When thinking about a vacation in Indonesia, Bali is often what first comes to mind. Consistently voted amongst the best island destinations in the world, the isle is a top contender for idyllic honeymoons and relaxing holidays in a year-round tropical climate. And while it is indeed a beautiful island, when travelling all that way it would be a waste to head back home without having crossed the Bali Strait to visit its larger brother: Java. Home to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, Java is the most populated island in the world and is probably best known in the traveller’s community for being the location of Yogyakarta and the Borobudur temple.
Unfortunately, the eastern part of Java mostly remains out of the limelight, even though it offers some of the most beautiful scenery of not only Southeast Asia, but arguably the whole world. The reason for this underappreciation lies in the fact that the tourist infrastructure in this part of Java is not as developed and as such, can be a bit tricky to visit the National Parks, especially when travelling on a shoestring budget. However, having just been to Eastern Java this summer, I’m here to give you current, trustworthy, and step-by-step instructions of visiting the absolute highlight of the region: Mount Bromo. Following this advice, you’ll be able to do Bromo on a budget – even with the pound at its current rate. 😉
HOW TO GET TO MOUNT BROMO
So how does one get to Mount Bromo? Or more specifically, how does one get to Cemoro Lawang, the mountain village that’s right on the edge of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park? Basically, you’ve got two options: either hire a car and driver to take you there or take public transport.
Using a private transfer
The most popular routes depart from either Surabaya or Malang to arrive in Bromo in the afternoon, then go onwards to the Ijen Crater on the second day, and arrive in Bali on the third day. Naturally, this trip can also be done in reverse.
As my travelling companions this summer were respectively 60 and 69 years of age, we chose for comfort over public transport, and hired a car with a driver to take us to the Banyuwangi ferry terminal in three days time for 3,250,000 Indonesian rupiah (IDR). It sounds like a lot of dough, but it’s actually a pretty sweet deal when you’re travelling as a small group of 3 or 4 people. Divided by three, it was just ₤65/€75 per person including taxes, insurance, gas and transportation for three days (or ₤22/€25 per person per day). Plus long-distance rental cars in Indonesia are mostly of pretty high quality, ours were always very comfortable and spacious, and we could even play our own music on the car stereo by using the Bluetooth connection! What more can you wish for during a road trip, eh?
While this option requires some advance planning, as the car has to be reserved at least a few weeks ahead of your trip, it also comes with an added bonus: the possibility of visiting the Madikarapura waterfalls! The falls are only a slight detour from Surabaya to Bromo, not reachable by public transport, but very much worth a visit. From the car park at the falls you can either walk 3 miles to the actual entrance to the falls or take an exciting ojek (motorcycle taxi) ride down into the valley, which is only 10,000IDR (₤0.60/€0.70) one way. The entry tickets for the falls are priced similarly, and your only other added expense will be tipping your guide at the end of your 2x 45 minute hike from the entrance to the actual falls and back. And yes, you do actually need a guide, and you do actually want to buy the ponchos that they’re selling along the way, because the walk underneath the falls is both treacherous and very, very wet. But oh so stunning!
Public transport to Mount Bromo
If, however, you’ve seen your fair share of waterfalls and feel that after Niagara or Iguazu these relatively modest Javanese jungle falls just aren’t worth the extra money, then taking public transport directly to Bromo sounds like the right choice for you. In this case, you’ll have to start from Surabaya, as there just isn’t a good connection from Malang to the National Park.
The closest train station to Cemoro Lawang is Probolinggo, which is reachable from Surabaya on several direct trains a day. It’s a 2-hour connection for which the cheapest second-class seat will cost you only 60,000IDR (₤3.65/€4.25). Speaking from experience, however, it is definitely worth shelling out 50% more for the AC in first class (eksekutif). Though please mind that Indonesians don’t play around with AC: when it’s on, it’s ON, and you will need a sweater and a scarf to keep from getting cold! The trains usually run on time, and even if they do not, don’t worry too much, as the subsequent transport to Bromo does not run to a fixed schedule, but only when they’re full to make it more feasible.
Unless you’re from Southeast Asia yourself, you will immediately be recognised as a tourist upon arriving in Probolinggo and people will offer to take you to the Bayuangga bus terminal which is 4 miles / nearly 7 kilometres away. The official price for a bemo (shared taxi) should be 5,000IDR per person, which amounts to well under half a pound or euro. Travellers tend to be overcharged or even scammed – so pay close attention: if there’s a letter D on the Bemo, that indicates that it is an official one and chances of getting ripped off are substantially less.
Upon arriving at the bus terminal, prepare yourself mentally for the last and most difficult part of the backpacker-budget friendly journey to Mount Bromo. No, not the 2-hour ride up into the mountains itself, but finding a driver who won’t rip you off. Locals will tell you that the long-distance bemo, sometimes called bison, to Cemoro Lawang, no longer exists, already left, or is full. Do not believe this until you’ve inspected every corner of the terminal at least twice over the course of half an hour! Fact is that if you’re arriving after 4pm, the last bemo might indeed have left already, and getting another one might not be possible. In that case, your best bet is to take a private car, which usually charges around 200,000IDR (₤12/€14) per person. So with with this in mind, try to arrive at the Probolinggo train station before 3pm, because sharing a bemo to Cemoro Lawang is only 35,000IDR (₤2.10/€2.45) per person, meaning that you can travel from Surabaya to Mount Bromo for well under a tenner! Entrance to the village, by the way, is 10,000IDR (₤0.60/€0.70) per person.
WHERE TO SLEEP
I usually herald Booking.com as the penultimate accommodation website in the world, having booked hotel rooms there from the city centre of Leeds to rural Romania and from the south of Spain to eastern Azerbaijan. However, it really isn’t your best bet when attempting to find accommodation near Bromo. The website doesn’t even recognise Cemoro Lawang as being an actual village and only offers hotel rooms for Probolinggo, which is the name of the municipality. Granted, some of these hotels are actually in Cemoro Lawang, but many of them are the same 2-hour drive away from the park entrance that you just took, and you don’t want to risk that. Agoda.com is a little better, but in truth, most of the accommodation in Cemoro Lawang is found in private-run homestays that are not reservable online. Just walk up to one of them on your day of arrival and chances are that they’ll have a vacancy at a fair price.
If you want a bit more peace of mind beforehand, however, there’s another valid budget option for you: Cafe Lava Hostel. Located right behind the Cemara Indah Hotel, it’s the second-closest accommodation to the park entrance and it offers very basic private rooms from 150,000IDR per double room in low season. That’s only about 5 quid per person! You will have to share a bathroom though and the room is literally nothing more than a bed, a power outlet, a lamp and a table, but you’ll have stunning views of the clouds over the mountain village. You can sit in the restaurant for warmth, where a hearty breakfast only costs 40,000IDR (₤2.40/€2.80), and dinner is possible from only double that. Although the website looks pretty professional, they’re really not as high-tech as they make out to be, as you have to actually call them to make a reservation. Yes, all the way to Indonesia, across 6 or 7 time zones. And to make matters even worse for nervous travellers, they don’t write anything down but your name, date of arrival, date of departure, and your room preference. No confirmation, no contact information, credit card or passport number, nothing! Still, this very basic system seems to hold. Even so, be very clear in stating that you’d like the Economy Double! If you arrive at the hotel without a reservation, they will be sure to tell you that all Economy rooms are sold out and your only option is to stay at a Standard Room, which is almost three times as expensive (but includes breakfast). And even when you have booked an Economy room beforehand, they might tell you that they’re all full, as they did with me, but if you just remain very insistent that you’ve reserved it on the phone months ago you’ll see that magically a vacancy opens up. Think of travelling in Indonesia as an exciting adventure, a perpetual haggle where you’re constantly trying to find the balance between what you’re willing to spend and what they think you’ve got in your wallet!
HOW TO SEE THE NATIONAL PARK FOR FREE
So here’s the thing… Entrance fees to the National Park were considerably raised for foreigners a few years ago, now standing at 217,500IDR (₤13/€15) on weekdays and a whopping 320,000IDR (₤19/€22) on weekends and holidays. Next to that, you have to take a jeep into the park and down into the caldera, which costs around 400,000IDR (₤24/€28) regardless of the number of passengers. Doesn’t quite sound so budget-friendly anymore, now does it? But wait… There’s another way. Literally.
The most famous sunrise photographs of Mount Bromo are taken from one of the many vantage panorama points on Mount Penanjakan, the mountain overlooking the volcano. Hiking up the mountain is always free, as it is not an official part of the National Park, being just outside of the border. So here’s my big tip: when you’ve reached the viewpoint and witnessed the incredibly stunning sunrise from there, you can walk a bit further, to the road where all the jeeps are parked, and walk down into the caldera and the National Park from there. Without passing any checkpoints. Congratulations, you’ve just circumvented the entrance fee AND the charge for a jeep!
HOW TO CLIMB MOUNT PENANJAKAN AND BROMO
The night before, eat an early bird dinner and try to settle in for the night around 8 or 9pm, because you’ll have to set a 2.30am alarm if you want to hike up the mountain.
Dress warmly! Even though you’re in the tropics, you’re also on a mountain in the midst of the night, so the temperature will be just above freezing. While you’ll be warm as you’re hiking, the cold will seep through to your bones once you stop, so bring those mittens and that hat for the viewpoint at the top!
Ideally, you should leave your accommodation in time to be at the Cemara Indah Hotel around 3am to start your hike up. You won’t be the only one there, so if you’re hiking solo like me (my elderly family members both wisely opted for the jeep), you’ll definitely be able to find some company. Straight across from the hotel, there is a paved asphalt road that goes up the mountain. Start walking on the sides of that road and just keep following it until you reach a viewpoint with a little house and some lighting. Rest if you want to, but keep on going. After about an hour of hiking in total, all still done on the same winding asphalt road, you’ll reach the official #2 viewpoint. It will get pretty busy there later on, as it’s directly accessible by car, so to avoid the crowds, double back a few meters and take the concrete stairs going up.
After a while the stairs will turn into a trail which can be pretty treacherous at times, as the volcanic ash makes the ground a bit slippery. If you keep using the torch on your phone and are wearing hiking boots you’ll be fine though. Do take plenty of rest, once every few minutes ideally, just to catch your breath and to drink plenty of liquids while going up. At a certain point, you’ll encounter side tracks off the path, or even a parting where you’re no longer sure which path is the main one. We just kept choosing the paths on instinct the entire time and made it to the top seemingly without detours. We were walking in the opposite direction of what we could make out to be the Bromo for a while, but I presume that was just the natural curve of the path around the mountain. I actually presume that all paths lead to the panorama point as it’s the reason everyone hikes up Mount Penanjakan.
We finally reached our viewpoint, called King Kong Hill, after 1 hour and 45 minutes of hiking, and we were all just moderately experienced hikers. We could have actually left half an hour later and still have been there to grab a good spot before the crowds arrived, so if you’re a real mountaineering fanatic, you could leave as late as 3.45 and still be on time. While you’re shivering in the cold, waiting for the sun to rise, you can get a coffee or a snack from one of the locals selling it there.
After you’ve blissfully stared at the sight of the most beautiful sunrise of your life (most likely), it’s time to follow a paved walkway to the main road, which is only about a 5-10 minute walk without incline. There, you can either choose to hike all the way down again and further into the caldera, which would take 2 to 3 hours depending on your fitness level. What you could also do, which is what we did, is approach one of the many ojeks to drive you down, cutting about 1.5 – 2 hours off the trek. We paid 100,000 per bike, but there were two passengers for each driver, so that averaged out to about ₤3 or €3.50 per person. Well worth the energy and time saved! It was about a 20-minute ride down, long enough for your legs to start cramping, but the views made everything worth it! Crossing through the incredible Sea of Sand we were driven all the way to the parking spot for the jeeps. From there, it’s about a 45 minute walk to get up to the rim of the crater. If you’ve got breathing difficulties, bring a surgical mask, and again, wear proper hiking boots as it can get quite slippery on the stairs up towards the crater and on the rim itself!
The sound emanating from the crater rapidly increases the closer you get, and the minute you look into it you can’t help but be amazed and scared at the same time. It is definitely a very, very active volcano: thick plumes of white smoke come out continuously and the intense, thunderous roar of Mother Nature is strong enough to make grown men weep.
If you’re smart, you’ll start being friendly to people while you’re on Mount Bromo, so that you can convince them to give you a ride in their rented jeep back up to Cemoro Lawang…. Otherwise, you can just hike back for an hour and you will still be back at your accommodation in time for a 9am breakfast.
After breakfast, find a bemo to take you back to Probolinggo, and be on your merry way again! Congratulations, you did Bromo on a budget!
About the author
Wesley Pechler is a 23-year-old adventurer who has perfected the art of travelling on a budget. Originally from the Netherlands, when he’s not travelling, Wesley can be found catching concerts and studying for a MA in Writing, Editing and Mediating at the University of Groningen.
You can keep up with his latest travels via Instagram @WesleyPechler