June 24, 2012
Volcanic ... clients at Puning Hot Spring. Photo: Alamy
Covered in hot sand, then smeared with cold ash - this isn't your average day spa, writes Bellinda Kontominas.
So this is what it feels like to be buried alive. As we lay on our backs, sand is shovelled onto our legs, then chest, before it's smoothed towards the base of our earlobes. It's like being wrapped too tightly in a blanket or being buried at the beach as a child.
Except this is volcanic sand, rich in minerals from deep below the earth's surface and heated to a claustrophobia-inducing 30 degrees.
The Puning Hot Spring is about 90 kilometres north-west of Manila, at the foot of Mount Pinatubo, a 1485-metre high volcano that was dormant for hundreds of years until its devastating eruption in 1991.
Puning consists of three camps; Base Camp, where lunch is served against a backdrop of beautifully manicured gardens and ponds; Camp Two, where guests can experience natural volcanic ash treatments and massages; and Camp Three, a series of pools warmed by a natural hot spring.
We start with the Puning spa treatment, though guests who book the whole package (treatment, lunch, four-wheel-drive tour) can choose to begin at the hot spring.
After changing into cotton shorts and a shirt, we're taken to an elevated outdoor pit, filled with black and grey volcanic sand that has been heated by hot coals below.
As more sand is piled on top, the pressure builds and I'm left with the shallowest of breaths and a base-drum pulse in my legs that is slightly unnerving. Just when I feel I might faint, an attendant provides relief by waving a heart-shaped fan, woven from the Anahaw leaf, a national symbol. It's truly relaxing and I must drift off to sleep because suddenly, 20 minutes is gone and two attendants are brushing the rough grains of sand off our skin and clothes, preparing for the next treatment.
We're led to a line of white, plastic banana lounges under a pergola and told to lay down as cold volcanic ash, combined with eucalyptus oil is smeared over our faces and bodies. It's particularly tricky work as we're still fully clothed, but the idea is to protect modesty in the outdoor, unisex treatment area.
The quick transition from hot to cold is a welcome assault on the senses. For the next 10 minutes the mud-like mixture sets, tightening and cooling the skin with the help of the natural mountain breeze.
We're relieved when our goose-pimpled bodies are directed to a shower block to wash off the sand and mud, envisaging a warm soak. But we're quickly snapped back to reality when it becomes apparent that each shower cubicle has only one tap - of the cold variety.
Don't expect your typical spa experience; this is primitive, natural and while not always comfortable, it is definitely invigorating. Any other way would feel out of step.
Puning is owned by a Korean conglomerate but run by the local indigenous Aeta people who explain that the hot sand treatment is designed to relax the body, opening up the skin's pores and boosting blood circulation, while the cold, volcanic mud closes the pores, making the skin soft and smooth.
Many of the Aeta were forced to flee their homes during the 1991 eruption while others were saved by American troops from the now-abandoned Clark Military Air Base, several kilometres away.
But almost 3000 Aeta stayed and died when their homes collapsed under the weight of thick ash fall. The devastation worsened in the weeks after the eruption, when seasonal monsoons turned the ash into lahar, which flowed through villages, choked rivers and ruined agricultural land, burying some areas 50 metres deep.
Twenty-one years later, the damage is still evident as we criss-cross what's left of a river in the Sapang Bato valley, on our way to Camp Three of Puning Hot Spring.
The 15-minute ride in an open-top four-wheel-drive jeep is a highlight as we splash through the shallow river and climb small hills of volcanic ash sediment that has formed the lunar-like surface, all the while surrounded by steep cliffs.
Small groups of Aeta gather along the riverbed; a mother and her small children wash their clothes in the water, while further along another group collects volcanic stones to sell to high-end day spas in Manila.
It was in these mountains that the Aeta used to train American soldiers in jungle combat. Those same soldiers evacuated many of the locals during the eruption, before they were relocated to other provinces throughout the country.
Tribal chief Fred Pan was evacuated to the province of Nueva Ecija, where he stayed for six years before moving back to the Mount Pinatubo area. He says life is slowly returning to normal, with more homes being rebuilt and a shift in agricultural production from rice and root vegetables to other crops that will prosper in the now-sandy soil. We arrive at the hot spring, which is built into the cliffs at the natural dead-end of the river.
Six terraced hot spring pools range from 30 degrees to 40 degrees and are interconnected by a series of stone-flagged steps that were hand-picked and carried to the construction site by the Aeta. An outdoor sauna sits at the highest (and hottest) point of the spring and has timber benches lining the walls and a bamboo floor that allows the heat and steam to rise from the 80-degree water below.
I wallow in the waters, listening to the mountain breeze until my skin starts to wrinkle and wonder at how the earth's fury has created such a tranquil place.
The writer was a guest of Philippine Airlines and the Philippine Department of Tourism.
The Philippines government granted the Aeta title to their land in 2001, after acknowledging the indigenous people had inhabited the land "since time immemorial". The Aetas Foundation was formed soon after.
Rent from the Puning Hot Spring, as well as donations from wealthy Filipino expats, goes directly to the foundation to help fund the rebuilding of homes and children's schooling, from kindergarten to university. Tribal chief Fred Pan and other community elders determine which families are most in need of new houses and other aid.
Black Eyed Peas band member, apl.de.ap, who grew up in the area, also supports the community through his Apl Foundation, which has donated computers to local schools.
Philippine Airlines flies to Manila seven times a week from Sydney, with connections, from $1439 return. philippineairlines.com.
Puning Hot Spring is three hours' drive from Manila.
See + do
Puning Hot Spring, Puning Sapang Bato, Angeles City. Package includes hot sand and mud treatments, use of hot spring pools, lunch and ride in a four-wheel-drive, English-speaking guide and transfers to and from Manila, from $US190 ($188) a person (minimum groups of four). Book through CCT 168 Travel and Tours Corporation, 632 633 4856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.