Rising from the Ashes of Pinatubo

December 1, 2016 Nestro Licanto


Just fifty miles northwest of the Philippine capital of Manila is a unique spa experience that traces its origins to one of the most spectacular volcanic eruptions of the century. Located in the province of Pampanga at the base of Mount Pinatubo is Puning Hot Springs resort.

The origin of the hot springs goes back 25 years to June 1991. During the first few days of the month magma flows began seeping to the surface of Pinatubo, forming a lava dome over the top of the volcano. Then, on June 12, which happened to be Philippine Independence Day, the deeper origin, highly gas-charged magma made it to the top causing a cataclysmic eruption of millions of cubic yards of volcanic material that was thrown more than a mile into the air. The resulting ash cloud rose 22 miles into the atmosphere, and at lower altitudes the ash was blown thousands of miles in all directions.

In a cruel twist of fate, Typhoon Diding was passing through at about the same time.  The torrential rains mixed with the ash to create deadly mudflows that cascaded down the slopes of Pinatubo. More than 800 people were killed and approximately 20,000 residents from the surrounding areas were displaced. Many of these were the indigenous Aeta people, who consider the lush, mountainous area surrounding Pinatubo as their ancestral home. Puning, in the native Aeta language of Mag-antsi, means “Mother Nature.”

Puning Hot Springs is located in Barangay (village) Sapang Bato in Angeles City, where the former sprawling U.S. air base Clark Field is located. After a two-and-a-half hour bus ride from Makati, Metro Manila we arrived at the first station, which housed the receiving office, a restaurant, and an open garden featuring a wide array of well-kept plants and flowers. This was also the starting point for the 4x4 jeeps that we would use to get to the other two stations. We were given helmets to wear for the off-road rides through the rough trail of the Sacobia River that was accessible only during the dry season.



It was a short jeep ride to the second station sand spa area. After a change of clothes, we were led to an outdoor sauna that looked like a huge covered sandbox. We lay down in hot sand as the attendants covered us from neck to foot. The sand was kept just warm enough by underground heaters to maintain comfort. We lay there for 10 to 15 minutes and then were given a body massage while still covered with sand.  Local Aeta staff gently stepped in and around the sand covering us. We could feel a firm, but not overbearing pressure. We were told that the sand steam helps lower cholesterol, relieves body pains, and improves blood circulation.

After the sand massage we toweled off as best we could and proceeded to the mudpack area. We were instructed to lie back on chaise lounge type chairs resembling what you might find for sunbathing around a pool. As we lay comfortably on our backs, mud made of lahar from Mt. Pinatubo was applied to our bodies. We were told that the mudpack is good for treating skin allergies and tightening pores. We relaxed while waiting for the pack to dry, after which we took a shower in preparation for our trip to the third and final station.



The 15-minute ride aboard our jeeps took us along the rugged and beautiful terrain. It was an exhilarating off-road experience as we navigated along the receded riverbed. We saw imposing rock formations high above in cliffs created by lahar and punctuated by lush jungle growth. There were occasional streams of river water along the route that splashed into the jeep. The cool water proved refreshing in the steamy conditions. Our group hooted and hollered with every bump and hop as we rode along the rough and tumble terrain, and we hung on for dear life as the jeeps powered through dips and curves. For those who had never ventured off the paved streets and highways, this off-roading experience was one of the highlights of the trip.



The Hot Springs station was located at the end of the river, framed by the surrounding cliffs, and was set in a vast canyon. It was beautifully designed with 11 hot pools and 2 warm pools that were set atop rock formations, which could be reached after climbing different steep stone staircases. These dedicated pathways to each pool ensured the privacy of guests, who were encouraged to hop from one pool to another, to test the various water temperatures. A glance up at the towering rock formations within the resort revealed billowing hot steam emanating from crevices and from the natural hot spring waterfall around which the pools were constructed.


First Station: Base Camp



A garden restaurant featuring traditional native huts known as “kubo” that offer Filipino cuisine served by native Aeta. This also serves as the debriefing and transportation center for the 4x4 jeeps that will take customers to the next two stations.


Second Station: Spa



A ten-minute ride takes you to the first outdoor sauna, where you can also experience the relaxing sand steam massage and full-body mudpack. The hot sand is said to enhance body circulation and ease joint pains. The mudpack is also a healing treatment prepared with nutrients from the bottom of thermal spa lakes. It is believed to help improve cell regeneration and stimulate lymph glands.


Third Station: Hot Springs


Essentially, this is a thermal spring at the mouth of the Sacobia River, where temperatures range from 40 to 70 degrees Celsius. There are multiple levels of pools with varying temperatures that are accessible through stone stairs. Take a mini-tour and dip into the relaxing water. The surrounding area looks like a burning furnace as steam billows from the crevices. It was also scientifically tested by the Philippine Department of Science and Technology, and the results indicate a neutral 7.5 pH level that will not irritate your skin.

Puning Hot Springs tour packages include a tour of the hot springs, a buffet-style meal, sand spa, mudpack, use of a 4x4 vehicle, services of a local guide, and a nominal barangay entry fee. For more information you can look them up on Facebook, or email them at puninghotspring@gmail.com.


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