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into the wash

Lakes, volcanic craters, and mountain trails abound just beyond Metro Manila’s urban sprawl. To reach them, one just needs to penetrate the metropolis’ omnipresent traffic. Gridlock can be a powerful deterrent for a day trip, especially since the only reliable solution for escaping it is to hit the road before the sun is up. There is usually no dodging the congestion on the return trip, but by that point an epic adventure is in the books, which makes a couple of hours in traffic seem like a small price to pay.

After visiting the Taal volcanic crater with the kids, we upped the ante with a trip to Mt. Pinatubo. Before its famous 1991 eruption, Pinatubo had lain dormant for half a millennium, its slopes covered with a dense rainforest that sheltered the Aetas indigenous tribe. Then came the second-most powerful terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, during which Pinatubo ejected 10 billion tonnes of magma and enough aerosols to have a measurable impact on global temperatures for the next couple of years.

A gorgeous lake formed inside the massive crater left in the wake of Pinatubo’s eruption, which we set out to see with some friends. Even in the dead of night – we set our alarms for 4 a.m. – the roads were far from empty, but we had little in the way of real slowdowns and arrived in the tiny hamlet of Santa Juliana in just under two hours, including a stop at a military checkpoint where D had to surrender his drivers’ license in exchange for a visitor badge.

In Santa Juliana, we parked our car at a guesthouse and boarded a beat-up Jeep for the hour-long drive across a river wash that was as visually arresting as the hike that followed. Self-driving to the Pinatubo trailhead is forbidden, but we wouldn’t have wanted to take our own car anyway – especially after passing a 4×4 vehicle that had stalled in the mud five minutes into the journey. The military conducts exercises in the wilderness surrounding Pinatubo, and one was about to get underway when our convoy of Jeeps splashed across the terrain.

We didn’t keep track of time, but it likely took us somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes to navigate the five kilometers from the trailhead to the signpost marking the start of the final ascent to the crater. With the sun beating down, we walked slowly up the Crow Valley, crossing small streams, the water at times dyed rust-orange with sulfur and iron deposits.

The landscape changed dramatically for the final fifteen-minute push to the crater. We exited the exposed wash and found shade in a verdant valley that led to our destination – a beautiful jagged lake whose waters changed color from metallic gray to green depending on the position of the sun and the clouds. It reminded us of Lake Quilotoa in Ecuador, where we met, and which remains the goalpost by which we measure volcanic craters.

After lunch at the lake we retraced our steps, keeping a watchful eye on the dark clouds that began to gather over Pinatubo. We got back to our Jeep before raindrops started falling, but the storm caught up with us halfway through the ride back to Santa Juliana. There was a retractable roof that partially covered the back of the Jeep, where we sat, but it proved woefully inadequate to the task; we were drenched by the time the rainstorm let up.

Our affinity for Douglas Adams notwithstanding, we had brought neither towels nor a change of clothes. The drive back took nearly twice as long, which made for a rather long day. Even in our wet hiking gear, however, the bumper-to-bump traffic could not dampen our spirits. Pinatubo is a spectacular outing.

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