WHEN they thought that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic was dying down last year, local tourists, hikers and bikers began flocking to Mt. Labi, an ecotourism attraction in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon (Region 3).

Bongabon national park 800x602 - National park in Nueva Ecija’s Bongabon town beckons visitors
JUST BEING CAREFUL Local tourists and other visitors are checked for compliance with health and safety protocols before they are allowed to enter a popular destination in Nueva Ecija. PHOTO BY CELSO S. CAJUCOM

Bongabon’s tourism office now places the number of visitors to the mountain at 2,000 daily.
The destination draw boasts of Deesap Falls, reputedly the highest in the Philippines, and the Calaanan Falls.

Mt. Labi itself is part of the 5,676-hectare protected Doña Aurora Memorial National Park in the Sierra Madre mountain range, according to Noel Agustin, the town’s administrator and tourism officer.

The national park is located along the Nueva Ecija-Baler (Aurora road), where the first Philippine First Lady, Doña Aurora Aragon-Quezon, wife of former Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon, was ambushed and killed on April 28, 1949.

Bongabon Mayor Allan Xystus Gamilla said a bike-trail project was underway.

Visitors to the park are mandated to strictly adhere to standard health and safety protocols, wearing face masks and face shields and maintaining the required physical distancing.

They are also required to show a health certificate and swab test results if they are from neighboring Nueva Ecija towns and cities or elsewhere in the country.

“We make sure that the measures in the fight against Covid-19 are met, and guests are limited to 50-percent capacity for booking and reservations,” Gamilla said.

He added they are glad to hear that tourists have been helping preserve and protect the national park’s ecosystem.

Apart from biking and hiking, there is a lot more to enjoy in the site ‒ water tubing, camping, backpacking, bird watching, wildlife night-spotting and rock climbing.

Galicia recently announced that the Bongabon environment officer had reported to him the sighting in the national park of two pairs of the monkey-eating Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the largest of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, the Nueva Ecija Bikers Association’s Facebook group posted on Feb. 9, 2021that its members were trekking to Deesap Falls when they spotted pieces of cut lumber that were believed to have been abandoned by illegal loggers. “The truth is we cannot stop illegal logging and kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) unless we provide an alternative source of income [to the people],” the post said.

Jessa Mae Macaraeg, a member of the Nueva Ecija Backpackers and Mountaineering Community Inc, in her recent Facebook post, said, “Aside from the self-fulfillment that I feel, it is also important to safeguard the environment. It is the sense of being one with nature that makes me climb mountains. It pains me to see a mountain’s scar. I am annoyed to [know that there are] people who constantly abuse nature.”

Joselito Blanco, chief of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (Penro), and the Bongabon local government unit (LGU) have assured that illegal loggers, if any, will be arrested.

Penro and the LGU, at the same time, denied that what the members of the Nueva Ecija Bikers Association saw were freshly cut lumber, saying they were pieces of old cut-lumber.

Blanco said they keep watch round-the-clock to make sure the national park’s biodiversity is untouched.

Calaanan Falls, according to him, is composed of seven-level falls with refreshing water where people can swim and relax.

Its trail is divided into two sections. The first section is characterized by the presence of boulders, rocks, sand mud and a small stream to cross, and the second section is grassy and has yet to be improved because it consists of a slippery slope of about 45 degrees that
one needs to hurdle to reach the top of a hill where grass abounds.

Blanco recommended that tourists visit Deesap Falls during summer.

“It offers cool water, [which is] perfect to beat the summer heat. The water comes from the

Sierra Madre Mountain,” he said.
There is also a 150-year-old balete tree to climb and with which the tourists can pose for souvenir pictures.

To reach Mt. Labi: if you are coming from Manila and elsewhere south of Central Luzon, you first have to pass by Nueva Ecija’s main business center of Cabanatuan City, and from the Maharlika-Aurora highway crossing, motorists have to drive 38 kilometers more to reach the mountain.

Mt. Labi is within Bongabon, a second-class town with a sprawling area of 28,000 hectares of farming, residential and business areas and forests.

The town is acknowledged as one of the biggest onion producers in Southeast Asia.

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