I'll be the first to admit that I'm embarrassingly unfamiliar with the off-roading scene in the Philippines, and this has been a constant thorn in my side... I mean, I'm already a motoring enthusiast and a lover of outdoor pursuit. Theoretically, I should be marrying those two hobbies more often. Little by little, I'm determined to remedy this to alleviate some gear envy.
When my friend Donn So from the Executive Off-Road Racing Association (EXO) mountain biking group invited me to ride along one of their events, I jumped on the opportunity. The good, strong folk of Team EXO organized a visit to the Dumagat tribe up in the Sierra Madre mountains and the main draw was that they'd be pedaling alongside a convoy of SUVs hauling gifts and supplies for the indigenous people. With a couple of cycles in the back, we drove through Antipolo to enter the twisties overlooking Laguna De Bay - commonly known as MaRiLaQue, formally as the Marinina-Infanta highway, and colloquially as Tanayburgring. After parking Donn's pickup at San Andres in Tanay, he and his teammate Rain unloaded their top-of-the-line mountain bikes and geared up for their arduous ride ahead while I moved to the front seat of Timmy Valencia's Land Rover Discovery. The EXO cyclists were going to navigate under the mercilessly sun, propelled by human power. The Land Rover Dirty South group and the guys from Front Runner Philippines were to follow in the comfort of their upscale cages with engines.
All right, let's move on to the trail profile. The trail indicated is the Sta. Ines "Road" in Tanay, Rizal ending at Kinabuan Falls. I put that in quotation marks because it's what Google Maps calls it but that's definitely not what I would—not in its entirety, at least. From the main highway, turn into Brgy. San Andres (left if you're coming from Antipolo). You'll easily drive through a narrow, dusty road strewn with some gravel to a crossroad populated with structures including a school—a popular place to park, and a hub for mountaineers about to embark on the summit hikes around the area. It's recommended that you make any necessary inquiries about registration and directions at this point. Some prefer to hire a guide that can help navigate river crossings and obstacles. Continue straight on the dirt road and when you reach the Sta. Ines, disembark and walk to the conspicuous barangay hall on your left to register in the logbook for Kinabuan Fallls.
Google Maps claims that the Sta. Ines Rd. is around 19.5 km, from the highway to Kinabuan Falls, but people with GPS trackers have gotten results ranging from 20 km to 25.5 km. Although the trail is popular, it was still uncrowded even on a weekend morning. It's a wonderfully provincial and scenic mountain pass—varying between thick jungle, dry rocky landscapes, and mountainous valleys. You'll drive through around 12 relatively shallow water crossings, around 8 or so of which are rivers. Avoid the area during the rainy season as those creeks swell to dangerous levels and flash floods can occur. If you want to feel far and removed from humanity, this isn't for you. It's hard to escape people in the Philippines with families occupying even some of the remotest parts of the country, but the locals are friendly and the villages are sparse—adding a humbling charm to the journey.
Two thirds of the way are pretty easy, but the last stretch is when high clearance and good tires matter. Even on a dry day, sections of the trail were muddy. You'll encounter seriously rocky sections approaching Dumagat territory. Some of them you can smoothly roll over, while others will require some subtle crawling. At this point, Timmy says a crossover would suffice but unless it's lifted I'd caution against it. There was a specific rock that the Land Rovers and Land Cruisers cleared, but with a ride height any lower and you'd probably grind your underside. Elevation gain never felt apparent; uphill and downhill activity in a 4x4, although present, isn't nerve wracking in the least. On two wheels it may feel different with the physically taxing balance required. The mountain bikers and motocross riders pass the roughest parts faster than 4-wheelers; you'll be impressed with their athleticism and determination when you see the crazy terrain they can conquer.
When you reach the Dumagat village you'll have to park and take the extremely short walk through boulders to the Kinabuan waterfall basin (there's no need to be a hiker, just be careful). In the afternoon, the cold water will provide much needed respite. The waterfall itself is small and underwhelming to most, but a refreshing dip in its lovely pool is 5-star stuff. An increase in water volume can also form a couple of other falls flowing down the basin's walls. The Dumagat people are some of the extant indigenous Negritos in Luzon, forced to settle in the mountains after living a semi-nomadic life. They are significantly smaller, darker, and curly-haired... Another genetic treasure of our country that should never be taken for granted. In conclusion, the final destination is pretty neat but it's the journey getting there that's the highlight.
I'll wrap this up with some tips and reminders...
1. This trail is recommended for high clearance vehicles. If you're just going to San Andres with the intention to leave your car in order to hike and bike, any car will do. If you want to drive all the way to the Dumagat tribe and Kinabuan falls, you need an SUV. Anyone with one can do it. If you use your SUV as a family car or road trip mobile predominantly on pavement in an urban environment, why not try out a trail like this one? In stock form, your 4x4 SUV will be more than capable.
2. Share the route and practice trail etiquette. You will be driving alongside mountain bikers, motocross riders, and locals on foot. Slow down when there are exposed people around you so you don't kick up dust into their eyes and lungs. Be considerate and always be the one to volunteer to give room. Watch your side mirrors too, even when it feels like you're alone. You might veer into two-wheelers that want to overtake; let them because they can carry more speed than you.
3. Be prepared, dress accordingly, and watch out for each other. Bring enough fuel for your vehicle and for your body. When you're not sure about the river crossings, rocks, or what's up ahead, have someone get out of the car to scout and help guide. Your wingman can even manipulate or move branches aside if you're fussy about your paint. You might also want to reinforce your front license plate, or remove it altogether. It may get lost.
4. Be respectful and kind to the locals. Don't haggle and be willing to pay fees for registration or parking. When suspecting extortion, calmly report a scam. If you want to go above and beyond expectations, bring some gifts. Outdoor groups organize charity events as a show of goodwill, but individuals don't need to join them in order to contribute. The Sta. Ines barangay hall will accept much needed school supplies and the indigenous people will appreciate toys and clothing--but practical things like medicine, footwear, and tools are invaluable to them. Show a little gratitude towards their accommodation of tourists. Despite the oppression and poverty they constantly have to suffer, they are still willing to share the natural splendors of their backyard.
5. Clean up after yourself. Even if you witness evidence of other people's ignorance and irresponsibility, do not follow suit and lead by example. Leave no trace and do your part in maintaining the picturesque environment.