Ceuse, Mallorca, Rocklands, Hampi... and the list goes on... Each share stakes on the ever beaten track of “must stops” on a climbing adventure around the world. Although popular as they are now, these places once had their share of obscurity, remaining anonymous to the majority of outsiders. Throughout the years they have endured and garnered acclaim and still now, even as of this writing, enthrall and lure by way of magnificent stories and chronicles that now grow to legendary proportions and are passed on, every so often, endlessly in different tongues. Image right: The author on La Filthy Gringas (f7c+) Doors open quite readily to climbers these days. They come out darting all over the world in search of the ultimate climbing adventure. The immensity and magnitude of climbing areas and routes is simply overwhelming. Routes of varying nature are served on a silver platter ready for the picking. All that is needed is a quick scan through the World Wide Web - type in your desired destination and there it is - a mapping out of everything you need for the trip, magic! This magical portal of the internet, however, is not all powerful. It fails gradually as a greater enchantment works to cover the outer rims of the blurry, well hidden realms of the climbing world. It’s as if there is an invisible cloak covering these places and refuses them to be known. A journey into such places requires tedious searching or maybe a secret passport that would likely open gates to a new land. This is exactly what Philippine climbing is like. Not much of it is known and only a few share the knowledge of the veiled entrances to its cliffs. There is no 400 route guidebook, no complete accounts on the net, no “how’s”, no “what’s”, no “when’s”. A peek into the conditions…? – No hot showers, no overpriced food networks, no TV, but yes, there is exceptional climbing. It is a cradled child - pure and full of promise. Location
It is perhaps, the first destination to head towards for a sampling of what climbing in the Philippines can offer. It is in the Visayas Region, in one of the most festive islands of the country of Cebu. Right in the middle of the small town of Cantabaco, accessed via a one hour journey through the jungle, into the island’s heart, lays the country’s premier local climbing destination. The omnipresent streaked limestone cliff stands over the small town. The “V-hire”, the local transport to the area, stops on the mention of a name, “Manang Virgie.” This name belongs to a woman of short stature, a woman exuding a motherly aura with her rotund physique and constantly cheery eyes. She owns probably the only “carinderia” or local food establishment in town. Chanting “kina Manang Virgie lang po,” like a spell over the driver’s ear, will surely charm the V-hire to stop in front of her store which is by the road side upon which all V-hires pass through. “Manang Virgie”, though it translates literally to “Elderly Virgie” does not always imply age - she is probably not yet in her golden years. “Manang” is also an expression used to convey respect - she is the one person who holds the key to a lovely stay in the area. For nearly more than half a decade, Manang Virgie has arranged for all of our adventure needs. She is the person to go to for accommodation, your food needs, and even the ghost stories she reluctantly tells. She provides solutions for your transport needs if you need days off from climbing - just head to Moalboal Beach and partake in the Karaoke sing-along. The local entertainment is difficult to evade when in the company of fun loving local climbers. Image below: Aldwin Ibanez hangin' in there on Kanta Ba Ko (f7b)
What it’s like?
Your alarm clock will sound off incessantly in the mornings and you can’t do anything about it. Several perched roosters in the chicken pen let off blaringly high pitched cackles, sometimes in unison, which is hard to ignore. Your consciousness now comes into focus as you try to decide whether to take the early morning ice bath in the outhouse or just go straight to breakfast. Whether you go down to Manang Virgie’s for coffee first and delay the onset of icy water on your skin, or to totally scrap the idea of an ice bath, is entirely up to you. Your breakfast will be of your own accord. There are no pre-written menus or any chalked-up “dish of the day.” You could ask her to cook specific meals you may want to try. If it’s a local dish, she can serve it. Try “Adobo” – chicken/pork marinated in soy sauce, vinegar and garlic and then stewed or fired, “Lechon Cebu” – a local specialty, open charcoal pit roasted pig and “Tortang Talong“ – fried eggplant in egg batter. Of course you can always opt to ask her for the common sunny side up eggs on toast. There will always be something familiar no matter the time of day. You finish up breakfast, stand up together from the only table inside the small eatery and cram your way out by the roadside. The canopy of huge Acacia trees shadow your short walk across the concrete, before they make a turn toward the river to which they bring you. To cross, there is a small makeshift foot bridge made of bamboo. The slight cracking of the foot bridge gives a very provincial feel as you make your way across. Just before going into the jungle is a small shack with an old couple. They guard the pass and will ask you to log your names in a record book. This is mandatory and has been arranged by the developers of the area. You just need to fill in your name before hiking up the slopes. Drawing nearer and nearer the cliff, your anticipation mounts. For first time visitors to any one area, there will always be awe and surprise. The cliff of Cantabaco is no exception. The better view of the cliff comes when you finally reach the top of the hill where there is a flat clearing. The whole of Cantabaco cliff is divided into two sections, right and left, with the right side more exposed, resting higher on the slopes and having a flat belay area; while the left side rests more into the jungle’s slopes.
Image left: Rocky Lok starts his Never Ending Journey (6c+) The routes are graded from 6a to 8a, with a majority in the 7 range. The entire wall is loaded with different styles of climbing. Pockets, tuffas, overhangs, crimps and slopers characterize the entire cliff. It’s clean limestone. All routes are natural and bolted exquisitely for really good climbing. There are about 40 routes up on the cliff. Recent bolting gave way to new 35m long pitches. The prospect of new bolting in the coming October 2009, promises an additional 10-15 new routes. The coming season might bring forth some 5’s and hopefully a handful of new 8’s.
The short hike might not be enough to warm you up. If that’s the case then there are several very recommendable routes for you to hike on. Try the 30m “Never Ending Journey” (6c+) which starts on easy, nicely spaced pockets running up towards a dihedral. It continues for quite a long way and finishes on some slopey holds. Try “Cinnamon Pwet” (6c+), “Itchy Flutterby” (6c+) and “Vina Kulafu” (6c), all running on clean limestone and all of which begin to be a bit sequential to the top. Some easier routes are on the left side of the cliff. Some say the routes are soft for the grades. There’s much debate on these things and it is far better to just climb them rather than muse over numbers.
The entire crag is best suited for those hacking it in the 7s’. The majority of the more stunning lines rest on Cantabaco’s right side. “Tok’s Jeks” (7b) and “Unsa Mani Mikko” (7b) both play on very clean limestone and then suddenly venture onto some tufas that seem to come out of nowhere. Playing on these tufas can be a delight as most of the other routes run clean only on pockets. “Kanta ba Ko?” (7b) translating literally to “Should I sing?”, a question you’ll probably answer later in the night, and “Chikinina” (7b+) start clean on orange crimpers before making a break for the roof section halfway up the cliff. Cutting loose on these two routes is quite picturesque. Chalk up on the lip with both feet hanging loose for a classic photo.
If you’re looking for a challenge and something to get your teeth into, I have compiled a short list of what may be the top 3 routes in the area. Start with “La Filthy Gringas” (7c+). It begins with an easy climb on a huge tufa and then about halfway it starts. Holds become crimpy, the wall becomes almost blank and the moves become quite sequential. Unlocking this piece is sweet for an onsight attempt. “White Flower” (8a) begins with a fingery crux section which is almost bouldery. The holds on this one bite back and the moves are quite unorthodox. It is not your usual route as it requires some trickery and some serious “kung-fu” - unless you have your own set of trickery. To the top - it eases up for a fine view of the surrounding area. Finally, “Lust for Lime” (8a/8a+). Yearly, for almost half a decade, a climbers flock here every October. It’s been dubbed “Lust for Lime” right after the route. Clearly it says much about the celebration of the route and what it means to the “pinoyclimbers,” especially the locals of Cebu. The route has come to mark a sort of emergence, a milestone, an awakening of sorts for climbing in Cebu and perhaps the Philippines. The route is the first of its grade in the country. It may be soft or even just right for the grade but it has truly become a bit of an icon and is a definite must try to anyone visiting the crag. “Lust for Lime” follows a line of crimps on the heavily overhung section of the cliff. The 45 degree overhang runs for about 5 metres on the middle of the route. This short section needs to go fast and furious. At the end is a slopey, balancey finish. By this time you’ll need to slow down your motors and move carefully on the slopers. It’s quite a switch, so it becomes a good mix of both techniques. The biggest allure of Cantabaco can’t just be the climbing, can’t be just one route or just the provincial feel, the culture, the food - but a collaboration of all of the above…and then some. Take one away and surely the feel won’t be the same. Image below: Kristine Robles tasting Vina Kulafu (7c+)
Dart out for Cebu, Philippines from NAIA Terminal 3, via Cebu Pacific. Direct flights to Cebu are also available from Hong Kong. The small airport of Mactan Airport in Cebu is quaint. It will be easy to find a cab/taxi just outside the departure area. Hire the taxi to take you directly to City Link (PhP 200.00-250.00 or $4.00-$5.00). “V-hires” take you to various points in Cebu. Ask for the one that goes to “Lutopan.” The journey will take a little over an hour. The serpentine mountain pass through the jungle will take you to the heart of the island. Ravines, giant elderly trees and narrow passes await you on your trip. There have been considerable confirmations too from several travelers about seeing “White Ladies” when traveling by night - ask Manang Virgie for the full story. The “V-hire” will only charge Php50.00 or $1.00 for this scenic ride. Mention “Manang Virgie” to the driver and say you’re climbing in Cantabaco - you can’t go wrong. Only a few “V-hires” are in operation to the area so it’s not too difficult to know everyone.
From Manang Virgie’s hire a “habal-habal” - a motorcycle that can carry up to 5 people, to Lutopan (Php 10.00). From there take the “V-Hire” to City Link. It’s no use waiting for a “V-Hire” in front of Manang Virgie’s store as it gets full at the terminal in Lutopan.
When to Go
The cool breeze comes in December to February. These are the best months to visit and climb in the Philippines. The air is dry and humidity is lower than most of the other months. The 3rd Sunday of January also boasts the Sinulog Festival. The colorful parade of costumes, dance and lovely faces line the streets of Cebu City. It’s a very festive celebration and can be a great compliment to your climbing trip. Although it is still possible to climb during the months of summer, March to early May, the heat may become a bit of a nuisance especially if you’re used to cold weather climbing. Climbing is not always possible from June to September. October to November is the height of the semester break and so a lot of climbers will be flocking to the crag at this time. It can be quite fun to meet new people but it can get a bit crowded for some tastes.
Where to Stay
The climbing area is a new one but much has been done to accommodate climbers going its way. The priest’s house is the best place to stay. It’s good for a huge group of 10 to 12. It’s got its own showers, a refrigerator, and a very nice porch to hang out on. If that is full, which is unlikely, you can take the next best rooms. They’ve recently furnished 4-5 small rooms further to the back of the priest’s house. Each is good for 3-4 persons, there’s an electric fan in each room and a common out-house across the chicken pen area. If those get full to the brim, there is the option of Spring Park. Sometimes Manang Virgie can arrange for private houses to take in visitors. This usually happens when there is a big amount of climbers coming in for “Lust for Lime” rock trips. Excluding Spring Park, a night’s stay in any one of the places costs Php150.00. A night at Spring Park can cost up to Php1,000.00, depending on the room.
Breakfast at Manang Virgie’s is probably the best and most convenient. Walk down the main road, sit down and get your morning coffee. For meals you can arrange with her what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meals cost no more than Php 40.00-70.00 - depending how deep your pit is. There are also a few other food options on the main road. There is “Isaw” barbeque (chicken and pork innards) and the ”Puto” (rice cake), both recommended and worth a try. In the mornings, there is a delivery van of bread that passes through. Getting up early is a must to catch this one. If you wander off to Lutopan, a 10 minute motorbike ride, you can walk through the market adventure for yourself. Fresh ripe mangoes here will be cheap and are highly recommended pickings.
What to Bring
Bring in at least a rack of 15 draws for the long routes plus your usual climbing gear. Some mosquito repellant can also be quite handy.
Too much crimping? You can arrange for day trips or even overnight trips to Moalboal Beach on your rest days. Moalboal is the one of the prime beaches in Cebu. White sands and the less populated beaches attract with a more serene nature. Dive shops here also offer short diving courses. The small town of Moalboal also has some more provincial attractions, an old church and some good old street food. Image below: Roll on rest days - Moalboal Beach
All-in-all, a climbing trip to Cebu is really raw. Setting the Sinulog Festival aside, a trip to the cliffs of Cantabaco is a less than touristy excursion filled with cultural diversity. Not too many people have discovered this gem and perhaps this article may provide a glimpse into it’s secrets. It may be unlikely that climbing in Cebu will rival the climbing in Asia’s prime destinations but the lack of the commercial, tourist feel will set it apart.
Once in Cebu, further doors will open up. You might want to stay for further adventures into the Philippines. The nearby island of Iloilo also houses another cliff, Dingle. Further to the west too is the island of El Nido, Palawan. The island’s many sea cliffs hold vast potential for deep water soloing. Up north in Baguio and Sagada, deep into the mountains, are boulder fields just lying in wait for the next wary traveler.
Exchange for Philippine pesos while in the city. Banks open at 9:00 a.m. Mondays to Fridays. There is no other more reputable place to change currencies other than a bank. English is spoken almost everywhere. A trip to the Philippines is cheap as dust. If you plan, you can probably go to all areas in a month or a month and half. For further info and images visit: http://dennisdiaz.multiply.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/dendiaz The website www.climbphilippines.com is still under construction. Continual updates on this will posted on the Multiply and Facebook pages above.