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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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Laiban Circuit: How Hiking 3 Peaks in Tanay Taught Me Humility

We have been hiking for two hours in pitch-black darkness; six hours prior, in unbearable noon heat. I was wet, frustrated, and spent. I glanced at poor Lia, asleep on some guy's shoulder. It could be our guide or any of the cluster of men who fetched us at the river. I didn't know anymore. All I know was I never want to hike again.

We arrived in Laiban's barangay hall at 11:30 am after a series of transfers that seemed longer than Filipino soap operas. We were to hike Laiban Circuit in Tanay, Rizal, a 16-kilometer hiking route consisting of three peaks - Mt. Lubo, Mt. Ngusong Kabayo, and Tangwa Peak - and culminates in multi-tiered Laiban Falls.

We were brimming with hope as Laiban kagawad Kaka drove us on his habal-habal and pointed at several peaks, from General Nakar to Rizal. The drive going to the hall wasn't breezy all the way. Our motorbike halted and treaded carefully and over again as it crossed one stream to another. But the sky was a beautiful December blue, and we couldn't imagine it raining even if it did the past days.

A woman at the town hall looked at the four of us - Celine, Dennis, Lia, and me - and chuckled nervously. "Here's the truth," she said, heaving a deep sigh, "You will climb three peaks. After that, you will cross several waterfalls. It takes us locals around three hours to complete the route. You have a four year-old with you. The trail is wet. It will take you at least five to six hours. It will be nightfall by the time you finish."

She was waiting for us to throw in the towel and just call it a day. We spent four hours from Cubao going there. There's no way we will do that.

Swinging it at the barangay hall. Pre-hike. 

"Kaya namin 'yan, ate (We can do it)," we replied in chorus. The high I felt, being among the first ones to have set foot on the circuit since it opened in October, made me oblivious to the difficulties that lied ahead. 

The sun bore down as we walked the uphill path to Mt. Lubo, the first and lowest mountain in the circuit. Trees were scarce. The steep incline, coupled with the searing sun, didn't make things easy. Locals can reach the 488-meter high summit in 30 to 45 minutes. We did it in two hours.

At the foot of Ngusong Kabayo. Photo by Dennis Murillo.

From Mt. Lubo, we had an excellent perspective of the second summit: Ngusong Kabayo. Ngusong Kabayo means "horse's snout" in the vernacular, and after an hour of passing through exposed grasslands and bamboo forests, you will see why.

Pointy, craggy, and precarious, its rock formations resemble a horse's snout. Thrill-seekers may opt to scramble to the top (considered the summit at 602 masl), but we were just happy to finally find shade and eat our lunch of homemade spaghetti at the base.

One of a number of bamboo forests on the circuit

Tangwa Peak, though the highest peak in the circuit at 625 masl, is the easiest to get to. One simply has to navigate the narrow tunnels of Ngusong Kabayo (which are pretty manageable even for a kid) for around 30 minutes.

A passage at the base of Ngusong Kabayo that hikers must negotiate to get to Tangwa Peak

Like many mountains in Rizal, Tangwa offers a panorama of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range. Those who start very early in the morning are in for a treat: Tangwa Peak is famous for magnificent sunrises and a sea of clouds. 

We enjoyed the view so much that we stayed here until way past 4 pm, which later proved to be excessive. We were only halfway done, and darkness was looming on the horizon.

Tangwa Peak

Over the next hours, grasslands became our constant. We were flanked by 4-foot tall grass on either side. The sight of nearby mountains Binutasan and Sapari afforded us relief from monotony, though only brief. I got cuts from sharp blades of grass and  slipped more than I can count that eventually, the joke lost its novelty.

As the sun dimmed and everything turned black, debility overcame me. I couldn't even carry Lia. We aren't even at the main falls yet, and there are a few before we can complete the circuit.

Things weren't going so well for Lia either. She didn't refuse to be carried by our guide - which is rather unusual. She usually enjoys hikes. She no longer did.

By the time we got to the first leg of the falls at past six, she was exhausted, scared of the dark, and wailing like a beast. What have I gotten ourselves into, I thought.

First part of Laiban falls

I remember refilling our depleted water bottles from a nearby stream. No longer caring as Celine and Dennis mused about  stars and fireflies overhead. Being fetched by a group of worried barangay officials somewhere along the way.  A short but heart-pounding vertical scramble down a gushing waterfall and entrusting my asleep daughter to a stranger.

But everything in between during those final hours was a blur. We were walking nonstop. We couldn't afford breaks. Food and rest became my obsession.

Trail from Tangwa Peak going to Laiban Falls

Our cellphone torches offered little help. We played everything by ear. But in a night hike that only has sound of water, our hearing probably didn't help much either. 

By the end of the nearly nine-hour hike, Kaka noticed my silence. "You aren't used to these kinds of hike, are you?" he asked. 

"Apparently not," I replied with utter embarrassment. There was no thrill or joy in my voice. Only the certainty that I am fucking tired of mountains.

We came to Laiban without a hint of the terrain we are dealing with. We didn't even know those mountains' names. We had a local guide. What could possibly go wrong?

A lot mentally, as it turns out.

I went there thinking, "We've hiked the highest peak in Luzon. We've hiked a considerable number of mountains. These are average-height mountains. Three are doable."

Celine at Tangwa Peak

I was that annoying hiker who underestimated mountains based on their sheer height and the negligible knowledge I incurred from past hikes. For Christ's sake, I didn't even know how to pitch a tent. I wasn't prepared. Yet, there I was, priding myself in what little I knew.

Mountains are unforgiving. However small, one has the power to destroy your will. Mountains do not adjust to humans. Humans adjust to mountains. Once we step foot on a mountain, we are at the mercy of the elements. We are in nature's territory. Out there, anything can happen.

The next day found me crushed, both body and spirit. The proud woman who hiked to prove she knows something only to be proven she doesn't know anything. I wanted nothing to do with mountains, because I wasn't worthy of them.

It took more than a month before I had the courage to go at it again. The beautiful thing about mountains is that if you keep your eyes open and come to experience them without prior judgement or expectations, there are life-changing lessons to be learned that are worth keeping. Above all, this: Mountains hurt, but they are home.

Much thanks to the sweet tanods who went to check on us, Kaka, and our amazing guide, Kuya Efren, who tirelessly carried then-17 kilogram Lia for nearly seven hours. We are eternally grateful for your thoughtfulness and concern. The people of Laiban are a gem.

  • Pinoy Mountaineer rates this circuit as 3/9 in difficulty, according it the same level as Mt. Pulag via the Ambangeg trail, Arayat, and Balagbag. I can tell you it's much harder than those mountains. I'd probably rate it at 4.5 to 5/10, particularly the descent from Tangwa Peak to the falls. It's very slippery especially during the rainy season. Going down the falls requires a bit of scrambling. Come prepared.
  • This is an account of our hike in December 2016. Things might have changed since then. Refer to the contact person below for inquiries.
  • For inquiries on hiking the Laiban circuit, contact Kagawad Kaka Munoz at +639984943595 or send him a Facebook message.
  • Celineism has a useful Laiban Circuit guide with expenses, itinerary, and directions. Check it our here.
  • Contact details and schedule of fees as of 2016:

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.

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