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Filipina Explorer is a travel blog that believes in the power of stories to connect us to the world, shape ideas, and move us to action. Read these stories from the archives.
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Hi! I'm Gretchen, a travel writer based in the Philippines. I created Filipina Explorer in 2009 to document my journeys through places, parenthood, and word weaving. This blog is a collection of those stories and everything in between. (Photo by Martin San Diego)
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Mt. Yangbew Guide: How To Get There and What to Expect

Looking for an easy, budget-friendly, and scenic hike near Baguio that wouldn't cost an arm and a leg? Mt. Yangbew in Tawang fits to a T!

Also called Mt. Jumbo and Little Pulag, this mountain rose to fame in recent years due to its vast grasslands which many say, resemble Mt. Pulag's. As well, its proximity to Baguio - accessible in just 15 to 30 minutes - makes it one of the best day hikes for those who want to experience something beyond the usual city tour.

View on the eastern side the summit shows Tuba mountains. At the center is Strawberry Farm (not in photo).

The first three to five minutes is cemented road, followed by an unpaved terrain (turns muddy during rainy season). The trail features a gentle incline, making it easy even for kids and pets. You can even take your bike up to the summit. You don't need a guide since the trail is very straightforward and clearly established.

The summit is a vast, rolling grassland with a smattering of rock formations where you can take selfies while appreciating the spectacular views of La Trinidad and nearby mountains in Benguet.

When you see this marker, it means you are only 10 minutes away from the summit!


1.5 to 2/10


Very chill and easy. Ideal for beginners, kids,seniors, and pets
Accessible by both public and private transportation
Budget-friendly. No guides needed. Minimal hiking fees (P30 for dayhikes).
Offers stunning 360-degree views of La Trinidad center, Benguet mountains (Tublay, Tuba, and Kapangan), and the famous Strawberry Farm from the summit
Faces both east and west, so sunrise and sunset viewing are both excellent
Possible sea of clouds when you hike before sunrise
Biking and horseback riding can be done at the summit


From the jumpoff, it takes only one hour to reach the summit in a gentle, relaxed pace (30 minutes if you only take one short five-minute break, which is doable).


Bike rack; biking
Huts for resting
Horseback riding (P150 per 30 minutes per horse; P100 minimum for one round)
✓ No restroom


None. Bring one liter of water per person.


  •  Via private transportation: Take Ambiong Road to Tawang. Parking space is limited but available a few meters after the jumpoff.

  • Via public transport: Take an Upper Tomay-bound jeepney in front of Center Mall. This will take 30 minutes or more depending on the traffic. Fare is

If you are trying to catch sunrise, taking a cab is advisable, especially if you are in a group (cheaper to split). Tell the cab driver to take Ambiong Road. This is the shortcut and takes only 15 minutes from Baguio city center. Fare is P120 to P250 (depending on the traffic).


Going back to the city is a bit harder since public transpo is hard to come by. If you are not in a hurry, take the jeepney with the signboard "Pines Park/ La Trinidad" from the side of the street across the jumpoff. This will take you down to La Trinidad proper. Cross to the other side of the highway and take a jeep bound for Baguio. Travel time may take anywhere from one to one-and-a-half-hours.

Alternatively, UV Express vans going to Baguio via Ambiong Road pass by on rare occasions. We've not tried this though.

View on the westerly side. That bald, rocky mountain is Mt. Kalugong.

Some taxis carrying passengers to Pines Park or Tomay may also pass by but quite infrequent (though it’s recommended if you want to escape the traffic in the city, since they can take Ambiong Road). Normally you’d have to wait for them to come back after dropping off passengers elsewhere in the area. 

If taking a cab, I suggest from the jumpoff you take the jeepney bound to Pines Park, then go down at intersection at the Tawang Police Station. This is where most UV’s, cabs, and jeepneys pass by. We didn’t know this and had to walk about two kilometers (20 to 30 minutes) to reach the police station.


Guides are not required. The only fee you will pay is for the environmental fee, which goes to the upkeeping of the place. You are to pay this at the Tawang barangay hall a kilometer away from the jumpoff. However, please note that if you come on a weekend or early in the morning (i.e. before 7 to 8 am), the hall is most likely closed anyway (happened twice to us). 

Tawang barangay hall


  • Day hike - P30 (P25 for students)
  • Overnight camping - P100 for both regular campers and students 
  • Biker - P30 (P25 for students)

  • Day hike - P50
  • Overnight camping - P100
  • Biker - P50
*Same for both regular hikers and students.


 Strawberrry Farm. Tourist-popular attraction famous for strawberry picking. This is a seasonal activity best done during November to May. We went there in September and was told the strawberries are not yet ready for picking. You can take a jeepney from the jumpoff of Mt. Yangbew going to the farm.

 Mt. Kalugong. If you want to maximize your time in Tawang, I highly recommend doing a twin hike as well to Mt. Kalugong, about one kilometer northeast of Mt. Yangbew. You can walk or take a jeepney going there from the Mt. Yangbew jumpoff. Tell the driver you are going to the barangay hall.

Like Mt. Yangbew, the trail to Mt. Kalugong is roughly 1.2 kilometers long and is very straightforward. It’s also relatively easy, except maybe for the super steep, breath-taking (literally) cemented road that runs from the barangay hall going to the first 100 or so meters. You will pass by a small burial ground for locals. Please observe silence and respect.

After that, you’ll find rolling red soil, with rock formations on either side, similar to those found at the summit of Mt. Yangbew. The last leg of the trail consists of a beautiful array of pine trees leading to the summit, where you can find more rock formations, a wooden swing, picnic tables, and Ifugao huts. The summit offers a good view of Mt. Yangbew and Benguet mountains.

Note: Sadly though, mining activities were being done when we visited recently. Blasts can be heard from the summit of Mt. Yangbew. The rocks comprising the belly of the mountain are now fully exposed, with rare pine trees on the side, whereas in 2017, it was still very lush.

  Kape-an. This is a quaint and popular coffee shop serving local brews and cheesecakes at the summit of Mt. Kalugong. Cafe opens from 9 am onwards.


Letter #18: Seven

Hello, Lia.

A couple of months ago, I asked you which gift you'd like for your seventh birthday: a simple family celebration or a getaway. You chose the latter. “Gusto ko mag-try ng mga ‘di ko pa nagagawa, Mama,” you said. Surfing was on top of your list, next to hiking. You even wanted to go to Mati in Davao to do both.

We arrived in San Juan, La Union on a searing Thursday noon and waited for the 39-degree heat to wane a little in a breezy seafront brunch place called Barefoot at Le Point. There, we were told by an instructor that because the sea was flat (as is often the case on summer days, according to her), surfing isn’t possible and we might have to wait until June.

But at 3 pm, a little further toward the hippie bars, the waves surprisingly grew. Just a few minutes before sunset, after a 10-minute surfing lesson and on your second paddle away from shore, you were able to stand up on your longboard. You rode the waves like a pro – as you did the third time, fourth, fifth, and so on. Seeing you brave your fear of drowning after years of not venturing into waist-deep waters is among the proudest moments of my life.

I waited on the shore to catch you, and every time I did, you gushed, "Mama, marunong na 'ko magsurf! 'Di na 'ko takot!" I asked if you are happy. Every time you eagerly jumped back on the board, blowing kisses and turning to smile at the glowing sun, I knew you really were.

Now, not only do you know how to surf, you also know that sometimes, happiness can be found when you go into depths you’ve so feared once.

We took the night bus to Baguio and arrived to find cold, wet roads. The forecast for days: sunny with rain showers. Still, the following day, despite having woken up so late (enough to miss checkout time and be stressed by managers in the condotel we were billeted in) and the threat of rain, we took the one-hour hike to Mt. Yangbew in Tawang with Tita and Ate MJ.

You rode a horse at the summit while overlooking the Cordillera mountain range. Sunlight was ample. It didn’t rain a single drop until we checked out at noon. 

I hope your birthday reminds you that when uncertainties lie ahead, the best course of action is to take a leap of faith (proper planning and safety taken into account, of course). The universe always finds a way, as it did on your birthday. Choosing to believe and moving forward, no matter the outcome, is the only way to truly know how it is to live. 

Happy seventh, dearest. May your days be filled with moments worth remembering and your years with newfound highs and illuminating lows that lead you to self-discovery.

Always ready to catch you on life's shores,

P.S. You’d be happy to know that you got both the getaway and the simple party. Yesterday, you  had another celebration here at home, with Caitlyn, Enzo, Tita Grace, Tito JB, Lolo, Lola, and Daddy. Picture below from Tita Grace. All others were taken  with love by your Ate MJ. Seven must be a really lucky number, I guess.

*LU and Baguio photos by Maia Imperial

Flaws and scars

At the risk of it being called "hubadera" or attention-seeking, I'm putting this photo out in the open because we - including me - need to be reminded that this is how a mother's body looks like - cellulite, love handles, saggy arms, a scar from a Cesarian section and all - and there is no shame in it.

I've had body issues since I was kid. No matter how many diet plans and crunches I do, genetics beats me. In third grade, I weighed more than double the average Filipino kid that a teacher assigned me the role of a pig in a school play – pig mask, twirly tail, pink tights and shirt, the whole shebang.

I would spend the next decade on on-and-off crazed diet formulas and extreme exercises, swinging from thin to ultra-heavy. In college, 5'3" and 145 pounds, with a waistline that spanned 34 inches and fed up with people calling me "fat Buddha" and “gross”, I bought a pair of jeans with a 27-inch waistline and vowed to never stop exercising and dieting until I've downsized to that frame.

But I didn't stop at 27 inches.

I stuck photos of people who teased me on our ab roller – an hour every morning, plus an hour biking in the afternoon and two hours on a Sky walker until 1 to 2 am. I kept a calorie journal, eating only a piece of Oreo or saltine biscuit or two leaves of bland lettuce or a few pieces of tomatoes or carrot sticks daily. During occasions when I had to eat normally to avoid being discovered, I'd run to the restroom and ram my fingers down my throat, expelling everything I ingested to the last grain of rice.

During this time, I also discovered pro-anorexia websites that taught about “control, control, control”. In one, I met Toni, a half-Italian, half-American teen who became my “ana buddy” – a fellow anorexic who you help motivate to curb eating and vice-versa. In one email, I told her, “Do you feel like you want to change? That you want to start eating normally again, because what you’re doing is wrong? That’s how I feel. But I can’t stop.”

She ghosted me after that. I never found out if it’s because she felt disgusted, if she started eating healthy, or if she died from complications. Up to 20 percent of people who suffer from anorexia do.

Within months, I weighed a mere 97 pounds. My waistline was only 25 inches. I'm fairly big-boned, so even then, I didn't appear to be textbook anorexic. I loathed myself for still looking the way I did. It wasn’t about appearance anymore. It was about having control. Because at 18, I felt I had none in  in my life. I had a goldmine of deep, unresolved issues, from feeling abandoned to sexual abuse. My body was the only thing I had total control of, so I tried to control it in every imaginable way for more than a year.

I kept that affliction secret. Until now.

This imperfect body that I have is a result of decades of one-woman work. It took me this long to be this bold enough to finally share it and say I am no longer ashamed of this body. This body is a map of my history. It shows me where I've been; where I'm going. It was the crucible of a new life - a life that took me out of the pits. It’s not perfect by a long shot (the doctor says I am actually a bit overweight), but it’s the only body I will ever have.

I am fortunate to have women in my life who empower me by loving what I have and seeing beyond how I look. Friends who don bikinis despite glaring imperfections and never engage in toxic and conformist views of how a “great body” looks.

But not everyone is so lucky.

Nobody wants to talk about unsightly imperfections. Everybody wants to show perfect lives on social media. But don’t flaws and scars also make up the sum of who we are?

There’s a huge difference between criticizing to encourage improvements and tearing down one’s spirit. If we truly want to empower our kids, our women to love themselves, we have to start with our own perceptions. Surround ourselves with non-judgmental people. Watch what we say about other people's bodies and our own. Dare to see differently than what we’ve grown accustomed to as a society. Stop seeing all flaws as negative. Sometimes, when we dig deeper, we’ll find that flaws and scars actually tell pretty amazing stories - some worth keeping for life.

Implications and intentions: A day in Manila's biggest slum

A friend once said, "Slum tours are best left to those who know the subject well like sociologists." This is not an unconventional opinion. Slum tours, popular in many third world countries like India, are a controversial topic in tourism debates. They are often frowned upon and viewed as exploitative and unethical. At the very least, the phrase seems to imply that poor communities are mere subjects to gawk at and treat as tourist souvenirs.

In the Philippines, where poor is the norm, there is little interest in such tours. Only a few operate them. One of the more well-known ones is Smokey Tours, a non-profit organization that offers "eye-opening day tours around Metro Manila", including bike tours, cemetery tours, and slum tours. Smokey Tours' first slum tour - the first of its kind in Southeast Asia - was held in 2011, in the now-defunct dumpsite called Smokey Mountain. Today, the organization's slum tour takes place in the 53-acre BASECO Compound, a reclaimed land 10 minutes by tricycle from historic Intramuros.

Children look for plastics and other scraps they can sell on a mound of garbage.

Manila's largest slum, BASECO is home to approximately 48,000 inhabitants, and children make up a sizable population. Walking on its skinny, maze-like alleys, one realizes just how massive this community is. Wooden homes, tightly squeezed next to each other, run endlessly along the banks of Pasig River. There are internet cafes, sari-sari stores, carinderia, schools, a basketball court, chapel, and a police station. To circle the community, one has to walk for two to three hours on alternating mud and pavement.

Most residents have lived here for decades. A significant number of them came from far-flung provinces in search of a job in the city. However, BASECO itself lacks diverse and lucrative work opportunities that others in the Philippine capital enjoy. If not running home-based shops, residents, particularly women, work full hours skinning garlic cloves outside their homes and packing them for large-scale distributors - an eight to nine-hour job that pays a measly Php75 (around USD1.50) a day.

Due to poverty, many residents in BASECO resort to drinking what they call "criminal water" - a play on "mineral water" -  which is basically tap water poured straight from the faucet into these plastic containers. Tap water in the Philippines isn't potable for drinking. As such, many become infected with gastrointestinal diseases, including those caused by Salmonella and E. coli.

Meanwhile, men burn driftwood to create charcoal, or turn to Pasig River to fish whatever is left of its polluted waters. Along with their parents or sometimes alone, children dive into the river at night to haul mussels that cling to foreign barges. During the day, kids would be found on the garbage-ridden shore, scavenging for scraps to sell.

BASECO has a souvenir shop showcasing slippers, bags, and accessories made from the stalks of water lilies, which grow abundantly in the river. The items are woven by hand with the help of wooden implements. Smokey Tours partners with the local community in training women to weave in order to create additional income.

Local and foreign volunteers

Majority of the tourists BASECO receives come from first-world countries like Japan and Germany - all intent on seeing a glimpse of a world starkly different from theirs. Interactions are an integral part of Smokey Tours' slum tour. Participants are encouraged to come inside the residents' homes, talk to them, and ask them questions. Some would return home with a new perspective after tours. Some would stay and become volunteers for Smokey Tours.

"That's exactly what happened to me. I wanted to make a bigger difference," Ella Daalderop, a Dutch National who's among Smokey Tours' small circle of local and foreign volunteers, says. Ella joined one of the slum tours, and in 2017, decided to move permanently to Manila to work on the ground as a volunteer. She is joined by local tour leader and BASECO resident Ate Tes, who serves as our guide for the day.

Ate Tes is one of many residents that Smokey Tours continue to tap and train as guides. They possess a wealth of insider knowledge on how the community works and help raise awareness about slums in the Philippines.

Ate Tes is among a handful of locals in BASECO who now serve as a Smokey Tours volunteer, all raising awareness about their community and what can be done to help. Volunteers are trained in an extensive program and can speak both English and Tagalog.

Since funds from tours go to community projects and pay for the training of residents ("sometimes office supplies like pens and paper", kids Ella), tour leaders are only given allowances during tours. Visitors are free to give them tips.

Asked why she continues to do pro bono work, Ate Tes replied, "I grew up here and see how these tours have helped our community. They do medical missions and educate people. Instead of turning to drugs, our kids can give back as tour leaders and raise awareness that BASECO is just like other communities. It makes me happy and fulfilled even if I have to work long hours and have little money in return," she intimates in Tagalog.

This sheer optimism isn't a rarity in slums like BASECO. Born to difficulties, the children here are oblivious to the harsh realities of their world. They would trail tourists and hold their hands. Always smiling, they find joy in the simplest things, like asking for portraits and having strangers show them how they look on camera.

Real dreams and hopes

Slums are stereotyped as dangerous sites for tourists, and as such, they are advised to avoid these areas at all cost. Growing up in a neighborhood where only a block away, a huge slum flourished for decades, I know well about this common perception. Drug peddling, thievery, knife-to-knife brawl - name a hazard and a slum has got it. Or so we think.

In immersion trips in rural slums in Quezon, I've come to know better than judge slums for their exterior appearance. My experience with these communities has so far been enlightening and heartwarming.  Residents are always happy to share their homes and feed visitors even when food on the table doesn't suffice for their needs. My day in the urban slum of BASECO was no different.

Like their more privileged counterparts, residents here have hopes. They are fighting to live each day against and with their circumstances. Some of them are fighting for a dream.

Kuya Ramil's small home doubles as the community library. He started collecting books to help children in BASECO learn how to read and write - something he says he wasn't fortunate to have.
One of them is Kuya Ramil, a porter in Divisoria, who transformed part of his ramshackle home into a community library. Stacks of used books, donated by visitors and NGOs, are piled on a wooden cabinet in his house. Residents are welcome to read and do their homework anytime on Kuya Ramil's singular table.

Like others in the community, he came from an impoverished family. From his hometown in Mindanao, he traveled to Manila in the the 1980s to job-hunt. "I only finished first grade. I do not know how to write or read. Finding work is hard. I spent weeks sleeping in Luneta before I got here. It's just me now raising my four kids. My dream is for them to have what I didn't. I want them and all children here to be educated. That's why I opened the library," he shares.

Implication versus intention

The debates will continue. There will always be those who will argue that slum tours are not necessary, especially in a country where there are omnipresent reminders of poverty. "We all know that poverty exists in the Philippines. There's no need to participate in slum tours to make ourselves aware of their plight," a comment on one blog reads.

But the questions stand: Is it enough to know to say we really understand? Can we truly understand simply by definition or common knowledge? Should we care to look or should we just look away, fearful of offending?

"That's why we don't want to call it a tour. We do not take photos and go on our own ways. In fact, we don't allow photos to be taken unless needed. And you always need to ask permission from the residents in those cases. We would rather call it an experience. Because that's what it really is. What we do is empower communities. The words "slum" and "tour"...have bad implications," says Ella.

In BASECO though, implication doesn't matter as much as individual intention. Here, it is not debates on linguistics that bring jobs, food, and healthcare aid. It's the collective effort of residents and outsiders who help them stand on their feet - on a slum tour or not - that make the difference.

Much thanks to Smokey Tours for hosting. You can learn more about Smokey Tours' slum tour on their website. 

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