Sunday- It was around 6:30 am when we saw tents on the first camp site of Mt. Tapulao. Hikers were just outside savoring their morning coffee as we passed by. We smiled and greeted them a good morning. The smile somehow masked our sore feet from the 6 kilometer rocky assault.
As we went by, I overheard some of them whispering about us doing a day hike with disbelief in their tone. I thought it was just a normal conversation. Oblivious to what they meant, we moved on not knowing what we had to put up with along the mountain’s rocky trails…
Backtrack to the urban jungle of Cubao at 9pm the night before. Our van was just about to leave when our organizer, Ogine of Biyaheng Kuripot met us to notify of our departure. We made our last minute preparations and we’re finally off to Zambales to conquer one of the toughest mountains to climb in the whole of Luzon. Mt. Tapulao aka High-Peak.
Zambales- a province in Central Luzon, was derived from the term “Samba” *not the dance move* but a Tagalog term meaning “to worship”. The Spaniards who colonized the country hundreds of years ago found out that the natives worshiped their ancestors and were very superstitious.
We started from the jump off at 4:30am at 100 meters above sea level. Armed with flashlights, trekking poles, and a bag-full of trail food, we moved on as the pavement eventually turned to a gravelly trail, passing by a local settlement.
I scurried through the rocky terrain on the first 6 kilometers of the trail, I thought it was a quick hike to the first campsite but I was wrong. the lose rocks made the trek more difficult, I found myself losing my balance most of the time, contributing to a slower pace.
It was daybreak when we reached the first campsite. We were a bit drained and had to recuperate. Our guide lead us through a bushy entrance to the first water source. The cold mountain waters just cascaded endlessly at the rocks, a bamboo was placed in order to act as a faucet for us to make a refill, get washed, and just enjoy the heavenly refreshment!
Saying goodbye to the campers, we moved on to continue trekking Mt. Tapulao’s rocky trail. Twelve more kilometers in order to reach the summit. The rocky trail disappeared at this point, replaced by a brief flat, damp surface followed by puddles of mud that you had to cross. Some found this as an inconvenience but I saw it as an opportunity to rest my feet while we were on the go.
Kilometer 10 was a sight for sore eyes. After the slight ascent with *you guessed it… more loose rocks.*, you will be welcomed by the second (and final) water source. We got washed and refilled our bottles. The locals were also nice enough to build a small bench for the hikers’ tired feet *and asses* to rest.
More rocks as we moved along. The terrain got steeper at this point and to add to the torture, Switchbacks! We were at a snails pace as we shoved our limbs through the rocky, twisty ascent, panting our lungs off.
It was around 10 am and the sky was clear with very few clouds. The heat of the sun was heavily felt at this moment and I had to pour a little bit of water at my face and arms to cool down.
I was wiping my sweat off when we reached a spot where we can see the neighboring mountains, winding rivers that connects to the sea, and several islands. We took a quick rest while we took photos of by far the most scenic view of our hike. We almost forgot the unforgiving trails as we enjoyed the picturesque view and to get some fresh air.
Pine trees appeared at 1,700 meters above sea level. At this time the sun hid behind the clouds, giving us more time to recover from the heat.
This section reminded me of Mt. Ulap and Mt. Ugo of Benguet where Pine trees thrive.
We moved along as thick clouds enveloped us, we were getting hungrier by the minute and the fatigue was building up again until we reached another camp site.
It took us a little longer to stay here. The site was well-spaced with a shack, a picnic table, and a fire pit. We found our respected places to settle. I sat on the ground, leaning on a rock under a pine tree while I stuffed my face with a can of tuna, trail mix, and boiled eggs. Everything just tastes so damn good when you’re on the mountains.
*2 more kilometers to the summit.*
Some hikers have already backed out at this point. The last 2 kilometers to the summit just got more interesting. The trail was narrower, clouds were thicker a la Silent Hill, with thicker wild grass and dead gigantic tree trunks along the way. It was almost a kilometer of assault until we reached the Mossy Forest’s facade.
Entering the Mossy Forest was like Narnia. The lush, green flora and fauna welcomed us. You’ll pass by some fruit bearing trees, and the place was enveloped by deep to dark green mosses. Completely opposite of what we went through most of our trek. Different types of bird species can be heard and there were rustling sounds on the side of the trail, dreading that a snake or a monitor lizard might just pop out of nowhere.
After almost an hour inside the Forest, the trail got wider and daylight signalling the peak has finally been reached. After a few steps, We have finally conquered the highest peak of Zambales at 2,037 meters above sea level!
We have finally reached the popular world tree.
*Now here’s the fun (painful) part. Descending to the jump off*
We started the hike at 1pm, this was the time that I felt my feet hurt, I thought it was easier to go down but the slippery rocks and damp reddish ground with a hint of moss contributed to a slippery journey. We sometimes drop to our assess and breaking the fall with our arms. I just couldn’t wait to get back as fast as possible.
It was almost 6pm and we were more than halfway down. It took us longer to hike at this point because our feet were so sore and blisters were starting to form. Some of my fellow hikers were almost limping their way through, some complained of strained knees, quivering feet, and fatigue.
We reached the 2nd water source to recover. We took a long rest, scoured through our bags for remaining trail food and refilled our water bottles.
This was the most painful part of the hike. The final 6 kilometers felt like a half marathon. At 6pm our flashlights were on, trying to balance ourselves from the loose rocks, taking the pain as our blistered feet rummaged through the uneven terrain.
7:30pm: The 15th hour- No more lights to help us in our battle of feet versus rocks, just pitch black. Pure darkness. The sound of crickets and other animal species that I am not familiar of were the only sounds I was hearing. I tried to move as fast as possible because my flashlight just died and I’m using my mobile phone’s light with only 5% battery life.
The guide said 2 kilometers more 5 kilometers ago!
8:45pm: (hour 16)- Locals were hanging out in front of their houses as we greeted them with an exhausted tone. It was a drastic change from blistering rocky ground to flat pavement (it was pure pleasure). Limping our way to the jump off.
Climbing Mt. Tapulao was a fantastic *and terrible* experience. mountaineers usually camp out for 2 days here but we did it all in one go.
Another one ticked off the list. I can say that Day Hiking Mt. Tapulao is a dream (nightmare) fulfilled.
- From any Victory Liner terminal, take a bus going to Santa Cruz or Iba Zambales (350-400php). Travel time is around 5 hours.
- Upon arrival, take a tricycle going to Barangay Dampay-Salaza and tell the driver to take you to Mt. Tapulao jumpoff. You will arrive in about an hour. (400php per trip)
Registration: 30php per person
Guide: 500php per group (dayhike) | 700php per group (overnight)
- Location: Palauig Zambales (6 hours north of Manila)
- Days required / Hours to summit: 1-2 days / 6-12 hours
- Specs: Major Climb, Difficulty 5/9, Trail class 1-3
- Features: Pine forests, views of West Philippine Sea
- “Tapulao”: “Pine tree” in the local dialect
- Americans used to call Mt. Tapulao ‘High Peak;’ only during the 1960s did the native name Tapulao come to general use.
- Mt. Tapulao is at almost the same latitude as the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
- The mountain used to be a large-scale mining site for chromite (mineral used for stainless-steel). Tractors and trucks used to go to the top to harvest this mineral.
- Rich in biodiversity: The mountain is a habitat for 78 animal and 41 plant species (*Study conducted by the University of the Philippines)