When you’re in Manila, the mega crowded, polluted, and traffic-plagued capital city of the Philippines, there is a dire shortage of things to do for tourists. I mean, sure, you can visit the many bars, clubs, malls, and entertainment district in Makati and other pockets, but even getting from point A to point B a mile or two away can take you an hour – or hours – in the city with one of the worst traffic problems in the world. Likewise, there is very little to do culturally in Manila, as they are short on museums, art galleries, and historical sites, and the only natural beauty you’re likely to find is a palm tree in the center of a food court somewhere. (Ok, that’s not true – there are a few serviceable parks like at Ayala Triangle).
What about a quick escape to someplace much less crowded and more picturesque. You can probably forget the quick part, as drives to the nearest beaches can take 4-6 hours on a good traffic day, but there is one alternative for an overnight or weekend trip that I think is well worth it: the Taal Volcano.
Visiting the Taal Volcano
Actually, you’ll be driving to the community of Tagaytay, located only 31 miles south of Manila not on the ocean but on an immense lake, Lake Taal. However, before you get too excited, that 31 miles can take you 3-4 hours through traffic, so I recommend trying to visit on a weekday (and not Friday), and always travel at off-peak hours.
But once you get there, you’ll find a lineup of condos, resorts, hotels and humble guest houses like, all built on the cliffs over the lake or further down a ridiculously winding road by its shores. I stayed with friends at a condo building up on the cliffs, and we got a great 2-bedroom place through Airbnb for a very reasonable rate. The views were stunning, both when the sun was out and when bad weather rolled in.
But the real highlight of your trip to Tagaytay will be the Taal Volcano, which impressed the hell out of me. You get there by descending down that steep, windy road I told you about for about 20 minutes until you reach the shores. From there, you jump on a boat to the island of Taal. The lake is so big that it looks like the ocean and the winds can pick up the waves, so get ready to get sprayed a little.
The island is pretty big, with little hamlets and communities spread throughout, with a good number of its inhabitants making a living in tourism. You need to hire a guide who can either lead you up by foot, or most tourists opt to ride up the hill on horseback. Although it’s less effort that way, you’ll still be bumped all around, get covered in dust, and look ridiculous on an over-sized donkey.
The hike up is strenuous but manageable in about 1 hour, and you can take your time and go slower if you like, stopping and taking in the incredible views.
Once you get to the top of the sharp volcanic mountain, you’ll see that you’re actually on the edge of an impossibly steep crater, with a lake filling it below. Oh, and there is ANOTHER island inside the volcanic lake!
So that’s an island (Luzon) with a lake; and then another island (Taal) on that lake, and another lake inside that island, with a smaller island in the center of that volcanic crater lake. Incredible! You can hike around (be super careful) and take photos but not swim, since the water gets so hot in some areas it will take your skin right off. Yes – the volcano is still active!
But the best part to me was the fact that a couple of local ladies rented out golf clubs up there, so you could tee off from the top of the crater and aim for the little island far below (no shot of actually hitting it.)
The Taal volcano was really an amazing experience, and the photos are screen saver-worthy! But also check out the aerial photos before or after you go and you’ll be equally impressed!