Disclaimer: These photos and this experience date back to 4 years ago (my, how time flies!!!) in January 2013. However, the trekking experience is still available (and, I’d imagine, not vastly different than the one we had) – as are the providers we liaised with to do it. That said, I would still encourage you to take this “travelogue” more as a retrospective (with some useful nice-to-knows) than a source of information, and if you like what you see, reach out directly to the tour providers linked below to schedule your own. Cheers!
Trekking Mt. Pinatubo
First, what is Mt. Pinatubo? For those who don’t know, Mt. Pinatubo is an active volcano on the tripoint boundary of 3 provinces: Zambales, Tarlac, and Pampanga (all North of Manila, in the largest island of the Philippines – Luzon). It is most famous for erupting in 1991 (in what was the 2nd largest eruption in the 20th Century). I remember when it happened. We lived about 110km away (give or take several), but the volcanic dust carried all the way over and covered our cars, and streets. We were instructed to block the bottoms of our doors with towels to keep the dust from blowing in through the tiny gaps. It happened at the same time as a typhoon, bringing the ash and dust even further in to the center of the country. The effects of the explosion were so extensive that they were actually “felt worldwide”. Apparently, It ejected roughly 10B tonnes of magma, 20B tonnes of SO2, and “more particulate into the atmosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883.” This released a lot of sulfuric acid haze, and minerals and toxic metals into the surface environment. On the ground in the Philippines, this was felt much more tangibly. Though many were evacuated due to accurate predictions beforehand, whole swathes of land and industry in surrounding areas were destroyed, and entire river systems were altered for years to come. Lahar (a type of moving flood triggered by rainwater and lava flow and ash all melding together) continued to be a problem in the years after as well. The eruption also caused the entire volcano to collapse and create a large caldera. This is known as Lake Pinatubo, and is a popular site to visit for tourists willing to make the short trek. (You can read more about all this on Wikipedia – which has an incidentally very well-researched and well-referenced article on the site.)
Now, how do you get to the Lake? To trek Mt. Pinatubo/Lake Pinatubo, you have to keep a few things in mind: 1) find a tour provider and book in your trek (I’m sure you can do it without one, but between paying environmental fees, and hiring ATVs, it’s much easier to just get assistance); 2) be ready to set aside a full day for the excursion (if you are staying in Manila, you will need to rise bright and early to make “call time” at whatever meeting point your provider has chosen so that you can get to the province by early/mid-morning); and 3) be ready for a bumpy ride and a 7km trek across slightly mixed terrain (rocky, wet, grassy, sandy).
For us, we went with a group called Pinay Keypoint – honestly because they were the cheapest and seemed to have decent testimonials. We took Private Tour Package #1, which came with:
- Meeting at check-in/out point
4WD jeep ride (inclusive of whole day rental, road fees & gas)
Driver’s fee & meal
Tour guide (Inclusive of Fees & meal)
Porter (Inclusive of Fees & meal – to carry your tent & lunch)
Entrance/conservation fees for the entire team
Use of Camping tent & picnic blanket
Packed Lunch (To be served @ the crater) (500mL bottled water, rice, banana & a choice of viand)
Trip arrangement and processing of clearances & climbing permit
Your car would have to wait for you at the check-in/out point and take you home at the end of the day. I’ve checked their site (which was recently updated), and literally nothing has changed. Not even their pricing. That said, I know many others who have gone with Trekking Pinatubo and Trail Adventours. So you can choose for yourselves based on what your needs are.
The group was very responsive and helpful. They sent comprehensive email comms beforehand with lists of important timings to note, and things to pack (including camera, water, cap, towels, masks, canes or sticks, etc). We left Manila around 4:00am to make our 5:30am meeting time. The meeting point was a small office, where we received a safety briefing before getting loaded up into an ATV to head to the trekking point.
The ATV first takes you on a fun off-road drive through the dry, dusty lahar leading up to the crater lake. This goes for a long, bumpy hour, and it is recommended you have something to protect your face and head from all the ash getting kicked up as you go. This is also the point at which you will likely encounter the local indigenous people who have ancestral ownership of the land (a tribe known as the aetas).
They are a friendly, quiet, curious bunch who are used to tourists in the area. The children in particular like to be photographed.
Once you reach the trekking point, you disembark from the ATV and are led by your guide through sometimes-wet, sometimes-dry, usually-bumpy terrain to the crater lake. If there’s an incline at all, you don’t really feel it, so it’s a pretty simple trek (fitness is of course recommended for any trek, but let’s just say you don’t need to be a triathlete to make it through). The trek is about 7km long. Halfway in, you reach a rest stop where you can use the bathroom and buy juice, soda, water, etc. It’s the only bathroom on the mountain so if you’re there on a busy day, it’ll be in high demand. After that stop, you walk the rest of the way to the crater lake, and your guide helps you pitch a tent and prepare your food while you take in the sights, take some photos, and even go for a dip in the lake itself!
You’re given about 2 hours on site to nap, rest, swim, eat, drink in the scenery. And then it’s back from whence you came.
All in all, Pinatubo is an easy trek (though still requires a level of fitness), and a fun day trip. If weather is generally agreeable, and you have a day to spare. I highly recommend it. The crater lake is beautiful, and it’s a wonderful quick getaway from the hustle of Manila.