Although its monsoon season, we decided to risk the weather and take a day trip out of Manila. Jordan really wanted to see a volcano while in the Philippines, so we set out to Taal Volcano about two hours southeast of Manila.
We hopped in a jeepney to take us to the bus station. At first a jeepney ride seemed daunting. Lonely Planet said you rarely end up where you want to be the first time you hop on, and the people at our hostel hadn’t given a lot of information beyond, “look for one that says BuenDia, the bus station you want.”
Jeepneys are US army jeeps leftover from WWII, repainted and tricked out. Run as a private bus, these jeep runs up and down one or two main streets and charge 9 pesos a ride. So we braved Manila traffic and flagged down a jeepney, which was easier than I expected.
The traffic light was red, so we climbed aboard the back end, cramming next to some Filipinos. We passed our pesos up the line, and the person sitting nearest the driver handed our change to him. This jeepney just went up and down Taft Ave., which was where the bus station was, so we just kept our eyes peeled for anything that looked like a bus terminal.
When we saw it, I shouted, “Para!” and the driver pulled over to the curb. Para means “stop” in Spanish. It’s really interesting to see the leftover Spanish still in Tagalog—sometimes I can even tell what people are talking about because I speak Spanish (but that’s pretty rare).
We paid the bus driver and hopped on board to Tagaytay, the town near Taal volcano. One-way a ticket costs 83 pesos. It was hot and sunny for three hours, but as soon as we were dropped off in the middle of town, rain began to pour.
That’s rainy season for you. We ran into a store, bought an umbrella, and then it quit raining. For a while it was 30 seconds raining-cats-and-dogs, 30 seconds dry, on repeat. We stopped for lunch to let the weather make up its mind.
Although the hope had always been to climb the volcano and peer into the lake of the crater, we weren’t sure if the rain would allow. After hemming and hawing for a while, we decided to pay a tuktuk to take us down the mountain to the edge of the lake.
The volcano is in the middle of a lake, and makes up one of the islands in that lake. The volcano’s crater, however, is filled with steaming water, and inside that mini lake is another tiny island, making it an island in a lake in an island in a lake on an island in the Pacific Ocean (Wrap your mind around that!).
We bargained with a tuktuk driver to take us down to the lake for 150 pesos. He started at 250, but agreed readily to the lower price. It took abotu 30 minutes to get down the winding, narrow road. At the bottom of the hill in the little village of Talisay, tour operators offered to take us to the volcano island for 2,000 pesos (about 40 USD). It was standard price, regulated price, they told us, and I believed them because no one had offered any other price than that.
The boat driver threw two ponchos into the deal, so we agreed and got in the boat. After about 20-25 minutes through the rain, we arrived at the Taal island. Rain had stopped (thankfully!) and we were hassled about riding horses to the top of the crater. They were charging 450 pesos a horse, which we weren’t going to pay.
“You must take a guide,” the men taking environmental fees told us.
“We want to do it ourselves.”
“You must take a guide. It is the only way. 500 pesos for a guide.”
Then Jordan and I did that really awkward talk-with-your-eyes-but-be-discreet-because-they’re-watching-us thing that we’re still not very good at. We saw a couple coming down the track with a guide, and thought maybe it was legit. We also knew that we couldn’t ask anyone else on the island if it was true–they’d all back the men up.
Unhappy with hidden fees, we agreed. Our guide set a grueling pace up a well-worn path. Even though I’d eaten lunch and had both coke (caffeine and carbs and sugar!) and water, I had to stop a couple of times. Even after reaching the top, I was lightheaded.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hike that fast,” Jordan commented.
“I have this ridiculous fear of people thinking I’m weak,” I huffed, my face bright red. I was very glad to see our guide breathing hard at the top. I sat on the stairs to let my heart rate fall while Jordan explored the observatory point.
Across the lake are fish farms, growing mainly tilapia. Our guide said he did the volcano circuit once a week and ran a fish farm the rest of the time. About 2,000 people live on the island, mostly running horse rides to the crater and living on subsistence corn farming. We passed through part of their village, crossing the basketball court. Toddlers stared at us as we went past, dressed in old hand-me-downs and barefoot in the doorway of their bamboo homes.
“Rain is coming!” some of the teenage horse guides called back and forth, and the few of us still at the top of the volcano huddled under a couple of rickety bamboo shelters. When the wind blew the rainclouds over us, our guide decided he was done and wanted to go home. So another grueling pace was set down the volcano.
At this point, I should add: You don’t have to buy a guide. You CAN do it yourself, no matter how hard they pressure you. We figured that out later.
Jordan was tired of the guide setting our pace for us, so he meandered down with his camera. I was tired and thirsty, so I kept pace with the guide.
Once returning on the boat, a tutuk took us back up the hill to Tagaytay for 250 pesos. We hailed a bus on the main road through town and headed back to Manila (cost about 70 pesos a person). Even though we didn’t get back to Manila until 8:30 at night, and I had wanted to return around 6, I was really pleased with how we’d navigated buses and jeepneys and tuktuks. Everyone speaks English here, so that made a world of a difference.
Despite getting roped into the tour guide, we had an awesome time exploring another part of the Philippines. We really like how friendly and outgoing the people are, and we just wish we had more time to do island-hopping.
We do get to visit one other island, though, before we leave. Next stop: Boracay!