WITH vivid blue-green waters glittering like a precious gem in the sunlight, Mount Pinatubo’s crater lake was a gorgeous sight to behold.
Lake Pinatubo is enveloped by lush green foliage — a striking contrast to the grey rocks and steep walls of ash along the trail we had hiked to the caldera.
We felt like we had entered the Garden of Eden.
No mountain too high
My cousin and I had set off just before dawn from Manila for a three-hour drive to the starting point of the trek at the 1,486mhigh Mount Pinatubo, which is next to the historic town of Capas in the Tarlac province of the Philippines.
We made a pit stop at the tourism office in Santa Juliana to report our physical condition — a requirement for all hikers — followed by a quick breakfast of the local sweet bread called pandesal, scrambled eggs and coffee.
Our journey in a four-wheel drive from the town to the trail head, through a deserted valley flanked by huge lahar mountains, was jerky and dusty.
We passed the San Marcos and Tambo lakes, which, like Lake Pinatubo, were created after Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991. It was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century.
These two smaller lakes, with their murky waters and algae blooms, could not compete with the beautiful Lake Pinatubo that we saw after a two-hour hike over 7km of rocky and ashy ground.
Climbing up the last few metres to where the ridges of the volcano opened up, we gazed into the crater in awe as the view below us seemed to belong to another world.
The landscape was unexpectedly stunning and unspoilt, with almost no trace of humanity.
Measuring 2.5km in diameter and at about 800m deep, it is the deepest lake in the Philippines.
Beauty in destruction
Our guide, Ricky, shared that the indigenous Aetas people, who have lived in this area for centuries, refer to Lake Pinatubo as “Lawa ni Apo Malyari” or “Lake of the Moon God”. Rather apt, given its large and beautiful reflective surface.
When Mount Pinatubo erupted, the volcano spewed more than 5 cubic km of magma and sent an ash cloud 35km into the air.
The natural disaster killed about 800 people and caused damage of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Before that day, the little-known volcano, covered in dense forests, had been inconspicuous and obscured from view.
Today, it is a growing tourist attraction and attracts several thousand visitors a month who come to check out its jewel-like crater lake and the spectacular surrounding views.
In touch with nature
Feeling adventurous, we walked down to the beach and rented a small barge to view Lake Pinatubo from its surface.
The lake was hot and acidic when it was first formed. But it is now nearly of normal air temperature.
Despite having an acidity level that is close to that of surrounding water bodies, its water is still too acidic for aquatic life.
And although the water is quite shallow near the beach, there is a sharp drop-off that catches most people unawares.
Visitors could go for a swim in the past, but it is now forbidden.
As we glided gently on the surface of the lake, a sudden chilly wind made us shiver before the afternoon sun came out from behind the clouds, bathing the entire crater in a vibrant, warm glow.
The water too, deepened in hue, to become even more luminous.
Surrounded by so much natural beauty, all distractions and noises faded away, making it easy to lose all sense of time and space in this magnificent setting.
We flew from Singapore to Manila on Singapore Airlines and then arranged for a car to take us to Mount Pinatubo.
■ The best time to hike is during the dry season from November to May.
Change your hiking plan if there are storms around the area, as some parts are prone to landslides and the water in the rivers can rise very quickly.
■ During the rainy season in July and August, the river and lakes on Mount Pinatubo can swell with little warning. Tours can be suspended. Check the condition of the area with the local tourism office.
The tourism office in Santa Juliana charges tourists a fee for trekking to Lake Pinatubo.
Tourist info: www.visitmyphilippines.com
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