About four hours south of Naga, the busy port city of LEGAZPI (sometimes spelt Legaspi) is a convenient base for exploring the area, including Mount Mayon whose almost perfect cone-shaped bulk rises from paddy fields to the north of the city. Other attractions include quiet beaches around the town of Santo Domingo, the eerie remains of a church at Cagsawa that was buried in the devastating eruption of Mayon in 1814, and Hyop-Hoyopan and Calabidongan caves.
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The elegantly smooth cone of MOUNT MAYON (2460m) in Albay province makes it look benign from a distance, but don’t be deceived. Mayon is a devil in disguise. The most active volcano in the country, it has erupted more than forty times since 1616, the date of its first recorded eruption. The most deadly single eruption was in 1814 when around 1200 people were killed and the church at Cagsawa was destroyed; 77 people, including American vulcanologists, were killed in a 1993 eruption. In August 2006, an “extended danger zone” was enforced but the expected eruption did not occur. Three months later, however, Typhoon Durian caused mudslides of volcanic ash and boulders on Mayon that killed hundreds. Further eruptions and ash ejections have occurred since.
It’s no wonder the locals spin fearful stories around Mayon. The most popular legend has it that the volcano was formed when a beautiful native princess eloped with a brave warrior. Her uncle, Magayon, was so possessive of his niece that he chased the young couple, who prayed to the gods for help. Suddenly a landslide buried the raging uncle alive, and he is said to be still inside the volcano, his anger sometimes bursting forth in the form of eruptions.
The presence of Mayon results in strange meteorological conditions in and around Legazpi, with the volcano and the surrounding area often blanketed in rain when the rest of the country is basking in unbroken sunshine. The traditional window of opportunity for an ascent is February to April, and even then you’ll have to be well prepared for cold nights at altitude and the possibility of showers. At any other time of year you could be hanging around for days waiting for a break in the weather. Though the slopes look smooth, it takes at least two days to reach the highest point of the trail, working your way slowly through forest, grassland and deserts of boulders. Above 1800m there’s the possibility of being affected by poisonous gases, although some guides will offer to take you to 2000m.
There are three recognized approaches to Mayon: via Legazpi’s Buyunan barangay; via the Centennial Forest in Santo Domingo; and via San Roque barangay in Malilipot. The last of these is the most commonly used, starting at 762m above sea level on a ledge where the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) research station is located. Nearby are the abandoned Mayon Skyline Hotel and the Mayon Planetarium and Science Park (free), which has exhibits including photographs of space. It’s worth heading up to this point even if you aren’t climbing Mayon, just to see the views.