Mount Banahaw: Sacred mountain

Mount Banahaw in Southern Luzon is called a “holy mountain,” or bundok dambana (altar mountain); it is replete with folk legends. It is a dormant volcano, rising 2,170 meters above sea level, with a deep crater hosting the legendary rivers of milk (limestone) and blood (red iron-rich soil).

I visited Mount Banahaw with a friend during one Holy Week in the late 1980s. At that time, it was teeming with thousands of pilgrims and mountain climbers. We took the most frequented of four trails to the crater, full of puestos or holy sites, from Barangay Kinabuhayan in the town of Dolores.

Pilgrim sites we visited included two caves with small altars, where we said quick prayers, and two mini waterfalls, the first emanating from “sacred springs” with reputed holy healing waters, according to legends. We took a quick shower in the icy waters. Folklore said that that was a form of “baptism,” which protected pilgrims from all kinds of dangers while on the mountain. From the start, I had an eerie feeling of spiritual awareness of the sacred mountain.

From atop the rim of the deep crater, we viewed the rivers of milk and blood. We were told we were lucky because seldom did the crater clear up of a semi-permanent mist to reveal the twin rivers. One had to use ropes for the dangerous trek down the crater. We opted to stay at the rim. Let the mountain climbers do that.

It was Good Friday. At the crater, a small crowd gathered around a woman who was supposed to be nailed to a makeshift wooden cross in celebration of the crucifixion of our Lord. I readied my camera for the precious footage. But alas, the woman backed out at the last minute, just as the first nail was about to be hammered into her hand. She said there was someone in the crowd opposing her psyche, called locally as contra (“against” in Spanish). So that was the end of that. We went back to the tricky trek going down. It was harder to go down than to climb up the mountain.

Back in Dolores, over bottles of Siok Tong, a powerful Chinese medicinal herbal wine, we encountered some Rizalistas who consider Jose Rizal to be the messiah. We tried to engage them into a biblical debate, but they spoke a deep ancient form of Tagalog we had never heard before. They had a deep understanding of the Bible, quoting from it casually.

A moratorium was imposed on the Dolores and Banahaw trails in March 2004 up to February 2015, 12 long years, because of the tons of garbage that had accumulated through the years from thousands of pilgrims and mountain climbers. To date, many sections of Banahaw are still closed to the public, which is actually located in a protected area, the Mounts Banahaw–San Cristobal Protected Landscape.

If the Department of Environment and Natural Resources imposed a clean-up protocol to tourists passing a checkpoint to be given flyers on how to clean up after themselves, and to warn of heavy fines from mountain rangers, the moratorium could have been avoided.

In Dolores, we met an elderly American considered to be “mad” by local residents. He said he used to walk often in the rainforests of Banahaw. One day, he saw an old woman, who suddenly vanished behind a giant balete tree.

For months, he took regular hikes in the rainforest, looking for the woman. Finally, after three months, there she was, staring him in the face. She taught him how to levitate, the ability to use one’s mind to lift one’s self off the ground. The woman said she came from a twin planet of Earth in the Andromeda galaxy. She and others of her kind with extreme mental powers traveled through a time tunnel that split up, ending in Mt. Banahaw and Mt. Pinatubo. That is why, she said, there are many faith healers today in Zambales, Pangasinan, and Quezon provinces. This was one of the many “modern legends” I encountered briefly in the mystique of this sacred mountain.


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