Friday, March 21, 2014

Minalungao National Park

Discovering Nueva Ecija's Best Kept Secret
by Ivan Ignacio


After visiting Biak Na Bato National Park in San Miguel, Bulacan, The BACKPACKERS and friends hopped inside our service en route to the province of Nueva Ecija. Everyone's curious on what to expect in our second destination: Minalungao National Park. Along the way, we picked up BACKPACKERS Isabel, Nick and York who were not able to make it early that day. Hey, the more the merrier!

Entering the biggest rice producer of Central Luzon: Nueva Ecija!
Minalungao National Park is located in the outskirts of General Tinio, Nueva Ecija. Just like Biak Na Bato, it is situated along the Sierra Madre mountain range. It boasts of its beautiful landscape with amazing limestone formations sandwiching a cool, pristine river. Aside from these wonders, one can also enjoy cliff jumping, hiking and exploring some of its caverns. It is fast becoming popular as the local government is really promoting this eco-tourism destination. As a matter of fact, two months ago, as we were on our way to Mt. Damas, we saw several vinyl banners of Wow Philippines across NLEX promoting the national park. Wow Nueva Ecija! Despite the plenty Wow Philippines sign board along the expressway, there were not any marker that would indicate where the park is when we got to General Tinio. That was the struggle we encountered when we got there. We passed by the street where we were supposed to turn right. But people in the area were very nice and approachable so we later found ourselves heading to the Minalungao Trail Road. 

Mt. Arayat towers over the rice field of Nueva Ecija
The landscape dramatically changed from buildings and houses to mountains and green pastures. It was nice to breathe fresh air and being slowly embraced by Mother Nature again. I was very sleepy for most of the day but adrenaline filled my spirit when we were trudging the rough road towards the Nueva Ecija leg of the Sierra Madre mountains. 

We got to the entrance of the park and was halted by a young boy. He told us that we needed to register before entering its premises. The park collected 20Php per head and 50Php for the vehicle which was not something I read in the blogsphere. The caretaker gave us an official receipt: a signal that we were then free to go and responsibly do whatever we love inside the promising park. 


It was almost dark when we parked our vehicle in the sandy 'garage'. There was a small number of crowd in the main 'lobby' of the park where several cottages were lined up so we decided to camp on the other side of the river. We had our first taste of river crossing and encountered a very long queue of floating rafts on their way home. They were done for the day, but we were just starting our adventure. We set up our camp and cooked dinner. Some people maximized the river and took a dip. It is advisable that the river, however magnificent it may seem during the day, can be a bit treacherous at night because of the uneven river bed. Locals advised tourists to bathe in the shallow part of the river where running water is consistently flowing. And most importantly, do not bathe alone at night.

Our campsite in Minalungao National Park
Dinner was served and shared by everyone around a nice camping mat. There wasn't any crowd and nobody's singing (videoke) anymore on the other side of the river. That portion was almost pitch dark if not for some house's lights. We were the lone group camping overnight which was cool!

We had five first time guests on this trip, three were readers of our site and two were personal friends of BP Leah. So it was just rightful to start the much awaited socials with proper introduction among the climb, er nature trip, parties. It was one of the wackiest and awesome socials of the group so far this year. BP Ghei spearheaded the session and everyone just bonded and jived. We had a nice batch of guests as they were all up for the fun. Some of the highlights were the serenading portion between Laurice and Jheng, the dance moves of Chito and Jun while presenting the 'Junjun Dance' and the break dance threat of guest Jenn which led to an event which sent us laughing head over heels. Those who stayed late at night experienced alcohol scarcity but the laughter and wackiness were definitely on a surplus.

Nick, Jenn and York dance the Jun Jun Dance


A busy BP Leah preparing breakfast
I thought I was dreaming of waking up on a fair and sunny morning with a magnificent river and a relaxing landscape surrounding me. When I opened my eyes, I saw the adventure party huddled for breakfast. We immediately packed our things and broke camp so that we can start our exploration of the place that morning. We locked our things inside the service and prepared for an easy trek on Minalungao Hill. Locals said that it is composed of a thousand step staircase.

The challenge starts here
The challenge started and we drifted through the stairs of Minalungao Hill with ease. It may be advisable to climb early in the morning to avoid the heat of the sun. But nonetheless, it was manageable. When we got to the top, we marveled at the vista of the plains of Central Luzon and the Sierra Madre mountains around the area.

Minalungao Hill photo ops:

counted the stairs and my count was 947 steps.


A peaceful river
After taking on the Minalungao Hill challenge under the heat of the sun, we finally went on to explore the majestic river! We hired a big raft with a complementary small raft because we were a big group. At first, many enjoyed the river rafting on the big one while some of the boys hiked through the rocks to get to our desired location. On most part, the river is quite deep. But when we entered that part blocked with huge rocks and hills on both sides, the water became shallow. This is where we parked our rafts so everyone - swimmers and non swimmers alike, can enjoy the river.

On the left side: River Rafting
On the right side: Hiking along the Rocks
The girls worked hand in hand in preparing lunch. Everyone else explored, swam and had fun. BP Anna and Tito Mon maximized their time climbing onto rocky formations. These two daredevils bonded over limestone cliffs.

Anna and Mon's rock climbing bonding
Anna, Sheryl, Heinz and yours truly (Ivan) braved the cliff jumping challenge. We climbed atop a huge rock formation in the middle of the river and courageously jumped in the river whose rapids were flowing strongly towards the inside of the sandwiched part. I was the last one who jumped, just when the BP Girls called everybody for lunch. I was so frightened and excited as it was my very first cliff jump...ever. My BP brother Nick and Tito Mon were waiting for me at the bottom as I just recently learned how to swim. When I took that leap of fate - it was not that bad! As per guest Sheryl, the experience was more of like freeing yourself and letting all your worries out until you hit the water.

That afternoon's chefs BPs Ghei and Isabel

The river was just so nice and refreshing that we were able to get the relaxation that we crave for. Its flowing cool water reminded us that sometimes we need to take a break from our busy lives in the metropolis. The visit to the river alone made the trip to the National Park worth it.

Minalungao River photo ops:


The cave entrance
The last attraction, at least during our visit, that the park offers is a visit to the nearby cave. A five to ten minute maneuver to the rocky ascent near the river took us to the mouth of the cave. This was our fifth cave already as we explored four caves the day before during our Biak Na Bato National Park experience. Some opted to stay and relax on our raft but many took part in this last challenge.

Towards the cave
The main cave trail was just quick, but a source of light was really needed (because it's a cave!). The only highlight of the cave was its several minor passages that some of us took time exploring. Walking around the cave was not enough for BPs Anna and Nick as they loaned a good twenty minute to do some exploration and cave scrambling inside. When the duo was done, we prepared our rafts and docked at the sandy site where our vehicle was parked.

Minalungao Cave photo ops:
BPs Anna and Nick on their extended spelunking journey

It was definitely a sweet start of summer for The BACKPACKERS and Guests who joined in our National Parks Weekend Adventure. We traced history as we explored the caves of Biak Na Bato National Park and discovered Nueva Ecija's best kept secret in Minalungao National Park. With these, we warmly welcome summer of 2014! Bring it on!

Top L-R: Ralph, Ivan, Isabel, Leah, Nick, Frank and Ghei
Bottom L-R: Marion, York, Anna, Chons and Heinz


Top L-R: Laurice, Sheryl, Jenn and Red
Bottom L-R: Tito Mon, Jeng, Jun and Chito

The BACKPACKERS' gleefully do the Jun pose
as we all welcome summer of 2014!!!

Photo Credits:
Marion, Ghei, Frank, Ralph and Jun

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