Towards the northeast of this Olongapo City, Philippines is an imposing sight -– the hitherto dormant Mt. Pinatubo which cut a swathe of destruction when it erupted in 1991 following a 600-year slumber.
The eruptive episode sent tourists -– foreign and local -– into thinking it would take years before Zambales, buried by lahar in most parts, would be able to bounce back, economically and emotionally.
Observers who motored after 1991 to the province, which stretches 173 kms on its western shoreline facing the Luzon Bay, noted that ashes destroyed a big portion of the reefs in the area, buried nearby towns in a thick layer of ash at least 1 meter deep -– some of them basically wiped off the map.
The same observers have noted that in recent years, the visibility of beaches has slowly returned, and the corals have started to recover with some turtles nesting in some areas.
But they said majority of sharks and dolphins that used to call the Zambales coast home have slowly returned since.
Pinatubo, whose name was emblazoned on the presidential plane of Zambales’ son Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s, has started beckoning once more tourists and mountaineers, whose former summit – at 1,745 meters altitude – was believed to be the crest of a lava dome 600 years back.
Some mountain buffs say the volcano's lower flanks, intricately dissected and densely sheathed in tropical vegetation prior to the 1991 eruptions, were composed mainly of pyroclastic deposits or volcanic rock fragments from voluminous, explosive prehistoric eruptions.
Twenty-two years later, resorts and other tourist destinations have resurfaced like mushrooms in the monsoon, including By The Sea Resort Hotel, which describes itself as “a perfect place for a perfect occasion” fronting Subic Bay, the former drydock facility of the giant US Seventh Fleet.
There were no immediately available figures on the number of tourists visiting the province in the 1990s nor after the millennium rollover.Neither are comparative figures on tourism revenues before and after the Pinatubo eruption.But returnees have noticed several tourist destinations which point to the province having bounced back from the eerily devastating Pinatubo explosion in 1991.
The By The Sea Resort Hotel, conceptualized in the 1980s and nestled in the bosom of Beach Valley, is a place where one can dine and wine, enjoy Philippine sunset and have a relaxing oasis from the jostle and flurry of life in a crowded metropolis.
Most of the inhabitants of Zambales, two hours drive from Manila, are crammed in the lowland plains toward the coast facing Luzon Sea: the indigenous Aetas (the earliest inhabitants) and the superstitious Sambals (an Austronesian group of people who displaced the Aetas and from whom the name Zambales was coined) live in its mountain ranges.
Tourism officials say the province is considered the wreck diving capital of the Southeast Asian archipelago, known previously as the Land of the Morning.
Most of the wreckage are concentrated in the Subic area, which for decades hosted Washington’s naval base during the Indochina War until the Americans fled in 1991 following the eruption of Pinatubo.
Official sources say at least 25 Japanese ships were sunk off the Zambales shoreline in the 1940s when Manila became the Warsaw of the Far East at the height of the second world war – the name a reference to the Polish capital which was reduced to ruins in the 1940s.
Sources said there are others that lie in Subic’s seabed, like the remains of the San Quentin (sunk in 1898), a wooden gunboat which lies nearby Grande Island;the USS New York (between Alava Pier and Cubi Point); El Capitan (Ilanin Bay); LST (near Grande Island); Oruku Maru (near Alava Pier); Patrol Boat (Triboa Bay) and LCU Landing Vessel (Triboa Bay).
There are also popular tourist destinations for camping and beach outings.
These include, according to tourism officials, Anawangin in San Antonio town, 39 kms north of Olongapo, which offers adventure activities for a camping travel itinerary.
Anawangin, a crescent-shaped cove lined with pine trees on its shore which gives it a different impression, is complemented by surrounding mountain rocks which gives the area a poster-perfect view particularly during sundown when the sun gives off an orange glow that reflects the mountain terrain.
The sand is white and soft with a mixture of volcanic ashes from the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. The cove is complimented by the surrounding mountain rocks giving it a picturesque and poster-perfect view especially when the sunset is giving-off an orange glow that reflects to the mountain curves.
There are other sights for tourists like Camara Island, which has clear waters and colorful corals and provides a majestic view of the open ocean. This is the closest island in the shore of Pundaquit, a 15-minute ride from Anawangin Cove.
There is also the Capones, a 2-km long bone-shaped island which is chiefly a site for surfing adventures, is about 30 minutes by boat from Pundaquit.
A lighthouse from its top is also an attraction where adventure-seekers can have a pleasant view of the open sea.
Officials also point to Balon Falls, said to be a perfect paradise in nearby Subic’s Barangay Aningway for nature lovers with crystal-clear water fresh from the falls, where fragrance of wild flowers and trees surrounds the whole place, and only the sound of the birds and wild animals breaks the tranquil atmosphere.
With foreign and local tourists seeking out the popular destinations in the province every month, tourism officials themselves raise their hopes for continuing recovery from the devastation inflicted by Pinatubo. (PNA/LAM/Honor Blanco Cabie)