Mount Etna is the cherry on the cake of my volcano expedition to Sicily. After hiking the Gran Cratere in Vulcano and Mount Stromboli, I am looking forward to conquering Mount Etna. After all, it has been a dream of mine for a long time. And the regular news reports on its eruptions have been making it all the more fascinating to me.
Etna is located on the south east of Sicily, not far from Catania. That’s only a one hour flight from Cagliari, Sardinia, where I am based. I really can’t find any more excuses for not visiting: it is time to finally go.
The mighty peaks and craters of Mount Etna
A Few Facts About Mount Etna
With its 3350 meters, Mount Etna may not be the highest volcano in Europe (that’s Teide, in Tenerife), but it certainly is the largest one with a base circumference of around 150 km.
Mount Etna actually is a series of stratovolcanoes – a number of volcanoes built of layers of lava flows, ash and blocks of unmelted stone. It has four craters at its summit: the central ones, called Bocca Nuova and Voragine; the Northeast crater; and the newest Southeast one (formed by the 1978 eruption).
Mount Etna is the most active volcano in Europe, and one of the most actives in the world, with Strombolian kind of eruptions (producing ash, tephra and lava fountains) that constantly change its shape and elevation.
In 1669, a large eruption destroyed part of the port of Catania. Since then, eruptions have been regular and of a smaller scale, though rather violent. These kind of eruptions are called “paroxysms.” The last recorded one has been in February 2017, when 10 visitors were injured by boiling rocks ejected from a crater on the south-east side.
I am hoping to experience at least one small eruption during my hike of Mount Etna, though my friends call me crazy when I mention that. Either way, I am looking forward to the hike.
However, things don’t quite go as planned and I end up not hiking Etna at all. But I enjoy it all the same, and I plan to go again to conquer it. Here’s what happened, and why I didn’t hike it but still enjoyed it.
If you do plan on hiking Mount Etna, here are some guided tours I’d recommend:
Mount Etna is the very last stop of my volcano extravaganza tour of Sicily (a region that should always be included to any trip to Italy). Four days, 3 volcanoes: it can’t get better than that. I can’t wait to be there.
The cold I have had the week before seems to be finally gone, and though I have felt a bit chilly while at the top of Mount Stromboli, I conclude that the uneasiness I am feeling is pure exhaustion due to the 7 weeks of uninterrupted travel, from Italy to Sri Lanka, then to the Maldives and Spain before ending up in Sicily; the change of a few time zones and of a number of beds I hardly care to remember.
It’s really early on Saturday morning, when I board a hydrofoil that is meant to take me from Stromboli to Milazzo. There, I catch a ride to Bosco Ciancio, near Biancavilla, on the southern slopes of Etna. The closer we get there, the clearer I see the mighty volcano. And the stronger the headache and body ache I have been feeling since I woke up get.
By the time I reach my hotel in the early afternoon, all I want to do is crawl in bed after taking a strong dose of paracetamol.
I suppose sleeping and paracetamol work, because a few hours later I wake up feeling better, though definitely not my 100% and not ready for a difficult hike the morning after.
The good news is that I can still visit Mount Etna without having to hike it. I decide to opt for the soft approach, thinking that I can always take advantage of the direct flights to Catania in the future, to go on that much dreamt hike.
The moon-like landscape at the top of Mount Etna
A Guide To Visiting Mount Etna Without The Hassle
The starting point to visit Mount Etna on the southern slope is the complex where Rifugio Sapienza is located, at little over 1900 meters above sea level. The area is lined by souvenir shops, coffee shops and restaurants.
I wonder if the owners are not afraid that eruptions and lava flows may destroy their businesses. I know that lava flows have destroyed houses and businesses in the past. On my way to Etna, I spot a house whose only visible remain is the roof – the rest covered by solidified lava. I conclude that business may be quite good if the owners are willingly taking the risk to have their shop destroyed.
I walk past the shops and restaurants to jump on a cable car that takes me to an elevation of 2500 meters. The view from the cable car is stunning, but just a prelude to what I will see once at the top. Every now and then I see people walking up, following a rather uneven trail (in the lava flows). I would have done the same, had I not been so sick the day before.
Once at the top, I hop on a 4×4 bus that, driving along the desert slopes of the volcano, takes me to 2950 meters above sea level, by the Torre del Filosofo (Philosopher’s Tower), where I and the rest of the visitors are greeted by Paride, a local guide and vulcanologist.
Paride takes the group around the caldera and shows the solidified lava flows, as well as the results of the latest eruptions and the fumaroles. We stand in awe of the Valle del Bove (Valley of the Ox), a large caldera in the shape of a horseshoe on the eastern slope of Mount Etna.
The road that goes all the way up to the Torre del Filosofo was destroyed by the latest eruption
I ask if eruptions cause any threat to the local life, and Paride mentions that the lava flows occasionally threaten agriculture, transportation, and at times even the local towns surrounding Mount Etna. He points to the road that the 4×4 buses use to drive visitors up from the cable car and tells me that the park authorities regularly have to re-build it, as it gets destroyed by eruptions.
He mentions that in the winter, people go skiing on Mount Etna. I try to imagine how incredible it must be to ski on an active volcano, snow all around, and at the same time have a view of the Mediterranean sea in the distance.
I can see why the locals call it “Mongibello” (the beautiful mountain): Mount Etna is simply splendid, in a frightening yet charming kind of way. It is a huge resource for local life. Its fertile soil is perfect for the cultivation of olives, grapes and fruit – some of the best Italian olive oil, wines, mandarines and oranges are produced here. And the revenue produced by tourism is thriving, with ski tourism in the winter, and hiking the rest of the year.
As I hop back on the 4×4 bus that takes me to the cable car, I vow to visit again.
The stunning view from Mount Etna spans all the way to the Mediterranean Sea
The best access point to Mount Etna is on the southern side, where Rifugio Sapienza is located. That’s also where the cable car is located.
There’s various ways to visit Mount Etna, reflecting the difference in one’s budget. Keep in mind that due to the high activity of the vulcano, it is necessary to hire a guide in order to go all the way to the peak craters. Indeed, the fumaroles close to the craters eject toxic gases whose direction change depending on the wind. It is not uncommon for guides to have to go rescue groups that venture on their own and eventually get stuck because unable to breathe.
The cheapest (and most difficult) way is to walk all the way up via the path that follows the cable car.
A cable car ride costs €33 for the round trip.
A combined ticket that includes a cable car ride, a 4×4 ride to the Torre del Filosofo, and a guided tour around the calderas costs around €63.
Guided treks to the peak craters start from Rifugio Sapienza and cost around €85. The meeting time is normally 9:30 am. The excursion starts with the cable car ride to 2500 meters, and is then followed by a guided hike all the way to the peak craters and back. Please it is not recommended to hike Mount Etna alone. Check out my post on why I don’t go hiking alone.
At 3000 meters above sea level, the temperatures are rather chilly even in October
Gearing up for the visit
Whichever month one plans to visit Mount Etna, it is important to keep in mind that there’s at least a 10 degrees Celsius difference between the temperature at the base of the volcano and the top. I have visited in mid October, and it was quite cold. I can only imagine that it is really cold during the winter, when Mount Etna is covered in snow.
The following list is applicable to those visiting Mount Etna during the warmest months:
Hiking boots: the terrain is rocky and sandy at the same time and that extra ankle support will be needed.
A gorgeous aerial view of Bosco Ciancio and its surroundings
Where to stay and eat near Mount Etna
There are various places to stay and eat near Mount Etna – either in the villages around it, or even in Catania for those who prefer staying in a big city.
After weeks of non-stop travel, I was in desperate need for a quiet place where I’d hear no noise of traffic and where I’d be sure to get proper sleep.
I opt to stay at Bosco Ciancio, a beautifully refurbished rural house, once the ancient manor of the Dukes of Ciancio. The building, dating back to the 1800s, is located in Etna Park and completely immersed in nature. All rooms have stunning views of the countryside, and there is a lovely internal garden and an outside patio.
The reception area, where the bar is located, is stylishly furnished and it’s a cozy place to relax while reading a book or sipping a glass of wine.
The restaurant at Bosco Ciancio offers meals that reflect the local tradition and which are carefully prepared using local and seasonal ingredients. The breakfast buffet includes homemade cakes, jams and local chestnut honey. In fact, as I go for a walk in the forest I spot a number of hives.
The dinner menu changes every day and generally includes a selection of appetizers, pasta dishes and main courses, with also vegetarian and vegan options.
The quietness of the location, the charming environment and the cozy room make my stay at Bosco Ciancio simply perfect. I manage to get over 9 solid hours sleep, which is a real treat!
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of Bosco Ciancio during my visit of Mount Etna. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
I went to Vulcano island to experience yet another volcano hike, and discovered a place that has so much more to offer than I ever expected.
When I finally arrive in Vulcano island, after more than 12 hours of traveling from Spain, the night has fallen already. I have heard the island (one of the seven of the Aeolian Islands archipelago, and the closest one to Milazzo, in Sicily) is beautiful. But I can’t confirm this, right now: it’s so dark that I can’t see a thing.
I have also heard that Vulcano island has a strong smell of sulphur. This, I am immediately able to confirm, on the other hand. The air does smell like rotten eggs. I wonder if I’ll get used to it.
The acrid smell of sulphur is only one of the many things that will remind you there’s a reason why Vulcano island has that name. It’s the same smell I sensed on other volcanoes, such as Masaya in Nicaragua, or Mount Bromo in Indonesia. Volcanic activity here has been going on since 120000 years. There are craters and calderas all over. It’s what prompted me to visit.
In this post, I share a few facts about the island of Volcano and some tips on how to make the most of it.
Vulcanello peninsula can be seen from the Gran Cratere of Vulcano
A Guide To The Things To Do Vulcano Island, Sicily
Take in the incredible views
The first thing you need to do when in Volcano island is taking in the splendid views. If you have a chance, a stay at Therasia Resort is a guarantee of a stunning view. I stayed there and every morning marveled at the sight that spread in front of my eyes. The light is magic at that time of day. You will get to see Lipari, the biggest of the Aeolian Islands. In the distance, you’ll see Alicudi, Filicudi, Salina and Stromboli – one of the most fun islands to visit.
If you look at your back from Therasia, you will be able to see the base of a volcano. That is Vulcanello and it is one of the many volcanoes on Vulcano island.
The mud of Vulcano island is said to have beneficial properties
Explore the villages
I visited Vulcano at the end of October. By then, the buzz of the summer months is gone, and with it the crowds of tourists. Most businesses close at the end of October and only the roughly 500 people that live in Vulcano throughout the year will remain. The small villages are lovely to explore, and with them the surroundings. While tourism remains the first revenue for Vulcano, there are a lot of vineyards and olive groves.
Enjoy the beaches
Whether you visit Vulcano during the spring, summer or early fall, make sure to visit the beaches. There are two beaches on each side of the isthmus that connects the main island to a smaller one known as Vulcanello. Both beaches are characterized by dark, volcanic sand. It’s so different from the white beaches of Sardinia I am used to, or from the incredibly turquoise waters ofthe Maldives you may be thinking of. Yet the sea is incredibly transparent.
Go to the mud baths
Vulcano is famous for the mud baths and to be fair you don’t want to miss them. They are said to have incredibly beneficial properties – for example they cure asthma, which I suffer from. It is only €3 to get in, but the sulphur smell is overpowering. Be prepared for that.
Climb the faraglioni
Right where the mud baths are located, there are the beautiful “faraglioni,” the rock stacks from which you can get a good view of the bay. Keep in mind that it is not officially permitted to walk up (though there is a trail) as apparently people jump over the fence and fall, which leads to a call for rescue. It took me some convincing to the guard at the entrance. You may give it a try, but don’t say I told you so!
The clear waters and the “acque calde” of Vulcano are inviting for a swim, even in the fall
Swim in the acque calde
One of the unmissable things to do in Vulcano island is swimming in its famous “acque calde” (warm waters). Tens of submarine volcanic fumaroles eject hot steam, giving the water the effect of a natural jacuzzi. If you aren’t a fan of the cold waters of the Mediterranean, this transparent stretch of sea will be the perfect spot for a swim!
Have a granita
Much like the rest of Sicily, Vulcano is a perfect place to have a granita. There are a few coffee shops where you can pop in to get one. I like the one right in front of the harbour because the views are lovely. It’s a nice way to relax and indulge a bit before continuing exploring the island.
Go for a hike
With so many volcanoes, it is only obvious that one of the best things to do in Vulcano island is hiking.
The hike to the Gran Cratere is meant to be a sweet, easy hike, yet rewarding. Most people hike it independently, but if you want to get some facts right about the island and its volcanoes, I recommend hiring a guide (besides, I am not a fan of hiking alone – and here’s why).
A hiking tour of Vulcano typically stops at Vulcanello, located on the north of Vulcano. This used to be a separate island, formed with an eruption in 183 BC, which through a series of eruptions, was eventually joined to Vulcano via a small isthmus by 1550 AC.
The view of Lipari from the caldera of Vulcanello
Vulcanello was the youngest vulcano of the island, and the one with the shortest life too. It’s fairly easy to reach once the guide points the trail, which is well hidden in the vegetation. There’s a very large caldera – a volcanic depression that was formed after a violent volcanic eruption, when the cone of a volcano collapses in the space left after the magma is expelled.
The second stop during the hike is Valle dei Mostri (Monster Valley), located in Vulcanello. This looks almost like a natural amphitheater, with statues all around – which actually are the result of the erosion of the lava rock by the sea and the wind. They look like monsters – hence the name of the place.
Nowadays, only a few remain. With time, many have been completely eroded. Others have been taken away by the owners of local villas to place them in their gardens. I am still baffles as to why the local authorities have allowed this to happen.
The eroded lava stone took the shape of a dinosaur
The final stop will be Gran Cratere. Most people start hiking in the late afternoon, and while during the fall the temperatures will be pleasant (especially if you get a nice marine breeze), this is not a hike you should underestimate on warmer days.
The view during the hike is so beautiful that you’ll often stop for photos. From the top, you can see all of the Aeolian Islands archipelago – Lipari and Salina, really close; Alicudi, Filicudi, Stromboli and Panarea in the distance. On a very clear day it is also possible to see the northern coast of Sicily and Etna.
It takes less than one hour to reach the main crater, known as Caldera de La Fossa. The caldera is huge, with a 500 meters diameter. The last eruption here occurred in 1890, but there are plenty of fumaroles that eject steam. It isn’t possible to get inside the crater, because the concentration of gas that is accumulated in the depression makes the air almost impossible to breathe.
A splendid view of the Aeolian Islands during the Gran Cratere hike
The fumaroles are mostly composed of sulphur, which gives the terrain its red and yellow color, and which fills the air of the typical acre stench. The best way to overcome the smell is to walk through the fumaroles wearing a mask (make sure to carry one). Even with that protection, the smell is nauseating.
Once at the top, the views are even better. You can see the port of Levante, where all boats dock, and Vulcanello and the Aeolian Islands on one side; and Piano, one of the villages of the island, on the other.
Thankfully, the path down isn’t through the stinky fumaroles.
The fumaroles in Vulcano: the yellow of the rocks is due to the sulphur – which also makes the air smell like rotten eggs
Practical facts for visiting Vulcano Island
Vulcanello, the Valle dei Mostri and Gran Cratere can all be accessed for free and without a guide, though having one will obviously make the experience more complete with information and tips.
Valle dei Mostri can be reached on an easy 30 minutes walk from Porto di Levante (the largest village, where the hydrofoils to the other islands and to Sicily depart from) and it is well signaled. The path to the caldera of Vulcanello, on the other hand, isn’t as well marked and it may be necessary to ask directions to the access point.
The entry point to the path to Gran Cratere is located at around 10 minutes walk from Porto di Levante. The walk to the crater and back takes no more than 2 hours, though the path is steep and sandy in some points and the length of the walk depends on one’s level of fitness.
The Gran Cratere of Vulcano
Gearing up for the hike
The hike to Gran Cratere is short and not too demanding, but wearing and carrying the proper gear is always recommended. Here’s a useful list of what to wear and take:
Hiking boots: some people wear plain running shoes, others even attempt to hike with walking shoes or flip flops. But keep in mind that the terrain is sandy, rocky and slippery in some points; not to mention the ground near the fumaroles is very hot. Hiking boots provide the much needed ankle support and protect from the heat.
A scarf or, even better, a mask is needed if wanting to walk through the fumaroles
A scarf, or a bandana: the sulphur at the crater makes the air stink so much that wearing a scarf around the nose and mouth is a must! If possible, wear a mask.
A hat: especially if walking in the summer months and in the hottest hours.
Sunglasses: it is so dusty that they are necessary to protect the eyes.
A daypack: use it to carry the extra layers and a lots of water.
A camera: the view is so breathtaking that taking pictures is a must!
A splendid view of the Aeolian Islands from the top of Gran Cratere in Vulcano
Where to stay and eat in Vulcano
As with the rest of the Aeolian Islands, there are plenty of sleeping and eating options in Vulcano island. I arrived there at the end of 6 weeks of hectic travels, so I felt the need to pamper myself and opted to stay at the marvelous Therasia Resort. Click here for the latest rates and here for reviews.
Aside from a gorgeous, spacious room with views of the sea and the rest of the Aeolian Islands, I enjoyed eating at the two delicious on site restaurants (the breakfast buffet is one the best I have ever seen!); I jumped into the beautiful infinity pool; and I treated myself to the spa where I could pick from a great variety of treatments.
How to get to Vulcano Island
Vulcano can be reached via hydrofoil in a little over one hour from Milazzo, near Messina. You can book your high speed ferry here. From Vulcano, there are regular hydrofoils to the rest of the Aeolian Islands and to Milazzo.
Legal Disclaimer:I was a guest of Imperatore Travel during my time in Vulcano. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here! (Dante Alighieri, Inferno)
Limbo: forgive me for I am a pagan
Mount Bromo is located at about 4 hours drive from Surabaya, the capital of East Java, in Indonesia and it is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. It is considered one of the top bucket list destinations in Indonesia, one of the places to visit in Indonesia. I suppose it deserves to be one of them.
But despite my best efforts and almost complete lack of expectations, I could not warm to it. In fact, I doubt I will ever want to give it a second chance, not until I know for a fact that things over there have changed, that this attraction is managed differently and in what to me is a more enjoyable way.
Don’t get me wrong, Mount Bromo is a site of amazing natural beauty and I think in the right conditions it would be quite enjoyable, but as things stand at the moment, and based on my experience, I did not enjoy it one bit.
This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo
What I faced in Mount Bromo was the biggest cultural and personal clash I have ever experienced in my many years of living abroad and traveling to countries near and far (actually, very far) from home. I do believe that traveling is much more about self discovery than about the actual discovery of a destination. Sure enough, I understood many things about myself when I visited Mount Bromo.
It has been an enlightening experience as it made me come to terms with some aspects of myself that I did not know where so deeply rooted, and it made me realize that I am much more sensible than I perhaps like to show. It made me understand that different people will see the same thing differently. It also made me understand how important responsible tourism is to me and that it is the only way I want to travel, and that I want to become an advocate for it. And it finally made me decide that I can’t and won’t ever tolerate animal cruelty, no matter what, no matter where, no matter the excuse.
You see, I am an atheist and hardly a believer that heaven and hell exist. Yet, if I have to describe my experience in Mount Bromo, the first thing that comes to my mind are the Nine Circles of Hell of Dante’s Inferno. Much like Dante’s journey through hell, accompanied by his guide Virgil, I felt that I was also going through the nine circles, although in my case there was no real guide in sight but just other members of the tour group.
Each step that took me closer to the crater of Mount Bromo was a step into one of the nine circles, each nastier, scarier and more painful and sorrowful and than the previous one. My first circle was Limbo, the one that pagans, non-believers, deserve – for a pagan I was, as (shame on me!) I had close to zero knowledge of Mount Bromo before visiting. But that was soon to change, as I made my way through the other circles.
Lust: or, rise and (don’t) shine
My visit to Mount Bromo was included in a guided group tour of Indonesia to which I took part. I was glad it was one of the included destinations on the tour, because I really do enjoy volcanoes and generally they are the highlight of any of my trips. Little did I know that this time it would be the other way around. The night before visiting the trip organisers gave us instructions to wake up at 2:00 am and told us that, as this was a popular attraction among Indonesians, there would be even more people on a Sunday. I had no idea what to expect – but I soon learned that my definition of “a lot of people” surely isn’t the same as that of Indonesians.
I didn’t mind having to wake up so early though. In fact, I remembered the many early rises during my long term travels, to see amazing places, and I was greateful I’d get to experience this. There is a special light at sunrise. There is the feeling of exclusivity, of being one of a few that has the chance to enjoy something special; that of being close to nature as the day starts and the first rays of light come through the sky, finally making the surroundings visible and glowing.
It was pitch dark when at 2:30 am I met the rest of the group and left to reach Mount Bromo so that we could admire the sunrise. I was sleepy and a bit lost – most of us were – but eager to go. As soon as I got to the meeting point, together with other 4 persons I got wisked on a jeep, although we eventually only left at 2:50 – not bad given the relaxed standards of Indonesia that are so hard to deal with for us Europeans. The minute we left, I knew that this would be a long day. I kept my thoughts to myself and tagged along, trying to push any negativity away.
Gluttony: it’s so slushy out there
The mayhem began immediately afterwards. A rather silent driver joined a race we didn’t know we were taking part in, against any other jeep also going to Mount Bromo. It felt like being on the Paris-Dakar, with the difference that we were not in the desert, breathing just dust and clean air. We were somewhere in the middle of Indonesia and the dust was mixed to the exhaust fumes, making it hard to breathe. The jeeps sped like mad in the foggy and pitch black night, passing each other on all sides, making many of us think that at each turn we’d actually go on a straight line and that would be the end of our visit to the country.
Then, our jeep stopped. In a broken English the driver told us he would not go any further and we’d have to just walk our way to the entrance of the site. There was too much traffic for him to keep going and he’d be unable to park. He told us he’d wait for us, no indication of an exact time (not that it would matter). So we started making walking.
What I happened next was so intensely scary, so frustrating, so thoroughly annoying that at the end of that misadventure I was ready to leave the country for good, never to return again. Masks on our noses and mouth in a failed attempt to protect ourselves from the thick fumes, we started walking up, trying to keep an eye on each other so as to not get lost in that madness (there was no way we’d find each other again, in the dark, among thousands of other people); not sure which direction to go but relying on the flow which was only going one way.
Is the view of Mount Bromo really worth going through all that trouble?
It was pitch dark. It was noisy. It was frightening. Traffic was mad. In what could be best described as a scene of Apocalypse Now, oblivious to the traffic and the pedestrians, jeeps kept making their way to the top, dropping people off and then coming down again. They were everywhere. They completely disregarded the pedestrians who had to jump on the side of the road, in the very limited space (and remember, it was dark!) to avoid being hit.
To add to this already burning hell, a multitude of motorbikes kept zipping their way up and down the hill, again hardly bothered by the presence of pedestrians unless it was for stopping them to offer a ride for as cheap as 10000 Rupiahs, no helmets involved, no guarantee of survival, no strings attached. So unbothered were they by the people that in fact a few times they just about hit us, and we had to scream from the top of our lungs to be heard above the loud noise so that they would avoid us.
I felt hopeless. I could not understand why human beings could be so careless and uncivil to the environment; so disrespectful of human life. I was angry at them, for killing every little bit of positive energy I had when I woke up. Energy that I had to use in order to stay alive, to yell at them to move away, to scream to please leave me alone, to please not hit me with their motorbikes. I could only see unsensible, unreasonable people that, for the sake of (actually very little) money, were ruining the environment and what was meant to be one of the most beautiful natural sights in Indonesia. And they were doing it with the tacit consent of the authorities.
Greed and anger: because after going through the slush, I really really wanted to see that volcano and not just more slush
Then, we finally made it to the pedestrians only area. What literally were hordes of people were all going up, to the view point, to see the seeminly amazing sunrise on Mount Bromo. We eventually made it to the top to just find out that the actual smart ones had taken all the best front row “seats” – they had camped there the night before. Selfie sticks out, these multitudes all waited cheerfully (and noisily, so as to kill any magic left in the air) as we on the other hand tried to find a spot were we could stand and brace ourselves against the bitter cold (now, being cold is actually as unique an experience as one gets in Indonesia!) till the sun would come out and showed us Mount Bromo in all its mighty beauty.
Bracing ourselves against the cold during our visit of Mount Bromo
So we waited. And waited. And waited. And theoretically the sun came out, but some thick clouds covered Mount Bromo so we did not get to see it. There is nothing one can do when nature rebels against his or her wishes, so we just decided to leave, cameras safely stored again and eyes unsatisfied as any hope of getting a view of the sunrise on Mount Bromo had now gone.
The mayhem started again. The crowds that a couple of hours earlier were all trying to reach the viewpoint now all moved towards the improvised parking lot, aka the road where the jeeps had casually dropped us off. Once again, we had to put our best efforts to avoid the jeeps and motorbikes that risked hitting us; we had to stop and jump for our lives to the side of the street, in the little space that was left among the parked jeeps. The noise was deafening, the exhaust fumes once more thick. The only difference was that now we were at least able to see where we were going.
Heresy: I should have seen this coming
After miraculously finding our jeep and silent driver among what seemed to be like a million jeeps, we started making our (much too fast) way down towards the desert, from where we were meant to ride horses up to the crater of Bromo. However, a quick turn and the view opened up for us. There stood Mount Bromo, in front of our eyes, mighty and spiteful and making fun of us and of all our efforts – the early wake up call, the walk through “the slush”, the risking our lives, the screaming, the anger, the fright, the tripod placing, the hopeless waiting.
There was our opportunity to shoot a good photo, to have proper proof that yes, we had been to Mount Bromo. We could not miss it. We jumped off the jeep, and, used to the noise, the traffic, the pollution, the cars and motorbikes’ careless driving, we crossed the road to fight our way among the (actually lesser) crowd, to get to a good spot where we could finally catch on camera the spectacular view and hope that nobody else but us and Mount Bromo would be in the picture. It took quite a bit of effort, but I must admit that it worked. Mount Bromo looked pretty. I almost bought it. Almost.
Signs of distress are already showing on my face after I had to go through a lot of trouble to get to Mount Bromo
Violence, Fraud and Treachery: if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t
My love affair with Mount Bromo was not meant to be. I should have known it, since our relationship got off on a really bad start and it did all it could to put me off. And I felt a bit cheated. I soon learned that what I thought was Mount Bromo was in fact Mount Batok. Mount Bromo was right behind, having a good smoke.
Getting back on the jeep once again, we finally set off to cross the sand desert. I was baffled. I could not fully grasp what I was seeing. Among the jeeps that sped their way through the sand, lifting a great deal of dust to mix in with the exhaust fumes, the last thing I expected to see were motorbikes. Not cross country motorbikes, though. Not the kind that can go on any sort of terrain. Proper, small city motorbikes. And each of them carried two and even three persons, in proper Indonesian style. None of the passengers wore helmets but “bravely” fought the forces of nature, sliding in the sand, lifting more dust as they tried to push the motorbike (which unsurprisingly silted) forward.
At this point, I did not let the dust, the noise and the once again almost apocalyptic scene bother me. I was just amused by it, and at most puzzled. I suppose I got it figured out then: people in Indonesia have an idea of fun which consists in challenging life as often as possible, that involves motorbikes and which implies having as many people around as are available. Talk about cultural differences.
Our jeep crew. There were many more around, all set to visit Mount Bromo – photo courtesy of Kuan Ju
Despite the mask, the thick sand got in my throat, causing me to cough strongly. By then, my throat was hurting. But the pain in my throat, the difficulty to breathe were soon going to be the least of my problems. According to the program, we were meant to ride horses to the top of Mount Bromo, so that we’d be able to see the crater and the thick sulfuric smoke coming out of it. Horses had already been arranged for the group. On paper, this sounded like an amazing experience.
Pity is that the minute we got off the jeep, in the middle of the sand desert, I saw the horses that we had been provided. I immediately felt that what had so far been a challenging day was taking a turn for the worst. To anybody that has an even minimum interest in animal welfare, it was easily visible that those horses were not exactly cared for. There was no mistake that those animals were malnourished; there was little question that they were distressed. They showed all signs: ribs painfully sticking out of the thin bodies; foam at the mouth; chewing the bridels; stamping nervously.
I was supposed to ride this horse to the crater of Mount Bromo – I refused
I had tears in my eyes; my throat tightened; my stomach tensed. It took me about a split second to decide that I would not contribute to their suffering and that I would not ride any of those horses. Only 3 others refused to ride the horses. The rest of the group, on the other hand, went on the ride on those very same horses that were unfit to carry heavy weights, and although they did notice that the horses didn’t look too well, they didn’t make much of it and joyfully rode them (to then realize that the poor animals could not carry them all the way to the top and that, when they summoned the owner to get down and just walk, this whipped the poor animal harder so that it kept moving).
Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t blame the others for not behaving like I did. In fact, in a way I envy them for being able to toughen up, block any negative emotions, put up a brave face (something that I was completely unable to do – in fact, I cried for about one hour) and manage to appreciate the beauty of Mount Bromo and understand the cultural differences between their country and this one.
I couldn’t and my experience was pretty much ruined, as now whenever I think of Mount Bromo all I can see are the images of those poor horses, whipped and starved; of the immense crowds, selfie sticks out, oblivious to the pollution and the damage to the environment they were contributing to. And all I can remember was hiking up to the crater, seeing the poor horses around me, pushing my way through the crowd, tears rolling down my cheeks.
The smokey crater of Mount Bromo – I got to see it even without riding a horse: the walk is perfectly doable.
I know I am perhaps overly sensible to animal welfare issues. I have been since I was a child, since that time my elementary teacher took my class to the circus and I thought it wasn’t really that much fun watching lions in cages being forced to act unnaturally. As I got to my room that night after visiting Mount Bromo, and for the following days (actually, for the following weeks and even now, as I write), I have tried to make sense of what I saw and of why I have felt that way. The words “culture” and “poverty” have come up often in conversations, with people telling me that some countries don’t have such a great culture in caring for animals, or it is their culture to behave in a certain way.
But I don’t think that culture should be used as an alibi for the mistreatment of animals or for the fearceless exploitation of the environment. You see, I have spent most of my previous working life researching and writing on topics such as culture and cultural identity. While I have been an advocate for the protection of the right to cultural identity and the right of people to live their lives according to their (more or less) traditions, I can’t in any way use the cultural argument to justify cruelty and suffering, whether it is referred to human beings or to animals. I refuse to label an activity as cultural and then just accept it as it is, if the results are hurtful. I find it unethical. And I know through years and years of studies that culture is not a fixed, never changing concept.
Indeed, culture changes with time, it evolves, and that doesn’t in any way make it “less cultural”. Traditional activities and occupations remain traditional even when they are practiced through modern means. One good example is that of people whose traditional occupation is in sheep-farming. Nobody expects them to still milk the sheep by hand for the activity to remain traditional. Not even the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has taken a clear stand in saying that culture is not static and it may actually develop without losing its protected character. So really, there is no way that I will ever justify the mistreatment of animals by saying that “it is the culture of the country”. I won’t just close my eyes, shut my mouth and pretend that all is good and move on with my life, because my conscience won’t allow me to and I feel I have a duty to inform, for as small as my voice is, and to contribute to change.
The road to redemption: a few tips for visitors and management
I would like to stress that the way each one of us experiences a place is always a matter of his or her own personality, and many other factors are involved. I have indeed said on another post of mine that what may be hell to some of us, may well be heaven to others – and the fact that some of the others on my group truly enjoyed their experience on Mount Bromo, taken on the exact same day and exact same means, is proof of this. All in all, I think that each experience we have as we travel is enriching, even the ones we consider bad – because in a way they lead us to understand more about ourselves, to question ourselves, to test our limits.
I don’t want to entirely rule out Mount Bromo from the list of places to visit in Indonesia. And But I would like to see changes before I recommend it to other travelers, and before I ever give it a second chance. Many things can be done to make sure that tourism in the area becomes more responsible and sustainable and some of them are fairly easily enforceable. Mount Bromo, indeed, although at the moment is so mismanaged that it makes various travelers end up holding horrible memories of it, has the potential of becoming an iconic attraction of Indonesia, and of South East Asia as well.
This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo
If things stay as they are, my recommendation for anybody who is keen on visiting Mount Bromo is to make sure not to go during the weekend and to take alternative tours that don’t go to the viewpoint at sunrise, as this is what most people do. This is an extremely popular attraction among the locals, and they crowd the place in such a way that it completely loses its wild character and charme. Going during the week may be a better option, as it is bound to be at least less crowded.
Picking a good tour operator to organize the guided tour is also a key factor. It is important to have a good guide that speaks English (or whatever other language one may understand); that fully explains how the activities will evolve throughout the day; that will follow the group at all times and guide it through the crowds so that it doesn’t get lost and that can provide meaningful insights on the attraction, on its significance in natural and cultural or religious terms.
When picking the operator that will provide the services, it is important to make sure that the cars used are properly kept and equipped, and that if riding horses is an option, they outsource to locals who do feed their horses well and properly provide for them and don’t abuse them.
Ask questions, such as: Are we going to have a guide with us at all times? How does the day develop, and what does the tour include? Is there a meeting point in case we get lost? Who should I contact in case of emergency? Are the horses we are going to ride well fed? Where are they kept? How many hours per day do they work? Try to make sure that the answers are not evasive, because that may well be a sign that the operator isn’t reliable and that it is outsourcing its services to the cheapest provider, which will keep the costs down at the expenses of the environment and the animals.
If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.
A more sustainable and responsible approach to tourism in Mount Bromo may imply limiting the number of daily visitors, something that has been done to several key attractions around the world, in order to protect their cultural, natural and historic relevance and uniqueness. It may be necessary to implement a system of online reservations to access the attraction, but nowadays setting up a website and a reservations system is easy and the benefits for the preservation of the natural beauty of Mount Bromo would be countless: cleaner environment including cleaner air; less people and thus less cars meaning less pollution and traffic; and the fewer visitors could count on a more thorough, enjoyable and all encompassing experience.
Another advice would be that of closely monitoring the horse dealers at the feet of Mount Bromo, and require that before providing their services of renting horses they meet at least some minimum standards in terms of animal welfare. Horses need to be properly fed and must have plenty of water when working; the number of working hours should be limited and even the amount of weight they can carry should be based on their own size.
The main point here is trying to ensure that Mount Bromo is not completely exploited and consequentially ruined by mass tourism for the sake of easy and short term money, but that it becomes the avant-guarde in terms of careful management of a natural attraction, one that should be proudly protected and that will eventually lead to a more steady, durable revenue. The authorities of Indonesia have proved on other occasions, in other places (such as on Komodo National Park) that if they want they can take responsible tourism and protection of the environment and the wildlife of the country quite seriously. It would be good to see that the same is being done on Mount Bromo. It would be great to see its real beauty blossom.
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.
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