December 28, 2017: Here’s another item from our Philippines bucket list that took us more than five years to tick.
When our friend Tracy mentioned that she was organizing a Mount Pinatubo tour for her and her son Heath, who was visiting over Christmas from the UK, we jumped at the chance to join them. The hardest part of the day was the 0400H pickup from the marina.
We dozed off and on during the two hour drive to the village of Santa Juliana and the start of the main event. After a pit stop and breakfast at Alvin’s Guesthouse, we met our guide, Harry and our driver, Inchon.
Inchon guided his old military surplus Jeep over the 90 minute route that runs along the valley of the O’Donnell River through a military zone up into the Zambales Mountains. The first part was pretty smooth, but after a short pit stop near an Aeta Resettlement Area and the start of the canyon route, things got a bit trickier. Not to worry, as Inchon knew the route well, and popped between four high and four low as he forded streams and wound through boulder fields to get us to the trail head. Each new season, all of the 4×4 drivers and guides have to basically recreate this route to the trailhead from scratch after the rains wash away the previous track.
From here, it was a fairly easy seven kilometre walk over somewhat rocky terrain to the crater. As we had to cross a number of streams along the way, our feet were wet and shoes full of sand. We did see one enterprising guide carrying one of his female clients across each stream. I hope he charged extra for the added service.
The sand and gravel of the canyons eventually gave way to lush jungle as we got closer to the rim of the volcano. Only the last 20 minutes was much of a climb. And voila, suddenly we were over the rim and into the crater.
Mount Pinatubo erupted on June 15, 1991 after two months of increasing volcanic activity. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated in the zone around the volcano as the action built up momentum in the weeks leading up to the eruption. Most of the indigenous Aeta who lived in the mountains left voluntarily. Our guide Harry was 11 years old when his entire family was evacuated.
Along the trail, we had been passed a few times by men on motorbikes or on foot carrying drinks and snacks up to the kiosks at the viewpoint. The prices reflected the amount of effort to get it there, and our cold San Miguel beers were worth every extra peso.
We took some obligatory group photos at the viewpoint overlooking the lake. We enjoyed the overcast day while we were on the trail, but not so much once we got to the prime attraction. The sun tried to put in an appearance, but the rim of the crater remained shrouded.
The lake inside the crater can be reached by a series of stone steps that were added after the level of the lake was intentionally lowered several years ago to prevent the possibility of flooding downstream. Inside the caldera, we dipped our toes in the water and stopped to enjoy our boxed lunches.
All too soon it was time to climb back up the uneven steps and retrace all seven kilometres of our trek to the trailhead. Lest we forget, we also had to get back in Inchon’s jeep for the bumpy ride back to our waiting van in Santa Juliana. We were knackered by the time we reached it.
You need to hire a local guide to make the trip to the volcano. The guides are all registered and work in rotation. These days, Harry, who has been guiding for many years, only makes the trip about once a week and works the rest of the time as a security guard.
Our all-inclusive trekking package was put together by RJ Tours and cost PHP 4500 per person from Subic. Although it seemed a bit pricey at the time, it made for a super easy day. Alternatively, we could have self driven to Santa Juliana, overnighted at Alvin’s Guesthouse and organized the tour directly with him. They even offer massages! But I have to admit it was nice to let someone else drive us back to Subic after a long, full day.
An Unexpected Stop
On the return to Subic, we passed Camp O’Donnell. This was the prisoner of war camp that was the ultimate destination for those who survived the infamous Bataan Death March when the American forces surrendered to the Japanese during World War II. About 2,200 Americans and 27,000 Filipinos died at Camp O’Donnell.
We made a quick, unplanned stop at the nearby Capas National Shrine, a memorial to those who died at the camp, and a fitting follow-up to our Corregidor tour the previous month.
Additional photos by Heath and Tracy. Extra special thanks to Tracy for organizing our outing and supplying us with an endless array of snacks along the way.