The ashes of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption have settled long enough for vegetation to sprout and flourish, and houses to be built and lived in. From the ruins, Santa Juliana in the town of Capas slowly rebuilt itself into a quiet and charming village of 2,614. Among the little houses and huts of bamboo and grass, a spa complex breaks the overall sense of rusticity. Though modish, it is as charming and serene as the village as to blend in.
In the late May morning, the village was stirred as journalists, travel agents, tourism officials, local officials, police escorts, businessmen and tourists trickled in for the Mount Pinatubo Wellness Spa’s formal opening. With the whirr of a helicopter, the tourism secretary, Joseph “Ace” Durano, arrived and was welcomed by the Korean owners of the spa. By now, Sta. Juliana was getting used to these occasional stirrings and welcomed them. The place is recently being promoted as a tourist attraction, a choice take-off point for a volcano trek.
Previously, the president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself visited the barangay and led 150 trekkers including then tourism secretary Richard Gordon to the crater of Mount Pinatubo to drum up interest in the activity.
The place used to be “barren,” admitted the burly and swarthy mayor of Capas Reynaldo Catacutan. Before the Pinatubo eruption which displaced about 249,000 families, caused about 850 deaths and laid waste to most of Central Luzon, the town and Tarlac in general would garner only passing glance from the bus windows.
The province of Tarlac, located almost at the heart of the great Luzon plain, seems to be as plain as its topography. It is carved out of two culturally rich provinces: Pampanga in the south and Pangasinan in the north. It is thus a junction of Ilocano-Pangasinan and Pampangan cultures. Tarlac seems to have no cultural distinction of its own to interest people, who may at most remember its town Capas as the site of the Death March in which American and Filipino prisoners of war were forced by Japanese forces to walk about a hundred miles from Mariveles in Bataan to this town in 1942.
As a child, the triangular shrine along the main highway only served as a marker and the province only a thoroughfare when going to my hometown in Pangasinan from Manila. Now, my destination was Capas, which began to gain attention with the recognition of adventure trek and climb to Mount Pinatubo as an attraction and tourist draw, and the identification of Sta. Juliana in Capas as a main gateway.
One hundred and seven kilometers north of Manila, Capas is Tarlac’s largest town and second most populous (95,219 in 2000). From the main highway, we passed by the town market, and in barangay Santo Rosario we took a small road passing the barangay of Aranguren, a resettlement area in O’Donnell, the barangays Santa Lucia and Patling. We also passed by a relocated and newly constructed Death March shrine. Along the way, we saw a Philippine military reservation and housing, which is colloquially called Navy here. The area used to hold a spacious United States military base, an extension of the Clark air base in Pampanga. The road ended in Sta. Juliana, about 22 kilometers from the highway.
In the spa opening, the Capas mayor, flanked by barangay captain Felix Dumulut and his staff, was conspicuously delighted with this recent development. To further buoy up the feeling of excitement, he announced that the town would be a city soon. The town’s population has ballooned to 130,000 because of migrations from the nearby town of Bamban and from the province of Pampanga, he said.
Catacutan related that the town has suffered much starting with the non-renewal of contract for the United States base, which had provided revenue for the town with its lease. “Nalungkot kami nang nawala ang base,” (We were saddened when the base pulled out) he said. “Tapos, pumutok ang Pinatubo.” (Then Pinatubo erupted) When the Koreans started to invest, “nabuhayan po kami,” (We are heartened) he concluded, summing up the recent history of the town in simple words.
In recent years, the Philippines has experienced a substantial influx of Korean tourists, keeping the tourism industry afloat during leans months. In Central Luzon, visitors more than doubled in a year from 12,378 in 2003 to 26,175 in 2004. This made Koreans the second most numerous in terms of visitors dislodging the Japanese. Americans, which have been traditional visitors since Clark Field was an American military base, remain number one. Direct flights from South Korea to Clark may been influential in the increase in Korean tourists. In 2004, Korean airline Asiana started mounting Incheon to Clark flights five times a week.
Some enterprising Korean visitors began to invest in structures for their fellow Korean tourists. In 2004, two tour operators, Patton Kim of Hana Tours and Chris Park of Philippines Number One Travel and Tours, from the Philippines-Korea Travel Agency Association sought the help of Ronaldo Tiotuico, Department of Tourism (DOT) director for Region III, in identifying new travel destinations. In looking for alternative to Tagaytay and Pagsanjan, accessible destinations located south of Manila, they went north.
Tiotuico took them for a trek to the crater of the now famous Mount Pinatubo, taking off in Sta. Juliana, and involving almost an hour bumpy traverse through the dust bowl of Crow Valley in a four-by-four jeep and about a three-hour climb.
The Koreans were not the first visitors of Sta. Juliana though. The people of the village had noticed an influx of foreign and local tourists using their place as jump-off point since April of 2000. As a result the local council transformed itself into a tourism council called Sta. Juliana Tourism Council, handling and operating the eco-tourism activity. Now, trekkers register at the council office, get a conservation briefing and donate ten pesos for conservation projects. It is also here where one can get a tour guide. The Department of Tourism then provided the needed structure and promotion, training guides, coordinating with the Four-Wheelers Club of Angeles City for transport, and designing and promoting tour packages. The packages included such activities as off-road adventure driving and marathon, rappelling, biking, nature-tripping, visit to Aeta communities and aerial tour, among others. To date, the village has received about 7,000 Pinatubo visitors.
When Kim and Park finished their tour, they were excited.
“After the trek to Mount Pinatubo, Mr. Kim Became convinced of further developing the volcano and its surrounding areas as major tourist attractions with the local host population as the principal beneficiaries of such an initiative,” Tiotuico related.
The idea of a spa at the village sparked in their heads. After all, it was but appropriate that there should be a place where visitors can bathe to washed off the grime and get a massage for their aching muscles after the trek rather than embark on a more than two-hour ride back to Manila.
Thus with close coordination with the DOT and its developers, the Mt. Pinatubo Wellness Spa began construction in November 2004 and cost about $10,000. Kim and Park formed the company Pull Destination Corporation (PDC) to operate the spa, offer packages and plan for further developments.
Kim, the tall and bespectacled PDC chairman donned in white silk shirt, pledged to continue to support the community and the Philippines in general.
“We will use our energies and resources in bringing in Korean tourists for the rebuilding,” he declared in halting English.
“Let’s not dwell on the tragedy but celebrate the spirit…If all sectors of society unite, everything is possible…Let’s be part in rebuilding.”
“This demonstrates the power of tourism,” answered the young and attractive tourism secretary sporting shorts and shirt ready to tackle the trek. “The place was barren wasteland before because of the eruption and pullout and non-renewal of contract for the United States military base.”
He said that country averages 2,500 tourists a month, and a tourist spends 90 dollars a day. “Imagine the economic activity that tourism can generate,” he concluded, putting added shine to dollar signs in the eyes of many people.
“This endeavor has greatly contributed to our effort of spreading the benefits of tourism in rural areas. Through the spa came doors of job and livelihood opportunities to the people of Barangay Sta. Juliana and its neighboring areas,” he added.
Moreover, the Philippine air force, which now owns the land, would benefit from the lease. The added income would help in the modernization of the air force.
The Mt. Pinatubo Wellness Spa is a welcome addition to the burgeoning spa industry in the country. Spas have begun sprouting all over Metro Manila as well as in othe rparts of the country. At the high end, The Farm at San Benito in Lipa City and Mandala Spa in Boracay Island have received international accolades.
“The image of the Philippines as a health and wellness destination has already gained foothold in the international community,” declared Durano. “This can be proven by the success of our participation in the International Tourismus Borse held last March in Berlin, where we focused on the country’s spa industry, and in the International Spa Conference held early this May in Singapore, where we launched the Filipino spa brand which features our very own hilot (massage) and dagdagay (foot massage).”
The 5,000-square-meter Pinatubo complex houses a spacious airy restaurant where both Filipino and Korean dishes are served, two volcanic ash shower facilities, two circular hot bath tubs, shower stalls, a bar and a souvenir shop. At the center is a large open-air massage area, which can accommodate up to 200 persons. All materials used in the spa are sourced from Mount Pinatubo and its ejecta.
We went to the souvenir shop where 18-year-old Remy manned the counter. Painted in all white, the shop looked extremely neat, stark even, with small stacks of soaps and creams packed in yellow and gray boxes carefully placed on shelves and tables. At the center was a mound of rocks, which sell for P500 a kilo.
“It has magnesium,” Remy shyly pitched in, her first attempt at sales. She was one of the 150 locals hired by the spa as masseuses, guides, souvenir makers and attendants, among others. She said that there were about 300 of them, many just out of high school, who applied. After being accepted, they received a month-long training.
Aside from some souvenirs, the shop offers mostly sulfur-based products: bath sulfur, sulfur essence mask, sulfur mudpack, sulfur salt, sulfur essence cream, sulfur soap, etc. The materials came from Pinatubo, Remy informed us, which were shipped to Korea to be processed and packaged.
Our conversation was cut short with an invitation to traverse Crow Valley and visit the sulfur hot springs in the sitio of Tarukan. We packed ourselves into the hardy jeeps, which could accommodate until five people, and whizzed into the 31,879-hectare reservation, which is used as a firing range.
Army barracks and Aeta shanties perched at the hills just at the outskirt of Sta. Juliana. The vehicles went full throttle into the wide-open field, leaving clouds of ash. Being behind a few jeeps, we were given a shower of ash. The Capas mayor, in his enclosed vehicle, overtook us and signaled to rev up. Our driver left the convoy and made his own trail. As the dust cleared, we saw a beautifully desolate landscape. This could be the landscape of the moon, if without vegetation. On the outskirts, the ash fall and lahar had formed little gray and glimmering canyons, tasseled with grass and its jaggedness continually defined by every eroding rainfall and sweep of the wind. We crossed what used to be a riverbed, spattering mud around. The O’Donnell River, which once threatened the lives of residents during the eruption, now settled into a trickle, veining the parched landscape.
Unknown to many, Crow Valley has been identified as one of the 117 important bird areas (IBA) in the country and among the 206 areas of the Philippine Biodiversity Conservation Priorities (PBCP) under the Philippine biodiversity conservation priority setting program. Yes, there are more than crows here, although we didn’t spot a crow that day. Actually, we didn’t see any other souls for miles except for an Aeta man and his son, going home from foraging.
After 45 minutes of rough and exhilarating ride, we arrived at Sitio Tarukan at the foot of the mountains. Here, the Koreans have built concrete basins catching the water from the hot springs for footbaths. Interspersed were dainty pockets of garden. A grass-roofed shed offered shelter from the daunting sun, soft drinks and eggs for visitors to cook in the hot springs. Kim led the tourism secretary around. It is amazing how they thought of these things, Durano confided to us.
After a short ride, we were then brought to the four-hectare Lake Tambo tucked among hills. A number army tents were pitched on its shore, and a few Aetas were dredging the bottom for snails and small clams. A walkway has been built into the 40-feet-deep lake, which according to Tiotuico, was created by the eruption and had become a catch basin for rainwater. Tambo Lake was included in tour packages, and they had put tilapia and maya-maya fingerlings for fishing activities. Kim had proposed recreational water activities like jet skiing as future offering of the spa.
Upon arrival back in Sta. Juliana, girls in their kimono uniforms were walking along the road as if going to school. But they were converging at the spa to give visitors their own brand of massage. Sprinkled with ash, we thought that a bath and a massage were indeed perfect to cap a drive or trek. After showering and changing into robes, we went to the volcanic ash spa, an uncanny treatment that is only offered here. It consists of being buried under volcanic ash with the furnaces underneath fired up, keeping the temperature high. The complex has two ash enclosures decorated with buntings of Chinese and Japanese characters: one of sulfur and the other salt. Each enclosure holds about 20 tons of ash and sand and can accommodate forty people.
The attendants were now inviting us; they had our pits ready. Upon lying, we were covered with ash, our face with sulfur cream. This Korean treatment is believed to detoxify the body. After 25 minutes of sweating and being buried, we went to the shower stalls and then dipped into the circular bathtubs, which looked more like a fountain with a miniature garden in the middle. The water came directly from the Tarukan springs. After another shower and changing into white tees and shorts, we were ready for our massage. The shiatsu kind is offered here.
The tourism department and the spa had drawn up a trek and spa package, posting it on the tourism website of the region. The package costs US$25 per person and includes a four-by-four vehicle, a trek to the crater or a dip in the hot sulfur pools in Tarukan, foot spa, thermal bath and lunch. There is an additional US$10 for a hot sand bath and US$10 for the massage. The all-inclusive package costs US$45 per person.
At the restaurant, we had our merienda of pancit bihon, pork barbecue and kimchi. The place has assumed the air of a fiesta. Kim and Teotuico were abuzz with prospects, as was the Capas mayor, who hoped to carve the place’s identity from the ashes that has once almost buried them into oblivion.
“Death March is our history, progress our destiny,” he pronounced earlier. In the shadow of the Mount Pinatubo, the people of Sta. Juliana peacefully carve out their lives, now heedful of rumbles, not of the volcano but those of tourist buses stirring the ashes into life.