On Stations and Leaving: Mt. Arayat National Park, Pampanga

December 30, 2014

I rode on the tail end of the jeepney, cupping a toddler asleep under the warm noon sun. The road, lined with trees on either side and an unbridled view of the Arayat mountain, felt home. 

This was our second time to have passed by this tunnel of trees past Mexico. A couple of months back, I ventured out on a spontaneous trip just like this one to Candaba, only then the jeepney veered right at the Sta. Ana Church, and today it goes straight to the less sleepy town of Arayat.

Lia awoke to busy hawkers and honking horns at the town market, then a Zagu knock-off where she egged me to get a choco crumble slushie. The tricycle driver, a kind, thin man in his 40s, took us to the town's National Park three kilometers north, where he volunteered to fetch us after a couple of hours - without additional charge - so we wouldn't have to bark and bid with the others. 

Surprisingly, the park was a bit more urbanized than what I've imagined. At the entrance, there's a huge and clear sign pointing to the pool complex at the left; and to the tree house to the right, where bikers and mountaineers start their trek up to Mt. Arayat's summit, and pilgrims to the grotto mid-way. A capacious lot is reserved for vehicles, with a  forlorn space that says "tourism office" on one sad corner at the far right. 

Bipolar feelings took over as we treaded the cemented trail, surrounded by colossal narra trees and narrow gutters where spring water gushes. It's probably what I Iiked most here, that strong presence of greens that resembled dreamy scenes in bottled spring water commercials. 

Three pools are fed with spring water that directly cascade down from the mountain - two have miniature falls, and one is a large lap pool, a mix of kiddie and adult pools stitched contiguously.

The other end of that bipolar spectrum was tainted with sadness. For despite its verdant glory, the park feels restrained and to some extent, tampered. Its cold, chlorine-free basins bound with metal rails, and the dark, beautiful contours of the mountain's base, fringed with cheap, grimy bathroom tiles. It's mostly for child safety, I assume, but it doesn't blend well. 

If anything, these modern contraptions only make the Natural Park look unnatural and very confused. Not confusing. Confused. Like a teenager who doesn't know if she wants to be Taylor Swift or Shirley Manson. 

Sunlight peeped through leaves as we alternated swimming between this faraway corner in the bigger falls pool and its shallow water by the stairway. We would've loved to try the falls if it wasn't inundated with rowdy teens, but nonetheless found our quiet, unpopulated spot perfect for tempering. 

It was near dusk when Lia got out of the water and asked for chips. We changed in an unoccupied  nipa hut - which I wasn't even sure was ours - and headed straight to one of the open sari-sari stores, where an inquiry about food turned into a ranting moment for the vendor. 

"Mahigpit ang management dito, kaya mahina ang benta kahit Linggo. Andami kasi nila ipinagbabawal. Bawal pati magtinda ng alak. Eh bundok lang naman iyan, pinagdadamot pa," she scoffed.

("The park management is very strict, that's why income is hard to come by even on Sundays. There are a lot of restrictions. Even selling alcohol is prohibited. It's just a mountain.")

I don't know which is  more saddening: the tiles, or that kind of indifference that we have for the living that don't speak.

Id' like to think that locals do care about their gems beyond being income generators, and this is that other side of the coin that as a tourist, you don't want to hear. Because if the locals don't care, then it becomes a slippery slope for non-locals who visit. 

Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.'– Lisa St. Aubin de Teran

But like all places my daughter and I go to, it becomes a part of me, of us. Only it's that part of you that you don't mind not seeing very often, that you don't mind leaving. I found that it offered nothing I haven't seen elsewhere, or awakened a part of me that I haven't yet discovered. 

Maybe it was that lady who vended me her indifference. Or maybe it was the tiles. It wasn't that I didn't like this station. It has its unique crannies. But it was just one station in a long, unending line of thousands more, and it was time to move on to the final one: home.

Travel notes:

How to get to Mt. Arayat National Park via public commute: 

There are a number of ways to get here, although the most accessible is via San Fernando (the San Simon route is faster and less trafficked if you have a car). Take a bus or FX going to SM San Fernando, and alight in front of the mall. There are plenty of jeepneys there with the signboard Arayat. Fee is P29.

(You might want to take a jeepney driving on the road in front of Robinson's than the ones at the SM Terminal because they take tooo long to fill up passengers).

Ask the driver to drop you off at the Arayat market. You'll pass by the towns of Mexico and Sta. Ana first before Arayat. Once in the market, board a tricycle and tell him to drop you off at Mt. Arayat National Park in Brgy. San Juan Bano. Fee is P50. 

Going back, you'd have to go out of the compound to the tricycle TODA/ terminal (about a three-minute walk from the entrance). Tell the driver to take you to the jeepney terminal going to SM City San Fernando. There are also buses that ply directly to Manila (Pasay/ Cubao) on this road.

Total hours: 1 to 1.5 hours from SM City San Fernando, depending on the traffic 

Other fees and tips:

  • Entrance is P50 for adults, P20 for kids. My toddler got in for free. Discounts  available for seniors and students. Pay the same if you're only going to the tree house/ grotto.
            Daytime swimming only, from 6am to 6pm. No overnight stays.

  • Plastic huts with monoblocks are available for rent (P150 for a group of 5 to 6); nipa huts at P250. But, park attendants told me you can actually skip paying the huts if you're going solo. Simply tell the booth operator that you're not going to swim or use a hut. Unfortunately, I already paid P150 when they told me so. There's also a nipa hut with a room fronting the lap pool, complete with a locked door, but I'm not sure how much the rent is.

  • They aren't strict with the huts. They don't even give you a number or ticket for it.  Simply pick which one you want when you get inside (so I chose a nipa over a skinny plastic hut. LOL). They don't have lockers so better if you pack your valuables in a small waterproof bag and bring it along wherever, Park attendants note losses are common here (even slippers!)
  • Parking is not a problem. There's a huge lot for that. 

  • Supposedly there are four restrooms/changing rooms/ shower rooms, but only two were open when we went (building fronting the lap pool), and only one person can use each at a time. The park's capacity is over a hundred, so good luck getting in within the next hour. Some people use the unoccupied stalls near the playground for changing (looked like store booths than changing rooms). 

  • Completely allowed to bring food and beverage. But as the vending lady said, no alcohol. There are several sari-sari stores inside the park, but none of them sell rice meals; just snacks, soda, candies, cigarettes, and sandwiches. Grills are also available for barbecuing at no extra charge.

  • If you want to trek Mt. Arayat, there are guides at the entrance. P1,000 per group of 5 and below. Guides suggest starting the trek early (around 5 to 6am) since the ascent takes 4 hours and there's little shade going up. Descent is about 2-3 hours. 

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