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Lake Pinatubo was created in the aftermath of the second largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. Located in the crater of Mount Pinatubo in the Tarlac province of central Luzon, Philippines, the rainfall-fed lake has become a tourism destination in its own right and the deepest lake in the country. The eruption in 1991 was the first recorded in 500 years for the mountain. Even though residents had prior warning and were evacuated, the explosion caused several deaths. Fifteen hundred more died in the resulting 'lahar' or mud-and-ash flow down rivers and valleys caused when Typhoon Yunya passed over the mountain during the eruption. The 25-foot wall of ash and mud, with the consistency of wet cement, buried two villages and traveled down the river channels into the heart of the City of Angeles.
Drifts of ash also created two other lakes, Lake San Marcos and Lake Tambo. The eruption caused the permanent closing of Clark Air Base, a U.S. military installation less than 30 miles away. The indigenous Aetas, within whose territory Mount Pinatubo lies, have legends of a previous lake in the same place that was destroyed by a huge explosion-a folk memory of the previous eruption 500 years earlier.
Lake Pinatubo may be geologically new, but the experience of the Philippines government draws on long memories of previous eruptions, lahars and mudslides. Lawa ni Apo Malyari, as the Aeta call Lake Pinatubo, grew so rapidly from the heavy seasonal rains that government officials worried the weight of the water would weaken the walls of the caldera, creating a catastrophic flood and another lahar. Loose volcanic material clinging to the inside walls of the rugged crater also creates rock slides into the lake. So a channel was dug in 2001 to drain off part of the water to the nearby River Bucao.
This diversion channel averted impending disaster for the time being, but scientists expect that at some future date, the caldera walls will give way, so they closely monitor the crater. Meanwhile, Lake Pinatubo receives thousands of hardy visitors each year and large amounts of water from torrential seasonal rains. Visitors must be in good physical shape as no road goes up the mountain. All-terrain vehicles take visitors to a trailhead where they hike about two hours over rough terrain. When they reach the overlook, 170 steps lead down to the water's edge. Many forego this last hike down to the white-sand beach that surrounds the lake. They are content to take pictures from the viewing area of the brilliant blue-green lake against the jagged crags, covered in places with lush native greenery, that form the caldera's walls.
Visitors who make the effort to reach the beach can rent boats or kayaks to see the lake from the surface. In the past, visitors could swim in the water which, although hot and acidic when first formed, is now nearly air temperature. Although Lake Pinatubo's water is close to the acidity of surrounding water bodies, it is still too acidic for fish or aquatic life. Although shallow around the beach area at the stairs down to the lake, the water depth drops off quickly and has caused drowning in the past, so swimming is now forbidden with the regulation posted on-site. The beach is great for sun bathing.
Tour agencies provide transportation to the trailhead from the town of Capas, or longer 4X4 trips from Angeles City. In recent years a shorter trail called the Skyway was cut into the side of the mountain to take visitors closer to the lake, but the route was destroyed during a storm a few years ago and hasn't been rebuilt. The hike to the lake leads through green hillsides to the dry rocky lahar flows that were once rivers. Although not especially steep, the trail crosses a couple of creeks, and rocks make for rough walking. Visitors must report their physical condition on the form they are required to complete at the tourism satellite office at Santa Juliana. Travel advisories warn against trekking during rainy days due to risks of landslides and strong water currents at O'Donnel River. The best time to visit the lake is during the dry season from November to May. Even then, guides warn that the caldera has its own climate and that even a small drizzle can create choppy waves on the lake's surface.
There are no services or lodgings at Lake Pinatubo, although limited camping is allowed with prior approval. Trails are often closed on rainy days due to the danger of rock slides. Capas has a hotel-hiker hostel near the trail, and both Tarlac and Angeles City offer a full range of lodgings. Most visitors stay in these larger cities where there are plenty of restaurants and services for tourists, including several golf courses and shopping. The Capas National Shrine is found near Capas, where an obelisk stands as a reminder of the Filipino and American soldiers who perished during the infamous Bataan Death March during WW II. The Wall of Heroes around the obelisk commemorates the soldiers who died during the last world war. The area is also home to a small museum named after General Francisco Macabulos. Capas is about 75 miles northwest of Manila, 20 miles from Tarlac and 25 miles from Angeles City. The Province of Tarlac is rapidly modernizing and avidly encouraging tourism to the area with lots of festivals in local towns, many related to religious holidays. The larger cities feature many restaurants that specialize in clay-pot cookery and impart their own signature flavor to this world-famous cuisine.
Lake Pinatubo's beauty is well worth the hike. This young lake likely will not be here forever; saving it is beyond the capabilities of human engineering if the caldera that holds it collapses. Meanwhile, it is safe to visit, and photographers will have a field day capturing the interplay of sun and shadow on the blues and greens of the water against the raw cliffs peaking though lush vegetation. Such a sight shouldn't be missed by any visitor to the Philippines.
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