Adventures that matter: We tried an ecotourism tour in Zambales to plant trees and meet the Aetas of Yangil Village

Photos: Kaka Corral (left) and Jia Mercado (right)/Coconuts Media
Photos: Kaka Corral (left) and Jia Mercado (right)/Coconuts Media

Zambales, located in the Central Luzon region, is a popular vacation destination among Filipinos — not only is it filled with picture-perfect spots full of natural beauty, such as Potipot Island, Anawangin Cove, and Capones Island, where weekenders can surf, trek, and camp by the beach — but it’s also in close proximity to Manila.

Not many people know, however, that they can also visit the province for adventures that have a greater impact beyond leisurely pursuits.

Manila-based company Make A Difference (MAD) Travel offers eco-tours that take travelers on a true culture trip — and for their “Tribes & Treks: Adventures of the Plains” tour, visitors are taken to meet the indigenous Filipino tribe of the Aetas in Yangil Village, who live in the mountain ranges of San Felipe, Zambales.

Coconuts Manila was invited to join MAD’s most recent trip to Zambales, and our takeaway after the weekend trek is this: it’s a thoroughly engaging and rewarding experience.

Tribes and Treks. Photo: Kaka Corral.
Tribes and Treks. Photo: Kaka Corral

The cultural immersion aspect is bound to raise some eyebrows, since within the Philippines, we’re often witness to instances of underprivileged individuals getting exploited through poverty porn. So, we went into the tour with our B.S. detectors on — but after going through it ourselves, we’re glad to report back: The interactions we had with the Aetas during the tour were genuine and heartfelt.

Before even meeting the tribe, the organizers reminded the tour group to ask permission first before taking a photo of, or with, any of the community’s residents. Respect.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It takes some time just to get there — and the trek going to Yangil isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a 12-kilometer walk, through thick layers of volcanic ash, streams of water, rivers (depending on the season) and the scorching heat of the sun just to get to the first stop: the Yangil tree nursery.

The trek. Photo: Jia Mercado
The trek going to Yangil Village. Photo: Jia Mercado

However, travelers who tire easily can opt to ride up in style instead — by hopping on to one of the carabao carts that are usually on the way to Yangil. They’ll even let you place your bags in the carts to make the trek easier.

Two Aeta men ride on a carabao. Photo: Jia Mercado
Two Aeta men ride on a carabao. Photo: Jia Mercado
The view from the carabao cart. Photo: Kaka Corral
The view from the carabao cart. Photo: Kaka Corral

The scenery surrounding the trek is a lovely sight to see, even after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 that devastated the area. While it was nice to see all sorts of greenery in the area, it was bittersweet too, though, because some of the mountains have since eroded.

Mountain ranges in San Felipe, Zambales. Photo: Jia Mercado
Mountain ranges in San Felipe, Zambales. Photo: Jia Mercado

After an hour and a half trek with a group of more than 20 travelers — mostly Filipinos in their 20s and early 30s — we got to the nursery, where we planted Acacia Aure seeds.

Yangil tree nursery. Photo: Jia Mercado
Yangil tree nursery. Photo: Jia Mercado

It was here at the nursery that we began learning about the Aetas community, which is a largely agricultural one that relies heavily on the environment’s natural resources for livelihood. The Mt. Pinatubo eruption damaged their land pretty badly, and they continue to suffer from the effects of it to this day.

A majority of the Aetas lost their homes and their livelihoods, while some were uprooted entirely and left the area.

“All they had was this volcanic ash. They tried to plant but everything they planted would not grow,” MAD Travel tour guide Andrea Legaspi told the group.

Seeing the tree nursery with greens and small trees, it looked like MAD’s initiatives to rekindle the agriculture in the area have paid off, at least a little bit.

Legaspi said: “This tour and why you guys are here, it’s not just to provide them (Aetas) [a] livelihood, it’s really to provide them the time and effort to plant these seeds because not all of them have that time and money to do so.”

Some of the 600 Acacia Aure seeds we planted. Photo: Jia Mercado
Some of the 600 Acacia Aure seeds we planted. Photo: Jia Mercado

And plant we did. Our group was able to plant over 600 Acacia Aure seeds. Legaspi said that 90 percent of the seeds usually grow, and those that blossom are taken to the mountain ranges to rebuild a 3,000-hectare rainforest.

The work of other travelers before us. Photo: Jia Mercado
The work of other travelers before us. Photo: Jia Mercado

While in the midst of planting, members of the community also offered us homemade cassava chips (from locally grown cassava) as snacks, while some of the Yangil children helped us with the planting.

One of the Yangil kids giving us a helping hand. Photo: Kaka Corral
One of the Yangil kids giving us a helping hand. Photo: Kaka Corral

After another 20-minute walk, our group arrived at the Yangil Village, where we were greeted by excited Yangil kids — some of who even hopped aboard the end of the carabao carts.

Yangil Village. Photo: Kaka Corral
Yangil Village. Photo: Kaka Corral

The village has a wooden basketball hoop, wooden houses, and a couple of aspins (mixed breed dogs). There are currently over 38 families living in the growing community, we’re told.

The village's basketball court. Photo: Kaka Corral
The village’s basketball court. Photo: Kaka Corral
Photo: Kaka Corral
Doggo in Yangil Village. Photo: Kaka Corral

Life there is simple. If you were a stereotypical millennial, you might consider this scenario your worst nightmare: no cellular signal, no electricity, no social media.

But, the Aetas are unfazed by that. When we arrived, we saw two Yangil children who were playing with small, colorful toys. The adults of the community would chat in their local dialect Sambal, and would switch to Filipino to share stories and talk with the guests.

The kids also enjoyed interacting with us, though they were shy at first. They eventually opened up once guests struck up a conversation and approached them to play.

A Yangil kid holds the hand of one of the participants. Photo: Kaka Corral
A Yangil kid holds the hand of one of the participants. Photo: Kaka Corral

Once they got closer to the visitors, they even started to show off their exceptional braiding skills.

The kids at Yangil braiding the hair of tour guide Andrea Legaspi. Photo: Jia Mercado
The kids at Yangil braiding the hair of tour guide Andrea Legaspi. Photo: Jia Mercado

They all clearly have a profound bond with Legaspi, the tour guide, who has been visiting them for over two years now. Some of the children even wrote handwritten letters for her upcoming birthday.

The kids' handwritten letters being given to tour guide Andrea Legaspi. Photo: Kaka Corral
The kids’ handwritten letters being given to tour guide Andrea Legaspi. Photo: Kaka Corral

The Aetas also shared aspects of their culture with us through dance and a song, which we all got to join in on once they taught us some of the moves.

The Aeta kids teaching visitors a local dance. Photo: Jia Mercado
The Aeta kids teaching visitors a special dance. Photo: Jia Mercado
Guests playing with the Yangil kids. Photo: Jia Mercado
Guests playing with the Yangil kids. Photo: Jia Mercado

They were also eager to teach visitors archery, since hunting is an important method of acquiring food for the village. Archery is one of their main modes of hunting, and visitors can even purchase a handmade bow and arrow set at the village.

A guest tries archery at the village. Photo: Kaka Corral
A guest tries archery at the village. Photo: Kaka Corral

At the end of the day, the group had dinner at Aeta chieftain Iking’s home. He is the head of the nine tribes in San Felipe. Here, our group of travelers had more time to share funny and memorable stories with one another. People who were strangers to each other became BFFs in less than a day, and laughed like they’ve known each other for a long time.

Dinner at Chieftain Iking's. Photo: Kaka Corral
Dinner at Chieftain Iking’s. Photo: Kaka Corral

The tour saves the beautiful sunset at Liwliwa beach for last, but the best takeaway from the experience is probably the fact that everyone — as corny as it may sound — had a genuinely good time.

MAD Travel has other eco tours in different parts of the country. The “Tribes and Treks” tour that we took costs PHP2,500 (US$47.81) for a day tour and overnight accommodation at The Circle Hostel, including transportation from within central Manila. For more information, check MAD Travel and The Circle Hostel‘s pages.

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