Sunday, May 24, 2015

Agog over Bukidnon’s Lake Apo

Apo conjures up in the head three wonderful destinations that have kept me agog all these years: a lofty mountain, a lovely island, and a languid lake. I’ve scaled Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines. I nearly saw Apo, the island (or islet?) in Negros Oriental last year. This summer, I finally got to spend some precious moments in Apo, the lake in Bukidnon—the cleanest inland body of water in Northern Mindanao! 

Serenity reigns at Lake Apo

Named after the Pinoy word for elder or grandfather, the serene lake (elevation: 640 m (2,100 ft), which is found in the village of Guinoyuran, some 11 km away from Valencia City, has long been one of the must-sees in the province of Bukidnon that’s included in my bucket list. Somehow, plans to explore it often go pfft for one reason or another—until recently. 

Downtown Valencia

Valencia City
Apo is believed to be a crater lake given its proximity to several volcanic peaks in the landlocked province, particularly Mt. Musuan, an active volcano in Maramag (where the Central Mindanao University or CMU, the island’s premier agricultural school, is located). The natural basin has a total area of about 24 hectares with maximum depth of about 26 m (85 ft).

One weekend, I returned to Valencia City with only one thing in mind—to reach the secluded hideaway at all cost even though I was utterly clueless on how to get there at all!  All I knew was that motorcycles for hire locally known as habal-habal take visitors to Lake Apo. Right after visiting St. Augustine Parish Church, I headed for the public market where a number of them are stationed.

St. Augustine Church in Valencia City

Valencia town plaza

By some stroke of fate, I saw a smiling fellow busy cleaning his bike. I approached him and asked if he’s willing to take me to the lake. To my delight, the fellow, Romeo “Meo” Moron, agreed to my proposition. Instead of passing through Guinuyoran Road, Meo, however, convinced me to take the Dologon-Kiharong Road in Maramag, which according to him, is better paved than the former. 

The well-paved portion of Dologon-Kiharong Road

“Sir, I’m sure it’ll be a bumpy and muddy ride if we pass by Guinuyoran Road as it rained hard last time,” Meo asserted. Chances are, the said road would be quite slippery, too, I thought. I put premium on safety that’s why I heeded the driver’s suggestion. 

After a brief negotiation about his payment, Meo and I hit the road to Maramag via the  stretched out but safer route to the lake. That option, however, cost me Php500 (including fuel and a return trip)! Looking back, I have no regrets shelling that amount for an escapade that lasted for only a few hours as the journey to Lake Apo turned out to be one helluva joyride for this weekend warrior. 

Reaching a gasoline station at the junction in Maramag, Meo made a turn for the right towards the well-paved Dologon-Kiharong Road, which, I learned later, is the one that’s preferred by adventurers who’ve already made it to Apo. As the motorbike glided over the smooth stretch, I thought we’d be treading a primrose path all the way to the lake. To my chagrin, it was only good for three kilometers! 

Arriving at Kisanday, another village in Maramag, we negotiated through an unpaved dirt road, which we traversed on our ascent towards the hilly terrain of Guinoyuran. Along the way, we stopped every now and then to ask for directions from the locals who graciously guided us towards the right path.

For this incorrigible thrill-seeker, the sojourn to Lake Apo was a fantasy fulfilled as it offered me anew that rare chance to upsize my sense of self, compelling me to expand the limits of my personal boundaries. The trek to the placid lake somehow gave me a gripping yet gritty aftertaste of life outside of my comfort zone on the way to one of my dream destinations in Mindanao.

The road to Guinuyoran

As our habal-habal snaked its way through the winding path, I was treated to several glimpses of bucolic splendor that fired up my imagination—rolling terrain verdant with corn and sugar, beasts of burden seemingly marching to a beat at the command of their masters, chickens and goats scampering every which way as our vehicle passed them by, cogon grasses wildly dancing to the tune of the summer wind.

It was the sight of Mt. Musuan’s peak protruding at the horizon, however, that turned out to be a godsend that day. Having scaled its peak a few months ago, I’ve grown so fond of the mountain so much so that seeing it from a distance while riding the habal-habal gave me goose bumps! Geez, I’d love to scale it again! But then again, the mind is willing but the flesh isn’t that strong enough to withstand the rigors of the climb.

The unpaved stretch in Guinuyoran

Caveat: Back-riding on a habal-habal all the way to the lake isn’t for the lily-livered. There’s a whiff of danger every step of the way as the driver negotiates through the rugged stretch. One wrong turn could send everyone tumbling down! Good thing, Meo was at the top of his game, maneuvering his bike with the skillful hands of a master. 
Roughly forty minutes on the road, our daredevil of a ride came to a halt as we reached a place with a covered court, on our right. On our left, we noticed a huge sign—“This Way to Lake Apo”—that points visitors to the sought-after destination. A few meters away, we saw a parking area where Meo pulled over. I went ahead and walked through a stone pathway leading all the way to the beautiful basin. Moments later, I was face-to-face with Lake Apo!

My first shot at the lake

An elderly woman in her 60s came my way, asking me to register in the logbook which visitors of Lake Apo had to sign. Later, a man, who's as old as his co-villager, joined us and inquired if I’d like to take a cruise aboard one of the floating cottages—rafts made of bamboo poles and nipa shingles. Each of the rafts that are up for rent is tied to a long rope which, in turn, is fastened to a stake at the other side of the lake.

“How much would one floating cottage cost me?” I asked the old woman.

Our floating cottage

“Sir, the rent is Php230 for three hours, including the life jackets. Then you have to add another Php100 for the driver,” came the reply. “The fee will surely help our village in maintaining the floating cottages and preserving the lake,” the old man (who, I assumed is a barangay official), added.

“Okay,” I replied. I thought it was a good deal. I get to bask in the beauty of the natural basin while helping the village in its effort to keep Lake Apo in its pristine state. After paying, Meo and I boarded the floating cottage, which was driven by a young fellow named John Mark. Our raft boy then unleashed the vessel’s rope from the stake and started pushing it into the water. 

 Apo's pristine beauty


Cruising along Lake Apo turned out to be a grandiose visual treat for this world-weary weekend warrior. As John Mark began pulling the rope at the other end of the lake, the raft moved forward at a leisurely pace, slowly revealing the spectacular vista of Apo as seen from our vantage point. By the time we reached midway, I was already enamored with the lake’s green waters and the verdant hills surrounding it.

Panoramic view of Lake Apo

Stuck right there, I fell into a trance, feeling so at peace with the universe just by gazing at my awe-inspiring surroundings—as if a heavy cross was taken off my shoulders. Snapping out of my reverie, I quickly held up my Nikon and started shooting at anything that fancied me. Whew, to say that the view of the lake that time was stunning would be an understatement!
A lake house at the other side of Apo

For a few hours, Meo and I lingered there, making small talk about everything and anything under the sun. Whew, I felt a different kind of high as we killed time right smack in the middle of a haven in the highlands—a high that lulls you into believing all is well with the world.

Every summer has its story. This year, I got quite a number of stories to share but it’s my Lake Apo escapade that’s made my summer quite unforgettable. Taking one more peek at the lake, I felt a pang of nostalgia stabbing me as I bid farewell to Apo—a bittersweet farewell, that is. Sweet as I finally got to see one of my dream destinations in Mindanao. Bitter in the sense that I wasn’t able to fully exploit its unspoilt beauty.

Mt. Musuan as seen from Sayre National Highway

As the habal-habal vroomed its way back to downtown Valencia, the moments I spent at Lake Apo kept flashing in my mind like scenes from some movie. Geez, the idea of pitching a tent, building a bonfire, and waiting for the setting and rising of the sun in that quiet corner of the world only saddened me more. So, before we finally reached the city, I ended up making a promise: I will definitely come back to that awesome hideaway! :-D