In 1991, after more than four hundred years of dormancy Mt. Pinatubo expelled fumes, ash and pyroclastic materials that later on inundated Pampanga and Tarlac with lahar. It was called the second most powerful volcanic eruption of the century for its ash has swirled the earth for years and its explosion beat that of St. Helens. The drop of temperature in the earth is said to be the result of the ash from Pinatubo that covered the skies for years. Sometime after, the treacherous volcano became a prime point of destination for tourists, hikers and climbers or simply the nature lovers to explore.
The lahar-stricken fields of Capaz in Tarlac is your access point to Mt. Pinatubo. Lahar is made of pyroclastic materials, of ash, rocks and sand. When dry you can drive over it, but it doesn’t get so sludgy like mud even when it is wet. The first part of this adventure is a rocky road to the parking area near the foot of the volcano. Here, you drive 2 to 3 kilometers from the nearest village over lahar and streams of water, and then walk 4-6 kilometers to the crater. In your river crossings, for several times you will have to remove rocks and pebbles from your sandals. From Baranggay Sta. Juliana where the tourism base camp is located, the trail stretches to 25 kilomenters to the crater of the volcano.
Rochelle, a classmate from high school invited me to go with her and Sally, our classmate who came for a vacation from Dubai. She just needed more company to save from expenses for the tour package. I just got home from a trip to Aurora and Quirino province. The travel bug must have bitten me really worst, that its sting could not get my butt still in the house. I called in another classmate, Wally and brought him to join the trip. I suggested that we extend our trip somewhere in else in Tarlac and they agreed, so Pinatubo was just our first destination in our Tarlac exploration.
So who’s picking us up?
We had silog breakfast while waiting for the driver who will take us to the agent for some briefing. We had no idea who’s going to pick us up, except for his name. In front of McDonalds, a driver is waiting with his jeepney. A group of students were waiting inside Mc.Donalds, and when they came out I heard they were looking for the same driver who is supposed to pick us up. Rochelle asked if the driver’s name was Joy, and he said yes. So we thought of joining the same group.
Suddenly, the group of young people got off the waiting jeepney and I could hear the driver was in argument with someone over the student’s phone. It was one of tourist trap that is intended to trick unknowing visitors. We learned of this when we got to our agent’s house. She explained that there are those people claiming to be someone else who will take the tourist to the base and ask for fees (outside of what is agreed in the package). This happens and is outside the control of the agent. Joy, our tricycle driver was just at the corner. Nobody called him though, but when we approached we knew it was him as confirmed by our agent. We drove around 20 minutes.
Finding our driver, we got on the tricycle. Sitting at the back of the motorcycle, I felt the cold morning breeze so chilling to the bones. I got to see how bayanihan works in this place. Capaz is a clean town, and its people religiously clean up their yards at around 6:00 in the morning. They come in groups and sweep the streets voluntarily.
Enduring the Tiresome Trail
We were briefed about the tour and then took the 4WD. After signing the waiver at the tourism base, we drove the rough lahar-covered fields of Capaz to the parking area. That was a brief 45 minutes to one hour drive. The dessert is vast and sporadically cogon grass grows by the waters. The dessert is walled by shrub-filled hills of lahar. From this dessert junction, the river water rises and the 4WD were riding traverses rough and rocky rivers. I felt tinier as the walls of lahar stood majestically gigantic.
From the parking area, we took our backpacks and the porter went ahead with our lunch. We just followed and he walked faster and unmindful of the sun. While we covered our skins with as much sunblock lotion, the porter we had just kept on walking under the scourging sun. If we didn’t suggest that we walk on the other side where there was shade, he would not really mind. We started the trek at half past nine, and got to the crater at past eleven.
Lahar-formed canyons hide the trail to the thrills of Pinatubo’s adventurers. My eyes could only sweep on the various natural formations of lahar, some cascading, others cracking, some others bore with holes like caverns. For a picture, my friend stood by one side of the elevated lahar, and when he tried to step off that ground, the sand just slipped him down.
It was a six-kilometer stretch of river crossings, rock jumping, and sand hills assaulting. The initial trail really scourges the skin especially when the sun is up there blazing. A quick break under the shade of the lahar mountain gave me a chance to wash up and wet my head and arms with cold river water. I took that opportunity as well to eat the egg-ham and cheese sandwich I prepared the night before. The water from the river is cold but in some parts it has high sulfuric content which makes some banks yellow and orange.
When we got to the cottages, we took a 15-minute break. From here, the signage says the crater is just 15 minutes for the young trekkers, and 30 minutes for the elderly. Such an estimate surprised us after we assaulted the crater in 40 minutes. From there the trail is refreshing as you will traverse a mossy area of ferns and shrubs that grow by the stream of cold water. Some rocks can be slippery so be very careful and make sure you stand on stable rock. This is where the climb begins.
Marvelling at Nature’s Wonder
At a curve, once you have seen the paved stairs, you will know that the crater is just somewhere up there waiting. Upon hitting the last step to that stairs, the turquoise blue and green waters of the crater is a wonderful invitation for a swim. Rain has filled the crater to form its freshwater lake. No streams or rivers caused this body of water to form. Thanks to the efforts of a Korean businessman that an outlet was bored for the water level to be maintained and so as not to keep it stagnant.
From the craters viewpoint, we excitedly went down the crater bank. The stair is steep and the steps are uneven. The excitement and exhilaration can be really exhausting as you go down, so better take it leisurely. There are no cottages, but you can camp with your own tents or just find a place under shrubs or cogon grass, if you don’t want to put up your own camping shelter.
We spent lunch time down the lakeside and swam in the cold water of the Pinatubo crater. At some spots the water is cold and it could be really colder in its deep. In other areas, the water is warm to hot. There’s also an area where you can have a mud bath, but that requires you to hire a boat. When we came, the boats are not allowed because of the changing weather. Though we wanted to ride the boat, we were deprived of that pleasure.
We left the Pinatubo crater, awed with its natural wonder. That afternoon, at around 1:OO PM, we braved the descent and headed again to cross the rivers. It was hot. To refresh us from the trek, we would stop several times to dip in the cascading waters of the river. That made me felt like I was a free-willing child again, unmindful of time, lost in the wild natural wonder. We were the last group to go down, and an Aeta security officer even had to check our situation.
It started drizzling as we got nearer the parking area, but that was still a kilometer away. My fear was if the rains get stronger, the river water will also be stronger. A rise in the water level can be a great difficulty for its not just water. Rock debris flow with the water, and the mountains of lahar may just fall over us like an avalanche. That’s part of the thrill to this adventure, but it is really risky.
We got to the parking area at past two in the afternoon. Then another hour of rough ride over the wet rocky sands of the trail brought us to the house of our tour agent, where he washed up. Our agent was really accommodating and amiable. She could not stop but talk to us throughout the course of our transfer from her house to Capaz Town proper.
Exhausted, Rochelle could sleep through the bumpy ride and the rest of us are awake. In the dessert, Aetas pick some metals from the bombs tried by the PNP camping nearby. Cows and caritelas, goats and grass and the mountains almost leveled by lahar comprise the scenery through the drive in out of Pinatubo. Part of that drive is having the jeep glide up hills, pass through boulders of rocks and dive in a meter-deep water.
Awesome! Getting to this prime adventure destination is an experience to remember. The exhaustion can be traumatic but it is a memorable experience. Even once of a climb to Pinatubo is an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. Coming from here, you would be asking about what’s next for you to conquer?
Getting There: We took the 2:00 AM bus going to Capaz and arrived there at 4:20 AM. Any north-bound bus plying the MacArthur Highway going to La Union, Baguio or Ilocos can take you to Capaz Tarlac. Tricycles are just waiting to take you to the Tourism Center in Capaz, where you can hire a 4WD and a porter cum guide to take you to Pinatubo. Haggling is one skill you should have to get the best price for these, if you do not have a booking or reservation with a DOT certified agent. With an agent the package costs 1,000 to 2,000 depending on how many you are in the group. This includes snacks, lunch, 4WD, pick-up and transfer from the tourism center to Capaz town proper. The 4WD from the center can be haggled to 2,000 pesos for a maximum of 5 passengers. You can take a porter and tip him for 200 pesos.