La Trinidad, Benguet, the Philippines
July 4, 2018
Strawberry fields were not forever, contrary to Lennon’s lyrics. And no, it was something to get hung about. Ki and I took a jeepney from Baguio to the town of La Trinidad for its famous strawberry farms. I had woken up that morning with decadent dreams of sinking my teeth into the luscious fruit and slurping the tangy juice. Alas, we found the bowl-shaped valley striated with rows of plastic sheets used for mulching. Warm and wet July, it turned out, was off season for strawberries. Fresa fail.
Consolation came in a cone. We indulged our craving with ice cream – strawberry flavor, of course. Beyond this farm visit, we made no Plan B. Our aimless walk led to Benguet Provincial Capitol atop a flight of steps. The landscaped frontage was a good vantage point to get our bearings and connection to the all-important free Wi-Fi. We sat on concrete benches around the flagpole as Ki googled things to do in La Trinidad.
Google Maps pointed us to Mt. Yangbew, the nearest scenic peak. Locals suggested we take a jeepney bound for Upper Tomay. The driver dropped us off at the corner of a steep, narrow road. We were left wondering where we were, except that it was the point of no return. Off we walked, passing by the postcard–pretty stone chapel Advent Episcopal Church, and followed the paved road winding through a residential area. Our first stop was the Tawang Barangay Hall where we had to register and pay a minimal hiking fee of P30 per person.
Mt. Yangbew, aka Mt. Jumbo for reasons unknown, was considered an easy hike, but not so for sedentary netizens who hadn’t even planned on climbing a mountain that day. The supposed half-hour hike stretched to an arduous hour or so. We were just at the welcome sign, but my tongue was already hanging out. Then on, the trail became increasingly steep and rugged. I had to go on all fours at times to keep my balance. A couple in their 30s, the only ones we shared the trail with, hiked past us and disappeared.
Oh, but the panorama. Each flat clearing we rested on offered a drone view of La Trinidad valley ringed by the Cordilleras. There were hardly any trees to get in the way of the view. Mt. Yangbew was mostly grassland. As grass height and elevation were inversely proportional, towering cogon eventually gave way to pasture grass at the summit. All that and the rolling terrain evoked alpine summer feels. How could I resist channeling Julie Andrews and that famous opening scene? Thus came about my new alter ego I named Mario von Trapp.
We shared the summit with no one, save for a man and his horse that came out of left field. I soon realized they were trappings of tourism. The summit’s gentle slopes called for a bit of horseback riding. We struck a conversation with Jony, the cowboy (despite the absence of livestock). He bid me to mount his white pony. A moment’s hesitation was effectively ended by the sight of Silver looking utterly bored on such a slow day.
But there was one other person at the summit. A guy was lying on his back inconspicuously under a lone tree. Only his mountain bike gave him away. We wondered how he had reached this elevation on two wheels. Perhaps roused by the ruckus we were making, he was soon off on his bike down the back slope. We decided to follow the biker’s route on our descent on the other side of Mt. Yangbew.
The descent proved to be more punishing; my entire body weight bore down on my creaky knees. Pain and pace went hand in hand. There were many distractions on this slope though. We walked through several vegetable-growing communities. Villagers were washing and cutting turnip by the road, an elderly man was relaxing at his porch. They mostly smiled and greeted us as we walked by, giving us a glimpse of the rustic life of Cordillera people. At lower elevation, muddy tracks of SUVs led to newly-built but seemingly empty houses set behind the woods.
It was a huge load off my quivering legs to finally stand on the paved highway. But by then, clouds had rolled onto Mt. Yangbew, bringing with it cold spits of rain. We ran for shelter at an old gas station. Drenched and shivering, Ki and I nonetheless thanked the heavens for holding out from the valley of disappointment to the summit of exhilaration. And though strawberry fields were not forever, “the hills are alive!”