Kick off at Santa Juliana Village
Like me, most tourists arrive in the village of Santa Juliana to kick off their trip. You have to register at the Visitor centre where you can discuss your wishes. A trip normally consists of some 4x4 rental for a certain distance and a mandatory guide.
The following options are most common:
1. use 4x4 as far as you can reach, followed by a 1,5 – 2,5 hour hike to the crater.
2. use 4x4 as far as Bangantungal Village followed by a 3,5 – 4,5 hr hike to the crater;
3. Hike all the way from Santa Juliana, full day one way.
If you're on a self organised tour, I'd try to make a reservation if you need 4x4, especially in High Season (December to April).
Option 1 is a daytrip, favored by the majority of the visitors, option 2 can be as well if you stay overnight at Santa Juliana the night before and start very early.
Alternatively, pitch your tent at the Crater for the night, waking up at sunrise and take an early morning swim in such a place sounds most appealing to me!
Hiking all the way return wouldn’t attract me as the approach route is the same as the return route and there’s not much variation in the scenery all day. Moreover the 4x4 trip is good fun too!
Continue between the Walls
The track lead to a tiny village, but that’s not what we were after!
So we drove down back in the riverbed again that became more and more difficult to navigate. On both sides were those towering walls and I tried to imagine the horror scene at the time of the eruption.
I had seen a documentary on NGC where scientists speculated for how much longer the Crater walls of Pinatubo would survive. The collapse of the walls could cause an immens disaster when the water, caught in the crater, would escape. I wondered, if it would happen right now, where could we go?
Stones were all over, and the water flow was wilder than before. I had to protect my bag to avoid it becoming all wet.
Picture taking became tedious during this bumpy hour or so, but I managed to take some just to give an impression of the surroundings.
photo's taken from the jeep on the approach to Pinatubo
Hike a piece of very messy earth
After passing the gorge, you can see part of the Crater Wall in the far distance. It's around 2 hrs walking from here. For around 1,5 hour you follow once more the riverbed, but by foot now...
It's quite a dramatic scenery here and the surface is everything but smooth.
Lava stone, sands, dead trees, numerous streams that you have to cross, even some hot springs, you have to find your way through. Nothing grows inside, only the fragile walls on both sides have regained some more healthy looks.
There are some reptiles making a living here. I stepped almost on a 5ft sandcolored snake, that jumped into a stream just before I could hit it. It gave me an awful fright!
Technically it is not a difficult walk and you are not ascending yet. But when the sun's out, be prepared to suffer as the reflection on the lava sand can rise the temperature to inhuman heights. Be fully prepared!
Starting the Pinatubu Tour from Angeles City
Until 1991, Mt Pinatubo was just an average mountain that was hardly heard of. In 1991, it fired more than 300 meters off its peak into the sky and changed the landscape forever.
Fifteen years later, its crater is peaceful and a beautiful 850 meters deep water hole that attracts tourists and weekend trippers from Manila alike. Tourism on a relatively small scale has been developed in order to benefit the communities – that lost much of their economic potential – in a sustainable way.
I started the fully organized daytrip at 7am from men's entertainment Paradise Angeles City, conveniently located at Clark Airport, with a pleasant one hour taxi ride. Alternatively you can try to go by public transport (Jeepney) but with irregular departures and multiple stops it can be very time consuming. Not advisable if your just after a daytrip.
From Santa Juliana following the riverbed
It was quite a change from the luxury new Toyota Camry to a rusty jeep remake that obviously had conquered the hardest of terrain for more than 25 years. I was in the front , while in the back was a heavy man shouting some directions to the driver behind the wheel. Although not very talkative, that man in the back spoke a few sentences of English and turned out to be my guide.
Straight from the village we drove down into the riverbed now covered with grey and white lava sands. A few shallow streams remained after rains. The river had turned in a passable highway that locals navigated with carts, motorbikes and feet.
- Adventure Travel
Cruising the sand track
After some 15 minutes through the riverbed, we ascended at the other side, where we followed a beautiful sand track.
The scenery was stunning as the dark clouds in the distance formed a great contrast with the sun lit white sands and eroded lahar walls covered with green young trees and other low vegetation.
- Adventure Travel
And then you HAVE to continue by foot...
Then we reached a steep slope with seemingly no passage. We parked the jeep on the platform in front of it and prepared for the remaining part by foot. Stored 2 liters of water and the packed lunches that we brought along, in my backpack.
The Embassy staff had also arrived and I saw they carried heavy mountain boots on their feet. The boots were terrible overdone for this exercise and moreover really inconvenient as they got unavoidably soaked from crossing the numerous streams . Instead I had only light sport shoes, the good choice, and my guide just $0,50 flip flops, which appeared the wrong choice as they broke later on.
- Hiking and Walking
- Adventure Travel
Get your shoes soaked within 2 minutes
The first 10 minutes of the hike might worry you if you think this stretch is representative for the rest of the ca. 7 km route to the Crater. Indeed, the passage is narrow here and the water had looked nothing special before but suddenly became a raging steam.
We had to cross it so all our plans to keep the shoes dry were destroyed. At the other side of the stream, we made our way clambering over big boulders until the end of the small gorge, the riverbed widened again to its regular size.
Continue towards the Jungles of Pinatubo
Quite unexpected, the surroundings change surprisingly.
It's just 45 minutes to the Crater and finally, the mountain allows some low vegetation to grow on its ravages. It was hard to temper my enthusiasm and I wanted to go up as quick as possible now. But my guide declared a rest and took a bath in the ice cold stream to prepare for the final ascend. In the meantime, I threw stones to possible snake hide-outs hoping to photograph one.
Push the vehicle as far as you can go
The last part of the 1,5 hr 4x4 journey became even rougher and the driver had to deploy all his skills to push the vehicle forward.
In many parts you cannot see the surface due to knee deep water and big rocks were definitely a threat. In one bend, the riverbed narrows to a mere 20 meters from the usual width of around 150 meters, causing some interesting rapids. The scenery remained amazing and unearthly in parts.
At this stage I kept thinking we were alone this day, but then we were suddenly overtaken by another jeep, carrying three staff from the American Embassy in Manila –as would appear later (my guide kept insisting it were Koreans, who makes normally up the largest tourist crowd at Pinatubo).
- Road Trip
- Adventure Travel
Enjoy the final ascent to the Crater
The final ascend is short - around 30 minutes going up - and never really steep. The surface is rocky and slippery, so you need to step carefully as you don't want to risk any foot injury here.
The route - it's hard to speak of a path - is mostly overgrown and therefore pleasantly shaded. Surely your expectations rise as this natural beauty increases so dramatiaclly!
To help you over the last, steeper part of the slope leadng to the Crater rim, well maintained stars have been constructed.