Let’s Talk about ATOK

For most people traveling this side of the Cordillera region, Atok, a town in the province of Benguet, has become the usual “stop-over” for buses, and other vehicles that are plying the Halsema Highway system. But lately, this chilly municipality is slowly gaining local and foreign tourists’ attention. Looking into Benguet’s map, Atok is centrally located, and it looks like a heart, hence the moniker – “The Heart of the Highlands.”

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My first encounter with Atok was in 2008 when my friends and I went to Sagada for the first time. The 1st stop-over of our 6-hour bus ride to Sagada is actually in Sayangan, Atok. A friend of mine even said that we should not miss the “siopao” at this stop as it is really good. That was the highlight of my first encounter with Atok, buying and eating a siopao.

Well, kidding aside, the town has been famous for two other reasons. One, it is where the Philippine Pali is located. This is the “Highest Point of the Philippine Highway System,” which is a part of Halsema Highway. And second, Atok is home to the 3rd highest mountain in Luzon, Mt. Timbak or Mt Singakalsa. I was fortunate to have scaled this mountain on two different occasions (first in 2009, and then in 2011).

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After seven long years, I got the chance to re-visit Atok together with my Couchsurfing guest, Justin. So one weekend, we decided to explore Atok a little more. Here are the other places one could visit while in the heart of Benguet. Read along.

Northern Blossoms Flower (and Vegetable) Farm

This two-hectare farm has been supplying some of Metro Manila’s top society gatherings and hotel chains with their flowers. The farm boasts a wide variety of beautiful flowers and other plants like a cabbage rose, larkspur, snap dragon, alstroemeria, amaranthus, delphinium, eucalyptus leaves and many others. They are such a sight to behold! I am pretty confident that anyone visiting the farm will be smitten as to how lovely these flowers are.

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Going to Northern Blossoms is pretty easy. When one arrives in Sayangan, locate the municipal hall so that it can serve as your point of reference. From the town hall, walk your way down, and on the left side of the road, you will see signages indicating where the flower farm is. It is a short road that goes down further.

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The owners Mr. and Mrs. Ganayan, are two humble and hospitable individuals who have been in the flower business for quite some time now. They have decided to open their farm to both local and foreign guests. They have a 2-unit lodging cottage/ homestay should visitors decide to stay longer in Atok. My friend Justin and I stayed over-night since we wanted to witness the sunrise at the farm.

For further inquiry, you may contact Mam Lany at +639081513368. Entrance fee at Northern Blossoms is now Php250.00 per person while an overnight stay is at Php350.00 per person(subject to cange without prior notice). I highly appreciate that after a tour around the farm (with a very knowledgeable guide), a visitor is treated to a hot coffee and bread. Perfect for the frigid weather in Atok. (Mind you, during our stay, the weather went as low as 4 degrees Celsius, and the range of temperature was from 5 to 9 degrees Celsius the following day). So it is a must to bring with you some warm clothes.

NOTE: The flower farm is close every Monday for maintenance.

The Benguet – Kochi Sisterhood Park

I am pretty sure a lot of us have been dreaming of seeing a sakura flower. I saw some when I went to Taiwan last year, and most people I know books a flight either to Japan or Korea to see these pretty flowers. Well, Benguet will soon have its sakura park, and it is located in Atok.

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In 2016, about 40 Japanese Sakura trees were planted at an area in Paoay, Atok, Benguet. Two varieties of these famed flowering plants were planted: these are the Sindaya (white flowers) and Yakiwari (pink flowers) Sakura varieties. I was happy to see that during our visit, the Yakiwari Sakura trees already have flowers.

The park is notably cold and seems to me a perfect place for the growing sakura. I could already imagine how lovely it would be when the time comes that all the cherry blossoms would be blossoming. The area is also surrounded by vegetable farms and mossy forest.

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Mount Cotnon and Bosleng Grotto

Around 30-45 minutes’ walk from the Sakura park, one could visit Mount Cotnon, a mountain with rocks atop and a stunning view of some vegetable terraces. A few turns from this mountain is a man-made attraction called Bosleng Grotto. It is a cave underneath big rocks with an icon of the “Lady of Lourdes.” Just like Northern Blossoms and the Sakura Park, these areas have a cold climate. Locals say that the cavern has served as a pilgrimage site for them and other visitors.

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Philippine Pali

Located along the Halsema Highway, this is considered the highest point in the country under the Philippine highway system. It has an elevation of 7,400 ft above sea level. The name Philippine Pali was coined because of its similarity with that of Pali, Hawaii. It has a view deck, and some local stores are found in the area. Aside from the greenery brought about by vegetable gardens, a commanding view of Mount Timbak also serves as a picturesque background.

Osocan Tunnel

A potential man-made attraction added to the Atok Tour Packages, Osocan Tunnel is a Spanish Trail. It was constructed as a horse trail during the Spanish Period that exists up to this time. It features three man-made tunnels carved through colossal rock formation about 10 meters long each. This though is something I have yet to see.

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Mount Timbak

As I have mentioned earlier, I have already scaled this mountain twice. During the 1st time, my friends and I camped out on top of this mountain after visiting the mummies of Kabayan. During my 2011 visit, we did a day hike. It is a pretty easy climb. My recent visit though was a surprise. One can already reach the mountain by not spending much time trekking. As a mountain enthusiast, I was somehow disappointed that the registration and guide fees are priced at Php 50.00 each (so one person will have to pay Php100.00). Moreso, the climb to the peak now has become way too short and easy.

One can avail of tour packages being offered by the Atok Tourism. They have combined these attractions into various packages that include guide and transportation fees. You may contact the following number for inquiry: 09301892757 or 09465147799.

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How to Reach Atok from Baguio:

Ride a bus or van that passes by the municipality of Atok in Halsema Highway. These include public transport going to Sagada, Bontoc, Mankayan, and Abatan/ Buguias. You can find these at the Dangwa terminal behind Center Mall in Magsaysay Avenue. There are also buses at the Slaughterhouse in Magsaysay Avenue. Earliest bus is a Sagada-bound Lizardo bus which leaves at 3am.

Inform your driver to drop you off at Marosan’s Restaurant in Atok or in front of Atok’s municipal hall. The fare for the bus is Php 73.00 while van fare is at Php100.00. The travel time is 1.5 to 2.5 hours. There are on-going road works that could slow down the trip.

Also, there are vans (which leaves as early as 5am) in La Trinidad and Baguio (back of Center mall) that passes by the town of Atok, so that is another option for travellers.

Going back to Baguio, you either take a van or bus. These public vehicles only stop by Atok so the availability of seats has no guarantee. Time of transportation availability is also not fix.

If and when you miss the early morning bus (especially if you are after the sunrise at the flower farm) one can hire a taxi in Baguio City. Now depending on your haggling skills and your fate to meet a really nice taxi driver, then you can go for this option. During my second Atok visit, we didnt get to ride the 3am bus because apparently, its peak season and bus tickets should’ve been purchased on reservation. Since we didnt want to spoil our trip, we opted to try our luck and talk to a taxi driver. We met Kuya Hans who is probably one of the nicest driver I have met. He agreed with our proposed budget for transpo and he took us to Atok. He also waited for us and brought us back to Baguio. We got his number and now I am sharing it in case you want to get him and his taxi going to Atok. Here’s his number 0912 878 5098, Hans Deleña.

Also, visitors are encouraged to register at the Paoay Barangay Hall located near the municipal hall.

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Don’t be a wasted soul, be JUANderlust. Take it, easy everyone.

PHILIPPINE MOUNTAINS: My Personal Favorites

“In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” ~ Jack Kerouac

I went on my first mountain climb after earning a college diploma. Even if I went to a university that is bounded by seemingly endless mountains, I was too focused with my academics, and did not give in to my nosiness as to what mountains can give me as a person. When I started working, the urging of 2 colleagues one summer, prompted me to try out hiking. We were to climb then the highest mountain in Luzon and the 2nd in the entire Philippines. I wasn’t fully decided (and wasn’t prepared either) when I had my first taste of sauntering mountains. Little did I know how difficult the trail was and how corporeally exhausting the climb be. I almost maligned my workmates for not telling me what to expect. But when we reached the top, everything tiresome suddenly left my weary soul. It was surreal.

And I fell in love with climbing mountains.PicMonkey Collage2

To date, I have trekked my way to more than 20 mountains – high and low; easy and challenging; happy and even happier (with Mount Pulag having scaled it 13 times).

Reaching the top of any mountain is an inspiring physical, mental, and emotional achievement. And it is fascinating and motivating. It reminds me that I can attain significant things with my life if I dream big and put it into work. It is a rewarding e very rewarding experience. It has ignited the wanderlust in me… to see more of the world around me.

The Philippines is gifted with various mountains, each with astounding and unique views along the trail and from atop. Here are some of my favorite.DSC_0066

MOUNT DARAITAN (Tanay, Rizal)

Close to Manila and part of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Mount Daratian in Tanay, Rizal — will reward mountain enthusiaists with its limestone viewpoints and tropical forest. There are also nearby natural attractions like caves, springs, and natural pools.

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MOUNT UGO  (Benguet – Nueva Vizcaya)

Huddled in the Cordillera mountains is Mount Ugo, known for its picture-perfect pine forests and nearby highland villages. At the peak, the awe-inspiring views of the Cordiller mountain range will greet the climber.

https://roamulofied.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/mount-ugo/

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PICO de LORO (Cavite – Batangas)

Famous for its monolith called the “Parrot’s Beak”, Pico de Loro (or Mount Palay-Palay), is a must see destination for people who want to experience a taste of climbing Philippine mountains. It’s proximity to the Greater Metro Manila area makes it a usual hiking destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

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OSMEñA PEAK (Dalaguete, Cebu)

Standing at approximately 1,000 meters above sea level, the verdant Mantalingon range is home to the highest mountain in Cebu — Osmeña Peak. Once you reach the top, you’ll be mesmerized by its  360-degree view  that includes the southwestern coastline of Cebu, and you even see the province of Negros Oriental.

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MOUNT BATULAO (Nasugbu, Batangas)

This is a mountain that is effortlessly reachable from Metro Manila making it an ideal mountain to climb for beginners. The mountain’s serrated tooth-like peaks are a sight to behold. Trekking only requires about  3 to 4 hours along open, verdant, windy trails, with pleasant landscapes.

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MOUNT PINATUBO (Tarlac – Zambales)

The summit of this volcano/mountain has been wiped out by an eruption in 1991 creating a uniquely beautiful landscape. Moreso, amazing valleys of ash and a lake has made this mountain a favourite from among climbing and biking enthusiast.

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MOUNT PUNDAQUIT (San Antonio, Zambales)

Also called Mount Anawangin to some (because at the foot is where you can find Anawangin Cove), this mountain serves as an alternative route for people frolicking the said beach cove. The trail passes by shrublands and grasslands, and offers a 360-degrees spectacular view of the nearby mountains. There are also ornamental-looking plants adorning the paths, which would make you think that the trail is garden-like.DSC_5060 copy MOUNT TIMBAK (Atok, Benguet)

Mount Timbak – also called Mount Singakalsa is the 9th highest mountain in the Philippines and the 3rd in Luzon. It is one of the prominent peaks of the Cordillera Mountains range. Most people who scale the mountain not for its height but for the mummies and vegetable and flower terraces along the way. (You may also want to check my write – up on Mt. Timbak https://roamulofied.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/mount-timbak-benguet-philippines/ )DSC_0928

MOUNT GULUGOD BABOY (Mabini, Batangas)

One mountain that is perfect for beginners is Gulugod Baboy, with its gentle slopes and verdant peaks and valleys. It boasts off an unobstructed view of the sea and some islands. Gulugod Baboy, which literally means Pig’s Spine because of its shape, is also a good vantage point to view both the sunrise and the sunset.DSC_3950 MOUNT TAWANG (La Trinidad, Benguet)

Mount Tawang (or Mount Jumbo/Mount Yangbaw) is actually a series of verdant (during rainy seasons) or chocolatey (during summer season) rolling hills with scattered rocky features and grassy landscape with a few undersized pine trees. It is approximately 2 kilometers from the main highway that runs through the town of La Trinidad in Benguet. Atop the mountainis a 360-degrees unhindered view of the La Trinidad Valley and some parts of Baguio City.coverpulag

MOUNT PULAG (Benguet – Ifugao – Nueva Vizcaya)

The “Playground of the Gods” is a favourite mountain destination for both hardcore mountaineers and nature-lovers. It is regarded as one of the coldest places in the country, with temperatures reaching sub-zero levels. What draws the interest of most people to Pulag, besides the freezing temperature, is the imposing view of the sea of clouds at its summit. Combine it with the magnificent sunrise, it would render any hiker speechless. Here is a more complete write up about this mountain at https://roamulofied.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/mount-pulag/ )100_2395MOUNT APO (North Cotabato – Davao)

At 2,956 meters above sea level, Mount Apo is the highest mountain in the Philippines, hence given the title “King of Philippine Peaks”. The environ of Apo in itself is a feast to the eyes. From colossal boulder rocks to spectacular lake views and lush vegetation, Mount Apo is indeed a worthy trekking destination. (More of Mount Apo at https://roamulofied.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/mount-apo-king-of-philippine-peaks/ )

S0 go and climb a mountain. You’ll love it. You’ll live it. Don’t be a wasted soul, be a wanderlust. Take it easy ebriwan. Roamulofied out.

“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb.” ~ Greg Child

Mount Timbak (Benguet, Philippines)

“Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.” – Edmund Hillary

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MOUNT TIMBAK

Major Jump-Off: Km. 55, Atok, Benguet
Elevation: 2717 MASL (8914.04  feet)
Days Required / Hours to Summit: 1 day / 1.5-2.5 hours
Specs: Minor climb, Difficulty 2/9
Features: cabbage terraces (sometimes carrots), mummies, village life, and views of major Cordillera peaks (like Mount Pulag)

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Mount Timbak – also called Mount Singakalsa is the 9th highest mountain in the Philippines and the 3rd in Luzon. It is one of the prominent peaks of the Cordillera Mountains range. If you happen to pass by the Halsema Hi-way, one would take notice of this mountain’s imposing beauty that serves as a backdrop of the highest point in Atok, Benguet.
It maybe the third highest mountain in Luzon, next to Pulag and Tabayoc, however, the hike is pretty much easy. Most people who scale the mountain not for its height but for the mummies and vegetable and flower terraces along the way.

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At the summit of Mt. Timbak are three crosses and some other religious figures. It is a great vantage point to see Mounts Tabayoc, Pulag, Purgatory, and Ugo on a clear day. One would be too glad to see also a sea of clouds, and if the weather is good – both sunrise and sunset viewing would be youre reward.

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While one can do just a day hike to Mount Timbak, it would also be good to spend a night at the peak and experience a Pulag like weather. Find a flat area to pitch your tents on. Take note that the nightly winds (and even rain) can bring a very cold temperature.

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How To Go To Mount Timbak:
Most mountain-enthusiasts go to Mt. Timbak from Manila or from Baguio City. Going from Manila first you must get to Baguio City. The easiest way is to get a bus from Metro Manila, from the Victory Liner Bus Terminal in Cubao, EDSA. Buses to Baguio leave every hour.
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From Baguio, take a bus going to the direction to Bontoc, via the Halsema Higway. Buses going in this direction depart from the Slaughterhouse Road or the terminal of buses going to Sagada at the back of Center Mall. It takes about 2 hours to the jump-off point at the 55 km of the Halsema Highway.

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From the Halsema highway you have to turn right to a very steep cement-paved side road. If you stray away from the main path, all the other roads terminate at one of the houses of the locals who would then direct you back to the main road. The main road is actually the same road that traverses Timbak down to Kabayan Barrio. Then, one will pass by an elementary school. One may ask the locals for the trail to the peak. Following the main road farther would lead you to the Timbak mummies.

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SAMPLE ITINERARY

Day 0 – If one is coming from Manila
22:00 – Assembly
23:00 – Departure Manila to Baguio City

Day 1 

05:00 – Arrive at Baguio City / Breakfast / Buy supplies
07:30 – Proceed to bus terminal
08:00 – Depart Baguio City to Jump-off
10:00 – Arrival at jump-off (final preparation)
10:30 – Start trek (road trek)
11:00 – ETA Mongoto Elementary School / Lunch / Refill water
13:00 – Resume trek to camp or go and visit the Timbak mummies
14:00 – End of road
15:00 – ETA Mount Timbak summit/ Set-up camp / Free time / Socials/ Wait for sunset

Day 2 

05:00 – Wake-up call / Sunrise viewing / Breakfast / Pack-up
08:30 – Start descend
10:00 – ETA KM 55
10:30 – Ride back to Baguio City
13:00 – ETA Baguio City / Free time
21:00 – Depart Baguio City to Manila (time may vary)

Day 3 – September 8, Monday

03:00 – Arrival in Manila

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“Great things are done when men and mountains meet; This is not done by jostling in the street.” – William Blake)

***To date, I have scaled this mountain on 2 occasions, and it was really great to have influenced friends to come with me and enjoy the beauty of nature.

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