Taal Volcano on the Philippine island of Luzon like all Philippine volcanoes is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the area of the Pacific basin where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. It is said to be the world’s smallest active volcano standing a mere 1000 feet tall, but don’t be misled by its size; it is also one of the deadliest volcanoes in the world having claimed 5000-6000 lives during its recorded 33 eruptions since 1572. It is the second most active volcano in the country, Mt. Mayon being the first with 50 recorded eruptions.
Located wholly in the Batangas province of the Philippines Taal Volcano is also quite a unique volcano, it’s has an island (Vulcan point) within a lake (Main Crater Lake) in a volcano (Volcano Island) that is in a lake (Taal Lake) on an island (Luzon) or to quote factsanddetails.com “It has the unusual distinction of being the world’s only volcano within a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano”. Kind of a tongue twister, I know, but truly amazing.
For me this was enough reason to put Taal on my bucket list, but coupled with stories I’d heard since childhood about its eruptions when hot ashes reportedly reached the family’s ancestral home in Kawit, Cavite some 50 kilometers away made it a must see. I was never quite sure if the stories were from the 1911 eruption or from the those between 1965 to 1977, but I figured it couldn’t have been from the 1754 eruption mostly because I don’t think there was a house in Kawit at that time.
Of course it never occurred to me that it was dangerous, to be fair when we went there were no alerts or warnings, there have been since our visit when the alert level was raised for 11 weeks in 2011. So really the sanest way to see the volcano would be from a safe distance, perhaps from Tagaytay’s ridge where most tourist view it, and the view is awesome. But if you’re crazy, adventurous, or a bit of both read on! I’ll tell you about our trip to this active volcano!
Actually we didn’t think it was that adventurous or crazy, we live in Hawaii where we have Kilauea the world’s most active volcano according to Volcano Discovery. It’s been spewing hot lava for years and generating “vog” which at times blankets the state. So what could be so dangerous about trekking on Taal which hasn’t erupted since 1977? After all we’d been to Kilauea (the areas where you’re allowed to view the lava making its way to the ocean) and trekked up the crater of Nea Kameni the dormant volcano in Santorini where steam rises up from fumaroles along the trail. So off we went, uncle and cousin in tow. Mom and sis opted to stay behind as trekking up active volcanoes weren’t on their bucket list.
Before you can get on “Volcano Island” which is actually the volcano’s crater you must first find a place where you can hire a boat. By the way there are day tours from Manila that will take you to and fro, prices that depend on group size include transfers from your hotel, boat ride, and guide. But we’re not big on tours, we prefer to DIY!
So off we went to Talisay, a town in the province of Batangas about 2 hours away from Manila. We had a driver and van who actually took us to my father’s house in Silang, Cavite, from there we made our way over to Tagaytay about 15 minutes away, where you do get awesome views of Taal Lake and Volcano. From there we made our way down the ridge to a “resort” in Talisay.
I was headed for the Taal Lake Yacht Club where you can book a boat to the volcano, but my husband had consulted someone at our hotel (Intercontinental Manila, it’s currently closed), who had given him a business card for a local resort. So it was to that “resort” we went, I forget the name of this resort, believe me it was a dump and very forgettable. But the reasoning was that we weren’t going to stay there, just hire a boat and go.
The resort did have a restaurant and a not so disgusting bathroom, so my mother and sister stayed and got the kitchen staff to cook for them. Did I mention we were the only guests at the resort? Well we were and the staff was very welcoming and quite apologetic about the general condition of the place which they claimed was under renovation. I was dubious of their explanation, but it didn’t really matter, we weren’t staying, just passing thru so to speak. (If you want to stay overnight or longer there are nicer resorts in the area, but bear in mind the local idea of luxury may not be the standards one expects. In short when in a local resort lower your expectations, a lot!)
From this resort we hired a boat, with a bit of haggling we were able to hire one for 1000 PHP for 4 people round-trip, that’s about $22.
The boat is actually a motorized canoe and it takes about 20 minutes to get to Volcano Island. Our boatmen waited for us on the island to take us back to the resort.
There’s no port or dock once you get to the island, you simply hop of the boat when it gets close to shore. The water is shallow, but try to hop on to a rock or a patch of dry land. The shore is littered with trash from the island’s inhabitants who live a very primitive existence, no running water or electric. (Technically they’re not supposed to live there, it is a danger zone, so they “squat” and the government pretty much ignores them.) Also I quickly scrambled to shore fearing the very venomous sea snakes that have adapted to the lake’s fresh water; they’re probably not hanging around the shore, but better safe than sorry, it’s also a good reason not to stick your limbs in the water on the ride over and back.
On shore we were greeted by very friendly people hustling horseback rides up the mountain, or if you prefer a hiking guide to lead you up. The starting price for a horse and mandatory guide was 500 PHP, $11 per person, but my husband bargained and ended up paying them 1500 PHP, $32, for all 4 of us. I’ve heard there was an admission fee, but no one was there to collect it, so I’m not sure if it was included with the horse hire.
The horses were a bit lean but seemed cared for and treated well. I guess the owners would treat them well, the horses are after all their main source of income. If you hire a horse and guide don’t expect a beautiful saddle and stirups, think more like riding bareback.
Once you get away from the shoreline and “town” area you’ll begin to see the beauty of this volcano. As you ride up the mountain, actually the horse is led by the guide (each horse comes with a guide) you leave behind the trash and its accompanying smells. You’re surrounded by pristine forests, so do practice no signs left behind, in short don’t litter! You don’t need to add to the trash the villagers make!
The guide isn’t that helpful, you can ask questions which he’ll try to answer, but English is not his main language. He’s not really that knowledgeable about volcanic things, in fact I probably know more than him from watching the Discovery Channel. So don’t expect a geology lesson, but he will point out features such as smoke rising from fumaroles, he knows exactly where they are.
Along the way my guide told me in detail how hard life is living on the volcano. No utilities, living in makeshift huts, no schools (yes they have children living there), how expensive it is to send kids to school on the mainland, and how the government doesn’t care. I knew he was going for sympathy and setting me up for the big hustle at the end. But really you have to feel some sympathy for their plight, it’s a story heard all over this country.
My guide did tell me that a Korean company had wanted to develop the volcano and build a health spa but they, the locals, protested fearing it would take way their livelihood. Not so sure about this wisdom, I thought developing the place might just give them employment, but what ever the case may be the project never started and their permit was revoked.
After about a half hour or so riding up the mountain you reach the crater rim where you dismount and climb up some makeshift stairs for a peek into the crater. When I say makeshift I mean dirt filled rice sacks fashioned into steps made by the locals to lead up to the view point where they have souvenir shops that sell t-shirts and bottled water.
They have also built bamboo guardrails to keep tourists from falling into Main Crater Lake and they discourage you from hopping over and hiking down to the lake itself for a quick dip. I doubt you’d want to swim in the sulfur filled lake anyway, not to mention there’s no path down and it seems extremely dangerous.
From the view point you get a magnificent view of Yellow or Main Crater Lake as this lake within the volcano has come to be called, and the small island in the lake, Vulcan Point. The island vents steam and gas which can some times be visible from the viewpoint.
Enjoy the view, it’s one of a kind! [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]
We purchased bottled water from the so called gift shop, it gets pretty hot on this volcano. As we enjoyed this incredible view one of the locals, other than our guides, offered to take group photos for us. I thought he was just being nice and helpful, but after taking the photos he demanded a tip! I know they’re poor, but it was annoying none the less. I’m not sure how much my husband tipped them, but it seemed easier to fork over a few pesos than to argue.
After a short spell at the view point it was time to remount the horses and head down. The horseback ride ended at the local “village” (a group of shanty huts mired in mud) where it seemed that everyone came out to greet us and demand tips! This was very annoying! Sure we were going to tip the guides, but their kids and mothers came out to demand tips as well. Talk about a hustle! Again I don’t know how much my husband tipped, but since he did I refused to dismount in the village, it was too muddy. I in turn demanded they let me ride to shore and dismounted only when I got as close as possible to the waiting boat.
On the ride back the boatman took us on a short tour halfway around the island to see the tilapia farms at the base of the volcano.
I was told that the farms belonged to local and foreign investors and don’t really benefit the locals who squat on the volcano.
I was told there are some farms on the volcano itself where they grow coffee in the fertile volcanic soil, again they don’t benefit the squatters.
When we reached the resort my mother was more than ready to go. The staff had kept her company and well fed, but she was anxious to return to the comforts of the Intercontinental Manila. So after a quick bathroom break we headed back.
Was the trip worth it? Definitely! That place is amazing! Would I return? Not likely, it’s one of those things you should see and after you’ve seen you take away great memories and photos, but you don’t have a deep desire to return to. Mostly because I could really do without the hustle!
I did come a way with a feeling of sadness. Sad that the government, which has designated the place as a national park or reserve, doesn’t feel the need to at least develop it for eco-tourism. I know it may be risky given the volcanoes deadly eruptions in the past, but they can somewhat predict activity and close it off when alert levels are raised. But I can’t help but think that a ranger station and a few basic necessities such as bathrooms would help boost tourism in the area. After all tourism done responsibly is good for the economy.
Here are a few tips if you’re feeling adventurous and want to visit Taal Volcano:
Pay attention to risk levels, don’t go if it’s high. That seems like a no brainer but it needs to be stressed.
Book a tour if that’s what your comfortable with. Expect to pay premium prices.
If you choose to be an FIT (free independent tourist) like we did then make your way to Talisay, there are buses or jeepneys from Manila, or hire a car and driver.
In Talisay find a resort and hire a boat to the island. Bargain before the ride begins. I wouldn’t pay more than 1500 PHP, $32 for a boat load, and even that seems a bit high specially in the low season.
Bring water, sun screen, and hats. It gets very hot on the trail. Also bring a towel if you can, just in case you get wet in the boat or while getting on or off of it. If you’ve hired a boat who will wait for your return you could possibly leave towels in the boat, but don’t leave valuables.
Bring toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, most local bathrooms aren’t supplied with them.
If you want to hire a horse and guide, bargain again. The most you should pay is 500 Php per person and that includes the guide.
Plan on spending about 4-5 hours on this adventure so eat a hearty meal before you go, there are no restaurants or snack bars on the island. If you think you’ll get hungry then bring a few light snacks.
Respect the land and leave no traces of your visit. Take any empty water bottles and wrappers from items you brought with you back to the mainland. The island has no trash disposal so all rubbish gets piled up somewhere or ends up floating on the lake shore.
Leave large amounts of money in your hotel safe. Expect the hustle so if they see you flashing lots of cash they will never leave you alone. Just bring enough to cover expenses and perhaps a bit extra for tipping.
Learn to turn a deaf ear, everyone has a sob story designed to catch your sympathy. Once you start handing out money you will get swamped. Tip for good service and be firm about tipping, don’t let them bully or guilt you into a larger tip or into tipping the whole family.
Enjoy your trip! It’s amazing!
Take lots of photos!