Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Olongapo & Subic Bay: Primal Forces in the Philippines

Sunken wrecks, deep jungle, devastating volcanoes and a deserted military base. This isn't a Hollywood movie, it's Olongapo, a once-restricted area that's now revealing vast potential as a convenient, accessible all-round adventure travel destination.

AA staff
First published in Oct/Nov 1994 issue of Action Asia magazine

The Olongapo area opened to the outside world with the second-largest explosion recorded in the twentieth century. On June 15, 1991, Mount Pinatubo - just 30km from Olongapo city, erupted with a massive blast that ripped 300m off the top of the mountain, dug a vast crater into its summit and sent thousands of tonnes of rock, sand and ash hurtling into the sky. The brilliant noonday sunshine was snuffed out, and the area was pitched into a blackness far darker than any night. For another 36 hours the earth continued to rumble, and minor explosions flashed and flickered ominously in the darkness. Then the sand and ash began to fall, covering towns, villages and some of the richest farmlands in the Philippines with a deep, destructive layer of sediment. Buildings collapsed under the weight of this fallout, streams were choked until they stopped flowing and crops were totally destroyed. Some 800 people died, tens of thousands were made homeless and countless thousands more were financially ruined.

It was a total disaster - but there was more to come. Later, when heavy rain fell on the area, loose ash and sediment from the slopes of the volcano flowed down into the valleys. This muddy material, called lahar, engulfed whole villages, buried farmlands and generally continued the process of destruction.

One of the casualties was the US huge military base on Subic Bay adjacent to the town of Olongapo. For more than 90 years, it had been America's main naval base in Asia. But since Philippine independence in 1946, the land it stood on had been leased from the Philippines government. The lease was due to expire at the end of 1991, and the issue of whether to renew it or not turned into a major political debate. In the end, the government decided not to renew the lease, and in the wake of the Pinatubo disaster the US Navy packed up and moved out, leaving the Olongapo area in a state of chaos and ruin.

Rising From the Ashes

But all was not lost. Richard Gordon, the energetic and charismatic mayor of Olongapo city, saw opportunity in the midst of this upheaval. One thing the US military could not take with them were the port facilities, and he correctly reasoned that if the right incentives were given, the harbour itself could become the basis of a revival in the area. He successfully campaigned to have Subic turned into a free port, administered separately by an organization called the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA). Gordon's initiative is slowly proving successful, and industries are springing up all around the area.

Although the free-port status was aimed mainly at businesses, one of the fringe benefits for SBMA has been the opening of duty-free retail outlets. Local Filipinos are allowed to buy just US$200 worth of duty-free items per year, but that - combined with a general interest in the base area itself - has been enough to fuel a mini-tourist boom. Once again, Gordon's administration saw a golden opportunity, and they were soon seeking ways of turning Olongapo and the Subic Bay area into a bona fide tourist attraction. They didn't have to look far.

Action Stations

Contained within the military base area - now generally referred to as SBMA, the same as the administrative body - is 10,000ha of virgin triple-canopy rainforest, one of the largest tracts of pure jungle left on the whole of Luzon. Even better, within the jungle is a training centre staffed by local Aeta - a Negrito tribe who live in the area - who once taught survival techniques to American servicemen. It is an ideal playground for adventure travellers and "ecotourists." The bay itself also obviously has great potential. The military presence limited the growth of polluting industries, illegal fishing practices and farming, so the water here is very clean - ideal enough for a wide range of watersports. Scuba diving experts - led by Brian Homan, one of the most respected dive operators in the Philippines - started assessing the potential of the area for recreational diving. But fallout from Pinatubo had done a great deal of temporary damage to local reef systems and coral, so there was some initial apprehension. But then it was found that the bottom of the bay is littered with dozens of wrecks, many of them offering excellent and interesting dives. It had the potential to be a recreational diving bonanza with international appeal.

Jungle hiking and diving weren't the only sports to receive attention: boardsailors from Manila came to explore the potential of the bay for summer sailing, then a seasports centre opened complete with sea canoes, jet skis and other water craft. Some of the more imaginative developers realized that Pinatubo itself, a rare example of a powerful natural force in action, could also ultimately be a draw for environmentally interested tourists. Soon the great potential of Subic Bay and the Olongapo area was becoming obvious. What it lacked in overall quality, it made up for with variety and by being just a 3-hour drive from Manila.

The Great Bay

To get to Olongapo from Manila, you drive up through the broad, flat farmlands of Pampanga then turn west towards the spiny ridges and humps of the Zambales Mountains. As soon as you're off the highway, the fallout from Pinatubo is obvious although the mountain itself is largely obscured by surrounding peaks. You only ever catch occasional glimpses of its jagged, barren summit, and see the occasional plume of steam rising from the lahar fields on its slopes.

You drive up through the Zambales Mountains, then wind down across ridges and through valleys into Olongapo. The bay itself appears in quick flashes, a segment at a time. The first thing that strikes you is the vastness of it: a huge, enclosed expanse of water that's like a great inland lake. There are smaller bays and inlets around its shoreline, little barrios (villages) and occasional towns. The water is a rich, cobalt blue, a good indication of the deep bottom that makes it an ideal anchorage for heavy shipping. Strips of beach on the shoreline stand out bright white in the sunshine (though closer inspection reveals that volcanic ash is largely responsible for the white appearance; the sand is naturally a yellowish-brown).

The bay first came to the attention of the Spanish in 1572, when the adventurer Juan de Salcedo noted the quality of the anchorage; but it wasn't till the late nineteenth century that the Spanish settled here. Their base was still under construction in 1899 when it was seized by the US in the Spanish-American War. The Americans were quick to appreciate the value of Subic's deep-water anchorage; the strategic benefits of the narrow inlet and the security of being a reasonable distance from Manila. They turned the bay into their main naval station in the Far East. During World War II it fell into Japanese hands. The Americans did their best to destroy the facilities prior to their departure in 1941; and the Japanese completed the job when it was their turn to leave in 1944. After the war, the base was rebuilt on rigid grid lines, and using the austere architectural style that's there today.

Today, Olongapo city is a shadow of its former incarnation. The whole community once buzzed and hummed with the business and entertainment generated by the fleets. Now, as you drive down the main street, there is still plenty of local atmosphere, but most of the bars and discos are boarded up.

Olongapo city is about halfway down the eastern side of Subic Bay, and the old base - the SBMA area - abuts it to the south. To get onto SBMA you simply drive down the main street of Olongapo until you come to a border gate where you have to show your ID (don't forget to bring you passport) and obtain an entry permit before proceeding inside. SBMA looks like what it is: a deserted military base built in the 1940s. Just because Olongapo has an impressive array of action sports sites, don't think that this somehow has magically changed the outward appearance of the urban structures. SBMA is neat, clean, orderly - and sterile. If you come with visions of a Boracay or a Puerto Galera, you're going to be extremely disappointed.

To get around in SBMA - especially if you have equipment - you need a car. Even so, you're going to be stopped on a regular basis by zealous guards just doing their duty (be patient with them - looting remains a real threat). The best beaches and bays, the jungle training centre and the now-famous rainforest area all lie just to the south of the gate, further along the bay.

You can stay on SBMA, and if you're doing a lot of diving or boardsailing there, it's not a bad idea; or you can drive northwest, following the coast of Subic Bay, to a village called Barrio Baretto. This was a popular recreational retreat for the servicemen on the base, and the bars, restaurants and other establishments that catered to their needs are still there - albeit in various stages of dilapidation and disrepair. Baretto is on a long beach, backed by steep hills, and generally has a pleasant rural Philippines atmosphere to it, which gives it a far more appealing ambience than the sterile formality of SBMA.

There really is no point in coming to Olongapo to laze beneath palms trees on a white beach lapped by crystal seas. You come here for outdoors activities and the opportunity to get in close contact with some spectacular natural environments. And when you get into these aspects of the area, it comes alive. The aura of gloom created by the deserted buildings and empty base disappears completely, and you realize this has the potential to be a great adventure travel destination.

Perhaps the best place to start is right on the bottom - beneath the clear blue waters of the great bay.



To consider scuba diving here is to consider wreck diving, and in this Subic is outstanding. To date, 19 wrecks have been located and identified, but Brian Homan believes there are many more, perhaps as many as 80. That would make it one of the best wreck diving areas in the world. Most of the wrecks are in very still water no more than 30mins by banca from Subic Bay Aqua Sports (currently the only dive operation in the area). The team at Subic Bay Aqua Sports have patiently removed any potential hazards from five of the wrecks, and now escort visiting divers down inside them. The choice is exceptional. Most of the wrecks are from World War II or the 1940s - one notable exception is the San Quentin, a Spanish gunboat scuttled in 1898 - and still in good condition, so there's plenty to see.

The Wrecks

USS New York: This is the star attraction in Subic's underwater world, and an excellent wreck dive by any standards. The New York was a battle cruiser launched in the USA in 1891. She had a long and illustrious career - including time as a fleet flagship in the North Atlantic - and was once the pride of the US fleet in Asia. But by the time World War II broke out she was virtually retired. As the Japanese invasion swept through the Philippines, the US Marines, unable to sail her out to sea, scuttled her as they departed Subic in early 1942.

The New York now lies on her port side in 27m of water between Alava Pier and the northern end of Cubi Point runway. A small green buoy marks the spot. The 120m-long hull presents excellent opportunities for swim-throughs. A standard dive starts at the stern with a slow swim around the propellers and up to the aft gun emplacements. You enter the wreck amidships for a quick check around the vast mess room, exit again, then re-enter the bow section for another brief spell inside. There's an abundance of marine life in and around the wreck, and this, combined with the clearly defined structure of the vessel, makes it an unforgettable dive.

El Capitan: This is another excellent wreck dive. The El Capitan, a 3000-tonne freighter about 130m long, went down in the mouth of Ilanin Bay, a small, pretty inlet on the east coast of Subic Bay. In the dry season the visibility here is very good, and as the top of the wreck is just 5m below the surface it's an easy dive. The wreck is not in great shape: the superstructure has disappeared, and some 2cm of ash and sand from Pinatubo cover the hull; but this is more than compensated for by an incredible abundance of marine life and an easy swim-through amid shafts of light that beam down through gaping holes in the side. Even snorkellers can enjoy this site.

San Quentin: This is the oldest known wreck in Subic, a wooden gunboat scuttled by the Spanish in 1898 in a futile attempt to block the channel between Grande and Chiquita islands against the invading Americans. It's a popular dive, though there's little left of the hull, and more of historical interest than visual impact. As it's closer to the open sea, visibility is usually better than on the wrecks of the inner harbour, and the resident fish tend to be bigger.

LST: At the mouth of the bay, in 24-30m of water, is a large, complete LST (Landing Service Transport). The Subic Bay Aqua Sports divers worked on it for nearly six months, clearing obstructions before they first took tourists there. It's an interesting dive with significant marine life.

Japanese Patrol Boat: Deep inside the bay, sitting upright in 25-30m of water, is a 100-tonne Japanese patrol boat. This is an easy, pleasant dive. You can't enter the hull, but - perhaps by way of compensation - a cable has been run from the bow of the boat to a nearby reef: after examining the wreck you follow the cable to the reef and glide around with a dazzling array of fish.

Other Sites

Triboa Bay This site is deep within the confines of the bay. While the US military occupied the base, it was totally inaccessible to fishermen. As a result the fish population flourished, and it's now one of the better areas in Subic for observing shallow-water marine life.



Two major winds affect the Philippines. The northeast monsoon, locally known as the amihan, blows from November to March, a strong, constant wind that brings mild weather, clear blue skies and sunshine. The southwest monsoon - called the habagat - blows from April to September, bringing rain and inconsistent winds that generally lack strength.

Traditionally, once the amihan finished, boardsailors packed up their gear and looked for other activities until this wind returned. But in Subic Bay they may at last have found a venue which, though it may not offer the clean, constant winds and idyllic conditions of the amihan, still offers consistently good sailing in the "off" season.

The bay faces directly into the habagat, so if it's blowing anywhere on the coast of Luzon, it blows here. Also, this usually fickle wind is remarkably consistent here. It picks up at about 10am, blows well through the middle of the day, and starts to back off at about 3pm. It's also much stronger than normal, which leads Caliraya Windsurfing Fleet Commodore Art Palacios to believe that the surrounding mountains create a thermal effect through the day that intensifies the wind. (The ultimate wind accelerator in the habagat season is a typhoon: when one of these monsters passes across northern Luzon, the wind at Subic can exceed 30 knots). But best of all, the habagat here seems to blow constantly. As Art says, to date in 1994 he has visited Subic on 12 weekends, and on 10 of those occasions got good wind.

Strangely enough, the mountain ring around Subic seems to block most of the force of the amihan, denying sailors in this area the pleasures of this powerful wind. Manila-based sailors will be heading back to Lake Caliraya once the habagat season is over.

Beaches & Reaches

Subic is an excellent sailing venue. The huge dimensions of the bay mean that there are many sailing sites; the water is clean; the backdrop of mountains provides a spectacular setting; beaches and resorts all around the shoreline create an ideal set-up for coastal cruising; and the narrow entrance to the bay guarantees maximum safety when you're sailing offshore. You have many excellent choices for a launch site, which can divide them into two general areas: inside SBMA and outside. Inside, the natural focus is Subic Bay Aqua Sports, a site generally referred to as The Waterfront. The beach is not much to look at, but there's a broad grassy area right behind it that's ideal for rigging up or camping. The habagat blows side-onshore here, but you have to sail a long way upwind to get out into steady wind. A far better option is Officer's Beach, over by Cubi Point airfield. It's right out on an exposed point and faces northwest. The habagat blows cross-shore, so from the moment you step onto your board you're planning. The beach isn't great, but the water is clean, and you're well away from built-up areas.

Sailing outside SBMA means heading out to Barrio Baretto. The main beach here is Baloy. The wind blows onshore here, there are very few obstructions and the water is clean, so once you're out and planning you can settle back and cruise up and down the coast. Further along is La Sirena Beach, which takes its name from a resort nearby. It's a pretty area with few people around, and is an ideal launch spot if you want to cruise over to the islands in the middle of the bay. Gaines Beach - on the western coast of the bay - Grande Island and Snake Island are all accessible by water only, and if you're sailing from Baloy or La Sirena are convenient cruising destinations.



As with boardsailing, one of the great attractions of sea canoeing is the opportunity it presents to explore the beauty of the coastal landscape. The SBMA has excellent areas for paddlers, and some of the bays - like Triboa, mentioned in the scuba section above - offer great snorkelling. You can also paddle right across Subic Bay, stopping at Grande Island and Snake Island, all the while feeling protected from the risks of the open sea. Of course, if you're confident and experienced and want an extra element of adventure thrown in, paddle west around the outer point and then on to Capones, San Miguel and the other small villages along the Zambales coast.

To date, Subic Bay Aqua Sports is the only operator renting equipment. They have a total of 10 polypropylene kayaks: five of the two-man type, and five of the one-man. Rates vary according to the time of year. They actively arrange long rentals, and will supply you with tents and arrange for the permits you need to land at certain beaches.



As you drive in from Manila through the Zambales Mountains, it's obvious there are some interesting hiking along the ridges and through the valleys. The tree coverage is sparse, but it's an area of rugged rural charm and sweeping views. What you can't realize at this stage is that two of the best hiking experiences in the Philippines are right in front of you, obscured by the ridges. If you come to this area, you owe it to yourself, in the name of memorable outdoors experiences, to hike with an Aeta guide into the virgin rainforest around Subic Bay; and to climb the ridges that overlook the great lahar fields flowing down from Pinatubo.

Day-Tripping: Jungle Money

Entrepreneurs in Subic have been quick to see the commercial potential of the 10,000ha tract of natural rainforest preserved by the US, and a number of jungle tours are already being offered. These range from short half-day strolls down a well-manicured jungle path to full-on 7- and 10-day jungle survival courses - with quite a variety to choose from in between.

The SBMA offers jungle walks through its Ecology Tourism Office. At the simplest level, you can take a 1.5km hike to a reconstructed Aeta village where tribespeople in traditional costume put on demonstrations of fire-starting and other jungle survival skills. It's an attractive walk and, despite the contrived situation, is undoubtedly interesting. If you have limited time, it's well worth the 4 hours and 250 pesos required - but note that you need a minimum group of 10 people. Other hikes offered by the Ecology Tourism Office include a 6-hour hike up Hill 394 - poetically named for its height in metres. The summit area was originally cleared as a helicopter pad and now offers unimpeded views over the bay. You can also try the Calumpit Trail, which takes you 6km along a river bed and ends in a pretty cove on Subic Bay.

JEST: Jungle Survival

If you want a more intense and involving jungle experience, head straight to the Jungle Environmental Survival Training school - popularly known by its acronym JEST. The school was established by the US military in the 1960s to teach soldiers and airmen bound for Vietnam the skills of jungle survival. The man responsible for it is still in charge: a local Aeta by the name of Eking Bulatao.

Now that the military have departed, JEST has become a commercial venture, offering courses in jungle training to budding Tarzans and Rambos, as well as a few curious botanists. The centre arranges everything from brief demonstrations of basic techniques to full 7-day courses in jungle survival. Visits to the centre are free. Day trips into the jungle cost 250 pesos for a day, or 300 pesos for overnight stays, and 300 pesos for each day thereafter.

Other Options

Once you've had your fill of jungle, or if you're looking for something a little less demanding, try hiking the hills and valleys behind Olongapo and Barrio Baretto. One good route is to start from the naval magazine in SBMA, hike north, then west into the hills above Olongapo, then follow game trails and old roads across the valleys, stopping at Aeta villages that have hardly changed in centuries. Locals say that every ridge you cross in this area takes you back another hundred years. Heading north again, you come to the strange lahar fields of Pinatubo, and finally wind up in Botolan, where you can catch a bus back to Olongapo. Allow at least 3 days to give yourself time to explore and enjoy the countryside.

Other shorter hikes can be covered in days and half-days, simply by striking out into the hills behind Barrio Baretto or catching jeepneys to the smaller villages then setting off on foot.



As usual in the Philippines, where rural settlements are made up of small clusters of huts spread through valleys and across farmlands, there's a labyrinth of foot trails and paths that take you anywhere you want to go. You can basically look at a map, get your bearings and go for it - and you won't go too far wrong. Or you can take some of the rides recommended below.

San Isidoro Trail

Rolling back a few centuries of time here is easy: just turn inland onto the San Isidoro Road right after you cross the bridge in Barrio Baretto. There's a light uphill, then the road becomes a trail, winds into a valley where no motor vehicles can gain access - and suddenly you're in a completely different world. The valley lies immediately behind the hills that abut Barrio Baretto, but it feels like an isolated rural area where the way of life is still deeply traditional. You roll along beside a pretty stream, pass rice and vegetable farms, fruit orchards, small huts and even waterfalls. It takes about 2 hours to ride right though to the highway near Subic city (not to be confused with SBMA, which is the base), where you can take a road back to Barrio Baretto.

Gordon Heights

This is a popular hiking trail because of the easy access and spectacular views, but it's faster and more fun on a bike. To get onto the trail, take the road out of Olongapo towards Barrio Baretto and look for the big Chinese cemetery on the right. It's impossible to miss. Walk up onto the ridge behind it and you'll find a trail that follows the ridgeline. This spur of the Zambales Range leads you inland to wild hill country. The ridge is quite sharp and drops away steeply on both sides. It's only a few hundred metres high, but there's little vegetation so the views are excellent. You get great panoramas over Subic Bay on one side and the inland valleys on the other. Allow 4-5hrs from the start to San Marcellino.

Kinabuksan Beachhead

This was where the US Marines practised beach landings. Just getting here is an adventure. There are no roads, so you have to load your bike onto a rented banca and perform your own beach landing. It's a popular destination with local bikers (see below) who take complete picnic hampers and make a great day of it. Once you're on the beaches, you'll find trails winding along the coast and up into the hills. You get a real sense of exploration.

Santa Fe/San Marcellino

This is the jumping-off point for a trip to the lahar fields of Pinatubo, a must for any visit to this area. At first mention, the sight of a great expanse of mud doesn't sound too exciting, but it is in fact a rare opportunity to witness a powerful natural phenomenon. You're made very aware of the immense impact the eruption had - and is still having - on the local people and their land. The most spectacular views can be had by heading out to the dyke in the Santo Tomaso valley, riding along the dyke in the direction of the volcano - which you can see brooding on the horizon - then taking the steep trail up into the ridge of hills on your right. It's a grind on the way up, but when the trail levels out you're on an undulating road that takes you towards Aglao and gives you great panoramic views over the lahar fields on the way. If you watch for a few minutes you'll even see steam explosions rising up from the base of Pinatubo. A great experience.

Olongapo and Subic Bay areas offer a variety of activities, including diving, boardsailing, hiking, mountain-biking -- and relaxing!

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