Volcano Venture: Mount Pinatubo

In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, impacted millions of people and disrupted the local economy for many subsequent years. Over two decades later, however, the lahar (volcanic ash) that was once so devastating is now benefiting the same areas it affected: sand quarries have boomed in lahar areas, and the same lahar constitutes a significant portion of the adventure trail up to Mount Pinatubo’s Crater Lake. The latter is where we’re headed today.

From the Tourism Center in Capas, Tarlac –the launch point where you sign a waiver and hire a guide (or guides, depending on the size of your party)– there are three ways to get to the foot of the volcano.

 

 

Ok, so riding a carabao (water buffalo) isn’t actually an option, but it seems to be a popular attraction for photographs. Hypothetically, you could hire one; just know that it’d take you several slow hours. You could also walk it, but getting to Pinatubo by jeep is the most common preference. You’d be surprised how many people can fit in a single jeep: 2 people in the front seats, 4 in the back, one on the hood, another hanging on by the driver’s side…possibly another person on top – no joke! We fit 18 of us (party of 14 + 4 guides) in three jeeps.

Driving there is part of the fun. It’s rough terrain, and you will bounce. A lot. It feels a little like a ride at Universal Studios. The difference is that, instead of a green screen surrounding you, there is actual landscape and lahar every which way you turn.

 

 

You’ll likely come across some white cattle, and maybe some white mountain goats if you look closely enough. This is starting to feel like a safari trip! When jeep #1 breaks down, however, we’re glad it’s not an actual safari. (Wild predators in the open? Eep!) There’s nothing else to do but load everyone into the two remaining jeeps. One of the guides stays behind with the broken-down jeep. The division of passengers between vehicles was previously 5, 5, and 8; after rebalancing, we’re now carrying 7 and 10. Remember, I said you’d be surprised how many people can fit in a single jeep? The possibilities are endless! …Which works in our favor when jeep #2 breaks down. What now? We lose another guide to stay behind with the second broken-down jeep. The last surviving vehicle takes half our group the remainder of the way to the base of Pinatubo, and returns for the remaining party. While we’re waiting to commence our hike with the complete party, here’s a time-lapse displaying just how windy it is out here. Check out those clouds!

 

 

By the time we finally start our hike, our 4 guides are down to 2, but that’s ok because it’s not exactly a maze up the mountain. It’s also such a gradual incline that you probably won’t find it very difficult. (But, boy oh boy, will your muscles ache tomorrow!) Still, it does require some level of physical fitness to trudge upward and forward in a seemingly endless sea of gray. Bring your balance too, because you’ll need to maneuver some rocky paths the closer you get to Crater Lake. The end of the trail is where it gets steepest, but even that isn’t anything crazy difficult.

On average, it takes 2+ hours up and 2 hours down the volcano…plus whatever time you take to rest up top, maybe have a picnic lunch, lounge by the lake, and/or take a power nap. No turning back now that you’ve heard all that! Let’s do this.

 

 

Now that we’ve had lunch and a chance to rest, it’s time to head back down. Wondering why it seemed easier to minimize water logging in your sneakers this morning? The water levels may vary, depending on the time of day. For instance, the streams might seem higher during your trek down. Luckily for us, having packed slippers means this is less of an issue.

 

 

The adventure isn’t over yet. It’s time to head back to Capas. If you’re not too tired, try standing in the jeep bed. Wind blowing in your face, nary a trace of the modern world. Freedom.

 

 

 

Notes on Hiking Supplies:

1. Time – You probably don’t want to schedule anything else on the day of your climb. Get an early start. We left home at 4:20am and got home at 9:20pm (there was a lot of driving time).

2. Water – I’m not saying you’ll die of thirst, but you’d be silly not to bring any water. There might be a peddler with a small cooler of drinks if you’re lucky; but you can’t rely on one being there, and you won’t find out until you’re nearly at the top of the volcano.

I brought 54 oz (1600 ml) of water and Gatorade in my backpack (which really was a last-minute find of a small children’s bag…covered in a rainbow of hearts), and I still bought another 34 oz (1000 ml) bottle from the beverage peddler who was, fortunately, there today. By the time I arrived back in Capas, I was nearly out of water and in desperate need of the loo!

3. Sunblock – I don’t burn easily. This shouldn’t be an excuse for me to be reckless with my skin, but I’m not the best when it comes to sun protection. That said, I’m telling you to wear sunblock. And reapply. This particular day, I did remember to wear sunblock. And reapply. And I still got some major tannage – think flambéed bananas foster. I hate to think of the pain I’d have been in without any sunblock.

4. Flip-flops – Slippers, thongs, sandals, chinelas, whatever you call them – you’ll be glad you packed a pair when you have to cross water streams all the way up (and back down) Pinatubo. You’ll do fine without, but if you’re going to bring an extra pair of footwear anyway, it may as well be something light and practical. Why would you bring an extra pair of footwear? Because many will tell you a tale of damaged shoes from this hike. One in my party wrecked a pair of Merrells, which were clearly designed for outdoor/hiking use! Take heed: Don’t bring your new Nike Airs on this trek.

If you’re planning on bringing flip-flops, you probably don’t want to get a pedicure before this trek; you will only ruin the nail polish. (Do a spa trip the following day instead! A massage will be well deserved.) If you don’t want to hike in slippers, you might still enjoy them resting up top (perhaps while your shoes dry), or during your trip home (perhaps also while your shoes dry). I kept mine on from the first water crossing all the way to the top. It meant I could step in the water to cool off at any time, and help my sneakered peers cross precarious stepping stones. Mostly, I just liked being a little kid who could wade into the water; I didn’t have to worry about getting my shoes wet, and I could go “off-road” when everyone else was maneuvering the rocky banks.

5. Additional Accessories – Depending on your preferences (or how conscious you are about sun damage), remember to bring your sunglasses and a hat. You could bring an umbrella (it’s not unheard of), but be warned it can be very windy and not very conducive for carrying an umbrella. When folded, the umbrella can double as a walking stick.

Speaking of walking sticks, I didn’t need one, but a few in my party found them useful. You can get nicer ones from your local outdoor store, or you can buy one from your local tukod peddler in Capas. A walking stick is called a tukod (too-cod) here – really just a length of bamboo, as evidenced in the top left image below. After you register and sign a waiver pre-jeep ride, you can purchase a tukod for a mere ₱20 (roughly $0.45).

 

As you can see in the last picture, we’re all smiling! We’d originally planned to go as a trio, but turned into a group 14. The more, the merrier! We’re across different ages and physical fitness levels – proof that you too can do this! So grab your tukod and put on your hiking slippers already.  :)