BENGUET: WHERE CLIMBING PEAKS IS AN ACT OF WORSHIP

Not many may have heard of Mt. Tagpew and Mt. Oten, but that works just fine for outdoor enthusiast Rainiel Lee. Except for an occasional post or two in social networking sites, these two peaks have not quite made it to local guidebooks—yet. But its relative obscurity, in fact, is what makes this destination appealing to Lee. “I prefer not-so-commercial destinations,” said the freelance videographer and photographer. “Call it a personal bias, because this is part of my personality.” Together with a close friend from Kibungan town and a local guide, Lee would climb Mt. Tagpew and other nearby summits from time to time. Mt. Tagpew lies on the border of Tacadang village in Kibungan and another village in neighboring Bakun town. The towns’ alpine terrain has awed trekkers looking for thrills, challenge, adventure and a spiritual experience. Mountaineers are advised to make an early start from the Poblacion, Kibungan’s town center, since it takes at least seven to nine hours (depending on one’s agility and endurance) going up to Mt. Tagpew. For this reason, out-of-town climbers may have to stay overnight at the Poblacion, a four-hour bus drive along a 67-kilometer mountain road from Baguio City. Despite the long travel and the difficult climb, mountaineers vouch for the ultimate reward: an exclusively personal experience after reaching Mt. Tagpew, some 2,100 meters above sea level. The experience has elicited meditative insights and reflections from Lee.READ MORE..

ALSO: Mountain Trail leads to culture, nature hubs

Travelers who often frequent the 165-kilometer Mountain Trail may have gotten so used to the view along the scenic route that they often doze off all throughout the trip along this highway linking the provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and Ifugao in the Cordillera. It’s a different case for the first-time visitor. Tourists who pass through this upland road, also known as the Baguio-Bontoc Road or Halsema Highway, on their way to the resort town of Sagada or to the rice terraces of Ifugao, are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of lush mountains, verdant vegetable farms, meandering rivers, stunning sunrises, the enchanting sight of fog enveloping slopes and vignettes of countryside living.
While the road length stretches to only a little more than 100 km from La Trinidad town in Benguet to the Mountain Province capital of Bontoc, those raring for adventure and new sights should be prepared to spend six hours on the road. “You know you are on the Mountain Trail when you notice the stench. It’s part of the journey,” said Abe Domocmat, 52, a driver of GL Trans bus. Passengers on buses headed to Mountain Province or interior Benguet towns know this only too well. The stench comes from chicken dung loaded on vehicles that bring their cargo of organic fertilizers to vegetable farms that dot the countryside. READ MORE...

ALSO: Swimmers, jellyfish interact in Sohoton

SOCORRO, Surigao del Norte— From afar, the islands of Bucas Grande look like a cluster of rolling hills rising above blue waters like carefully pruned shrubs. In between the more than 100 islands are lakes and hidden lagoons, as well as coves and caves, that together form a maze of natural wonders—a one-stop shop of adventure for those visiting the islands. At Bucas Grande’s Sohoton National Park—a strictly protected area because of its rich biodiversity—guests will be treated to more than just pristine beaches with powdery white sand and crystal clear waters. When in Sohoton, people do not just take a dip in emerald waters—they swim with the jellyfish.
At the cove is a cave that “snores” and on a cliff is a cave that sparkles. And a spelunking episode ends with a dive into aqua green waters. READ MORE...


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Benguet: Where climbing peaks is an act of worship


CHANGING COLORS The rice terraces of Kibungan town in Benguet province usually start to turn yellow as harvest time nears. Farther up the mountains, however, the hue is a constant green. Approaching the peaks and the gigantic rocks in the clouds makes one feel insignificant against nature. Climbers say it’s a humbling experience to realize the power of nature. SONNY CRUZ/INQUIRER CAMERA CLUB

MANILA, MAY 26, 2014 (INQUIRER) By Maurice Malanes - Not many may have heard of Mt. Tagpew and Mt. Oten, but that works just fine for outdoor enthusiast Rainiel Lee.

Except for an occasional post or two in social networking sites, these two peaks have not quite made it to local guidebooks—yet.

But its relative obscurity, in fact, is what makes this destination appealing to Lee.

“I prefer not-so-commercial destinations,” said the freelance videographer and photographer. “Call it a personal bias, because this is part of my personality.”

Together with a close friend from Kibungan town and a local guide, Lee would climb Mt. Tagpew and other nearby summits from time to time.

Mt. Tagpew lies on the border of Tacadang village in Kibungan and another village in neighboring Bakun town. The towns’ alpine terrain has awed trekkers looking for thrills, challenge, adventure and a spiritual experience.

Mountaineers are advised to make an early start from the Poblacion, Kibungan’s town center, since it takes at least seven to nine hours (depending on one’s agility and endurance) going up to Mt. Tagpew. For this reason, out-of-town climbers may have to stay overnight at the Poblacion, a four-hour bus drive along a 67-kilometer mountain road from Baguio City.

Despite the long travel and the difficult climb, mountaineers vouch for the ultimate reward: an exclusively personal experience after reaching Mt. Tagpew, some 2,100 meters above sea level. The experience has elicited meditative insights and reflections from Lee.

“The first time I climbed Mt. Tagpew, I felt intimidated as I approached the peak and saw gigantic rocks cloaked by clouds,” Lee said. “I felt so insignificant and I realized that nature will always win against humans.”

The first time Lee and his colleagues climbed Mt. Tagpew in the summer of 2009, they had to leave the Poblacion at 6 a.m. They passed foothills and foot trails along ravines and their climb, mostly uphill, was interrupted only when they had to refill their jugs with water from springs and brooks, or when they paused to cook lunch along the way.

Along their journey, they were treated to splendid views of the picturesque rice terraces of Tanap and Palina villages’ Mayon-like Mt. Kilkili, actually a dead volcano, surrounded by more than century-old rice terraces. These are among Kibungan’s pretty-as-a-picture scenic spots.

One bonus that comes with climbing Mt. Oten, which is 1,875 masl in Kibungan’s Tacadang village, is picking wild blue berries, which ripen during the summer.

Last year, Gal-ad Maximo, Lee’s colleague and coworker, said they were surprised when they came across burned parts of the summit, including patches where the wild berries, called “ayusip” by locals, grew abundantly.

Although they missed the ayusip, Maximo, also a freelance videographer and photographer, and her colleagues said the climb was something they would like to experience again and again, given the opportunity.

Oten and Tagpew are part of the mountain ranges of Benguet overlooking the provinces of La Union, west of Kibungan, and Ilocos Sur in the northwest.

For Maximo and Lee, hurdling the difficult climb in both summits is like winning the first prize.

“I find it more satisfying climbing Kibungan’s mountains because of the difficulty going there,” said Maximo. “Once you have climbed the mountains of Kibungan, you can climb any mountain anywhere.”

One route to both Tagpew and Oten is an almost 90-degree-angle pathway carved on a rock. An accidental slip would mean falling off a ravine more than 100 meters below. But this has been the main road of Tacadang villagers for the longest time simply because there is no other way.

Fortunately, no villager has been reported to have fallen off the steep pathway. Still, this is what many look for—the thrill of having survived a death-defying challenge.

“Mt. Pulag, with its cool, fresh breeze, is like a walk in the park,” said Maximo. “Kibungan’s summits are more of an obstacle course.” The country’s second highest peak, Mt. Pulag, straddles part of Kabayan and Buguias towns in Benguet and Tinok town in Ifugao.

During the early phase of the climb, finding the nearest “tapaw” or shade to protect one from the scorching summer heat and the steep paths are “part of the main challenges” in scaling Kibungan’s mountains, Maximo said. “Once you slip and fall off the cliff, there’s a slim chance your body can be recovered.”

There’s another reason climbers want to go up Kibungan’s mountains—a giant eagle spotted by Barangay Lusond residents in the 1980s, the same big bird that has fascinated local guide Ferdinand Calasiao. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing that eagle,” Maximo said.

For Lee, climbing Kibungan’s mountains brings out the child in him, and a sense of wonderment.

“The mountains are a challenge for someone like me who has a fear of heights,” he said. “The rocky terrain sort of gives me this sense of danger and reminds me of my imaginary adventures as a child.”

In the end, Maximo and Lee admit that climbing mountains is like embarking on a spiritual journey.

“Going there is like an act of worship for us,” Maximo said. “God is somewhere there in the mountains where man is at the mercy of nature.”

According to Lee, he “walks these mountains, away from most people, to nourish my being and deepen my faith in the greater forces that work around us.”

Both added that reaching a mountain top can help make one have a better perspective of life.

“Being up there means you can look down and see a wider spectrum of living,” said Maximo. “The meaning of life should be there somewhere, or maybe not. There is a sense of time shifting to the past in the mountains where man can still interact with nature in a symbiotic relationship.”

Climbing mountains also has a humbling effect because the experience enables one to realize that “man is arrogant, [but] nature is [more] powerful,” she said.

Mountain Trail leads to culture, nature hubs By Desiree Caluza
Inquirer Northern Luzon 2:29 am | Monday, May 26th, 2014


SCENIC ROUTE. A small rice paddy glistens near the town of Natubleng in Benguet province. The scenery is best viewed by travelers along the 165-kilometer Mountain Trail (Halsema Highway) linking Benguet to Mountain Province and Ifugao in the Cordillera. RICHARD BALONGLONG/INQUIRER NORTHERN LUZON

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—Travelers who often frequent the 165-kilometer Mountain Trail may have gotten so used to the view along the scenic route that they often doze off all throughout the trip along this highway linking the provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and Ifugao in the Cordillera.

It’s a different case for the first-time visitor. Tourists who pass through this upland road, also known as the Baguio-Bontoc Road or Halsema Highway, on their way to the resort town of Sagada or to the rice terraces of Ifugao, are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of lush mountains, verdant vegetable farms, meandering rivers, stunning sunrises, the enchanting sight of fog enveloping slopes and vignettes of countryside living.

While the road length stretches to only a little more than 100 km from La Trinidad town in Benguet to the Mountain Province capital of Bontoc, those raring for adventure and new sights should be prepared to spend six hours on the road.

“You know you are on the Mountain Trail when you notice the stench. It’s part of the journey,” said Abe Domocmat, 52, a driver of GL Trans bus.

Passengers on buses headed to Mountain Province or interior Benguet towns know this only too well. The stench comes from chicken dung loaded on vehicles that bring their cargo of organic fertilizers to vegetable farms that dot the countryside.

Domocmat, who has been driving through the uplands for the past six years, concedes that the Mountain Trail’s foremost attraction is the view of the impressive Cordillera mountains.

While Baguio City’s Kennon Road offers its “lion’s head” as a popular tourist stop, the Mountain Trail marker indicating the highest point in the Philippine highway system at Barangay (village) Cattubo in Atok town, Benguet, has attracted its fair share of people posing for photo ops. That particular section of the highway is 2,255 meters (7,400 feet) above sea level.

According to the book “A History of the Mountain Province,” by Howard T. Fry, the construction of the Mountain Trail started in 1921. American engineer E.J. Halsema supervised its completion as a motor road in 1931.

Way of life

Traveling along the upland road offers a view of mountainside farms and vegetable terraces that a clueless tourist may mistake for Ifugao’s rice terraces from afar. Various crops in neatly arranged plots will greet travelers in the towns of Atok, Tublay, Kibungan and Buguias.

Local dishes, as well as newly harvested produce, are offered in pit stops along the way. A meal costs between P75 and P95.

Km 55 in Atok, Timbac Road, leads travelers to Kabayan town, the seat of Ibaloy culture, where Benguet’s ancient mummies are found. The mummies are the preserved remains of ancestors of the Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes kept in the town’s caves.

Kabayan is also home to Mt. Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon and a popular destination for skilled and recreational mountain climbers. A commercial center in the village of Abatan in Buguias town serves as the major trade hub along the Mountain Trail and the last Benguet town on this route.

Past Buguias is Bauko town in Mountain Province where a large statue of the Virgin Mary welcomes visitors.
A popular stop here is the Mt. Data National Park, noted for its rich flora and fauna.

The Mt. Data Hotel attracts tourists, especially those who bring their own vehicles. Visitors are especially drawn to the hotel’s flower and pine gardens and its chapel. This is where then President Corazon Aquino and rebel priest Conrado Balweg, leader of the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army, signed a peace agreement in 1987.

Visitors will not miss seeing the mighty Chico River that flows from Bauko and down to villages in the capital, Bontoc, and to the nearby province of Kalinga.

Sagada and Bontoc

The Mountain Trail splits into two at Dantay village in Bontoc, where the road leads either to Sagada or Bontoc proper.

Francis Degay, Mountain Province provincial tourism officer, said Bontoc also offered destinations that may appeal to tourists like the Ganga burial cave and the petroglyphs (rock engravings) of Barangay Alab Oriente. The Bontoc Museum houses important documents, archaeological finds and antiquities and photographs of the old Mountain Province.

On the town’s outskirts is Mainit Hot Springs in Barangay Mainit and the rice terraces of Barangay Maligcong.
One can go around town by foot or by tricycle (P9 per passenger). Rooms at local inns and hotels are priced from P200 to P600 while local restaurants offer traditional fare, like the native chicken soup “pinikpikan.”

A 30-minute jeepney ride from Bontoc will bring you to the resort town of Sagada.

Tourists have likened Sagada to an earlier and simpler version of Baguio City, when the summer capital had yet to be overtaken by development. The town is famous for its rock formations, caves, ancient burial sites and hanging coffins.

Jaime Dugao, an elder from Barangay Ankileng in Sagada, said tourists may sample local culture and traditions as the community still practices rituals related to the agricultural cycle.

A common sight is elderly males walking about in their traditional G-strings and headgear. Rituals are performed in the “dap-ay” (circular stone structure where elders meet) of the old villages of Dagdag and Demang.

Members of the Sagada Environmental Guides Association said that although some tourists had taken an interest in mushroom-picking as an alternative activity, the most frequented spots were Echo Valley, Bomod-ok and Bokong falls, the local rice terraces and the restaurant owned by the family of the late Cordillera master photographer Eduardo Masferre, where his photographs are displayed.

Farther down the Mountain Trail from Bontoc is Ifugao province, where the ancient rice terraces and the culture and traditions of the Ifugao people continue to awe even jaded travelers.

The road from Bontoc to Banaue stretches only 27 km, but tourists must brace themselves for a two-hour ride of a lifetime.

GETTING THERE
From Baguio City, a ride through the Mountain Trail costs P220 if you are bound for Sagada, and P212 if you are headed to Bontoc. The first bus leaves daily at 6:30 a.m. (Besao via Sagada). The last trip is scheduled at 1 p.m. from the GL Trans terminal at the Dangwa Tranco station on Magsaysay Avenue.

The first bus to Bontoc leaves daily at 7 a.m., while the last trip is at 2:30 p.m. Another bus firm, Rising Sun, offers its first trip to Bontoc at 5 a.m. The last trip is at 4 p.m.

Swimmers, jellyfish interact in Sohoton By Kirstin Bernabe Philippine Daily Inquirer 6:07 am | Monday, May 19th, 2014


JELLYFISH SANCTUARY The lagoon in Sohoton National Park, Bucas Grande Islands, Surigao del Norte province, is a sanctuary for the stingless jellyfish, pictured here being observed by a swimmer. LYN RILLON

The Inquirer is running a series of articles on the country’s tourism crown jewels—somehow uncut but equally sparkling and surprising as the usual vacation haunts. The articles will appear three times a week during the summer months. Please send us your own hot go-to discoveries to summer by. Text 0917-8177586 for details.—Ed

SOCORRO, Surigao del Norte— From afar, the islands of Bucas Grande look like a cluster of rolling hills rising above blue waters like carefully pruned shrubs.

In between the more than 100 islands are lakes and hidden lagoons, as well as coves and caves, that together form a maze of natural wonders—a one-stop shop of adventure for those visiting the islands.

At Bucas Grande’s Sohoton National Park—a strictly protected area because of its rich biodiversity—guests will be treated to more than just pristine beaches with powdery white sand and crystal clear waters.

When in Sohoton, people do not just take a dip in emerald waters—they swim with the jellyfish.

At the cove is a cave that “snores” and on a cliff is a cave that sparkles. And a spelunking episode ends with a dive into aqua green waters.

As they say, Bucas Grande has it all.

But without any robust marketing machinery, the tourism potential of the islands hasn’t fully taken off, said Sohoton National Park tourism operations manager Rolando Ajoc.

Ajoc said his people “rely heavily on word of mouth” to draw in tourists, adding that people and the media “usually find us through referrals.”

And even if a guest has to travel for an hour and a half by land and 30 minutes by boat from Surigao City to get to the islands, Sohoton National Park and the rest of Bucas Grande do not disappoint.

Jellyfish steal the show

Amid chirping birds, crashing waves and the blue sea flow into a flat, turquoise calm.

As visitors enter the waters on a paddle boat, the lagoon becomes a pool peppered with floating orange blobs. The “stingless” jellyfish basking in the sun steal the show.

Called the “lagoon jellyfish,” these creatures have umbrella-shaped bodies or “bells” where elongated clubs, instead of tentacles, dangle from the midsection.

Younger, smaller jellyfish exude an orange, translucent glow underwater and wobble when tapped on the bells.

Holding them with cupped hands makes one feel like he or she is scooping up some thin, fragile Jell-Os.

But the jellies shouldn’t be taken out of the water for more than a few seconds because they may die.

The bigger, older ones, some the size of a cereal bowl, are thicker and firmer. Their white spots are more defined and their color, darker.

Given the stigma attached to them, hopping off the boat and diving into a smack of about 50 jellyfish of different sizes is not as easy as it sounds. The question lingers, “Are they really stingless?”

“Actually, they are not entirely stingless. It’s just that their sting is so mild, humans do not feel anything upon contact with them and it doesn’t trigger allergic reactions,” said marine biologist Ditto de la Rosa of Haribon Foundation.

Jellyfish at the national park usually start spawning from March to May and are in their full grandeur from July to August, local residents say.

The lagoon, however, is only a slice of the paradise.

Snoring, diving caves

A few minutes by boat from the Jellyfish Lagoon is the center of the national park and its main attraction—the Sohoton Cove.

The cove is composed of seven islets with two fascinating caves, the “snoring” and “diving” caves.

A pump boat that can carry up to 10 people goes through the narrow entrance and weaves through the islets where agoho, ironwood and pitcher plants abound.

First stop is the Hagukan cave or the “snoring” cave, named as such because as the tide rises to almost block the entrance of the cave, the waves inside the cave produce the sound of a man snoring, low and loud.

The Hagukan cave boasts of a pair of stalactites that are distinctly shaped like two inseparable snakes. Another trippy feature of the cave is its luminous, brackish water that makes the swimmers’ skin glow underwater like neon sticks.

Walk like a duck

The Magkukuob cave, or the diving cave, is often taken more seriously than the snoring one, as it provides a dose of adrenaline rush.

The entrance to the cave is narrower and lower than Hagukan’s, so one has to duck and walk like a duck. Magkukuob is also rockier, and its stalactites and stalagmites more elaborate, forming human figures that the boatmen point to as “rebulto,” or religious statues.

An opening above the cave floor is the exit and people will have to rock-climb their way out.

Outside the cave is a platform nestled on a cliff from where tourists have to jump back to the waters.

Nonswimmers are welcome to jump off the cliff, as the boatmen waiting in the waters are good swimmers. They claim to have seen a 60-year-old woman diving in, saying “Yolo” (you only live once).

Crystal cave

Just when one thinks he or she has had enough of spelunking for the day, the boatmen set sail again to go to Crystal cave—a showstopping cave on its own.

People have to duck, crawl and squeeze themselves through narrow openings for more than an hour to see the best of the cave. Walls sparkle with crystals, stalagmites and stalactites glisten with little stones.

It is as if the stars have come down and found a new place on earth.

The crystals cannot be touched because they would lose their shimmer upon contact with people.

Tujuman lagoon

Perhaps diving and spelunking are not for everybody, especially those who are after the solace found in island getaways.

While boating around Sohoton cove is relaxing enough, the national park has a few more parcels of paradise up its sleeve.

Guests would have to transfer to a two-person paddle boat to go to Tujuman lagoon, meaning only one guest and a boatman could fit in. The lagoon was named after the sea urchins “tujom” that can be found there.

But there’s more to this lagoon than the sea urchins. Tujuman is enveloped in peace, as if an invisible sheet covers the whole place, blocking all noise and allowing only the chorus of chirping birds and the dominating call of the hornbill that echoes throughout the islands.

Guests who prefer beaches won’t have a problem finding one. With a hundred islands to choose from, guests could have a whole islet all to themselves.

In the absence of a vigorous marketing campaign, it may be hard to find Bucas Grande Islands. But when people do, they vow to spread the word—and come back.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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