Above: the last photo I have taken of Buntot-Palos Falls on a solo hike (July 21, 2011).
Some of you may be familiar with Buntot-Palos. It’s a waterfall situated in Panguil, Laguna and is accessed from Barangay Balian; many also call it the ‘Hidden Falls’ as it is quite tucked away from the main trail. At about 262 feet tall, the cataract is impressive, and flows in a substantial basin that drains to a series of smaller waterfalls that slice through steep boulders flanked by dense vegetation. I used to hike and go there. Alone.
One of the reasons why I hike alone is that I wanted to immerse myself in the surroundings of the chosen destination. It is a means of communing with nature and getting away, at least for a short time, from a world saturated with posturing and irrelevance. The grandeur of Buntot-Palos places a lot of things in perspective- that while we are here struggling to maintain or find our identity, while we try and shape our environs according to what we believe is acceptable, here is a cascading force of nature that has been existing for who knows since when, and has maintained its identity and provided its own contribution and balance in the grand scheme of nature. The last time I went there was in mid-October of 2014. But it isn’t because my perception of the mighty waterfall has diminished, but because the barangay that serves as the jump-off point has positioned itself as the owner of Buntot-Palos.
Since 2011, the barangay has made it compulsory for visitors to hire a guide, even though the trail is very straightforward. There is a tricky portion where the trail is forked in two, and I remember that there was a sign installed by a mountaineering group telling visitors to take the narrower one on the left as the trail that eventually leads to Buntot-Palos. In 2012 I went back with some relatives and other companions, and the barangay outpost demanded that we hire two guides at a rate of 500 pesos per day, but because there were thirteen of us, they also required us to get two because, according to them, there is a set ratio of, if I remember it right, five or six persons for one guide. In October 2014 I again went there to accompany a group of tourism students out to document a tourist destination within the province of Laguna, and because there were, again, thirteen of us, the said barangay outpost pressed us to hire two guides. But this time I argued aggressively until they allowed us to hire only one. The registration fee is pegged at 20 pesos per visitor, higher if the said visitor wishes to stay overnight within the vicinity of the waterfall.
Just recently, a friend, Bea Gube and her niece Leila went to Buntot-Palos for a leisurely trip, but as expected, they were coerced by the thugs at the same barangay outpost to hire a guide. Bea staunchly refused and proceeded to the actual jump-off, where they were tailed by their supposed to-be guide, who finally let themselves go after Bea convinced him that they were not going to the falls. But they did, and on their return, they saw the same hooligan who was angered by the fact that he was tricked- or, more precisely, that he was denied his guide fee of 500 pesos. In the end, just to diffuse the heat of the argument and also for the sake of their security, Bea payed the low-life brute a sum of 300 pesos, although according to Bea’s account, it took a lot of haggling before their tormentor agreed. Two young women on an outlying sitio of a far-away town confronted by an angry man who wants their money- let me ask you: what do you call this situation?
At this point it makes one wonder why these people would make it imperative for visitors to hire a guide, when one isn’t needed. In Buntot-Palos, the reasoning in 2012 is that there is a band of thieves that harasses visitors, and so someone from the immediate vicinity should be hired as guide to at least talk to the would-be felon and spare his temporary employers. This of course raises the question of whether the guides that get hired actually know these offenders personally- if the story being peddled by the scammers at the barangay outpost is true. In 2014, no such reasoning was given to us, other than hiring two guides is compulsory. Mt. Tapu’lao in Zambales, a mountain I have been eight times before, also has been requiring a guide since 2013, maybe even earlier. From what I heard, it is because of an accident wherein one hiker broke a leg (or something to that effect) and it took hours before a rescue team was finally able to arrive and assist the injured climber. Again this raises a question: how can a guide assist if anything goes wrong? When I went there in 2013 with a crew from a local television station, I do not remember the guides bringing with them an emergency kit, or even a walkie-talkie, for that matter. In 2016 my class and I went to Bucal Falls in Majayjay where at the registration center we were required to hire two guides, due to the size of our group, and also to assist if any accident occurs. The interesting part is that despite the helmets and vests that they lend to visitors, the guides they provide do not know how to perform emergency treatments nor carry first aid kits. They do not even know what a ‘sweeper’ is. And this I found out after sternly asking the barangay personnel of these relevant matters, for I believe that we should know what to expect for something we will be paying our money for. I hasten to add that with proper signage, the chances of being lost while finding where the waterfall is located is practically nil. And if safety is a concern, then why not instead install handrails and ropes in segments where they come in handy? Manned outposts in supposedly risky trail sections can assist visitors having a difficult time negotiating them. Pinagbanderahan in Atimonan is another destination I used to frequent, as it offers an easy and pleasant hike augmented with interesting wildlife and limestone formations. But when I went there with my girlfriend in March 2015 I was surprised to learn that the registration center is also requiring guides for prospective visitors. The guide they supplied us would not even allow us to enter a small cave where years before, I photographed a frog that at that time was still undescribed and was named and described recently as Platymantis quezoni. It is my understanding that to enter the cave, a separate fee is required. And another annoying thing is that once you have reached the peak, you will surely see a quarrying operation- right within Quezon National Park where Pinagbanderahan is a part of. The scar that this enterprise is dealing with the forest has been growing year after year. *Biak-na-Bato National Park in Bulacan also charges its visitors with an enforced guide fee, and here I should hasten to add that such practice, along with the blatant commercialization evident in the park’s entrance, diminishes the significance of this place in relation to our country’s history. A crying shame because Biak-na-Bato is one of those destinations where one can truly be engaged in history, which is far preferable to rote learning bounded by the four walls of a classroom. As a professor of history, I should know. And how wonderful it would be if one can explore the park under his own pace and preferences, in absolute freedom. Ironically, the park also stands for a fledgling nation’s fight for freedom and its recognition. **Kabigan Waterfall, purportedly the tallest in Ilocos Norte, also makes hiring a guide obligatory, even when carefully placed signage will suffice. More recently, I received information that a secluded waterfall in Quezon that me and a few other companions visited in March last year has also set up an outpost on the entry point and now is also requiring visitors to get a local guide. Furthermore, I was also told that the local officials have installed rigged rafts on the basin. Let me guess: after a period of time, some portions will be paved, picnic huts will be placed and when electrification has reached it, a videoke machine or two will be brought in, along with some makeshift stores. Already last year I noticed rows of croton planted along the trails- the first signs of ‘beautification’ to make the place more appealing to tourists.
At this point I would like to make it clear: guides are indispensable. But only if you need them. Once on Mindanao I was almost begging the barangay captain for a guide to take with me on a mountain trek, but he could not give me one, let alone even mention the name of a possible candidate. Hiking up Mt. Guiting-guiting understandably requires a guide. However, demanding a traveler- particularly one on a shoe string budget- to hire a guide when he doesn’t need one and/or if the trail is very straightforward is nothing but legalized extortion. On long hikes, the hiker is even expected to provide food to the guide. You can even begin to scrutinize the sanity of hiring a guide when you have been on your chosen destination a number of times before that you even know what to expect on a bend with both your eyes closed. At this point, some quarters would argue that actually hiring a guide helps the surrounding community, but get this: on one mountain where I have been, I was able to talk to two locals, who intimated to me that the people from their sitio actually view their registration center with disdain, as they say that only those ones from the said center benefit from the fees that hikers pay. I was also informed that the guides being repeatedly sought are kin to those who man the registration center. If all this is true then what are the odds that the situation is the same in many parts of the country where an obligatory guide is enforced? That being said, I suspect that such systems are actually supported by their corresponding local governments in the same way that some towns, say, Cavinti in Laguna (and those Bulacan and Rizal towns around Mt. Maranat) tolerates its most marginalized sector to burn its dwindling forests for charcoal production. That is to say, if they cannot provide the jobs that their constituents need, then let them earn their own way especially if one or more of its local barangays encompass a destination of note. The unfortunate traveler who just came to admire the place has no choice but to yield. But remember: what is legal does not necessarily equate to what is ethical.
Once I stayed for three days and two nights on Mt. Tapu’lao. I liked the fact that there were no cellphone signals, that I need not talk to anyone, that I had the mountain for myself. I relished the solitude and the privacy of sitting down on the forest duff and examining a tiny flower and at night searching and photographing the mountain’s faunal residents. I apprized the fact that I had the time for myself and the utter independence that it brings, that I can take a bath and wash my clothes completely naked, that I will cook and eat only when the need arises, and that I can sit on a rock and stare into the vastness of the surrounding mountain range and allow my mind to be flooded with myriad thoughts for as long I like without having to worry that eventually someone will pluck me out of my daydreams by asking “should I gather firewood now?” Somehow, even the mere thought of an unnecessary guide whom I have to pay a thousand pesos just to tail me and share my tent, and whose food I need to carry all the way from Caloocan just ruins everything. You may think that the entire argument only revolves on being a scrooge, and if you do, then you are missing the point by more than a mile.
A mountain, a waterfall, and all that is in between, is the responsibility but is not the ownership of a barangay. These are patrimonies of the people, who have every right to see and visit these destinations without getting screwed by petty government officials who see visitors as sources of easy income. If the visitor needs a guide, then supply them with one. If not, don’t force them into hiring one- unless there is objective proof that there are risks involved when going to the location. Such practices only serve to regress further this country’s relatively paltry tourism industry.
*There are a number of caves around the park, and if one wishes to explore them, then it is highly recommended that visitors acquire an assistant or two from the park administrators.
**It appears that this is a local government-run endeavor, judging from the efficacy of how things are handled and the fact that guides in uniform are within the immediate vicinity.