David Whitley finds Lake Taal in the Philippines far more appealing once he tackles things his own way


The wooden slat on the boat creaks as I step on it. This is not an altogether encouraging sign. It’s not a lake I’m particularly keen on falling into, for a start. The unfortunate Filipino penchant for treating the world as one giant bin sees all manner of discarded goodies lapping up on the shore, with a few dead fish thrown in for good measure.


This, of course, would suggest that Lake Taal is a repulsive grotfest. It is not. Gloss over the water quality – you don’t come here to swim anyway – and it has an extraordinary beauty. A couple of hours drive south of Manila, the lake lies inside a large volcanic crater. It was once attached to the sea by a small channel, but volcanic activity over the last 200 to 300 years has seen the channel close and the lake slowly turn from saltwater to freshwater. Inside it are scores of little islets, the main one of which is a volcano in itself. So that’s a volcano within a lake within a volcano. And it’s our target.


The only way to the island is on a bangka, which is essentially a motorised version of an outrigger canoe. They have bizarre high ends that look make the bangkas look a little like upturned Mandarin moustaches, and they’re what the local fishermen ply their trade in. But when they’re not fishing, these chaps will happily ferry tourists across to the island for the requisite number of pesos. It’s a surprisingly choppy half hour voyage, but there’s no shortage of people at the other end willing to greet the hardy sailors.


For the small community that lives on the island, forever in danger of being made homeless if the volcano starts getting too feisty again, income sources are few. Hence the queue of guides wanting to escort visitors to the main crater and the sad-looking horses that trundle up and down there.  I want to walk it, but I don’t know where the track is or how long it will take. “It’s a long way,” I’m told. “It will take too long.”


I’m eventually cajoled into taking the horse and guide. It’s not that I object to paying to visit; I just want to pay and do it my own way; in relative peace. As it happens, the walk would have taken 45 minutes to a hour – just right as far as I’m concerned, even if it does involve getting a bit sweaty as I lumber up the hill. Instead, I find myself on top of a poor beast that’s probably too small to happily carry me. What should be a joyful experience is a saddening, shame-inducing one.


At the top, men with golf clubs are offering visitors the chance to hit a golf ball into the crater lake. Yep, that’s right, there’s a lake inside a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano. And there’s another island in the middle of that (albeit not a volcano). It’s all very Russian dolls. But it is absolutely gorgeous. From the crater rim, the view extends for miles around; the crumpled green landscape of south-west Luzon Island has seductive dips and curves, filled with palm trees and pineapple plants, studded around the edges by yet more soaring volcanoes.


I say goodbye to the horse for the walk back down. It’s much easier to take everything in and see how the island is essentially in the centre of a grand natural arena. I slow down to absorb it as horses and riders hurry past. It’s a pretty special part of the world; well worth running the bangka gauntlet for.