise views over the entire plateau, before dropping down to the actual national park to visit the sea of sands and the crater of Mount Bromo. Since we arrived early, we decided to switch the order of things and visit the crater right in the afternoon we arrived.
Mount Bromo is part of the larger Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, which since last year comes with a hefty entrance fee of 320,000 IDR! However, there is a dirt horse-trail next to the Cemara Indah restaurant leading straight down to the ‘Sea of Sand’ and Mount Bromo, avoiding the official entrance and all ticket controls (the path is marked in maps.me). First we were a bit scared that we would be discovered, but once we were in the park, no one asked us for our tickets. In fact, the trail seems to be well known among locals and backpackers as a money-saving option.
The Sea of Sand is a broad, flat area of black sand with several volcanoes reaching into the sky: among them are the inactive green Tengger volcano in the center, the active Bromo crater (2,329m) and the highest mountain and volcano of Java, Mount Semeru (3,676m).
Hiking up to the Bromo crater is very easy (it’s just a very steep staircase à la Chinese style). Going up in the afternoon meant the park was quite empty and we were almost the only ones at the crater (don’t go in the morning after sunrise, that’s when everyone goes!). Without the crowds we could enjoy the Sea of Sand and volcanic landscape of the National Park all to ourselves.
Sunrise view over Mount Bromo from Mount Penenjakan
The most touristy thing to do in the national park is the Mount Bromo sunrise tour. As we neither wanted to join a tour nor pay for it, we just hiked up to the sunrise point. We had to get up early at 3.30am and walk for around one and a half hours up Mount Penanjakan which is located outside of the national park’s borders so that no ticket was needed.
The jeep drivers led all tourists to the same two main sunrise viewpoints, which were of course crammed with people. But again with the help of maps.me we hiked to a viewpoint in between these two main ones and had the sunrise view over Mount Tengger, Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru basically all for ourselves :).
With more time we would have liked to hike up Mount Semeru, but with our flight to Bangkok already booked, it was time to leave East Java again and head back to Bali. Plus - after a week of Nasi Goreng - we were also looking forward to getting some good food again ;). We left Cemoro Lawang around noon and got a train (this time economy) to Banyuwangi. Our disastrous first night still in mind, we asked around and got the recommendation to stay in the Latansa guesthouse north of the town not too far from the harbour, which was so much better than Baru Hotel. The owner even brought us with his car to the harbour the next day, where the buses to Denpasar departed. We got (again) the cheapest bus without AC, this time the vehicle was even more rusty and crammed than the one from Denpasar to East Java. But well, that’s maybe the real East Java experience ;).
Information at a glance
Entrance Ticket Bromo & How to avoid it
The ticket for foreigners for the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park costs 218.000 IDR at weekdays and 320.000 IDR during weekends or public holidays. To avoid this entrance fee, take the horse trail on the right hand side next to the restaurant Cemara Indah leading down to the Sea of Sand. There is no ticket needed to hike up Mount Penanjakan for the sunrise view.
Written by Kevin and Nicole in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia
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