Potipot Island (Candelaria, Zambales)

Potipot Island (Isla de Potipot))

After a lengthy 7.5-hour drive (we left Manila at 3:30 AM and made stopovers at Jollibee Subic or breakfast, and at the Cathedral of St. Augustine of Hippo in Iba), we arrived at Brgy. Uacon at the town of Candelaria and parked my Toyota Revo at the residence of Mr. Joel Gonzales (mobile numbers 0977-2044869 and 0947-3218687), a friend of Bryan.

 Check out “Cathedral of St. Augustine of Hippo

Car parking at Uacon

As it was already lunchtime, Bryan prepared a lunch of pork tocino, hot dogs and fried fish with steamed rice.  This done with, Joel loaded our gear on his tricycle, with Cheska and Kyle on board, for the short drive to the beach where our motorized outrigger boat to Potipot Island (or Isla de Potipot) awaited us.  Jandy, Bryan and I just walked the short distance.

Overcast skies at Uacon Beach

Boardng our 6-pax motorized outrigger boat along Uacon Beach

The closest island from mainland Zambales (about a kilometer away), we can actually see how near Potipot Island is from the beach of Uacon. The boat trip (PhP400/two-way) getting to the eastern side of the island (with its huge and colorful “Isla de Potipot” sign) just took a little over 10 minutes.

On our way to Potipot Island

It was already overcast when we arrived at the island. From the shore, it was just a short walk to the reception center. Visitors to the 7.5-hectare, privately owned Potipot Island are charged PhP100 per head for a day trip and PhP300 for overnight.

The huge and colorful Isla de Potipot sign along the beach

Boat docking area

There are no hotels or inns available on Potipot Island. As it was a long weekend (August 19-21), the island was brimming with tourists (it easily gets fully booked during weekends), many camped in tents near where the boats dock.  Tent rentals are also available but it is not a regular service on the island. 

Reception pavilion

Campers can eat their meals at a pavilion with tables, without having to pay an additional fee.

Picnic tables

There is also a grilling area where they can grill their own food but they’ll have to bring everything, including the charcoal.

A 10-20-pax nipa cottage

An array of nipa and bamboo cottages

Others stayed in nipa cottages (PhP1,500, for 10-20-pax, and PhP2,000 for 5-10-pax) and more modern cottages on stilts (PhP2,500, 5-8-pax).

Tent city

Cheska and Bryan start setting up the tent with Kyle looking on

We opted to stay in the latter with our tent set up beside it for Kyle to experience his first camping. Jandy and I stayed at the very spartan, treetop height cottage on stilts which had a double bed with mosquito net.  We also had a table with 4 chairs (all are available for free around the island on a first come, first serve basis).

A modern, tree-height cottage on concrete stilts

The cottage interior

For cooking, we brought our own butane gas stove (we have to be careful not to burn any tree as we could be fined). Nearby is a citadel-like tree house said to belong to the island’s owner.

The citadel-like treehouse cottage

Normally, at day’s end, visitors are treated to a stunning sunset along the beach but, as a low pressure area was in the day’s forecast, it was already starting to rain.

Dusk at Potipot Island

This small but pristine and breathtaking beach bumming paradise, also known as the Little Boracay of the North, has shores surrounded by creamy white sand (the island’s name is derived from the native words puti po meaning “it’s white”), and turquoise blue water and offshore coral.

Potipot’s white sand beach

A good beach camping destination, it also has a lush array of trees to provide much-needed shade.  The different kinds of trees found here include mahogany, talisay, coconut, kamachile, guava, mango, duhat, suha, kamias, etc.

Grassy area at the center of the island

The center of the island is a grassy plain with another huge “Isla de Potipot” sign and a children’s playground.

Second Isla de Potipot sign

Children’s playground

There’s no potable water source in Potipot so we bought our water supply at the jump-off. The island has a number of clean and decent public shower rooms and toilets (one conveniently located just across from our cottage) so freshening up wasn’t much of a problem.

Public toilet

However, the water supply can lose pressure if a lot of people are taking a bath at the same time. Lighting on the island is provided by a generator so it is not totally dark at night. They also offer charging services, via solar panels, for any electronic gadget.

Early morning breakfast.  L-R: Cheska, Bryan, Jandy and the author

Kyle sleeping in a hammock we brought and slung between the concrete stilts of our cottage

The stay-in caretakers were friendly and more than willing to help you if you ever need anything. For a minimal fee, we could also ask them to cook our food.

“Leave No Trace Only Footprint” sign

They’re strict about cleaning up and bringing your trash with you when you leave (“Leave No Traces Only Footprints signs are everywhere). Segregated (plastic, leftovers and other waste) waste bins can also be found.

Segregated waste bins

Also nearby is a small sari-sari (convenience) store where we can buy bread, soft drinks, coffee, noodles, bottled water, snacks, canned goods, etc. as well as souvenirs, goggle and other knickknacks. Some vendors also sell foodstuff.  However, to avoid inconvenience, it is still advisable to bring your own food and water when you go there. Liquor or alcoholic beverages are prohibited.

Convenience store

It was sunny the next day (I missed out on the beautiful sunrise) and, after breakfast, we were supposed to hop over to Hermana Menor Island, a 2-hour boat ride away.  However, heavy waves made this impossible.  Instead, Jandy, Bryan, Cheska and Kyle went swimming along the nearby shoreline.

Kyle, Bryan and Cheska savoring the warm, crystal clear waters of the island

Though calm, the crystal clear, warm waters here can get, within a few steps, from knee deep to neck deep.  At the back part of the island (the part not facing the main shore of Zambales), you also have to be careful with sea urchins. Later, Cheska, Bryan and Kyle went kayaking around the island (PhP300/hour).

An array of tandem kayaks for rent

Bryan, Cheska and Kyle try out kayaking

Or my part, I decided to circle the island and my leisurely walk took about 30 mins. On the opposite side of the island, facing the West Philippine Sea, is another campsite for those who want peace and quiet. The sand seems to be finer here and the waters clearer.

Pre-nuptial photo shoot atop a sea wall

A photo booth for couples

Along the way I passed a couple having a pre-nuptial photo shoot. There are also rock formations on the other side of the island (where the sun sets). The famous, iconic driftwood, located in a slightly rocky portion of the beach on the southwestern part, is the site of an obligatory photo shoot for tourists. At the northern side, sea grass are clearly visible underneath the clear waters.

The iconic driftwood, a site for obligatory photo shoots

The feel and ultimate charm of this relatively unknown and undiscovered little gem of an island was like Boracay during its pre-development years. Here, every now and then, you can bathe in its turquoise waters and stroll under its arboreal ceiling without bumping into boisterous tourists.

Hermana Menor Island as seen from Potipot Island

We left the island by noontime, again boarding Joel’s boat for the return trip back to the mainland.  After a late lunch, gain prepared by Bryan, at Joel’s place, we left Uacon by 2:30 PM and proceeded on our return trip back to Manila, making stopovers at the Church of St. Monica in Botolan, a viewpoint in Subic and dinner at a Pancake House outlet along NLEX.  We were back in Manila by 10:30 PM.

Check out “Church of St. Monica

Isla de Potipot: Brgy. Uacon, Candelaria, Zambales. Mobile numbers: (0905) 456-7243 (Globe) and (0920) 499-9134 (Smart).  Look for Arjay, Jamie or Flor. E-mail: isladepotipotmarketing@gmail.com. Instagram: www.instagram.com/isla_de_potipot. Facebook: www.facebook.com/isladepotipothotelandbeachresort.

How to Get There: To get to Brgy. Uacon, Candelaria by car (a 5-6-hour drive), take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) all the way to the Dau/Mabalacat Exit. For speed and ease of travel, travel the length of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) to the Tipo Exit (the shorter route, through San Fenando – Lubao in Pampanga, passes through narrower roads and congested town centers).  Upon exiting, pass through the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), on to Subic town and then take the national road all the way to Candelaria, passing the towns of Castillejos, San Marcelino, San Narciso, San Felipe, Cabangan, Botolan, Iba, Palauig and Masinloc before Candelaria. 

Sta. Cruz-bound Victory Liner buses also pass by Candelaria, the town just before Sta. Cruz). Get off at the Uacon Barangay Hall and, from there, take a tricycle (or even walk) to the nearest resort or the beach where you can get a boat to Potipot Island.

Mt. Pulag National Park (Bokod to Camp 2)

From the DENR Office, it was another 2-hours drive, this time along mostly unpaved roads, to the forest ranger station at Camp Babalac. Along the way are breathtaking views of narrow valleys and vegetable and rice terraces. The ranger station, a place where mountaineers make final preparations, cook, rest and make last minute supply acquisition before the trek, sits near a small village at the base of the trail.  

Camp Badalac Ranger Station

Camp Badalac Ranger Station

Tour organizer Violet Imperial and our two guides

Tour organizer Violet Imperial and our two guides

It being a Chinese New Year holiday, the ranger station was filled with trekkers. Here, I crammed all I needed for the overnight camping in my larger backpack and left the rest of my clothes in the smaller backpack.  We also met our two guides and hired porters (PhP600/round trip) to help carry our backpacks to our designated camping ground at Camp 2. It was to be a 7.5-km./3.5 to 5-hour  hike to Mt. Pulag’s summit but we were to do it in stages.

The trek begins ..... (photo: Mr. Maki Las)

The trek begins ….. (photo: Mr. Maki Las)

After saying a short prayer for safety around Violet, we started our climb by 10 AM.  At first, the road was well-paved concrete.  After passing by some vegetable terraces, it was all dirt but the view was already breathtaking as we entered the pine forest.   This was also the hardest part of the trail.

Hiking along the pine forest

Hiking along the pine forest

At the ranger station, there were already worrying gray clouds ahead that brought about a slight drizzle, necessitating our wearing raincoats.  Sure enough, it began to rain, making the quite steep, uphill/downhill trail wet, muddy and slippery.  We arrived at Camp 1 by noontime.  Here, we rested awhile and ate our packed lunch of rice, chicken adobo and canned tuna.

Wet and hungry at Camp 1 (photo: Mr. Maki Las)

Wet and hungry at Camp 1 (photo: Mr. Maki Las)

Leaving Camp 1, the mossy forest soon starts, a stark contrast from the warm sunshine and pine forest we passed a while ago.  At this part of the trail, we were now trekking under the cool shelter of trees that are stunted and bonsai-like.  As the altitude increased, the air was starting to thin and we were making frequent stops to catch our breath, hearing the rapid beats of our own hearts amidst the weird silence.

The creepy and sinister mossy forest

The creepy and sinister mossy forest

Continuing on, I began to question myself and my sanity in being here. It was already raining profusely when we reached Camp 2 by 3 PM and we had to slog through the mud just to make it to our already set up dome tents. There were thoughts in my mind of continuing on to the summit in the remaining daylight but, as I was already dead tired, decided against it.  Big mistake.

Still in high spirits as we near Camp 2

Still in high spirits as we near Camp 2

Violet, Jandy, Maki and I occupied one tent; Almira, Lorelie and her kids in the nearby second tent; and friends Rose, Rayhil and Marceju with Celeste in the third.  As preparation for the cold night ahead, Jandy and I donned thermal underwear and tried to rest.  That night, it rained heavily and the wind picked up, allowing condensation to seep through our tents.

Muck, fog and rain at Camp 2

Muck, fog and rain at Camp 2

Our sleeping bags, socks, gloves and shoes were drenched as we ate our supper of pork sinigang, lumpiang shanghai and steamed rice.  There were latrines at the edge of the mountain but getting there was an effort due to the sticky mud and extreme cold. I didn’t sleep a wink as I shivered all throughout the night, with a temperature that dipped to almost a freezing zero and penetrated through the bones.

A still foggy and rainy morning at Camp 2

A still foggy and rainy morning at Camp 2

Waking up by 3 AM to trek the remaining distance to the summit where, on a clear day, mountaineers usually await the sunrise above a sea of clouds, was out of the question.  Daylight and a warm breakfast of rice, scrambled eggs and hotdog plus hot coffee and chocolate was a welcome relief. It was still drizzling when we broke camp.  As most of our stuff were waterlogged and added to the weight of backpacks, Violet and Almira now hired porters to carry their packs.  As we made our way back down the trail, the weather started to improve and the sun soon shone when we reached Camp 1.

View of the so-far unreachable summit of Mt. Pulag at Camp 1

View of the so-far unreachable summit of Mt. Pulag at Camp 1

When we arrived, the camp was filled with the tents of trekkers who weren’t allowed to proceed to Camp 2 the other day because the camp had reached the maximum number allowed. As it turned out, we were the last batch allowed to proceed.  Here, on a hill above the camp, we had a clear and beautiful panoramic view of Mt. Pulag’s so-far unattainable grassy summit as well as surrounding pine-cladded mountains.

L-R: Maki, Violet, Almira, the author, Celeste and Lorelie

L-R: Maki, Violet, Almira, the author, Celeste and Lorelie

Rest stop on the hike back

Rest stop on a grassy clearing on the hike back

As our descent was easy and more leisurely, I had more time to appreciate the mountain’s high plant diversity (home to 528 plant species, 42% of which are endemic to the area).  I was also struck by the variation in flora, from tall pine trees that clad the mountain’s hillsides.

Flora 1

Flora 2

Flora 3

Flora 4

Flora 5

Flora 6

Flora 7

There were wild orchids thriving on its slopes up to the 7,000 ft. level; a 5,877-hectare elfin forest with small stunted oak trees heavily overgrown with ferns, moss and lichen found at the 1,500-2,600-m. (4,900-8,500-ft.) level; and a natural, windswept, 804-hectare montane grassland at the summit.  The beauty of it all more than mitigated my frustration of not making it to the summit.

Beautiful mountain scenery on a sunny day

Beautiful mountain scenery on a sunny day

Vegetable terraces

Vegetable terraces

About 1.5 kms. to the ranger station, I hitched a ride (PhP100) on a habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) to the station.  Jandy was already there waiting for me when I arrived.  After about 20 mins., the others arrived – muddied, haggard and dead tired.   Our chartered jeepney that would bring us back to Baguio City was parked nearby.  After washing up, we retrieved our other belongings, loaded our packs at the jeepney’s roof rack and left the ranger station for Country Road Cafe and Restaurant where we were to have lunch.  We never made it to the summit but Mt. Pulag has not seen the last of me. I will definitely be back.

Riding a habal-habal back to the Ranger Station

Riding a habal-habal back to the Ranger Station

Camp Babalac Ranger Station: Sitio Badalac, Brgy. Bashoy, Kabayan, Benguet. Mobile number: (0930) 139-2246.

Beach Camping at Dampalitan Island (Padre Burgos, Quezon)

From Borawan in Lipata Island, Jandy, Maricar, Violet, Lanny and I returned to our hired boat which was going to bring us to our camping destination – the rocky and undeveloped Dampalitan Beach on Dampalitan Island.

Western side of Dampalitan Beach

Western end of Dampalitan Beach

It was just a short 10-15 minute boat ride to the island and we made landfall just before noontime.  The island had a long, wide and lovely stretch of tree-lined white sand beach – the perfect beach camping ground.

Eastern end of Dampalitan Beach

Eastern end of Dampalitan Beach with exposed rock formations

As I was first off the boat, I proceeded to scout around for a suitable spot to set up our tent.  I found a spot somewhat shaded by some worn out and tattered coconut and pine-like agoho (Casuarina equisetifolia) trees.

Setting up the 5-pax Coleman tent

Setting up the 5-pax Coleman tent

Beside it is a bamboo picnic table and the remains of one of 10 nipa cottages which were damaged or destroyed by the recent typhoon Glenda (international name: Rammasun). Strung at the trunks of the trees are 4 threadbare but still sturdy hammocks.

Maricar, the author, Violet, Jandy and Lanny at our picnic table

Maricar, the author, Violet, Jandy and Lanny at our picnic table

Still, the spot suited us just fine.  The owner of the nearby house, which had a convenience store and a storage tank for fresh water (sold at PhP50 per container), informed us on the fees to be paid – an entrance fee of PhP60 per person (total: PhP300) plus a camping fee of PhP200.  We also rented the nearby picnic table (for PhP150) where we temporarily laid down our just unloaded camping gear and  provisions.

Lazing around in our hammocks

Lazing around in our hammocks

First up on our agenda was the setting up of our 5-pax, 3 m. x 3 m. Coleman dome tent with peaked rainfly.  That done, we rested awhile, with Violet, Maricar, Jandy and Lanny doing so on the hammocks while I did so in our tent.  Come late afternoon, the sun was now low on the horizon and low tide was setting in so we decided to do some swimming and explore the now exposed rock formations. Cloudy skies prevented us from viewing the sunset.

Exploring the exposed rock formations

Exploring the exposed rock formations

When we returned to our campsite, another group of young overnight campers have already set up their tents beside us and were already preparing their barbecue grills for dinner.  We also followed their lead, borrowing a grille from the caretaker and buying a pack of charcoal as we also brought along some juicy, marinated pork belly (liempo) for grilling.  While Violet and Lanny were tending to the grilling, Maricar was busy preparing her signature yang chow fried rice.

Dusk at Dampalitan Island

Dusk at Dampalitan Island

After enjoying this wonderful al fresco repast, we next washed away the sea salt from our bodies, Jandy and I sharing a container of fresh water.  We all whiled the time away by playing a card game of  pekwa (the Philippine name for the game fan tan or card dominoes) and later chatted about our life experiences.  Retiring early, Violet, Maricar, Jandy and I occupying the tent while Lanny slept in one of the hammocks outside.  The night was initially warm but it slowly cooled, via an incoming sea breeze, in the wee hours of the morning.

Dinner preparation courtesy of Maricar, Violet and Lanny

Dinner preparation courtesy of Maricar, Violet and Lanny

Come morning, breakfast was another al fresco affair, with pork luncheon meat,  freshly cooked steamed rice and cups of coffee.  We then dismantled our tent and packed our belongings.  As we still had time before the 10 AM arrival of our boat, the others went swimming while I decided to explore the island beyond the cliffs confining the cove.

Our grilled pork belly (liempo)

Our grilled pork belly (liempo)

Past the cliffs was another cove with a long, beautiful but deserted stretch of white sand beach lined, not by trees, but by mangroves.  I didn’t go very far as the sun was high up in the sky and I forgot to bring a hat.  When I returned to our campsite, our boat had already arrived and our gear loaded.  After paying our bill, we boarded our boat for the short return trip back to our cottage at Brgy. Basiao where, after washing up, we loaded our stuff and left for Lucban (Quezon).

The magrove-lined, white sand cove beyond the cliff

The magrove-lined, white sand cove beyond the cliff

Dampalitan Beach may not be outstandingly beautiful but it is still nice and somewhat laid-back, offering a quiet beach retreat quite unlike crowded and overdeveloped beaches such as Boracay.  Similar to Anawangin or Nagsasa Cove in Zambales, it is really more for camping, picnicking, swimming, hiking, watching the sunset or just lazing around in a hammock.

Calaguas Islands (Vinzons, Camarines Norte)

A pristine paradise discovered

Part of my itinerary during my first week of February visit to Camarines Norte was to camp overnight at the famed Calaguas Islands, a group of 17 islands northeast of Daet under the jurisdiction of the town of Vinzons.   This was not to be as three days of continuous rain prevented us from doing so.  Two months later, I was again invited back in the province during the peak of summer, covering the 4th Bagasbas Summer Festival in Daet with blogger Mark Vincent Nunez.  This time the weather was perfect, with bright sunshine, clear skies and calm seas, and Mark and I were again invited by Provincial Tourism Officer Atty. Debbee Francisco to visit these islands  famed for their Boracay-like (minus the commercial development) white sand beaches.

Minaongan Fish Port in Paracale

Aside from Debbee and Mr. Amable Miranda, a member of her staff, and ABC TV 5 crew Ms. Justine Santos and cameramen Mr. Amor Casiano and Mr. Dencio Suing; Mark and I were joined by participants of the summer surf festival who availed of the special participant’s price of PhP1,350 per person (normal rates range between PhP1,800-2,300) which included the boat ride to and from the island, tents and two meals with snacks. They include Ms. Joie Lacson, Ms. Iya Yujuico, Ms. Katrina Cruz, Ms. Lei Reinares and Mr. Philipp Cabales of www.pakyaw.com; Mr. Arnel Pahuway of World Vision; and Mr. Darryll Montebon of Jubilee Christian Academy.

Survivor Calaguas

From Daet, we all boarded a van for the 38-km. drive to Minaongan Fish Port in Paracale, arriving there by 2:30 PM.  Here, we all boarded a large, 25-pax outrigger boat.  Provisions for our overnight stay were loaded as well.  The boat ride took all of two hours, passing a number of rocky outcrops and beautiful islands with white sand beaches, and we landed on a cove called Mahabang Buhangin (“long sand”) at the 8 km. long Tinaga Island, the most frequented camping and swimming site for tourists. The beach was everything it was hyped up to be: powdery fine white sand, crystal clear waters and blue skies.

On our way

It was now late in the afternoon (4:45 PM) when we landed and, once the provisions were landed, we all set up our respective tents in a shaded area, Mark and I staying in one of the seven tents.  A comfortable hammock was already in place.  As the beach faced the west, we were in for a magnificent sunset show.  After a delicious dinner of grilled fish and chicken, we all shared a good chat and laughs while toasting marshmallows over a bonfire. It was already late in the night when we called it a day.

Sunset at Mahabang Buhangin

Come morning, we awoke to a delicious Filipino breakfast of fried rice, fried egg, hot coffee and crispy dilis (anchovies) and espada.   Dabbing on a lot of sunblock, we all savored the sand, sun and sea, doing snorkeling, sunbathing as well as swimming.  Later, some of us tried to burn our excess calories by walking along the beach and then climbing up a nearby hill.   The view up there was fantastic, with a bird’s eye view of Mahabang Buhangin on one side and the nearby Guintinua Island and other smaller islands on the other side.  A photographer’s dream, it was truly beauty from every camera angle. which we all indulged in, kamayan style.

Mahabang Buhangin seen from the hill

Our cameras also espied boatloads of tourists coming in from the mainland, it being a Sunday weekend.  It was time to go and, it was with regret that we went down the hill.  Back on the beach, many boats were unloading their cargo of tourists, surfer friend Mr. Oween Andrade and his family among them, plus their provisions.  It was just fitting that we left by 10 AM, giving up our campsite to these tourists, as we wanted to avoid the influx of this maddening crowd.  We thus left the island with bittersweet memories, hoping one day to again savor its beauty. Quoting from the lyrics of an Ogie Alcasid song, “Sana Maulit Muli.”

Posing with Guintinua Island on the background

 

Camping and Surfing at Sabang Beach (Baler, Aurora)

Cheska on her surfboard

Baler Tourism Coordinator Riza del Rosario sadly informed us that there wasn’t any accommodation available whatsoever for us, at least for this day.  I wasn’t surprised as it was the holidays and Baler was packed with tourists.  Anticipating this, I brought along my new Coleman 5-pax tent which I received last Christmas.  It measures 3 m. by 3 m. and has a 1.83 m. head clearance, convenient if you need to stand up while dressing.  From the town proper, I first drove to the Hanging Bridge at Brgy. Zabali where my 4 companions gamely crossed to the other side.  Motion sickness, caused by the swaying bridge, made me stop midway during my crossing and forced me to turn back.  After this adrenalin-filled crossing, we returned to the Revo and drove on to the gray sand Sabang Beach in Brgy. Sabang.  Most of the accommodations in Baler are located along this beach but, since all were fully booked, I just rented a picnic hut and pitched my tent on the grassy ground beside it.     

The gray sand Sabang Beach

Long before the movie Baler, the town was known as one of the country’s top 5 surfing areas. The waters of the Pacific formed strong, sharp break waves that provide an exhilarating high among experienced surfers. The best waves come in from October to March when the northeast monsoon blows down from China but surfing waves are present all year round, even during our visit.  Glassy right and left waves occur in the early mornings. They are not usually big, except during typhoons.   Thus, Sabang Beach is a good site for beginners and novice surfers.  Jandy and Cheska, as well as Lulu, all beginners, opted to take some surfing lessons (PhP350/pax for 1 hr.) while Vi, an avid photographer, just took pictures.  I stayed behind to watch the tent and our belongings. 

Fish catch being hauled in
Sabang Beach has three surfing sites: Cobra Reef, Charlie’s Point and Secret Spot.  Charlie’s Point, located north of Sabang Beach, within walking distance from the town proper, was where the surfing scene of Francis Ford Cuppola‘s 1979 Apocalypse Now was filmed.  It is known for its medium-quality, right and left breakwaves on sand and gravel bottom. The waves are best from December to January. Secret Spot is located at the mouth of the Cemento River. Further north of Sabang Beach is the newly discovered surfing spot called Lindy’s Point, a 15-min. hike from Bay’s Inn.

Martha Island (Hundred Islands, Alaminos City, Pangasinan)

The sun was already low in the sky when we packed our tent and belongings and again boarded our boat to take us to nearby Martha Island.  We thought we had the island to ourselves as the white sand beach, connecting the two islands, was deserted.  Once on dry land, our boatmen left us, promising to return the next morning to pick us up.  We were soon setting up our tent and was  just about done doing this when boats, one after the other, began unloading local tourists, with the same mindset as ours, on our tiny strip of beach.  I guess there’s simply no escaping the maddening crowd.  

Martha Island

It was too dark to go swimming, so we just settled down in our tents, ate our packed dinner and spent the rest of the night playing cards.  Jandy and the others slept inside the tent while I slept outside, on my rubber mat.  I thought I came fully prepared for camping but I forgot one essential item – Off Lotion. There were no mosquitoes around.  Instead, what bothered me during my sleep were nasty sandflies (locally called niknik).  The ground I was sleeping on was also lumpy.  Sleep didn’t come easy to me that night, if at all.   

Relaxing under the shade
The island’s beach

Come morning, we prepared our breakfast of coffee and sandwiches.  Luckily for us, the rocky outcrop beside our tent shaded us from the morning sun.   Right after breakfast, we donned our swimming attire to go swimming.  The waters by the shoreline wasn’t as clear or as inviting nor its slope as gradual as the beach in Romulo Island.  Poor visibility meant no snorkeling.   Still we made do with what was before us.  Our boatmen arrived earlier than expected, so we packed up our tent and belongings and boarded our boat.  

Romulo Island (Hundred Islands, Alaminos City, Pangasinan)

Come morning, we checked out at Texas Inn and proceeded to Brgy. Lucap, the gateway to the Hundred Islands National Park.  The port was already packed with local and foreign tourists, it being the Holy Week break.  Our plan was to go island hopping and then stay overnight at one of the islands.  Just a few days earlier, on March 19, the management of the Hundred Islands  was turned over by the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) to the Alaminos City government. 

Hundred islands National Park

Before, anything else, we had lunch at the port and then decided on what to bring (camping equipment, swimming attire, sleeping bags, packed food, etc.), leaving the rest of our stuff inside our parked car.We then negotiated with some boatmen for a motorized boat to take us island hopping and settled on the price of PhP1,200.  Lastly, we had to choose from 127 islands and islets that make up this 1,844-hectare national park.  As we prefer beaches, choosing was easy as most of the islands are granite and scrub-covered and heavily-undercut at the base.  Only a number have sandy beaches.

On our way

The plan was to go first to Romulo Island, where we can go swimming, then  transfer to Martha Island where we were to stay overnight.  We left the port on our chartered motorized boat a little past 2 PM and soon made landfall at Romulo Island by 3 PM.  The island was packed with tourists sheltering on what little shade they can get on the island, mostly low shrubs and the undercut bases of the island.   We came prepared for this eventuality, setting up my tent on the white sand.  Our tent provided privacy as we changed into our swimming attire.  

Romulo Island.  Ours is the only tent on the beach
Vi beside our tent
A suited up Lulu ready for a swim

The island’s clear water was simply pristine and slope gradual.   Just across, Braganza Island seemed so near but experience told me that the short distance can be deceiving.  Besides, the current between the islands is notoriously strong.  Instead, we just lazed the afternoon away by swimming or snorkeling. Too bad, it wasn’t low tide yet.  A cave on the other side of the island is exposed and approachable during this time.

Anilao’s Gulugud Baboy (Mabini, Batangas)

I accepted an invitation from my friend Rosevie “Vi” Sevilla to join her and her friends Ms. Dynah Pizarro and Ms. Cecil Divinagracia on a camping hike to the 501-m. high Mt. Panay (locally called Gulugud Baboy) in Anilao in Mabini, Batangas.  Gulugud Baboy is the highest point on the rocky headland of the Calumpang Peninsula. I brought along my son Jandy plus my tent and other camping equipment.  To joining us later, in a separate vehicle, were Edwin A. Guisihan, Jersey Miranda, Joseph de la Rosa and Carlo Peña.  The morning trip from Manila was via the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) to the Calamba Exit, then on to the Batangas towns of Sto. Tomas, Malvar, Cuenca, Alitagtag, Sta. Teresita and Bauan as well as the cities of Lipa and Tanauan.   It took all of 3  hrs., traffic and all, including stopovers and asking for directions.

Gulugud Baboy

We arrived at the port just in time for a carinderia-style lunch.  That done, we proceeded down to a road on the left located about 200 m. before the marketplace and jeepney terminal.  From here, we drove 8 kms. along a sometimes paved, but often rough and dusty road, from Brgy. San Jose to San Teodoro.  The route is lined with about 40 dive resorts, many of them quite basic and most situated along the coast of Balayan Bay.  Some do not have access by road and could only be reached by banca from Anilao.     The Calumpang Peninsula is a rocky headland all throughout, the end result of which is a lack of suitable beach spots.We finally arrived at Arthur’s Place, said to be the jump-off point to Gulugud Baboy.

Our campsite

It so happens that Arthur’s Place, according to its manager Ms. Lita Abrigonda, is just the nearest resort to the access road going up the mountain.   It would be a long hard climb going up and we couldn’t secure porters around willing to take our heavy backpacks up.  So I decided to take my Mitsubishi Adventure, with all my passengers and gear, all the way up as I could possibly go.   The mostly rough and dusty zigzag access road was very steep, narrow and quite treacherous, with ravines along the way.  Already very difficult to traverse even during that late afternoon sun, I wouldn’t imagine anyone trying it at night.  I was to be proven wrong later on.  Our “breathtaking” drive was somehow alleviated by the equally breathtaking scenery along the way.

A fantastic view of Maricaban Island

We soon reached a basketball court with a sari-sari store beside it.  Going beyond it was made impossible by an impassable stretch so we decide to just park our car at the court.  From hereon, it would be all footwork.  However, I haven’t given up hope of getting porters and we asked around at the store for one.  There were no male porters around but the “porter” we secured (at PhP200 for a one-way trip) proved to be more dependable than three male porters; a horse.   Thus unburdened, we proceeded, together with our heavily-laden horse and guide, past the village, along a moderately graded dirt path.  It was initially quite a breeze but it all ended upon reaching an opening beside the road.  From hereon it was all uphill along a grassy and treeless trail.   The scenery began to unwind into a series of plateaus resembling sloping golf courses.  I wonder if this spine-like contour is where the mountain got its name.  Gulugud baboy is translated as “pig’s spine.”  Store caretaker Lina Castillo gives a different version, that of a baboy ginto (golden pig) seen to roam the place.

A foggy, very cold and windy evening

After about an hour’s hike, we finally reached the peak of Gulugud Baboy.  And what a peak it was!  From this vantage point high up, we had a spectacular 360 degree view of the ocean, Anilao, Batangas Pier, the narrow 11-km. long, densely forested Maricaban Island, the hat-shaped Sombrero Island, the 1,145-m. high Mt. Makulot and even Mindoro, Mt. Lobo and Mt. Manabo.  Within reach is the similarly grassy and treeless Pinagbanderahan where the Americans were said to have raised their flag (bandera) after the Japanese surrender in World War II.

The gang’s all here
Within minutes, we unloaded our backpacks, paid our guide then went about the necessary business of setting up our tents on the grassy, treeless peak and cooking an early dinner. That done, we settled down to a hearty meal.  It was now late in the day and we were rewarded with a beautiful, fiery sunset.  Simply Heaven!  However, the bitter cold and fog soon began to set in.  We also began to wonder if our other companions could still make it up as they were still in Bauan having dinner.  It would seem recklessly foolhardy for them to try to negotiate that steep and narrow zigzag road at night.  But foolhardy they were as they still pushed on to Anilao and up the steep and treacherous road up to Gulugud Baboy.  We had to guide them by phone.  There were anxious moments when we lost touch of them due to signal dead spots.  Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the faint but welcome glow of flashlights carried by the guys came into foggy view.  We all greeted them with a sigh of relief and, after a narration of their misadventures, helped them set up their tents.  The rest of the night was spent chatting, singing, drinking and making merry.

Taytay Falls (Majayjay, Laguna)

Rain, rain go away. Come again another day.”  So moaned this bored and grounded travel writer who was itching to get out of town again.  It was supposed to be the advent of the dreaded El Niño phenomenon again and, usually, mornings always promise to be a bright, sunny day.  However, expectations always turn to gloom as dark clouds always appear in the horizon by afternoon, bursting into rain hours later.  What the heck! I will go get out, rain or shine (shine I hope).

 Lala, the author, Myrna, Ning and Menchie

I did find people with the same mind set from Jesu-Mariae School (JMS), my son Jandy’s school.  Joining me were Mr. Robert Castañeda, Ms. Elvira “Lala” Mañanita, Ms. Myrna Samson, Ms. Leonila “Ning” Boncayao and Ms. Menchie Fortunado.  We decided to do some overnight camping at Taytay Falls in Brgy. Taytay, Majayjay in Laguna.  We all left JMS, after lunch (1:30 PM) on 12 October, a Saturday.  The trip to Majayjay was to take all of 120 kms.. Aside from my passengers, my Mitsubishi Adventure was laden with tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and provisions.  The afternoon skies were again overcast. We traveled via the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) all the way to Calamba City, then on to the resort town of Los Baños, Bay (the old Laguna capital), Calauan, Victoria, Pila and Sta. Cruz (the provincial capital), turning right at the junction on to a road leading to Nagcarlan, Liliw and finally Majayjay.  There were glimmers of hope as the sun shone most of the way.

Settling in our tents

The last leg was particularly winding but altogether  scenic; passing beautiful mountain scenery (1,470-m. high Mt. Cristobal and 2,177-m. high Mt. Banahaw), lanzones trees laden with ripe and read-to-harvest fruit, and clear, swift flowing rivers with bathing children and washing mothers.  It was truly a scene for a Fernando Amorsolo genre painting. We arrived at Majayjay’s poblacion by 5 PM with hopes dashed as it began to rain. We were truly in for a “wet” reception. We first paid a visit to the home of Mr. Florencio “Flory” Rosales, secretary of town councilor Rey Cube (referred to us by Mr. Manuel “Noli” Canlas, board member of JMS).  Mr. Rosales was more than kind enough to personally guide us towards the staging area for the trek to Taytay Falls, waiving the entrance fee of PhP20 per person.  He also assigned guides to assist us.  From hereon we were on our own.

It was already getting dark when we arrived at the staging area.  Normally the hike to the falls takes just 10mins..  However, this was a different story as we would be trekking in the pitch-black darkness of a rainy, eerie and moonless night.  Luckily, we had flashlights and our guides.  The narrow, two-foot wide concrete path was sandwiched between a mountain spring-fed canal running alongside the mountain on the left and deep, treacherous ravines on the right. G.I. pipe railings kept us on the safe side.  We arrived at the campsite after what seemed an eternity.

Taytay Falls

Our first face-to-face encounter with the falls would have to wait for tomorrow due to darkness but the sound of its onrushing waters would be a constant reminder of its presence.  For the time being, we had other concerns to think about. Beautiful places such as these are not well-kept secrets and the place was teeming with weekend campers from the town and Manila.  We were quite a sorry sight, drenched from head to foot by the rain, muddied, hungry and with no proper place to pitch a tent.  While our kusineras Myrna and Ning hastily prepared our dinner of fried liempo (it would have been barbecued if not for someone forgetting the grille – me), corned beef and steamed rice over my portable stove, Robert and I groped in dark for a less than suitable place (our selected site was rocky) to pitch 3 of our tents.  Once settled in, we attacked, with gusto, our prepared dinner and hit the sack early for a well-deserved but not so fitful sleep.

View of campsite from atop the falls

I woke up very early in the morning with somewhat revived spirits and a sore back (“Pwedeng pang sungka ang likod ko”).  The others soon followed, all in a similar state of mind and body.  As the early morning sun crept in, the beauty of the place slowly emerged.   No rain.  Our campsite was located beside a moderately flowing river whose icy-cold, crystal-clear waters came from the beautiful 30-ft. high waterfall located about 100 m.  away.  Everyone was excited to sample its inviting waters.  But first, my early morning coffee fix and breakfast!  As soon as it was prepared by our ever dependable kusineras, we all transferred all our stuff: tents, backpacks and prepared breakfast, to a more suitable site right beside the falls. Who cares about breakfast in bed when you can’t have it beside a beautiful waterfall!   That done, we soon settled down to a filling repast similar to what we had last night.

Our excitement to have our first dip at the falls soon turned to cowardice as we dipped our toes in the icy-cold waters of the natural pool.  Brrrr!  What the heck!  I bravely dove in and endured the shivering and the sound of my teeth clattering as my body slowly, but surely, adjusted to the temperature. After much goading, the others (Myrna, Ning, Menchit and Lala in that order of bravery) soon followed my lead.   Robert and I also did some exploring of our own by clambering up a well-defined but muddy trail to the top of the falls. It was even more beautiful here (and less crowded).  From here, we had a bird’s eye view of the campsite (our companions look like ants below), creek and the surrounding verdant rainforest.  I could stay here forever.   Back at the campsite and terra firma, we soon had our fill of the falls and its verdant surroundings, packed our tents, backpacks and other gear and soon made our way back to the staging area and our car.

The Waterfalls of Mt. Romelo (Siniloan, Laguna)

Mt. Famy in Laguna, the nearest and most accessible mountain trekking destination from Manila.  The mountain, in itself, is no “tall” order being only about 1,100 ft. (335 m.) high.  The charm of the place, aside from its accessibility, lies in its 7 beautiful waterfalls (Ambon-Ambon Falls, Batya-Batya Falls, Buruwisan Falls, Lanzones Falls, Matandang Buruwisan Falls, Sampaloc Falls and Sapang Labo Falls).  It was this charm that made me decide to visit the place.  I brought with me Jandy and Jesu-Mariae School teachers Mr. Roy Trillo and Mr. Arnel Daliva.  We left Manila by 6:30 AM traveling via the C-5 highway to Pasig City, Antipolo City, and the Rizal towns of Cainta, Taytay, Teresa, Morong, Baras, Tanay and Pililla, before crossing the Laguna boundary, to Mabitac and Famy.

Buruwisan Falls

The views along the winding and well-maintained asphalt highway at Mabitac were truly spectacular as we feasted our eyes on the surprisingly forested mountains of the majestic Sierra Madres and the calm, azure waters of Laguna de Bay.  The route here, and in Antipolo City, is full of sharp, Kennon-like zigzag bends.    Asking around at the Caltex station in Famy town, we were beginning to wonder why no one seems to know or even heard about this mountain named after their town.  One even gave us wrong directions to a mountain in Pakil.  The answer is simply because it isn’t there in the first place.  We tried the next town of Siniloan.

Jandy rafting at the falls

Later conversations with Siniloan residents Geronimo and Marilyn Pontipedra revealed that our mountain destination was, due to an erroneous land survey, placed within the territorial jurisdiction of Famy town. Hence, the name Mt. Famy.  In reality, the mountain belongs to Brgy. Macatad in Siniloan.  Here, they call it Mt. Romelo.  Two of the mountain’s 7 waterfalls are another story.  Buruwisan Falls and Ambon-Ambon Falls, according to some travel brochures that I’ve read, are supposedly under the jurisdiction of neighboring Sta. Maria and Pangil towns respectively.  Brgy. Macatad’s residents claim otherwise.   We arrived at the jump-off point by 9 AM and parked our car, for a fee, at a house along the highway.  All four of us registered our names at the store of Ms. Pontipedra and gave a small donation.  Laden with our gear we, at first, refused offers for guides and porters.  This was foolish economy on our part as there were many forks along the trails.  We finally engaged the services of 13-year old Macatad resident Joel Diaz as our guide.   Later, he also became my porter as the heavy weight of my backpack began to tell on my unfit, then 43-year old body.  Who ever said age doesn’t matter?

Camping by the falls

Our destination, Buruwisan Falls, is accessible by two mountain trails: Puting Bato and Pulang Lupa (the shorter route).  I neglected to ask which route we took. The initial part of the trail was through rocky streams and muddy river beds.  We soon entered a light forest and it was uphill and downhill all the way through 2 hills, passing occasional spear grass (cogon) trails.  The most difficult part was clambering up a steep 45-degree grassy incline to the top of the first hill.  Here, two stores offer a welcome relief of cool soft drinks and fresh buko (all for an understandably “steep” price of course) to the victorious climber.  This scene is also repeated on the second hill.   Both hills offer spectacular mountain views and weak Smart and Globe signals.  Beyond the hill, my mobile phone become useless baggage.

It is never lonely along the sometimes muddy trail as it was the peak of the trekking season.  Groups of hikers occasionally passed us by (and vice-versa).  One even rode on a horse (hired for PhP150 one way).  These horses also carry gear and supplies.  Soon after passing the second hill, our spirits were buoyed by the sound of rushing water as we neared our destination.  After three hours of strenuous trekking, we arrived at the campsite in time for lunch.  We pitched our tents below the falls’ rocky overhang (a good shelter from the sun and rain, but quite risky during an earthquake).  I particularly situated my tent‘s opening to face the falls. There were already 6 tents pitched before our arrival.

Lanzones Falls

The 50-ft. high, postcard-perfect Buruwisan Fall is featured in many travel books for the rappelling thrills it offers.   According to Joel, other visitors here even engage in the very dangerous, extreme sport of diving from the top of the cliff down to the falls’ deep pool.  Luckily, no one has, as yet, died from it.  On my part, I just engaged in the safer sport of just swimming in its bracingly cold waters while Jandy paddled along on a floating log.   Our indispensable Joel who continually served us throughout our stay, later guided me to Lanzones Falls, downstream to the right from Buruwisan Falls.  Although half the height of Buruwisan, it was just as spectacular and its shallow pool had surprisingly clearer waters than its predecessor.

Matandang Buruwisan Falls

The waters of the two waterfalls meet to form the majestic but rarely visited Matandang Buruwisan Falls (Binaytuan Falls to others).  Said to be 200 ft. high, its splendor is rarely seen by visitors as its base can be reached only after a very difficult hike.   Joel was one of the lucky ones to have visited it.  I could only view it from the falls’ top.  After an early supper, we retired to our tents for a much needed rest after a hectic day.  Sleep, however, was almost an impossibility as the ground beneath our tents was rocky.  The rubber mat I brought along only provided some relief.  I was also quite unused to roaring sound of the waterfall beside us.

Batya-Batya Falls

We awoke early amidst a slight drizzle, had a hearty breakfast, dismantled our tents and packed our backpacks.  Leaving our gear behind at the store of Joel’s grandmother, we then proceeded, with Joel leading the way, upstream to Batya-Batya Falls.  Getting there was easier said than done as we had to hop among large boulders and twice wade through 5-ft. deep waters, carrying our belongings above our heads.  After a 30 min. hike, we finally reached the falls.  Equally beautiful as the others we visited, it was unique in its own way as its crystal-clear waters fell in tiers.  There were small, deep basins (hence the name, batya which means “basin”) at every drop.  We had the irresistible urge to climb it and all four of us did so.  Joel stayed behind with our stuff.  Climbing it was quite difficult but well worth the effort.  Up the falls was another stream leading to Sampaloc Falls.  It entailed a long hike though.  Four out of seven waterfalls visited already make a good batting average, so we decide to forego a trek to this fifth fall.   With great difficulty, we retraced our steps back down the falls. 

We were back to the store by 10 AM. Here, we changed into dry clothes and started our hike back to my car.   We made it back in a “record” time of 2 hrs., stopping only for rest at the two hilltop rest areas.  After a short talk with Ms. Pontipedra and a late merienda of halo-halo, we left by 1 PM after paying the PhP100 parking fee.  We arrived in Manila by 4 PM, stopping only for a late lunch in Antipolo City.