Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Side Views: A Trek to Mount Pinatubo, Bucket Lists and a Cochinillo

It was a chilly early morning, as my former high school batch mates gathered at the assembly point. Perfect weather, it was a good day to hike the trails up the Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake. Scratch one off the bucket list...and for a brief moment, we were all young boys again.

Formed by the massive volcanic eruption in June, 1991, said to be the second largest eruption of the 20th century with its effects felt worldwide, the Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake is all that remains from the peak. The crater was then gradually filled with rainwater, forming the crater lake. Reaching the Crater Lake is an adventure in itself, and like the old saying, it's the journey more than the destination. 

The adventure began with an early morning drive to Angeles, Pampanga, an hour and half drive north of Manila, in time for the 5:00am assembly at Clark. After a quick breakfast, we were then assigned to our 4x4 vehicles, and headed off to Capas, Tarlac, another 45-minute drive. After reaching the Capas check point, our convoy of 4x4s entered the barren ash fields for an awesome hour-long off-road experience.

The first part of the off-road adventure covers wide areas of plains and former rice fields covered in volcanic ash. As we head deeper, the plains are then criss-crossed by numerous rocky stream crossings, all progressively wider and deeper than the previous streams. One can also notice a change in the colors of the streams, from clear waters to to subtle yellow and bright red, a clear sign of sulfur deposits.

The 1991 eruption also coincided with one of the country's worst typhoons, bringing with it massive rains. The ash flows, coupled with the rains, resulted in devastating lahars, or mud flows consisting of volcanic ash, pyroclastic material, sediment and debris. The lahars quickly covered valleys and filled river systems in volcanic ash, leaving a barren dessert-like landscape.

Throughout the rough off-road drive, one can see the the effects of erosion on the sides of the valley caused by the rampaging lahars, a landscape that appears surreal at times. Further inland, one can see massive boulders deposited on the plains by the lahars, a clear indication of the powerful surge of the mud flows.

More stream crossings as we head deeper into the valley, the remnants of a once mighty river broken up into several streams. Each crossing is an adventure in itself, as the 4x4 navigates the streams. 

Deeper inland, one can see signs of massive erosion, as rains continue to destabilize the sides of the valley. Large rocks force the 4x4s to drive a zigzag pattern for the rest of the off-road trail.

Unlike sand, the fine powder-like volcanic ash that covers the entire valley looks deceptively easy to navigate, but only a 4x4 can traverse the trail. Anything less, and you can easily find your vehicle stuck in the ash.

The 4x4 trail is an experience in itself, and as we near the base camp, adrenalin kicks in. 

At the Base Camp, we prepare our gear for the trek up the Crater Lake. Snacks? Check. Water? Check. A six-pack of beer? Might be a good idea to leave this at the 4x4...

The narrow valley marks the starting point for the trek, all 7 kilometers of rocky terrain gradually leading to a steep uphill climb. Not to mention more rocky stream crossings.

Getting ready for the 7 kilometer trek up the Mount Pinatubo Crater Lake, one last photo op before the hike. As we prepare for the trek, memories of high school field trips come to mind. My high school batch mates, in all shapes and sizes, in one more epic adventure. 

The end of the 4x4 trail, and the start of the long hike. We begin our trek a little before 9am, and the weather is perfect. The cool morning air lingers, a comforting sign.

The first kilometer of the trek looks deceptively easy. The following 6 kilometers would include steep inclines and  numerous stream crossings before the final ascent to the crater.

The trail passes through some dramatic landscape, and it becomes increasingly harder to stop and snap a quick shot as the trails gradually get narrower.

As the mid-morning sun bears down, you'll need to hydrate. A lot. Take frequent rest stops too.

Along the trail, one can find numerous rain charms made from stone by the indigenous Aeta tribe, a constant reminder of how rains can transform the volcanic ash into rampaging mud flows. 

The last station before the steep ascent to the crater lake, a good spot for a quick rest and snacks. The entire trail has rest stations along the way, and cold refreshments are available, though at a premium. 

And the steep uphill climb begins, just another 15 minutes to go...or maybe 20 minutes...

And after the last few steps up the trail, you're there, just before 12 noon.

The Crater Lake has several vantage points for photos, marked by stone trails. If you're up to it, there's a trail leading down to the lake. But since you have to climb back up the same trail, I decided to stay at the ridge. Wimp...

Clouds started to form when we arrived at the ridge, but the lake still manages to show its colors. I was told that the lake turns a brilliant turqoise in the summer, then different shades of green. The view is definitely well worth the steep climb. And yes, "because it's there." 

Looking down at the lake from one of the many vantage points at the ridge. One can sense nature's raw power from this vantage point when one realizes that the entire portion that once covered all this blew up in a series of eruptions. The whole top of the mountain, blown away. 

Seeing the sides of the crater also gives one a sense of scale, and just standing before this sight makes it a worthy NatGeo moment. Some tips should you decide to do the trek:
  • Wear dependable hiking shoes, but just to be safe, bring an extra pair. The rocks can be unforgiving to hiking shoes and the trail is littered with discarded shoes that didn't make the cut.  
  • Sun Protection. Bring a hat or cap and sunglasses. 
  • Pack light. Bring an extra shirt and a towel.
  • Be sure to bring enough water for the trek. Better yet, bring some Gatorade, forget the beer. Have the beers after the trek.
  • Pack some snacks. No meals are available at the Crater lake. 
  • Bring a camera. Just to prove to your buddies you actually made it to the top of the crater.
  • Purchase a walking stick at the check point. For only P 20, you can get a bamboo pole that's quite useful during the trek, and for crossing streams. 
  • Trek at your own pace. Take frequent stops if you have to, it's not a race.

Filled with fresh rainwater, no one knows exactly how deep the Crater Lake is, and one can't help but feel a sense of awe and wonder. And after an hour or two, we decide to descend back down to base camp for yet another treat...

And what better way to end the adventure than with a crisp and succulent Cochinillo from Ikbest Lechon and a few cold beers. Ferds and Emely Medina of Ikbest Lechon preparing the Cochinillo for the hungry trekkers...

Ikbest Lechion specializes in native and organic lechon from Pampanga, richly seasoned and no sauce needed. Crisp outer layer over tender and juicy pork. Awesome.

And after the Ikbest Cochinillo, rich Leche Flan made with farm fresh duck eggs. And in one meal, you've successfully replenished all the calories from the trek. Nice. 

An amazing 4x4 off-road adventure, an awesome trek, a reunion with high school batchmates, and a superb cochinillo. A bucket list adventure, all in one day. And like they say, it's the journey, more than the destination, that adds to the experience. 'Till the next bucket list adventure...

UPDATE:  The 7km hike along the trail to the Crater Lake has been reduced to 3km (one-way) due to recent improvements on the trail. No better time than now to go for it. 

You can contact the Capas Tourism Office at 0918-285-3019, 0906-462-3388, 0922-280-7921 or e-mail at for details.

Ikbest Lechon is located at 1955 Salome Road corner Abacan Road, Abacan Subdivision, Balibago, Angeles City, Pampanga or call (045) 436-7644, 0917-500-0858, 0908-888-0858 or visit Ikbest Lechon's Facebook Page for more details.

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  1. Replies
    1. hey mich, this trek made me realize I am so out of shape hahaha! But still one cool adventure, not to be missed!

  2. This is Awesome!!! Been wanting to do this but still haven't. Great Pictures Dude!!!!

    1. Hey Jay, thanks bud! You should definitely give this a go before summer, while the weather is still pretty cool. Great to hear from you bud!

  3. What a great trip! Looks like you had an amazing time.

    1. Hi Caroline, great views and one awesome experience, great to hear from you Caroline!

  4. indeed, it's amazing. that part of the mountain blown away is mind-blowing nga! he-he

    1. hey Karl, yup, pretty mind-blowing, a really cool adventure. Great to hear from you bud!

  5. Hi, thanks for sharing your adventurous and interesting tour. Excellent pictures and beautiful scenery.

    Have a great week ahead.

    1. Hi Amelia, thanks! That was one cool bucket list adventure! Great to hear from you!


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