“It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” — Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes
As always, Calvin knew best. So did I, apparently. And that was when I decided to finally explore the Pinatubo crater lake after years of putting it off.
I had lived in Manila for nearly 5 years. But not once during those 5 years had I tried to step beyond the comforts of the city, and venture towards Pinatubo. Venture I did – and plenty of times – to the famous beaches of Zambales, the colourful festivals of Masskara and Panagbenga, former Spanish settlements of Vigan and even the exclusive cordillera mountain ranges of the Luzon province. But Pinatubo itself was never on my agenda for a while.
Primarily, because I was under the influence of the most human emotion. Fear.
The Bundok Pinatubo – as it is called in the Philippines – is an active volcano. One of the first times I had heard the name Pinatubo was when friends referred to the Pinatubo eruption of 1991. The second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. 10 times stronger than the St. Helena eruption of 1980. Although all people in a 30Km area were evacuated well in advance – which sadly also led to the indigenous Aeta people being scattered across the Tarlac and Pampanga – nearly a 1000 people died in the neighbourhoods of Angeles city and Clark, simply because their roofs collapsed from the weight of volcanic residue which was distributed much more widely thanks to a Typhoon that was happening at the same time. Ash covered places as far away as the US Naval base in Subic bay and the US military base in Clark. To the point that Clark Air base was completely abandoned by the United States.
A lesson in irony: Much earlier than the Pinatubo eruption, former Philippines President Ramon Magsaysay – who gave his name to the Magsaysay awards – had named his presidential airplane as ‘Mt. Pinatubo’. He died when ‘Mt. Pinatubo’ crashed in Cebu in 1957. Although, not as ironic as Ninoy Aquino who died in an airport that would be named after him.
Since 2009, the Aetas started returning, and the government started giving them ancestral land ownership rights. The caldera at the volcano had soon started filling itself with rains from the monsoon. The Aetas started organizing tourism activities in the area, and since then, trekking in the Mt. Pinatubo area towards the Pinatubo crater lake, has been an extreme travel activity for some die-hard adventurers.
Was I a die-hard adventurer? Well, yes and no. I don’t mind taking risks during travel and going to offbeat sites. But natural disaster sights do give me a little fright sometimes. I mean, Pinatubo was still active. Granted, there are sufficient warning systems if there is going to be any volcanic activity. But what if there is an unexpected volcanic eruption that no one is aware of? Such was my train of thought.
And the thing about trekking long distances is another story. The last time I tried trekking in India and Nepal, I had almost lost my legs. Maybe, I did exaggerate there. But yeah, trekking is not one of my favourite activities.
So, I kept off Pinatubo for a long while. Until September 2017. I finally gave in, and decided to see this beautiful, sulfur-filled lake and caldera, for myself.
Note: Not the best month that I could have chosen, as the rains were sporadic. I was hit by pretty hard torrential rain when returning from the crater lake.
The route to Pinatubo.
I had thought that the trekking was going to be hard. But getting to the crater site itself, could be labeled the same way: hard!
A friend of mine in Manila connected me to a local company in Tarlac that worked with local Aeta tourguides. I recommend these guys for the Pinatubo trip, as they were very professional till the end.
There is no way for one to do a solo trek to the Pinatubo crater lake, as it is quite dangerous. The company sent me detailed instructions on how to get to the jump-off point, which is where the trail to Mt Pinatubo actually begins. Me and 2 friends took a victory liner bus from Pasay heading towards Baguio. AT 3 AM. Yeah, at 3 AM! We had to be at the starting point by 6 am, as it was a long way ahead of us.
The bus ride was roughly 2.5 hours and we got off at Capas, Tarlac. Right next to a McDonalds. After the customary carb-loading that people usually call breakfast, we hailed one of those tricycles that are omnipresent in the Philippines. The 30-minute tricycle– with my butt feeling sorry throughout, while sitting behind the drive – took us to a Barangay (village) called Santa Juliana which was the starting point for Trekking to Mt. Pinatubo crater lake.
To read: If you enjoy tricycles and street life in the Philippines, click here to check out my pictures of the streets of Ermita in Manila.
Here, we met our tour organizer. Sonia Bognot was a delightful woman and also the president of the Mount Pinatubo Tourism organizers Association.
She quickly completed the formalities before the journey. This involved leading us to the local tourism office and signing off the waiver form. Of course, I did not read much in the waiver since I already knew what the waiver would state. That I am responsible for any accidents, and that the trip could be cancelled if the weather was not in favour.
Author’s note (rant): Some of the negative reviews for Mt. Pinatubo on Tripadvisor, had me laughing and fuming at the same time. One was unhappy because the tour was cancelled due to bad weather. Another was pissed because he couldn’t ride a motorcycle alone to the Pinatubo lake. And yet another was angry because they reached the jump-off point late and were stopped going further at mid-day, because they may not be able to make it back in time before dark. Please don’t be that schmuck. This is a very delicate natural disaster site, and is genuinely difficult to get to. The crater walls break sometimes during the rain – and they have in the past – leading to drowning of both locals and foreigners. And a man famously ignored all warnings and went swimming the crater lake, only to end up dying from Asphyxiation. . Follow your tour guide and their instructions carefully, so that you will live to see another grand sight.
End of rant.
After the signing of the waivers, we were assigned to a 4WD and our guide. I was asked if I needed an English-speaking guide. I didn’t, as I was travelling with 2 local friends. After wasting some time again (we had to get into proper ‘trekking gear’) we kicked off the 4WD ride around 7 AM at Sta. Juliana.
The tarred road lasted for just a few minutes, as we veered into off-road terrains. It started as ash and lahar-filled dusty roads, in the middle of a small canyon, as the 4WD rode through them pretty quickly. Slowly, the rocks became bigger, and there were small streams of water. This was the crow valley, which had vast lahar deposits caused by the 1991 eruption. It became obvious why we needed a 4WD for this stretch, as crossing this piece of terrain would be a near-impossible task for someone who is not a local. The terrain was beautiful and it made for the times when the 4WD would run over a small rivulet, splashing water all over us. We stopped every once in a while, to take a picture against the lunar-like environment.
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. Hello from the moon-like naturescapes of the Pinatubu crater lake! . . So, far it has taken 3 hours of bus ride from Manila to Capas, 30 minutes of tricycle ride from Capas to Sta. Juliana Barangay. And then, the 4WD jeep drive starts, which is going to take another 1.5 hours. And then, I would need to trek about 7 KMs to get to the crater lake. . . Lets see how that goes. . . . . . . . . . . . . #Pinatubo #Manila #Philippines #crater #lake
By 9 AM, we had reached a point which was as far as the 4WD would take us. The 4WD stopped, and we got down to finally start ‘trekking’. 7 KMs of lahar-filled tracks lay ahead of us, and a scalding Luzon sun above us.
It wasn’t so bad actually. It was indeed hot and sunny, but I had deliberately worn a very light t-shirt, so didn’t feel the heat much. And here is the tip from a guy like me who hates trekking. There are patches of both soft lahar and rocks on this trail. If you don’t want to get tired soon, walk on the rocks instead of the lahar. That will keep you going longer.
You can thank me later.
Along the way we passed by Aeta people; those who had returned here since the eruption. Nowadays, they mostly live off the tourism in this region. There was one small shop mid-way through the hike, where we bought some water and a couple of souvenirs. Apart from that, we would randomly keep bumping into Aeta kids, who somehow turned up in the middle of an emptry trekking trail.
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. Close to the Pinatubo crater lake (I promise, the next picture will be from there), I ran into the mountains community living in this area. Its remarkable to survive in such difficult conditions, as just getting to the nearest town is at least a couple of hours of hiking through rocks and tough terrain. . . But they survive. Despite having crazy tourists like me taking pictures of their hens. . . . . . . . . #Pinatubo #Manila #Philippines #crater #lake
The last 30 minutes of the trek were probably harder than the beginning. The ascent was a little steep, and we had to step through rivulets and streams along a narrow path, covered by green trees. (note to self: pack extra socks the next time). We knew we were close, when we finally started seeing steps. We had to climb the steps to the top of the crater.
From the moon to the verdant earth
What greeted us was completely different from the dark and dusty roads that we had just walked through. A completely green open layout, with a lush scattering of trees around. A few shaded areas where families gathered for lunch or just to chill. A solitary drinks-seller who sold some cold drinks, which were super expensive but the price makes sense since he had to carry them all the way here. And in the middle of it all, the view opened out for one of the most beautiful sights that I have come across. Soaked in a rich shade of green, the Pinatubo crater lake was as beautiful as anything that I had come across.
I could die right now. And I know that my life was somewhat complete.
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. Woahhh… All that climbing, and that ass-crunching ride on a tricycle and a 4WD, it was to see this one view. And - oh boy - was it all worth it!! All my sweat dried away from the cool wind at the top of this crater lake. And I stared at it with my jaws dropped down. . . I wanted to desperately jump into the lake for a swim. But sadly, that was not safe, due to all the sulphur present. . . . . . . . . . . . #Pinatubo #Manila #Philippines #crater #lake
Itenarary and Time-lines:
3.00 AM: Departure from Pasay, Manila to Capas Tarlac
5.30 AM: Tricycle ride from Capas Tarlac to Sta. Juliana (blame the McDonalds for the nearly 30 minute stop
6 AM: Arrival at Sta. Juliana. Register at tourism office.
7 AM: 4X4 ride to jump-off point. Should have left at 6.30. The delay was caused by us, as we were busy changing ‘gears’.
9 AM: Start trek to crater (this is late. The organizers recommend starting trek by 8 am. But we made a few stops along the way to make photos.)
1PM: Arrived at crater lake. Super late, but we were not in the best of Trekking shape.
1.30 PM: Rush back to the 4WD.
3.30 PM: Reach 4WD. Thankfully, the walk back was much easier, despite the rains.
5 PM: Back at St. Juliana, and departure towards Capas and Manila.
We eventually reached back in Manila at 11 PM! Well, it was entirely our fault, as we made many delays along the way for food, etc.
Number of Persons : 3
Tour Package : Pinatubo Public tour with no van transport from Manila
Total Tour Package Booked : Php 6,210 for 3 pax (does not include the bus and tricycle transfers between Manila and Sta. Juliana.
- 4×4 jeep
- Local Tour Guide
- All Tourism Fees- entrance,registration,conservation,permit to trek-LGU CAPAS AND LGU BOTOLAN
- Tour Arrangement/services/Inbound tour coordinator on site to ensure that you are properly assisted BEFORE departure.
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