Return to Wawa Gorge (Rodriguez, Rizal)

Wawa Gorge

The day after my grandson Kyle’s 6th birthday, I together with the rest of my family joined employees of E. Ganzon Inc. in distributing relief goods to residents of Sitio Wawa in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban, it was renamed after Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez Sr., Montalban’s first mayor and Senate president, in 1982) in Rizal. Last August 11-13, the area was hit by flash flooding that also destroyed the bridge that connects Sitio Wawa with Sitio Sto. Niño.

Sitio Wawa

This wasn’t my first visit to this area.  The first time I was in Wawa was way back in 2004 when I was a guest in a demonstration tour, for teacher representatives from 9 different schools, hosted by Lakbay Kalikasan. At Wawa Gorge, we engaged in the adrenaline-pumping sport of rappelling at the gorge’s metal footbridge.

Check out “Rapelling at Wawa Gorge

Sitio Wawa lies is in between the 426 m. high Mt. Pamitinan and 424 m. high Mt. Binacayan.  Its abandoned reservoir is visited mostly by hikers as the jump-off point for the trek to either beginner-friendly mountain, two of three mountains in the well-loved trilogy hike (the other is 517 m. high Mt. Hapunang Banoi). Guide fee is Php500 per group.

Mt. Pamitinan

The two mountains form a scenic view that appears like a portal to the sky, hence the name wawa, the Dumagat term for “entrance.” Sitio Wawa is a habitat of the Remontado Dumagat, mixed-blood offspring of lowlanders, who fled the Spanish colonizers, and of Negritos, the original setters in the area.

Mt. Binacayan

Legend has it that a giant of extraordinary strength named Bernardo Carpio (our version of Hercules or Atlas) who, in olden times, was trapped by an enkanto (enchanted creature) between Mt. Pamitinan and Mt. Binacayan. He caused earthquakes, landslides and flooding in nearby villages every time he struggles to free himself from his chains or keep the boulders from crushing him or from colliding.

Parking lot for visitors

José Rizal was said to have made a pilgrimage to Montalban to pay homage to Bernardo Carpio, a versatile symbol of freedom. In recent times, Lavrente “Lav” Diaz has used the legend as organic symbol in his 2016 historical fantasy dram film Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (“A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery”). The riverbed is said to have a boulder with a hollow that forms what look like a gigantic footprint, attributed by locals to Bernardo Carpio.

The E. Ganzon, Inc. group. The author is at left

Historically, the site was used as a hide out by the revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio who made one of Pamitinan’s caves as the Katipunan’s secret headquarters.  Here, Bonifacio and eight of his men entered the cave on Palm Sunday and came out on Good Friday. Here, they declared independence from Spain on April 12, 1895, over a year before the Revolution started.

The children of Sitio Wawa

Some 500 meters of narrow passage away from the mouth of Pamitinan Cave is the bulwagan (“hall”), a cavern over 50 ft. high and about 50 ft. in radius.  Inscribed on the cavern wall, in what looks like charcoal (possibly soot from a torch), are the words Viva la Independencia.  The Pamitinan pilgrimage is held here in April.

A currently closed hanging bridge

In 1943, the cave was turned into a Japanese armory. Mary Japanese died here from American fire. In 1977, a concrete marker commemorating them was fixed on the cliff wall over the cave’s mouth, above which is a metal plate, inscribed with Japanese characters with English translation, that reads: “Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and let them share Your glory.” In 1985, the cave was declared a National Geological Monument.

The narrow paved trail. along a ridge, leading to Wawa Dam

It is closed for rehabilitation until further notice.  In 1996, the area was declared a Protected Landscape managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Tourism.

A waterfall emanating from a cave

After lunch at one of the area’s eateries, we decided to make the 500-m. trek, along a ridge, to Wawa Dam, the prominent landmark of Sitio Wawa. Along the narrow, paved trail are stores selling organic vegetables (eggplant, squash, gabi, takway, puso ng saging, pandan leaves, etc.), river shrimps, crabs, eels, carp, charcoal, assorted fruits (bananas, papaya,) etc., snacks and beverages to tourists.

The author at the steel footbridge near the dam

On Tuesdays and Fridays, foot traffic is heavy on the trail, with young men carrying sacks of fruits and vegetables.  After crossing a metal footbridge, we reached the slightly arched dam.  Coupled with the beautiful landscape of 80-160 feet high white rock walls, limestone crags and marble boulders, the dam was perfect for photography.

Wawa Dam

Wawa Dam, also known as Montalban Dam, is an 85 m. 9279 ft.) long  and 12 m. (40 ft.) high gravity dam constructed over the Marikina River. The slightly arched dam is situated in the 360-m. (1,180 ft.) high Montalban Gorge or Wawa Gorge, a water gap in the Sierra Madre Mountains, east of Manila.

Kyle, Grace and Jandy with the dam in the background

The waters of the Upper Marikina River basin, its headwater said to be in Quezon province, runs through the gorge and descends to the lowlands of the neighboring town of San Mateo and Marikina Valley. During summer, cottages are built at the foot of the dam but, as it was the rainy season, they remove the cottages because of the heavy impact of water.

The old, roofless American-era watchtower flanking the dam

The dam was built in 1904, during the American colonial era, started operating in 1909 to provide the water needs for Manila. It used to be the only source of water for the greater Manila area but it was closed in 1962 due to deterioration and lack of water supply and abandoned when it was replaced by the La Mesa-Ipo-Angat watershed system.

The sparsity of its water was most likely due to the logging and quarrying in the mountains. However, due to insufficiency of water supply for Metro Manila, there is now a strong clamor to reuse the dam. Wawa Dam is also pictured in their official seal of the local government of Rodriguez.

The reservoir behind the dam

For those who are not fans of mountain hiking, Wawa Dam’s has picnic spots. If you don’t want to bring your own food and beverages, sari-sari stores, food stalls and a wet market are available in the place. You can rent a bamboo cottage (Php150-500) and toilets are Php10 per use (bring your own toiletries or buy them at the sari-sari stores).

The roofless interior of the old watchtower

Wawa Dam: M. H. Del Pilar Street, Sitio Wawa, Brgy. San Rafael, Rodriguez, RizalPhilippines.

How to Get There:

By Car: Despite the usual traffic, the fastest route to Wawa is via Commonwealth Ave., then take Payatas Road going to Rodriguez Highway until you reach M.H Del Pilar Street. Inside Wawa Village, there’s a parking space where the locals look after your car for any amount. Travel time is around 1.5 to 2hrs.

By Public Transportation: In front of Jollibee, Farmers, Cubao, Quezon City, there’s a UV Express Terminal where you can take the van going to Rodriguez (fare: Php50 per head).  Drop-off at Montalban Terminal.  Here, you can ride a tricycle going to Wawa Village (fare: Php20 per head). From  SM North/Trinoma, you can also ride a UV Express van (fare: Php50) going to Eastwood Montalban and drop off at Eastwood Ministop. Then, ride a jeep going to Wawa (fare: Php8). From the parking lot, you have to walk for 5-10 minutes. Alternatively, from Cubao/SM North/Trinoma, you can ride a bus or jeepney going to Litex and, from there, ride a jeepney going to Montalban Town Center and another jeepney to Wawa. This is much cheaper but a bit of a hassle.

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.

Mt. Pulag National Park – Manila to Bokod

A very big item in my travel Bucket List is to climb the three highest mountains in the Philippines – the 2,956 m. high Mt. Apo and the 2,938 m. high Mt. Dulang-Dulang, both in Mindanao, and the 2,922 m. high Mt. Pulag in Luzon, all in that order.  Of course, it made sense to first climb the latter, the nearest to home of the three.

Mt. Pulag National Park

Mt. Pulag National Park

I booked my climb to Mt. Pulag, with my son Jandy, through good friend Violeta Imperial, Exec. Director of Nature Awareness and Conservation Club, Inc.  All in all, we were 12 (our 13th member, Mr. Maki Las was to meet us in Baguio) in our group. There are four different trails going to the grassland summit of Mt. Pulag – the Bokod (also called Ambangeg) Trail, the 2 to 3-day Akiki (called the “Killer Trail,” it is the steepest) Trail, the leech (limatik)-infested Tawangan Trail and the Ambaguio (the longest) Trail in Nueva Vizcaya.   and we were going to climb the mountain via the easy Bokod Trail (also called the “Executive Trail”) which is the safest and has the mildest grade.

The ladies at our chartered passenger jeepney

The ladies at our chartered passenger jeepney

Joining Violet, Jandy and I were Expedition Leader Mr. Rexbello “Rex”  Alfafara (mobile numbers 0920-4651626 and 09327435252) of Sierra Adventurers and Mountain Explorers, Inc.; good friends Ms. Rayhil Palaganas (Financial Advisor – Sun Life Financial), Ms. Rosemarie S. Palmera and Ms. Marceju Aizza A. Ragat (JDE Finance Functional Consultant – Cyret Technologies, Inc.); Ms. Almira Ablan Tinonas (De La Salle University student/artist); Ms. Celeste Marie “Lelet” Garcia (HR Manager – Phoenix Petroleum); and Ms. Lorelie Mandela (Project Manager – Global Business World) with her children Celene and Arvin.

Country Road Cafe and Restaurant

Country Road Cafe and Restaurant

We all assembled at the Victory Liner Terminal in Pasay City and left on the 9 PM bus for Baguio City, the jump-off point for our climb.  After running the gauntlet of traffic along EDSA and 2 stopovers at Tarlac City and Sison (Pangasinan), we arrived at the city’s Victory Liner Bus Terminal by 3:45 AM.  We then boarded a passenger jeepney chartered  by Rex for our climb.  Up ahead was a 2-hour/80 km. roller coaster drive, through the winding zigzags of the fabled Ambuklao Road, to Kabayan town.  I shouldn’t have slept through part of the trip as I woke up sick on my stomach.  We had our breakfast at Country Road Café and Restaurant but I didn’t eat much.

DENR Mt. Pulag Park Office

DENR Mt. Pulag Park Office

That done, we returned to our jeepney for the short drive to the DENR Mt. Pulag Park Office to register and secure a permit, both done by Violet, and be given a short briefing.  Climbers are asked to register for orientation either here or at the Babadak ranger station at Bashoy village in Kabayan.

L-R: Almira, Rose, Rayhil, Marceju, Lorelie, Arvin, Celeste and Celene

L-R: Almira, Rose, Rayhil, Marceju, Lorelie, Arvin, Celeste and Celene

There were lots of would-be and real mountaineers waiting for orientation prior to their climb.  We were on the second batch. During our orientation, DENR Superintendent Emerita Albas gave our group a short environmental briefing on the dos and don’ts, the harsh environment and the basics of mountaineering for trekking Mt. Pulag National Park. The orientation was necessary for the climbers’ safety and the park’s environmental protection. Here are some tips and park rules to follow when climbing Mt. Pulag:

  • Garbage in, garbage out. Trash, whether organic or non-biodegradable should all be brought down and disposed of properly.
  • No intimacy at the campsite.
  • Stay on the established trails to minimize damage to vegetation and prevent further destruction of the mountain slopes. Walk single file in the middle of the trail, even when it is wet or muddy.

Hike to Camp 2 (2)

  • Respect the serenity of the place by keeping noise to a minimum level. Wildlife such as birds may get scared and interrupted from their normal routine.
  • Strong hikers, especially for big groups, should be designated to act as sweepers to take care of stragglers. In this way, weaker members are assured that they could get help from others should they be in trouble.
  • All hikers must always be guided by the Mountaineer’s Creed – take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
  • On the way up, slower hikers must give way to stronger hikers. On the other hand, stronger hikers should not tailgate weaker hikers.
  • If there are no trail signs at trail junctions, advance group members should make temporary directional signs (e.g. Sticks, scratch on the soil, etc.) for others to follow.
  • It is always best to be on the side of caution especially when hiking along slippery trails. Light walking sticks, canes and trekking poles help a lot as it acts like another foot.  Help, especially medical in nature, may take some time to reach anybody. In case of trouble or emergencies, attract help by making as much noise as possible by hollering or shouting.
  • To avoid creating wildfires, smokers must properly put off their cigarettes as the pine forest floor is susceptible to fire, especially during summer months.  Smoking in the grassland is highly discouraged. Bonfires at the campsite are also prohibited.  For cooking and boiling water, bring a portable stove.
  • Before hiking, fill up your canteens or water bottles (1.5 to 2 liters of water is recommended per person). At camp 1 and Camp 2, there are springs nearby and the water is potable.  For people who have sensitive stomachs, the use of purifying tablets is advisable. If you are bringing bottled water with you on your hike, please keep the empty bottle and bring them back down and out the national park when you leave.
  • The weather on the mountain is unpredictable and it could rain anytime.  It is therefore advisable for hikers to bring with them rain gear (raincoat, poncho, etc.) and warm clothing (jackets, sweaters, scarves, bonnets, gloves, thermal underwear, socks, blankets, etc.) to ward off cold temperatures. But don’t wear your warm clothing yet on your hike to Camp 2 as your body will heat up from all the energy you burn.  Waterproof your things.  Bring a waterproof backpack cover, plastic bags or black garbage bags and a drybag for your camera.

Ranger Station (6)

  • As your feet are the most important part of your body during a trek (once you injure them, you have no way of going back down, lest you are carried down), wear comfortable yet sturdy shoes with good traction (you will slide and stumble, at one point or another) underneath. Make sure the shoes you wear are broken-in and comfortable.
  • For those bringing their tents, use a three or four-season tent that can withstand the cold wind and rain.
  • Bring only what is necessary as loads get heavier for every kilometer traversed. The lesser the weight on your bag, the easier your trek will be.
  • Park officers reserve the right to randomly inspect baggage to determine whether banned items (liquor, dangerous drugs, deadly weapons, etc.) are present. Such items, when found, will be automatically confiscated and kept for safekeeping.

  • Communicate with your expedition leader and/or designated/hired guide. He possesses knowledge of the area.
Expedition leader Rex Alfafara

Expedition leader Rex Alfafara

  • Respect the indigenous people’s (Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Kankana-ey and Ibanag) culture. Their culture may be different from yours but it is their culture. Most of them consider Mt. Pulag as a sacred place not only because it is a resting place and playground of their gods but also a place where they bury their dead. You are in their cultural ground.
  • If climbers reach the Badabak ranger station at 5 PM, they are advised to spend the night there and not persist on hiking to the grassland area or camping area since the area, after 5 PM, is always misty and cloudy, making directional signs and trails not easily visible.
  • Hiking is not a race.  It should be fun and is free. Take time to regulate your breathing, look around and enjoy the scenery that nature offers.
DENR Superintendent Emerita Albas

DENR Superintendent Emerita Albas

DENR-PASu Office: Sitio Ambangeg, Brgy. Daclan, Bokod, Benguet.  Tel: (074) 444-3592. Mobile number (0919) 631-5402 (Ms. Albas).

Current park fee rates (the first two are remitted to the Integrated Protected Area Fund or IPAF while the third is remitted to the Kabayan local treasury for their use):

  • Entrance fee: PhP100.00
  • Camping fee: PhP50.00
  • Green fee: PhP25.00

Aside from the fees, hikers are required to engage an accredited guide (member of MPITGA) with a ratio of 1-7 hikers to 1 guide. The pay is P500.00 per guide per overnight.

The author with tour organizer Violeta Imperial

The author with tour organizer Violeta Imperial

Nature Awareness and Conservation Club, Inc.: 18 Pioneer St., Moonwalk Village, Las Pinas City, Metro Manila. Tel: (632) 806-1720.  Mobile numbers: (0915) 510-1600 and (0932) 243-9478.  E-mail:

Sierra Adventurers and Mountain Explorers, Inc.: E-mail:, Website:

Profiles of Pinay Heroism

The author with 3 gutsy ladies

During a visit to Club Balai Isabel (Talisay, Batangas) I met, in person, 3 women who exemplify the Pinay spirit at its best: the Kaya ng Pinay Mt. Everest Team composed of Janet Belarmino, Carina Dayondon and Noelle Wenceslao.  These 3 Filipinas, all members of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), made history by becoming the first Southeast Asian women to reach the summit of 8,848-m. (29,028-ft.) high Mt. Everest (also called Mt. Qomolangma), the world’s tallest mountain (literally the top of the world) and the ultimate challenge to human endurance (it has now been summitted 3,067 times). Everest sits on the border of Nepal and the Tibetan region of China. In 2006, Filipinos Leo Oracion, Erwin “Pastour” Emata and Romy Garduce successfully climbed from Nepal on the shorter but arguably the more dangerous, so-called South-East route. The 3 women are the first women in the world to traverse or cross Everest from the less treacherous North side (with its earlier summit window) to the South side, crossing the mountain from Tibet to Nepal, a feat done by a handful of mountaineers – all of them men. The traverse poses a bigger challenge for the women as they will be passing an unfamiliar route to come down the mountain.

Janet Belarmino

Janet, from Nueva Vizcaya, is a member of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers, a fitness instructor for the Moro Lorenzo Fitness Gym in Ateneo and an excellent sport climber, lawn tennis coach and champion triathlete.  Noelle, a prized member of the Dragonboat team, is also an expert biker, extreme adventure athlete and mountaineer.  Both women were consistent winners in the Philippine and Hong Kong legs of the AXN adventure races. Carina, a formidable sport climber and the youngest member of the team, has been scaling mountains in her native Bukidnon since she was 17 when she was studying at Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City.  She climbed 7,548-m. (24,758-ft.) high Muztagh Ata in China-Pakistan, the highest peak ever reached by any Filipino, man or woman, before Everest.  Carina and Noelle, plus team doctor Ted Esguerra, documenter Fred B. Jamili, Emata and team leader Arturo Valdez, were to leave on May 19 to participate at the 42-km. 6th Hillary-Tenzing Mt. Everest Marathon, the highest marathon in the world (commemorates the 55th anniversary of the Edmund HillaryTenzing Norgay climb), from the 17-149-ft. level Mt. Everest Base Camp at Nepal (South side) to the town of Namche Bazar in Nepal (11,300 ft.), over rough and treacherous trails with two steep uphill sections. Ten days later, on May 29, Carina finished first, among foreign female climbers and behind 7 Nepali women, in the aforementioned marathon, with a time of 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Carina Dayondon

At a presscon held at the resort’s function room, all 3 recounted their hardships and sacrifices in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. Janet had to battle personal problems prior to the climb, giving birth, in December 2006, to a healthy baby boy named Himalaya, just one month before their training for the Everest climb started (she was thus, the first woman to summit Everest just months after giving birth). She said it was emotionally a very difficult thing to leave her small son at home with her husband Ricky and join the expedition, putting her life at great risk at the mercy of the mountain. Noelle, on the other hand, lost her mom to a stroke as she was on her way to the airport to pick up Noelle who successfully climbed 20,320-ft. Mt. McKinley (also called Mt. Denali) in Alaska, the highest in North America.  Carina, on the other hand, was the family’s breadwinner.  During the climb, they also missed their families in the Philippines – something that proved to be an additional burden for them. At the Himalayas, Noelle also suffered from acute mountain sickness (AMS) and pulmonary edema while climbing (she had to descend to 5,000 m. to recover).  Their skin, especially on the face, was damaged due to the extreme cold and heat. All came down with blotches and sunburn on their faces. Theoretically, the 3 women’s route was longer and the journey much more difficult. During their climb, the weather was not too cooperative. They carried backpacks weighing 50 lbs, an ice axe that is at least 2 lbs. and wore high altitude boots and down suit that acted like thermal blankets. The Filipinas also had to negotiate the dreaded Khumbu Icefall (where 3 Sherpas recently lost their lives), a large slab of ice that covers the lower part of the mountain’s south face. Ice seracs (pointed masses of ice), deep crevasses and ever-shifting masses of ice make for a dangerous trek. Climbers usually use metal ladders to cross crevasses, making sure that the anchors on their ropes are secure.  Down the mountain, at Camp 2 (which has a reputation as the “Death Zone” where extreme cold can sap a climber’s strength), the Filipinas will encounter the Lhotse Face, a steep and narrow ice-laden ledge.

Noelle Wenceslao

Combining hard work, dogged determination and a positive attitude, they all conquered these obstacles by training to be tough mentally as well as physically. They went to New Zealand to train for alpine climbing.  On the Himalayan range in Nepal, they climbed the lower, 5,500-m. high Gokyo Ri (which had a full view of Everest) so that their body could adjust to the lower oxygen level (50% compared to sea level) at higher altitudes.   In spite of strong support from sponsors and a solid team behind their backs, they still worked on a tight budget.  Their route, aside from being relatively safer, was also cheaper as the permit for climbing, per person, from Tibet is about $4,000 compared to $10,000 on the Nepalese side. They did their laundry in very cold rivers and, to save on shower expenses, they did not take a bath for more than 60 days.

Janet and her Mt. Everest outfit

A small window of good weather (very clear with winds in between 20-30 kms./hr.), a little good luck, prayers back home and a lot of determination, they reached the top of Everest to once again plant the Philippine flag on the highest point in the world. Noelle (with Sherpa Lakpa Gyalzen) was the first to reach the summit at 6:10 am Nepal time (8:10 am in Manila) followed by Carina (with Pemba Choti) 10 minutes later.  They stayed on the summit for 20 minutes.   Janet, who reportedly initially lost radio contact with the Philippine team at the Everest’s base camp, was delayed because she had to wait her turn among the climbers wanting to reach the summit. She arrived at around 7:45 am, Nepal time, with Pasang Norbu. All three Sherpas guided Leo Oracion and Pastor Emata in their historic climb to Everest.  This was no small feat for three tough-as-nails ladies whose childhood exposure to ice, until three years before (in India), was limited to ice cubes, sorbetes and halo-halo.  Again, they proved that if we set our minds to it and unite in a common cause, we can climb whatever heights and reach whatever distance we imagine. They didn’t just do it for themselves, but for all the Filipinas around the world struggling to conquer their own mountains.  In doing so, they have again made the country proud and left a legacy of hope, faith and triumph of the human spirit.  The real victory is conquering, not Mt. Everest, but ourselves, our fears, our insecurities and our differences.


Trek to Sto. Kalbaryo (Dolores, Quezon)

Pointing to heaven

Finally, we were cleansed enough to climb up Sto. Kalbaryo (Durungawan II to mountaineers), a bare, lava rock-filled mountain located just below Mt. Cristobal.  The highest mountain in Complex 1, it is so called because, during Holy Week, hundreds of pilgrims trace Christ’s supposed ascent from Dolores to the summit, re-enacting Christ’s passion and death.    We were to do ours two weeks early. The hot afternoon sun was still shining brightly up in the sky as we clambered our way, thirsty and sweating profusely, through a well-marked trail, up the treeless and rocky mountain.

The author with Rob and Ely

Throughout my trek, I also felt the mystique and magic of Mt. Banahaw and Mt. Cristobal around me, more so when we reached the top where 3 wooden crosses were strategically planted to recreate the actual crucifixion scene. By tradition, on Good Friday, the summit is deserted, as mystics believe that only God the Father may bear witness to His Son’s death.  It is also said that on that same day, an enkanto (spirit) opens a hidden cave near the crosses which acts as a pathway to the netherworld.  Anyone at the summit, at this time, will be forced to enter it and never return.  Reaching the summit of a mountain was a first for many of my companions. For me, it brought me 2,400 ft. nearer to Heaven and my Creator.    Thus, it was with deep regret and a heavy heart that I had to make the shorter but more difficult descent down the mountain and back to earth.  For me, my climb up that mountain has been well worth it as this most jaded of travelers has left it purer in heart.

Lakbay Kalikasan: G/F Balai Lakbay, 2 Alondras St., Mira-Nila Homes, Tandang Sora Ave., Quezon City, Metro Manila.  Tel: (632) 932-7818 to 19.  Mobile number: (0917) 500-4796. Website:

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.

Surviving Mt. Hibok-Hibok (Mambajao, Camiguin)

Mt. Hibok-Hibok

We were now on our fourth day, April 11,  in Camiguin and we felt that our stay here would not be complete without climbing one of Camiguin’s 7 volcanoes (there are more volcanoes than towns in Camiguin).  The king of them all is the 1,250-m.  high Mt. Hibok-Hibok, the island’s only active volcano which, on December 5, 1951, erupted without warning, issuing steaming hot gases and killing 3,000 people who were asphyxiated when huge amounts of oxygen were absorbed in the air.  A glowing avalanche of lava devastated many villages and covered about 10 sq. kms..  More than 30,000 people left the island after the eruption.  

Now, almost half a century later, we were going to test our mettle by climbing this volcano.  Making the climb were  ladies Lulu Siguenza and Rosevie Sevilla and guys Carl Allen, Nubbin Beldia, Henry Chua, Jake San Diego, Randy Ypon, Jandy and I.  We woke up by 7 AM, had our usual Filipino breakfast, dressed up in casual shorts (the ladies wore pants), T-shirts, caps, sunglasses and rubber shoes and sandals, brought our cameras  and were picked up by our usual hired passenger jeepney driven by the ever reliable and friendly Camiguinons Charlie and Rico). We left at 8 AM and arrived, 20 mins. later, at Ardent Hot Spring Resort in Brgy. Esperanza, the take-off point for the climb. 

For provisions we each brought bottled water  (Jandy and I each brought a 1-liter bottle) and 2 loaves of sliced bread and chicken spread bought at the public market. At the resort, we hired the services of Camiguinon guides Hamilton and RV (for the fee of PhP350 each, they also carried our provisions). After about 10 mins. of stretching exercises, we  began out climb at 8:30 A.M..  Hamilton took point while RV took the rear.  We walked through a light forest and a hamlet of two houses and went past a coconut plantation before entering another light forest. The cheerful banter soon gave way to subdued silence as we  made our way up loose soil and  blackened volcanic rocks, grasping at trees and  oftentimes sharp, meter-high spear grass (cogon) for support.  Soon scratches appeared on our hands, arms and legs.  We were also consuming our water at an alarming rate, and I had Jandy to just wet his lips instead and I had to impose water discipline on Jandy, asking him to just wet his lips instead.  Our rest periods were frequent. Carl suggested 2-min. rest period after a 10-min. hike.  Nubbin, on the other hand, suggested the reverse, drawing laughter from all of us.  There’s nothing like a touch of laughter (the best medicine) to make us forget, albeit temporarily, our sore muscles and flagging spirits.

View of White Island

As we went higher up the mountain, the panorama of clear blue sky above, Mt. Tres Marias below, and C-shaped White Island far out into the sea came into view.   An ideal photo opportunity.  We hiked for 2 hrs. and were relieved to enter a gently sloping  light forest.  The tip of volcano still loomed far, far ahead.  From here to the summit it would be a tough scramble on  a steeper, 40-45 degree section over loose rocks, boulders, scree, lava and rock faces.   It was now noon and we decided to have our lunch of bread and chicken spread. We had difficulty washing it down because of our alarmingly low water supply.  We realized how inadequate our provisions were.  Soon they were all gone.   It was also during this rest period that I began to feel pain in my legs.

At the peak of Mt. Hibok-Hibok

We decided to get going at 1 PM in order to make it to the peak by 2 PM.  We estimated a return trip of 3 to 4 hrs., and we didn’t want to be caught by nightfall.  Nobody had thought to bring flashlights.  I was bringing up the rear and, my legs bothered me all too frequently.   When I saw that I was slowing the group down, I told the others to go on ahead and leave me with Jandy.   However, Jandy wanted to join the others so I let him go after getting assurances from the rest that he would be watched and guided carefully.   Soon they disappeared up the trail. 

Nubbin exploring the crater’s rim

During the long wait, I fell into a fitful sleep and was only awakened when they were on their way down the volcano.  Jandy  was accompanied by Lulu, Vi and Henry. According to the group, Jandy was third up the summit, followed by Randy, Carl and Henry.  The women brought up the rear.  All perched precariously on the barely 5-ft. wide knife’s edge on the crater’s rim. After a 30-mins. rest and photo shoot, Jandy, Henry, RV and the women started their descent.  The other guys decided to stay and explore the crater’s rim. It was getting very late and we had to go down as fast as we could before sundown.  Our water supply was now exhausted and we would have to go down the mountain thirsty.

As  the soil  was loose, the descent was slippery all the way and we had to watch our step on loose rocks.  There was also the need to cling to something, but it was painful to just cling to the sharp cogon grass.  Vi made the mistake of grasping at prickly ground ferns.  No one in the group was exempt from bleeding cuts and scratches.   It was also hard on the joints as we sometimes have to slide down the very steep slopes. My knees soon began to ache.  We also had to combat our hunger and thirst.  Jandy wanted to stop and rest, but I had to goad him on as it was getting dark.   RV and V were soon out of sight as Henry, Lulu and Jandy and I  rested, and Carl, Randy and Jake, left behind earlier, soon caught up with us and passed us by.

Relief came in the form of RV bringing our bottles refilled with spring water from the hamlet we passed on our way up.   Our spirits were somehow revived.   It was still a long way off, but now we did not have to contend with thirst.  We reached the Ardent Hot Spring Resort at 6 PM, bedraggled, hungry, thirsty, scarred and weak. It had taken all of 6 hrs. to reach the top and another 3.5 hrs. to make it down.  For 30 mins., we lolled in the therapeutic, but scalding hot, mineral spring waters that gushes forth from the bowels of Mt. Hibok-Hibok into beautifully-designed natural stone swimming pools.  Water temperature reaches as much as 50 degrees and picnickers here boil fresh eggs on the shallow portions. Later, remembering our hunger, we hied off to the restaurant for a well-deserved dinner.  After dinner, we returned to the resort and were all in bed by 8 PM.

Finally …. The Summit of Mt. Makulot

Marge, Jandy and I at the summit

The others woke up by 8 AM and we all had breakfast at Mang Ed’s place.  We soon prepared to climb the mountain’s peak.  Jandy and I were joined by Rainy and Marge.  Lulu, still under the weather, decided to remain and Vi stayed with her.  We left by 9 AM, bringing along our cameras and mineral water bottles and entered the trail blazed along the tall and sharp cogon grass. It was getting hot as we arrived after 30 mins. at the edge of the light forest.  We had a last look at the campsite on the mountain’s shoulder, its tents but pinpricks to our eyes.  The forest cover was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat of the sun but the trail was extremely muddy as this forest is frequently cloud shrouded.  We literally had to crawl our way up, clinging to tree trunks and hanging vines for support.  Rest stops were frequent and we soon exhausted our water.  After what seemed another eternity, we soon reached the clearing at the peak, tired but exhilarated. 

View at the summit

Eureka! We made it!.  Jandy and I finally conquered our first mountain, the highest in Batangas for that matter.  I sent text messages on my mobile phone to Grace and Cheska and got a congratulatory call in return.  After the all-important photo session for posterity’s sake, we made our way back down the mountain, crawling in reverse this time, arriving at the campsite in time for lunch at Mang Ed’s store.   After lunch, we decided to leave early and make our way down the mountain. After dismantling our tents and packing our stuff in our backpacks, we thanked Mang Ed and hired Eduardo, Jr., Mang Ed’s son, to carry some of the ladies’ backpacks.  I, for once, decided to carry my own pack. The descent was faster, with fewer rest stops, but harder on the joints and toes.   We arrived at the Mountaineer’s Stop-over Store after an hour’s hike, drained a huge bottle of Sprite and changed into dry clothes.  We were soon on our way back to Manila, taking the more scenic Lemery/Tagaytay City route.  We had stopovers for a photo session at the Disneyland-like Fantasy World residential resort in Lemery and a short visit to my almost finished residence project at Southridge.  We were back in Manila by nightfall.  I had a dead toenail when I took off my shoes at home.

Return to Mt. Makulot (Cuenca, Batangas)

The summit of Mt. Makulot

Four months have passed since my climb to Mt. Makulot and here I am making plans to climb again, this time to camp at the shoulder and make for the peak.  Aside from Jandy, also traveling with us are Ms.  Glorain “Rainy Canillas” and Ms. Marge Yu, former SPED (Special Education) teachers of Jandy; and Warner Bros. executive Ms. Lourdes “Lulu” Seguinza and Ms. Rosevie Sevilla, both friends of Rainy and me.  All, except Rainy (who made it up the campsite a few years back), were first timers up the mountain.         

A World War II Japanese tunnel

Laden with backpacks, tents, sleeping bags and provisions for an overnight camping stay, we left Manila at 6 AM, Friday, February 25, 2000 (Edsa Revolution anniversary and a non-working holiday), passing through the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) up to the Calamba Exit, then entering Batangas to Sto. Tomas, Tanauan, Malvar and Lipa City before turning right to Cuenca, arriving there at 9 AM.  At the barangay hall of Brgy.  7, we all registered and paid the required PhP5 fee .  Here, I secured the services of 3 porters to carry the bulk of our equipment.  We parked our car at the Mountaineer’s Stopover Store and began our climb from here.

Another tunnel

My first climb to the campsite was a breeze compared to the climb we were doing now.  During my first visit the skies were overcast, the weather was cool and the ground along the trail, slightly wet due to rain the day before, was nevertheless compact, making it easier to climb.  Today, the sun was shining intensely bright and the weather was humid. There wasn’t a gust of wind.  We were in boisterous spirits when we initially started out over the gentle, moderate grade gravel trail, chatting and laughing as we went along.  As the porters were carrying our equipment, we only carried our bottles of water.  Pretty soon, the chatting died down as our tongues were beginning to hang out due to thirst and heat stroke.  Even as our load was beginning to lightened (we were drinking our water at an alarming rate), we frequently had to stop to recover our breath and replenish our system with water.

The mountain spring

After about 30 minutes, the trail became steeper as we entered the light forest.  As the ground was very dry, we frequently slipped and literally had to crawl our way up.  There were many refreshment stations along the way selling fresh buko juice (good for rehydration), a welcome relief.  Things changed as the forest gave way to an even narrower, dusty and more slippery path through tall, sharp cogon grass, virtually unprotected from the intense heat of the sun.  And worse, there were no more refreshment stations along the way. The pace was beginning to tell on us especially Lulu who was a little bit under the weather.   She practically lost her voice and had to be assisted.  Our once compact group was now splintered as the others were beginning to lag behind and we had to wait for them.  Other hikers, all seemingly fit and able, occasionally passed as by.  We all arrived at the campsite after about 2 hrs.; hungry, thirsty, drenched with perspiration and bedraggled.  Again, it seemed like an eternity getting there.

Being a long 3-day holiday, there were many campers and tents were sprouting like mushrooms all around us. By the end of the day, there would be 250 names registered in the barangay hall logbook.  Mang Ed, together with his wife, was there to welcome us.  Both were minding their store and doing brisk business, selling canned goods, snacks, soft drinks in cans, bottled water and buko juice from which we quenched our thirst.  Their son, Ramon, showed us a suitable place to pitch our tents. The spot we chose, at the edge of the clearing, had a good worm’s eye view of the now cloud-free (it was cloud-shrouded during my first visit) main summit.  Further off, we also had an impressive view of Taal Lake, Lipa Point, Volcano Island, the nearby towns and beyond it, Laguna de Bay and the sea. We pitched our 3 tents beside each other.  It took me some time to figure out how to set up our tent, a 6.5-ft. by 4.75-ft.Bobcat dome tent with ultra-light aluminized coating.  After about 30 mins., our tents were set up and we settled down to a late lunch, dining on provisions that we brought along: packed rice, pork and beans and sausages.  Being very hot and tired indeed, we decided to postpone our final trek to the main summit for the next day.

On top of the Rockies

Instead, we decided to visit the Japanese World War II caves (there are 5 on the mountain) and the bukal (spring) located about 100 m. down the campsite.  The trail was also well-marked and we passed (but did not explore) 3 caves, a group of campers and a cluster of tents along the way to the spring.  The spring, the mountain’s only water supply, was actually a constantly dripping aquifer by the side of a cliff.  The only way to get to it was by clambering down the huge, exposed roots of a tree beside it.  I was the only who attempted this and the others just contented themselves with the view and the sound of the spring.  Upon reaching the spring, I rewarded myself with a refill of my water bottle.  On the way back we had a photo session by a huge dangling aerial root of a huge tree.

Sunset at Mt. Makulot

After about an hour, we returned to the campsite as we didn’t want to miss the beautiful sunset.  We proceeded along a small trail through the cogon grass to the Philippine Air Force marker. Beyond it was the knife’s edge leading to the 700-m. rocky drop-off of the “Rockies”.  Its peak was beginning to fill with people waiting for the sunset.  Rainy, Marge and I decided to join them.  The way up wasn’t easy as we had to negotiate the narrow, but well-marked, knife’s edge and then clamber up the cliff.  Sometimes, we had to stop to give way for others going down.  After about 10 mins. we reached the top.  The 360 degree view here was even more spectacular.  This is as close to God and Heaven as I have ever been and I was not the only one who felt that way.  Nearby was a religious group of young people singing their high praises to the Lord above.  After admiring the spectacular sunset, I descended the way I came in.  

Campsite at the shoulder

It was getting dark and we made arrangements with Mang Ed for a hot supper.  It was also getting very icy cold and windy and we arrived at Mang Ed’s store wrapped up in our warm sweaters, jackets and caps.  The night was very cold and windy.  We soon had our fill of the hot supper prepared for us and prepared to retire to bed literally with the night sky and stars as our blanket.  Too bad we can’t start a bonfire (it is prohibited) to keep warm. Dead tired, we decided to retire early to our sleeping bags.  However, sleep for me was an impossibility since the spot I chose to build my tent was quite lumpy and uncomfortable.  I envied Jandy who was sleeping soundly. While still dark, I mustered the courage to get out of my tent, wrapped as warmly as possible, to have hot coffee and a chat with Mang Ed.

Halfway Up Mt. Makulot (Cuenca, Batangas)

Mt. Makulot

Jandy and I checked out of Casa Punzalan in Taal early in the morning and proceed to Cuenca, passing by the towns of Sta. Teresita and Alitagtag.   We planned to climb the 1,145 m. high Mt. Makulot, the highest mountain in Batangas.  The weather was perfect.  Mt. Makulot (also called Macolod), located at the northeast boundary with Laguna, is said to have been named after the kinky-haired people who lived on the mountain.  The mountain dominates the southeastern shore of Taal Lake and has a rounded, densely-forested  main summit and an extended shoulder on the west flank which ends abruptly in a 700-m. rocky drop-off.  The mountain  is thought to be the highest part of the caldera rim that was not blown away in Taal’s ancient eruptions.  Others say the mountain is part of another extinct volcano.  It was the last Japanese stronghold in the province during World War II, and 5 Japanese-built tunnels still exist in the area.  To preserve the mountain for future generations, the mountain was adopted by the Philippine Air Force, under then commanding Gen. William Hotchkiss, on February 21, 1998.

The Philippine Air Force Marker

Upon entering Cuenca town, we stopped at the town hall where we were advised, as a safety measure, to register (PhP5 per person)  at the Barangay 7 hall.  After registration, we were given a quick lecture lecture on how to get to the campsite.   I parked our Nissan Sentra at the Mountaineer’s Stop-over Store.  At the last minute, I decided not to bring my camping equipment and to just go on a day hike up to the mountain’s shoulder.  I wanted to go home early.  We donned jackets, changed into rubber shoes and packed 5 bottles of mineral water, my camera, extra shirts, my cell phone and a first aid kit.

The Rockies

The initial trail is a fairly gentle, moderate grade section through a gravel path.  After passing some residential houses, including an expensive-looking one, and entering a forest, we reached a fork along the trail.  Remembering the lecture, we took the left trail (the one descending), and went past a dried rivulet and another fork. We asked around and were told to take the right trail.  We were also told that the left trail leads to a staircase down a cliff to the lake shore.  Surely for the more adventurous.  The trail became steeper (and more lung-busting) as we entered the forest.   We needed both hands to hold on to roots and branches of trees.  Rest stops became more frequent.  All the while, hikers, as well as local residents, were passing me by.  I was shamed by the sight of a woman carrying a heavy load of long bamboo stems.  As we went along, I befriended a man laden with two backpacks and an icebox full of soft drinks, all slung on a pick.  Named Eduardo Puso, he was a Barangay 7 tanod on his way to bring supplies for his store on top of the mountain.  His two sons, Eduardo Jr. and Ramon, also carrying provisions, passed me by a while earlier.

The knife’s edge leading to the Rockies

The last quarter of the hike was through an even narrower path through tall cogon grass which swayed in rhythmic, wave-like motions when the wind blew. At around 11:30 AM, we reached the campsite at the mountain’s shoulder.  Mang Ed and his sons were already tending to their store, which is beside another store tended by a woman.  Even on this mountain, the spirit of healthy competition lives on.   The campsite, Makulot’s main attraction, is actually a small clearing on the cogon-covered shoulder.  We explored a small trail through the cogon grass leading to a clearing with a marker installed by the PAF. 

The fog-covered peak

Here, we were presented with an impressive view, the best I’ve seen so far, of Taal Lake, Lipa Point, Volcano Island, the surrounding towns and beyond it, Laguna de Bay and the sea. Over a knife’s edge is the 700-m. drop-off (500 m. of which are almost vertical).  Locals call it the “Rockies” after its American namesake.   We returned to Mang Ed’s store and I interviewed him about the mountain.  He said that Makulot has 14 Stations of the Cross frequented by townsfolk during Holy Week.  Trekkers and campers come here even in adverse weather conditions and peak days are Fridays to Sundays when up to 200 campers converge.  

View of Volcano Island

Mang Ed opens his store only during those peak days.  Set up with money borrowed from a “five-six” loan shark, the store offers cigarettes, bread, candies, soft drinks in cans, real buko juice and, only on request, cooked food.  When provisions run low, he quickly sends his sons down the mountain for supplies.  Prices are high, but understandably so considering the labor involved. Mang Ed, being an elected barangay tanod, sees to it that the campsite remains clean. He frowns on campers who leave their rubbish behind.  Just the same, he and his sons gather the trash and carefully burn it.  They also assist in bringing down badly injured campers on a stretcher and advises climbers not to go beyond the Rockies. In 1994, a woman fell to her death (some say it was a suicide).  In 1997, another man fell but survived.  He was evacuated by helicopter.

Eduardo Jr. guided me 100 m. down the mountain to a bukal (spring) where potable water can be had.  As can seen from discarded shampoo sachets, campers frequently bathe here. Also in the area are four bat-and-bird-inhabited tunnels built by the Japanese close to one another during the war. Birds panicked and flew away as we entered one guano-filled tunnel.  It is said that campers caught by storms seek refuge here.  The fifth and longest tunnel is located a distance away.  A Japanese expedition had tried to enter it but retreated. And it remains unexplored to this day.

Upon our return, Mang Ed invited me to a late lunch, and we feasted, kamayan-style, on tuyo, fried egg and rice, washed down by mountain spring water.  We left the campsite at around 2:30 PM.  The descent was faster and less tiring, but slippery and harder on the joints.  Along the way we passed and conversed with two groups of backpackers on the way up.  Peak season has just began.  We reached the Mountaineer’s store at around 4 PM, snacked on crackers and soft drinks, changed our clothes and left for Manila, passing by Lipa City and the towns of Malvar, Tanauan, Sto. Tomas and Calamba City before entering the South Luzon Expressway.  We were home by 8:30 PM.