Here is another rule when hiking up a mountain: Do not always expect great views at the summit. The organizers of my Mt Maculot trek set the date on October 15, 2016. Days before the climb, Typhoon Sarika, named Karen in the Philippines, approached the country. It had not made landfall yet but brought rainy weather as well. I was even unsure whether our planned hike would proceed. On October 14, it did not rain and the wind did not pick up speed. We would do the day-hike.
Situated in the municipality of Cuenca, Batangas, Mt Maculot has been a magnet for people who want to climb mountains south of Manila. It stands at 930 meters above sea level. Trail difficulty is 4/9 at most.
After the Valenzuela fishing trip and the Mt Purgatory traverse, I would be on a trip again with Christian “Xtian” Villanueva. He organized the trip along with Jhazz de Guzman and CJ. Two vans had been rented for the hike. We numbered a total of 30 participants. I already met Alvin, Xtian’s younger brother, and Rhea Juranes through common friends in social media. Some of our companions would be trekking at a mountain for the first time.
It took us more than three hours to reach Cuenca from our rendezvous location in Taguig city. We navigated roads along residential areas before taking to a highway. Then we followed the South Luzon Expressway. I fell asleep during the road trip. When I woke up, we were already in Cuenca, Batangas.
Some of my companions bought breakfast and supplies as well at a major convenience store franchise in the municipality. Then our journey to the base of Mt Maculot resumed. The surroundings grew greener. The houses became fewer. Later on, a large tarpaulin sign greeted mountaineers with a welcome. Our hiking party stopped by a building to pay the entrance fee.
Eventually, we arrived at a compound with its chain-link fence covered by many tarpaulin signs. The drivers parked our vans at an adjacent parking lot with a grassy surface. The first thing I did was to relieve myself. I would rather do it with a proper toilet than out there at the mountain. Emptying my bladder costed five Philippine pesos. There were multiple comfort rooms lined one after another. They had cemented walls, tiled floors, porcelain toilets, water-filled buckets that came with a plastic dipper, and nails hammered as ‘pegs’ for hanging towels and clothes. At least taking a bath after the trek would not be a problem anymore. In fact, it would be convenient as several hikers could do it at one time.
The outdoor adventure began at 7:05 AM after a briefing by the guides and a short group prayer. We walked under a gloomy sky and the shade of seemingly ghostly trees. The wind made the leaves rustle. Our hiking party followed a stretch of concrete road lightheartedly. Most among us had hiking sticks made from branches with their outer layer completely removed in an artistic fashion. Each one costed ten Philippine pesos. Then the cemented path gave way to a bumpy dirt road. I looked down and saw miniature gullies and ridges. My walking staff created a hole as it pierced the soil. I pressed on alongside Alvin, Rhea, and their friend named Aya Canilao. Aya and Rhea began to complain about the trail jokingly. Meanwhile, Xtian served as our ‘sweeper’ at the rear. He made sure no one would be left behind.
I asked a guide how Mt Maculot got its name. He said the mountain used to be called Mt Makulog, which is Tagalog for ‘thunderous.’ The spelling changed over the years. (Later in the trek, another guide also mentioned that the Feast of Saint Joseph came with peals of thunder, according to local elders.)
Foliage surrounded us from the left and the right. Then the surroundings grew brighter at a spot devoid of trees along the trail. Behind a foreground of coconut trees lay a lake. Its tranquil water appeared gray under a sky that signaled the advent of rain. We walked further and came upon an eye-catching rock formation on our right. It was decorated naturally with vines and moss. A sign lying on the ground gave more information.
Minutes passed as the trail sloped increasingly. A bed of flat and smooth rock gave us a bit of respite. Some even posted for photos on top of it. Then the dirt trail led us higher up Mt Maculot. It reminded me of my Mt Amuyao hike due to the tiresome uphill hike and branches lying on our path as makeshift steps.
Eventually, we arrived at the first of the twelve resting stations before reaching that famous part of the mountain called the ‘Rockies.’ This one had a stall constructed from bamboo poles and a large piece of heavy synthetic material colored blue and orange. A lady clad in a black outfit sold coconut juice with shredded coconut meat for ten Philippine pesos per cup. Some of our companions gulped the refreshing beverage before we all resumed the trek.
The path to the summit became steeper. It had truly become what we called an ‘assault,’ or an uphill part of the trail that would exhaust one’s energy. We began to inhale and exhale deeply with panting. Alvin and Aya had moved to the vanguard of our trekking party. Rhea was my hiking buddy that day. We shared the struggle of our fellows who coped with Mt Maculot’s challenge by making humorous statements. A good laugh staved off weariness and kept our spirits relatively high.
A dog with blotched brown and black fur, named Tiger, accompanied our group. It smelled as if it was not bathed for several months. Yet it did not have the slightest tendency to bark or growl at people. The canine simply walked with us with bare paws instead of trekking shoes and sandals. I became rather amiable with Tiger despite my preference to cats.
The third station came with a shack that sold boiled plantains (known locally as saging na saba), pork dumplings dipped in a mixture of soy sauce and calamondin squeeze, bread, and an assortment of beverages. According to a woman there aged in her fifties, the other vendors did not set up business due to the approaching typhoon and the subsequent lack of visitors. We also took some rest, shared trail food, and drank the water we brought.
Our legs felt the strain from the ascent. On the other hand, I had more trouble with the excessive sweating of my forehead. My eyeglasses got blurry not only from droplets of perspiration but also from the humidity. The trail was not as difficult as a few from my previous excursions. It was not raining yet. Most of the rocks that lay on the trail were not slippery. Soil did not collapse from the weight of our footsteps. Our voices interrupted the forest’s silence, broken occasionally by the melodic song of birds and hum of critters. At a rough and rock-strewn part of the trail, a millipede crawled slowly and we could have touched it. It was like a hundred times bigger than the specimens that appeared in my family home’s bathroom. Rhea said she would rather lose her footing than handle the many-legged creature unwittingly. My hiking companions kept on making references about setbacks in romance, known as a hugot. Our hike turned into a cycle of arduous walking and momentary resting.
Eventually, the shadowy trees turned into lush grass. The dirt path ahead zigzagged. We held on to a durable black rope, which remained tough despite exposure to sun and rain. The trail did not have rocks and tree roots. We could follow it with ease. Of course, the rope was necessary as dirt would turn into slippery mud during a downpour. There was virtually nothing to grip except this rope. We amused ourselves by chatting and laughing before reaching another rest station.
The next two stations were only several minutes apart from each other. They also looked similarly as structures made of bamboo and a bit of other materials. If it was not foggy that day, both would offer a breath-taking view of verdant mountains and an azure lake. Yet the mist concealed most of our surroundings. The air grew cooler. At least it was not as humid now than before.
Later at another station during a break, Tiger was panting heavily. We had to give it something to drink. I took out my 1.5 liter bottle of water bought at a grocery. A part of me believed that kindness to animals would have its divine rewards, especially forgiveness of sins. Now we needed a sort of container. I could not just pour it on the ground only to have the friendly canine lick some mud. My eyes scanned the immediate surroundings. There were fresh leaves, fallen leaves, and a piece of tarpaulin. Then one of our hiking companions brought out a small transparent plastic bag. He shaped it into a bowl as I filled it partly with water. Tiger approached eagerly and lapped its share of refreshing drink. We were all smiling and our voices echoed with gladness.
Our hiking party kept on walking uphill until we arrived at the so-called ‘7-Eleven.’ At a glance it did look like a convenience store. Four bamboo tables had been set up all over the place, sheltered from the elements under thick roofing supported by an intricate arrangement of rafters and sturdy bamboo posts. The few vendors sold a wide variety of edible items. There were canned sardines, hard-boiled eggs, easy-to-cook pancit canton noodles in packs, nuts in foil packs, instant coffee in sachets, and bottled beverages. The organizers decided we would have lunch there after visiting the ‘Rockies’ first.
To our left, the dirt path led us into a meadow with tall grass. Vegetation had been slashed and trampled beside the trail, making this spot more spacious. The foggy background had us posing for photos. It felt like venturing into uncertainty. The scenery relieved my eyes yet cast doubt in my mind simultaneously.
We followed the trail and came upon a plaque on the grassy ground. There was a large rock near the edge of a ravine. Beyond lay an elevated landmark, green with foliage but had some gray too from bare rock faces. It was the ‘Rockies.’ I associated this term to the Rocky Mountains of North America. Aya and Rhea asked me to take snapshots of them as they stood on top of the nearby rock.
The way ahead descended into a grove of trees. Our surroundings turned shady. Heavy rope on posts had been laid beside the trail again. I gripped the knotty material tightly as if my life depended on it. My hands worked harder than my feet. Rhea and I managed to have a humorous conversation in the process. This part of the trail also felt like rappelling. Once I turned to my back, held on to the rope, and bounded down the sloped path. The only challenge was how to prevent the hiking staff from slipping from my grasp.
Eventually, I arrived at to the starting point of the ascend up the Rockies. One of the guides said we could leave those artisan trekking sticks as we would not need it for the climb. We did so. Up ahead were fellow hikers mustering both physical and emotional strength to reach the top. We all seemed a line of ants on a rocky anthill. Those before us made their way through boulders. It would be my turn very soon. Short and hardy plants also grew around us, making the most of limited nutrients the soil offered. Our party advanced rather slowly. I stood beside my hiking buddy, staring at a whitish sky and nothing else. The foggy weather ruined my hopes of experiencing Mt Maculot like my former office colleague next to my desk back then. Despite our gloomy environment, we remained cheerful by chatting and taking group photos.
As my fingers exerted pressure and stuck to bare rock, I recalled my fairly recent excursion at Mt Pamitinan. Getting past this stretch of trail towards the Rockies required much less effort compared to that outdoor adventure in Rizal province. A guide wearing a neon green outfit directed us where to place our feet at a point where one could not walk but only climb. We made gradual progress in our way to the top. Another hiking party had begun to descend from the Rockies. It was our group’s turn now.
A few trees and some bushes grew sparsely atop this scenic part of Mt Maculot. We arrived at the Rockies at 9:45 AM. My companions were still enthusiastic with taking snapshots despite the complete lack of view. Beyond the edge lay only a dreary and grayish mist. It reminded me of the time I climbed Mt Tabayoc only to find the same foggy scene. At least there were no frigid gusty winds this time. A bird much larger than a sparrow, perhaps the size of a quail, flew and darted just above our heads. It would be amazingly calm here if not for the non-stop chatter of hikers, including me. We had ample time to stay at the Rockies, even wait for the skies to clear.
I heard joyous shouting. The mist faded to reveal a blurry view of an enormous body of water, contrasted by what looked like a ridge or an island. Cameras and mobile phones were in action. Several seconds passed and the fog engulfed what could be seen of the surrounding landscape. I complained about it. Our voices came with a tone of disappointment.
Eventually, the air became clear enough to show what I thought was the sea off the coast of Batangas province. A guide named Ariel told me it was actually Taal Lake. The land beyond the gray stretch of water appeared blue instead of green. While most among our hiking party gathered at a vantage point indicated by the guides, I went to the other edge of the Rockies along with Alvin, Aya, Rhea, and a fellow named Justine dela Cruz. A narrow trail led us through bushes that grew low due to constant exposure to wind, cold, and rain. Then they gave way to lush grass strewn with brown rocks. I could see a large island and two smaller ones to its right. We began posing for pictures with those islands on the backdrop. I also asked our companion named Grace to take a few pictures that included me. However, the wind picked up speed and concealed our view with the stubborn mist from time to time. We could not do anything but accept the circumstances. It was not for us to control the weather.
We stayed on top of the Rockies for at least 30 minutes. In the end, we only had a glimpse instead of a scenic view of Taal Lake due to the fog. Our trekking party then descended through the same rocky and steep way. We jumped down a point that we climbed before with bare hands (except for Aya who brought gloves) and footwear. I looked for our hiking sticks but they were simply out of sight. I wondered if they were brought to the ‘7-Eleven’ resting station. We held on to that black rope along the trail again. Rhea and I had a funny conversation and we were joined by a guide who introduced himself as JR. We complimented his sense of humor.
Back at ‘7-Eleven,’ my walking staff was simply gone. Yet my other companions held theirs while sitting around a table. Rhea told me to let it go. She lost hers too. I did not blame anyone. Some things would go missing for a good reason. Perhaps that stick might hinder me later.
Our party of around 30 people assembled for lunch. We ate separately as two groups. I brought out deep-fried slices of eggplant. Rhea sliced a few tomatoes. I cut two of those purple-dyed salted eggs in half and scooped out the solidified white and yolk. Egg and tomatoes were mixed into a Filipino dish seen commonly. Our fellows shared adobo, which was meat cooked in soy sauce and vinegar, canned food, and more rice. Cocoa-based chocolates in foil wrappers were shared, along with chocolate-covered marshmallows. I had a full belly. It was one of the best lunch breaks in my treks so far.
Noon approached but there was no sweltering heat due to an overcast sky. We had our backpacks again. Our hiking party followed a trail opposite to the way towards the Rockies. Tall grass grew around the path but it did not choke us. This area was relatively open. Yet I was sure it would not be like this all the way to the summit. A forested mountaintop stood proudly to our right. It was the summit of Mt Maculot.
Alvin and Rhea were my hiking buddies during the ascent. Soon the grass transformed into leafy bushes and ferns. Hardwood trees stretched towards a gray sky. The surroundings grew dimmer. There was undergrowth everywhere. We entered a literal jungle. Plants seemed to be breathing as if they were sentient. My eyeglasses got cloudy from the humidity. The dirt trail felt soft under my shoes. It still looked more of a path within a public park or a botanical garden.
The way ahead became steeper and our legs bore the brunt of the hike. Rhea panted as she mentioned her sore feet. She chose to wear sandals instead of shoes in anticipation of rainy weather. It was more difficult to deal with wet shoes. Rhea also stopped moving from time to time to recuperate. She had not done nature walks for weeks. Yet she looked forward to climb Mt Daraitan in Rizal province. Alvin and I had been there before. We discouraged Rhea jokingly because the trail up that mountain would be several times worse than this. The three of us pressed on. Rhea loved outdoor adventures. I believed her body would be more accustomed to the rigors of trekking if she hiked more often.
Minutes passed endlessly and the summit was still out of sight. Our guides said it would be reached from ‘7-Eleven’ within 45 minutes to one hour. Of course, those guys moved much faster and more agile than the average hiker.
To make matters worse, parts of the trail consisted of slippery mud. I was grateful there were branches, tree trunks, and even exposed roots to hold on to. The humid air turned misty. We were hiking south of Manila but at that time the surroundings resembled a mossy forest in the Cordillera mountain range up north. Air temperature seemed to drop too. However, my forehead and scalp were sweating profusely. The warmth of the forest mixed with the cold of the fog, turning the soil moist.
At 12:15 PM, the three of us finally arrived at the summit after an arduous walk. Trees did not grow closely together, giving way into a clearing. Bluish gray fog hid the landscape below and around us like it did atop the Rockies. It was even worse here. I could say there was nearly zero visibility. A chilly wind slapped my face. Some of our female companions had their hair blown into disorder. The cold felt soothing though. Chatter filled the air.
Our companions posed for photos beside a decorative sign that indicated the summit of Mt Maculot. Two wooden posts held it upright. Previous visitors wrote graffiti with ball-point pen and hand. At least those unwanted marks did not ruin the sign. We posed by batches and I waited for my turn. Rhea asked me to take several snapshots of her and I did. She returned the favor later. All of us there took more photos, chatted, sat down, and had fun. The rest of our companion came gradually in small groups. Our hiking party assembled at the summit for an epic group picture featuring our logo on a piece of tarpaulin. Tiger the dog joined us as well.
There was a trail other than the one we took to reach the summit. We followed it on our way down. Our descent began at around 1 PM. At first, this path seemed amiable. The ground was dry instead of muddy. We all looked forward to get out of this mountain sooner and have a bath. Our group’s pace was quicker than before. Then we entered the jungle again and difficulties began to show up.
I failed to notice a better trail to my left. It felt like walking into a dead end. I was forced to crouch down, move slowly down a slope of moist soil, and take hold of roots of a plant I did not know. Thorns like countless miniature needles covered a tree trunk that I nearly touched. Alvin did so. He complained about pain on his palms. Then he asked for water to wash the dirt off his hands and examine the extent of injury. Alvin plucked those thorns off one by one. The two of us nearly slipped at that spot too. A fellow hiker named Reechee Torlao passed by nimbly. She seemed at home in this forested and uneven terrain.
Our march down Mt Maculot came to a halt. Our hiking party ended up as a long line of people who chatted and played music from mobile phones as we waited tediously. Alvin, Rhea, and I were closer to the rear and we could not see what was going on. Leaves and branches closed in on us everywhere.
Eventually, I saw what delayed our downhill trek. The way ahead was too steep that walking through it was simply impossible. We had to grip an even thicker and tougher rope than the one near the Rockies. It seemed close to an actual rappelling experience. Only one person could do it at a time. Then my turn came. I turned to my back, held the rope very tight, and moved carefully to avoid slipping. Amazingly, I felt more excited than nervous. With enough distance between me and Alvin, I called on him to begin making his way down. He said I should go a little further as he might slide down and we would bump into each other violently. I heeded his advice and everything went well. A guide also helped me by telling what to hold and where to place my foot. I gripped branches and a bamboo too. As I progressed through this challenging part of the traverse, the ground grew less steep. Pressure mounted in my legs as I did everything to secure my footing. When I reached the end of this ordeal, those hiking companions ahead of me were already gone.
I sighed with relief when following the trail required less physical effort. Trees grew densely all around us. Only little of the sky could be seen. The melodious song of an unseen bird could be heard. I found myself at the forefront of our smaller trekking party. Going ahead of my companions, I turned into a pathfinder. I could have been donning a safari outfit, hacking a way through dense foliage with the help of a bolo knife. Plants did not grow that thick though. Left alone momentarily, my thoughts wandered into uncertainties with interpersonal relationships and the future.
Time went by. There was no end in sight. We caught up with our fellows because they stopped as a long line again.
It was more daunting than the section we rappelled down before. This one also involved rappelling. However, we would descend one by one through a nearly vertical rock formation rather than a sloping dirt path. It also took us more time to overcome. Alvin went in before Rhea and I followed her. Justine was behind me. Standing on a ledge, I held on to a log that not only acted as something for trekkers to grip but also secured the rope for rappelling. One of the guides asked me to support that log. There was a slight possibility it might get dislodged. Then it would come crashing down on guides and hikers. My companions and I would also be stuck on the trail if there was no way to go around the rock formation.
I watched Rhea as she rappelled down with the assistance of guides. The rope could not handle the weight of two people descending at the same time. I waited a little longer. Then a guide finally told me it was my turn. I gripped the heavy rope, rotated, and faced a smooth rock surface. Carefully, I wedged my right and left foot successively into slits or cracks as the guide instructed. My hands slid until they touched a knot on the rope. Again I moved my legs, secured my footing, and grabbed another knot. Eventually, my feet left the vertical surface and landed on rock with a slope of 45 degrees. I could find my way down without further assistance. Another guide said I could stop following their tips and improvise with movement. I nodded my head. The challenge ended when I jumped and my feet landed on soil, rather than continue walking on rock and risk slipping. Then I thanked the guide before looking for Alvin and Rhea.
I stumbled upon Rhea following a short walk from the rock formation. Alvin was nearby. We waited for Aya. She came a few minutes later. The four of us continued the trek downhill. Tall trees made the place spookier in the fading light. It was past 2 PM and the sky remained gray. Sweat dripped on my face. The humid air blurred my eyeglasses again. Then we found an abandoned hiking staff. Alvin, Rhea, and I did not want it but Aya did. Now she had two trekking sticks for each hand. Aya wore gloves too. She pressed on happily. Rocks, roots, and more dirt lay on the trail. There was no end to it and we began complaining. Our destination was a grotto and it was still out of sight. The four of us kept on walking but only more trees greeted us. They seemed sinister in the dim surroundings.
Woodland gave way into a grassy clearing. We could see fencing and what looked like a wooden resting station with benches and a roof. Joy and eagerness resonated from our voices.
The trail led us up a hill. It was almost treeless. Cogon grass covered the landmark completely and danced with the breeze. I had a sensation of heading towards an otherworldly place. The difficulties in descending from Mt Maculot were virtually gone. This place could serve as an epitome of calm and relaxation, despite the rainy weather.
Atop the hill lay the grotto. It featured statues of Our Lady of Lourdes housed inside a decorative structure made of rock. Two huge Latin crosses stood on the left and right and they were painted white. The religious icons commemorated the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, France in 1858. She was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church 75 years later. Regardless of beliefs, the place also brought spiritual calm as it offered a view of a town surrounded by mountains and forests. Closeness to nature could do wonders to not only the physical body but also the inner self as well.
We followed a cemented path and passed by a few designated stations in the form of simple concrete sculptures. Then it became dirt again. I could not help but frown. My legs yearned for a break. My body looked forward to a bath with cool water. Still, this day hike did not cause total exhaustion. It ended with a ten-minute tricycle ride back to our starting point.
The traverse through Mt Maculot and a visit to its Rockies came with disappointment as fog obscured our view. Nevertheless, the trekking experience and the companionship of hiking buddies were more than memorable. I looked forward to more outdoor adventures and better things to come.