The Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal got immensely popular for its well-managed and exhilarating Discovery Trail. Nature lovers reveled in the natural rock garden playground where they traversed through forest trail, find their balance on giant hammocks and savor the scenic rocky peaks while learning more about the surroundings. But this trail is only a part of the huge 2,000 hectare Masungi Karst Conservation Area. Just recently, the Masungi Georeserve Legacy Trail was opened as a separate offering. The new trail highlights the project’s conservation efforts, immersion and insight into the challenges they continue to face.
Change of plans. I love it when my companions are just ready for anything. Meeting hiking buddies Christine and Marky early Friday morning in Cubao, we were supposed to go to another mountain. As fast as the changing wind, we decided to visit another mountain at the vicinity of Daraitan – Mt Mamara. A smaller brother of Mt Daraitan in Tanay, Rizal, Mt Mamara was opened as an alternative to climbers who got cut-off from the maximum 300 pax per day limit of climbers for Mt Daraitan. It may be a minor mountain but the rewards of the climb is equally captivating.
You could tell if a destination is gaining ground in terms of tourism when their infrastructure starts improving. During my recent visit to Tawi-tawi, I was able to climb Bud Bongao again. I certainly noticed a new building, paved stairways and other pleasing developments. It was eight years ago when I last climbed Bud Bongao. A time when there still a heavy stigma hovering over the province. But now that stigma is slowly lifting. People are learning that Bongao, Tawi-tawi is relatively safe which resulted to a three-fold increase in tourism arrivals just this year, 2017. At the forefront of the province’s tourism project is the Bud Bongao Eco-Tourism Park. A 342-meter high sacred mountain with an imposing presence at the center of the island.
I could feel the heaviness and strain in my body already. I’ve been hiking almost daily around Batanes for the past week. My stamina is dipping. Trudging early morning on the grassy slopes of Mt Riposed in the dark, I told myself I have reached my quota for challenging tramps such as this. I deserve a pat for having finally visited Rapang Cliffs the day before. While I want to explore more, Itbayat can really drill a hole on your wallet if you’re travelling alone. While I welcome my guide, Jojo’s suggestions on other places to visit. I had limited budget. So why not end my Itbayat sojourn at the island’s highest point.
13.6 degrees centigrade according to my watch barometer. We were inside our tent. I could imagine how cold it was outside our tent hearing the unrelenting howl of the wind. It is 2:30 am and we’re at the Camp 2 of Mt Pulag, the highest mountain of Luzon and considered as the third highest in the country. I braced for the chill as I zipped open the tent door. A draft came in as I peeked outside. The sky was clear with stars jubilantly sparkling. The waning moon illuminated the landscape. “We have a clearing!” I gleefully thought. Thank god the weather was on our side and after almost 14 years, I’ll be back at the summit of Mt Pulag.
Climbing Mt Pulag
If there’s one mountain in the country that I would highly recommend to enthusiast climbers, Mt Pulag would be on top of my list. During my heydays of mountain climbing, Mt Pulag was most climber’s dream of doing. Who wouldn’t be attracted to this mountain? At 2,922 meters above sea level, the trail transitions from the cool pine forest, to the eerily beautiful mossy forest and finally, the vast undulating landscape of the grasslands leading to the summit. The latter felt like walking in a dream. The grassland is also one of the coldest spot in the country where temperatures can reach up to sub-zero temperatures. On rare occasions, frost can be found on the ground.
Mt Pulag is expansive. It extends to three provinces – Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya. There are also a number of trails varying in difficulty. The easiest is the Ambangeg Trail and then the multi-day trek at Akiki Trail with a camp at the Eddet River. The Tawangan Trail may also be accessed from Ifugao and passes through a few scenic lakes. Ambaguio Trail is the longest and steepest of the trail. Among the trails, I had been to Ambangeg and Akiki Trails.
Peak Pursuits PH Difference
My recent climb to Mt Pulag was handled by Peak Pursuits PH, an adventure outfit associated with Primer Group of Companies a major distributor of outdoor products and apparel. For this expedition, Mountain Hardwear and Columbia Sportswear, both already established brands in the outdoor industry, were heavily utilized. Aside from organizing and taking care of the transportation, fees, logistics, camp meals and porters, Peak Pursuits PH also brought Mountain Hardwear tents and sleeping bags to use in our camps. Seasoned UP Mountaineers, Jay and Ram-mon were our climb leads to make sure everything was in order. It sure made climbing less of a hassle as we only need to bring our personal essentials like extra clothes, trail snacks and accessories and just climb. A far cry on my first two climbs were we shared the load of our provisions to lessen the weight on our backs
Road to Mt Pulag
From the pre-climb a day before, Ram-mon explained clearly what to expect from the climb – from the trail conditions, to the weather and itinerary. He also informed us what was necessary to bring. After arriving in Baguio, a heavy duty jeep was already arranged to take us to the DENR Office at Ambangeg. We made a stop at Pinkan Jo where we had our breakfast and buy packed lunch. Our group was the only ones there and I admired the morning unfold along the Ambuklao River. The mountain view backdrop and the river while having a cup of warm brewed coffee was a great way to start the day.
Our spunky group opted to ride top-load the jeep and enjoy the winding road through Ambuklao. The rough dirt road I remember 14 years ago is long gone. It was paved all the way which made it easy to stay on top while enjoying the view of low-lying clouds hovering by the mountains and rays of light breaking through the mountain gradients while the river snakes through the valley. Our thrill was cut short as we had to go back inside the jeep when we reached the bridge a few hundred meters past the view of Ambuklao Dam. From here, we tried to catch a few more zzzzs until we reached the DENR station.
The DENR station was still closed when we arrived. Two other groups were already waiting. Office opened promptly at 8am. Here, we settled the park fees, viewed the mandatory film showing and attended the required orientation. Another hour and a half ride, we were already at the Badabak Ranger station, the jump-off for the climb.
More than a Decade After
At least a decade is enough to see how climbing Mt Pulag has changed. In this generation where travel is easily accessible to everyone, more people have climbed the mountain. It even came to a point that mass climbs of more than 500 people a day heavily damaged the trail. It lead to temporary closure to let the mountain breath and recover from the influx of tourist climbers. As of this writing, people are not allowed to camp during weekends from Friday to Sunday. This eventually led to people staying near the Badabak Ranger Station. Camping grounds and homestays popped up to take advantage of the climbers looking for a place to stay before their early morning assault at 1am the next day.
Another change is the Medical Certificate required for a climb. After a couple of recent unfortunate incidents of climbers dying on the trail due to carelessness and underestimating the mountain, the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) as well as the Mt Pulag National Park management required medical certificates for climbers to make sure they are fit enough to climb. While this drew mixed reactions in the climbing community, I had to agree to this, to make sure casual climbers know what they are going into.
Retracing the Familiar Ambangeg Trail
I could no longer recognize the Badabak Ranger Station from when I last climbed November 2013. We traversed from Akiki to Ambangeg then. Now the road here is paved, the station moved a few meters, houses, eateries, homestays and souvenir shops line the road. We secured our porters here. I was dumbfounded how our 5-foot men and women porters could easily carry a 20kg load on their back and breeze through the trail far ahead of us. Really puts a shame to us urban dwellers already whining on how heavy our minuscule packs are.
I was surprised to see agricultural lands have slowly encroached the national park. Vegetable fields now dissolve along the mountains and ugly water cables litter the views on the early part of the trek. The trek became a lot more interesting when we reached the mossy forest. I noticed some park signs now like “no picking of vegetation”. An hour into the hike, after a steep ascent is a rest stop where we had our lunch. This was Camp 1.
Going back on this trail is like a trip back in memory lane. Mountain climbing was my first love and I remember my friends back then who partook the journey with me. People may come and go but this forest still remains the same. It is still the familiar forest who stood watch to every climber coming and going through its trail. I saw some familiar trees I consider landmarks. Some trail changes were added stone steps on parts I remember that can get muddy when wet. Unlike before, I took time to enjoy the trail, examining the ferns, the fascinating bend and twist of the trees and a close look at the otherworldly details of the mosses living on the branches.
Camp Under the Stars
We reached Camp 2 earlier than expected. Around 2:30pm. Peak Pursuits already had the camp set up. Sleeping bags and colorful malong neatly placed inside the tent. I shared my tent with fellow photographer enthusiast Jason in a large 2-door Mountain Hardwear tent. A warm bowl of champorado for snack and a cup of coffee was served before we retreated back in our tents to catch on sleep. A downpour lasted the whole afternoon. I just wished all the rains would pour now so we would have a clearing the next day. We had nowhere to go but just sleep as it was already getting colder. I’m glad we had a quality tent as we didn’t have problems with rain getting in or the ground getting too damp.
I heard the call for dinner. Piping hot sinigang and pesto pasta was served in our designated dining area of the camp. And as the night gets darker we reveled when the clouds cleared and the multitude of stars showed up. We had a blast taking night photos as we might not any have chance later. In the mountains, the weather can be erratic since the summit have its own micro-climate. Everyone was satisfied and got ready to retire for our call time for the morning summit assault.
On the Playground of the Gods
I had to exert great effort to pull myself up from my sleeping bag. It was cold and the yearning for longer sleep was great. But I was excited to see the summit. Especially, seeing we have good weather this morning. I could hear my companions get ready inside their tents. I chewed on one of my energy bars to get some needed fuel. By 3:30, we were on our way.
I decided to pick-up my pace and went at the front of the pack. I wanted to take pictures of the clouds under the moonlit night. I noticed the stone path on the trail again which wasn’t there before. Then the trail would heave and flow up the grassland and continue to ascend. At some point Ram-mon took the lead, I followed his steady steps. Confident as a guy who know his mountains well. When I looked back I noticed we were already far ahead. A line of headlights still far back. Ram-mon knew I wanted to get there early and he delivered. On what used to be an hour to a half summit assault, we got there earlier. Around 4:45am. The wind lashed vehemently with a punch of cold at the summit, making us take shelter behind the dwarf bamboo trees there. Unfortunately, the clouds were low that time I couldn’t do what I intended for my photography. But I’m still thankful for the good weather and far on the horizon is the sea of clouds. As a surprising treat, Ram-mon served us warm coffee at the summit. That’s a plus for the Peak Pursuits PH service!
Slowly, people arrived one by one. Ram-mon suggested we go to a different spot to avoid the crowd heading at the peak. I found my way in a slope by the dwarf bamboos. For some reason, my speech was slurring. I wasn’t sure if it was the cold or the excitement. I do felt my face getting numb and my fingers having a hard time half-pressing the button on my camera. The excitement inside me was building as I saw the sliver of light forming. It’s the way for the sun to say it’s coming. And everything was a glorious display of nature. The sun rising behind the clouds. It sounds simple but no words can depict its majesty.
The Dreamy Grassland
As excited I was at the summit, I was also excited to see the grassland. For me it was one dreamy landscape of beautiful swells held in time. Long shadows bringing out its buoyant shapes. I do notice part of the trail is now a mess with multiple paths running parallel on some parts. Probably of hikers trying to make a trail of their own where it should be only one on this parts. I’m glad the familiar lone tree I remember 14 years ago is still there. I saw another young pine tree growing to be its companion.
Descending a mountain is always a challenge to keep your momentum. Admittedly, as confident as I was with my footing, I slipped once. Though I don’t look at it as embarrassment but a badge of honor. An experience I just smile proudly about. Like the jokes my companions shared as we descended on the trail. Our laughs eased the burden of the long trek back to Badabak and adds good memories to take home from this journey as well.
Our Mt Pulag climb is organized by Peak Pursuits PH. Follow their Facebook page fb/PeakPursuitsPH for more adventure escapes from climbs, surfing and yoga retreats.
Important information when climbing Mt Pulag
- DENR is only allowing up to 500 trekkers daily
- There is a strict 20-member per team/group
- Climbs are now by reservation only. Contact Mt Pulag National Park Office via 09291668864
- Climbers are required to bring their Medical Certificates stating that they are fit to climb
- Camping is not allowed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
- There’s a park fee of Php 175/person and a Php 50 camping fee per person
“I know what you are doing!” exclaimed an old man I crossed paths on the narrow paved road amidst a vegetable field in Buguias. “I’m taking pictures!” I replied with a smile. “No! You are looking for gold!” he answered with a grin on his face. He walked away slowly as I was a bit surprised by the conversation. What I do know is I have long been fascinated by Buguias that I finally had the chance to stop by this municipality where the marvelous Halsema Highway cuts through.
Looking out of the veranda from Suzzette’s Homestay in Maligcong, I have long wondered how the view is like from the mountains seen on the horizon. The peaks of Mt Matuon and its trails tease, along with otherworldly tales that its forest entraps people with its enchantment unexpectedly. As interesting as the local superstition seems, outsiders like me sees it as a place of conquest. Another trail to explore. I do respect local customs though so I waited for the chance. I was glad when Suzzette said we could explore the mountains with a local guide from Favarey on our recent trip to Maligcong. So in good company with Suzzette, Lagalog and three dogs (Kunig, Misty and Tiny) we ventured one morning to explore Mt Matuon.
Mt Matuon from Favarey
Mt Matuon is the mountain directly opposite Makonig village, where the homestay is located. So we had to do a little hike past Fangarao to Favarey where we’ll meet with our guide Mang Ruben. In the months where typhoons occasionally visit the country, morning was the ideal time to explore when the chances good weather is high, especially in the boondocks. The hike was pleasant, cool air with the comfortable warmth of the morning sun. we were handful with two extra dogs coming with us aside from Kunig: the highly spirited white female dog, Misty and the young and limber Tiny (who isn’t by any means tiny for his young age). Because of Kunig, other dogs seem to follow his lead of joining hikes with visitors.
We reached Favarey and met up with Mang Ruben who is familiar with the mountains near their village. Our starting point was the trail to the rice terraces behind the Favarey church. It’s amazing to see how verdant this side of Maligcong Terraces are. Maligcong have a wide and overlapping season for planting and harvesting. Mang Ruben, who’s widely knowledgable in the fields pointed the different kind of rice in the area like the hairy Isokan from Alab, the red rice Chomanling, the white rice Famsan and the heirloom rice Korsimay.
Crossing the bridge over the stream, we climbed the cemented stairs and trails (thanks to the registration fees) to the spot they call fib-iling. From here I stayed for a while taking my time to marvel at the wonderful panorama of Favarey village amidst the terraces. We continued our walk and stopped for a bit as Mang Ruben pointed at the mountain peak we were aiming for. How long will it take to get there? We’ll have to find out ourselves. Soon, the cemented part of the trail ended and the dirt trail begins.
Thriving Forest Trail
The trail begins to ascend as we reach the area they call Foraki. Here we enter the pine forest and along the trail were plenty of pitcher plants among shrubs and ferns. We got some time to catch our breath after that challenging ascent at Uong, a portion of the trail that’s relatively flat before doing another ascent. From here, we have a closer view of Katabu, a picturesque grassland reachable by a couple more hours hike. It would an interesting trek but our aim was for the summit of Mt Matuon.
We pushed further up to the pine forest until we reached the summit. By 9:30am, about three hours after leaving the homestay, we were already at 1,505 masl. There wasn’t any good clearing like Mt Kupapey. The grounds were also covered heavily in ferns. But still, we found a good spot in between the trees to get a good view of Maligcong rice terraces and Favarey village below. Mt Matuon got its name from the word “tuon” which means to look or focus. And from the summit, we are literally looking at the view below. Maligcong Rice Terraces takes in another character from this angle. From the spreading spider-web like look from Mt Kupapey, the terraces looked like curtain of terraces with the village nestled in the middle. We decided to have our late breakfast here with white rice, canned pork and also a pack of spicy bitukang manok crackers before continuing on.
Siblo Mossy Forest
We were deciding if we would do the traverse to Mt Kupapey or head down back to the village. Since Suzzette was expecting guests and the clouds were warning of afternoon rains, we decided to head back to Favarey village. We entered a dense mossy forest they called Siblo. It is here where story of people get lost and are taken by the unseen entities. Though we had to hack our way often on the trail, we never encountered anything unusual aside from the cold draft of air.
While our companion dogs were busy playing roughly along the trail, we reveled on the many edible berries and interesting vegetation inside this rich forest. From the wild strawberries they call pinit and the smaller sour berries that can be used for sinigang, the parangfang. Our guide Mang Ruben was also busy picking out itsa leaves which were used for local tea. Occasionally Suzzette, with her sharp eyes would find edible mushrooms as well.
Once we caught sight of Favarey village and the rice terraces, a heavy downpour caught us on the trail. We stayed under the covers of our umbrellas and trees for a while to let it subside before we continue. We descended to a spot the locals call Chagachag, which for me was one of the most picturesque viewpoint of Maligcong. I could imagine how it looks early morning with the mist rolling rice terraces that seems to converge towards the village. Here we are, despite the drizzle, still in awe of this landscape hidden behind the hills of Fang-arao. A view most likely seen only by the locals who passed by this route to tend to the fields or their cattle.
For climbs to Mt Matuon or visits to the village of Favarey, coordinate through Suzzette at Suzzette’s Maligcong Homestay. Contact 0915 546 3557 or through FB at /MaligcongHomestay. We recommend to allot a whole day for the climb to Mt Matuon with an average of 5-6 hours up the summit and back with a stop at the village. A traverse to Mt Kupapey would take longer.