Most travellers zip through the provinces north of Manila – Pampanga, Bulacan and Bataan – to the justly famed attractions of northern Luzon, but there are a few reasons to break the journey. Malolos has some historic distractions, while Mount Pintatubo and Mount Arayat provide energetic hikes and gasp-inducing scenery. Bataan is a surprisingly wild province, with some excellent beaches and World War II monuments, while Subic Bay is turning into an appealing beach, dive and outdoor activity centre. Buses connect all the main attractions with Manila, though fast ferries are much quicker to Bataan – if they are running.
More about Philippines
Find out more
MALOLOS, capital of Bulacan province, is known for its impressive Barasoain Church, on Paseo del Congreso. The current structure dates back to the 1880s; it was in this church that the Revolutionary Congress convened in 1898. The church houses the Ecclesiastical Museum (which displays religious relics such as a bone fragment of San Vicente Ferrer encased in glass, and antique prayer cards), and a light-and-sound presentation depicting events leading to the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War. Aguinaldo made his headquarters at the nearby Malolos Cathedral, aka the Basilica Minore de Immaculada Concepcion. In between the two churches on Paseo del Congreso is the Casa Real, a gorgeous Spanish house built in 1580, and the site of the Imprenta Nacional, the printing press of the 1896 Constitution. It’s now a small museum, with displays of priceless sixteenth-century Spanish religious artefacts and various incendiary pamphlets published by the revolutionaries. The helpful provincial tourist office is in the Capitol Building (www.bulacan.gov.ph).
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).
With 85 percent of it covered in mountainous jungle, the Bataan peninsula is one of the most rugged places in the country. The province, forming the western side of Manila Bay, will always be associated with one of the bloodiest episodes of World War II. For four months in 1942, 65,000 Filipinos and 15,000 Americans – “the battling bastards of Bataan” – held out here against the superior arms and equipment of the Japanese. After their surrender in April 1942, the Filipino and American soldiers, weakened by months of deprivation, were forced to walk to detention camps in Tarlac province. About 10,000 men died along the way.
A poignant memorial to those that died, the “Dambana ng Kagitingan” or Shrine of Valor (daily 8am–5pm; P20) occupies the summit of Mount Samat (564m), a little inland from the provincial capital Balanga. The shrine has a chapel and a small museum of weapons captured from the Japanese, but the centrepiece is a 92-metre crucifix (P10) with a lift inside that takes you to a gallery at the top with views across the peninsula and, on a clear day, to Manila. Jeepneys ply the mountain highway between Balanga and Bagac, passing Mount Samat, but unless you find someone to give you a lift, it’s a 7km walk (1hr) from the nearest stop to the shrine. Hiring a van from Balanga should cost around P1000.