I am the sweaty and smiley person enjoying the midday sun by the crater lake of Mount Pinatubo, in the picture below. If I look happy it is because I am doing one of the things I love the most: seeing the world. This article is about how I got to this beautiful place, what I saw and the people I met on the way, and the reflections that this experience brought to me. If you are interested only in practical travel tips, feel free to scroll down to the bottom of this post. Otherwise, hang in there!
The hike up to the crater lake of Mount Pinatubo starts in the town of Santa Juliana, about 50 miles northwest of Manila, where you will register, pay for the park entrance fee, for the services of a local guide who will be assigned to you, and for transportation in a 4×4 vehicle that will take you across rugged Crow Valley to the trail head. The town operates a rotation system by which different guides and drivers work on different days of the week, thus ensuring work to all of them. This is particularly important at this time of the year, when the land is too dry for agriculture. You can tell people are happy and proud to do this work.
Back to my guide, he tells me he is turning 50 today. He was born and has lived his whole life in the surroundings of Pinatubo and he was here in June 1991 when this volcano decided to pull off the second largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century. Following several earthquakes and minor explosions from the volcano vents, Pinatubo erupted on June 15 at 1:42 p.m. The eruption lasted for nine hours and caused several large earthquakes due to the collapse of the summit of Mount Pinatubo and the creation of a caldera. The caldera reduced the peak from 1745 meters (5725 feet) to 1485 meters (4872 feet) high and is 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) in diameter. In spite of evacuations, between 200 and 800 people died due to the eruption, mostly because of the weight of the ash deposited by the volcano, causing the collapsing of roofs and killing the occupants of homes in the region. The economy of the region was greatly disturbed and even after the eruption ended, Pinatubo continued to cause damage through rain-induced torrents of volcanic debris that took away the lives of people and animals and buried homes. In August 1992, another Pinatubo eruption killed 72 people.
Before the 1991 eruption, Pinatubo was covered with a dense forest that supported a population of several thousand indigenous people, the Aetas. They are thought to be some of the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines and are included in the group of people named “Negritos” during the Spanish colonial rule. Along the Crow Valley, which we need to cross on the way to the crater lake, it is still possible to encounter members of the Aetas, who continue to live in the slopes of Pinatubo even though in much smaller numbers.
The children wander around and play while mothers wash clothes in one of the streams that flow from the surrounding slopes. I wouldn’t normally ask for a photo with local residents unless I have become acquainted with them somehow but before I knew it, my guide had assembled the children and they were looking at me with a “what’s taking you so long?” look. A few attempts to converse with them did not succeed but I was touched by their willingness to gather for a photograph that they would never even see and I was grateful. This valley and these mountains are their home. I felt bad that I had not brought anything with me that I could give them in appreciation. I had no idea people lived in the area, let alone that children play along the trail. It was a lovely surprise.
The landscape of the Crow Valley is an attraction in itself. Sometimes it is a wide plain filled with sand and surrounded by crumbling mounts of ash.
Sometimes it is a wild stream that makes you feel glad you are riding in one of these:
Sometimes it is a mountainous desert.
As you approach Pinatubo, the landscape and vegetation start to change.
Now, for the last stretch.
A friend told me the other day that the reason why we travel is that we want to change: “If we wanted to stay the same we would stay at home”. This idea rings true to me.Yet, it is hard for me to tell whether I am changing or not, and what is changing if at all. This is not the case here. Until Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, many people living around it did not even know it was a volcano, said my guide. There was no crater. There was no crater lake.Today as I watch the shockingly dynamic landscape that surrounds volcano Pinatubo, I conclude: it is a tribute to impermanence.
I can see how by placing myself in new environments and engaging new people I am creating great conditions for some level of transformation – externally. However, if I don’t open up to these places and people, I could come back more knowledgeable, but also more set in my own ways, more deeply persuaded of my own beliefs. Travel could become just an exercise in inflexibility. Pinatubo does not have the luxury of a changeless existence. Winds, waters from mountain springs, streams, and rains are rapidly and unforgivingly reshaping the vulnerable material essence of its impressive presence: ash.
How to get there: From Manila you can catch a bus or you can hire a car with a driver (3,000.00 PHP or US $73.00 without including gas, accommodation or meals for the driver), which allows you to explore the countryside more comfortably. If you decide to use public transportation, you can go to Tarlac or Capas and catch a tricycle to Santa Juliana (21 km from the Capas Municipal Hall). It is possible to arrange this trip independently. However, if you prefer to go through a travel agency, these folks seem really professional and well-organized: FILIPINO TRAVEL CENTER, email: email@example.com Website: www.trekkingpinatubo.com. Their prices include a pick up service from your hotel and transportation to and from Pinatubo (about 2.5 hours each way).
How long the hike takes: From the time of registering at Santa Juliana to completing the round trip it took me five hours. The 4×4 portion of the trip lasts a little less than one hour and the hike up and down another 1.5 hours each way. The ascent is gradual and very mild, except for the last 20 minutes or so. It is better to start early in the morning for more comfortable temperatures. I would suggest you get to Santa Juliana no later than 7:00 a.m.
What to bring: Bring snacks and plenty of water. At one point you will need to cross a stream. I wished I had flip-flops with me. Near the crater lake it is possible to buy water and soft drinks, so you may also want to bring a little cash.
Caution: Check the weather and do not trek Pinatubo in rainy conditions unless you are OK running the risk of being washed away and buried under a truckload of ash and sand. The Park is understandably closed during the rainy season but do exercise caution even during other months since rains may occur year round.
How much it costs: If you travel independently, expect at least: 3,000.00 PHP for the 4×4 vehicle (you may be able to share it with other travellers), 300.00 PHP per person for the environmental fee, 150.00 per person for the municipality fee, and 500.00 PHP for the guide. This adds up to 3,950.00 PHP or about US $95.00. Add a little extra for tips that the guide and driver expect.
Where to stay: If you are staying in Manila, this is something you can do in a day and return to your hotel. If you prefer to stay in the area, the Asiaten Pension House in Tarlac is an inexpensive and basic option at US $27.00 per night per person – breakfast included.
Where to eat: There are plenty of chain restaurants in Tarlac. I would love to add some suggestions on local places to try some of the delicious Filipino food. If you find a place you would recommend, please drop me a note.