June 10, 2018

Mt. Tabayoc, 4 Mystical Lakes and Junior Pulag

Kabayan, a picturesque vegetable farming town in the highlands of Benguet, is known as the site of centuries-old Ibaloi mummies and Mt. Pulag, the third highest mountain in the Philippines. It is also home to another equally beautiful mountain, Mt. Tabayoc  and four mystical lakes. Mt. Tabayoc has an elevation of 2,842 MASL making it the second highest in Luzon, next to Mt. Pulag; and seventh in the Philippines. In the native language, Tabayoc literally means “basin”, and perhaps the mountain got its name because of the four lakes surrounding the base.

We were supposed to climb Mt. Tabayoc in August last year. Everything was planned – medical certificates were secured, Victory liner bus tickets bought, guides and van rental coordinated, tents prepared, Jen even cooked delicious adobo for our baon. Unfortunately, Bagyong Jolina whipped Northern Luzon on the very same day of our scheduled trip. This prompted DENR Park Management to suspend hiking in the mountains of Benguet and Mt. Province. Nganga kaming lahat.

Almost eight months later, from the original group of eight, tatlo na lang kaming survivors (me, Jeff and Mia) na tinuloy ang Mt. Tabayoc adventure. This time prepared na kami. We even have Plan B, in case things go awry as what happened the first time.

We reconnected with our contact in Kabayan, si Kuya Santiago, who arranged our jeepney transfers from Baguio to Ballay, Kabayan and vice versa. Ballay is a far-flung barangay where Mt. Tabayoc and the lakes are located. A DIY Mt. Tabayoc climb is possible but if pressed for time, better to directly contact DENR Mt. Pulag Ranger Station or the guides for transportation and accommodation. Mt. Tabayoc being part of the Mt. Pulag National Park, is still under the jurisdiction of DENR.
From Baguio, it took us more than five hours to reach Ballay via rented jeepney. We were with a group of young professionals whose main purpose of visiting Kabayan is to witness a local wedding ceremony. In fairness, the road all the way to Kabayan is already paved; but still it’s a long and winding road. Mas mabilis pa nga ang pumunta from Manila to Baguio than to go to Kabayan from Baguio.

We were also allowed to top load in Bokod, so we literally feasted over wonderful, invigorating views of mountains, pine trees, rice and vegetable terraces, and small communities.   

We had two stop-overs. First at Bokod Municipal Health Office so that the three of us could get health clearance that will prove that we are fit to climb. And second in Kabayan Poblacion to visit the Opdas Mass Burial Cave. The burial cave, located in a private backyard of a local, houses hundreds of skulls and bones between 500 and 1,000 years old. It is believed that the deceased either died during a smallpox epidemic brought by the Spanish or were entombed en mass through the years due to their low social status.

When we reached Ballay, we met with our tour guide Kuya Rudy (a former CAFGU and a good friend of Kuya Santiago), and hopped in to another jeepney that took us to Lake Tabeyo, the jump-off point for Mt. Tabayoc, and our camping base for our two-day hike.

Upon arrival, and briefly taking in all the majestic beauty of the lake, we registered at the Ballay Ranger Station, and then set up our tents by the lake. There is a basic comfort room for the climbers beside the station. We also requested if we could use their cooking utensils for a fee. 

After taking our late lunch, we started to explore the three other mystical lakes – Incolos, Latep-ngapos, and Ambulalacao. Ang paalala lang sa amin ng DENR rangers huwag mag-ingay para hindi madisturbo ang mga spirits ng mountain at hindi umulan. We strictly followed. Sino ba naman ang gusto mag hike na wet and slippery ang trail?

Kuya Rudy said that Ambulalacao is the most beautiful among the four lakes (it was named after a beautiful comet or bulalakaw that was seen by some locals dancing over the water a long, long time ago), but in my opinion it would be the Latep-ngapos. The latter is more placid providing almost precise reflection of everything above the water, including the mountain, trees and sky. And when fog and mist envelopes the lake, it appears to be mystical, eerie. Incolos, on the other hand, is extraordinary for it is an inverted lake – the water is found below the ground. So the top soil is actually not sturdy and feels like a bed of marshmallow when stepped upon.  

After seeing all the lakes, we hiked all the way to Junior Pulag, our final destination for the day. The small mountain, although not as grand as Mt. Pulag – share the same similarities – fickle temperature and air pressure – and somehow resembles the peak of the “Playground of the Gods”.

After our first day remarkable hike, we had an early dinner and retreated to our tents by 8 pm. Our original plan was to start the climb at 3 am so we could witness the sunrise at the summit. Pero may mga maiingay ata sa paligid, kaya buong gabi na umulan. We were freezing cold (but still bearable compared to my Pulag experience a decade ago na tagos to the bones ang lamig), and weren’t able to sleep properly.

Because of the unexpected rain, we started to ascend a little past six in the morning. From the jump-off (passing by vegetable and wildflower farms), it is a continuous assault with (I think) 95% of the trail within and protected by a thick, mossy forest. The trail is dubbed “monkey trail” because one needs to hang on to vines, swing from one branch to another (kung nagmamagaling), crawl between branches and climb over boulders to get to the next step. But the trail also appears enchanted because of the bending and twisting tree branches. Most of the trees are covered with moss and lichens, a good indicator that it is one of the best-preserved virgin forests in the Philippines. I also love hugging or touching the trees because they feel cold, and energizing to my tired body.

After more than three hours of trekking, we reached the summit. We were fast because we only carry with us a bottle of water, food trail and small gadgets.

The summit is not an open grassland but rather entirely forested and covered with tall trees. It is good that the park management built a wooden view deck so hikers could see the dense forest view of the mountain, as well as the neighboring mountains of Pulag, and Mt. Al-Al which was generously covered with sea of clouds.

The mountainscape was breathtaking, heavenly. Reaching the peak of Mt. Tabayoc provided a great sense of accomplishment. I will never trade experience for convenience.      

Our Tabayoc adventure is a personal favorite among my major hikes. The mountain was so kind to reveal its grandeur in its entirety, and then cover it up the next moment with thick fog, mist, light rain and clouds, as if teasing the spectators, and validating that it is truly mystical. The scenery and spectacle change every moment. 

The mountain is restless, never static, and at night could be unforgiving; but somehow it is trying to convey something important to those who have conquered it – don’t be scared to be.

From Manila, take Baguio-bound bus. In Baguio, take Kabayan-bound van or jeepney at the Slaughterhouse Terminal. First trip leaves 7 am (and travel time takes 4-5 hours). From the poblacion, it is another 30-45 minutes to reach the jump-off point or Lake Tabeyo. For a more convenient and budget-friendly climb, better join group climb or coordinate with the DENR Mt. Pulag Ranger Station or a tour guide in Ballay (Santiago – 0910-7522655). Since we were sabit-joiners (the guide arranged everything from transpo from Baguio to Ballay and vice versa, to paying of registration, camping fee to guide fee for the Mt. Tabayoc+4 Lakes+Jr. Pulag) we paid our organizer P2,000 per pax (excluding food, guide tips and other miscellaneous expenses ).
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