Secrets of one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful volcanoes

By Jonathan Best
Philippine Daily Inquirer

DateFirst Posted 22:05:00 01/30/2011

There has been death and destruction behind that tranquil view, such as the catastrophic 1911 eruption that killed thousands
THIS JANUARY 30th marks the 100th anniversary of the most recent catastrophic eruption of Taal Volcano, the first to be scientifically documented and photographed. Charles Martin, the official photographer for the Philippine Bureau of Science, almost lost his life by climbing to the crater?s rim and photographing the first signs of this major eruption. His black and white photographs were published by National Geographic in April 1912, bringing worldwide attention to Taal Volcano and the Philippines? restive terrain.

Today, heading south from Manila along Coastal Road and Aguinaldo Highway or on the speedier South Luzon Expressway, one leaves the urban sprawl of Metro Manila after about half an hour. By the time you reach Silang or Santa Rosa, the terrain rises steadily towards the south, broken only by deep gorges lined with lacy bamboo amid groves of coconut palms, spreading mango trees and pineapple fields. The air is cooler and the soil is rich; vendors sell fresh fruit and coconuts honey, and native vinegar along the road.

Over the last 20 years, golf courses and luxury gated villages have sprouted throughout this region, making overnight millionaires of local farming families and greatly increasing traffic on the narrow winding country roads.

Sixty kilometers south of Manila, Aguinaldo Highway ends abruptly at the Tagaytay Ridge rotunda, where tourists get their first view of Taal Volcano?s spectacular ancient caldera, one of the most beautiful views in Southeast Asia. Spread out far below is a vast circular valley more than 25 km across, filled with a shimmering freshwater lake and punctuated by two active volcanic cones.

Taal Volcano is the reason for the elevation, the cool air, the rich soil and the beautiful view. The Tagaytay Ridge is the northern rim of one of the largest tectonic depressions in the world. It was formed in relatively recent geological time, some 200,000 years ago. Its prehistoric eruptions buried much of central Luzon with volcanic ejecta (ash, cinders, molten rocks, airborne mud and flowing lahar) and must have dramatically effected global weather from time to time. The large deposits of tuff or composite volcanic rock seen along the Pasig river in the Guadalupe district of Manila are remnants of these cataclysmic events. Even as recently as 2,000 years ago, evidence from archeological excavations in Batangas suggests large parts of central Luzon were rendered uninhabitable by massive eruptions.

Today, all looks tranquil and bucolic from Tagaytay Ridge. Farmers and fisherfolk have settled on Volcano Island in the center of the lake, despite official warnings. Housing developments and resorts have crept down the old caldera walls from the ridge, moving ever closer to the shores of the lake. The Ridge itself, stretching from the Tagaytay Highlands to the town of Tagaytay, has dozens of new restaurants, guest houses, hotels, even a casino and a shopping mall. Few people seem concerned with Taal?s destructive past, preferring instead to enjoy the view, the salubrious air, the cool breezes and the rich volcanic soil.

Since the 16th century, when Spanish friars first settled in Batangas, more than 33 eruptions have been recorded, some minor ones only affecting Volcano Island, and several major ones which laid waste to the towns around Lake Bombon, now renamed Taal Lake. In the early 17th century, friars celebrated Mass on the volcano?s slopes and even erected a huge cross on the volcano?s rim in the hope of quieting its noisy subterranean demons, all to no avail. Taal remains an especially noisy volcano, possibly because of its proximity to water which gives rise to hissings and rumblings and underground steam explosions. The lake was once connected to Balayan Bay to the south, but the outlet was blocked by volcanic debris two centuries ago.

The eruptions of 1749 and 1754 were especially destructive. The main crater exploded, sending up masses of mud and ash, inundating the towns to the south and east, which were hit by repeated tsunamis generated by the explosions and earthquakes. The tremors were so continuous and violent that earth fissures opened up in the roads as far north as Calamba on Laguna de Bay and as far south as Lemery on Balayan Bay.

It was after the catastrophic eruptions of 1754, which lasted on-and-off for over six months, that the devastated towns of Tanauan, Sala, Lipa and Taal were moved inland, away from the lake shore. Even the most sturdy buildings of stone and tile succumbed to the constant shaking and the weight of almost a meter of wet ash and mud.

Starting on the night of Jan. 27, 1911, Manila and the surrounding provinces were shaken by hundreds of minor earth tremors, some measuring magnitude 4 and above, severe enough to alarm the residents. The next day, reports reached the city that Taal was active, and steam was rising from its central crater. The tremors increased until 1 a.m. of Jan. 30, when a loud explosion woke people from their beds and a rain of mud and ash began to fall on the towns along the northern edge of the Taal Lake.

An hour and 15 minutes later, two more huge explosions were heard, one immediately after the other. Dean Worcester, a zoologist and Secretary of Interior for the insular government, reported in National Geographic the following year that ?In Manila, the shock from the explosions was so great that people leapt from their beds in terror.? The blasts were heard from the Mountain Province to the Visayas, and the night sky over Taal came alive with a spectacular display of lightning and incandescent rocks thrown high into the moon-lit sky by the volcano.

A huge column of ash and steam rose from the crater on Volcano Island; black mud laced with sulfuric acid rained down, and a pyroclastic cloud of ash, toxic gas and superheated steam enveloped the Island and shot across the lake to the west, accompanied by huge waves and continuous earthquakes. No one survived on the island, and many of the towns on the western shore of the lake were completely destroyed with few, if any, survivors. The toxic black rain killed all the crops and livestock in a wide area, and ash reportedly fell on over 1,200 square miles. The official death toll reached 1,335, but may well have been much higher, as many isolated rural folk were buried by ash and mud or swept into the lake by the waves.

The accounts of the eruption of January 30, 1911 paint a grim picture of what might be in store for the present inhabitants of the greater Taal caldera. Certainly there will be future eruptions?exactly when, nobody can say. However, Philvolcs, the national volcano monitoring service, is doing a good job of looking out for any signs of trouble. They record every earth tremor, watch for swelling of the active cones, and check the temperature and level of the lake and issue alerts whenever necessary. Taal is the second most active volcano in the Philippines after Mt. Mayon, and must be watched carefully.

The good news is that volcanoes almost always give plenty of warning before major eruptions. It is up to the local residents and municipal, provincial and national authorities to be alert and have well-planned evacuation routes and emergency equipment in place. Sadly, local residents don?t always listen to official warnings, and hang around watching their property until it is too late. Taal?s Volcano Island is one of the country?s most beautiful tourist attractions, and is best left in its natural state. For both safety?s sake and natural beauty, it should definitely be off limits to farming and permanent residences or any commercial development.

Photos from National Geographic Collection of Rafael Ortigas, Jr. and from Jonathan Best, senior consultant, Ortigas Foundation Library

Treasures of Taal

Treasures of Taal

RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit


Regal Films new baby, Taal Imperial Hotel and Resort, is a 4,000-sq-m propert that houses three villas and three swimming pools.     (Photo courtesy of Rene Mejia and YES! magazine)

There is a breathtaking town, close to the city, where cultural heritage is given prime importance, where the glorious past is preserved for posterity, and the lore of yesteryear captivates us like no other. It is called Taal, a town in Batangas, where culture and patrimony are alive, giving soul to our country.

My recent travel to Taal reminded me of what Briccio Santos, chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, once said: “Culture is a binding thing. It is the core of our existence, our very identity.” I carefully implemented his view when I embarked on a trip to Taal. I discovered that the town embraces our culture as it heralds a rediscovery of the glorious past as a tool to appreciate the present and future.

History resides in the house of Dona Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio. Its art nouveau interior is replete with elaborate hand-painted canvas walls.

In Taal, Batangas, precious old homes are carefully being turned into tourist attractions, quaint bed and breakfast lodgings and cozy coffee shops. There is an attachment to the storied past and a consciousness in creating venues where everyone can appreciate such treasures of antiquity. The colonial ambiance of old homes and antiquated charm coupled with the haunting beauty of nature’s finest — like the ghostly outline of Mt. Makulot, the dramatic vision of Taal Volcano, the eerie appeal of Taal Lake as well as the festive spell of the town proper — has made it a favorite location for numerous TV commercials, anthologies as well as film productions.

Taal Mayor Michael Montenegro and Vice Mayor Fulgencio “Pong” Mercado expressed their desire to position the town of Taal as the “Filming Capital of the Philippines.” Their desire is laudable considering that film tourism is a growing phenomenon worldwide.

In Taal, we traveled back in time as we explored monuments, museums, and history books that informed us of what transpired before our time. Taal has metamorphosed into a magnetic haven where the culturati and literati gravitate in their pursuit of their passion for what matters most.

Visiting Taal, I was in the company of gorgeous members of the Women in Travel (WIT), an association of top female decision makers in the travel and tourism industry, led by the gracious Minki Bautista. WIT’s vision mission is to “be a potent and progressive force of women leaders who give back to the travel and tourism industry.” Its members come from the airlines, travel agencies, tour operators, hotels and resort operators, tourism consultancy, exhibit organizers, car rentals, restaurants, media and other tourist-related industries.

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We attended the town fiesta where a high Mass was celebrated in the St. Martin Basilica, the largest basilica in Asia. With centuries-old architecture, culture, and products, Taal is among the few remaining heritage towns in the country. The impressive film Rosario, rated A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, was partly shot here at the Taal Municipal building. Several productions filmed in the town include Villa Kristine, Captain Barbel, Summer Love, Bata Pa Si Sabel, Ligaw na Bala, Bragansya, Garapal, Stupid Cupid and more.

The 20th-century ancestral house of Don Gregorio Agoncillo is among the interesting heritage houses in Taal.

I learned that Vice Mayor Mercado worked for the matriarch of Philippine cinema Mother Lily Monteverde as line producer for 29 years. In fact, Mother Lily, during the filming of Oh My Girl starring Judy Ann Santos and Ogie Alcasid, was so enamored by the vast plantation of coconut that she acquired almost 9,000 square meters of property where she utilized 4,000 square meters for her Taal Imperial Hotel and Resort. In this resort, three charming villas were created surrounded by three large swimming pools, and an activity center for kids. These three well-appointed villas are equipped with all the modern amenities one could ask for: a full kitchen where you can whip up delightful dishes for your family and friends as well as dining room perfect for family outings, conferences and group get-togethers. Mother Lily, the hardworking and kind-hearted woman that she is, always acknowledges the good Lord for her many blessings. Mayor Montenegro and Vice Mayor Mercado bestowed upon her recently the title “Adopted Mother of the Heritage Town of Taal” because of her overwhelming support, deep love and affection for the historic town. She certainly embodies the fine qualities of a true Taalena.

One of the main tourism events in the planning stage is the revival of the town summer festival to showcase local products and industries. “El Pasubat” is the acronym for panutsa, suman, balisong or barong Tagalog, and tapa, tulingan, or tawilis.

Taal’s name has been translated as “native,” “real” or “true” to Bornean settlers. Some old folks believe that the name originated from the wild palm trees on the shores of the lake and along the banks of the Pansipit River known as Tal-an, while others believe it was derived from ta-ad, an old Batangueno term for sugar cane points.

We visited the two homes of Dona Gliceria Marella Villaviciencio. Her great grandson Ernie Villaviviciencio graciously toured us around his ancestral mansions. You will be amazed by their houses as both are a study in contrast — one with turn-of-the-century appeal, while the latter, known as the Gift House in Art Nouveau style, is painted in eclectic colors. Ernie now operates a quaint bed and breakfast near his family’s historic edifices. We also had the privilege to meet Magallanes Village councilor Tony Boy Alcasid, the brother of Ogie who manages the gift shop in their ancestral home Casa Dona Conchita in Taal.

Experience the drama, charm and delectable cuisine of Casa Cecilia Heritage Hotel in Taal, Batangas.

A visit to the Agoncillo museum will teach one a lot about the first Filipino flag lovingly sewn by Marcella Agoncillo, wife of first Filipino diplomat Felix Agoncillo.

History has it that after the signing of the Pact of Biak na Bato on Dec. 4,1897, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo visited the Agoncillo family who resided in Hong Kong. Aguinaldo requested that Agoncillo hand-sewed a flag according to the design that would embody the national aspiration of all Filipinos. Agoncillo requested her eldest daughter, five-year-old Lorenza and Mrs. Delfina Herbosa de Natividad, Jose Rizal’s niece, to help her. The three worked manually with the aid of a sewing machine. Lovingly created from fine silk purchased from the former Crown Colony, the flag embroidered in gold had stripes of blue and red with a white triangle showing off the sun and three stars on it. Finished in five days, the flag became know as “the sun and the stars flag.” This was the flag that was hoisted from the window of Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit Cavite during the proclamation of Philippine Independence on June 12,1898 accompanied by the Philippine National Anthem “Marcha Filipina.” The thimble used by Agoncillo in sewing the first Philippine flag is on display at the Malacañang Palace Museum. The Agoncillo house is now managed by the National Historical Institute, which also takes care of the home of lawyer and rebel commander Leon Apacible. Like many houses in Taal of art deco design, he Apacible house was one of the meeting places of the revolutionaries in the 19th century. One very interesting photo taken in 1882 shows Leon with his classmate Jose Rizal as art students.

Taal Travel and Tours president Mimi Noble arranged our tour with prominent businessman Michael Villano who has a penchant for transporting old homes from the city to his expansive MGM ranch. He restored the old homes form different periods with architectural prowess. He has a charming turn-of-the-century carriage displayed in his ranch that Toning Pastor from Batangas wanted to acquire. Horses, deer, boars abound in his property where some scenes from the popular TV series Villa Kristine were filmed.

Michael hosted our sumptuous lunch in his family-owned Casa Cecilia, a very quaint seven-room boutique hotel where delightful dishes like fresh-from-the-lake maliputo, succulent tapang Taal, and other delicacies are served. He gifted us with mini balisongs from the town nearby and even gave us take-home goodies of freshly made suman and kapeng barako. Truly his infectious hospitality is well appreciated.

TMGM Ranch and Resort owner Michael Villano on an antique carriage before his colonial restored house.

Cinematic Taal is Batangas province’s most romantic, nostalgic and historic town, with the power to spellbind you by its charm and grace. Here, you will relive your culture, your identity and be embraced by a strong sense of belonging. Like a museum without walls, a natural archive of historic treasures, Taal is waiting to be rediscovered.