Hidden Philippines: Tropical Mountains Beyond and Above the Beach

story and photos by BJ Stolbov

Every island is a mountain. Every island, everywhere, no matter how big or how small, is the top of an undersea mountain. Whether it is one island as in Australia, or two main islands as in New Zealand, or the 7,107 islands as in the Philippines.

When most people imagine the Philippines, they think of white sandy beaches, its clear blue ocean and soothing waves, its swaying palms trees and thatched roof bamboo huts. Most tourists opt for western-style hotels with western-style food, open bars with local and imported beers, other foreign visitors and ex-pats, and professional friendly women of questionable occupations and motivations.

Those are the usual images used to attract tourists to most tropical “paradises” including to the Philippines. However, this beach-heavy tourist culture has almost nothing to do with real indigenous Philippine tribal cultures and people. Beyond and above those beaches are the tropical mountains.

The mountain, or highland, people of the Philippines live much differently from the beach, or lowland, people. The mountain people are quiet, gentle, and hospitable. They are modest, independent, isolated, often self-isolated. They live simply, and they work hard because they have to. The mountain people of the rarely visited island of Mindoro are called the Mangyan.

The Mangyan speak their own language that the lowlanders rarely understand. Most Mangyans have lived up in these mountains their whole lives, as did their parents and grandparents before them, from a time that only they remember in their traditional stories and poetry.  Many Mangyan only speak enough lowland Filipino to conduct trade with them, only enough to sell what they grow and make in their mountains (the Mangyan are highly skilled basket makers) and to buy the few items that they cannot create themselves. They rarely stay in the lowlands longer than they absolutely have to. Most lowlanders rarely come up to the mountains. Mountain culture and people have almost nothing in common with the tourist and beach culture people. And the mountain people appear to like it that way.

While the beaches and the lowlands can be stifling hot and humid, the mountains are usually surprisingly cool, and in the far north, the mountains can be almost cold. The tropical mountains are peaceful and quiet, except for the abundance of birds singing, including the Mountain Shrike, the Flame-breasted Fruit Dove, and the Giant Scops Owl. The tropical mountains are a bird-lover’s paradise.

I’m always excited to find an amazing variety of different ecologies with seemingly every mountain having a different kind of forest. It takes a while to notice the many varieties of bananas, coconuts, and mangos, which, in my gustatory opinion, are some of the most delicious mangos in the world!

For those searching for unusual destinations, the tropical mountains are the place to go.  The tallest mountain in the Philippines is Mount Apo on Mindanao Island, the southernmost island.  Mount Apo is, at least, a 2-day hike, with camping on the mountain, and views of soaring Philippine Eagles.

Mount Pulag, the tallest mountain on Luzon Island, the biggest island in the north, is also a 2-day hike with a jeep ride almost to its summit and a campground.  Mount Pulag is famous for its peak being above the clouds and for some of the most beautiful sunrises in the Philippines.

Farther north is the picturesque mountain town of Sagada, and its tallest mountain, Mount Ampacao, also famous for its sunrises. Sagada is also well known for its indigenous Igorot and Kan-kanay tribal cultures and their native textile weaving, blankets and bags.

For a unique adventure consider Mount Pinatubo in Zambales.  An active volcano (hopefully not while you are on it), Mount Pinatubo spectacularly blew up in 1991, covering Zambales and most of Luzon with volcanic ash.  Today, although there is still little vegetation, you will find a fresh water lake in the volcano’s crater and campsites beside it.

For the more adventurous, I suggest Sibuyan Island, an island preserve in the Romblon Islands of the Visayas. Accessible only by local boat, Sibuyan Island is known as the Galapagos of the Philippines, because it has remained isolated since its formation. The entire island is sparsely populated, protected, and undisturbed. Fifty-four species of trees are found nowhere else on earth. Three species of birds, including the Philippine Hanging Parrot, the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, and the Philippine Pygmy Woodpecker, are usually only found here. The Philippine Hawk-Eagle can often be seen from its highest mountain, Mount Guiting-Guiting.

Tropical mountains can be difficult hiking. On meandering, winding paths or on no paths at all, the ground is often rough and irregular, and the vegetation can be dense and entangling.  In the mountains, the calm balmy weather of the beaches and the lowlands can turn suddenly dark, cloudy, windy, and rainy. A cool rain shower can be refreshing on a long hike and there will always be some trees to keep you from getting really soaked. While it is easy to get lost in the mountains, it is also easy to find your way out by remembering that everything, including you, that goes up must come down. Follow a stream downward and eventually you will come to some people, a village, or the ocean.

I suggest you hire a tour guide. You can check out the internet or, better yet, go to the local tourist office, almost every town has one, and hire a reputable guide, preferably from the local tribe, and who speaks their language and yours.  In the Philippines, the usual price for an all-day tour guide is about 1000 pesos or about $22, and worth every cent. Also, at a little extra cost, it is often possible for the tour guide to rent a van or a jeep. Personally, as an elder (a euphemism I now find reassuringly pleasant), I prefer to get as far up the mountain as I possibly can by van or jeep before I start my hike.

The view from the top of a tropical mountain is magnificent: deep rich green mountains after mountains, for as far as you can see. Like most tropical mountains, the Philippines mountains have no tree lines, no treeless summits, no snow-capped peaks, no snow, just forests and forests and more forests.

So, next time you plan to visit a tropical island, beside your swimsuit and flip-flops, also pack a rain poncho, a stocking cap and gloves, and, of course, don’t forget your hiking boots. For a truly unusual island experience, shake off that beach sand and go up into some usually unvisited tropical mountains.

B.J. Stolbov is a writer, poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, travel writer, and improving photographer.  He is the author of the novel Last Fall (Doubleday) and the poetry book Walks (Foot Print Press). He travels and explores in Asia; lives and works in the Philippines. His stories, poems, and articles on travel, farming, and life are available for publication. Besides writing, he is an aspiring farmer, growing tropical fruit and nut trees. Most mornings, he can be found on his farm, climbing up the stunning tropical mountain Mount Stolivar (100 meters tall). Please feel free to contact him at BJStolbov@gmail.com.

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