text | Carla Ocampo
photography | Yo Muan, Carla Ocampo and Lester Valle
LOCATION | TRAILHEAD: Mt. Arayat National Park | Bgy. San Juan Baño, Arayat, Pampanga
ELEVATION | DIFFICULTY: 1,030 meters above sea level (MASL) | Class 2
COORDINATES: 15°11’47.94″N 120°44’37.68″E
The Filipino hiker is quite unique. Beyond following the established Leave-No-Trace principles, we also add another facet to respecting the Great Outdoors.
With animistic spirituality, deeply ingrained in the Filipino psyche, we make it a point to pay our respects to deities — spirits — that may be inhabiting the trails we tread on.
Some offer silent prayers before the start of every trek. Some call out “Tabi po!” excusing themselves for disturbing the ground. Even the most hardened atheists — and Catholics! — among local hiking circles do not question these practices, if only in the name of camaraderie.
These spirits, it would seem, appreciate sincerity. For one, Aring Sinukwan (or, The King, Sinukwan) was such a benevolent deity during Team KT’s trek up his lushly vegetated home, Mount Arayat.
Perhaps, as a token for our hushed behavior, the spirit king and his daughter Mariang Sinukwan gifted us with great weather, a spectacular sunset, and a clear view of the farthest plains of Central Luzon.
But we’ll tell you the story later. For now, here are the particulars.
HOW TO GET THERE (COMMUTE)
Any bus going to Cabiao, Nueva Ecija would pass by the junction going to the Arayat National Park, but to be sure, there are buses around the Monumento Rotonda with direct trips to Arayat. Fare is at around PhP115.
An hour or so later, Manong Konduktor hollers, “BANYO!” and he’s not talking about bathroom breaks here. “Banyo” signals the village of San Juan Baño, a pretty busy village at the foot of Mount Arayat. This is your jump-off point, and when you’re backpacked, the bus would assume that you are hikers. ”Banyo!” would then become “BANYO! BUNDOK! BANYO! BUNDOK!”.
(For our foreign readers, “bundok” means mountain, and “banyo” or baño — ”bathroom” for Filipinos — loosely means “bather” or “baptist” in Spanish. Arayat is historically a Spanish colonial bailiwick)
THE ARAYAT NATIONAL PARK
You alight right in front of the jump-off junction, where tricycles are ready to take you to either the Barangay Hall, or the DENR Forest Ranger Station at the mountain’s trailhead. Either here or there, you register your names and get the services of a local guide.
But some hiking groups refuse to do this. There has been much ado about guide rates of late, because sadly, some locals would overcharge from the normal PhP500… to PhP1,000, even PhP1,200.
Even then, there may be no need for war paint and seething anger. As visitors, we can always politely decline and look for other locals. A LOT others are principled enough to guide you along the trails for PhP500. And truth be told, the services of an Arayat guide is priceless, because a team can easily get lost among the many twists and turns at the foot of the mountain. It could be enough to say that Maria and her father Sinukwan would not readily welcome you up their home — at least, not so fast.
If you choose to be dropped off at the DENR Forest Ranger Station, then your trusty tricycle has just negotiated some kilometer-and-half worth of hike for you. That IS a huge energy saver.
From the Ranger Station, it would be around 6-7 hours before you reach the summit, factoring in the recommended hour-long rest stop at the Viewpoint, about 200 meters below the peak. For newbies, the trek could stretch up to 9 hours.
Following the trail to Magalang would lead you to the first — and probably the only — water source where you can refill your Nalgenes. But it could actually be too early into the hike; this water source is still within the flatlands surrounding Arayat, you may not even have emptied your containers halfway, just yet. But be warned that there are no other water sources along the trail all the way to the summit, so you may want to take your chances right here.
Arayat’s surrounding flatland is a maze of wagon roads and cattle trails; one wrong turn and you’re bound to lose one whole hour just trying to find your way back in the right direction. Sinukwan plays tricks in these parts; humility is recommended: that is, listen to your guide, or if you choose to go without one, at least do not hesitate to ask wandering locals for directions. The Arayat landscape has changed immensely in the past few years, it is almost unrecognizable even to hikers who have been there just five years ago.
Arayat’s trail is one of the freshest we’ve seen, probably owing to the fact that this mountain is seldom included in the immediate must-hike list of hobbyists.
During the first hours of the hike, you will be wading through high cogon, encountering charcoal pits and the occasional carabao along the way. This should all be in the morning, before the sun beats down hellishly; only a few stunted bushes and some scattered tamarind trees are here to shade you from intense rays.
Halfway up the slope, even as the forest thickens, Sinukwan burdens you with his most difficult challenge: radically steep elevation gain. Think: Maculot Tourist Trail, length times five. This goes on until the Viewpoint vicinity.
At the Viewpoint, which offers a narrow but inspiring view of the Pampanga River and its embracing plains, your team may hie off to lie on the beds of igneous rock that are surprisingly ergonomic. Eat your late lunch or take a power nap, your call.
But this mountain was not spared the insensitivity of hard-headed vandals who dare call themselves mountaineers. Utter disrespect of the Leave No Trace Principles? Again, we’re letting the pictures talk.
FINAL ASSAULT, AND THE ARAYAT SUMMIT
Here is one nice breather: the Viewpoint signals the last leg of the hike. Past the slightly technical rockface of this station, the assault to the summit is a friendly one. The steepness that characterized Arayat’s first 3/4 would give way to rolling terrain and relatively relaxed ambling, with short sections of sharp inclines every now and then. This is where you could find civet droppings from rock to rock, and hear many different bird calls, evidence of the fascinating, biodiverse population that has made Arayat its home.
The forest becomes quite thick in places; you would, at times, have to sweep aside vines and hanging branches that block your way. Thorny twigs would rip your jerseys. Fallen tree trunks would require some limbo rock. All in all, it is a very textured trek, with enough interesting elements to distract you from your exhaustion. Before you know it, you have actually reached the summit!
Arayat’s South Peak camp is a clearing surrounded by shady trees that protect you from the searing sun. You could very well afford to pitch your tents even at 2PM, or wake up quite late the next day for break-camp at noon.
SINUKWAN’S GIFTS: TEASER
One struggles for words to describe the gifts of grateful Maria and Aring Sinukwan, but to receive these requires no secret formula: behave like a true, courteous mountaineer (read, no boisterous shouting, no garbage flailing) and he will probably bless you with an enchanting — we could even say, bewitching — experience. Team KT’s next post will let you take a peek at this splendor.
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