Philippines Trooper Travels

Traveling with Strangers

April 2, 2018

For inexperienced hikers, the Pundaquit Mountain Range is a metaphor for false hopes and empty promises. Just when you thought the strenuous hike is over when you reach the first summit, you’d see another steep peak silently mocking you from a distance. Then you are reminded of how your trail guide had been repetitiously reassuring you (for the past several hours) that the summit was just twenty minutes away.

What follows is a lengthy account of my hike to the summit of Mt. Pundaquit in Zambales. I was on a weekend trip organized by someone I just met on Facebook, with people I have not been previously acquainted. Scroll down to the middle if you wandered around here looking for tips and suggestions on solo travel, open travel events, or finding independent travel organizers. There’s also a YouTube video embedded at the bottom that summarizes the trip if you would not care reading a stranger’s long-form narrative.

Otherwise, continue reading.

Traveling with Strangers

The harsh reality hit me hard. I was on a 58-day vacation and was ready to go out to the wild with friends only to realize that everyone was already busy minding their own lives. And if I wanted to do something or go somewhere, I only have myself to count on.

It all started when a mountaineer friend sent me a Facebook message informing me of a possible day hike at Mt. Maynoba Circuit in Tanay, Rizal. The message came around noon while my two kids, a niece, and I were on a bus to Malolos, Bulacan from a week’s stay in Iba, Zambales. I sent a reply 20 minutes later just to inform her that I will look into the details when we reach home. The free wifi connection on the bus was really struggling to even open a prehistoric Web 1.0 page.

I was instantly hyped after reading the full details of the hike. It was set to start in Brgy. Cayabu at four in the morning of April 22, but the meet up would be around midnight at a Victory Liner bus terminal in Cubao, Manila. I was all prepared except I did not have hiking shoes with me as all my other shoes were in Jeddah.

A few days before the trip, I realized I could not leave Tagaytay until the 23rd so I had to back out from the plan. It turned out, the hike did not push through altogether for some other reasons.

“Don’t underestimate the mountain,” lalo’t walang practice at wala pang tulog. Sino nga ba nag-underestimate? Wala naman actually.

Ralph Masalihit / Lakbay Diwa
Mt. Maynoba Circuit, Tanay, Rizal

Mt. Maynoba before the clearing.
Lakbay Diwa / Ralph “Rap” Masalihit / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PH

The night of April 24, I received another invitation from the same friend about a major hike in Benguet, a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region, Northern Luzon. It was a two-day hike set for April 30 to May 1. We’ll leave Manila for the jump-off point on the night of April 29. As usual, the photos sent to me got me all hyped and, again, I confirmed my attendance. Note that I had to cancel a prior commitment with another group of friends to make way for this trip.

Unfortunately, around six in the afternoon of April 24, my friend informed me that a tropical cyclone was expected to make landfall. It may cause the hike to be canceled. We waited for confirmed news and the afternoon of the following day, the event was finally canceled. I was left without a choice but to spend the three-day long weekend sulking at home.

Yung love story natin parang flight ko, akala ko delayed lang yun pala cancelled na.

Travel Hugot #49 / Pinoy Travel Freak

Rock Wall at Anawangin Cove, Zambales, Philippines

A lone tree standing below the stone wall makes for beautiful backdrop in an impromptu photoshoot.
Anawangin Cove, Zambales, Philippines / May 14, 2017 / Instagram / Noel Cabacungan @noelcabaungan

Realizing the nature of the event invites I had been receiving from my friend, I knew someone had been posting them somewhere on Facebook where it could have a wider reach. And I wasn’t mistaken. I may have been living under the rock for not having realized earlier how huge the DIY travel community on Facebook is.

As I was desperate for a hike, I rummaged through Facebook and joined every Philippine-based travel groups I could find — The Weekend Warriors, Solo Travel Philippines, Pinoy Solo Travelers. Name it, I joined it. I even joined the private group LaBoracay Philippines just for the sake of it.

Finally, in the evening of May 6, a guy named Owie Ibarra shared an event on one of those travel groups I joined on Facebook. The event titled “Anawangin Cove via Mt. Pundaquit + Capones & Camara Islands” was set for May 13-14.

Immediately, I sent a Facebook message to Randy Aguirre, the event organizer, to inquire for an available slot for one person. About thirty minutes later, Randy sent me a response and confirmed the available slots. Then like dropping a bomb, I asked the most important question at that time — “Is the event going to push through rain or shine?” He told me he will cancel the trip in case of a typhoon warning as it will be unsafe to go up the mountains or on a boat with a bad weather. Not the answer I was expecting, but the most logical decision a normal person should have in that circumstance.

“Tuloy ba tayo kahit umuulan?” Kapag umuulan, pwedeng umiyak. Hindi nahahalata.

Travel Hugot #23 /
Breakfast at Mt. Pundaquit

Breakfast before the assault.
Mt. Pundaquit, Zambales / May 13, 2017

I didn’t know what made me send money to a total stranger but I just did. Perhaps all the photos of his past hikes plastered all over his Facebook profile gave enough signs of legitimacy. Or was it the fact that I had prepared myself to lose the amount I paid for in case things will turn out to be a scam that made me proceed and just expect the worse to happen after.

But at that time, none of those really crossed my mind. All I wanted was to spend at least one weekend outdoors before it’s time to go back to Jeddah again for work. Randy and his group were traversing Mt. Napuluan at the heart of the Cordillera mountain range while we were exchanging details on Facebook Messenger. I transferred my down payment to his account to secure my slot which he confirmed the night of the following day.

Finally, I was set to go on a two-day hike with people I barely know. The only thing I was relying on was the sole consolation that they at least have legit-looking Facebook profiles.

Mapipili mo yang seat mo pero yung katabi mo hindi. That makes airplane ride and love exciting.

Travel Quote #46 / Jacqueline Boone

Mt. Pundaquit traverse to Anawangin Cove

Alutiit Mountaineers and the joiners at Mt. Pundaquit jump-off point.
Brgy. Pundaquit, Zambales / May 13, 2017 / Instagram / Randy Aguirre @_randylove

A Facebook chat group was created for the purpose of communication between the joiners and the organizer. We were set to leave Manila at midnight but the Meeting time and place was set at 10:00 p.m. at McDonald’s near MRT Quezon Avenue Station. It was a wise move for the organizer to counter habitual latecomers. You know, the infamous “Filipino time.”

It was a weekend. I was expecting the usual heavy traffic so I leaf very early. Then I met with another friend to accompany me while passing time at Viking’s in SM Megamall. I devoured as much food as I can so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting hungry on our way to Zambales and during the hike. It never occurred to me that overeating may cause me unlimited trips to the toilet later. Which, for some mysterious reasons, never happened.

Around 9:30 in the evening, I parted with my friend and was advised to just take the bus because the MRT could be jam-packed, if not already closed. I thought I wouldn’t make it in time as there was heavy traffic between Ortigas and Cubao but, fortunately, it lightened as we were approaching Quezon Avenue. I was able to meet the group at 10:30 p.m.

There were 13 of us. Two couples (three if I assessed them correctly) and the rest were singles. Six of us were totally new to the group while the rest had already been previously acquainted through their previous hikes. Randy introduced me to the group. A quick exchange of names and greetings was in order.

Traveling solo does not always mean you’re alone. Most often, you meet marvelous people along the way and make connections that last a lifetime.

Jacqueline Boone / Travel Quote #94
Anawangin Cove campsite

The downside of being the photographer — never on the group shots. From left to right: Owie, Daph, Miguel, Randy, April, Donna, Joan, Lara, Fernan, Ivy, Ej, Mike.
Anawangin Cove, Zambales / May 14, 2017

Our van arrived around 11:20 p.m. We piled our bags at the rear door and we were directed to our seat assignments. One of the couples took the seats beside the driver. The other couple, a single guy, and I took the back seats. The rest, including the driver’s chaperone, took the first and second row seats; four persons in each row.

We left the place at 11::40 p.m. and hit the road towards the North-Luzon Expressway. We had two shorts stops along the way before having a longer stopover to buy food and drinks at the Ulo ng Apo monument at Bajac-Bajac rotunda near the Victory Liner Bus Station in Olongapo.

Finally, at 3:50 a.m, we reached the registration area and met with our guide. We took our stuff and proceeded to our contact’s house for a few arrangements and final instructions. At exactly 4:35 a.m., we left the place and headed for the jump-off point.

Naturally, it was still dark. The very reason we were told to bring flashlights. Our guide was positioned at the front together with Randy, our event organizer. Behind us were two of Randy’s friends Ej and Mike.

Ingat ka sa cliff dive. Delikado ang ma-fall lalo na kung walang sasalo.

Travel Hugot #24 /
Mt. Pundaquit summit

Mt. Pundaquit summit.
Mt. Pundaquit, Zambales / May 13, 2017

We passed through a very sparse neighborhood before finally going into the woods. At 4:55 a.m., we emerged from the thick woods and arrived at what seemed to be a dry river. The path was filled with loose rocks and a few scattered boulders. There were tree canopies alongside. Fortunately, the morning light started to come out and we would no longer need our flashlights. We took a short stop to wait for the others to come out from the woods, as well. Randy suggested that we take our pictures while we’re “still complete.”

After taking many group photos, we went back to traversing the bouldery path (obviously a hyperbole but rocky is not enough to describe it). We stopped for early brunch when we got past the tree canopies less than an hour later. Everyone took out whatever meal they had earlier prepared or brought from around the rotunda. I ate two pieces of pandesal and shared the rest of the bag to everyone. I was still full from the previous night’s meal.

Mt. Maculot, the one I hiked a decade ago, has an assault difficulty of 4/9. While Mt. Pundaquit, as I was earlier told, has a 3/9 difficulty rating. But since I don’t speak “Mountaineer,” I was expecting 3/9 assault difficulty to be nothing like doing the “Alay Lakad” (Penitential Walk) we did from San Mateo to Antipolo, Rizal when we were in college. Sure, it rendered me unable to walk for a good whole week but I never felt a bit tired the whole way up and down the hill. Never mind that I was maybe a hundred pounds lighter back then.

Only about an hour after we went back to our trail did I realize how wrong I had been. The farther we proceed, the stiffer the slope was getting. My knees were starting bump on my belly each time I’d take a steep step. And f*uck, there was a lot!

Half an hour more and I can literally hear my own breath. I was panting.

Me: Kuya, 10 minutes na lang ba talaga bago summit?
Kuya: Naku, Ma’am 10 minutes na lang po talaga.
Me: Kuya, marami nang nanloko saken. Please lang, wag mo nang dagdagan pa.

Travel Hugot #9 / Pinoy Travel Freak
Mt. Pundaquit assault

Not quite the struggle yet.
Mt. Pundaquit Zambales / May 13, 2017

At this point, I already lost my ability to take mental notes because F*CK EVERYTHING! I knew I was only minutes from seeing light worms and I could lose consciousness anytime soon. And the fact that the sun was all up just was contributing to the mockery. Fortunately, none of these happened; I neither fainted nor nauseated.

Randy had to assure me many times that we were only a few more minutes to the summit just to keep me going.

But ultimately, I had to choice but to proceed. I couldn’t be left midway to the summit lest I’d get myself doomed to circle the confines of the mountain for all eternity. Alternately, I had to rest for 10 to 15 minutes and walk for five minutes at most. I was dragging everyone down but Ej and Mike decided to keep up with my pace while allowing everyone else to proceed. We’d just meet at the summit. Good thing Daph also had to slow down and Miguel was gentleman enough to not leave his girl alone. I felt less guilty.

The sun had fully risen when we finally reach the summit. And good lord, there was another summit mockingly standing still, waiting to torment me for another few hundred meters. But to the second summit’s dismay, I decided to stay. The rest went ahead to have their photos taken on the second summit.

Sis, wag mo pangunahan mga desisyon ko sa buhay.

Anna's Online Store
A much needed rest after reaching Mt. Pundaquit summit.

A much needed rest after reaching Mt. Pundaquit summit (a.k.a. the subtle art of not giving a f*ck).
Mt. Pundaquit, Zambales / May 13, 2017

Daph also chose to stay behind. She was taking photos of the breathtaking scenery while I was laying myself on the ground to recover for half an hour. 30 minutes more and we proceeded downhill towards Anawangin Cove. And after another hour and a half, we reached the campsite.

Still not giving much f*ck, I indulged myself with two cups of halo-halo the moment I got the chance before finally heading out to the beach to quench my quibbling feet. It was 12:54 p.m.

Buti pa ang bagyo may PAG-ASA.

Travel Hugot #29 / Pinoy Travel Freak
Anawangin Cove campsite

Anawangin Cove campsite.
Anawangin Cove, Zambales / May 13, 2017

Thoughts on Solo Travel, DIY Travel, and Independent Travel Organizers

I would choose to travel solo if given the chance. Traveling alone allows me the liberty of discovering things at my own pace without having to deal with everyone else’s tantrums. I do not have to face the blame for getting everyone lost with my poor navigation skills. I realized this when I went on a three-day trip to Abha, Saudi Arabia alone. I wouldn’t have experienced the thrill of walking aimlessly for hours without the slight knowledge of what to expect ahead had I chosen to tag along with someone else.

But trekking is an entirely definitely thing. It is not something I’d be able to pull off on my own, lest I end up being the wilderness’ version of Samuel Bilibit, a Visayan myth about a man cursed to walk the face of the earth for all eternity. I could be wandering aimlessly around the mountain until I meet my final demise. When I finally get to rest and recover my energy at the summit, I realized I can do this hike without the wheezing and the chance of fainting had I done it at my own pace. However, not knowing where to go or which tracks to follow could only end me up not reaching my destination.

On the other hand, traveling with strangers or joining open climb and organized travels have its own risks. You could end up getting scammed (which I happened to read a lot of from many of those Facebook groups), being with socially incapacitated individuals (me, most likely), or having to deal with questionable characters.

Especially for the first time “joiners,” there really is no fool-proof way to tell which individual travel organizers will give you the best experience. You just have to try whoever comes to your way and hope for the least misfortune to happen. Otherwise, just remember to never deal with them ever again.

Which is why I’m most thankful that my first experience in joining open hikes was very successful. Randy and the rest of his group were very accommodating and fun to be with. Perhaps their years of organizing such open events made them some of the most sociable individuals in their niche.

Here goes our segue for a quick plug of Randy’s future events.

If you’re a novice joiner looking for organized hikes or travels, reduce your elimination process by joining his events. His Facebook profile is Randy Aguirre and he usually post his open events at DIY Travel Philippines. Moreso, he and the rest of his group are virtually everywhere on Facebook.

DIY Travel Organizers: Alutiit Mountaineers

Alutiit Mountaineers during break camp. Left to right: Donna, Mike, Ej, Randy, and April.
Anawangin Cove, Zambales / May 14, 2017

Words and advice from experienced climbers

Now, I may have been using the words hiking, trekking, and climbing excessively and interchangeably. So for the sole purpose of this blog post, allow me to establish a few facts. Whenever I would mention hiking, trekking, or climbing, or any of their derivatives, please bear in mind that I am just articulating. I only mean the same thing — going up the mountains. I do not have the right experience, knowledge, or authority to define the difficulty of one’s journey across a specific trail.

Monkeys and Mountains has some detailed comparison between hiking, trekking, and mountain climbing that you may refer to for proper word use.

Facts established, please continue reading.

Kapag may advisory — no permit no climb or sarado ang bundok, masama ang panahon, o may mga pogi* — ‘wag na ipagpilitan ang gala o akyat. Hindi aalis ang bundok, pwede mag-reschedule.

@sining_maningning on Instagram
Mt. Pigingan, Itogon, Benguet by @sining_maningning on Instagram

Better up here.
Mt. Pigingan, Itogon, Benguet / Instagram / Rhea Aiza Trinidad @sining_maningning

Rhea Aiza Trinidad (@sining_maningning)

Rhea’s passion for mountain climbing started when one of her friends invited her for a major climb in 2009. Her friend brought with her another set of friends that would later form their core group in many trekking events.

With a decade of mountain climbing experience in her arsenal, Rhea has a lot to say on several matters.

On singles trying to find “the one” in open climbs

Despite being strongly against it, she knows people who climb as singles and descended as couples. The danger lies when they end up breaking up, it will be very awkward to go climbing together again. Never fall in love with your travel buddy.

On scrutinizing event organizers

One time she went hiking with a different group as a “joiner” and was disappointed that some of the core members of the group were not approachable. From then on she would always scrutinize the Facebook profiles of the organizers and make it a point to ask common friends whenever possible.

On the business side of open climbs

Though she finds nothing wrong in the idea of organizing open climbs with a business perspective, she does not recommend them to joiners. Unless the organizers are participating in the events themselves. There was a time they joined a similar event when the organizer merely drove them to and from the jump-off point; they were left to navigate the trail on their own.

She also knew of someone who organized such event for profit but ended up ranting on their group because most of the participants are “backout dancers,” a wordplay on backup dancers referring to an individual who backs out on the day of the event.

That said, we never generalize individuals or groups who organize such events in a complete business perspective. There are good organizers and bad organizers; a bad egg does not represent the whole basket. Jacomijn from the Netherlands actually had great experience hiking Mt. Pulag with a reputable travel organizer here in the country.

On backout dancers

People should really be considerate with the organizers who are left to shoulder the remaining expenses left out by backout dancers. There are organizers who also only hire drivers or rent vehicles for the event, and in case of people backing out on the exact day of the event, they had to cover for everything.

On organizing events

They do not usually hire vehicles, especially for long distance hikes. When hiking in Benguet, for example, they would take provincial buses, instead. And in case they need to rent one to take them to the jump-off site, they’d collect fees in advance and they would put in black and white that fees are non-refundable, even among their friends. They will also make sure to torment the backout dancers in their chat groups.

*maniacal laughter ensues

Rhea still has a lot of stories to tell from her trail adventures. There are ones about couples fighting during the climb, about importunate organizers desperate to complete the numbers, and so much more. However, we decided to keep these details between ourselves in case parties involved wander on this page accidentally.

Her ultimate advise

Do not insist or pursue the plans in case of advisories such as hiking trails being closed for safety reasons, impending typhoons, or reported presence or rebels in the area. The mountains are not going anywhere and you can always re-schedule the event for another time.

* Pogi (n): a Central Luzon slang for mountain rebels; NPA

Mt. Apo! Best and hardest climb. Tsaka yung tubig galing sa falls sobrang linis, diretso inom ka lang. Parang mineral water sa tamis.

Manny, a.k.a. Badoodles
Manny Lallata at the summit of Jade, Mountain, Taiwan

Summit of Jade Mountain.
Jade Mountain, Yushan National Park, Taiwan / Facebook / Manny Lallata

Manny Lallata (@letzgotraveloco)

Manny started joining open climbs in January 2017 as an alternative sport for basketball and running. When I asked him what his best climb in the Philippines was, he told me it was in “Apo! Best and hardest climb.” Though if I were to ask him about his best global hike, he would probably mention his experience trekking Taiwan’s Jade Mountain. Yes, he joined an open climb with people he only met at the foot of Taiwan’s tallest mountain.

He dedicated this triumphant climb to all Person with Disabilities (PWD) in the Philippines. For which he gained accolades from the PWD community in the country.

Manny agrees that there is no precise way to distinguish the dubious from reputable independent travel organizers. You just have to take a chance and hope no untoward incidents happen later on. Otherwise, just remember to not join the same group again for another hike or similar events.

He never really find issues being with frisky hikers. In fact, he agrees that they are part of a fun hike. However, he expresses a certain dislike for reckless drivers. That for him is a clear red flag.

I have known Manny virtually since our early days of blogging in 2008. We have yet to meet in person which made him suspect that I am actually just a bot.

Together with his wife, Manny runs Special Life Events photo and video coverage services. They offer quality yet affordable photography, video coverage, picturebook and photobooth packages for kiddie birthday parties, debuts, and baptisms. They covere events within Metro Manila, Quezon City, and other neighboring cities and provinces. For more details, visit their website or Facebook Page @speciallifeevents.

Anawangin Cove via Mt. Pundaquit + Capones Island Hopping

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  • Reply
    Lauren Pears
    April 5, 2018 at 1:57 AM

    What a great read- really engaging with great photos! Sounds like an adventure 🙂

    • Reply
      Noel Cabacungan
      April 5, 2018 at 4:34 AM

      Glad you dropped by, Lauren. Indeed it was an adventure, a very challenging one to say the least 🙂

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