Tagaytay: Reaching the Philippines’ boiling point

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Taal volcano
It is recommended to take a horse up the steep stretch towards the mouth of Taal Volcano (Photo: Justin Calderon)

“Balance, balance,” coached the jockey, all the while yelping her own coded commands at my sturdy blonde-haired mare. Somehow, until this day, I would not have pictured my first horseback ride to involve such a feisty Filipina, nor the intrepidation of mounting an active volcano.

Standing from a ridge in Tagaytay City overlooking one of the Philippines’ most picturesque scenes, the disruptive nature of Taal Volcano – actually a complex of several volcanoes surrounded by a lake created during a cataclysmic eruption eons ago – seems unassuming, indecipherable from its lush environs. Yet, get a bit closer, and a much different story begins to unfold.

From atop my horse along the side of the well-trodden path to the mouth of the volcano, I spot steam continuously escaping from the Earth through pockets I imagine were burrowed by the intensity of the bridled force below. Taal is the second most active volcano in the Philippines, with 33 recorded eruptions; it is also designated one of the world’s 16 “Decade Volcanoes,” a distinction noting Taal as being worthy of greater study due to a history of large, violent eruptions that occur next to large human populations. In Taal’s case, that population is Metro Manila, which lies about 50 kilometers to the north.

In the immediate vicinity, skirting the vast lake that encapsulates the bubbling giant, are several fishing villages that appear as sleepy as their volcanic neighbour when viewed from afar. But, like the volcano, there is bustle beneath. The allure of the deceiving beauty on the horizon before them has made many forsake traditional lifestyles to capitalise on the influx of tourists, whom come from across the world to get a peak – and sniff – of the sulfuric crater lake that boils away at the heart of Taal.

After being scooped up in an intensely claustrophobic tricycle, the most nimble of public transport in the Philippines, I find myself being ushered down the mountainside towards the lakeside villages, passing signs that give fair warning of landslides.

The tricycle drops me off at a lakeside restaurant, which is inevitably owned by some of the driver’s old chums – or barkada in Tagalog. The water splashes up against black sand in front of the restaurant, a reminder of the dark history that has washed up on these shores in the past. Even for a small town, it is simple. The buildings are quintessential of the Philippine countryside: gray cinder blocks that have a quickly cobbled together countenance representative of the precarious lives they shelter.

The barkada of my tricycle driver have in many similar ways built their own support structure – one that I’m not unfamiliar with after many years in Asia. The two grilled tilapia on the menu cost 500 pesos, as well as every other item — including a large plate of pancit, or fried noodles – an obvious show that the proprietors lack any inkling how to gauge pricing for their out-of-town visitors. A blanket price for every dish will apparently do.

View from Tagaytay City of Taal Lake and Volcano Island (Photo: Justin Calderon)

After completing the overpriced meal, a new barkada appears, sporting his oversized basketball jersey – a common calling card of comfort and causality across the Philippines. This will be the man who can show me to my accommodation, but not after finishing a story that all other hotels along the lakeside have been occupied or are simply much more costly than my budget would allow.

Truth be told, the prices of hotels in Tagaytay and at Taal Lake are overly incommensurate with the services that accompany them. This fact did not dawn upon me in such clarity until I saw what would be my home for the night. The barkada of the bakarda led me to a building with a room literally jutting out over the lake, affording a truly splendid view of the inactive volcano amid the complex that makes Tagaytay postcards perfect. The building, however, was only half constructed. The top half of the structure was monotone concrete with steel rods protruding into the air like lonely, rusted flagpoles. The room, I was informed, was to cost 4,000 pesos, or about $92. It did come with a pool, albeit one with stagnant water and a slide not year painted, still coarse with settled cement.

The situation required skilled haggling. Hotel prices have become so inflated in Tagaytay that the owner was pressed to negotiate, strumming his misplaced chin hairs until he finally settled upon 3,000 pesos. The entire ordeal took about 30 minutes.

The room itself was simple – a small TV and tight shower space. The silver lining: a complete view of Volcano Island from the lakeside. Every other amenity was upon request and, of course, additional cost.

The Philippines is “like this incredibly beautiful girl who didn’t know how to dress up,” Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Jr once told me. For all its allure, it still runs ragged. That services are poor and costs mismatched are an intertwined issued in the Philippines, one that would make less hardened travelers disgusted at the thought of ever returning.

It is also a challenge that has recently gained some international support. Last April, Canada agreed to extend a $7.1 million grant for technical assistance, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) acting as the administering agency, to focus on the development of tourism competitiveness through three key outputs: regulatory review, service standards and skills development. The grant was the first major investment the Philippines received after its first-ever credit upgrade.

Visiting Tagaytay, I now understand the logic beyond this grant that much more. Taal Volcano has raised a level-two alert two times since 2009, indicating magmatic intrusions that could eventually lead to an eruption. My horse heaving in the last steep stretch approaching the boiling crater lake at the center, a wave of consternation comes over me, begging thoughts of whether or not today will be number 34.

 

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

It is recommended to take a horse up the steep stretch towards the mouth of Taal Volcano (Photo: Justin Calderon)

“Balance, balance,” coached the jockey, all the while yelping her own coded commands at my sturdy blonde-haired mare. Somehow, until this day, I would not have pictured my first horseback ride to involve such a feisty Filipina, nor the intrepidation of mounting an active volcano.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Taal volcano
It is recommended to take a horse up the steep stretch towards the mouth of Taal Volcano (Photo: Justin Calderon)

“Balance, balance,” coached the jockey, all the while yelping her own coded commands at my sturdy blonde-haired mare. Somehow, until this day, I would not have pictured my first horseback ride to involve such a feisty Filipina, nor the intrepidation of mounting an active volcano.

Standing from a ridge in Tagaytay City overlooking one of the Philippines’ most picturesque scenes, the disruptive nature of Taal Volcano – actually a complex of several volcanoes surrounded by a lake created during a cataclysmic eruption eons ago – seems unassuming, indecipherable from its lush environs. Yet, get a bit closer, and a much different story begins to unfold.

From atop my horse along the side of the well-trodden path to the mouth of the volcano, I spot steam continuously escaping from the Earth through pockets I imagine were burrowed by the intensity of the bridled force below. Taal is the second most active volcano in the Philippines, with 33 recorded eruptions; it is also designated one of the world’s 16 “Decade Volcanoes,” a distinction noting Taal as being worthy of greater study due to a history of large, violent eruptions that occur next to large human populations. In Taal’s case, that population is Metro Manila, which lies about 50 kilometers to the north.

In the immediate vicinity, skirting the vast lake that encapsulates the bubbling giant, are several fishing villages that appear as sleepy as their volcanic neighbour when viewed from afar. But, like the volcano, there is bustle beneath. The allure of the deceiving beauty on the horizon before them has made many forsake traditional lifestyles to capitalise on the influx of tourists, whom come from across the world to get a peak – and sniff – of the sulfuric crater lake that boils away at the heart of Taal.

After being scooped up in an intensely claustrophobic tricycle, the most nimble of public transport in the Philippines, I find myself being ushered down the mountainside towards the lakeside villages, passing signs that give fair warning of landslides.

The tricycle drops me off at a lakeside restaurant, which is inevitably owned by some of the driver’s old chums – or barkada in Tagalog. The water splashes up against black sand in front of the restaurant, a reminder of the dark history that has washed up on these shores in the past. Even for a small town, it is simple. The buildings are quintessential of the Philippine countryside: gray cinder blocks that have a quickly cobbled together countenance representative of the precarious lives they shelter.

The barkada of my tricycle driver have in many similar ways built their own support structure – one that I’m not unfamiliar with after many years in Asia. The two grilled tilapia on the menu cost 500 pesos, as well as every other item — including a large plate of pancit, or fried noodles – an obvious show that the proprietors lack any inkling how to gauge pricing for their out-of-town visitors. A blanket price for every dish will apparently do.

View from Tagaytay City of Taal Lake and Volcano Island (Photo: Justin Calderon)

After completing the overpriced meal, a new barkada appears, sporting his oversized basketball jersey – a common calling card of comfort and causality across the Philippines. This will be the man who can show me to my accommodation, but not after finishing a story that all other hotels along the lakeside have been occupied or are simply much more costly than my budget would allow.

Truth be told, the prices of hotels in Tagaytay and at Taal Lake are overly incommensurate with the services that accompany them. This fact did not dawn upon me in such clarity until I saw what would be my home for the night. The barkada of the bakarda led me to a building with a room literally jutting out over the lake, affording a truly splendid view of the inactive volcano amid the complex that makes Tagaytay postcards perfect. The building, however, was only half constructed. The top half of the structure was monotone concrete with steel rods protruding into the air like lonely, rusted flagpoles. The room, I was informed, was to cost 4,000 pesos, or about $92. It did come with a pool, albeit one with stagnant water and a slide not year painted, still coarse with settled cement.

The situation required skilled haggling. Hotel prices have become so inflated in Tagaytay that the owner was pressed to negotiate, strumming his misplaced chin hairs until he finally settled upon 3,000 pesos. The entire ordeal took about 30 minutes.

The room itself was simple – a small TV and tight shower space. The silver lining: a complete view of Volcano Island from the lakeside. Every other amenity was upon request and, of course, additional cost.

The Philippines is “like this incredibly beautiful girl who didn’t know how to dress up,” Department of Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Jr once told me. For all its allure, it still runs ragged. That services are poor and costs mismatched are an intertwined issued in the Philippines, one that would make less hardened travelers disgusted at the thought of ever returning.

It is also a challenge that has recently gained some international support. Last April, Canada agreed to extend a $7.1 million grant for technical assistance, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) acting as the administering agency, to focus on the development of tourism competitiveness through three key outputs: regulatory review, service standards and skills development. The grant was the first major investment the Philippines received after its first-ever credit upgrade.

Visiting Tagaytay, I now understand the logic beyond this grant that much more. Taal Volcano has raised a level-two alert two times since 2009, indicating magmatic intrusions that could eventually lead to an eruption. My horse heaving in the last steep stretch approaching the boiling crater lake at the center, a wave of consternation comes over me, begging thoughts of whether or not today will be number 34.

 

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