Looking at the small island of Camiguin from a distance, the island’s silhouette is a rich combination of striking valleys, rugged mountain ridges and sparkling, golden beaches. If you look closely, there’s a tall mountain peak that’s almost always shrouded in clouds. Those passing by would never know that this peaceful, gentle giant, called Mount Hibok-Hibok is an active volcano that once ravaged the entire island, spewing lava across the areas and propelling entire chunks of land into the ocean. Naturally, on my latest trip to the Philippines, I decided to do the one thing on the island that I’ve never done before – climb to the summit of Mount Hibok-Hibok.
I’ve been traveling to the Philippines since I was very young because my family is originally from there. After living and working in the United States for decades, my grandmother now lives on Camiguin Island, a small but breathtaking island just south of Bohol, so it’s my usual hangout spot when I go back. Until my most recent trips, however, I didn’t realize that Camiguin is actually a giant park, with its volcanic sand beaches and its hot, cold, and soda water (!!!) springs, its towering waterfalls and abundant wildlife. It’s one of the more preserved areas of the country, drawing in a sizable number of domestic tourists but considerably fewer international ones. If you’re looking for the true Philippines experience and had to choose just one island, Camiguin would definitely be it.
Luckily, finding a guide to accompany me up the mountain wasn’t too difficult. Before I arrived on the island, I asked my grandmother to look for someone who was knowledgeable about the trails. The path up the mountain, as I was told, is very difficult to navigate, and it’s pretty important to have a good guide who can bring you safely up and down the volcano. As an aside, I’m terrified of giant bugs and snakes, so having a guide who could lead me AND save me from the vermin was a serious necessity.
I finally found a great guide, Ronald, who dropped by my grandmother’s house the day before the hike to go over logistics. To climb the mountain, there’s a 200 PHP environmental fee charged by the local government for nature conservancy. On top of that, my guide’s services cost 1,200 PHP, or about $26. The trek would be 7-8 hours long and would bring us through the crater and to the peak of the mountain. Yes, he told us, it is an active volcano but it is perfectly safe to climb because they keep extremely accurate readings on the volcanic activity below. Reassuring. After many miniature heart attacks, I agreed and Ronald told me to meet him at the foot of the volcano just before 6 AM. Darkness still hung in the cool, humid air when we met Ronald the next morning. I looked up the mountain with a lump in my throat. It was so steep and lush with plants and vegetation, no other people in sight. We were truly going to be trekking through the rainforest, remote and wild.
“Don’t worry,” he assured us with a smile, “I make this trip every day, sometimes twice.”
I looked at the other member of our hiking group, Jackie, and we smiled nervously as we began our hike through rows of coconut trees and nipa huts. The area was quiet except for the birds singing sweetly in the trees. Eventually the huts were less frequent and gave way to a steep, overgrown dirt path, which we would continue to climb until we reached the crater. At the last whiff of cell service before we entered the true wilderness, my grandmother called.
“Kay, have you made it up to the top yet?”
Sigh. Not even close, Grandma. Not even close.
Halfway through the climb, Ronald turned to me and said we’d be hiking through the mossy forest. Weren’t we already in the middle of a mossy forest? Apparently, I was wrong, because the mossy forest Ronald led us through looked like something out of a movie. All of the trees were covered in thick green moss, vines dangling from their branches, wild orchids blooming in the crevasses of the tree trunks. Ferns hung off of tree stumps and giant centipedes squirmed in and out of tree roots. Was I on another planet? I guess not, just the thick, green rainforest of the Philippines.
About 3 hours and countless buckets of sweat later, we arrived at the stunning yet desolate crater of the volcano. I wasn’t sure what it would look like before I arrived, but an expansive green and brown field awaited us as we descended into the crater. A cool breeze blew softly as we walked through fields of wild ferns towards a small pool of water that had gathered off to the side. There were no signs of civilization up here, and the only sounds that echoed through the trees were the sounds of animals in their homes. No feeling can come close to the feeling of the sheer solitude and quiet I felt inside that crater. I felt as if I’d trodden where very few humans had before. It was somewhat eerie, but mostly exhilarating.
Ronald told me that some people choose to camp on the crater for a night, to be with the wilderness and see the beautiful night sky that is marred by light pollution down below. That one definitely got added to my list of things to do next time!
After spending some time resting and taking photos in the crater, Ronald and I decided to take the last leg of the hike up to the summit, while Jackie waited down below. Only an hour from the crater, this is the highest accessible point of Mount Hibok-Hibok. Scaling rocks and climbing up vines, the hike to the summit was considerably harder. However, it was definitely worth it to say I made it to the top, and I captured some stunning photos of the crater, too.
When we arrived, the summit was surrounded by clouds, offering no views to reward us for our hard work. Ronald told me that we could wait a while to see if the clouds cleared so we could catch a glimpse of the stunning crater down below. After waiting thirty minutes to no avail, we started our descent. Then this happened:
The views were such an incredible ending to our challenging morning!
When we reached the crater after our descent, we decided to collect some of the wild ferns growing in the field to make a fern salad dish native to Camiguin. Only the baby ferns are edible, so we had to sift through the vegetation in the field to find these new sprouts. Laughing as we pulled apart the bushes, the post-hike endorphins must have already been catching up to us. Being able to take home a piece of the mountain to make into something edible, that both me and my grandmother could enjoy, was a heartwarming end to an already fulfilling journey.
The rest is history. Ronald led us as we trekked 3-4 more hours to get down to the bottom, and of course I slipped on some wet leaves and sprained my ankle in the process. (I laugh in the face of danger! Haha! Okay, not really…that hurt pretty badly…) At the end of the day, though, I was so proud that I made it to the top of this mountain I’ve known since I was just a little kid. And I had a ton of fun along the way!
Sometimes I’m intimidated by certain aspects of adventure travel, and this was definitely one of them. Not knowing whether I had the stamina or the patience to scale this mountain was definitely an obstacle, but in the end it was even more meaningful to know that I was able to put my fears aside (just a few weeks after undergoing emergency surgery!) and plow through. Taking this opportunity to see another side of Camiguin Island was well worth the slight pain, the sweat, and the thrill of it all. It reminds me that no matter how many times you visit a place, there’s always something new you can find.
Have you ever hiked in a super awesome location? What was it like? Share your stories in the comments!