Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mt. Abra de Ilog: the green, rocky citadel of Mindoro Occidental

My very first mountain hike happened more than a decade ago. And it was in Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental, my wife Yeyette's hometown. I was barely 21, and I had a couple of kids to accompany me (Yeyette's cousins, actually, who are now all grown up).

Monte Abra de llog. Photo taken from the balcony of Yeyette's ancestral home last 12 September 2011.
Flashback to the summer of 2001: the moment my eyes laid upon Abra de Ilog from its port, the first thing I noticed were the mountain ranges. I have never seen so much green heights in my life! There were mountain ranges everywhere. Beyond the small port, no houses, no town, could be seen. It's all mountains, hills, and forests. Before we disembarked from the ferry, I asked Yeyette: "where in the world is your house?" She didn't tell me that we had to travel another twenty minutes from the port to the town proper via tricycle. I was to learn days later, when I had already reached the peak of Monte Abra de Ilog, that the Población was tucked in between two rows of scenic mountain ranges. The first one, to the west, faces the Verde Island Passage. The second one, to the east, divides Mindoro Occidental from Mindoro Oriental.

Abra de Ilog is strategically located between these two green-tinged cordilleras.

Casa Atienza, Yeyette's ancestral home at the Población, faces the eastern mountain range that includes Mount Abra de Ilog. The house has an unbalustered balcony where one could have a perfect vantage point to view the mountain range. It was there where I, as a young father to Krystal, have spent many countless hours observing every nook and cranny of the irregularly shaped massifs. Upon first glance, I thought the mountain ranges were the victims of a blatant case of deforestation because there were not much trees up there, only grass and scraggly rock formations. There is even a huge scar which I first attributed to what I thought was once a mining area. I was mistaken. The peaks of the mountain ranges turned out to be rocky, impossible thus for a small forest to even survive. The huge scar, according to residents, has been there even before they were born; I therefore suspect that it's a huge fault or heaven forbid— the crater of a long-dormant volcano.

That part of Yeyette's ancestral home —the balcony— has been my favorite part of the house because I've never lived that close to a mountain. I grew up for the most part in urban dwellings, that is why Abra de Ilog's natural serenity was something refreshingly new for me. It ignited a spark from within which has never since extinguished.

Each day of that memorable summer of 2001, I was feeding my eyes with Mount Abra de Ilog's greenish scenery delights. One time, I noticed a man-made structure towards the north near the summit. It turned out to be, by the looks of it, a radio tower of some sort. The thought intrigued me. If a telecommunications tower can be set up from that elevation, then it's not impossible to hike that mountain! So I asked around what that tower was all about. The answer I got was that it was a cell site (meant to create a cell in a cellular network). Yeyette's Tito Raf told me that he was part of a group of laborers who constructed it during the 90s. Yeyette's cousins, most of who were still in elementary school, said that they have all gone up there many times. They then asked me if I wanted to join them for a fun climb — excitement filled me like strong water from a faucet filling a dry bucket. I was about to experience my first mountain hike! Me, who have grown accustomed to city traffic and buildings and concrete roads and polluted air!

We set out towards the tower. When we reached the structure by midday, I remember having seen a caretaker who never even bothered looking at us. So we climbed towards the rooftop of the two-story building beside the tower. I also remember having seen a logo of "Digitel" there. From the rooftop, we had a perfect 360º view of Abra de Ilog and even the Verde Island Passage. It was a tiring experience; my legs turned rubber the day after. But it was a fun one nevertheless, an exhilarating climb  my very first! I remember how all exhaustion had left my body once I've reached the top and have seen the world below me. So that's what mountain climbing is all about!

After a few days, I climbed that mountain again, but on my own, with the goal of going beyond the tower, to reach the mountain's highest peak. Armed with a bolo from Yeyette's grandfather (may he rest in peace), I was dressed in a long-sleeved camiso de chino to protect me from the sun. That climb turned out to be the most adventurous part of my life. I left before the sun was up, reached several peaks, not knowing back then that what I was up against was not a single mountain but a group of mountains. And I had seen stuff that I was never able to see again — I encountered a dense and eerie forest far below me, gigantic, lifeless trees, and even a "mini garden" with low grass and exotic flowers of vibrant colors.

But I got lost along the way when it got real cloudy. Then it drizzled when it was past five in the afternoon. I was very afraid: I could see the town proper below, but a huge forest was between us. I might not survive the night if I go straight through it. Fortunately, as I was desperately looking for a trail that will send me home, I saw a Mañguián lad who gave me directions back to the tower. That's why when I got home, it was already dusk. Yeyette, carrying an infant Krystal, cried when she saw me by the door, and Tito Val scolded me out of concern. I was filled with dirt and mud. My long-sleeved shirt didn't protect me from getting sunburned. I had scratches and dried blood on both arms. The bolo which I borrowed from Yeyette's grandfather was already gone — I lost it in a forested area up in the mountain where I slipped on an incline towards what seemed to be a quicksand of some sort; I got away when I held onto some bushes and vines.

It was one of the greatest things that I have ever done in my life! Since then, whenever we go to Abra de Ilog, I make sure to climb it, but with a companion, usually Yeyette's cousins. My last climb there was on 29 March 2006 (Red's will be familiar with the date; but no, this mountain is totally safe from any communist or military activity).

Fast forward to April 4, just a few weeks ago. Krystal is already a dalaga, and my son Mómay is nearing 12. If a decade ago Yeyette's cousins were able to accompany me up the mountain at such a young age, I believed that my children —except for Jefe, Juanito, and Junífera Clarita, of course could tag along. Actually, we've been planning on it for a long time now.

We set off a few minutes past seven in the morning with Yeyette's teenage cousin John-John, bringing along with us a couple of gallons of water and several pieces of bread filled with scrambled eggs prepared by Yeyette for nourishment. Since it was to be Krystal and may's first time to climb, our goal was to simply reach the tower, then go home by lunchtime.

Can you see the tower? That's where we're headed.

The hike starts right here.

¡Ang taás na namin!

My kids surprised me because we reached the tower in just an hour and a couple of minutes. Mómay never even showed signs of weariness. It was simply an exciting experience for both, and it gave me pure joy to see them both overjoyed.

The next thing I noticed is that there was a second tower. A new one. I never noticed that from below. And there was already an electrical line from the town all the way to the new tower. So much has changed since the last time I climbed the place. Nevertheless, the place is still forested. Nature wasn't harmed, just the way we nature lovers want such places to be.

At the old, deserted building of Abra de Ilog's first radio mast and tower. This cell site stands at an altitude of 1,130 feet above sea level. Nobody else was here but us. The people over at the new tower which lies just a few meters away never even bothered us.

After eating our báon at the rooftop, we decided to climb some more beyond the tower.

The sun may be up high, but it's already cold up here! At left is Barrio Uauà (where Matabang River drains) and the Port of Abra de Ilog.

Facing the wide expanse of the Verde Island Passage. The cool breeze from that huge body of water is upon us!

The jagged, grassy peaks of Mount Abra de Ilog. They seem to be near, but they're about a kilometer or two away from where this photo was taken.

The town proper is far away below! On the other side are the mountain ranges of Burburuñgan. Beyond those peaks is Monte Halcón and the province of Mindoro Oriental.

We kept on walking till we reached an elevation of about 1,400 feet above sea level. But we had to go because Krystal was getting weary. Understandable, since it's her first climb. But she and Mómay are still raring to go for more climbs after Mount Abra de Ilog. This mountain from their mom's incredible home town has inspired them to conquer more peaks in the future the way it has inspired me more than a decade ago.

I hope to bring the rest of the family up there one day.

There's a new mountain destination in Abra de Ilog called "Cruz Na Parang". According to those who have already climbed there, the peak is much higher compared to that of Mount Abra de Ilog. The starting point is in Barrio Lumangbayan. I'll certainly be writing more about it once we've hiked it on our next visit to Abra de Ilog. In the meantime, click here for the complete photo album of our Mount Abra de Ilog fun climb! ¡Hasta la vista!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Take a swim at Swim!

Just swim it.

Swim is supposed to be a verb in the English language. But in Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental, it's a proper noun. At least in the case of one of its far-off waterfall that is completely surrounded by a charming forest.

On our way to Swim Falls last April 3rd (after attending morning Mass and strolling around town a bit). It took us about an hour's walk from the Población. The path starts right behind the municipal building.

At last, after about an hour of walking, we arrived — but on top of the falls! We went the wrong way! We had to go back a few meters for the correct trail to the falls, but John-John, Mómay, and Jefe climbed down the steep boulder, something the rest of us couldn't do (I was carrying Junífera Clarita all throughout the journey). :p

Swim as seen from afar in this "mini-valley" of boulders. The ladies are preparing to swim at Swim!

Cascada de Swim, or Swim Falls, is actually the source of the Lauaan stream which in turn is a tributary of the Matabang River. It is located several miles away from the Población, tucked deep within an upland forest northwest of the town. There is a Mañguián village nearby, but each time we visit Swim, we don't see them swimming there.

Jefe just made a huge splash from above that huge rock to the left much to Junífera Clarita's delight!

Swim Falls is a punchbowl waterfall. Its waters plunge from about ten feet high. It's quite low, but the streaming current is enough to give your body a clobbering if you stay underneath it for several minutes; but a few minutes stay will give you a relaxing water massage. The water from the top of the falls burst forth in constricted form, then spreads out in a wider, circular pool surrounded by giant rocks and boulders. Trees on top of these rocks form a natural canopy to the the pool below, giving the place an alluringly eerie darkness even in broad daylight. The cold water is crystal clear... until everyone wades in it. This is because the ground underneath the pool is made up mostly of gray sand and small pebbles. There are also small fishes (Yeyette's cousin John-John later told us that they're called "paít" and are edible), quite surprising because the pool is technically on a mountainous area (it's located several feet above sea level). We thought that fishes exist only in sea-level bodies of water.

When I first heard of this waterfall's name, I seriously thought it was a joke. Why would a waterfall in Filipinas be named in English? Almost all bodies of water in our country are named either in Spanish or after any indigenous word. But then again, I could be wrong. What if the word "swim" also exists in the indigenous (Mañguián/Iraya)?

Important note: Swim Falls is not a resort. You don't have to pay any fees to get there. In fact, all waterfalls in Abra de Ilog (save for the one in Agbalala) are free for public use. However, while swimming in Swim Falls is allowed, it is not encouraged by the municipal office because it is the Población's source of water supply. No wonder we saw several water pipes on our way there (don't worry; even if people pee on the pool, as is a usual practice among all swimmers, the water would have already been cleaned by a filtration system in the pipes before the waters even reached faucets at the town). Other than that, there are no caretakers in the vicinity, that is why the place is prone to uncouth tourists who throw away their litter everywhere (me and Jefe even had to pick up a few junk food containers left by those impossible people before going home). To be on the safe side, it is best to coordinate with the municipal office before visiting the place. As you can see from the photos, the pool is quite small. It cannot accommodate a huge group of people. You should also have a guide because you might get lost in the forest, as there are several trails all around. It's best to ask for one of Rafaél Atienza's sons to guide you back and forth (they're Yeyette's first cousins and are known by everyone at the Población). Just give them any gift of love.

And lastly: please don't litter. You will surely encounter Swim Falls as an idyllic paradise. Please leave it that way.

¡Hasta la vista!

Special thank to Ate Pepot (Yeyette's aunt) and her family for a sumptuous dinner at their home right after our trek to Swim! Click here for more of our photos of that exciting day!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tagbong in Abra de Ilog is rural paradise!

Río Matabang or Matabang River is Abra de Ilog's main watercourse. From its mountain origins to the south, it snakes its way through the municipality's fertile plains all the way to Amazona Beach.

Matabang, a Tagálog word which means insipid or bland (pertaining to the tasteless quality of water), is actually at the core of a beautiful river valley system. It comes from two mountain springs south of the Población or town proper: the first bursts forth from Barrio San Vicente's forested western slopes; the second springs forth from the green uplands of Barrio Armado to the east. Both tributaries stream down from their respective slopes and join together in the midst of a lowland farm in San Vicente (just a few minutes away from the Mindoro West Coastal Road) to form the Matabang River. The water system then courses through Barrio Balao, passes by the southeast portion of the Población, crosses Barrio Lumangbayan, then empties itself onto the sea in Barrio Uauà. It is curious to note that the name Uauà —people spell it out as Wawa these days— is a rarely used Tagálog word for "mouth of the river".

A part of Río Matabang runs parallel to the Mindoro West Coastal Road somewhere in Barrio San Vicente (photo taken last 17 January 2016).

Beyond this bridge in Barrio Lumangbayan, Río Matabang empties towards the northern shores of Abra de Ilog. The river delta is in Barrio  Uauà (photo taken last 17 January 2016).

Matabang River has many shallow parts, the most popular of which is the one in Sitio Tagbong which is just a few minutes walk from the town proper of Abra de Ilog. From the Lauaan Bridge to the southwest, one goes down beneath it and follow the Lauaan —spelled nowadays with a W instead of a U— tributary downstream (this place is virtually dry during summer). The trek towards Tagbong may be grueling especially for a first-time visitor because the wide water trail is rocky. But it's a sight to see nevertheless because of the unique kinds of stones that you will step on. These stones, of various shapes, sizes, and even color, are washed down during the rainy season from the mountains of Abra de Ilog where the Lauaan stream traces its origin. Both banks of the Lauaan are filled with various fruit-bearing trees such as camachile (Pithecellobium dulce), cashew (Anacardium occidentale), and others.

Puente de Lauaan (left). The Lauaan water trail is virtually dry during the summer months. It only gets filled up with water during the rainy season.

After a good fifteen- to twenty-minute walk from the town proper towards where the Lauaan stream / water trail meets the river, you'll be rewarded with a breathtaking view of Matabang and its mountainous surroundings.

Sitio Tagbong. The name is probably indigenous (Mañguián or Iraya).

Those carabaos behind Jefe are also beating the summer heat. We're on our way to the other side of the river.

My most favorite part of town! I remember when, during my first time in Abra de Ilog, I used to bring a book here to read during mornings — that was in the summer 2001.

That stunning place where Lauaan connects to Matabang is called Sitio Tagbong. As such, many residents think that the name of the river is Tagbong instead of Matabang. The mountain ranges of Monte Abra de Ilog and Monte Cabignayan to the west and Monte Burburuñgan to the east serve as a spectacular backdrop to the shallow river's lethargic silvery flow. The air is filled with melodies from strange birds and insects hidden in the forests nearby. On the other side of  the riverbank, a small farm with coconut trees sits at the edge of a deep forest. Actually, it's owned by Yeyette's del Mundo and Calivara relatives. Its caretakers are a group of Mañguián natives headed by Aling Benita. We had a coconut picnic there last April 2nd, the day after Juanito's seventh birthday. Amidst the fresh mountain air surrounded by lovely trees, we feasted on the freshest coconut juice and tastiest coconut meat one could ever find. Aling Benita and her son Julius served as our guide and hosts.

Just crossed the river! Behind Yeyette and Junífera Clarita are the shapely mountain ranges of Mt. Abra de Ilog and Mt. Cabignayan.

Top left: Krystal, Junífera Clarita, and their mom with Tagbong's Mañguián caretakers. Top right: A pair of mother and child: Junífera Clarita and Yeyette posing with a protective carabao and her calf. Lower left: On our way to the coconut trees. Lower right: Getting ready for our coconut merienda! With us are John-John (Yeyette's teenage cousin) and our family reflexiologist, Ate Cora. Click here for the video!

Aling Benita's son 12-year-old son Julius climbs coconut trees like a boss. Watching him do this is both fascinating and scary.

Coconuts! Lots and lots of coconuts!

After a hearty coconut picnic, we trooped back to the river and enjoyed its refreshing waters till the sun disappeared behind Mount Abra de Ilog.

It pays to have an adventurous family.

The best time to feel Tagbong's divine beauty is during late afternoon, when the sun is about to set behind Mt. Abra de Ilog.

Krystal's failed jump shot that ended up cute. Behind her is Mt. Burburuñgan.

This friendly carabao and its owner had to go through us first before they could cross Matabang River.

Krystal, Mómay, Jefe, and Juanito with their Uncle John-John in a splashy water war by the setting sun!

Sitio Tagbong: ¡nuestro paraíso!

Yeyette has so many happy childhood memories in Tagbong. She tells me how she, her sister, and their playmates escape from their guardians to swim in the river and gather several kinds of fruits such as guava (Psidium guajava), camachile, cashew, duhat (Syzygium cumini), and sinigüelas (Spondias purpurea). They bring them home stacked on their wet shirts with their arms as handles (upon reaching home, Yeyette and her sister receive a scolding from their grandparents). Her late grandfather, the former caretaker of the farm in Tagbong, once had a nipa hut there. She remembers sleeping there with her sister and some uncles. My wife had an awesome childhood and I never hide the fact that I envy her experiences. That's why whenever we visit Abra de Ilog (a rarity, sadly), I want our children to create new memories there, and for them to have bits and pieces of what she had enjoyed as a child especially since we live in an urban setting, something I personally loathe.

A decade ago in Tagbong. Me and Yeyette had only two kids back then (Krystal and Mómay).

Surely, Tagbong is one place in Abra de Ilog that visitors should never miss. And you know what? Our family will never exchange its idyllic beauty for all the riches in the world.

Selfie for the ages! Click here for the complete photo album of our fun afternoon in Tagbong. And don't forget to LIKE US on Facebook! ¡Hasta la vista!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The wild, wild waves of Amazona Beach

Yours truly enjoying the strong breeze!

A beach that is named after female warriors from Greek mythology? You gotta be kidding me. That's why when I first heard of its name years ago, I seriously thought it was a joke. It wasn't. But up to now, I still couldn't figure out why this pristine beach in Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental was named as such.

Playa Amazona begins here at the Port of Abra de Ilog.

Playa Amazona is a long stretch of pebbled beach on the northern coasts of Abra de Ilog, my wife Yeyette's hometown. It's located in Sitio Orilan, Barrio Uauà (erroneously spelled as Wawa). Towards the east, the Port of Abra de Ilog can be viewed from afar. The beach also fronts the famous Verde Island Passage which is rich in marine biodiversity, actually the richest all over the world. And from that same body of water comes the crashing waves.

Our family has been to many beaches, but this one tops the rest in terms of wave strength. The sea breeze in Playa Amazona is so strong you will need to raise your voice in order to be heard. Wave after crashing wave will topple swimmers upside down. While the waves may not be as strong as those in Baler and Siargáo, we still deem them fit for novice surfers.

Now you see her, now you don't.

The waves of Playa Amazona are always strong all year round, especially in the morning; they subside just a bit in the afternoon onwards. The sands are fine and brownish, with lots of pebbles near the water. But swimmers will be delighted because just a few feet from the shore, the sands underneath the water are soft. The place also provides a breathtaking view of the mountain ranges surrounding Abra de Ilog.

The best part about this beach is that it's rarely visited by people. Maybe because there are no known resorts in the place. But you can rent nipa hut cottages for only ₱100.00. This place is also best for camping.

Left to right: John-John, Krystal, Juanito, Yeyette, Ate Cora, Jefe, yours truly, Junífera Clarita, and Mómay.

We visited this beach last April 1st to celebrate Juanito's seventh birthday. Click here to view more photos of our fun beach adventure! And don't forget to LIKE US on Facebook! ¡Hasta la vista!

Chillin' inside our nipa cottage.

There were no birthday balloons, expensive food, a fancy cake, nor several guests for Juanito's seventh birthday. All we could afford to give him was a happy beach memory. ❤️