At this point, I’ve got at least one one item crossed out in my list of “35 before 35″. Taking the Mt. Pinatubo trek should be included in anyone’s bucket list in spite of, or perhaps even because of, all the body tiredness, the worries, and the body aches.
The plan for another out-of-town trip with the badminton buddies finally pushed through last week. Pinatubo proved that we didn’t have to leave Luzon (or the Philippines, for that matter) to seek adventure and excitement. Thanks to sources on the Web and the various bloggers who have shared their hiking experiences, we were able to plan or itinerary somewhat properly.
Leaving for Pinatubo
We left Manila via Victory Liner-Pasay at 3:20 AM for Capas, Tarlac. It’s great that Victory Liner’s buses leave on time and queuing up for tickets is not at all a hassle. Moreover, the bus company assigns proper seating arrangements, so unlike the other buses that ply the Luzon routes (i.e., Baliwag, 5Star, Genesis, etc.), there are no extra passengers that occupy the center aisle and make it difficult for other passengers to alight at their stops.
Getting a tour guide
By 6:30 AM, we reached Capas and immediately looked for a tour guide. There are various groups that provide guided tours to Pinatubo, and it’s imperative that those who wish to hike up to the crater get their services. They are the ones who provided the 4×4 jeeps that take hikers from the towns that surround the mountain to the camps at the start of the trekking route and of course are the ones who are familiar with the terrain. Some provide tents, helpers, and food, but most of all, they process hiking permits, since one cannot enter the Pinatubo grounds without approval by the PH army. Some parts of the valleys near the mountains are used in military exercises, sometimes with visiting foreign forces…if you know what I mean.
Taking the 4×4 jeeps
At 7:30, after a short orientation about the hike, we left on two 4×4 jeeps. A jeep rental costs around P5,000 so it is best to share it with a group. A jeep has a maximum capacity of five passengers, plus one guide. Before entering the Pinatubo lahar valleys, we had to secure permits at the Mt. Pinatubo Spa Town where the local tourism office was located. Checking and rechecking permits took about 15 minutes, as our guide was also hosting three other groups.
After getting our permits, which should be presented to the army checkpoint afterwards, we drove off to the lahar valley. The entire jeep ride from Capas to the Pinatubo camp took roughly two hours. Depending on the season, the terrain could be either dry and dusty or wet and muddy; either way, you are assured of a rough and bumpy, albeit fun, ride. As it was already July, we had to cross streams and shallow bogs on the way to the base camp.
Hiking to the crater
Again, depending on the season, your route to the crater could change. As it was already the rainy season and Central Luzon had just been recovering from the massive rains and floods brought on by Tropical Depression Falcon the previous weekend, our group took the long way. During dry season, the route called the Skyway, is open to 4×4 jeeps and cuts hikers’ trek by more than an hour. Instead of the 2-hour hike, the Skyway cuts hiking time to 45 minutes.
For more than two hours, we had to navigate the lahar valley which still was flushing ankle-deep streams of muddy waters. In spite of what you see on the Web, it’s never advisable to hike Pinatubo wearing flip-flops, Crocs, or those pricey trainers and running shoes; they will get soaked in mudwaters, slip amidst rocks and pebbles that litter the valley, or fill up with rough sand.
And oh, no matter the season, wear sunscreen.
The lahar valley is a sight to behold. It became apparent to me that the mountain walls on both sides of the valley were not the usual mountainsides at all, but simply piles upon piles of sand and rocks that could erode at any time. They looked like majestic cathedrals, but at the same time I could not shake the thought that if I was not careful, I could find myself buried amidst tons of sands that Pinatubo spewed 20 years ago and enveloped the hills around these valleys.
We reached a rest stop on the last 30 minutes of our hike. I think that this was also the best part of the hike. Although we had to manage a steep incline, at least we had to take the last portion of the climb amid lush vegetation and cross clear and cool streams.
Beholding the beauty of the crater
We reached the crater by noon, and the first reaction was…Wow!
The crater was something else. It was magnificent. Fantastic. Exhilarating. Who would have thought that the biggest volcano eruption in recorded history of the planet would result in such magnificent beauty that was the Pinatubo crater. The two American tourists that I chatted as I was resting on the way up were right: all the troubles of the hike were worth it. Not just because I had no other choice but to finish the rest of the climb, but because the beauty of the crater is hard to match.
Of course, one should remember that it was still a crater of a semi-active volcano and the walls of dried lahar that surround the crater lakes could erode at any time. You could gape at its wonders but at the same time be reminded that underneath it all lurked certain dangers.
If you are so inclined, you could go to the lake’s shore, bathe in its waters (it’s never advisable to swim in the 300-foot deep lake), take a boat to the other side, or simply set up tent and relax while having your lunch. We opted to stay on the viewing deck or park, as we didn’t relish the thought of having to climb another 160 steps back to the deck. The other group who hiked with us decided to go to the lakeshore, however, and they all seemed to have a great time.
In spite of the heavy breakfast that we took prior to the hike, we were so famished by the time we reached the crater. Note that there are no food sold at the crater park.
On the way back to camp
After two hours of lunch, picture taking, and soaking in the beauty of the crater lake, it was time to pack up. Again, during dry season, you could stay as late as 3 or 4 PM. However, rainy season poses certain dangers along the route. A little bit of rain could result in the surge of lahar flows down the valley, which could further mean accidents, getting soaked in mud, or worse, encountering landslides. It’s best to watch out for rainclouds as well as the behavior of the caretakers of the park. I noticed that while they didn’t not voice out their thoughts about an impending rainfall, there was a bit of panic in the way they carried out their work.
We noticed that there was indeed a surge in lahar streams on our way back. Certain parts of the valley filled up with murky waters where there were none when we passed by on our way up. The currents were remarkably stronger on certain parts as well, but thanks to the guides from our group, as well as those in others’ we managed our trek back safely and without any incident. I just felt bad that a couple of senior Korean hikers had to be carried on the way down, as one of them started cramping half-way through, while the other must have hurt her feet because she was wearing…wait for it…clogs! I don’t think the tour guides should have allowed them to take the trek without wearing proper footwear.
Seeing the 4x4s gave nothing short of relief, as it meant we could already scramble our way out of the valley. The drive back to civilization took longer because yet again, we had to manage through more waters and find safer paths. I was so tired from the climb, that in spite of the bumpy ride, I snoozed on the way back.
We reached the Spa Town just time. About 15 minutes after we jumped out of our 4x4s to relax, give tips to our helpers, and pay for shower, heavy rains started to fall. I couldn’t be happier that we made it out on time.
After the backbreaking hike, you could relax at the Pinatubo Spa Town by getting a massage, some sort of mud spa, or taking a shower to shake off the dust and grime. The shower was not cheap at P100 where the only things included was a used tiny bath soap, towels, and bag storage; no shampoo and conditioner. A Swedish massage costs P600, and so does the mud spa.
Sharing food and drinks with helpers
This is very important: The tour helps do not pack their own food. Guests are the ones who provide food for them, but it’s a deal that’s well worth it for the service that they give to hikers: they figure out the paths, help hikers cross lahar streams (this ain’t no easy feat), carry heavy bags, etc without complaint. Do not forget to share some food and drinks to these helps, as they are just as hungry and thirsty as you are. If things get dangerous, they are your lifelines.
For a day’s work, they are paid by guides between P230-P280. We thought it wasn’t enough, so we gave them a couple of hundred bucks more for their assistance.
Also, bring some food, such as biscuits, chocolates, and chips to give to Aetas around the lahar valley. You could drop the goodies as your 4×4 passed them by on your way to the mountain.