Travel expert Matt went on a mission: to understand the great Bromo and Ijen volcanoes and work out what they offered to fellow travellers. Here he shares his insights so you can decide which is the best one for you to scale.
When many people think of Indonesia, I am sure that, like me, they think of volcanoes, rice fields, beautiful beaches, temples and lush green jungles. Having been lucky enough to go back there in April, it’s really quite difficult to explain how true to your imagination this country is. It’s just magical, breath-taking and truly stunning. When you return, I just know that you’ll be banging on about it like me and trying to get all your friends to go!
On this trip, I was lucky enough to visit many of Java’s volcanoes, namely Merapi, Kelud, Bromo and Ijen…but here I want to focus on the two ‘big guns’ and what you can expect from each of them.
Mount Bromo – Java’s most well-known volcano
The views over Mount Bromo are some of the most iconic in Indonesia’s vast archipelago of islands. It’s only a few hours drive from beautiful Malang city, which has a strong Dutch heritage with many colonial buildings, and it’s a great place for a few night’s stay to break up the journey from Yogyakarta. There aren’t that many accommodation options around Bromo itself, but we usually opt for the lovely Java Banana hotel, which is up in the small mountainside village of Wonotoro. Situated at around 2000 m above sea level, the village atmosphere is an incredible contrast to areas at much lower altitudes; you’ll find hillside farming and a more subsistence style of living, especially as the soil is so fertile from volcanic ash. The views down the volcanic slopes are dramatic, and you can often see the flat plains in the distance.
Most people arrive at the hotel after lunch, explore the local surroundings and have an early night. You’ll be up again at about 3 am to take the 45-minute transfer by jeep further into the heart of the volcano and up to watch the potentially dramatic sunrise. May to October is when the weather is most stable, and it’s then that you have the best chance of seeing the whole volcanic plateau in front of you. We arrived at the viewpoint at around 4.15 am in anticipation of sunrise at about 5 am. The viewing platform is actually built on Mount Penanjakan, and you’ll find plenty of tea shops and toilet facilities for while you wait.
With the clouds up around us, we braved the cold and wind and unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to see anything. It was a complete foggy mess, and a little disheartened, we headed down for the next part of our Bromo adventure – to the Lautan Pasir, the volcanic plain where Mount Bromo itself sits.
Thankfully the plateau was not in the clouds, and we could see the amazing Bromo in front of us. It’s a completely surreal landscape, as you can see from the pictures, and the highlight of the whole experience is heading up to the crater edge of Bromo (a 20-minute horse ride or 45-minute walk – I’d opt for the horses unless you like walking through a lot of horse p…). You can see right into the heart of the volcano; words can’t really describe being that close to a crater and, if you are a volcano geek like me, you will be completely in your element staring at the bubbling, smoking centre. One note of warning here – don’t go up if you get vertigo: the edge is quite narrow, and tragically a few people have died falling into the crater!)
Our Bromo experience was quite surreal overall, a rollercoaster ride of emotions. From our high expectations of a sunrise that never was and feeling tired, cold and even a little miserable to standing on the edge of the Bromo crater in awe of such potential power. I admit that this experience was probably heightened because of the disappointment from the cloudy start to the day. So here might be a good time to show you Becky’s photo of Bromo sunrise, which she witnessed a month after my visit. No words.
Ijen – the lesser-visited volcano
And so to the wondrous Ijen plateau, off the main tourist trail and right over in the west of Java. It’s a long old slog from Bromo, especially when you add in a very early wake-up call, but the scenery is always lovely, so you can watch away a few hours out the window as you snooze!
About 6 hours into our drive, we left the lovely tarmac road, and we must have climbed about 800 m before we saw a sign for Ijen resort. The road might only be 5 km long, but it’s probably one of the worst roads I’ve ever been on, and it took us about 45 minutes to reach the hotel. It’s worth it though! I’m lucky to have travelled a lot, and I never take my experiences for granted, but I can honestly say that the views on arrival from the hotel lobby are unlike anything I’ve seen before. Ijen resort has it all: 3 volcanoes in close proximity (one of which is the archetypal conical shape), the most picture-perfect rice paddy fields and jungle, and not forgetting a few palm trees for good measure. Did they literally design this view to look like a postcard! If you walk 25 m to the other side of the resort you can see the Bali strait, Bali itself, even more volcanoes, rice paddies….the photo speaks for itself!
Ijen resort is comfortable and traditional, albeit a little rough around the edges. It’s got a great pool, and the food is nice but expensive, so gear up for paying at this remote location. It’s basically all about the views. In the afternoon, we walked around the local village to take everything in from all the different angles. How many pictures of a volcano could I actually take?! The place does also seem to have its own microclimate – watching the sunset with a thunderstorm and torrential rain heading our way was a little eerie.
We woke up a 1.30 am this time. (why even go to bed?) It takes about 1.5 hours to get to the starting point of the Ijen climb. This area is not frequented by many tourists and is a complete contrast to Bromo. There are no toilets as the water has dried up and no tea houses! So you need to take food with you which is provided by our hotel. It’s then a pretty steady 2-hour climb up to the crater edge, but along a well-trodden path. We didn’t make it in time for the sunrise on the volcanic rim, but actually, I’m so pleased we didn’t because we got to see the other volcanoes of the Ijen plateau with the light spreading over them. So there’s my tip…make sure you are ascending for sunrise, rather than being at the top as you can only see the crater, and it’s not as special. I must say that I was elated we got to see such a beautiful sunrise – I know it wasn’t as spectacular as it can be at Bromo, but then we also weren’t sharing it with 100’s of other people; so pros and cons.
On reaching the crater rim at 2700m, you can’t but feel a little proud of yourself (and the airs a little thin too). But pack for strong winds! I need to be careful what I say here, but really Bromo has got nothing on Ijen for its crater views. Wow, wow, wow is all I can say. You are just on the edge of the crater, and on one side, you can see west Java spread out below and all the way to the sea, and on the other is a beautiful blue sulphur lake and the rest of Ijen. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and Mount Kinabalu and they can only beat these views because they are so much higher. If you want to see an incredible vista, but at an achievable hike for most people…this is the place. Plus, there were only about 20 people there when we did it.
In summary, which volcano is better – Bromo or Ijen?
Bromo – much more accessible. If you are lucky enough to see the sunrise, it will probably be one of the best one’s you’ve ever seen. The hotels are of a much better standard, and it’s all set up nicely for tourists.
Ijen – nicely off the beaten track but a bit of mission to get to (unless coming from NW Bali). Amazing crater views. A steady hike for people who like walking and want something to accomplish.