Phillipines: Mount Pinatubo

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In the years following its destructive eruption in 1991, the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo has blossomed to become a world-class tourist attraction. Jenette del Mundo discovers why

It’s barely dawn and there’s hardly anyone around, the incessant sound of the cicadas and a cool, dewy breeze providing a welcome relief from the bustling city from which we just arrived. “Good morning; ready to go?” greets Noel, our upbeat designated driver. It’s 4am sharp and he’s rolled up in a Hummer-type 4x4 at our hotel door in Clark (the Philippines’ free economic zone that formerly housed an American airbase), and he’s ready to take us to the dramatic Mount Pinatubo. I’m bleary-eyed and badly rested, the former due to the sheer brutality of this early wake-up and the latter from anticipation for the trip. As I ease into the back seat of the open-air, bright-red jeep, I ponder why I’m so excited to be heading up towards this famous mountain – which, naturally, takes my mind back a little more than 20 years…

June 15, 1991, to be precise. This was the fateful day when Mount Pinatubo, a then-dormant volcano, awoke after 500 years of slumber, killing more than 800 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more, making it one of the world’s most catastrophic eruptions. Most of the victims were from the indigenous Aeta tribal group, who sought refuge in the government resettlement areas in other provincial towns. Agriculture was ravaged, causing losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Villages collapsed and roads became impassable. And it became a double-blow as the eruption landed alongside a strong typhoon. As the locals
say, ‘when the heavens opened and rained bad luck, it all came this way’.


The bumpy lahar Mud and rock after the volcanic eruption

An hour or so after leaving Clark – we pass provincial towns like Pampanga and see delightful rickety tricycles, buffaloes and local families going about their daily errands – we reach the gateway to Mount Pinatubo. We’re in Santa Juliana in Capas, Tarlac, where we claim our entry permits, take in a short briefing,
and meet up with our local trek guide and our porter. And, as we progress to the base of the volcano, we’re extremely glad for their expertise. Along the O’Donnell River, the wide expanse of the 16km lahar roads, essentially mudflow strips which resulted from the eruption, require meticulous driving. The real adventure, however, begins the moment our wheels dip into the sludge of volcanic deposits and water, traversing running streams and mud where the drop is sharp and the recovery is sudden. It’s an exhilarating ride somewhat comparable to sand-dune driving in the desert, and a giddy sensation that lasts nearly an hour before our jeep stops.

We alight around 7km from the rim of the volcano, a light, easy and uneventful trek from the crater, decorated by sparse vegetation, hanging valleys, shallow streams and gorges. An hour or so into the hike, therefreshing sounds of trickling water begin, a probable sign that we are nearing the crater, accompanied by a wooden signboard challenging hikers to finish in 20 minutes or be labelled a ‘senior citizen’. After a further short uphill climb, the majestic views of Mount Pinatubo open out suddenly, dramatically and impressively. 

After 1991, the caldera filled with monsoon rains, resulting in the sublime crater lake. Immediately after the eruption, the lake’s water temperature remained extremely hot and highly acidic, but eventually it has cooled. Today, the waters are an impressive crystal blue-green, surrounded by the lush Tri-Cabusilan Highlands. It’s still technically forbidden to swim in the 2.5km-long lake due to the unknown depths and the lack of lifeguards. However, several around us jump in to cool themselves down, and seem to encounter no problems at all.

Time passes in a dreamy haze as we walk the entire stretch of the caldera. Shaded by hand-pitched tents, we decide to lie down and bask in the magnificent vistas, which are reminiscent of a lakeside scenery in Patagonia or the Swiss Alps. Besides merely savouring the view, there are a number of other activities you can do after the trek. Pinatubo Spa Town is, given the long-heralded cosmetic qualities of volcanic mud, a natural choice for anyone looking for rest and relaxation (facebook.com/pinatubospa.town). It’s rather basic, but offers activities, accommodation and massage treatments.

Eventually returning back to the car park, our driver Noel rushes to greet us. “Did you guys like it?” he asks. I smile and think about how Mother Earth’s fury can wreak havoc – but if you let her run her course, she usually finds a way to redeem herself.

Getting there 

Mount Pinatubo lies 65km from Clark International Airport. Cebu Pacific flies direct to Clark daily from $1,059 return. cebupacificair.com.

Tours 

Tours can be booked from the Capas Tourism Office (+63 45 925 0154). The price of a five-person jeep is PHP3,000 ($520). A tour guide costs PHP500 ($90), and there are additional fees for conservation (PHP300/$50) and for the area’s indigenous people (PHP150/$25).

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