On April 2, 1991, people from the village of Patal Pinto on the lower slopes of Mount Pinatubo (1485m), 25km east of Clark, witnessed small explosions followed by steaming and smelt rotten egg fumes escaping from the upper slopes of the supposedly dormant volcano (the last known eruption was 600 years before). On June 12, the first of several major explosions took place. The eruption was so violent that shockwaves were felt in the Visayas and nearly 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide gas were blasted into the atmosphere, causing red skies to appear for months after the eruption. A giant ash cloud rose 35km into the sky and red-hot blasts seared the countryside. Ash paralysed Manila, closing the airport for days and turning the capital’s streets into an eerie, grey, post-apocalyptic landscape. By June 16, when the dust had settled, the top of the volcano was gone, replaced by a 2km-wide caldera containing a lake. Lava deposits had filled valleys, buildings had collapsed, and over 800 people were dead.
Pinatubo is quiet once again, except for tourist activity. Until August 2009, the one- or two-day trek through the resultant moon-like lahar landscape of Pinatubo was one of the country’s top activity highlights. However, due to heavy landslides that caused the deaths of eleven tourists, the trail has been indefinitely closed off. At the time of writing the only trek on offer went like this: from Santa Juliana where you register, a 4WD takes you for an hour or so across flat lahar beds and over dusty foothills to the start of a 45-minute gentle climb to Lake Pinatubo (around 960m). The lake itself is admittedly stunning, with emerald-green waters, and spectacular surrounding views, but those looking for some serious exercise, or even a close look at the moonscape will be disappointed. Bring a picnic and your swim stuff, and spend the day up there, to make the most of the trip (you can rent boats for P350).