These days, a lot of city folk want a taste of the laid-back provincial life. When life gets too hectic in the metro, just heading somewhere you can float on a bamboo raft, enjoy simple home-cooked meals and see stunning natural sights can be just what you need to re-energize for the work week ahead. One of the fastest-rising destinations to offer this kind of experience near Manila is Minalungao National Park in Nueva Ecija.
The word Minalungao was derived from the words Mina meaning mine and Lungao which is a local word for cave. It’s been a few years since photos of this destination started circulating on social media and has since become very popular with the weekend crowds. Locals say before the park was “discovered,” not a lot of tourists visited the province of Nueva Ecija. This natural sight put the once sleepy province on the map. The best time to visit to see the emerald green waters is around summer time. It rained before our visit, so we weren’t able to see the place in its full glory.
The allure of Minalungao National Park (as with all eco-tourism attractions) is its natural beauty. Unfortunately, with popularity comes development. The place has been developed to cater to the influx of tourists, with artificial structures, a hotel in the works and even a man-made swimming pool right next to the river catering to the crowds. To be honest, I wish the place only had native cottages or a camping site instead. I really think having artificial structures ruins the whole natural vibe of the place. The highlight of our visit for me was getting to sample some unique Novo Ecijano dishes that I hadn’t ever tried.
WHERE EXACTLY IS MINALUNGAO NATIONAL PARK:
Minalungao National Park is located at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range in the town of General Tiñio, Nueva Ecija, roughly about four hours away from Metro Manila, Philippines.
HOW TO GET THERE:
By public transportation:
- Ride a bus bound for Gapan/Cabanatuan. There are buses that play the Manila-Cabanatuan route from Cubao and Pasay. Fare is about P150-200. Estimated travel time is 2-3 hours.
- From Gapan, ride a jeep to General Tinio. Then ride a tricycle to Minalungao Park. Fare is about P50/person.
- You can also rent a tricycle from Gapan going directly to Minalungao for P500-600/trike. Estimated travel time is 1-1.5 hours.
By private transportation:
- Take NLEX traveling north and exit at Sta. Rita.
- Proceed right and go along the Candaba-San Miguel Road. Continue until you reach Bucana, Gapan.
- Estimated travel time: 4-5 hours, with some portions on a rough road. There is a parking area right next to the picnic grounds for all types of vehicles. The area is accessible to buses, vans, sedans, jeeps, tricycles and motorcycles.
WHAT TO DO IN MINALUNGAO NATIONAL PARK:
- Ride a bamboo raft through Peñaranda River flanked by limestone cliffs. Price ranges from P100-600 depending on size of the raft.
- Go Trekking/Hiking up 1000 steps to a grotto and glass cross. Free.
- Try the zipline over the river. P50 (one way), P100 (two way)
- Cross the hanging bridge to get the best view of the limestone cliffs. Free.
- Explore the different caves in the area. Free
- Go swimming in the river. Free.
- Have a picnic beside the river. Bring your own food.
- Try Cliff Diving/Jump into the water from the rocks. Free.
WHAT / WHERE TO EAT:
Most locals bring their own food for picnic-style meals by the river. If you’re on a tight budget, there are a few small eateries there selling the usual hotdog and instant noodle type meals, nothing fancy. As part of the Lakbay Norte 6 Media Tour, we were treated to a catered native buffet lunch of Nueva Ecija specialties.
One of the most interesting dishes was Pinapaitan (an Ilocano soup dish made mostly of goat innards or internal organs) with alibangbang or butterfly leaves, a souring agent similar to tamarind leaves. The local version is not as sour as the traditional Ilocano papaitan that makes use of bile, but tastes closer to sinampalukang manok.
Presentation-wise, everything felt very rustic and fiesta-like, with food served on wooden plates, bowls and banana leaves. I really liked the ensaladang labanos (pickled radish salad) and biya (goby) and ulang (crayfish) wrapped in banana leaves. Of course, you can’t go wrong with inihaw na liempo.
Another unique dish we got to try was Tiniim na Manok or Chicken Tiim, a slow-cooked native chicken dish glazed in a thick sauce. Tiniim means “to absorb” and based on recipes online, the whole chicken is either simmered in a sweet and tangy pineapple marinade or vinegar, patis (fish sauce) and spices like star anise, oregano and cloves. It’s not the most appetizing dish to look at, but it’s pretty good. The sauce is pretty thick and tastes sort of sweet and peanut-based.
- Entrance fee – P40/head
- Parking for vehicles – P50
- Cottages available. Floating cottages cost P800-1500 good for 8-10 pax.
TRAVEL TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- The best time to go here is during the summer months so the water is at its bluest/clearest.
- It can get really crowded during weekends especially on Sundays, as it’s become the go-to place for local families in Central Luzon during weekends. It’s better to visit on a weekday.
- Avoid visiting if there’s a typhoon or during the rainy season. The river’s water level can be unpredictable during these times.
- The road leading to the park is rough and can get really muddy when it rains. It’s advisable to bring an SUV if you’re a big group. The road is passable to sedans.
- Leave early in the morning to avoid the traffic build-up at Candaba, San Miguel and Gapan.
NOTE: This trip was part of Lakbay Norte 6, a media familiarization tour organized by the North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB) in partnership with the Manila North Tollways Corporation / NLEX-SCTEX, Victory Liner, Inc. and the Nueva Ecija Visitors Bureau.
Unwatermarked photos by Martin San Diego courtesy of NPVB.