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