I visited two volcanoes on eastern side of Java. The first was Mount Bromo, which was about a 1.5-hour drive from Probolinggo, the town where I stayed. My homestay in Probolinggo arranged transport to Mount Bromo, which required a 2 AM wakeup call to watch sunrise.
My Dutch roommate and I must have been excited because we woke up at 2 AM without much issue. After our driver brought our group to a parking area, we took an easy 25-minute walk to the viewpoint. We reached the viewpoint at around 4:15 AM and played the waiting game. Temperatures were in the 40s, so I wore my rain jacket, a sweater, and leggings. My hands and toes became numb, so I blew on my fingers and jumped around to try to warm up. This didn’t help much (duh).
A few minutes before 5 AM, the sky started to lighten. and we got our first glimpses of Bromo. I willed my numb fingers to bend to take photos and thanked the weather gods that we got a clear view.
As the sun rose higher, the sky turned into a mix of yellow, pink, and blue.
The sunrise itself was breathtaking, as we could see over the clouds.
I couldn’t get enough of the views of Bromo in the changing light.
After we watched the sunrise, we boarded a jeep that took us to the crater. To reach the crater rim, we did an easy 15-minute climb up a set of stairs. The crater roared louder as we neared the rim. I couldn’t believe the noise; it sounded like a group of planes taking off.
The area around the top of the stairs was packed with people, but the crowds thinned as we walked farther along the rim. Ash, sand, and dust were flying everywhere, but I didn’t care. The views at the top were sensational.
I kept shouting, “This is so cool!” to the poor Dutch group mate (yes, yet another Dutch traveler) who stuck with me during the walk around the rim. I’m grateful he tolerated me and didn’t push me into the crater.
I could have spent the rest of the day at the crater, but our group had to return to our homestay. Once we returned to our room, my roommate and I packed for our next tour to Ijen. Ijen is famous for blue flames, which are best seen in the dark. The volcano contains sulfur mines, where miners toil in harsh, toxic conditions for only $11 a day. The average lifespan of a miner is fifty years.
My roommate and I boarded a van, and our driver picked up a German and two Austrians who had been traveling together for a few days. We slept through most of the five-hour ride to Arabica Homestay, our accommodation near Ijen.
Our homestay…oh, man. I understand the mindset of the owners: when the overwhelming majority of your guests are on tours and staying for just one night, there’s not much incentive to provide luxurious accommodations. That said, this was the first place where I was afraid to sleep in my bed. My roommate and I verified there were no bed bugs, but the sheets and pillow were stained and had stray hairs on them. Layers of grime coated the floor. It was clear no one had swept the floor in weeks—maybe months. When we turned on the water heater in the bathroom, flames burst from the boiler. We decided to skip showering to be on the safe side.
I was lucky that everyone in our group was level-headed. At this point, we had no choice but to laugh at the state of our rooms. One of the Austrians pulled up TripAdvisor reviews of Arabica, and we cracked up at the descriptions. Here are some excellent quotes:
- “The water heater in a room a few doors down literally blew up when that person was taking a shower; thankfully she was not hurt. Not one Arabica staff member came to investigate the very loud, gunshot-like bang, which was followed by the very loud scream of the person in the shower.”
- “Our [room] reeked of urine and the floor was perpetually wet due to a leaking toilet in the bathroom which made its way into the room. I wouldn’t be surprised if the floor was covered in urine. . . . I’m so glad we only had to stay at this place for for about 7-8 hours in total, because even that was too much.”
- “Door handle broke and we were stuck in the room shouting for help (as we couldn’t get out). Screamed for a long time before anyone came.”
- “Worse than this is only to sleep on the ground.”
The homestay gave free coffee, which was a nice gesture. However, they provided plastic cups that weren’t thoroughly washed; we could still see the grounds from the previous drinker(s). We were hesitant to eat food cooked at the homestay, but one of the Austrians was brave enough to buy dinner. Surprisingly, the food was edible, so each of us had a portion.
We had to leave for Ijen at 1 AM the following morning, so my roommate and I returned to our room at around 9 PM. My smart roommate had a sleeping bag liner, which she was able to place on top of her bed. I decided to sleep in my clothes, including my rain jacket (hood on to shield my head from the pillow). They were already dusty from Bromo, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well. Upon hearing our 12:30 AM alarm, my roommate and I jolted from our beds to flee our room. The staff gave us breakfast in takeout containers, which consisted of a hard-boiled egg, two pieces of white bread, a dab of margarine, and chocolate sprinkles. The Austrians, German, and I were confused by the sprinkles until my roommate explained that bread with sprinkles was a common Dutch snack.
After driving for about an hour, we reached the entrance to the park. It was drizzling, so I kept my rain jacket on and doubled up with a plastic poncho. Our driver gave us gas masks, and we joined about 25 other people for the hike to Ijen. Since the group varied in fitness levels, we soon lost our guide. My roommate, the German, and I decided to follow other groups and continue the hike.
The hike had a one-hour uphill climb and then a 45-minute downhill portion. The downhill portion was rocky and slippery from the rain. I lost my footing and fell forward on my hands and knees, which prompted a bunch of fellow hikers to ask if I was OK. I was totally fine; the fall looked much scarier than it actually was.
After navigating the downhill section, we saw our first blue flame. The flames were about a meter or two high, a lot bigger than I’d imagined. I tried to take photos, but with the rain, smoke, clouds, and darkness, the flames just looked like glowing blue blobs.
We saw a few miners working, and I felt guilty observing them. Many of them only had handkerchiefs to cover their mouths and noses. They could carry 150-pound loads of sulfur uphill at a faster pace than all the visiting hikers.
Since it was cloudy and rainy, we couldn’t see the lake at the bottom of the crater, which was supposed to be turquoise from the sulfur. Due to the poor visibility, we also missed sunrise. Even with the bad weather, I was glad I made the trip to Ijen.
While Ijen was fascinating, I wouldn’t recommend the tour that my homestay in Probolinggo booked. I never got the name of the tour company (my mistake), but apparently Ijen tours based in Probolinggo have a lackluster reputation. I can now laugh at my group’s experience at Arabica since we escaped unscathed, but it was pretty alarming at the time. Our group for the hike to Ijen was also too large, and most people lost track of the guide.
Tours based in a town called Banyuwangi are supposed to be better. For instance, Ijen Blueflame Tours and Pepe Tours are highly rated. Banyuwangi also has accommodations that are miles better than Arabica, although that isn’t a high bar. I met a traveler who said her resort in Banyuwangi had a hot tub.
I have to give a shoutout to my Ijen crew for being easygoing and good-humored throughout the whole experience. I would have crumpled into a mess of tears if I had to stay at Arabica on my own. Instead, it turned into a memorable—and even fun—bonding experience.