Magical, Mysterious Minalungao

We started this year’s Suggestions for Summer with a quick trip to historic Corregidor (pls read: Remembering Corregidor). We followed that up with a trip to far-away Can-Umantad Falls in Candijay, Bohol (Our Quiet Candijay Quickie) For this year’s Summer Suggestions, I’ll strive to bring you to places that are far from the beaten road. We’ll veer away from the usual, the known, the more expensive sites. We’ll explore frontier areas, the lesser known ones, for us to appreciate the Philippines better.

So today, we continue with the third of our summer offerings with a trip to Minalungao National Park, a relatively unknown destination which has the potential to be a top tourist haven in the future, if only the local folks learn how to properly plan out the Park’s many wondrous activities. So here goes…

East of Gapan, Nueva Ecija, about a 3-hour ride from Manila, lies a little-known national park that has all the trappings of adventure and mystery. Minalungao National Park is a hidden gem in distant General Tinio, Nueva Ecija. It is a cool, refreshing treat after a hot summer drive; a frontier-land adventure site just waiting for you to discover.

But even before we talk about Minalungao, let me just give you a fair warning on the way to get there. We made the mistake of using Google’s ‘shortest route’ to Minalungao. Yup, it gave us the shortest route, alright. Only trouble was, it was a route fit for motocross bikers only. I kid you not. I almost decided to abort, except that my wife had made great plans for this, and she had great confidence in our trusty Ford Everest. Well, we did make it. In one piece. Thanks to Harrison (our trusty Ford’s nickname). After some funny, some harrowing, some exciting, death-defying moments along the way. So when planning your trip to the Park, double-check the route. DON’T TAKE THE MINALUNGAO TRAIL!!! Make sure you stay on the highway. Unless, of course, if you’re using a motocross bike.

Truth to tell, the Minalungao National Park has long been a well-kept secret among the locals. But it cannot remain a secret forever. Tucked along the scenic Sumacbao River; in the distant, isolated foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, Minalungao is slowly but surely breaking into the consciousness of the bigger tourist market. Offering breath-taking views of the pristine emerald-green river, plus unique rock formations, abundant forest cover, plus exciting subterranean caverns for the more daring lot. At present, the province of Nueva Ecija is promoting it as a prime eco-tourism destination.

There are available facilities for picnics, swimming, rafting, cliff-diving, trekking, hiking, zip-lining, spelunking, etc, etc, etc. You name it, they have it!!! There’s even a hotel right there to cater to backpackers who may wish to stay for more than a day. Best thing about it is that it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg to enjoy the amenities of the Park.

The name Minalungaw comes from the root words ‘mina and ‘lungaw’. It is said that during the brief period when the Japanese Army reigned supreme over our shores, they used to mine the hills for gold, hence the ‘mina’. The ‘lungaw’ comes from the word ‘lungawan’, which is a place to stock their provisions. In this case, the caves became the ‘lungawan’ or hiding place for the gold. To this day, the old folks maintain that the potential for gold mining in the area is for real.

But the place isn’t without its share of mystery and the element of danger either. There have been reports of drowning in the river. The current can be deceiving at times, due to the unpredictable depths. The jagged rocks can pose a danger too for swimmers and divers. So it’s important that you always wear a life vest as you take a dip in the cool, clear water. And you don’t dive in areas you are not sure of. The rocks underwater could result to serious injuries.

Inside the cave, there are jagged stones and slippery walkways that could cause cuts and bumps. The passageways can be narrow and tricky. There are also some areas where your rappelling skills will be tested. It is highly recommended – no, make that a MUST –  that you have a guide with you if you want to try spellunking. One could easily get lost in the maze of tunnels in the Park. Also, make sure to wear miners’ headgear with the headlights for you to see what’s ahead of you.

There’s a challenging 1000-step hiking trail as well that takes you up the hills to a pilgrimage site with a more scenic view of the surroundings. At the very top, you will find a glass-covered cross dominating the hills for miles around. Considering the summer heat, this may not be for the faint of hearts. Don’t forget to bring your water jug. You need to constantly re-hydrate as you go up in the sweltering heat.

But by and large, our trip to Minalungao has been a great family-fun adventure. The food was good. And relatively inexpensive. The rentals for the huts, the rafts, the kayaks were affordable. So with the guides.

I’d like to give some suggestions for the authorities in Minalungao though. Before the place becomes too commercialized, you have to make some harsh decisions to keep the place a fun and safe place for visitors. First, limit the number of rafts that will be allowed to operate per day. There are just too many rafts operating on the river. The overcrowded river diminishes the special quality of the place. Second, provide some visible marshals who will see to it that safety procedures are followed on the river.  They will also enforce waste management protocols and other stuff. Third, get the cave exploration program organized. Do not allow anyone inside the caves without any guide. Everyone who goes inside will have to be briefed on the course they will take, the procedures and the precautions. Everyone should be using a helmet with headlights.

Minalungao is a great place to spend a one-day summer trip. It will be a fun adventure, especially for kids. Just be careful that you don’t get some unfortunate bumps and bruises, okay?




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