Mount Pinatubo
Photo: Chris Tomnong

The Philippines’s Clark Region

There's something essentially timeless about the world’s great volcanoes. It's a strange feeling, therefore, to find yourself standing at the edge of a crater lake that is one of the youngest patches of real estate on the planet. 

“The explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 had a defining effect on this region,” mountain guide Kel Gutierrez explains, as his four-by-four jolts through the ash-laden valley below Pinatubo’s summit on the Philippines’s Luzon island. Gutierrez’s comment seems understated—volcanologists described the eruption as the second biggest of the 20thcentury (after one at Novarupta, Alaska).

Gutierrez eases the Jeep to a halt at a spot where a few stumps of reinforced concrete rise above the ashy riverbed—like the monolithic remnants of some lost civilization—and he explains that they’re the roof trusses of a buried U.S. military complex. Fortunately, the service personnel all had time to evacuate. In fact, most inhabitants of the area (including the then-six-year-old Gutierrez and his family) made it to safety along with the 15,000-strong staff of Clark Airbase, which was then the U.S.’s biggest international military base. The death toll was miraculously low, especially since the evacuation was hampered by a typhoon that struck almost simultaneously, turning the raining ash to hot mud. 

In a region that, even today, retains the Catholic beliefs instilled during 333 years of Spanish dominion, there were many who couldn’t help but view the event in a biblical light: “The only thing comparable to what we experienced is the Ten Plagues of Egypt,” university professor Robby Tantingco says. “We got in one serving what others got piecemeal: volcanic eruption, earthquakes, typhoon, flood, rains of ash, rocks and sand, days of darkness...”

The sacred mountain of the Aeta people had spoken, in a voice that echoed around the world. It was as if its roar was the last word in what had been an increasingly hot debate over control of an airbase that had been a major U.S. strategic position for about 90 years. Within months of the eruption, Clark Airport was handed over to the Philippines nation, and the surrounding region, known as the Clark Freeport Zone, is now building a reputation as the country’s prime tourism alternative to Manila (see sidebar), which is also on Luzon island.

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Filipino cuisine, which is rich with Asian and Spanish influences, is one of the area’s attractions.

“Pampanga [where Clark is located] is the culinary capital of the Philippines, and it’s part of the Pampangan code of hospitality that visitors should leave fatter than when they arrived,” says guide Mark Alain Felker as he presides at a groaning table laden with what is known in this area as a “boodle fight.”

“The term ‘boodle fight’ apparently came from military slang,” explains Felker (whose grandfather was an American serviceman), “but it has essentially come to mean an informal feast that is eaten by hand from banana leaves. A good boodle fight should have more than a dozen dishes!”
 

The Pampangan gastronomic panoply could arguably be one of the richest on our planet. Perhaps, as the adage goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but the talented Pampangan chefs can make a truly delicious dish out of a humble mix of pig’s ears and cheeks. The regional specialty is called sisig and it’s served on a sizzling hotplate and sautéed with the tanginess of calamansi (Philippine limes).

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Clark offers plenty to do between meals. This area is becoming world famous as a golf destination,” says Clark-born guide Felker. “There are seven prestigious courses within easy reach of the airport and many more in the surrounding area. Within an hour of leaving the airport, visitors can be on the fairway, or at a waterpark, or amusement park…or even off-roading down a flooded valley on their way to natural hot springs.

Puning Hot Springs is one of Clark’s most celebrated attractions. The Aeta community that live at the end of this narrow canyon were astounded when they returned home after the 1991 eruption to find hot water bubbling from under their banana plantations. Even today, getting to Puning Spa is an adventure: you roar up the jungle-draped canyon in a chauffeur-driven four-by-four to a series of cascading thermal springs. This might be one of the world’s most unusual traditional spa experiences: attentive staff from the local Aeta community simmer their guests in a sort of oversized frying pan filled with hot lava sand or baste them with a body-scrub of a thick layer of warm lava mud.

The excellent Clark Museum is the best place to get a deeper understanding of Aeta culture and traditional lifestyle. There are also exhibits explaining trade and early history, along with a 4D theatre (complete with rattling seats and billowing “smoke”) designed to evoke the horrors of the Pinatubo explosion.

Outside the museum, in the park that’s still known as the Parade Grounds, bronze monuments of American war heroes commemorate the spot where Camp Stotsenburg was built more than two centuries ago. The base was established here simply because these grounds offered ample grazing for the cavalry horses (and, later, an ideal polo ground). 

Less than three kilometers from the Parade Grounds, you’ll find El Kabayo, a complex of shops, restaurants, and entertainment facilities built to resemble a cowboy town in the American Wild West. El Kabayo’s name is derived from the Spanish caballo (“horse”) but everything else here is unashamedly Yankee, from the Blacksmith Shop to the Saloon to the Trading Post to the County Jail to the mock façade of (misspelled) “Stotsenberg Hotel.” 

One of El Kabayo’s most exciting activities combines learning about horses with an opportunity to find out about local crafts and survival skills from resident Aeta people. Perhaps the most imaginative idea—influenced perhaps by the Native Americans’ habit of war-painting their horses—is a horse-painting afternoon, in which extremely patient and docile horses (invariably white) pose as canvases for kids to paint upon.

El Kabayo’s instructor Raquel “Rocky” Barte has become famous as the stunt-rider in the Filipino drama series The Killer Bride. For El Kabayo’s boss, “Sheriff Gabby,” it’s all clearly about a love for the horses…and for living the Dodge City dream: “Real cowboys don’t line dance,” he quips in a Filipino-Texan twang.

Note: Mark Eveleigh was hosted in Clark by Clark Development Corporation.


Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: Clark, also known as Clark Freeport Zone, is the former home of the U.S.’s Clark Airbase. It is on Luzon Island, the largest and most populous of the Philippines’s estimated 1,760-odd islands. Luzon is about the size of the state of Virginia and occupies about a third of the Philippines’s total area. Manila, the country’s capital, is also on Luzon, just 80 kilometers from Clark. 

CLIMATE: January to April is the ideal time to visit Luzon Island. The highlands are relatively cool with the mercury falling as low as 54°F at night and even daytime temperatures rarely being oppressively hot. Rainfall is short and sharp and, unless you’re undertaking long treks, unlikely to cause much inconvenience.

GETTING THERE: Clark International Airport, which accommodates private jets, has a two-mile-long runway, the longest in the country. Philippine Airlines is the only commercial carrier offering nonstop flights to the country from New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities. Cathay Pacific and EVA Air are other Manila options, and Korean Airlines also connects the world to Clark via Seoul. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Almost everybody speaks English, but Tagalog is the national language and Manileños (inhabitants of Manila) will appreciate even the smallest attempt to speak it. In Clark, the Kapampangan tongue is making a comeback as a regional language and people will be delighted if you take the time to learn even a word or two.


Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS: Because of traditional rules regarding flight paths, there are relatively few tall buildings in Clark but the Clark Marriott (B), the city’s first five-star hotel, is a rare exception, offering wonderful views from its 15th floor executive lounge. The Oasis (A+) was established in 1966 for American airbase staff (and personnel on furlough from Vietnam) and retains the charm of past eras in its spacious bungalow-style accommodation and extremely welcoming staff…In Manila, the Marriott (A+) is close to Manila International Airport and on the fringe of Villamor Air Base Golf Course…The Bayleaf (B) is the ideal accommodation option in Manila’s historic Intramuros quarter.

DINING: For an unadulterated Pampangan culinary adventure, there’s no substitute for Matam-Ih (A+). The restaurant’s name means “delicious” in the Aeta language and by the time your feast is over you’ll have realized that even highly bizarre traditional dishes like croco sisig (sisig made from sustainably farmed crocodiles) and pritong adobong camaro (fried mole crickets) are irresistible…If international food is more your style, consider Maranao Grill at the Oasis Hotel (A), which offers delicious fresh oysters and imported Australian steak; or, for the most outstanding Mexican meal you’ve ever had, try Spanglish (B+). In Manila, head for the Baywalk promenade (B) for fresh seafood, but for traditional home-style fare stick around Intramuros and dine at Ristorante delle Mitre (B+), where Catholic nuns still prepare dishes that have long been the favorites of the local bishops. 


Make Time for Manila
Manila—the Philippines’s capital—is well worth a visit. Granted, it is notorious for its choked highways and frantic pace; navigation app Waze recently rated the city No. 1 on a list of places with the world’s worst traffic congestion. But Manila has much to recommend it. 

There’s a tranquil fortified retreat in the historical quarter known as Intramuros (“the walled city”). It’s difficult to ignore the romantic appeal of the kalesa horse-drawn carriages that shuttle visitors between the Spanish-built citadel of Fort Santiago and the 400-year-old San Augustin Church. The lanes of Intramuros are idyllic places to explore by bicycle—perhaps on eco-friendly bamboo cycles or in the quirky little pedicabs powered by what appear to be American-inspired BMXs.

Beyond the old walls, the highways are thronged with honking jeepneys (originally built on the chassis of abandoned U.S. World War II Jeeps). These vehicles are the most colorful icons of this vibrant city, and you can’t say you’ve experienced the throbbing heartbeat of Manila until you’ve ridden in one of them.

Ayala Museum, in the former stock exchange building, is the Philippines’s
major museum, featuring traditional Filipino maritime history along with Chinese trade in textiles and porcelain. It also boasts some of the country’s best 19th and 20th century works of art but for the finest pieces head for the National Museum of Fine Arts in Intramuros.

Also in Intramuros, be sure to visit the Museum of Jose Rizal. Set in
the building where its namesake was incarcerated, it is an poignant insight to the last days of one the country’s greatest novelists and its most celebrated freedom fighter.

When dinnertime arrives, head out to Binondo, said to be the oldest “Chinatown” outside of China itself and home to some of the city’s best restaurants. 


Highland Water Games
Aqua Planet waterpark opened in 2018 and is now one of the Clark area’s most popular tourism attractions. With 38 slides spread across 25 acres, it offers entertainment for kids of all ages. 

For adrenalin junkies, there are two Aqua Loops that launch you via trapdoors into a more than 300-foot free fall, passing through a 360-degree loop. There’s also the Sky Shuttle, which sends four riders at a time “flying” up a near-vertical cascade in an inflatable float. For a more restful experience, you can float lazily around a quarter-mile-long “river” or swim in one of several wave-pools, including Boogie Bay—a 1,800-square-yard pool where you can surf on body boards. 

For many, the highlight of a day at Aqua Planet is the Flow Rider, where you can surf a “standing wave” and enjoy all the excitement of surfing an ocean wave without actually moving. In quiet moments, the attendants will sometimes give spectacular demonstrations of how it should be done, and it’s easy to imagine that these kids (many of whom are Aeta from landlocked homelands on the slopes of Pinatubo) might be the rising stars in a future Filipino surf team.

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