The Lumineers blared through my earphones as our bus cruised along the North Luzon Express Way. After a fun breakfast at Jollibee, we were now bound for our next stop.
“O, Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind, girl, since the flood,” crooned Wesley Schultz as we sped by fields of grass.
I was lacking sleep and Nueva Ecija, whose treasures we’ll be exploring for two days, inched on the corners of my listless mind much like Ophelia does to the folk singer’s. This year’s installment of Lakbay Norte will take us across two provinces. And the underrated province of Nueva Ecija will be our gateway – the municipality of General Tinio, to be exact.
The ride to the municipality commonly known as Papaya was without delay that Monday morning. I slept for most of the four-hour trip, coming to once in the middle of Angela and again right before the chorus of White Lie. At some point, I apparently plucked my earphones out – they were dangling across my lap when I turned fully awake, around the same time our bus had secured a parking spot. It was almost noon. Right on schedule. Right in time for lunch.
Minalungao National Park
The place we were now in was known to me. I’ve been here before. We were in Minalungao National Park – a natural wonder that had put Nueva Ecija on the tourist radar a couple years back. The first time I was here, it was summertime and the water in the river was as brilliant as emeralds. Now, it was a mossy, murky green. I didn’t mind though. The undulating limestone cliffs that border the runnel were still a sight to behold.
General Tinio’s welcoming committee was composed of their Tourism personnel, the mayor, and a long table filled with mouth-watering local fare. There was biya – a freshwater fish caught right from the Minalungao River – wrapped in fragrant banana leaf. Radish salad, a whole chicken cooked caldereta style, papaitan soured by the leaves of the alibangbang tree, and fresh buko juice served in bamboo cups were also on the menu. And let us not forget about the grilled liempo!
Lunch was so good that when asked who wanted to go climb up the thousand-step cross, I immediately raised my hand. What better way to use up all the energy from all that food than by going on a short trek?
We were then directed to a bridge. During my first visit, you had to ride a bamboo raft to get to the other side of the river, where the steps to the cross began. Now, there was this steel bridge. Brace your agoraphobic heart though, for it’s suspended several feet up. But while the height can be dizzying, the bridge affords a good spot for taking photos. It also feels sturdy and pliable enough without snapping under your weight.
On the other side of the bridge, the stone steps to the cross cut through thick canopies that somehow soften the brunt of climbing. The trees provided plenty of shade, and a cool breeze occasionally ruffled the hair. At the end of this path stood the towering cross made out of tiled glass. The area around it is small, a half arch that could get a bit stuffy if people kept coming in. But from here, the scene is quite nice. You’d get a bird’s eye view and that’s always a delight.
Aside from walking up to the grotto, the park also has plenty of other activities to offer. There’s bamboo rafting, which some of my companions opted to do, that will tour you across the length of the Minalungao River. You can also explore a number of caves or ride a zipline for only Php50. Swimming is also a great idea, provided you don’t stray too far – the river has some extremely deep portions; life jackets are for rent for only Php20 if you insist on wading farther out. The limestone formations also make for a great background for photos.
Entrance fee is Php40/pax and several cottages are for rent starting at Php500. The park also has many food options, with restaurants and stalls abundant in the area. Decent restrooms with clean water are also available. There is also ample parking space with a fee of Php50 per vehicle. General Tinio’s Mayor Ferdinand Bote shared that other improvements were in the works, including better parking space and garbage regulation.
After spending almost two hours in the park, we were then herded back to the bus to set off for our next destination.
Owned by retired major Pantalunan, and with a color motif that says a lot about the former’s intact masculinity, PMP Farm promises a rustic experience worthy of Johanna Spyri.
With activities like horseback-riding, sheep-herding, fishing, fruit-picking, and feasting on freshly made palitaw and other kakanin, you’ll actually have second thoughts on leaving. The place is being tapped to become the next big agritourism site and, personally, I think it’ll be an instant hit.
For one, I could spend hours and hours herding sheep. I’m a natural at it in fact. If ever this writing thing doesn’t work out, you might find me going all nursery-rhyme-Mary in PMP Farm. I mean, come on, a baby sheep came to me while others grew tired chasing them. Besides, I already have the wardrobe for the job.
But I kid. (Or not).
The farm-to-table dishes were also a personal favorite, especially the palitaw sa linga and the tamarind candies. I loved the latter so much, I dumped a plateful of it in my bag (with express permission, of course) for snacking on later. It was also in PMP Farm that I got to try fresh cacao – yes, the one that chocolates are made from. It tasted wonderful, like a young innocent chocolate before it got corrupted by the world.
There was so much to do in the farm that daylight has faded when it was decided it was time to leave. We bid major Pantalunan, the pink-clad men that tend the farm, and all the other pink things there goodbye. I don’t speak for the entire Lakbay Norte squad but I loved that place.
We passed by another Jollibee for a pre-evening snack of burgers and fries before having a hearty buffet dinner at Microtel Nueva Ecija. At this point, I was starting to feel my neck growing thicker from all the good food. After a bit of conversing and beer-drinking (by them, not me), we called it a night.
“And we can make it through another year,” sang The Lumineers as I drifted off to sleep, bed fluffy and linens fresh.
I had a good rest that night – prepping me up quite well for the second leg of exploring Nueva Ecija.
Nueva Ecija Essential Info
Minalungao National Park
General Tinio (Papaya), Nueva Ecija
Barangay Nazareth, General Tinio, Nueva Ecija
+63 942 9714 903
Microtel Nueva Ecija