On June 15, 1991, Luzon’s “dormant” Mount Pinatubo erupted, resulting in the second strongest volcanic explosion of the twentieth century (http://www.mountpinatubo.net/Mount-Pinatubo-Eruption.html). The effects on the Philippines’ (and subsequently, the planet’s) landscape and climate were cataclysmic. Today, thankfully, the situation has stabilized. The mountain is now easily accessible, and there are plenty of tour operators available (check out the multitude of online sites).
We went with the PinayKeyPoint team: http://pinatubotrek.blogspot.com/2009/01/mount-pinatubo-is-active-volcano.html listed on the top of the Google search page, and were totally satisfied. We (I am 65 years young, my wife, Menchu, aka the Mensch, is 60; and thirtyish sons, Bjocks, Q and his wife, Brenda) are in reasonably good health. Since we finished the trek, I know you can do it too!
The trip can be booked independently, i.e., on your own, but you will have to wake up really early and wend your way to Barangay Sta Juliana in Capas, Tarlac, a two-and-a half-hour drive from Manila. (Victory, Five Star, or Solid North buses charge a couple hundred pesos fare [$5]). Get off at the McDonald’s, Capas Junction and take one of the numerous jeepneys to Sta Juliana.
You have arrived when you see the line of beat-up Toyota Land Cruisers gathered round the town hall. Do not be dismayed at the sorry state of the SUVs; you will understand how they attained that condition when you set off on the journey. After Introductions (“I am Nardo, and I will be your guide”) and a detailed briefing, the seniors got a complementary (albeit, compulsory) blood pressure check, a waiver to sign, and we were on our way.
When the volcano exploded, a crater lake was formed. A channel was created to release the flow of water. The first half of our voyage is across, around and over the rocky riverbed. Hang on tight as the 23- kilometer ride will have you swaying and rocking all over the vehicle. You will get wet. You will oohh and aahh at the view. Some greenery has returned, but there are still vast tracts of desolate, lunar landscape-like scenery. At the most distinctive (destructive) spots, the driver will pause for the mandatory photo ops.
A brief stopover at the Dumagat (local indigenous people) Gawad Kalinga village gives a glimpse of the harsh realities of life in the backwoods. The native women do the laundry by the river, the men practice kaingin (slash-and-burn) agriculture and the kids go to a school built by generous Korean benefactors. At recess, even the shyest little ones can be coaxed to pose for pictures with sociable visitors.
Your aching body will be so relieved at the end of the hour-long bumpy ride. Now it’s time to stretch your legs for the four-mile (7K) trek -- 1,000 meters/3,000 feet uphill (these numbers may vary depending on where and when you begin the climb; it may be easier but hotter in dry season and more difficult in rainy season).
Hydrate well, bring snacks, pace yourself. Wear comfortable clothing, sensible footwear and cover your head. We overtook some teens lugging attaché cases. We passed ladies in high heels. There was a lot of slipping and sliding traversing the ankle deep riverbed. We encountered stragglers; an out-of-shape few refused to proceed and settled in the shade, to await their companion’s return.
The scenery continues to evolve. In places, there are layers and layers of volcanic ash, some hard as rock, but most are crumbly and sand-like. The moss has gathered in moist areas, so watch your step as you sidestep through the multiple water crossings.
Halfway up the hill, an anonymous donor (foreign, according to Nardo) has installed (hallelujah!) toilets. These are the primitive type; but heck, beggars can’t be choosers. Refreshments are also available, for sale (support the local economy!).
The stream narrows, undulating wildly as its bed climbs up the canyon. Golden blotches tarnish the riverbed, iron deposits emerging from the earth. You go around and over boulders of all shapes and sizes. Just when you think the path can’t get any tougher, some steps magically materialize, courtesy of the same bighearted (foreign) soul.
“Welcome to the Majestic Crater Lake of Mount Pinatubo,” the sign proudly proclaims, as you crest the seemingly endless stairway. Catch your breath and gape at the splendid panorama confronting you. Check your thesaurus for synonyms of magnificent, wonderful, glorious. Sit on the grass and rest your eyes on the calm blue water of the lake. Reflect on the peaceful vista and flash back to the devastation wrought by this enigmatic force of nature.
The half-acre overlook has a snack shop, lots of shade and a grassy knoll just perfect for lying on your back and recovering from the two-hour climb (and preparing for the lengthy walk back!). For hardy souls, a 200-step stairway brings you down to the lake, where you can dip your toes in the cool water (I thought the crater lake’s water was supposed to be warm?). Swimming is prohibited, but there are no authorities to implement the ban.
Nardo has an “intimate” connection with the lake. It seems that soon after the massive eruption and the formation of the crater, an outlet for the accumulating water had to be created, and he volunteered to make the final breach. He hastily improvised a life vest from an assemblage of inflated condoms, which safely carried him across the water. He is still famed today as the valiant CondomMan of Lake Pinatubo.
The downhill trek back to the truck is much more relaxed. For additional specifics of this trip, a couple of Pinay trekker-bloggers have written about their exploits and make for further interesting reading:
If you have some extra time (and energy), the Capas Death March Memorial is along the way and worth a visit.
The government has set aside a few hundred hectares as parkland and memorial for the thousands of victims of the infamous Death March. There is a gigantic obelisk and exhibits and memorabilia from the officials and inmates involved in the conflict, even a rickety train boxcar used for their transport. The little creek in the rear that provided relief to the concentration camp prisoners has been restored, and a suspension bridge allows access to an exquisite rose garden. Check out:
I hope this brief narrative whets your appetite for this exciting adventure. More places and stories to follow…
(Note: The trip was accomplished on the 29th of December, 2014)
Senen V. Siasoco MD, aka, Sonny Siasoks got worn out from 30 years of putting people to sleep pharmacologically (and waking them up, which was the hard part) so he retired. He now spends his time trying to avoid house and yard work by pretending to write about the family travels- don't tell his wife!