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Northern exposure: Discovering the joys of the Mountain Province

John Ryan Nual Mendoza discovers the joys of Northern Philippines.

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As a development worker for years in the far-flung indigenous communities in the Mindanao mountains, finding nature just right outside one’s doorstep has been a much missed memory after recent city-dwelling years. So when I got the invitation of some friends to travel to the Mountain Province, a landlocked province in the Cordillera Administrative Region in Luzon, to support a community effort to help build a children’s library made of trash filled plastic bottles, I immediately packed and sped to the nearest bus terminal for the P445 trip to Baguio City to rendezvous with the group; and from Baguio, caught the non-aircon buses at the Dangwa Station at the back of the Center Mall for P212 that took us through the six hour treat to the dramatic cliffs and mountains of the Cordilleras.

Braving Bontoc
Poblacion Bontoc is quite a compact town center where the provincial capitol building, plaza, market, municipal hall, and commercial center are located. One can either just hike or ride around in a tricycle for eight pesos per trip. The Bontoc Provincial hospital has been one of the facilities I find notable in the country for their promotion of indigenous and alternative health practices; they encourage utilization of Igorot herbs and practices and a traditional Chinese acupuncturist serves fulltime in their physical therapy unit.

We stayed at the Churya-a Hotel & Restaurant that is just situated along the national road – a five story building with verandas on each floor with a cozy view of the townscape. Nights at the poblacion, though, could be a disappointment to travelers seeking more quiet spaces as townspeople spend their time at karaoke bars and disco live bands in the vicinity. Bontoc has been known as the first mining town in this mountainous region of North Luzon, where locals would travel to for leisure and business.

For breakfast, a must-try would be the early morning coffee at the Bontoc Public Market. Locally sourced and organic, Arabica coffee blends only cost ten pesos per cup.

The bottle library is being constructed in the upland village of Guina-ang which is an hour drive of seven kilometers of winding roads up the mountains. Next to Guina-ang is the village of Mainit, which is known for its hot sulphur springs. We decided to spend one night in these invigorating baths before getting into hard labor. The jeepney ride to Mainit and Guina-ang is parked beside the Shell Gas station in Bontoc. The jeepney leaves usually at 2:30 PM and the next at 4:00 P.M. On days with no rain, one can ride on top of the jeepney and enjoy much of the view of rice terraces while going up. Mainit accommodations priced at P300 per person were very modest. One must be warned that water from the faucet (when flowing) is still sourced from the hot springs, so one could burn him/herself. The hot spring water piped into small pools could be murky, but locals say that it is a good sign that various healthy minerals are present. A warm soak is just a perfect match for this village’s very cool climate.

Spending many days doing community work in the village of Guina-ang has given me a glimpse of the strong collective indigenous culture among the Bontocs. United by a common history and struggle, the Bontocs have learned to rely on their strength as one community to warmly welcome initiatives from the outside if they are deemed beneficial to all and shun any external action that could put them at a disadvantage. The steady progress of the bottle library is attributed to this cooperative spirit that is shown by each one, young and old, in this mountain village.

Surviving Sagada
This first trip of mine to this part of the Cordilleras would be sorely lacking without experiencing Mountain Province’s pride: Sagada. In Bontoc, jeepneys going up to Sagada are located on the street beside the Walter Clap Centrum. Travelling up to this other mountain town would just take less than an hour.

I first noticed the significant drop in temperature when we arrived. We were there in February, the coldest month, when it is reported that temperatures drop to 12 degrees Celsius at night. I stayed at Alfredo’s Inn for P250 a night for a single bed with a common bathroom with hot showers and Wi-Fi. All other hostels also charge the same rate, though with just minimal differences, such as a viewing deck and better accessibility to the town’s public amenities and attractions.

Sagada is known for its natural wonders of caves, falls, limestone cliffs, rice terraces, burial sites, and other historical landmarks. It has a land area of only 8,000 hectares and most spots can actually be reached by just walking. Mountain bike rentals are also available for P500 per day or P100 per hour. While we managed to find the Echo Valley and the Hanging Coffins on foot, I personally getting a guide mainly for safety. There are two official guide organizations in town–the Sagada Enviromental Guides Association and the Sagada Genuine Guides Association. These associations have done a very competent job in organizing and standardizing their rates for guide services and van rentals. The tourism office ensures transparency through officially posting them and assuring that there are no hidden charges.

A friend came with me to conquer the cave connection, which can be done anytime between 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The caving journey begins at the huge opening of Lumiang Burial Cave, which is a 40 minute walk from the town center. The challenge then starts with a crevice that is narrow enough to fit one person. The passage then led down to various awesome rock formations. Moisture is always present on the rocks, so extra caution and strict compliance to instructions have to be observed to avoid accidents. To facilitate safe access through rocks and tunnels, guides usually offer their shoulder as a “human step stool.” There are also built-in ropes with knots in very challenging areas. There are parts in the exploration that one has to swim during rainy season when some of the pools are filled with water. Yet guides can offer an alternate route if this is not preferred. The tour lasted for four hours until we exited at Sumaging Big Cave. The standard fee is P800 for one to two visitors and P400 for every additional visitor. Another P400 is charged if transportation to and from the town center is availed.

Finishing the cave connection did give me a great sense of physical achievement. That was then I understood what the t-shirt print “I survived Sagada” really meant. Important reminders for anyone who would attempt this feat would be to wear loose shirt, shorts or loose pants, and rubber sandals/flip flops/ rubber shoes. Guides generally do not advise people with fear of heights and/or closed space, heart ailments, asthma, and injuries to go through this long route and would suggest other less strenuous alternatives such as the short course caving.

The short course caving is an hour and 30 minutes of spelunking at the Sumaging Big Cave. This cave has a huge chamber and there’s a small tunnel at the end. To date, guides report that this is the most frequented tourist attraction in Sagada. Visitors are treated to amazing rock formations, huge open chambers and boulders to climb over. Sumaging cave is the habitat to thousands of bats. Visitors usually come upon a dung section in one of the huge spacious chambers. All visitors climb back at the same route. On the way back to town, the guide usually brings guests to the entrance of Lumiang/Burial Cave and drop by at the view point if Sugong Hanging Coffins, which is an hour walk. The guide fee is P500 pesos for up to four visitors.

All these other adventure options are in the list of the things I would love to conquer when I get back (Much cheaper when done in groups):

  • The Sagada to Mainit Hotspring Trekking is a five to seven hour climb and trek through rice terraces, villages, and rivers. Guests would then spend a night at the Mainit hotsprings. Guide fee is P2,500 per visitor.
  • The Mt. Sisipitan trekking is a six hour hike back and forth up a mountain of mossy and pine forests with an elevation of more than 2,200 meters. Guide fee is P2,000 per person.
  • The Danum – Mt. Langsayan trekking is a three to four hour traverse hike through mossy and pine forests that overlook two municipalities and offers a vast view of the rice terraces. Guide fee is P1,000 for up to three visitors.
  • The Marlboro Country trekking is an hour and 30 minutes hike from the mountain’s base to the peak. The Mt. Ampacao trekking is a hike to an elevation of about 1,880 meters. Guide fee for each trek is P600 good for up to 10 visitors.
  • The trip to the Bomod-ok Big Waterfall is a three hour hike back and forth from the Bangaan road. Fee: P600 good for up to 10 visitors.
  • The sunrise viewing at the Kiltepan mountain ranges offers an “aerial” view of rice terraces. The trip starts at 4:30 in the morning. Fee is P450 per ride which is good for up to 10 visitors
  • The sunset viewing at Lake Danum starts at 4:30 in the afternoon. Visitors also stop by at Sagada Pottery. Fee is P500 per ride which is good for up to 10 visitors.

The cold nights in Sagada actually spur much drinking and videoke singing. You can either have beer or the locally produced bugnay or rice wine. A 9:00 PM curfew is imposed though, and there are only a number of bars open beyond this. One such is the Sagada Pine Café, which is usually packed with booze and music-seeking foreigners and locals. This place has its hushed reputation of being a small Amsterdam in this part of the country. Go and figure out why for yourself.

Waking up in chilly mountain province mornings has been indeed a surreal joy. Watching the early bustle of women harvesting fresh vegetables and the view of faintly sunlit fog covered slopes from afar are exactly the perfect rustic vibes I have and will always long for. Each new start of the day is another beginning for the endless choices of adventures for all types of thrills.

And so one visit to this upland haven can never be enough; one definitely has to come back for more.

A registered nurse he may be, but Cagayan de Oro City-based John Ryan Nual Mendoza is an ardent believer of holistic living - as such, he advocates, for instance and among others, the use not only of Western approaches to healing, but also of the more traditional methodologies that may be learned from the hilot, babaylan, et cetera. As he said, in life, "why be limited, when you can have a more full/complete life by embracing just about everything?"

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Destinations

Loggers become river tour guides in Samar

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise?

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We’re shooting through a wild, wild washing machine: paddling, cursing, laughing and getting absolutely drenched inside a torpedo-shaped canoe.

We’re in the Ulot River, a 92-kilometer waterway which snakes east to west across Samar. The third largest island in the Philippines, Samar is rough country, hewn from limestone which over millennia formed some of the most dramatic rock formations and cave systems in the Philippines, such as the Langun-Gobingob Complex.

Revenge Tourism is a social phenomenon where people who have been stuck at home, often for months at a time, rush to tourist sites to appease their lockdown fatigue. With easing lockdown and flight restrictions, more and more tourist destinations are experiencing waves of visitors out to re-experience paradise – but what about the people who guide them? The people who themselves work in paradise? 

“I used to help cut and transport logs illegally,” reveals Epifanio ‘Panying’ Obidos, our boat guide. “For generations, we used traditional torpedo shaped canoes called balugo to transport timber. We would get orders to cut down hardwood trees like banuyonarra or kamagong. One balugo can transport over 100 board feet of wood.”

Samar is among the poorest provinces in the country. In 2015, the Philippine Statistics Authority revealed that 45% or nearly half of all families in Samar lived below the poverty line. “The hardest part was that even when we’d risk run-ins with the law by transporting illegally-cut timber, we’d still have barely enough cash to survive. Often we’d borrow money from financiers to buy gas and other provisions to transport the logs they ordered. Even after getting paid, we’d still be in debt,” recalls Panying. 

Things have steadily improved. Samar’s poverty incidence dropped to 30% by 2018, mostly because of small businesses, one of which is the Ulot River Torpedo Extreme Boat Adventure, where boats go bow-to-bow with raging rapids.

“In 2008, to veer away from illegal activities, we started using our torpedo-shaped balugo for tourism to showcase the natural beauty of Samar. We mostly employed locals who formerly worked as illegal loggers or log haulers,” explains Panying. “Back then we only had 12 people and a few old boats – but traversing rivers was a way of life for us, since we’ve been using it for transportation long before Samar’s road network was developed.” 

Each torpedo boat has a three-man crew, comprised of a boat operator, tour guide and a point man, who sits at the bow or front of a boat, deftly using a paddle or pole to keep rocks at bay.

“Now our once-small operation has over 20 boats and employs 70 local people,” beams Panying. In 2018, their group, Tour Guides and Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization (TORPEDO), was recognized by the Department of Tourism for its responsible, community-based operations.

The Ulot River is part of the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP), the country’s largest land-based Protected Area (PA). “The Philippines hosts 247 PAs and practically all of them give locals employment,” explains Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) director Natividad Bernardino. The stories of many of these PAs are similar to Panying’s – of loggers turned into tour guides, hunters turned into rangers, blast fishers transformed into dive guides.

“For all this to continue, there must be a steady stream of clients,” notes SINP superintendent Eires Mate. “The COVID-19 lockdowns hit the world’s PAs hard, generating all-time visitor revenue lows. Many people were laid off and operations were drastically scaled-down. With our parks again open for business, we invite adventurers to visit the Ulot River and our country’s other beautiful PAs.”

Launched in May of 2022, the Year of the Protected Areas or YOPA aims not just to educate people on the need to conserve PAs, but to encourage them to visit the sites themselves. YOPA hopes to generate funds from tourists to ensure continued management for areas hard-hit by COVID-19 budget cuts.

Declaring natural sites as PAs is among the best ways to protect natural capital. “The jobs generated by sustainable and ethical tourism activities act as economic and social safety nets for locals who might otherwise turn to illegal means to support their families,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative Selva Ramachandran.

* * *

Back in the Ulot River, the going is wet and wild. Our balugo, which traveled easily downstream, is now battling against the current in what locals jokingly call the ‘Salmon Run’ – akin to the epic upriver journeys undertaken by salmon in colder climes. Chilly geysers of water splash into the boat as our engines go full-throttle.

Just as soon as we’re sopping wet, the river calms down, the ride turning tranquil. Like the turbulent COVID-19 era, raging waters and rough times too, shall pass.

I glance ahead and notice what’s written on one of the guides’ shirts: #MAYFORRIVER, a play on #MayForever, the hope that some things really can endure the test of time.

With illegal activities, nothing is certain – but with legal, safe and sustainable tourism, then there truly might be forever.

“You know, if not for ecotourism, I would most probably be dead,” reflects Panying as we quietly glide back to shore. “The authorities would have definitely caught me, like they caught others. I might have starved to death, been shot by the cops or been hauled off to jail.”

He looks up, just a bit teary-eyed.

“In a very real way, ecotourism saved my life.”

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Travel

5 Road ready tips to ride motorcycles safely and comfortably

As a rider, you are part of a global community and a steward of the open road. To keep your ride safe and comfortable, consider these additional tips.

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A warm day on the open road is a dream opportunity for riders, whether it’s a longer trip or a quick jaunt through town. Regardless of the adventure, and no matter what you ride, a thrilling ride is a safe ride.

Whether you’re new to the open road or a seasoned veteran, remember to follow best practices for safe riding like those outlined in the Responsible Rider program from BRP, makers of Can-Am 3-wheel vehicles. The program prioritizes being an attentive rider and always considering safety, the environment and riding etiquette from highways to city streets and everywhere in-between.

As a rider, you are part of a global community and a steward of the open road. To keep your ride safe and comfortable, consider these additional tips:

Wear the Right Gear

While your fashion statement is largely a matter of personal preference, there are some safety items designed to protect your health and well-being that should be worn. Protective riding gear helps keep you safe while enjoying the open road.

Full-hand gloves, riding boots that cover ankles, pants and jackets help protect against wind, sun, cold, heat and flying objects such as bugs or rocks. Drivers and passengers should also wear an approved helmet and eye protection to prevent injuries to the head, brain and eyes.

Choose a Proper Helmet

Every rider should wear a helmet, and the abundance of options available can make it tough to decide what’s best. Start by looking for a DOT Certification sticker, which means the helmet meets the strict safety standards of the Department of Transportation.

  • Full Face: This style of helmet provides protection for the head and neck with a fixed chin that helps absorb impact. Simply slip it on and adjust the visor.
  • Open Face: Helmets like the Can-Am N21 are usually worn with goggles or a small integrated shield. This option provides ultimate freedom on the road.
  • Crossover: These helmets are easy to personalize based on ride intensity and weather conditions. Crossover helmets can be configured in numerous ways by transforming from full face to jet, which keep it breezy with a full field of view.

Maintain Your Hairdo

Keep hair out of your face. If you have longer hair, choose a hairstyle that’s high and away from your eyes like a low bun, simple braid or ponytail. Secure hair at the nape of your neck and, when possible, wear a neck gaiter around the back of your head and across your nose to keep loose hairs secured. Bonus tip: Keep a compact brush on your ride so you can brush your hair upon arrival at your destination.

Prepare Appropriately for Riding Conditions

Weather is unpredictable, and you should be ready for whatever Mother Nature throws your way. Regardless of the forecast, always make a plan for unforeseen conditions like wind and rain. An easy way to stay prepared is to keep a small packable jacket on your ride so you’re never left without an extra layer.

Cooler conditions call for warm yet lightweight gear such as a base layer with additional light layers over the top like a jacket or thin vest. Hotter days require vented clothing that allows airflow to keep you cool and dry.

Consider Your Passenger’s Safety

The most important rule for packing a passenger is ensuring your bike has a specific seat intended for a second rider. Be aware of how the added weight can affect the handling and behavior of the vehicle.

Generally, riding with a passenger requires more gradual riding from acceleration and braking to steering. Instruct your passenger how you prefer him or her to ride with you to ensure the most enjoyment possible.

Find more responsible riding tips at can-am.brp.com.

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Destinations

5 Reasons to visit Mykonos this summer

Summer is here, and there’s no better place to stay than Kenshō Ornos on Greece’s iconic island of Mykonos.

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Photo by Jeet Dhanoa from Unsplash.com

Undoubtedly one of the most famous Greek islands, Mykonos is known for its stunning beaches, cosmopolitan vibe, and vibrant dining scene. Holidaymakers flock from all corners of the globe to soak up the Grecian sunshine and local gastronomy.

No trip to Mykonos is complete however, without a visit to Kenshō Ornos – the A-list favourite, award-winning boutique hotel, set on the beautiful Ornos Bay. Here are our five top reasons to visit the hotel:

1. Resident DJ and Weekly Music Events

Popular for its glamorous nightlife, superstar DJs and beautiful crowds, Mykonos is a true holiday destination. The fun starts at Kenshō Ornos, with a calendar of regular events sure to keep guests entertained. Throughout the season, different musicians and performances will be taking place at Kenshō Ornos, ranging from singers to DJ’s, dancers and more. Recent events include our resident DJ, DJ Angelosi playing Ethnic Electronic and Afro House music and Mediterranean ethnic music performances by Ghenwa Nemnom.

2. The Star-Lit Swimming Pool

One of the best places to take a dip in Mykonos, the Kenshō Ornos pool was designed to complement the hotel’s surrounding Ornos Bay. With majestic views of the Aegean Sea, lounging by the pool has never been more relaxing. The pool is the perfect Instagram spot, guaranteed to give everyone at home FOMO. At night, the turquoise swimming pool is illuminated with ‘starlights’ that light up the turquoise water for inviting evening swims. Guests can enjoy fresh towels, delicious cocktails and snackable lite bites whilst listening to chilled beats throughout the day.

3. Kenshō Ornos Restaurant, Home To Exquisite Fine Dining

Dining in Greece is an experience like no other. Think long leisurely meals with stunning views of the Aegean Sea and evenings filled with Greek mezze favourites and glasses of local wine. This summer, an exquisite dining experience awaits at Kenshō Ornos Restaurant. Award-winning Executive Chef Ippokratis Anagnostelis, has created a menu that takes traditional Cycladic cuisine and transforms it into modern gastronomy.

This season, the restaurant is launching the ‘Gastro Comfort Project,’ a special degustation menu of small individual plates with intense flavour. Highlights include Aegean red mullet, with bouillabaise espuma, Ossetra caviar and basil oil; Cycladic Cacio E Pepe, bavette cooked with lamb broth and dried anthotiro cheese and Orzo Langoustine, orzo with Aegean langoustines and lobster broth. The menu is available daily between 7-11PM, reservations can be made through the website here: here.

4. The One-of-a-Kind Cave Spa

This is the Mykonos for grown-ups. The ones who come to Mykonos to experience ultimate luxury and relaxation. This is the only Cave Spa on the island, transporting guests to a magical place to enjoy moments of rejuvenation.  The boutique hotel has won numerous awards for its spa, which includes two treatment rooms, a hammam bath, an indoor pool with hydromassage, a tropical rain bed, a hair salon, beauty centre and a gym. Visitors can choose between various treatments with packages on offer like The Sleep Therapy and The Lovers Spa Experience. Don’t forget to try the hi-tech sun beds with colour, sound and heat therapy!

5. The Unique Architecture and Design

Under the bright sun of Mykonos, Kenshō Ornos is a haven of beautiful design and architecture. The colour palette uses shades of white, natural wood and stone, respecting the values of Myconian architecture. Combining state-of-the-art technology and traditional design elements to create an impression of serenity and beauty. The hotel features iconic design pieces by well-known figures including Dedon, Mogg, Gessi and Kenneth Cobonpue. Guest rooms and suites are airy, light, individually styled and design with seclusion and privacy in mind.

6The Idyllic Location Above Ornos Bay

The hotel overlooks Ornos Bay, a beautiful part of the coast where the land curves inwards and traditional whitewashed Myconian architecture is dotted around the hillside. The Bay is paradise, with clear turquoise waters and white fine sands, yet only 2km drive away from the iconic town of Mykonos. Kenshō Ornos offers guests the best of both worlds; the accessibility to  popular cultural, nightlife and entertainment spots teamed with the serenity and tranquillity of the island’s quieter side of Ornos.

About Kenshō Mykonos

From the Zen tradition, Ken means “seeing” and Shō means “nature, essence”. Kenshō is often interpreted as “seeing one’s (true) nature”. Kenshō offers its guests a unique journey, creating memorable experiences of stay, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Inspired by the endless blue colours of the sky and the sea, Kenshō combines the high-quality services and goes beyond the standards, to provide a truly luxurious experience for each and every visitor. Kenshō Ornos is home to every luxury a guest could need including 35 individually styled rooms & suites, the only cave spa in Mykonos, the finest hospitality, state-of-the-art facilities and the ultimate Myconian experience.

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