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Mt Pinatubo Volcano Trek: From Canyon To Caldera

Ever trekked a volcano before? Try the Philippines’ Mt Pinatubo for starters. Our Travel 3Sixty reporter tells us why the now-serene crater lake is an ideal destination for adventurers new to the Ring of Fire, the Pacific Ocean’s volcano and earthquake belt.

Words and Photography: Abby Yao

As a young girl, I once woke up to see our backyard in the Philippines blanketed by what I thought was snow but it wasn’t even cold outside! The thick white ashfall that covered thousands of square kilometres of Luzon Island had come from an unheard-of volcano that had been dormant for 500 years. Its name: Mt Pinatubo. 

4x4 jeep Mt Pinatubo trek Travel 3Sixty AirAsia Luzon Philippines

A long but fulfilling day begins on a bus, progresses on a 4WD jeep and culminates on foot.

     In a series of eruptions in June 1991, Mt Pinatubo ejected billions of tons of magma and released millions of tons of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere, cooling the planet by 0.5°C for two years. Over the next decade, the provinces of Zambales, Tarlac and Pampanga struggled to recover from the destruction from the eruption and the mudflows that persisted every rainy season, which left over a thousand people dead. For city folk like me, all that is a distant memory. But for the locals like the indigenous Aeta people, who were displaced by the calamity, it was a cataclysm that they will never forget.

     Fast forward to 22 years later. I found myself on a bus at the Victory Liner Terminal in Cubao, north of Manila, with 40-odd trekkers—sleepless twenty-somethings, a few seniors with long walking sticks, and a Spanish couple who talked nonstop on the way to sleepy Sta. Juliana in Capas, Tarlac. Our quest: to come face-to-face with an active volcano. 

     After signing waivers at the tourism office, the bus passengers split up into groups of five for the 25-kilometre 4×4 jeep ride to the foot of Mt Pinatubo.

scarves and canes for sale Sta Juliana, Tarlac Travel 3Sixty AirAsia Luzon Philippines

Scarves and walking sticks for sale in Sta. Juliana, the jump-off point for the Mt Pinatubo trek. A scarf is recommended as protection against the fine lahar dust.

      Dawn was breaking when we entered Crow Valley, the firing and bombing range of the Americans during their stay at the former Clark Air Base. The jeeps filed across the unpaved plains, against the direction of the shallow streams running down from the mountains.

Crow Valley outside Capas, Tarlac, Luzon, Philippines Travel 3Sixty AirAsia

The lush green landscape outside Capas…

Crow Valley Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

…Turned into lunar-like terrain at Crow Valley

daylight in the canyon to Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines Travel 3Sixty AirAsia

The sun’s first light on the lahar cast a golden glow on the rugged landscape

Ascent to the crater

Seven kilometres away from the crater, the canyons emerged from the haze on either side of us, the track became increasingly rougher and narrower, and the streams grew more challenging even for the 4x4s to cross. In some places, the vehicles squeezed through gaps in between large boulders. This new way to Pinatubo comes closer to the summit than the previous route, making it possible for anyone of reasonable fitness to make it to the caldera in less than an hour of walking.

     At the one-kilometre point from the crater, we left the jeep and made the ascent on foot as a cool breeze wafted into the canyon.

A gentle trek to Mt Pinatubo crater lake Luzon Philippines Travel 3Sixty AirAsia

The trail to the crater – my shoes still got wet crossing small brooks despite attempting to step on river stones

Mt Pinatubo crater lake steps Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

Hello, StairMaster. There are about 250 steps up and down to the crater lake.

Volcanic vista
In my excitement, I went off the track and twisted my ankle. I slowly made my way down to the mouth of the caldera, where a signboard and a wooden cross welcomed me to the serene view of the mirror-like crater lake. 

Mt Pinatubo crater lake Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

Only the peaceful chirping of birds and the murmuring of other visitors can be heard at Mt Pinatubo’s mirror-like crater lake.

  The walls of the caldera were lined with grass, and clouds constantly hovered above. Standing at the edge of the deep green lake, it was hard to believe that this was the same volcano I saw on television when I was a child. The enormous ash clouds were gone and all that was left was this desolate beauty. In little over an hour, the wind blew the reflection on the lake away, transforming it into a dark sea of tiny waves.

Mt Pinatubo crater lake signs Luzon Philippines Travel 3Sixty AirAsia

Swimming is no longer allowed due to safety concerns. The water in the lake contains sulphur and other harmful substances.

Boats Mt Pinatubo crater lake Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

Boats now out of service. It is said that at the far end of the lake, the water is hot enough to scald skin and burn boats.

     I stayed close to my 4×4 companions – a bunch of travelling cousins and their friends – who took amazing 9gag-inspired photos with the lake as the backdrop. We lingered in the shade for some time and had our packed breakfast in the crowded hut while exchanging travel stories. It turns out that a volcano is a good place to meet like-minded travellers!

   Someone suggested to the lone vendor of bottled drinks and instant noodles that he should sell halo-halo, the colourful Filipino shaved iced dessert. For sure it would be worth paying a premium for that.

Lahar landing

On the way down from the crater, the sun-kissed men and women of the Philippine Army were waiting single-file to make their way up to the crater as their equally tanned new recruits followed far behind.

4WD jeep crossing the stream Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

I had imagined hiking like these army recruits but the jeep ride was longer than the trekking. Still, it pays to be prepared.

Aeta children waiting in the canyon Mt Pinatubo crater lake Luzon Philippines

Aeta children waiting for their mothers who are washing clothes in the river. A fee to support the Aetas is collected from trekkers at the tourism office.

    The 4×4 ride back to Sta. Juliana felt longer and bumpier this time around, perhaps partly because my sprained ankle had started to hurt. I noticed the two rosaries draped over the rear view mirror of our 4×4, with a faded prayer estampita for good measure. Some trekkers said that their jeep broke down, so I was glad that ours was tough enough for the hour-plus journey each way. 

4WD jeeps in the lahar canyon to Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

My companions thought this was a scene  straight out of Lord of the Rings. Jeeps traversing the canyons of lahar created by mudflows.

Carabaos in the canyon Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

In the heat of the midday sun, there’s no such thing as a free shower, except for these guys.

4WD jeep splashing through the plain Mt Pinatubo Luzon Philippines AirAsia Travel 3Sixty

An off-road drive through the wet plains

     I came down from the 4×4 with the roar of the motor still ringing in my ears and an even film of white dust all over every exposed surface – definitely not the best day to wear black. A shower in Sta Juliana was in order.

     Flying out of Clark the next day, I looked down at the grey rivers of lahar frozen solid on the land below. The once-violent giant seems asleep…for now. What used to be a vague childhood memory became a trek I lived to tell. I think I just got hooked on volcanoes and I only have Mt Pinatubo to blame.  

GETTING THERE Fly to Manila and Clark from various destinations. For flight information and the lowest fares, go to www.airasia.com.

Conquer Mt. Pinatubo is part of Travel Factor’s Biyaheng Victory series of tours. For more information, visit travelfactor.org.

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  • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

    Hi Lee, they’re quite well-known but we haven’t tried them ourselves. Let us know how it goes. :-)