Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Pinatubo Crater on Feb 25

This trip was two years in waiting. My 2015 plans did not push through because the pick-up point was farther than I was comfortable with especially in the early morning. This year when I saw Mt. Pinatubo Adventure Phils. on Facebook and that McDonald’s Edsa cor Panay Street was pick up point. Perfect!

Total cost is PHP 2,700, down payment is PHP 500.  I deposited the down payment and attached a picture of the deposit receipt to secure my slot. Mt. Pinatubo Adventure Phils confirmed.

Final Confirmation

Though my slot was ok, I was then advised that the status of the trip will be confirmed 2-3 days before February 25. It was dependent on three things:
  1. Favourable weather
  2. No Military Operation
  3. Quota of 10 passengers a van
Having already gone through the tour I fully understand those reasons.

If there was a cancellation under said reasons I was promised reschedule or refund. Fortunately I won't be able to comment on that contingency because my trip pushed through.

Early Morning

Call time was 2 am departure at 2:30 am.  There was ample time for late comers; collecting the balance; an orientation; and of course the travel to Capas, Tarlac.

We were oriented that there is no need to shell out money anymore since the Van (inclusive toll fees), 4 x 4, the guide, and packed lunch (chicken adobo) was already paid for.  Showering was PHP 50 at the jump off point in Capas, Tarlac.  The organizer with a big smile then adds showering at least gives us the opportunity to also shit and piss; do all of that to save, she said.

The breakfast at Jollibee didn’t go as planned.  Jollibee, Mabalacat was closed so we ended up in McDonad’s over in the next lot.

Considering the length of time we all spent at McDonald’s Panay cor Edsa it was a little disappointing, I could have eaten already. Jollibee had more silogs so I was looking forward to that. But food is food so I had to eat. I ended up with eggdesal and hash browns; thinking going light was the better way to go. Add the sandwich and hardboiled egg I ate along NLEX which was half my packed food I thought I was good.

Jump off point

The jump off point is Santa Juliana in Capas and the van parked in a house that feels like the edge of town.  I only say that because 4x4s were parked just in front of it – not before – with a line going into the middle of town. We signed forms. One of it served as the listing for the group taking the 4x4. 

I was in group number 2 or form 2 which happens to be the only thing drivers read out on paper. The van which contained 10 is divided into 5 per 4x4. Once called the van drivers saw my group of 5 to our 4x4s and introduced us to the guide who goes by the name Romeo.

DSCF2012-001

In hindsight I wonder if the front seat was the better seat. I rode at the back because that’s where everyone went. The front would have afforded me a change to properly welcome the places I have never seen before.  At the back I only got to see half the view and its hard twisting my neck to look back while we were shaking like a blender. The open air at back did manage to give me open shots of the canyon and the trail of 4x4s behind us.

The 4x4 we took is different from those in the sand dunes of Ilocos where tourists are meant to stand, boxed in by railings where they can grab hold. Here where the 4x4 is primarily just transport we only had seats. I’m not even sure of where to hold if I even attempted to stand up, not that I could. The four of us – five including Romeo – were just right for the back of the 4x4, sitting down but not standing up.

1 hour bumpy ride

To be honest I am only able to count it as 1 hour because of the time stamp in my photos. I thought about timing everything since I am going to write a blog post but somehow in all the fun of travelling alone, meeting new people, and the bumps from off road, I forgot.

Initially out of Sta. Juliana the ride was relatively smooth; smooth enough that the 4x4s were spreading themselves out like a cavalry charge. A fitting analogy if only the army still used horses. Romeo also remarked that the grounds, a wide expansive plain, is a favorite training ground for war exercises.  He even pointed to mounds that looked like it was from artillery strikes.

Advisories are of course sent out hence military operations are listed as possible cause of trip cancellation.

Just before everything gets narrowed into a great canyon the 4x4s stop awhile allowing tourists for a brief time to take pictures. It was here I had my picture with Romeo and a pointy shaped hill was at our back which looked like it was sliced. Come to think of it I saw a lot of that on the way, mountains or hills that looked sliced. Am curious if earthworks were done or could it be melted?

DSCF2021-002

Also, the smoothest portion of the trip is the dustiest because I assume the vehicles had more speed.  My eyeglasses had a fair amount of dust stuck on the inside portion but not enough to blur.  Thinking the particles were more solid I didn’t dare wipe them off fearing scratches.  Since it didn’t bother my sight I was able to get home and there washed my glasses clean with running water. I also had my bag, hat, entire get-up washed it was really dusty.

I’ve outgrown my asthma but my lungs did feel heavier after a while. Bring face masks, or if you think them too conspicuous making you look sickly then bandanas would be a good thing to wear to mitigate the effects.

Canyons

DSCF2034-002

Once the canyons were reached the vehicles rode in single file along a pathway that should have the least amount of rocks and boulders. Unfortunately avoiding doesn’t made the ride less bumpy. The canyon has most of the streams along the way. Some of the mountains here looked like they were poked with a stick but after a little consideration I can see that it can be water erosion. I was then thinking melted sand castle.

DSCF2044-001 

Thus favorable weather is important. The canyon would be something Leonidas would love only the tourists would be the Persians from possible flash flood or loosened lahar from above.

This is where we walk

Our 4x4 stopped along with many others at least 2.5 km away from the crater.  It is a good 1hr hike; a fact again I was only able to note because of the time stamps in my photos. It used to be 7 kms.  

My friend who went there long ago told me that he hiked 3 hours, which is consistent for 7 kms. 10kms on flat surface I have already timed at 2 hours. However, going up to Mt. Pinatubo Crater is a not a flat hike.

DSCF2052-001

Actually my first impression was it was the choice of 2 hour hike – or 3 as my friend’s experience showed – or 1 hour hike.  We stopped where we stopped because the 4x4 can go no further. 

After a few hundred meters of what would be the 4x4 parking lot we came upon a gate. It was a roughly made gate with would and some bamboo. The purpose is to funnel tourists to the tables where they can sign the forms of the Local Government Unit of Botolan, Zambales. My party of 5 again signed our names in one sheet.

DSCF2055-001

Romeo said there was another trail that converges on that gate making it strategically positioned to get all tourists.  Over the course of the day he did talk about that other route again because we were noticing hikers going up near noon.  They had taken up the other route he said which entails a longer hike. Was it 7 km I wonder? 

The name of that other route – maybe an entrance from another LGU other than Tarlac or trail taken by special arrangement – escapes me now. Again the information which was already stated in conversation was knocked out of my head by that bumpy ride.

But if I had to guess it would be Botolan, Zambales which is 5 hours away from Manila per my Google Map search.

Botolan Fee

There is controversy with the fee of Botolan, Zambales which amounts to PHP 700 per tourist. It was imposed around summer of 2016. The crater falls within the jurisdiction of Botolan. Sta. Juliana, Capas, Tarlac is just the easiest route from Manila; a fact Botolan negates with that gate.

Alone, the additional fee spiked the price up too high. Mt. Ulap can cost as much or cheaper if one plans the trip on their own but Pinatubo is closer; should be cheaper. PHP 700 is roughly the amount of a bus ride to Baguio on Deluxe. Taal can be cheaper too even with the boat. 

Mt. Pinatubo Adventure Phils says they used to fill tours easily before the fee. Now reaching 10 would be a challenge - thus having less is the 3rd reason for trip cancellation. It would be interesting to find out what are the net effects before and after the new fees on Pinatubo tourism in general.

But sometimes the issue of money is not that it is high but where does it go. Do people get something back?  The same Inquirer article on the Botolan fee has this breakdown:

It requires tourists to pay a P100-eco-tourism fee, a P350-environmental protection fee and a P250-ancestral domain preservation fee.

What does ancestral domain preservation fee mean?  Is that different from the paragraph that says of the feel collected in Sta. Juliana, Tarlac,  PHP 100 is given to the Aetas of Zambales and PHP 50 for Aetas of Tarlac? While I can’t say for sure about the crater but Aetas own many of the surrounding land via Ancestral domain.

As to eco-tourism fee and the environmental protection fee, I have this unrelated story but then again maybe it is. 

When we were about to leave the crater a foreign tourist was asking around for his missing guide and group. He looked south Asian or maybe Arabic. The aetas huddled around him looking strained with talking English and they were also trying to make sense who among their fellow guides may have lost a charge.  We took a closer look. 

Actually I saw said tourist going up, and I can’t tell if he was advanced or trailing his party because he was walking alone. I’d like to think I’m more fit than him but he was making child’s play hiking up.  He was that fast. We took a closer look at his plight because going up we were the closest to him enabling some casual remarks to be exchanged which unfortunately doesn’t include names. I didn’t hear him long and up close to place his nationality.

On the assumption that his party was already ahead of him going down we told the guides if any of them appeared claiming to have lost a tourist to tell that he will buddy up with my party and Romeo going down. We thought it best to have the tourist go down immediately with us because missing the 4x4 would mean bigger problem.

I don’t know whether to laugh or be angry but the tourist got bored of our pace and eventually had an easy time getting ahead of us until he disappeared again. He’s not exactly faultless at being left alone. I never saw him in the 4x4 parking area. Most likely he found his group already.

Question is if Botolan is claiming control of the crater, some official looking person should have stepped in. If handheld radios could work in deep canyons that would have helped.  From what I saw the LGU has no presence for the environment or tourism of the area.  As to environmental, Romeo carried back all the empty Styrofoam which once held our chicken adobo.  After eating we put it all back in the large plastic that carried it.

Perhaps someone sweeps the area after everyone has gone, who knows?  It is clean. But at PHP 700 a tourist?

Maybe Less is Good

The others in my party of five were more traveled than I am. They were talking about how places like Sagada and Ulap are crowded now after being seen in local movies.  One even lamented that mere fact Boracay has tricycles now.  He told me he saw Boracay at its virginal state. 

Eventually it was posited if the fee did affect the number of tourists going in, maybe it is good in the long run – environmentally speaking that is.

What is the proper balance between tourist income and the aetas have need of that; and preservation of the environment?  Where does the PHP 700 go?

Should have bought the stick

When arrived at Sta. Juliana children rushed to us carrying walking sticks. I would have bought one if only to give some child livelihood for the day but I had two considerations, well technically just one – the weight. The stick was light but question was do I want the added weight going up and maybe the more important question is how am I going to take it back home once in Manila. I might hit somebody on jeep or the taxi might think me a robber if I had it on me.

DSCF2059-001

The 2.5 km trekking up takes almost an hour.  It was here I thought of the stick especially crossing the streams.  With uneven steps it acts like a third leg and could have made my balancing easier. Could... 

My approach to the hike was have my arms outstretch where it needed to be, either adjusting my balance fully stretched out or just a little; or close to the rocks and ground ready to hold or catch myself should I slip.  I didn’t want my hands to be worried and overly occupied with a stick.

Regarding footwear my first choice was slide crocs.  The model I had was a good fit but it had no ankle support. I liked it for the soles but the slippage worried me. How secure would my steps be if my slides were really wet?  So I went for the sandals.  A good choice against slippage, a bad one for thin soles. I could feel rocks under my foot.  I have good hiking shoes but having experienced some bad fungi; the prospect of wet socks led me to avoid that idea.

And if I had shoes on I wouldn't be able to walk across the streams especially if it was too long a time walking on rocks, balancing myself. Walking in the water is  cool on the feet; I feel less tired if I do it. 

The once big canyons became a trail narrow enough only for three persons, maybe less considering the foothold. However short the climb was, this would be the first time I hiked up a mountain in all of its uneven steps. 

Pinatubo Crater Lake

The final approach to Crater Lake was a cemented flight of stairs. My guess it’s the better to accommodate the tourists – a kind of view deck. Without the stairs it would have been a 70 degree climb. From the view deck high above the lake we had the best view and background for our pictures. After we had our fill we took another flight of stairs down to lake level. 

IMG_4123-001


Drinks are sold I suppose at a high mark up. The closest to food I bought and ate on the trail was an almost 2 inch iced candy at 20 pesos, not bad. Most of the vendors I recall had personal sized coolers; whatever food was available was iced products – to compensate for the hot climb.

Crater lake level was reached around 9:30 am.  Once down we were hungry enough to eat our lunch: chicken adobo.  It was kind of amazing to be hungry and it was barely 10 am.

Romeo who had been carrying the food since Sta. Juliana brought it all out of the plastic bag. He laid it out on the nice little mat like a picnic. It was five styro containers, typical fastfood size, of adobo, another five containers of rice, and five personal bottles of mineral water.  Romeo never asked but we have him one whole styro of rice and some pieces of chicken, and then he took his place among fellow guides. 

Of the remaining food we pooled it; empty styros and whatever containers my party had on them served as plates. I ended up the sweeper; starting slow but with the girls watching their rice intake I finished what was left.

Sadly there’s not boating now. Swimming is prohibited due to the fact there is already at least one death recorded. As it was told to us, it doesn’t sound like drowning but from complications due to walking 7 kms then swimming without so much as a cool off; and most likely pre-existing conditions.

There were no trees at lake level though there is one shed standing. I didn’t notice and tourist going for the shed.

We hanged around for the next two hours, the girls even found time to take a nap on that mat we ate on, bags for pillows.  For a time though we were always moving retreating as the shadow moved with the sun approaching the noon sky.  My tip, facing the lake stay close to the water far left; that’d be the last spot to lose shadow.

DSCF2098-001
 

We went up to view deck level again close to noon, taking our sweet time on the stairs.  No shame in stopping.  The steps were oddly spaced that in fact I stepped down sideways, feeling it would cancel out any momentum from directly facing front or if my legs gave out. The climb was taxing that we rested again at the view deck and there we saw the tourist who lost his group.

Going Down and Riding Home

Ever feel that going down is a lot harder?  Going up has its difficulties because of requiring to carry one’s weight.  Going down feels like I need effort to stop the momentum. I felt tired.  The uneven steps; the rocks felt more pronounced on my trek down. I couldn’t even raise my leg the first instance climbing up the 4x4. 

Since it was now past noon the 4x4 already put on its roof at the back. Good thing it wasn’t hard plastic because I didn’t fit with it on – not sure what material it was but can’t remember feeling hot to the touch.

DSCF2058-001

The girls on the way down were now on a giving spree. Among many bit sized goodies they had on them were chocolates and wafers which they gave to aeta children still hanging on the path sitting in a mini rock castle. The other man in the group gave away his skyflakes.


When we reached out of the canyon the wheel bearing broke. It was never a worry since we know we weren’t the last out.  Once the other 4x4s came in it was just a matter of finding spaces in all of them. We can’t leave all five together. Three girls went to a Nisaan Patrol I believe it was. Me and the other guy hitched on another 4x4 whose guide gave away his seat and rode on the hood of the vehicle.  Romeo hanged on the back of third vehicle.

It was a tight fit for me the 4x4 we hitched on. I had two ass cheeks in but only one third was sitting, if you can imagine that; my hand holding what’s possible for balance. Then a fellow passenger commented that going home felt longer. Maybe we’re tired, I replied.

Walk-in

The passengers on this 4x4 I hitched in says they are from Tarlac.  She reserved her 4x4 from the Capas Tourism office. I think I read somewhere on Facebook they signed up in Sta. Juliana tourism office. Key thing here is reservation, it means you can’t just walk-in and get a 4x4 that you want. It may actually be just a system wherein everyone in the business of trekking to Pinatubo fall in line for oncoming tourists.  

The thing is if the system is centralized, getting 4x4s and the guides, then the prices may just be all the same.  It would be simpler to get a tour organizer like I did especially coming from Manila. The organizer at least would be actively be in the loop for military and weather advisories. 

But I am most likely missing something so do your due diligence.

Capas Shrine

We stayed in Sta. Juliana till about 3:30 pm.  Now 10 again we had to wait until everybody took a shower or had cooled off.  I only changed my shirt and bought me halo-halo at PHP 25.  For my arms and face I took generous amounts of Wet-ones from the girls. 

Each of us 5 contributed to Romeo's tip. It's the least we can do. This is seasonal work for him.  

Once all 10 had finished their thing we left the second van passed by Capas Shrine which was nearby.  After that it was strait to Manila. We only took take out at one of the gas stations at NLEX just to keep to the itinerary.

Post-mortem and Day After

I could have had a bigger breakfast though it was never a problem since the chicken adobo made my day. When we reached the gas station on NLEX I could still feel the stones under my feet even with smooth pavement.  I assume the van’s air-conditioning hastened the soreness under my foot. So mental note if I repeat the trip, get thicker soles.

And speaking of notes I seem to have forgotten more details than I should about the trip. I was 4x4'ed into forgetfulness.  Maybe it shouldn't be mental notes then.

The day after, February 26, a Sunday my entire body felt surprisingly stiff, from torso to calf muscle. One way means more than an hour 4x4, one hour to hike on rock filled trails; four hours total.  I wonder what’s the science behind it, did all the balancing wore me out? Core muscles overworked?

Throughout that Sunday I merely stretched and massage what little I could. By Monday I didn’t feel it as much.

Overall it was a perfect adventure. I don’t think that anything needed changing.