Zambales has a lot going for itself. Located in Central Luzon, the province is home to long stretches of fine beaches, stunning campsites, mystic coves, a thriving Aeta community and of course the still-active Mt. Pinatubo. Whether you’re the ecstatic adrenaline junkie or just the casual camper, you’ll find something to love in Zambales.
There is definitely something for everyone.
The one thing that I loved about my whole experience here was how laid back it was. It was adventurous, but also in a lazy, hammock-by-the-beach kind of way. And even though it is accessible by bus from Manila, you’ll seldom find yourself in the middle of a noisy crowd. You’ll have the beach mostly to yourself. It’s perfect for those who want to spend the day scaling the slopes of Sierra Madre and then be able to kick back into a silent retreat by the shore under the stars. Plus, the beaches are really gorgeous, too.
So I’ve listed a few things that you might want to try if you plan on visiting Zambales.
Rough Riding into the foot of Mt. Pinatubo
In 1991, when the Pinatubo erupted, it displaced tons of ashes and volcanic matter out from its crater. This resulted into a massive lahar, a mixture of strong water current and volcanic ash, that forced native Aetas and locals to evacuate the area. On the bright side, it also shaped the surrounding area into a surreal landscape that makes you feel like you’re inside an Indiana Jones movie. The road to the foot of the volcano is long and littered with huge boulders, which is why it is best to rent a 4×4 vehicle. That is unless you plan on passing out in the middle of a barren land and be buried in volcanic ash. And don’t worry if you haven’t reserved one in advance, there are plenty of available 4×4’s once you get there, but it’d be best to have one reserved just in case. Also, come in early, around five A.M. if possible to avoid the crowd. The trip is also extremely hot towards the end so I suggest you bring anything to re-hydrate and invest in some sunblock for good measure. Since the 4×4 also provides no shade at all, a sarong might come in handy. Travel time is about one hour and while that doesn’t exactly sound like a sweet ride, I pretty much enjoyed every minute of it. Mainly because I was able to secure a seat inside the vehicle beside the driver – I got to feel the cool air brushing my cheeks minus the sun.
Helpful Tip: Call dibs on the front seat if you can.
The view is spectacular. Travelling along the dirt road, you get to see these impossibly huge cliffs of sand that has been eaten away by the lahar. You’ll also get to pass along some rugged routes so always be on the lookout for sudden bumps. Although the terrain is mostly desert-like, you’d soon find yourself crossing a few rivers which I love because it rocks the whole 4×4 adding more fun to the trip.
Selfie with the Aetas
What makes the ride extra special is when you get to meet the native Aetas along the way. The Aetas are one of the first group of people that have crossed the sea to make the Philippines their home. Technically, that makes them one of our earliest ancestors. It was amazing how I just used to look at their pictures in History books and then get to finally see them in person. They live a very crude lifestyle and while some have embraced some of our practices like wearing clothes for example, don’t be surprised to find some who prefer to be in their good ol’ birthday suit.
It’s not a secret though that our culture glorifies the western standards of beauty and discriminates physical attributes like curly hair or a pug nose. In our society, this is seen as undesirable and unattractive. But since this is their turf, it would be best to keep the jokes to yourself and avoid making derogatory comments on their appearance. They are very friendly people. In fact, most would greet you with a smile and a wave – the universal Filipino way of greeting. They are as much a Filipino as you and me and deserve as much respect as well.
Part of the tour is actually taking a few pictures with the natives, mostly the kids. Some of them don’t get to see the city that often so just give them a few candies and in return, they’ll reward you with a beaming smile. Pretty cheap for something so priceless, if you ask me.
Trek to Mt. Pinatubo’s Crater
Since, it’s impossible to go all the way to the crater by vehicle, the rest of the travelling is done on foot. If hiking isn’t exactly your thing, don’t worry. You’ll get to the crater in twenty minute tops. The hike is relatively easy so you can bring kids along if you want. The trail still involves some huge boulders and a flowing river so always watch your footing. You’ll know when you’re close because locals have created steps made of cement to make the steep ascent easier.
The crater is just as beautiful as you’d hope it would be. Although the lake in the middle wasn’t particularly the shade of cyan as I’ve seen in some pictures, after the tiring journey of getting there, I’ll take it. It could be worse, though. During heavy rainfalls, the lake turns into a murky brown color, so best to avoid the rainy seasons. Since we started the trip early, we reached the crater just in time for lunch. Eating while gazing into the breathtaking volcanic lake is not something you get to do every day, especially in Cebu, where I came from, so I cherished every moment of it.
It’s very tempting to take a plunge, especially considering how hot it was but that is currently prohibited. Locals say, the depth of the lake is unknown and that there had been casualties of drowning. But there is kayaking if you want. To say you’ve been inside a crater, and Pinatubo no less, gives you a lot of street cred so this one I particularly enjoyed.
Camp at Nagsaza Cove
After all the sweaty fun under the sun, we headed to our next stop, Nagsaza Cove. We traveled by bus and then transferred to a tricycle where we were taken to the house of the owner of the banca service that we hired. It’s a good deal – they provide us with a banca and a cook who prepares the food for us. The travel was quite long so the sun was long out when we arrived. I’m not the best swimmer so I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be riding a banca in total darkness. After a few minutes of prepping up (the owner was so kind to let us charge our cameras and phones) we headed for the cove. The travel took about an hour and I was so happy we arrived safely at shore but most importantly because it meant dinner time. The boatmen set-up our tents as our cook prepared our food.
Under the stars of a warm summer night, we gobbled on calamares, pork and fish with nothing but an old kerosene lamp lighting our faces. It reminded me of my younger days at the farm with my grandparents. It wasn’t the most comfortable meal I had but it was one of the most memorable. It made me realize that sometimes all you really need is a good helping of rice, your bare (but washed!) hands and endless embarrassing stories to make really good memories.
It was a good thing most of our gadgets needed to be charged because we ended up talking through the night. After that, we retired to our tents with nothing but the sound of the waves nearby lulling us to sleep. I swear, to the old gods and the new, I had one of the best naps of my life.
I woke up to the sight of one of the strangest beaches I have seen in my life. It was a beach, yes, but it had pine trees on the shore and the whole Sierra Madre mountain ranges as its backdrop. If Boracay and Bagiuo had a child, it was this. Strange, but beautiful.
Climb the Sierra Madre
Well, this might be a bit of a stretch but we did climb the Sierra Madre. But maybe only a teeny bit of it, if that counts. One thing not to miss while in Nagsaza is to climb a rocky terrain (which is technically still part of the Sierra Madre mountain range) just a few meters from the beach. It’s quite steep but manageable, and at the top you get a panoramic view of the whole cove.
Another boat ride took us to Anawangin cove. Unlike Nagsaza there were more people here and it’s probably because it had more camping grounds. It’s funny, you look one way and it’s like you’re in Bagiuo. You turn around and bam! It’s the beach again. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that sight. In my opinion, Anawangin Cove has a prettier landscape than Nagsaza. But overall, I’d prefer the peace and seclusion of Nagsaza over the Anawangin crowd.
I was really intrigued by the pine trees so I finally asked our cook about it. She said the locals were just as surprised. The trees just suddenly grew there after the eruption. I’m thinking the ashes might have carried the seeds there or something. Whatever it was, it did well to the region because it has been attracting curious tourists all year long.
Capones Island was the last destination of our amazing Zambales trip. It was also the shortest. Our boatmen said that the waves were getting stronger and that we only had little time left to enjoy the place. Compared to Anawangin and Nagsaza, this was a terrain I was more familiar with – a long stretch of white sand with aquamarine blue waters. The waves were pretty rough though and a few meters from the beach would get you into deep trenches so always swim with caution. I was really exhausted at this point that after a few minutes of swimming I simply sat on the shoreline and was unknowingly staring at the hermit crabs doing their thing. I realized how I envied them. Tomorrow they would still be here in these pristine waters doing whatever it is that hermit crabs do, while I’ll be going back home. But as Nelly Furtado sings “flames to dust and lovers to friends“, I guess all good things must come to an end.
Of Bus Windows and Emothoughts
While I was on the bus on my way back to Manila, I glanced on my window and saw Mt. Pinatubo – the once destructive force of nature, now curiously silent and still. When it will wake from its slumber is anybody’s guess for now. But one of these days it will and it is going to destroy a whole lot of things in its wake. And just like it, you can never really anticipate the bad things that’s coming for you. You can live each day in fear of the impending doom or you can live each day as if it were your last. The thing is, when the lava and shit hits the fan, there’s not much you can do about it, anyway. So best enjoy every second of it.