|The view from the summit of Mount Ulap|
|Approaching the grassland slopes of Ambunao Paoay|
E S C A P E
F R O M
B A G U I O
Had I known that a day hike of Santa Fe Ridge via Mount Ulap was challenging to the less agile, I would have stayed in Baguio City for the rest of my week-long tour. As with most of my regrets though, they never last. The moment I saw a rewarding view, I became my own convert. To really have a whiff of Benguet's highland charm, it's a must to visit a nearby town, especially if it's just 40 to 45 minutes away. It's the only way to achieve pastoral reverie.
I initially found the trek in Itogon as an attractive side trip in the province. The schedule seemed easy. Wake up as early as six in the morning at my booked room at Peredo's Lodging House. Be at the corner of the city proper's Magsaysay Avenue and Lakandula Street by 7:00am to board a passenger jeepney bound for Philex Mines. Breeze through the trail that experienced mountaineers easily tackle for three hours. By the afternoon, I can free-style my way around the city like I did not leave it. I was confident that something as attractive doesn't have to be so elusive.
|The view from the rock of Gungal; Photography by Jherson Jaya|
|At a peak at Ambunao Paoay; (bottom) Photography by Jherson Jaya|
Getting Out of A Rut
I dragged my jaded self out of bed that chilly 16 °C morning in the hope of getting out of a touristic rut. Halfway into the hike, I was thankful that I did not know what to expect in the beginning. With my last highland adventure being in 2014, I was a bit anxious to see the outdoors in an intrepid way. I knew that I would sweat like crazy, huff and puff in between stops, and probably even feel agitated by the presence of other hikers. Anything was possible.
What I was not prepared for was dealing with exhaustion. As it turned out, I was not in good condition. Although determined to experience something new, I was afflicted with an urban coma of endless staycations prior to this January trip. Worse, I was not wearing the proper footwear that further enhanced my clumsiness.
Hiking Guide and Camping Site Fees
Since I was with a group of eight other hikers, the prevailing guide fee of P400 was split among us. I learned prior to the trip that the initial fee charged when the trail was formally opened to the public in October of 2015 was P300.
From a group of about 70 guides, we had a certain local named Gabriel, a former tunnel worker (gold mining), lead us the way although we had a second-timer in the group who spent her pre-Christmas week hiking the same eco-trail.
The registration was necessary so we had to get off the passenger jeepney at the village hall of Ampucao for it. For supplies, the trail-head has a few sari-sari stores.
|A few minutes into the hike|
|(left) At the Ampucao Barangay Hall; (top right) Baguio City jeepney terminal; (bottom right) Hike registration|
|The terrain near Gungal Rock|
For those who plan to spend the night at Mount Ulap, an open space for tent-pitching past the rock of Gungal (the highlight of the traverse) has been identified by the Ampucao Barangay LGU for twice the amount of the guide fee (guiding fee plus camp site fee). During the hike, our guide even pointed out the site's highly vegetated spot where the discreet restroom is located. He explained that the location was chosen for its close proximity to an accessible water source.
Spectacular Views of Nature
Less than an hour into the traverse, I was in complete agreement with the rest of the hikers in our group that the initial exhaustion was worth it. Since we're not experienced hikers, we had to make frequent stops along the way which allowed for spectacular views of the surroundings.
|Less than an hour into the hike; Photography by Jherson Jaya|
|The terrain past Gungal Rock|
Apart from the need to rest, I honestly preferred to not hasten my pace and linger in some spots for stunning views of distant Baguio City and pine and grassland ridges. I definitely took advantage of such opportunities to take a gander at nature's bucolic side as my backyard in Metro Manila obviously doesn't have one. The trail cut through ankle and waist-high grass in some spots with their glossy leaves shimmering in the late morning heat. Every now and then there was a grove of lean and sinewy pines that accentuated the view.
Lingering At Ambunao Paoay and Gungal Rock
More than an hour into the hike, right before a lunch stop, the grassland slopes of Ambunao Paoay particularly rid me of any remaining ennui that I had in my system that day. I've always wanted to tackle an elevated open space and the presence of the highland clearing definitely fulfilled that fantasy.
|A view from the camp site|
|(left) Tackling the ridgeline; (top right) Our hike guide testing the mobile signal; (bottom right) A fellow hiker|
|The clearing expanse of Ambunao Paoay|
|Photography by Jherson Jaya|
When we spotted a terrain where rocks were jutting out of the grassland slopes all the way to the crest, I had a hint that the site of the next stop -- Gungal Rock -- was nearby. After tackling a wind-swept trail that slowly turned a bit challenging, the massive rock site appeared with intimidating cliff-side views of distant Mount Santo Tomas. We were officially halfway in our traverse and I was just glad that we made frequent stops along the way. My only worry was getting past the steep descent that our guide warned me about as he noticed that my legs were starting give up on me due to sheer exhaustion.
Reaching The Summit
To ensure that I reached the highest peak of Mount Ulap (at more than 6,000 feet) with ease, he volunteered to carry my backpack for me. A few more minutes of meandering ensued until we finally reached the summit. Up there at the highest peak, I felt fulfilled. I finally had the chance to freely immerse myself in expansive views of the Cordilleras in all its mist-covered glory.
|The view of highly urbanized Baguio City|
|The camp site|
By 1:00pm, we reached the camp site on our way to the Pong-ol Burial Caves where the traverse turned the most dangerous for a beginner like me. I was shocked to see that the descent was so steep in most parts that we had to sort of abseil our way down by holding securely to a rope. What made the whole shebang less toxic for me was the presence of lush pine trees at the lower flanks of the peaks which somehow calmed me down despite feeling quite spent after six hours of hiking.
As for a small group of other hikers that strolled past us at the descent, they ridiculously moved like the surface was flat which encouraged me to finally finish what I started at 9:00 in the morning.
|(left) A burial cave; (top right) A young Itogon local; (bottom right) The view from the highway stop|
Chartered Ride Back For Baguio City
The hike ended at the exit point in Santa Fe where we had one last stop at a convenience store for refreshments. As advised by a representative at the barangay hall of Ampucao prior to our hike, we had our guide call a local jeepney contact to fetch us all at a highway stop back for Baguio City. The few minutes of waiting for our ride (P50 per head) gave us the chance to rest for one last time as a group which also served as a good time for us to plan an early dinner back in the city.
After everything, I still found the eco-trail of Mount Ulap an attractive side trip in my visit of Benguet. If last year, I made sure to add a visit of La Trinidad to my Baguio City tour, a hike in Itogon enhanced my revisit of the province. What's more, it became the highlight.
Mount Ulap Eco-Trail
Registration Site: Barangay Ampucao, Itogon, Benguet, Philippines
Check out my other Benguet-related posts:
+ Affordable and Modern Baguio City Apartel
+ The Bahong Rose Farm of La Trinidad
Dining Over Spanish Dishes at Te Quiero
+ The Two Faces of Baguio City
+ Visiting The Bell House and Amphitheater
+ Mine's View Park Then and Now
+ Snacking At Choco-Late De Batirol
+ Baguio City Stopover Before Sagada
More Photos Below:
|(top right) Photography by Jherson Jaya|
|Lush pine trees at the descent|
|The steep descent|
|The iconic Gungal Rock|
|(left) A fellow hiker; (right) mountain villages|
|Photography by Jherson Jaya|
|Resting at the rock of Gungal; Photography by Jherson Jaya|