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Sierra Madre: Mt. Pinagbanderahan and An Epic Trek to Bantakay Falls

Photo by Jolly Guy

When I was planning this day trip, the highlight was supposed to be Mt. Pinagbanderahan. Spelunking and trekking to Bantakay Falls should be the side-trips. But an adventure is never complete without a drama. Consequently, it didn't go as planned. Not to mention, my companions definitely did not imagine how it's going to be, either.

Unlike the famous Province of Rizal, Quezon's mountains aren't frequented by travelers coming from the Metro. And it is even though the province clock in some of the most preserved natural spectacles in Luzon.

Ergo, I hope this post will somehow deviate the load of hikers visiting the popular mountains near Metro Manila; mainly because of the alarming deterioration of these landscapes. Some people throw trash everywhere, the floras and faunas are dying, the trails are eroding, and the campsites and summits are commercialized!

I encourage you to please keep in mind the "Leave No Trace Seven Principles" to guide you. And I wish I could convince you to help balance it out by choosing to explore other far-flung and exotic destinations.

#teamMudSlide : Photo by Euller Grospe

Anyway, to continue the story, I wrote in our itinerary to meet-up at 2am. I know there will always be latecomers, so I gave a grace period of thirty minutes. Of course, that's an expectation, in reality we left past 3am. 😂

Our driver wasn't familiar with Atimonan, and we had a lot of detours going there. One of them was, instead of using the newly established route, we used the old "Bitukang Manok" road; the treacherous, steep, narrow, and zigzag road!

Groupie by Josh
With a cold sweat and a hand in my heart, our driver whimsically drove us safely (thankfully) to the top of Atimonan National Park - Zigzag Road. The view was amazing, but the detour didn't end there.

We were using Waze as a guide, apparently it's leading us past the jump-off point (the same thing happened when we went to Baler, Dasol, Calaguas and just recently to Matabungkay too). Thus, we end up driving back for five kilometers.

If you're planning to visit, your landmark should be the Grotto Shrine located within the park. Actually the Atimonan park itself is the jump-off point for those who wish to hike Mt. Pinagbanderahan or explore its caverns. When you see a tourism office, a mini playground, several huts, and a restaurant, you're in the right place!

Jade Jaded is the Captain
Remember also that Bantakay does have a different jump-off point, and based on our experience, Waze wasn't useful as well. So to spare you from wasting time, heed this advice: ask your local (registered) guide thoroughly how to get there.

We arrived past 7am and went looking for a guide. You won't be allowed to hike the Sierra Madre (a.k.a. Mt. Pinagbanderahan) without a registered guide, that's a requirement. The trail is perfect for beginners, actually too established - they cemented it from the jump-off point up to the summit's viewing deck. However there were still some 20-50 meters part of the trail burrowed in mud or fallen trees. so you should still expect to get stained.

Photo by: Euller Grospe

The rainforest is well preserved and wild. What I mean in wild is, animals like snakes (both the venomous and non-venomous types) are slithering around, some even crossing the trail.  As a matter of fact, Jhay, one of our companion saw a snake crossover right in-front of him.

Jhay's most memorable climb - allergies, snakes and limatiks. :)

I saw red, yellow, black and other hues of ants - thick and long with sting so strong (I got stung, so trust me). Worms and other squishy, slimy creatures, were all present here (even though I tend to be biophilic, I must admit that I've never been a fan of these species).

Amazing old trees with thick roots covering and putting in place huge rock cliffs, dainty flora, some rare vegetation, and wild pretty mushrooms covering dead old trunks are present too! We're told that monkeys, wild pigs, and eagles can also be found in the area, but unfortunately we saw none except hawks.

Beth admiring the summit view

When we went there, our adventure guides forbid us to visit the caves. All the caves in the area were close because of the presence of venomous snakes as well as the notorious snake pythons, which according to them we're large enough to swallow a full-grown man (yikes). Alternatively, they said the caves in Bantakay were open and more spectacular (and so we hoped).

Noemi the Explorer?

Hiking our way up to Mt. Pinagbanderahan, I was thinking that it's undeniably preserved. Great job to the LGU, tourism office, and local guides here. I must say, of all the mountains I've climbed in the Southern Tagalog Region, so far, this one's healthy and thriving. The variety and quantity of flora are incredible. And the very fact that wild animals are still roaming around the area means they don't feel much threatened by the weekly intruders.

It was a minor climb; and the mountain only stands 366 MASL, we were able to reach the summit after hiking for just about one and a half hours. The summit offers a panoramic view; from the mountain ranges (no wonder it's called Sierra Madre) to the coastal line of Quezon province. It definitely wasn't a let down.

What made our summit view even more special was when three hawks flew into the horizon circling around rather noisily. We were wondering why all of a sudden they showed up, but now I realized that when we arrived at the summit the rain clouds were nearby and the winds were strong. They probably were in a group using thermal for flying efficiency while hunting for food (my best guess).

Photo by Jolly Guy

We were hasty in admiring the summit views because it's already drizzling. We head back to the jump-off point in less than an hour, and upon arriving we immediately took our lunch.

I'm surprised that the Atimonan National Park is tidy and clean and full of accommodating, respectful locals. They're very honest too! You see they have the cleanest most preserved mountain I've climbed in CALABARZON and yet they have the cheapest price when it comes to entrance or guide fees. Our budget for the entire trip, food and transpo included, was just around 1000 pesos per person! Yes, that includes both Mt. Pinagbanderhan and Bantakay Falls. Take note also that it's farther than Rizal Province, so it's a really good deal.

Personally, I really like Quezon Province, I've been to the municipality of Reál and Infanta and it's just a warm and welcoming province. I don't know, but I get easily impressed especially when it comes to small details. You see, the Atimonan National Park canteen' serves sumptuous meal for as low as 50 pesos, which happens to be in a clean and cozy dining area! It also comes with a bowl of hot broth soup.

And the best of it all are the people, it's very comforting to be surrounded with locals who takes care of nature and treat their visitors with genuine hospitality. It's just a wonderful place to visit.

Beautiful long-exposure photo by Sir Euller Grospe

Trek to Bantakay Falls

After a relaxing lunch and a half an hour siesta, we then head to Bantakay Falls. We also wanted to explore the caves there as we weren't able to visit those in the Pinagbanderahan area.

Again, Waze wasn't useful in this area. I think they haven't perfected the pins/maps for the provinces yet as it happened to us in almost all our trips last year (2017). In this case, it actually led us en route to entering Bicol region.

Thankfully, after asking for directions from the locals, we found the jump off point after an hour. If my memory serves me well, we arrived there past 1pm. We weren't allowed to go caving because the caves were filled with water and spelunking would be dangerous. Lastly, we have a limited time.

All smiles pa din kahit masakit na bes!

Okay, so here's the fun part. Really! Mudslide and all. A crazy, dirty, rolling, slippery-when-wet kind-of trek.

It rained that day, the trail was cemented, mind you, and add to the equation some wet mud which resulted in a super slippery trail. It seems like we're on a real-life obstacle course and lo, we were the Wipe-out contestants! A few meters part of the trail wasn't cemented though, but it was very muddy and sticky to walk on, like it was better to go barefoot.

There were also water streams that you need to cross which were a relief to walk on.

Keeping it cool. Shot by Josh Denzel

Not to brag, but I've trekked more than a handful of waterfalls and this one's really a challenge. I do think however, that normally this mustn't be difficult, it's just that it rained and the trail went so slippery and muddy that it was better to crawl (which we did). Actually, even the first hundred meters of the trek, it was evident that it'll be tough; but it's more than what we expected it to be.

Nonetheless, we had fun, like kids playing while the clouds let out its drizzle. We have dirt all over our bodies, our foot-wears soaked in mud. We ascended with great difficulty and descended in unconventional slides. We were dirty, but happy.

Photo by Sir Euller Grospe

And after more than two hours of trekking, we were gifted with the sight of the glorious Bantakay Falls, in its full grandeur, which was most likely because of the rain. The waters were pouring and proud and marvelous.

Another perfect shot by Sir Euller Grospe

And we stand there satisfied, all worries gone, and exhaustion vaporized. We breathe the air, and plunge into its cold water.

Day trips like these, is what we need in life right now; more than coffee, fake news, and selfies.

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