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Spartan but splendorous

By BUTCH DALISAY, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 11, 2024 11:00 am

We often think of ecotourism in terms of swimming with whale sharks or encountering rare species of flora and fauna in some faraway forest. But not too far from Metro Manila lies a natural haven that will satisfy adventurers and conservationists alike—and the ecotourists who are both.

That haven is the Masungi Georeserve, a 3,000-hectare tract of largely reforested land marked by sharp karst or limestone shards jutting out into the sky amid bamboo groves, exotic orchids and Benguet pine.

A rare purple jade vine.

The unlikely remainder of an aborted housing project for DENR employees, Masungi now serves as home to hundreds of species, many of them rare and some even unique, such as the purple jade vine and the Masungi microsnail.

These sightings alone would be well worth the trip—a pleasant 30-kilometer drive from Quezon City through Masinag and Antipolo on the Marikina-Infanta or Marilaque Highway, on some of the country’s best and widest roads. (On the weekday morning we went there, it took us just a little over an hour from UP Diliman.)

The Masungi landscape.

Masungi straddles the Sierra Madre boundary between Baras and Tanay, Rizal, much of which is occupied by the Upper Marikina Watershed, across the Kaliwa Watershed on the northern side. Its name comes from the Tagalog sungi, meaning “sharp,” a reference to the profusion of limestone outcrops looking like sharp teeth across the mountainous landscape.

The georeserve—now being managed by the Masungi Georeserve Foundation—wasn’t set up as any kind of pleasure park. Indeed, “pleasure” —except for the visual kind—was the last thing this septuagenarian thought of when he went up the steep trails to a vantage point that afforded a spectacular view of Laguna de Bay and the surrounding metropolis far below. Younger and fitter visitors, however, will surely find the challenge pleasurable and even exhilarating.

The MGF’s Ben Dumaliang showing the Georeserve’s features and threats.

When the housing project with the DENR failed to materialize—the DENR couldn’t evict the squatters already there and the land, in truth, was simply too steep and inhospitable to permanent human habitation—engineer Ben Dumaliang and his Blue Star company (the housing project contractor) took it upon themselves to rehabilitate what land they could and regrow the forest that would have been lost forever. In 2015, Ben’s daughters established the Masungi Georeserve Foundation to oversee the place, and in 2017, the MGF entered into a contract with the DENR under then Sec. Gina Lopez for the georeserve’s replanting and conservation.

Masungi now features a Discovery Trail for hikers aged 13 and up that takes about three to four hours to complete, although it can be shortened depending on the hikers’ preference. The challenging trails feature hanging bridges, a giant spiderweb, rope walls, caves, and other points of interest (or maybe not, for acrophobes like me). Protective headgear is provided.

A bridge at the end of the trail.

Typical reviews on Tripadvisor include comments like this one, from a Singaporean visitor: “Perfect day at Masungi Georeserve. The hike was well-organized and well-paced with sufficient rest stops. Our guide was knowledgeable and friendly, allowing us to take our time and helping to take our photos. You do need a certain level of fitness and daring to tackle the ropes, steps and hanging bridges, but you will be rewarded with stunning views of the limestone karst formations. There are alternative paths to take for those who have a fear of heights but these detours may take longer. Best not to rush and go with people who won’t judge you if you feel like dropping out! Well done to the Foundation and for educating the public on biodiversity and sustainable tourism. Book ahead and pray for great weather.”

This one came from a repeat visitor, Ronald R: “Had the privilege of visiting Masungi Georeserve for the ninth time (six times on the Legacy Trail, thrice at side trails and once on the Discovery Trail) and every visit was a memorable learning and life-changing experience. All dedicated forest rangers are well versed in the changing landscape and diversity of flora and fauna. The experience differs depending on the weather. I prefer windy, cloudy weather when going up there. The Sierra Madre is more dramatic with rain clouds. Beyond the transformations, the team behind Masungi Georeserve is focused on restoring the lost and abused part of the Upper Marikina Watershed Area. Masungi Georeserve is a platform to make anyone fall in love with nature at a much deeper level. The Masungi Georeserve experience should be on every nature lover’s bucket list.”

Experienced rangers—most of them recruited from the local community, including indigenous Dumagats—serve as guides for these treks. To support the place’s upkeep—it gets no funding from the government—the georeserve charges guests P1,500 each on weekdays and P1,800 on weekends, covering the tour and simple but satisfying snacks (including a refreshingly minty tea made from the kayumanis, a native plant; a set lunch buffet is also available at the hilltop Silayan restaurant). The number of daily visitors is strictly controlled to minimize wear and tear to the area, and groups are kept manageably small. (For more helpful and detailed instructions, as well as photos of the various features along the trail, visit and look for “The Masungi Georeserve Survival Guide.”)

It’s a spartan but bracing experience, minus the spa, the massage, the gourmet menu, the uniformed attendants, and all the other amenities we associate with more genteel and patrician hideaways. This is nature in your face—but what a splendorous sight it is to behold, a painterly tableau of rock, tree, bird, and flower set against a radiant blue sky, 640 meters up and far removed from the smog and sludge of the metropolis.

It’s sad and alarming that Masungi continues to be threatened by powerful land-grabbing syndicates as well as by the indifference if not hostility of the government people who should be supporting it, but that’s another story (check out my Qwertyman column last January 29, “Fighting Windmills at Masungi”). In the meanwhile, avail yourself of this chance to encounter nature like you never have before, and enjoy Masungi while it lasts.