Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sta. Cruz, Zambales

Adventure in Sta. Cruz, Zambales

In Roman mythology, the god Janus is depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. That's how I see Sta. Cruz: facing northward, Pangasinan lies beyond its border; facing southward, the traveler is ushered into the heart of Zambales.

Like many provincial towns, Sta. Cruz is a welcome change for those weary of Metro Manila. "Enticing" isn't sufficient to describe the sight of its rice fields, or its tricycles that are the common means of public transportation, and of the sea, which is just a walk away from the town proper. Then there's the unpolluted air and the serenity during the evenings. And for those who want to expand their gastronomical horizon, the place offers various delicacies from the South China Sea.

Sta. Cruz has the potential to become an industrialized area like Subic. It may not be an internationally recognized like Boracay, or as often visited as the Banawe Rice Terraces, but I and some friends found it both memorable and exhilarating.

The agony and the ecstasy

A 10-wheeler dump truck took us to the barrio Pinmayong (also the local term for umbrella), which is not too far away from the town proper. We passed by barren rice fields. The sight of the mountain looming ahead of us was quite breathtaking.

The path to Pinmayong was muddy, dried and cracked. The terrain was rugged and uneven; grassy fields, bamboo, bushes and vegetation abounded. Sandals are the recommended footwear for this trip: the creek was ankle-deep that I had to remove my rubber shoes and socks and cross it barefoot.

The trip took about half an hour, and when we reached our destination, the cool water rushing over the stones and boulders were a comfort to my tired body.

There was no danger of getting drowned because the water was only leg- or waist-deep, but we had to step cautiously on the stones and boulders. The most adventurous member of the group - let's call him Tarzan - invited us to a cave overhead. We climbed up and discovered a swimming pool inside the cave. It was about the size of two or three office cubicles. It was a delight, as half of the pool is chest-deep. Tarzan warned us that the other half went deeper; I didn't dare try and find out.

Our guides told us there was a waterfall not far from our location. The five of us - Tarzan, Diana Ross, Brother Max, Chivas Regal and me - began our gradual ascent. You can only imagine any kind of ordeal for this experience - climbing down and up a rice terrace, competing in an obstacle course or reaching the top of Mount Everest if you want to exaggerate. For those who delight in pain, it's a perfect penitential act, but one thing is definite - it WAS an experience.

We walked along a rocky creek. Again, sandals are required for this but I walked barefoot so it was both memorable and hurt a bit. I had to walk like a hunchback, holding on to big rocks or plants to avoid slipping. I didn't bother to check if any of the latter were relatives of the poison ivy, as avoiding falling down was my first priority.

Between oaths and exclamations of pain, I turned around and saw another member - let's call him Dutch Boy - not far from Chivas Regal and me. There were boulders nearly as tall as me. After another difficult ascent, we could no longer see the others, so for Dutch Boy, Chivas Regal and me, it became a guessing game about which rocks to climb.

At this point, I was about to give up but I challenged myself. A few more upward climbs and the reward was overwhelming: the sound of the waterfall.

The first sight to greet us was Tarzan, Brother Max, Diana Ross and Dutch Boy dipping and having fun in another swimming pool inside a cave, bigger than the first. I was awestruck by the sight of the waterfall, which was about 20 to 25 feet high - a waterfall inside a cave. A small opening in the ceiling allowed enough light to enchance the grandeur of the place.

While the rest were either swimming or enjoying the scenery, I spent a lot of time under the waterfall. Despite the slight ache from the continuous thud of the water, it was so therapeutic it made me smile and laugh.

We had been there for 15 minutes when our guides told us it was time to go. On the way down, we met up with other members of our group who were on the way up. We were hesitant to climb up again but thought, this doesn't happen everyday, so we went for it again!

The fun was more intense with many of us enjoying the waterfall. Unfortunately, darkness cut our joyride short. So it was another hike back to where we came from.

It was dark by the time we reached the barrio. I realized then that all the urban chaos I encounter daily in Metro Manila would no longer weigh me down if I only remember the pool and awesome waterfall inside the cave.

Footprints in the sand

From the shore, you could see two islands - Hermana Mayor and Hermana Menor. Owing to lack of time and other circumstances beyond our control, the group was only able to visit the smaller island. After a quick breakfast on the seashore, a boat took us to Hermana Menor.

The call of the sea was so strong a few of us adventurous souls decided to explore the isle's coast. A warning to those who aren't good swimmers - in some parts of the water, steep slope will plunge you into a depth of 10 feet or more. Where the seashore and the cliff meet is not an ideal place for swimming, with the rocks and corals. I could've walked nearly half of the isle's shoreline if not for the rocky seaside that followed after a quarter of a kilometer of white sand. I retreated after memories of the rocky journey to Pinmayong came to mind.

Walking back, I was quite delighted to see small fishes swimming not far from where I stood. I realized this isle may not be well know, but it's a perfect paradise, nature unspoiled. It's impossible not to appreciate the marine habitat around me. Perhaps it helps that the island is private property.

After a treat of buko, we left the isle near noon. I looked back at the white shoreline as our boat went on its way back to the Sta. Cruz shore, wishing that we could spend more time there. Maybe next time.

(First published in Daily Tribune on March 2, 2001)