Towering at 2954 meters above sea level, Mount Apo is the highest mountain and volcano in the Philippines. It is located in Mindanao, a province which has been troubled by Muslim separatists in recent years. So would it really be worth going there?
The first successful climb to Mount Apo was led by Don Joaquin Rajal, a Politico-Military Governor of Davao with Datu Manib of Sibulan as their guide, dating back to year 1880. Apo's last eruption, however, is unknown and sulfuric craters spewing toxic fumes can be found on the boulders section, on the way to the summit. The stratovolcano is home to 270 bird species, 100 of them endemic. As one of the highest land-based biological diversity in terms of flora and fauna per unit area, it is marked for the UNESCO Tentative World Heritage List.
Even though this part of Mindanao (Davao and surroundings) is considered fairly safe for western travellers, there have been several terrorist attacks also here, most notably the 2003 bombing of Davao Airport seeing more than 20 people dead, and more than 100 people injured. As of 2008 the dreaded Abu Sayyaf group seems to have weakened a lot, but both Abu Sayyaf and linked groups have still managed to cause troubles and multiple deaths in and around Mindanao lately, recent bombings in Digos City being one example. Rebels of NPA (communists) are also heavily present in Mindanao, but is said to not target civilian people.
How to get there
Davao is well connected to both Manila and Cebu City, the two busiest international airports in the Philippines. Cebu Pacific Air, the local low-cost carrier with a new and modern fleet, offer cheap daily flights from both Manila and Cebu starting at less than 2000 pesos (one-way). I flied from Cebu City and paid 2500 pesos (one-way), and back to Cebu City for 1800 pesos only (one-way).
One can either stay a night in Davao City or go directly to Santa Cruz (45 km southwest of Davao), where a permit and guide/porter for Mount Apo must be arranged. After arriving Davao International Airport, try to avoid the taxi-touts at the entrance/exit who will try to charge 1500 pesos for a ride to Santa Cruz. Walk instead 50 metres from the terminal, where the white or yellow metred-taxis are. Here you can easily negotiate a price of 600-700 pesos. If you are on a really tight budget it will be even cheaper to commute like described below (total 207 pesos):
1. After arriving at Davao International Airport, ride a taxi to Ecoland Transport Terminal (travel time 20 minutes - 150 pesos)
2. At Ecoland Terminal, look for south-bound buses such as yellow bus, weena bus, ACFB or Metro Shuttle and ask the driver or the conductor that you will be dropped off at Santa Cruz Terminal (travel time 45 minutes to 1 hour - 43 pesos).
3. At Santa Cruz Terminal, take a motorcycle or tricycle taxi to the municipal hall, Tourism Office (travel time 5 minutes - 14 pesos)
Preparations in Santa Cruz
At the Tourism Office in Santa Cruz ask for Julius Paner. You better contact him in advance, at least a couple of days before you arrive Davao.
His mobile: 09208567991 (replace the leading zero with +63 if you are calling outside of the Philippines)
His e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Julius Paner was not in office when I arrived in my taxi. Instead I was welcomed by my newly appointed guide Ruel Nuevo. He and several clerks in the office took good care of me, and set up a 3 days itinerary for the hike. I paid 500 pesos in registration/trekking fee, and got the permit and a badge to hang around my neck. According to the information I received upfront I also expected to pay an exit-fee of 500 pesos, but I never did (probably because my exit-point did not differ from my entry-point).
The registration dilemma as reported on TheLoneRider.com seems to be history, even though this happened quite recently (early 2008):
"The thick layer of bureaucracy that accompanied the registration process was frustratingly stupid. To register, they require the following: a letter of intent, an application form, 1x1 picture, medical certificate, waiver, briefing, certificate of briefing, etc. The papers go through the following offices: OCEEM, the city mayor, and the CTO" - TheLoneRider
But this did not happen to me, so after the fairly simple paper-work, Ruel showed me around in Santa Cruz by foot and took me to Balay ni Nonoy Pension House (800 pesos per night). I checked in at the stylish pension, left my luggage there, and went to the local market together with Ruel. We had to buy food and supplies for 3 days x 3 persons, and I ended up paying 850 pesos for that.
All taken care off I sent Ruel home, while I was happy to be on my own. I first took a shower then got something to eat at the nearby Resto Bar. The ladies here told me of a ghost in the pension, adding one more thing to worry about, besides Abu Sayyaf. But all the attention I got in the streets was fortunately of the nice sort. The boys passing by often greeted me by "Hi Joe!", while the girls tried to get my attention with a "Hi handsome!" comment or glance, even though I'm neither American nor particular handsome. But that's the kind of attention one gets in Philippines being foreigner and white, unless you are an old and fat sex-tourist from Germany or similar, who seems to make up 90% of the foreign tourists here in the Philippines anyway.
Getting to the trailhead in Baruring
I went to bed early, because Ruel would show up at 6:00 for an early departure. I had already agreed on hiring a jeep for 800 pesos instead of commuting to Baruring. The latter would be cheaper, 3 persons would cost 400+ pesos, but the time-frame would be more uncertain. While a jeep will take 1-1.5 hours to the trailhead in Baruring, commuting will take at least 2-3 hours depending on availability/departure of share-taxis, motorcycle taxis etc.
We started to drive 6:30 and arrived Kapatagan 7:30. After a short stop at the bakery in Kapatagan we continued to Baruring and arrived the trailhead at 7:50.
Hike through dense jungle and sulphur steams
We started to walk from Baruring immediately after. The guide and myself probably had approx 10kg each on our back, while the porter had 15kg. After 20 minutes we reached Lower Colan, where we had to register at the nearby army camp. Then we continued to Upper Colan, a 20 minutes walk through nicely cultivated landscapes, which we arrived at 9:00. The easy part of the hike ends right here, because shortly above Upper Colon the dense and wet rain-forest will both slow you down and wear you out remarkably. There are a myriad of trails above and below Colan, so the guide is not only nice to have, but even mandatory to get a permit. Ruel has had 20-30 ascents of Mount Apo in his past, so he knew the trail perfectly well, while the porter and myself followed after. I would not even considered to do an illegal ascents without a guide here, because most likely you will get lost in the jungle taking the wrong trail or something, and never get to the summit anyway.
You get a good or bad feeling of the Amazons as you work your way up the rain forest. The first man in the line will get very wet from dense vegetation, so we tried to switch positions to share some of the discomforts. The trees and vegetation absorbs much of the daylight, so it's also pretty dark inside the jungle. Clouds usually starts to build up around Mount Apo late morning, so you won't see much of the sun either.
We reached Tinikaran Holding Camp 1 (2100m) at 12:05 and had our lunch there. Then we continued for a while until reaching Tinikaran Holding Camp 2, where water can be found. But be careful, this is just a very tiny dam of still-water, so it would be very advisable to add purification tabs. At Tinikaran, nature also welcomes you with the birds chirping in symphony with the swaying of trees and an offer of the sweet wild berries.
Shortly above Tinikaran Holding Camp 2 we finally surfaced the dense forest and reached some interesting smelly sulphur steams, and the pastel-green-colored deposits from it. Shortly beyond the steam we continued on boulders for quite a long stretch, before we stood at the foot of a steep slope named "87 degrees", which is supposed to be the steepest part of the climb. The incline is far less than the exaggerated number of 87, and it was actually easy scrambling until one reach the crater.
The seven peaks of Mount Apo
From the crater it was funny hiking on a ridge to Peak 3, which rewarded us with magnificent views in many directions. From Peak 3 we descended a little bit and continued to the summit camp, which is just a 10 minutes walk from Peak 1 and Peak 2. Surprisingly we meet a family from Singapore at the camp, with their own team of guides and porters. They had spent two whole days on the trail to reach this camp, and not one day only like us.
We pitched the tents, and while the porter/guide cooked dinner, I hurried up to both Peak 1 and Peak 2 to watch the sunset. It was too cloudy to really see anything, but at least I measured Peak 1 (facing SE towards Davao City) to be minimum 5 metres higher than Peak 2 (facing N), confirming that Ruel was correct, and the local guides of the Singapore team were wrong even though they had some good arguments:
- why was there a concrete plate on Peak 2, officially marking this as the highest peak
- why was the trail to Peak 2 more well trodden than to Peak 1
The latter make me suspect that quite a few have missed out Peak 1 even though it's both higher in terms of elevation, in addition to being a far better point for watching the sunrise.
There are in total seven peaks of Apo, all of them within short and easy reach, but I only recognize the highest point as a peak because the other ones only have a prominence of 10-40 meters, to low to be considered a real peak.
Sunrise and descent
Early in the morning I repeated the ascent of Peak 1 together with my guide and porter. The sunrise was already at 5:30 and it was some unforgettable minutes on top of Philippines. Almost entire Mindanao (19th largest island in the world) could be seen from the summit. The Singapore family had unbelievably chosen to miss out on the sunrise because of what they felt to be very cold wind outside of the tent, so we had the entire mountain for ourselves.
I also repeated Peak 2 before I returned to summit camp and breakfast. At 8:30 we had packed together and left the camp. The original plan was to descend another trail, via Lake Venado, but the guides advised against it, because of possibly presence of rebels from NPA (communists) there. So instead we traversed over the rest of the peaks, took a direct line down to the sulphur steam which we reached at 09:55. From there we retraced our steps all the way back to Upper Colan. The muddy trail was extremely slippery so I ended up falling on my back a couple of times.
Happy to be out of the jungle we took a side trip to Mundo Apo Hot Spring with its curative attributes. We spent more than one hour in the 30 degree water, before we walked back to Upper Colan, and then down to Lower Colan arriving at 15:40. Here we camped in the middle of the village, and spent rest of the afternoon eating food and watching daily life of the village.
Communist rebels kills army people
Next morning the guide and porter wanted to do everything in a rush, because of a night with rebel activity in the neighbouring village, which had left one soldier dead. So without breakfast, we left Colan at 07:00. Approx 20 minutes later we were back at the trailhead and there we immediately hired two motorbike taxis back to Kapatagan, where we had our breakfast. From Kapatagan we commuted back to Santa Cruz, where I picked up the rest of my luggage before I went back to Davao in a bus.
Costs for a 3-days itenerary Davao-Mount Apo-Davao: