With zero sleep, excitement was my main source of energy as we reached Sta. Juliana, Tarlac at 6 AM to hike one of The Philippines’ most dangerous volcanoes, Mount Pinatubo—I know, staying up wasn’t the best idea.
4×4 jeeps were readily lined up in a narrow street along with a scattered crowd of bamboo walking stick vendors and tourists registering for the hiking experience. We bought a walking stick each initially to make us look like legit hikers because we’re really not. Hiking props, ha! We eventually understood the demand for it during the actual hike. It helped us a lot.
Lucky enough, my friend Rian was able to recruit hiking buddies AKA her relatives to join us. It would’ve been more expensive if it was just us two compared to a package of 6 pax. The more the merrier too, of course! These tours are expensive but necessary because the registration booth prioritizes booked tours over walk ins. We chose Pinay Key Point Org to accommodate us and it didn’t take long before we were on board our 4×4 jeeps for an off-road adventure in Crow Valley.
The first 15 minutes was a thrill. Standing on the back of the jeep, we swayed and held on tight as our 4×4 traversed the vast lahar-stricken valley. There were streams where we would drive on, splashing us with lahar water and leaving our skin thoroughly exfoliated with shimmering sand—pweh! It got in my mouth. I asked, “kuya, how long will this ride take?” to which he answered, “ma’am, 45 more minutes”. All four of us sat down. None of us knew how to hold that thrill for that long.
I tapped on our guide’s shoulder to squeeze in some history lessons. He pointed to the hill, half of it already blended with a collapsing lahar that made for a picturesque scene. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near it for safety. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in June 15, 1991 after being dormant for 500 years, the lahar buried a whole town faster than a flowing stream and it levelled with the mountain top. Hence, the green and grey “hills” of Crow Valley. Timing couldn’t be worse as it erupted the same time a typhoon was passing by. It became the second most intense volcanic eruption in the 20th century.
As I admired the patterns formed by the collapsing lahar hill, our guide further explained that every year, the lahar level decreases due to the flowing water, slowly making the mountains reappear. The streams we were driving on would sometimes go as high as 10 feet during rainy season and surely, jeeps can’t swim so tours are prohibited.
Excitement levels peaked once again as soon as we saw parked jeeps in a distance. Next up, hiking! It was a fairly easy hike but on a long and rocky 5KM trail. From soft sand to small stones to big rocks and rocks on rivers and golden iron-rich streams, every step was a leg workout. Everywhere I looked was a photo op location but we weren’t here for that.. ok maybe a little. Click!
Two hours in, we were nearing Mt. Pinatubo’s caldera. Signs pointed to the crater lake and dictated approximately how many minutes you can reach it depending on your age group—young age in 15 minutes, middle age in 18 minutes, and senior citizen in 20 minutes. We love a good challenge and Rian and I almost always lie about our age, claiming we’re only 18—two out of ten believe us, true story. Though our guide was one of the eight who called BS on us, he did commend our fast hiking pace and we had our parkour training to thank for that! Oh we would dread being labeled as senior citizens.
At last, the most beautiful scenery emerges. We have reached the crater lake. Blessed with clear skies, in front of us was a turquoise lake surrounded by a wall of mossy-green elevated terrain. I can’t find the perfect words to describe how the landscape further away looks like and trust me, photos do not do justice. My best attempt would be in Photoshop terms. Imagine the output level tweaked to lighten the whole background, giving off a slightly matte effect. K, that was my feeble attempt to sound techie and it stops right there. In prettier sounding words, it looks like a photoshopped postcard–the colors, the effect, the grandeur of it all. It is that good. My only regret is, why didn’t I think of seeing this sooner? It honestly is one of the best spots in the Philippines I have seen so far. Unbelievable.
Snacks were sold in a store right in front of the viewing deck and though everything was overpriced, we needed to refuel. Noodle soup sounded comforting so we all sat under the shade of a tree and rested as the high noon sun beamed bright. We spent almost two hours recharging and admiring the scenery until it was time to descend and head back to the base. It would take us another three hours to get there and it was best to arrive before it gets dark.
At this point, some streams were higher, some rocks were bigger, and some mud were softer. A couple of 4×4 jeeps broke down on the way back. You could tell how old the jeeps were by the looks of it and how roughly maintained they were hence, troubles like these were inevitable. Lucky for us, we did not experience that and lucky for those we happened to pass by, we let the stranded tourists squeeze in ours until the base.
The whole Mount Pinatubo experience was well worth the tour we paid for. I used to always see the final destination as the most rewarding but this time, it was just the cherry on top of an adventure package! To travel across a place so devastating yet hauntingly beautiful and hear stories of struggle and resilience makes for quite an unforgettable experience. Never mind that I started the day with zero sleep, I was too enthralled by the adventure and beauty of this disastrous volcano that not one yawn had left my lips. I was totally knocked out on our way back to Manila though. My well-deserved rest.