Bulacan is a province in the Philippines known mostly for its old churches, heritage sites and heroes. Though it’s home to some historic caves, it isn’t really considered a top destination for adventure-seekers. So last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself driving through forested mountain roads and twisties with scenic views of lakes and rivers.
Bulacan is just roughly 50 km North of Metro Manila, but despite its proximity, I haven’t really had a chance to explore it by motorcycle. Getting here from Quezon City requires driving through Commonwealth Avenue, dubbed the “killer highway” because of the high number of casualties due to motoring related accidents. I’d normally opt to ride a car or take a bus when traveling through here instead of a motorcycle because of the volume of vehicles including speeding buses, impatient SUVs, swerving taxis and jeeps that just brake without warning.
Thankfully, the traffic in the metro reaches an all-time low during Holy Week. With the streets empty, it’s the perfect time for leisurely joyrides on major roads. After traversing EDSA and the length of Quezon Avenue on a Good Friday night ride, we headed to Commonwealth Avenue on Black Saturday. Our destination was Angat Dam located on the highest slope of the mountains in eastern Bulacan. I didn’t do any research beyond plotting the general route on Googlemaps, but was happy at the thought of a new destination and the lure of no traffic.
We started our ride around 8:00 am. There were some choke points when we hit town centers of Fairview, Novaliches, Caloocan and San Jose del Monte, but overall it wasn’t too bad. The real fun started once we got to Norzagaray in the area known as Hilltop, a route that is very popular with cyclists. The scenery suddenly changed from dusty towns to refreshing mountain views. The air became cooler, with trees providing shade and less artificial structures along the road. In one section, locals set up little huts perched on the side of the road where you can enjoy the breeze and view with cold buko juice and snacks. From the huts, you can get a view of Ipo Dam, a concrete dam located downstream of Angat Dam.
We followed the road down until we got to Bitbit Bridge. There’s a short trail leading down to Bitbit River, a swimming spot for locals and bikers, who can take a dip to cool down before riding back home. However, the river was already crowded with families and barkadas out on Holy Week picnics. The river on the other side of the bridge looked more refreshing.
Apparently, mountaineers use the 100-foot high Bitbit Bridge to practice rappelling, which looks like a fun activity that I would love to try next time I visit.
Across the bridge is the gated entrance leading to Angat Rainforest and Eco Park (AREP). I think the area was previously closed off, but since December 2014, it’s been open to visitors for a small fee of P25/head. After leaving our IDs at the gate, we headed to the view deck, which offers a great view of the huge lake and river, mountains, and power plant. There’s a parking area for bikes and motorcycles rights beside the AREP Eco-Center.
The Eco-Center is a small structure with a diorama of the whole place, restroom and a background on the place. Angat is considered a biodiversity hotspot, since 80% of Angat Watershed forest cover has remained intact with rich flora and fauna. The Watershed is home to 500 indigenous Dumagat families who continue to live off the forests and rivers and live in a settlement there. The Eco Park aims to give them an alternative livelihood as park tour guides, among others.
The watershed is also home to 290 endemic species of known non-woody and woody plants, 66 species of vertebrates and 43 species of birds including the Tarictic Hornbill or Kalao and Rufous Hornbill. Other animals you can find here include the Philippine wild boar, Philippine deer, rodents, bats, giant beetles, King Cobra, Gray monitor lizard, large hemadcylid gecko, horned forest frog and Luzon forest frog, to name a few. Though the center is very bare right now, it looks like they have a lot of plans including an Angat Museum of Natural History, Bird/Butterfly Watching, Lodging/Camp Site, Zipline / Cable car, Canopy Walk and Dumagat Cultural Heritage Site.
The weather was scorching at noon, so we decided to take a break. There’s no restaurant nearby, but the center sells cold drinks and snacks. Ms. Amy, one of the caretakers said still they had food leftover from a group that was about to leave and she could cook it for us. There are several picnic tables here where you can just relax and eat, so we enjoyed a lunch of crispy tilapia and cold soft drinks under the trees. For bigger groups, it’s best to reserve meals beforehand, so they can buy food and prepare it.
Not content with seeing the view from above, we drove around exploring the rest of the Eco-park to see the dam at eye level. We passed the Tarictic Fun Trail, a short (about 300+ meters) nature trail, which is a good site to take kids for an educational nature walk to teach them about conservation and the environment.
But for riders, the whole AREP complex itself is an awesome place to drive around. The paved mountain roads shaded by trees offer challenging uphills, steep descents and great scenery that make it a nice bonus for cyclists who’ve already done the Norzagaray hilltop route. I could tell that Art was already planning to bring bicycles here next time.
This road right beside the reservoir offers an amazing view of the Angat Lake on one side and Norzagaray River flanked by towering mountain ranges.
Signs of El Nino could be seen in the scorched terrain and dry earth. We chatted with a local kid from the Dumagat settlement who pointed out the normal water level to us on the rocks. His companions were catching shrimp below. The lake looks like a great place to swim and do water sports, but tourists aren’t allowed to do that since all the water here goes to Manila’s drinking supply.
We crossed another bridge overlooking the spillway and saw just how massive the dam and floodgates are. The dam is almost 50 years old. The reservoir currently supplies about 97% of potable drinking water requirements to Metro Manila through MWSS and irrigates about 28,000 hectares of farmland in the provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga.
Angat Dam has a normal high water level of 210 meters, but during our visit it was at 200 meters. Below 180 meters is the critical level for irrigation while 160 meters is considered the critical level for drinking water.
We were told that the area leading to the Hydro Electric Power Plant was off-limits, so we headed to another dirt road, which led to a docking area.
The Angat Rainforest and Eco-Park was set up to raise public awareness on the importance of preserving the watershed, which plays a vital role in the lives of millions of people living in Manila and nearby provinces. It was an eye-opener to see firsthand where our water comes from. It’s just scary to think of what would happen should a big earthquake hit, as the aging Angat Dam is right along the West Valley Fault. Beyond the refreshing scenery, the visit made me realize just how finite our resources are.
Angat Rainforest and Eco Park lies at the Southernmost tip of the Sierra Madre mountain range and is part of the towns of Dona Remedios Trinidad, Norzagaray, and San Jose Del Monte in Bulacan. The entry point is through Norzagaray, Bulacan.
HOW TO GET THERE:
- From Quezon City Memorial Circle, take Commonwealth Avenue – Regalado Ave up to SM Fairview.
- Turn right to Quirino Avenue passing part of Caloocan then the bridge boundary of Caloocan – San Jose del Monte, Bulacan boundary.
- You will pass La Mesa Nature Reserve to your right.
- Continue driving along the Del Monte – Norzagaray Road.
- When you get to the Rotunda passing the Norzagaray Municipal Hall Annex, stay on the right lane heading to the Lioness Rock formations.
- A few meters away, you’ll see a sign to Pinagrealan Cave on your left.
- Just follow this road. You’ll reach an overlooking point with a nice view of the river below.
- Continue on the road until you Bitbit Bridge over Norzagaray River. Cross the bridge and enter through the gate.
NOTE: A possible side trip after visiting Angat Dam is Pinagrealan Cave. The entrance is just 300 meters away from the main road.
TRAVEL TIPS AND USEFUL INFO:
- From QC, Angat Dam is roughly 50 km one-way. Travel time is 1-3 hours depending on the traffic.
- This place is ideal for those who have their own vehicles. AREP is accessible to all types of vehicles including SUVs, sedans, tricycles, motorcycles and bicycles.
- Except for some paths leading to trails, most of the roads are fully paved. However, some portions are very steep, so be sure your vehicle is in good condition.
- Drive safely and don’t overtake on the twisties. Many people have died on this road. Avoid driving here at night or in rainy weather.
- Some parts of the road are one way lanes because of road repairs.
- There are numerous cracks and mossy areas in the middle of the road in some portions.
- Along the way, you will pass some sari-sari stores where you can buy snacks or have simple food cooked (cup noodles, sardines and rice, etc.). Most locals bring their own food to have picnics in the area.
- Bring a change of clothes if you’re planning to swim.
- Parking fees for Bitbit River (if you’re swimming): Bike – P5, Motorcycle – P20, Tricycle – P30, Truck – P100, Cottage – P250, With Cottage – P100
- Entrance fee for AREP: P25 per head. You need to show your Driver’s License for record purposes. No license, no entry.
- You will be given an entry permit and laminated number which you have to show at other gated areas throughout the complex.
- You can visit all the areas except for the Angat Hydro Electric Power Plant. The area is private and they only let residents pass.
- There are no restaurants or eateries inside AREP, but you can have food cooked at the Eco-Center. Pre-order beforehand to ensure there’s food. For orders, contact Ms. Amy at 0916-9530553 at the AREP View Deck. Snacks and drinks are sold there.