No one ever refers to Taal Volcano as Mt. Taal, possibly because it’s low elevation does not qualify for the “Mt.” appellation. Despite being considered the “smallest” volcano (and even this description is disputed by geologists) it is one of the country’s most active. It last erupted in 1977, and has erupted some 34-odd times since first being recorded in 1572.
Taal Volcano has had a longer tourism history than Mt. Pinatubo. And by “tourism”, I mean actually trekking on the volcano and not merely viewing it from a distance. It has had a number of decades of relative calm, and this is enough for a tourism industry to establish itself. As far as Tagaytay, one would see men with hand-held signs advertising the fact that they conduct Taal Volcano tours. In contrast, the picturesque crater lake of Mt. Pinatubo did not exist before the destructive eruption of 1991, and as such, there was absolutely no tourism value.
For this trip, I did a lot of online research and found out that the best way to travel to the volcano is by availing oneself of the services of the Taal Lake Yacht Club (TLYC). It’s only TLYC that offers a guided tour up to the crater lake, and their boats have cellphones, life jackets, fire extinguishers, and a strict adherence to Philippine Coast Guard regulations. With all the needed info on hand, all I needed to do was to look for companions. Luckily, the ever reliable pre-injury* Danna (more on this later) provided ready companionship. For a while we had a hard time looking for other companions to join us, but eventually, we were able to get our office colleague Gani Lopez and his girlfriend Leah De Castro to join us on the trip. (It did help that Gani is something of a travel bug himself, and the fact that Gani actually had a car.) Our other colleague Dwight was supposed to join us, but begged off the last minute due to an illness.
So finally, on May 9, 2010, the four of us met up at the Ortigas area to begin the long drive towards Talisay where TLYC is located. Before we knew it, we have arrived at TLYC and it seemed like we were the first customers of the day. Transaction at the “front desk” was fast and the prices advertised at the website was current. Within a couple of minutes of signing our names in the registration sheet, we were already being given life vests by our designated tour guide, Elmer.
Before I continue, a brief word on Taal Volcano’s physical appearance. When one mentions “Taal Volcano” one normally has this image in mind:
As it turns out, Taal Volcano is actually a complex volcano system, and what one sees from Tagaytay (the one above) is just one of its extinct craters named “Binintiang Malaki” (literally, big leg), which ironically looks so diminutive and is responsible for Taal’s reputation as the smallest volcano. The main crater is a much wider one behind it (so large that it has a lake in it, just like Mt. Pinatubo), which is completely hidden if you are viewing it from afar.
So there, the four of us were on our way to volcano island on board TLYC’s motorized banca. The trip was actually smooth because there wasn’t any wave to speak of in an inland lake. It wasn’t a very pretty ride though. Taal Lake’s waters are actually murky, due in large part to the black volcanic sand. I was surprised though to see a lot of large birds – the long necked ones that tagalog-speaking people call “tagak” and even some gulls and some other species I’m not familiar with.
Landing on volcano island alerted us to the very first obstacle that would make life difficult for us for the entirety of the trek. Much of the terrain was covered in very fine, dark volcanic ash. So fine that the a normal walking pace is enough to send dust flying 10 feet or more up in the air. We then had to cover our noses a lot of times.
The presence of a lot of horses at the villages near the shore should have been the second clue that it would be an excruciatingly difficult climb. Perhaps thinking that Taal would be something like Mt. Pinatubo, I planned not to rent a horse, and I failed to inform the others that TLYC actually advises people who go by the secret trail to rent a horse. This lack of foresight eventually unraveled when 20 minutes into the trek, we were all so exhausted under the blazing summer heat that we took a break every few minutes or so.
Making life difficult for us was the fact that there were almost no trees in the trail going up the rim of the crater. I was lucky that I at least wore a wide-brimmed hat. The other three had to contend with the sun with rarely a tree shade in sight. Later on, Leah could no longer continue on foot due to extreme fatigue, and so we had to rent a horse for her.
The problem was that we were in the middle of nowhere in the trail and horses didn’t exactly ply this route for us to hail one. The problem was solved by our guide when he simply sent an SMS to one of the horse-tenders at the foot of the slope to bring one horse to where we were. A few minutes later, they already reached us. (The horse was apparently called “Katrina”.) Ah, the wonders of 20th century technology!
So with Leah’s condition taken care of, we then continued on towards the view deck on the crater rim. When we reached it, there was a pretty-looking fence installed to keep people from falling over the edge. There was also a shed that, thankfully had some people selling cold soft drinks. We did not really mind the extortionate price of P50 per 12.5-ounce bottle because it was really hot that day. Later on, when we were computing what we spent, Gani spent around P300, I think, on soft drinks alone.
Most tours to Taal Volcano stop at this point, admire the view, take pictures and then head back. The four of us on the other hand specifically intended to go down the lake itself. We were warned that the trail going down the crater lake was a lot more difficult. This time, we took the warning seriously and steeled ourselves for the second half of the trek towards our destination.
True enough, the trek was a lot more difficult, as there were parts that were either too steep, too slippery, or that there wasn’t any path at all. It was absolute hell, and it reared its ugly head when Danna slipped and broke her right arm. The trek was a lot less fun for Danna after that, as she always was worrying about how not to aggravate her injury, in addition to having to contend with the excruciating pain of a compound fracture. But she hid the pain well. I guess she’s tougher than a lot of people think.
Danna and I were actually behind in the trail and for a long time, it was only me who was assisting her to continue towards the crater lake where Leah, Gani and our guide Elmer were already waiting. Good thing Gani actually ran back the trail to look for us and helped a lot by offering to carry Danna’s backpack.
And so, we eventually reached the crater lake. Admittedly it was not as pretty as Mt. Pinatubo, but it was a lot closer to a “volcano experience”. For one thing, there were vents near the shore where boiling hot water was released. In fact, we were able to even cook hard-boiled eggs through one of those vents. In Mt. Pinatubo, such vents could be seen on the opposite side of the crater lake – reachable only by hiring a boat.
The water on the crater lake was not clear at all, and even looked dirty when one looks up close. Nevertheless, I proceeded to take a dip just for the sake of experiencing it. It looked icky at first, but Gani already went ahead and he seemed okay with it. I only spent around 20-30 minutes immersing myself in the murky waters, taking care not to accidentally swallow any. It was quite a different experience in Mt. Pinatubo where the water actually looked clean and inviting. Taal’s water looked stagnant and scary even. However, as said before, Taal provided more of a “volcanic” experience as the area where we took a dip was near the hot water vents where we cooked eggs. There was no constant temperature and one could feel the temperature changes swirling underneath the water surface.
See the orange streak underneath the shallow water? Sulfur.
Everywhere in the lake’s shore is evidence of volcanic activity. The cliffs making up the crater surrounding the lake show signs of a gigantic explosion, there’s the smell of sulfur every now and then, and lakeside rocks contain the distinctive red color of oxidation streaked with yellow – evidencing metallic and sulfuric content.
Before long, it was time to undertake the long hellish hike back because it was nearing noon and lunch was already waiting for us back in TLYC. Elmer asked us if we would still want to take a side trip to an area where there was “boiling mud”. Under any other circumstances, we would have consented to it, but we were getting worried about Danna’s condition, and we all were generally mentally tired about the trek. The only option at that time was to go back. And so, time for a last picture:
Taal was not done with us yet though. When we finally reached our boat, a mechanical problem prevented us from leaving for TLYC, resulting in us delayed for some 20 more minutes. It took the combined effort of around 10 men from the village and other boats to figure out what was going on and get our boat fixed.
When we finally reached lunch, the food we ordered was thankfully more than enough for the four of us. I was so parched that I took and drank an entire 1.5 bottle of Coke while I was eating my share of roasted liempo, sinigang and lots of rice. The way I ate, it was as if I wanted to regain all the calories I lost during the trek.
Before I end this blog, I would like to share how TLYC’s owner Joe Hagedorn took the extra mile and gave Danna proper first aid for her injury. Back in the volcano, we had to make do with a makeshift splint using my handkerchief and a bamboo stick I picked up along the way. (This was later improved when the bamboo stick was replaced by a larger, flat piece of clean wood the length of Danna’s entire forearm, courtesy of a lakeside softdrinks vendor.) Joe Hagedorn and his wife gave Danna’s wrist a proper splint, bandage and sling that looks as if it was made by a professional.
So to compare, I’d say if you are looking to see breathtaking views of a volcano, then Mt. Pinatubo is for you. Everything there is a lot more picturesque than Taal Volcano. The latter, however, makes for a more authentic trekking experience which would probably appeal to younger tourists who don’t mind the rigors of mountain climbing.
When I originally thought of writing this blog, I intended for my readers to give both volcanoes a try and recommended a trip to both. However, recent events have made a Taal Volcano trek impossible due to well-founded fears of an impending eruption. I therefore consider myself lucky that I got to experience visiting Taal’s crater lake. Should an eruption occur any time soon, the landscape might change and it might take a while before new trails can be established leading to the crater lake.
So I guess by default, Mt. Pinatubo gets to be the foremost volcano of choice for Manila-based people wanting to see a volcanic crater up close. Both destinations are good for day trips, and could be accomplished in a Saturday or Sunday.
For Mt. Pinatubo trips, you can get in touch with Travel Factor. Mt. Pinatubo trips are actually one of their staples and you can check out their other trip offerings too.
If, for some reason, Taal Volcano normalizes and PHIVOLCS lowers alert levels, then the best tour provider is the Taal Lake Yacht Club. They place emphasis on passenger’s safety and their rates are actually cheaper than other providers.
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This entry is part of the Two Volcanoes, One Summer series:
1. Two Volcanoes, One Summer (part 1)
2. Two Volcanoes, One Summer (part 2)