Legazpi and Trekking Mount Mayon

Legazpi is known as an adventure travel hotspot, this especially due to its location at the base of an active volcano. The volcano is Mount Mayon and last erupted…in 2018, last year as of this writing. No one was harmed that time but hundreds were evacuated. Before that, the last serious eruption was in 2009. Given its recent activity, limits have been placed on just how high up its flanks visitors can trek. The summit, of course, is entirely off-limits, but during my stay usual treks to Camps 1 and 2 had also be canceled. Still, I was able to find George, a guide who could take me to the 2018 and 2009 lava walls, where the lava from those eruptions had hardened to reddish-black stone.

George picked me up at 6am. As you can imagine, it gets brutally hot here so hikes are done early so as to avoid the noonday sun. George actually works for an adventure tourism company called Bicolandia (Bicol being the province in which both Legazpi and Mt Mayon are located) and we first stopped by the company compound to switch from George’s scooter to a proper car. I was introduced to the staff, including several guides who made up the company band and put on post-trek shows for guests. As with most adventure companies in the area, Bicolandia specializes in ATV tours of the fields and forests surrounding Mayon’s base. This didn’t interest me much, though, so I stuck to hiking.

Legazpi and Mount Mayon trek

Mayon is visible from town, looming over Legazpi. It’s an undeniably impressive sight. It has its own micro-climate so that it’s often wreathed or smothered in clouds that mingle with the crown of sulfur that streams endlessly from its peak. In fact, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a good look of the volcano on your trek at all. When we set out in the morning it was clear and visible, with only a few wisps of clouds hugging its flanks, but by around 10am it had been entirely swallowed by clouds, so that when we reached the lava walls it had disappeared entirely.

The actual trek began in a small town—well, actually more of a village—well, okay, a collection of shacks clustered around a few dirt roads and shrouded in jungle. George explained that the villages are evacuated anytime the volcano threat level reaches 3. As mentioned, we were currently at threat level 2. Everyone would be made to leave their homes, though a designated member of each household would be allowed back to their homes once or twice a day to feed animals and perform other care-taking duties. (The animals, presumably, are not evacuated.)

Legazpi and Mount Mayon trek

We followed a trail through the village, faces peeking out at us from windows and between bamboo beams. The trail led through farms, fields and coconut groves. After about an hour and half of hiking we stopped for a break on the crest of a coconut palm forest. A few mountain bikers were stopped there, too, drinking from fresh coconuts. An older woman and two young men with stubby machetes came ambling out of the woods. George spoke to the woman a moment and the young men vanished back into the jungle. He explained that they lived out there, among the coconut palms. I scanned the trunks and saw no shelter but it might have been farther, deeper in the woods. The young men returned with coconuts for us and expertly cracked them open. I haven’t liked the coconut water I’ve tried, whether fresh or bottled. To me, it always tasted off, like a bi-product of rot. This stuff was good, though, a little sweet and with none of that rancid aftertaste. George paid the lady and we were off again.

As we trekked through a large field dotted with cows and a few lean-tos, George told me that the land was actually government property and, officially, people weren’t allowed to farm there, but the authorities didn’t bother with them at all, essentially turning a blind eye. In addition to grazing cattle, farmers grew tomatoes, chilies and potatoes. It was as we crossed these fields that I got my first glimpse of the lava wall. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but it was very much a wall, a crenelated expanse of black rock that dwarfed us as we walked along its base. I was immediately reminded of the lunar landscapes of Iceland and this impression only grew as we progressed. Unlike the lava rocks of Iceland, however, these ones sprouted palm trees, lending the whole thing an even more exotic and surreal feel.

Soon George cut right and began climbing the wall itself. I clambered after him and, beyond the wall, an entire field of black rock streaked with rust reds opened up before me. If the village where we’d started was at the volcano’s feet, we had now reached its knees, but it was still completely invisible. The jumble of black rocks and boulders spread uphill for about a hundred yards and then vanished in an impenetrable cloak of cloud. Turning around, I could see the valley stretch out all the way to Legazpi and the ocean beyond. But, behind me, I could see nothing at all, just deep whiteness. On one side was lush greenery and fertile fields while on the other was a blasted wasteland, something out of a sci-fi film. The 2009 lava wall was closer and the rocks darker, with the 2018 wall resting about 50 yards in the distance and more noticeably shaded with red.

I set out for the lava field with my eyes on a particular outcropping. The stone crumbled under my feet and fingers as I climbed but I reached my goal without difficulty. George had taken my camera when he’d anticipated what I intended and now took a few photos of me, standing on the lava rocks with pure white clouds as a backdrop.

Legazpi and Mount Mayon trek

As we were leaving, another member of the Bicolandia team arrived with two ATVs and customers of his own. We began walking but, when they caught up to us and offered to give us a ride the rest of the way, we accepted. It was pretty fun, barreling along these rocky trails through fields and jungle, but I grew a bit bored after a while and was thankful that I’d stuck to hiking.

We ended the adventure at the Bicolandia compound where a feast awaited us. The house band was already playing while one of the other adventurers, a young Filipina, sang along with them. Catholicism is the country’s preeminent religion, but I’d say singing and karaoke are a close second. Music is everywhere in the Philippines and they love to sing along (oddly, easy listening from the 80s is a favorite—stuff like Air Supply and Chicago; I even heard Ann Murray issuing from a fruit vendor’s stand). Almost everybody seems to be part of a cover band, some of which make a good living playing for parties and events or even traveling on cruise ships. Even in the slums of Manila, I heard what I thought was a radio playing, only to find that it issued from a small shack, just three walls and a roof, inside which had been set up and karaoke machine. Three teenage girls were taking turns and, honestly, the girl singing was excellent. And the Bicolandia band weren’t bad at all either, accompanying this young woman on a song by Adele.

The Bicolandia boss had cooked the food and it was excellent. Bicol, the province in which Legazpi, Mt Mayon and Donsol are located, has its own cuisine, which is typically spicier than Filipino cooking throughout the rest of the country. I especially enjoyed a pork dish called Bicol Express. Still, though Filipino food is fine, it doesn’t come close to matching Thai food. Nothing does, it seems.

I checked my phone for the first time since I’d left for the trek and was surprised to note that it wasn’t yet noon. Still, after a shower, I was glad to do essentially nothing for the rest of the day.