Sugba Lagoon (Del Carmen, Surigao del Norte)

Sugba Lagoon (photo: Ms. Louise Santianen)

After a lunch at Krokodeilos and tour of the nearby Mangrove Protection and Information Center (MPIC), we all went down a gangplank to Del Carmen’s modular plastic floating dock and boarded two motorized outrigger boats for our boat tour to Sugba Lagoon (also known as Caub Lagoon).

Check out “Mangrove Protection and Information Center

Del Carmen’s floating dock

The 30 to 45-min. boat ride to the lagoon from the port was half the fun as we were to traverse wonderful and breathtaking scenery.

Entering the town’s massive mangrove area with its backdrop of green hills

Initially, we entered Del Carmen’s massive mangrove area with a backdrop of small green hills, passing fishermen on their boats, to some offshore islands.

Our boat wining its way through a narrow passage

Then, we went through a narrow passage that opened up into a large bay.  Here, we espied some small, thickly vegetated islands with sandy pocket beaches and small villages with houses on stilts.

Small island with a pocket beach and houses on stilts

Soon after, we reached the small, secluded Sugba Lagoon and its two-storey pavilion built by the local government unit to cater to visitors. At the pavilion, you can rent a table (PhP50). The lagoon, with an estimated area of 87 hectares, visually captivated us with its overwhelming natural beauty.

The two-storey pavilion for visitors

The clear green-blue, brackish waters, inhabited by different variety of fish, are surrounded by large rocky limestone hills that are home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, different species of birds as well as endangered species of hardwood trees.

The lagoon is said to have gotten its name from the Visayan word sugba meaning “to grill,” in reference to the smoke seemingly coming off the lagoon when it is covered with fog. With its nice and clear waters, it was perfect for swimming.

Diving area

The water is quite deep but you can rent (PhP50) life vests if you don’t swim. There are some jellyfish here but, apparently the small ones are harmless, but the big transparent jellyfish with long tentacles do sting.

The shallow part of the lagoon

Here, TJ and I tried stand up paddle boarding (rent: PhP600/ay or PhP200/hour).  The rest of our media group just stayed within the pavilion. You can also do snorkeling, kayaking or jump off from a 2 m. long wooden diving board of moderate height.

You can also rent rafts at the lagoon. You can get some decent lunch to take out at the Krokodeilos restaurant. So you won’t be abruptly short on time, it is best to go there in the morning or noon as the place has a curfew in the afternoon unless you’re booked for an overnight stay.

The author taking his first baby steps in stand up paddle boarding (photo: Ms. Louise Santianen)

Sugba Lagoon: Brgy. Caub, Del Carmen 8418, Surigao del Norte. Admission fee: PhP250/group. At Del Carmen port, a boat ride costs PhP1,600 for 6 persons (additional PhP200/pax if there are more than 6 people in your group). If you have a guide with you, he gets in for free. You will also need to pay for a boarding pass of PhP50/boat.

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator).

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: Website:

Magpupungko Tidal Flats & Lagoon (Pilar, Surigao del Norte)

Magpupungko Rock

After our short visit at Port Pilar,we again boarded our respective vans for the short drive to Magpupungko Beach, a favorite destination of tourists.  This small 300 m. long stretch of cream colored sand beach has cottages and shower rooms and, as it faces east towards the edge of the Pacific Ocean, it also has a great view of the sunrise. However, this is not your usual beach.

Magpupungko Beach

It was low tide when we arrived, so we were able to walk, in ankle-deep waters and exposed rocks, to its northernmost end which is decorated by amazing rock formations, the largest of which is the iconic Magpupungko Rock that sits on top a flat rock.

The place was so named because of this rock’s squatting position. The word pungko is Visayan for “to squat,” “to bend” or “to sit”so, after adding some prefixes, the name became Magpupungko.


An offshore rock formation

The area also hosts one of the Philippines’ stunning tide pools, natural pools along the shore that seem like infinity pools, created by enclosed underwater crevices where sea water gets trapped during low tide.

The author with Magpupungko Rock in the background (photo: Donald Tapan)

Swimmers in these natural, placid green pools are protected by the strong, crashing waves coming from the Pacific Ocean by wide underwater boulders that serve as a wall. Both rock formations and tidal pools were created by nature itself.

The refreshing pools were too good not to be enjoyed so I dove into one natural, jacuzzi-like pool with clear and gleaming turquoise sea water flowing into it. The other members of my group just opted to take pictures of the rock formations and the strong waves crashing against the rocks.

The water seemed shallow because I could see various rocks jutting out from it but, at the farther end of the rock pool, some parts were actually deep, even in low tide.

The waves of the Pacific crashing against the boundary of the reef

These alluring, crystal clear tidal pools, hardly discernible during high tide.are indeed unique and a sight to behold. The color of the water is comparable to that of Tangke Lagoon at Isla Gigantes in Iloilo.

However, most tourists and locals go here for cliff diving, an extreme activity done from one of the islets. Many sections of the pools are deep enough and, thus, safe to dive from.

The edge of the tidal flat is also just a few strokes away and, as long as you can swim, there’s very little chance of drowning. They climb the rocks beside the pool (which is not easy to do as they’re sharp and kind of a long walk), and then jump off to the deep end of the water.

Tourist getting ready to dive atop a large rock formation

These tidal pools are also perfect for snorkelers, with stout elephant ear corals, providing shelter for many marine organisms that inhabit the pool, growing at the sides of rock outcroppings.

The author trying out one of the tidal pools (photo: Donald Tapan)

Beyond the Magpupungko rock formation are shallow, sandy tidal pools which are habitats of reef snakes and sea kraits. Though sea snakes are often shy and reluctant to bite, it is not recommended that you swim here.

The author trying to push Magpupungko Rock out of the way

Magpupungko Tidal Flats & Lagoon: Brgy. Consolacion, Pilar, Surigao del Norte. Beach entrance fee: PhP50/pax. Coordinates: 9.87551N 126.11995E. Besides a toilet, there are no facilities in Magpupungko, so bring food and other essentials if you wish to stay long.

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator)

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: Website:

Small Lagoon (El Nido, Palawan)

The Small Lagoon

The Small Lagoon

From Secret Lagoon, we again boarded our motorized outrigger boat for the continuation of our Island Tour A, this time to the Small Lagoon.  Along the way, we passed by, but didn’t stop, at the entrance of the Big Lagoon. On arrival, our outrigger boat parked , alongside other boats, just outside the entrance of the Small Lagoon as it could not access the interior as its entrance is narrow and its waters are shallow.

The entrance of the Small Lagoon

The entrance of the Small Lagoon

Boats parked at the entrance

Boats parked at the entrance

To view the wonders of the lagoon, we would have to either swim the 150-300 odd meters into the lagoon from our boat, if you’re a good swimmer, or kayak. Those who opt to swim usually get really tired going to the end of the lagoon, since the waters are deep inside.  We all chose the latter.

Jandy, Melissa and Osang get on their way ......

Jandy, Melissa and Osang get on their way ……

Our boatman, Luchie and I follow suit ......

Our boatman, Luchie and I follow suit ……

Kayaks here are rented for PhP300. Though made for two people, a third person was allowed to seat between the two sitting compartments.  Jandy joined Melissa and Osang in one kayak while I was joined by Luchie and another boatman.  Tess, Venus, Sandy, Pam, Melai, York, Lydia and Weng also rented kayaks.

Melai and Pam with their boatman

Melai and Pam with their boatman

Sandy, Venus and Tess

Sandy, Venus and Tess

York, Lydia

York, Lydia

Donning our orange-colored life jackets, we made our way to the narrow archway between the rock face.  Once through, we were ushered into eerily quiet and serene waters of a beautiful, turquoise lagoon enclosed by towering limestone cliffs. The giant limestone walls towering over us bounced around our echoes of wows.

The massive limestone cliffs enclosing the lagoon

The massive limestone cliffs enclosing the lagoon

The small cave at one end of the lagoon

The small cave at one end of the lagoon

We were always on the lookout as we kayaked as there were also a number of swimmers inside the lagoon. This place is also great for snorkeling and there were also some snorkelers checking out the underwater creatures beneath.

The author paddling away

The author paddling away

There was a rocky area where people could climb up and dive off or use it as a stage where they can do their selfies. We also checked out a small cave and pool at the end of the lagoon.

The Resort Bayview Hotel El Nido: Sitio Marimegmeg, Brgy. Corong-Corong, El Nido, 5313, Palawan.  Tel: + 66(0) 76 281 406. Fax: + 66(0) 76 384 369. Mobile numbers: (0915) 250-7368 (Globe) and (0920) 975-8690. E-mail: Website:

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:

Yehliu Geological Park (Keelung City, Taiwan)

From Chang Chung Park, we next proceeded, down the hill and out of the city proper, to Yehliu Geological Park. Along the way, we passed the remains of the Taiwanese-owned, Panama-registered gravel ship Jui Hsing.  On October 3, 2011, this 155 m. long, 11,500 ton ship, bound for Fujian province in China, ran aground and broke in half, in high seas 185 m. off Dawulun Beach, near Keelung Harbor, during the height of Typhoon Nelgae. Of its 21-man crew, 6 were killed, 4 missing and 11 were rescued.

The beached remains of the Jui Hsing

When we arrived at the Visitor’s Center (Yehliu Nature Center), the parking lot was filled with tourist buses loaded with tourists bound for either Ocean World, Yehliu Geopark or both.  Ocean World, the first marine center in Taiwan for exhibition of ocean evolution, has an undersea sightseeing tunnel where you can observe about 200 rare fish species.  Its 3,500-seat stadium is also the site of excellent shows featuring whales, dolphins and seals doing  diving, ballet on water and other talent shows.

Ocean World

However, we were just here for the Geopark.  Operated by the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area Administration, the park is located on a cape, also known as the Yehliu Promontory, that forms part of the Taliao Miocene Formation.  Stretching approximately 1,700 m. into the sea, it was formed as geological forces pushed Datun Mountain out to the sea. When seen from the air, the place looks like a giant turtle sinking into the sea, thus it is also called “Yehliu Turtle.”

Yehliu Geological Park

Its sandstone seashore is subjected to sea erosion, weathering and earth movements giving rise to a scenery consisting of sea trenches/holes, candle-shaped rocks and pot-shaped rocks. The lunar-like landscape is divided into 3 sections, the first 2 of which were visited by us.  The first section has cleavages, potholes, melting erosion panels and mushroom and ginger rock formations such as the “Ice Cream Rock” and the “Candle.”

The iconic “Queen’s Head”

The second section, similar to the first area but with lesser numbers of mushroom and ginger rock rock formations, is home to the iconic “Queen’s Head”  (the unofficial emblem for the town of Wanli), “Bean Curd” and the “Dragon Head.” Near the coast, rocks here have also developed into 4 different kinds of formations: “Elephant Rock,” the “Fairy’s Shoe,” “Earth Rock” and “Peanut Rock,” special shapes resulting from sea erosion.

“Elephant Rock” Legend has it that a fairy forgot to bring the elephant back when she defeated the turtle elf; as result, the elephant stood there waiting to be taken home, refusing to go ashore.

“Fairy’s Shoe” Legend has it that this one piece of shoe was left accidently by a fairy that came down to earth to tame the naughty turtle elf.

Ginger rock formations

Yehliu Geopark’s distinctive features are the hoodoo stones that dot its surface. These rock formations have been given imaginative names based on their shapes. The most well-known is the iconic “Queen’s Head.”  Other formations include “The Fairy Shoe,” “The Bee Hive,” “The Ginger Rocks” and “The Sea Candles.”

Posing beside the “Japanese Geisha”

The much narrower third section, the wave-cut platform located on the other side of Yehliu, has sea-eroded caves, seal-shaped rock, etc. One side of the platform is adjacent to steep cliffs while, down below, the other side is a scene of torrential waves.  It has several rocks of grotesque shapes and sizes, all a result of sea erosion, including the “24 Filial Piety Hill,” “Pearl Rock” and “Marine Bird Rock.” In addition to the said rock landscapes, the third area also includes the major ecology reserve of Yehliu Geopark.

Statue of Lian Tianzhen overlooking the park

While touring, we also noticed a statue dedicated to Lian Tian Zhen, a local fisherman who, on March 18, 1964,  jumped into the sea to save student Chang Guoquan who fell into the sea by accident. Unfortunately, both of them drowned.

Yehliu Geological Park: No.167-1, Kantung Rd., Yehliu Village, Wanli District, New Taipei City 20744, Taiwan.  Tel: (+886-2) 2492-2016.  Fax: (+886-2) 2492-4519.  Website:  E-mail: Open 8 AM-6 PM. Admission: NT$50 (20% discount for group ticket of 30 people or more).

How to Get There:

From Taipei City, take the Kuo-Kuang Co. express bus bound for Jinshan Youth Activity Center at its West Station A

From Keelung City, take the express bus bound for Jinshan or Tamsui at Keelung station (near Keelung Railway Station)

From Tamshui, take the express bus bound to Jinshan at Tamshui station (near Tamshui MRT Station).

The Surreal World of Kapurpurawan Rock Formation (Burgos, Ilocos Norte)

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation: The Sphinx-like “Head”

After our biscocho and salt making observation tour in Pasuquin, our Lakbay Norte 2 media group then boarded our bus and proceeded to the fellow Ilocos Norte town of Burgos.   From the National Rd. our bus turned towards a gravel road and traversed it for about 3 kms. until we reached a makeshift picnic hut, our jump-off point for the amazing, unique and Sphinx-like Kapurpurawan  Rock Formation, one of the best places to visit in the town, aside from the iconic Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, the country’s tallest.

Bonsai-like plants amid pools of limpid sea water

From the hut, it was a 30-min. walk, along concrete steps, dirt track and then, through a tidal pool.  At the tidal pool, sea water-filled coral rock pools, of varying sizes, and bonsai-like vegetation can be seen sporadically.  The rock formation was formed from sandstone naturally carved by weathering from wind, sand and water to create different surreal shapes such as the iconic “Head,” “Cradle” and the “Resting Dragon.” The word kapurpurawan was derived from the Ilocano root word puraw meaning “white” and these formations are said to be much whiter during the summer months of April and May.

This rock formation, possibly the “Resting Dragon,” looks
like a slithering cobra  about to pounce

Our short Kapurpurawan Rock Formation hike made us hungry and, as it was lunchtime, we proceeded to the nearby, picturesque town of Paoay for lunch at Cafe Herencia.

Check out “Restaurant Review: Cafe Herencia

Herencia Cafe: MacArthur St., Brgy. 14, Sangladan, Paoay, Ilocos Norte.  Tel: (077) 614-0214

Millennium Tree (Maria Aurora, Aurora)

The Millennium Tree of Maria Aurora

The eerie and somewhat creepy Millennium Tree, a  massive, 49-m. high, 10-15 m. wide balete or weeping fig tree (scientific name: Ficus balete Merr.) amidst papaya plantations, is the star attraction in Maria Aurora town. Southeast Asia’s (others say in Asia) largest banyan tree, it has been carbon dated to be between 400 – 600 years old (not quite millennial) and is one of the oldest in the country,

Aerial roots

A cave-like opening among the roots

They say it takes 40 to 60 people to encircle the gigantic trunk. The incredible tree’s thick aerial roots have grown above the ground, forming “caves,” and one can also enter the hollow interior of the tree which was once another tree clung to and killed by the balete tree.  Its 60 m wide crown has survived numerous extreme typhoons. The trunk occupies around 190 sq. m..

The author with Cheska and Jandy

Millennium Tree: Balete Park, Brgy. Quirino, Maria Aurora, Aurora. Admission: PhP10/pax.

How to Get There: Balete Park is located 3.5 kms. from Maria Aurora. From Baler, hire a tricycle to get there (30-min. travel time).  Coordinates: 15.7698N 121.4770E.

Chocolate Hills (Bohol)

From Baclayon, we proceeded to the junction town of Loay and, from there, traveled up north to the town of Carmen and the Chocolate Hills, a destination truly synonymous with the province.  Along the way, we passed some of Bohol’s wonderful scenery, including a man-made forest of mahogany trees in Bilar standing in perfect symmetry along the road leading to Carmen.  Upon arrival at the complex, we ascended 213 concrete steps to reach the observation deck, the hill’s main vantage point.  Early morning and late afternoon (to watch the setting sun) are said to be the best times for photographing this strange and mysterious landscape.  You can also hike between the hills.

Chocolate Hills

This 14,145-hectare Philippine National Geological Monument consists of 1,268 grass-covered, cone-shaped “haycock” hills, a broad, half-kilometer high upland plateau irregularly distributed among the towns of Carmen, Sagbayan and Sierra-Bullones in the east central part of the island.  Formed of sedimentary limestone, shale and sandstone, these 30 to 120-m.  high, beautifully arranged and symmetrically formed hills look like droplets of Hershey’s chocolate, thus their rather sumptuous name.  They also look a delectable chocolate brown during the dry months of April and May, before turning a deep shade of green during the rainy season. 

Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park – Natural Bridge (Basey, Western Samar)

Sohoton Natural Bridge

After about an hour and a half of exploration, we exited the cave and proceeded back to our boat for the trip to Sohoton Bridge.  After a short distance, shallow water grounded our boat to a stop and we were told to alight and walk the remaining distance.  There are 2 winding, moss and fern covered trails going to the bridge, one a longer but more scenic 700-m. hike and the other being half the distance.  We took the scenic route.  Pretty soon we came upon the huge, 15-m. high natural parabolic stone arch entrance (from which the park got its name) stretching across the valley and connecting two mountain ridges.  Underneath is the Sohoton River.

The Sohoton River

Based on my research on caves, I theorized that millions of years ago, the bridge was formerly part of a tunneled cave with the Sohoton River flowing underground through it.  The active river eventually enlarged the cave too much for roof stability, collapsing some parts to form cylindrical shafts leading above ground.  Further collapses reduced the cave roof to stretches of tunnel or arches, forming a gorge.  The process of unroofing ceased when the level of the river fell. The narrow Sohoton natural bridge is the one remaining arch of this cave.   That this bridge was once part of a cave is seen from the huge stalactites still hanging below the bridge.

We went no further than the natural bridge, returned back along the trail, clambered down to the riverbank and retraced our steps back to the boat which was moored near the river’s rapids.   Feeling hungry, we invited Sidong and the boatmen to join us for lunch and we feasted on the contents of our picnic basket – tipay (scallops baked with garlic), lechon manok, (roasted chicken), lechon de leche (roasted pig), rice; and then pushed it all down our systems with bottled water and canned soft drinks.  The river was inviting, so we were soon down to our trunks and tried to test our strength against the rapids.  After a one-hour refreshing swim, we got dressed, packed our stuff and made the 90-min. return trip along the river back to the town.  Upon arrival at Basey, we paid our guide and boatman and were soon on our way back to Tacloban, arriving in time for the Palm Sunday mass.