Tuesday, April 26, 2011

#19: Hike to Mt. Pinatubo's crater—CHECK!

As we hiked under the relentless Philippine sun through a seemingly endless path of lahar, volcanic rocks and streams, I recalled the first hike I did as a child. It was more of a walk really but it felt like it took forever, as most things do when you're a kid. We were in Hidden Valley, a resort south of Manila, with natural spring pools fringed with lush vegetation. Someone had decided we should go looking for the hidden waterfall and I couldn't, for the life of me, understand why we had to leave a place that was already beautiful and walk for ages just to look for this waterfall. It didn't help that the waterfall turned out to be a pathetic trickle of water in the end. When I remember my way of thinking as a child, it strikes me how growing older changes our perspective so much. These days, I am so willing to put myself through hell just so I can marvel at something. I would never have sought out a volcano crater to swim in as a child. What for when there are all these swimming pools and beaches just a car ride away? But these days, there's this irrepressible urge to suck the marrow out of life and see all the beautiful things that can be seen, no matter the cost and effort.

These were the thoughts running through my mind the day we went to hike to the crater of Mt. Pinatubo. In a country dotted with 37 volcanoes, Mt. Pinatubo is one intimately known by my generation. In 1991, Mt. Pinatubo produced the largest eruption in living history, blanketing most of the northern Philippines in volcanic ash. My friends recall being stumped by the white ash falling from the sky. I was in Hong Kong on holiday with my family and could not get back to Manila for a week because  the ashfall prevented aircrafts from landing. Mt. Pinatubo continues to be active but over the last 10 years, vegetation has grown back and a lake has formed in its crater. Naturally, some adventurous souls eventually made hiking to the crater and swimming in the lake a regular activity.

I'd been mystified by the idea of swimming in this volcano crater for years but never got around to it until my 30 Before 30 Project came about. So on April 20, 2011, I finally got around to ticking this off my list. My good friend from New York, Mitch, arranged our Mt. Pinatubo trek with a local outfit that takes care of reserving guides, transportation and security, as well as our packed picnic lunch for P2,500 per head (approximately $57). We had planned on meeting the guide at the Petron gas station in Capas, Tarlac at 7:30am but ran into some delays so by the time we reached the registration area at Pinatubo Spa Town in Barangay Sta. Juliana, all the other trekkers had already left. Since we were the last to leave and had no cars to convoy with, the tour operator requested additional security to join us, in addition to our tour guide.

After signing some waivers and sorting out payments, we piled into the 4x4 assigned to us. With 5 people in our group plus a driver and a guide, it was a tight fit. So tight that our security detail sat on the hood of the 4x4 for most of the ride (clearly, seatbelt laws are more like a helpful suggestion in these parts of the country). The adventure began with a 4x4 ride that took us through Crow Valley, an area once used by the US Armed Forces as a bombing range and currently still used for military exercises by the Philippine Army (We ran into quite a few army men wearing fatigues and carrying high powered rifles towards the end of our trek as the military is currently conducting exercises in the area). Driving onto Crow Valley is a bit like journeying through the moon, I would imagine. It's a no man's land that was waylaid by lahar during the eruption. The lahar dust swirled into the open 4x4 relentlessly so that we were all covered in a thin layer of dust by the time we disembarked. (Tip: Do not bring a backpack that you like for this trip. It will have lahar dust in every nook and cranny by the time you're done). The drive itself is quite an adventure, as the 4x4 goes through streams and lahar fields in order to reach the beginning of the trail.
I had come into this feeling quite cocky that the hike would be easy peasy. We were under the impression that the hike would just take half an hour, and I've done some advanced hikes in the past so I was feeling confident. But this hike is subject to the whims of Mother Nature and circumstance (not to mention punishing equatorial heat). We found out that the road that could take us close enough to just do a 30-minute hike got washed out by rains last year. There's a "skyway" road that takes trekkers to a point where they'll only have to hike for an hour, but a 4x4 had an accident there just the day before, blocking and rendering the road impassable. So we were instead deposited to a trailhead from where the hike would take 2 hours and 40 minutes (2 hours if we're fast). We got more than we had bargained for but dove in, nevertheless. I thought Kate and I had it rough when we tackled the unmaintained Hermit's Trail in the Grand Canyon last August. This trek definitely one-upped that hike. What is this trail that you speak of? I don't know either.
There were more goats than people in these parts.
Our guides were very helpful, holding us by the hand as we stepped on rocks to cross streams and in some cases, literally heaving large rocks into the stream so that we'd have something to step on and cross over without getting our shoes wet. Only in the Philippines! Once we got the hang of things though, our guide stopped coddling us and let us negotiate the streams by ourselves. Although the trail was largely flat, it was demanding due to the heat and the terrain, which consisted mostly of volcanic sand, rocks and streams. But the scenery was really interesting. I was captivated by how the sulfur in the water imparted a rust-colored hue to the rocks and soil that gave the area an extraterrestrial feel.
An hour and a half into our hike, the lahar fields gave way to lush terrain. Our guide told us that this was where the 4x4s used to disembark and that we were now just 30 minutes from the crater. By this time, the sun crawled underneath some clouds and our hike became slightly more pleasurable. It did get a tad more challenging, however, as there were now more inclines. It was in this area that we finally encountered other hikers, who were now returning just as we were arriving. As previously mentioned, we also encountered armed military men in full fatigues. It might be a disconcerting sight for non-Filipinos but I found their presence reassuring.

After one final steep climb up an incline, we finally hit the motherlode.
Up until last March, the lake in Mt. Pinatubo's crater was a beautiful turquoise hue. After the Japan earthquake of March 11, however, the color turned dark green. It is still a stunning sight but I wish I had seen it when it was at its bluest. A reminder from Mother Earth that nothing lasts forever and that we should see as much as we can while we still can.

We were famished by the time we got there so our guide set up our lunch. This is another way that trekking in the Philippines varies from trekking in the US. At the end of my hikes with Kate, we would dig into our PB&J sammies and trailmix. Here in the Philippines, the guide carried and unfolded this feast at the destination:
Our food came from Everybody's Cafe in Pampanga, a joint famous for its local fare. Kapampangan cooking is some of the best in the country and this was my first real lunch since returning to the Philippines so I found it to be an amazing treat. We were served adobong puti (white adobo),  a variation of the Philippines' most popular stew that eschews the use of soy sauce (as opposed to the typical dark adobo where pork and chicken are stewed in vinegar and soy sauce). There was also some really delicious longganiza (pork sausage), atchara (pickled radish), chicharon (pork cracklings) and a heaping mound of white rice. My absolute favorite part of the lunch was the pako salad—a mixture of fiddlehead ferns, salted duck eggs and tomatoes tossed in vinaigrette. It's something quite impossible to come by in the US and I love, love, love it.
After lunch, we made our way down to the lake for a dip. It took us awhile to get in as the water felt cold and it had gotten overcast. When we finally did though, it was nice and refreshing. It's a bit disconcerting to swim in a volcano crater though because a) you can't see what lies beneath the surface, and b) it gets deep very very quickly. There are no living creatures in this lake other than some underwater reeds that just add to this lake's Lochness monster vibe!

We decided to take a boat ride (P350 per head or approximately $8) to the "hot springs", as the boatmen called it. It's really just another side of the lake where the volcanic sand is still quite hot and makes parts of the water warm, as well. It's quite a sight to see: steam rises from the shore and the colors of the rocks and water are pretty. Swimming in the water is an interesting experience, too, as you'll find that the temperature varies from spot to spot. Being in this area really drove home the point that good lord, we were swimming in the mouth of a volcano!
While we were swimming in the hot springs, we were told that the "skyway" had already been cleared and for an additional P1,500, our driver could drive to the other trailhead so that we'd only have to do a 1-hour hike back. I'm terrible at haggling but thankfully my friends took the lead on this one. They argued that we had already paid for the skyway fee as part of our package and shouldn't have to pay another fee on top of that just because the driver had to make a detour. In the end the tour company covered our fee, but this is a reminder that you should watch out for these things so as not to pay unnecessary fees (Watch out for a separate post on practical matters for Mt. Pinatubo trekking).

We were told that we had to make our way back by 1:30PM so we made sure we were back on the trail by then. At this point we were the last tourists on the premises and all of the personnel actually packed up for the day as soon as we left. By the time we reached the pick-up point, all the personnel were right at our back with the coolers where they stored the drinks sold by the crater. They also carried the trash out with them, picking up empty water bottles that had been left by tourists (tsk tsk!) in different parts of the trail. I was sorely disappointed that some trekkers thought to litter on the trail but was comforted to see that the personnel make sure every last piece of litter is removed at the end of the day.

We had scarcely left the pick up point on when our 4x4 suddenly stalled. The driver checked the gas tank and said that we had run out of diesel, and I was just dumbfounded. It was getting late, it had been drizzling, and we were all anxious to get out of there. How could he let this happen?!
Thankfully the 4x4 used by the Mt. Pinatubo personnel was right behind us. They said they would transfer some of their jeep's gas to ours so that we could all get back. They later realized that there was just a clog in some artery and did some mechanical magic to get the gas flowing. All the men gave the jeep a few running jumpstarts and to my relief, the engine rumbled back to life. The ride back seemed much longer and was exceptionally bumpy and dusty, so I was utterly relieved when we finally rolled to a stop back at the Spa Town.

It was a rough and tumble adventure, far more challenging than I had imagined, but every bit of it was worth it. Mt. Pinatubo is definitely something worth seeing and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a little something more to marvel at.


  1. I would have never thought to swim in a volcano crater what a great writeup. I'll definitely have to add to my list!

  2. Hi Cel! My hubby & I did the Pinatubo hike exactly a month ago (for our wedding anniv, heehee), and being the non-active persons we were, it was indeed a challenge. I thought my knees and lungs would give up haha! But super fun and exciting nonetheless! :)

  3. Hi Cel! Congratulations!!! :) When we went in 2006, we had different options... the 2 + hr hike that you took and a 14 hr one. Haha. We took the shorter trail of course but it was more than exhausting :P Another great entry! :) Can't wait for the others!

  4. Things to Do - Glad you enjoyed the post! It's definitely a unique experience. Do it if you have the chance!
    Verl - I will never underestimate a hike again. It was tough no? Did you get to see it while the water was still blue or had it already turned green?
    Ela - Thanks! So happy you enjoyed reading this! Wow, did you really mean to say 14 hours or did you mean 15 mins? Where on earth does that path take you?!

  5. That sucks that you didn't get to see it when it was really blue, but you make a good point. All things are fleeting. We shouldn't put off anything!

  6. I know right? I was talking to a friend of mine last night who's originally from that area and he felt so bad that he kept putting it off. The boatmen said that the color's starting to turn back to blue but if it never does then it's an opportunity missed forever!

  7. Haha I really meant 14 hours. Probably for the "serious" hikers but you'll end up in the same place. Haha. When we went we were told that we were taking the easier route, which was what you took to the top. Wasn't easy at all! Haha.

  8. WOW, what an amazing experience and absolutely gorgeous pictures!

  9. Ela - That is INSANE! Why anyone would pick a 14-hour hike over a 2-hour one, I will never understand ... unless there are other really breathtaking sights to see on that path, I suppose? I agree, even the "easy" hike is not easy at all!
    Chelsea - Thank you, I highly recommend it if you get the chance to go!

  10. way to go Celine!!!! How are you holding up with the heat? Glad you are having fun!

  11. When we went the water was a bit greenish and murky. Sayang nga eh. The boatman said the water's that way because there was less sulfur content at that time, and it usually turns blue around September to December.

  12. prettywicked - I just got back from Sagada, where it was relatively cooler but still not cold! It was a nice break but now I'm back in the full on Manila heat. Thank god for AC!
    Verl - Hmmm interesting! I wonder if the water will go back to that nice blue by September this year? I hope so, I'd love to go back and see that!

  13. grabe, you really did do some trekking. :D adventure talaga. :D

    You're picture of the crater is a bit gloomy, the view is much better when it's sunny. when we were there the skies were clear and blue and the color of the water is blue-green.

    so, how's your sagada trip? I can't wait to read your sumaguing cave experience. :D

    - Charlie-J

  14. Can't wait to read up on your Sagada trip! I hope you had a blast as much as I did when I went there!

  15. Charlie - The boatmen & guides said that the water isn't blue green anymore. It changed after the Japan earthquake! Hopefully it turns back to that beautiful turquoise color :-( Sagada post coming soon. I'm still trying to finish the Donsol one!
    prettywicked - I am so excited to write about Sagada too! But first ... Donsol ;-)

  16. Hey Celine. =) I'm also New York based and going on a vacation in the Philippines this January. Which tour company did you use for this trek? I love the food and everything. Thanks!

  17. Hi dear! Poch Jorolan, whose family owns Everybody Cafe in Pampanga, runs this tour. You can call him at +1 917 2454834 or email poch168@gmail.com for more information. Let me know how it goes!

  18. Hey Celine! I just arrived in New York after a month vacation in the Philippines and Japan. Pinatubo is a thing of beauty. And the food...I'm still dreaming about the food. We were there February 5th. The water in the crater is back to being Turquoise. And the weather is nice too.

  19. It is??? I am so jealous that you got to see the turquoise water; now I'll have to go back to see it again! Haha ... really glad you enjoyed the trek AND that fabulous food. My mouth is watering at the thought of that pako salad!

  20. Hi Celine!

    Thank you for this post. I get inquiries for Mt. Pinatubo trekking because of your blog.

    All the best and regards.

    Poch Jorolan

    1. You're very welcome, Poch! We had such a great time, thanks to you. I hope my readers do, too!

  21. May I also ask for permission to post this on my group page on Facebook? The name of my page is Outereater Tours and Events.

    Thanks again!



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