March 29, 2012

Pinatubo Trekking

March 17 2012. If bringing a 5-yr old and a 6-yr old to a two-hour grueling hike up a once-very-destructive volcano to take a swim in its crater (with depth of hundreds of meters) isn't insane enough, then I don't know what is. But hey, I'm not the twisted travelholic for nothing :)

When I received the invitation from my mom to join her and her friends on this trek, I immediately said yes and informed her that I'm bringing the kids. And since logical thinking clearly runs in the family, she said no problem. She'll just hire a porter to carry the kids, in case they get tired. 

What to wear. A knee-length comfortable pants is the best in my opinion. At least you don't need to pull up your pants whenever you have to cross a stream, which is quite a lot. I opted to wear my Crocs prepair which worked really well for me since I don't like the feeling of wet socks and shoes on my feet. A cap, pair of sunnies, and loads of sunblock are also a must.

What to bring. Plenty of water that you can comfortably bring while continuously walking for two hours. Lunch, but you can also buy at base camp (highly recommended since they'll take care of bringing it up at the summit plus you'll be helping local businesses). Snacks, we have kids with us so chocolates, cookies and chips are a must. Light blanket, where you can sit and have a picnic or lie down and relax at the lake.

Most people I know take the package-guided tours which include transfers to-and-from Manila. For our group, someone arranged directly with a 4x4 operator so we have to pay separately for the 4x4 vehicle, the guide, environmental fee and lunch. But I still think it comes out really cheaper compared to paying per head (we're 14 people in the group). 

The kids were actually excited when I told them we're climbing a volcano and we're going to swim in its crater. So I had no problem when I woke them up at 3am so we can leave for Tarlac before the break of dawn. They just slept the whole ride and took they're breakfast (bought in Jollibee on our way) when we got to the base camp.

Carbo loading before the climb.

The ride. It was the bumpiest, dustiest and roughest ride I have ever experienced. It was an hour of lahar valleys, streams and clouds of dust. It was actually a good kind of experience, just prepare yourself for the beating your body's going to take.

The awesome ride.

The Toblerone Hills.

The trek. From the jump-off point, our guide said it's approximately 7 kms to the crater. The trek starts by crossing a stream and a narrow cliff. After which, it was a mixture of long endless lahar mountains, dusts, rocks and streams. Just make sure to stay close to your group so you won't get lost or take a dangerous trail.

Our guide/porter to carry, not our bags, but our kids.

Cookie Break.

After walking for approximately 1.5 hours, and shedding 10lbs (I wish!) we see this....

What?!? The trek is just starting?!?

This is what the guide was telling us earlier. Not so long ago, there's a path called the "skyway" where the 4x4 can travel an extra 15mins and cut the walking from 2 hours to 20 minutes! So the trek should officially start at this point. Unfortunately, this road has been damaged by heavy rains and seems to be irreparable. This part of the trek is mostly uphill and you're basically just following the stream up the summit. 

The sign says that middle-aged people should be able to do it in 18 minutes. Needless to say, it was a huge BS! Even the more experienced mountain climbers in our group finished slower that the "seniors" bracket. I would have to RUN it at race pace to finish under 15 minutes. Just to set your expectations, it is still a pretty long hike but very scenic nonetheless.

Finally, we were greeted with:

A welcome message from the DENR, LGU and PDC (Pinatubo Devt. Corp).

Now that's a view worth trekking for.

We had our lunch and was so excited to go down to the crater lake and take a dip. It was another 150 or so steps on a rocky, uneven stairs and there were a number of warnings on our way down.

Did we listen? Of course not! Haha. But seriously, extreme caution has to be exercised if you do decide to swim in the lake. Please remember that this is AN ACTIVE volcano and has already wrecked havoc a few years back and underneath is a deep abyss of deadly magma. So please, please be careful.

Moving on, the water is a deep shade of green and is so serene. I suddenly feel the urge to just sit still and admire its beauty. The sight in front of us is so breathtaking, it was actually a little hard to grasp that we are in a volcano's crater. Apparently, volcanic lakes are extremely rare because their presence requires a special balance of precipitation versus evaporation and other factors.

Enjoying the very cold and refreshing water.

The lake is packed with bikini-clad tourists swimming and sun bathing in the shore. There's even a boat which can take you to the other side of the lake where the water is supposedly warmer. The fee is PHP350 per head but we didn't really see the need for it since we were so content in staying still and admiring the view in front of us. The atmosphere is just so tranquil you'll absolutely love how it envelopes you with serenity.

By around 2pm, it's time to head back to base camp. My daughter slept the entire trek while being carried. My son, on the other hand, was still in high spirits from his swim that he walked the whole 2 hours without being carried. He was so proud of his accomplishment that he proclaimed himself a "SUPER HIKER". 

We ended our trip by feasting on old-fashioned halo-halo at base camp. Nothing beats this Filipino favorite to refresh and reward yourself.

Some things to consider:
  • There is no Globe and Sun signal in the area, including at the base camp (I'm not so sure about Smart though). So if you need to be on-call 24/7 you might want to consider this before booking your trip.
  • If you're planning to swim, wear your swimsuits under your clothes because there's no changing room at the crater lake. Bring floaters/life jackets for your kids and watch them very, very carefully.  
  • Please check if your package includes lunch for your guide. We were already at the crater when we found out that they don't have. Good thing we packed extra food to share with them.

How to get there from Manila: The base camp is located in Sta. Juliana, Capas, Tarlac. Take NLEX and exit at Sta. Ines. Go straight and turn right at the fork. Go straight then make a left at the welcome arc of Brgy. Sto. Rosario. Just follow the road and make a right at the end. You'll pass a checkpoint and shortly after is the base camp. Approximately 2-3 hours land travel.

March 22, 2012

Schengen Visa Application

Travelling to Europe is probably in most people's bucket list and the good news is that when you travel to one or more of the 25 member states of the Schengen Agreement, you only need one visa. Come to think of it, the more countries you visit, the cheaper the visa fee per country will equate to. Now, that's something worth considering right? :)

The following countries are members of the Schengen Agreement: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The rule is, you apply at the embassy of whichever country you're staying the longest. Or in case of equal stays, apply at the embassy of your first port of entry.

For our trip this summer, me and my two kids will need to apply at the French Embassy Manila. Fortunately, the requirements are pretty much the same as the UK embassy (including the photo specifications) and the only thing we need to add is a travel insurance.

The procedure is pretty much the same as well -- you schedule an appointment to submit your application, payment and biometric data then come back to get your visa (there's no option of having your passport couriered to you).

Schedule an appointment. In our case, we just need to send an email to It was a very efficient process as it only takes them a day or two, at most, to respond. But effective April 10, 2012, appointments for visa applications will need to be scheduled by calling a premium hotline. This is actually sad as I find the current process simple, efficient and best of all free. I wish they just implemented an online booking system where you pay a fixed rate using your credit card. I'm not really a fan of calling premium numbers as I feel that the CSRs are deliberately trying to prolong the conversation to jack up the fees.

Prepare your documents. A complete list of requirements can be downloaded here. You will need to print a blank application form and fill it out manually. 
  • Cover letter - addressed to THE HONORABLE CONSUL, EMBASSY OF FRANCE. Explain the purpose of your trip and include a summary of your itinerary.
  • Trip details - Hotel vouchers, airline reservation, detailed itinerary
  • Proof of employment or business - Certificate of employment (original copy) or business registration for the current and previous years (photocopy).
  • Proof of income - ITR, photocopy of last 3 months bank statement/passbook
  • Proof of Identity - NSO birth certificate and NSO marriage certificate, when applicable.
  • Travel insurance - should cover the whole duration of the trip and valid for all Schengen states. You can download a list of accredited insurance companies here.
Make sure to submit photocopies of important documents (such as business registration) as the French embassy will not return them to you. Just bring the original copies in case they look for it. 

Payment. You will need to pay in cash, in Philippine peso on the day of your appointment. Current visa fee is EUR60 (PHP3430) for adults, EUR35 (PHP2000) for kids 6-11 years old and FREE for kids 5 and below. Rates may vary depending on the conversion rate for the day. Bring lots of change (20s and 50s) as the embassy only accepts exact payment and no coins.

The French Embassy is located at the Pacific Star Building in Makati. Our appointment is at 8:30am and when we arrived, there are already applicants who are already done (they start processing applications at 8am). They have a package counter where you can leave your cellphone.

When your number is called, you will need to submit only the following: passport, itinerary, hotel reservation, airline reservation and exact payment. After which, you will need to wait for your turn to be interviewed.

During the interview, you will need to submit your documents in the exact order written in the guideline. They are very, very, very particular about this so please make sure you arrange your documents properly. It was a quick interview, after which they took our photo and my biometric data. I was given a receipt indicating the date and time we should come back to know the results. The date was 7 working days after our interview. Since we did not apply through a travel agent, they returned our passports. I was also informed that there's no need for the kids to be present during the pick-up date.

There are a number of applicants at the Embassy that time but the process is pretty quick. We finished with a lot of time to spare so I can bring the kids to school.

On our scheduled pick-up date, I went alone with all our passports and receipts. Our pick-up time is at 11:00am and when I got to the embassy there are a lot of people inside. Some of them applicants waiting for their turns to be interviewed and most of them returning applicants like me waiting for the results. You will need to give your passport to the person in window 1 and wait. They'll finish all applicants for interview first before they start distributing passports. It was a short wait until my turn and I was handed our passports with our Schengen visas! Upon receiving our passports, I thanked the Consul, left and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Finally, after two mentally agonizing, not to mention bank breaking visa applications, we can officially get psyched for our trip to Europe!

Just a few notes you might find helpful:
  • Appointments can sometimes take as far as 2 months from the time of booking so plan your travels. Remember though, that you can only send a request 3 months at the earliest prior to your departure date.
  • Make sure you follow the rule on which embassy to apply. It has to be at the embassy of the country you are staying the longest or in case of equal, stays, the first port of entry.
  •  Visa validity. You can only stay at the Schengen area up to the validity of your visa. So even if you are usually allowed to stay for 30 days but you arrived 5 days prior to your visa expiration, you will have to leave before your visa expires.
  • The photo they'll use in your visa is the one they'll be taking at the embassy, not the one you'll submit. So try to look pretty and fresh while waiting for your turn. I hadn't realized how sunburned we are from a recent trip until I saw our pictures.  

At first, I wasn't really sure if it was my daughter on the picture or her shadow! Haha!

French Embassy Manila
Office Hours: 8:00am to 12:00nn
16/F Pacific Star Bldg. 
Buendia cor. Makati Ave.,
Makati City

March 04, 2012

Bechay's First Giveaway Contest

Bechay just reached 100 followers and to celebrate this milestone, she's giving away some cool prizes. Mechanics are simple and everybody's invited to join. Read more about it here -- Straight from Bechay.