In May of this year, the news broke out that 12 mountaineers illegally hiked Mt. Apo despite Mt. Apo being closed off indefinitely for rehabilitation. Considered the highest peak in the Philippines, Mt. Apo was ravaged by fire last March, which damaged 115 hectares of grassland. The 12, following investigation, initially said they had permits but the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) found out that the City Tourism Office hadn’t issued permits.
In recent years, hiking has become a popular tourism option with the endless, handy lists of “beginner-friendly hiking spots.” It has, of course, been a source of headache for many environmentalists. Mt. Pulag was easily the one that attracts the tourists for its “sea of clouds,” the same reason why tourist numbers in Sagada has ballooned to unmanageable heights. At one point last year, environmentalists and heritage advocates have flooded our timelines with stories about how Sagada has become both environmentally and culturally stressed due to the wastage. Hiking is a good way to destress, and I can’t blame people wanting to indulge in some extra hugot at the peak, but if I would be honest, hugot with a view is overrated.
I climbed Mt. Pulag thrice, which started in 2014 and ended the following year, all of which had been a failure if I considered the sea of clouds as my end goal—but it had been a eye-opening experience. The first time was expectedly hard, with the weather not exactly our ally. But my first climb proved to be the most traumatizing for my companion who slept wet and freezing with a massive headache. Prior to our climb, we had been given a lecture by the DENR down the ranger station with the “take photographs but leave no trace” being our gospel for the rest of our stay. DENR also added that there should be no booze and no loud music deep into the night as a sign of respect to the anitos who reside in the mountains. After all, Mt. Pulag is known for its moniker “the playground of the gods” and is cared for by the Kalanguyas, an indigenous group of the North.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, our sleep was interrupted by a group of campers who brought radio with them and kept on chanting, “Sleep is for the weak!” over and over again. A finger I couldn’t feel and my companion’s muffled sobbing woke me up and she cried, “They’re too noisy, I can’t sleep.” A name stood out, it was Tanya, but we can’t determine which tent it was coming from. It was dark and freezing, with the temperature dipping to -2 degrees that night. They drank, too, after all we heard them saying, “Isa pang shot!” all through the night. I wasn’t sure if they attended the orientation but the next morning the anitos were mad and there was no sea of clouds for us. Our tour organizers only had angry words for the next day—our team leader had been leading groups to Pulag for 30-something times and he counted that as one of his worst. Our tents were neatly lined up, and some group of tourists had the gall to set up their tents in between, asked our tour group for coffee and whined the next day when told that we won’t be able to trek up to the summit due to the weather. They kept on saying, “But we came down south, sayang naman nilipad namin.” (But we came down south, this is a waste of our trip.)
My two treks later had weakened my will to continue: the summit had waaaaaaaay too many people that we had to line up for the obligatory photo with the marker. My guess was apparently correct when DENR issued an order not too long ago that only tour legitimate groups who registered early can trek up Mt. Pulag, with the additional requirement of a medical certificate following health-related deaths at the summit.
Now if you ask me if I could think of good things about hiking and traveling, I can only come up with one: revenue for the area which could go back to their environmental actions and site rehabilitation. For the bad things, there are gazillion items that you may want to evaluate. We get angry with these faceless tourists who we accuse of defacing mountains and sites but there are probably people within our circles who do the same. Someone I went to school with and whom I genuinely like went to Pico de Loro, Batangas last year and her Instagram series ended with her name carved on one of the stones. It was done in poor taste, and I wish I had the heart to reprimand her for it. But I didn’t and, up to this day, the guilt is eating away at my conscience.
In history, we usually associate “lay waste” with wars and the term has never been more appropriate to use. Insensitive tourism lays waste to our sacred grounds where our actions will undoubtedly have cultural and environmental impact. It’s what you call karma sometimes, and the thing is, what we do comes back and affects us.
And so before anyone here decides on a whim to go on treks and hikes, it would serve you, the environment, and the community well to research on cultural and environmental practices before you actually book it. No matter how quickly you put together a trip (or how quickly you pack for it), always remember to bring a garbage bag. Your cardinal rule should be “bring it in, bring it out.” Ensure that you leave nothing behind. Our environment is currently very vulnerable and I’m sure a good number of you have seen An Inconvenient Truth when it premiered a decade ago so there’s no particular sense in denying that we are the source of wastage.
You can point fingers, but there’s no escape. It’s you. And it’s me.