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Mystic Mountains

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A map to guide you across the country’s supernatural peaks.

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Blame it on the hazy fog, the chilly air, or just plain old altitude sickness—mountains have been the perfect venues for all things strange and mysterious. But these particular mountains are a little more special: Philippine folklore has established their sacred status for centuries, inspiring otherworldly stories and rituals where the ordinary meets the supernatural.


MT. PULAG | BENGUET

If you have ever visited this popular peak, you might remember the briefing given by the local DENR before the climb: Smoking, alcoholic consumption, and sexual activity are prohibited on the mountain, out of respect for the locals. The Ibaloi, Kalanguya, Kankanaey, and Ibanag live here and treat Pulag as sacred, believing it to be the dwelling place of their ancestors’ spirits, and its peak the playground of their gods.

Despite the crowds, the local communities have managed to preserve Pulag’s sacredness and taken the surge in visitors to their advantage. Climbers are now encouraged to extend their stays as they wait in line for their turn to ascend the mountain, providing a boon to local homestay initiatives. As with other holy spaces, to break the rules here is to disrespect the locals and desecrate their place of worship. Tread lightly and mindfully.


MT. ARAYAT | PAMPANGA

Here stands a more classic pilgrimage spot; its trails lined with 14 life-size Stations of the Cross leading up to giant statues of Christ near the end. But Mount Arayat’s mysticism is rooted in beliefs that predate the Stations of the Cross’ construction.

As the legend goes, Maria Sinukuan, Arayat’s guardian, stopped providing for her people after they stole from the mountain’s bounty without her permission, explaining Arayat’s sudden depletion of fruit trees. Modern-day pilgrims visit the colossal church-sized White Stone at the mountain’s west side, believed to be Maria Sinukuan’s hiding place. People still walk cautiously around it today, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mountain goddess.


MT. BANAHAW | LAGUNA

Mount Banahaw is the holiest of holy mountains: More than sixty religious groups, cults, and mystics subsist on its high concentration of energy vortices and supernatural forces. It attracts hundreds of pilgrims during Holy Week, thanks to its famous and highly ritualized pilgrimage path, where people come to complete specific tasks in all forty-eight holy sites or puwestos.

The most famous of these tests is the “Cave of Judgment”: If you solve its labyrinthine passages and come out through the correct exit, all your sins will be forgiven and you gain a new lease on life. If you come out unscathed, you are free from any serious sins. Otherwise, start counting—it is said that the number of your wounds equal the number of your sins.


MT. MAKILING | LAGUNA

The sheer abundance of Makiling’s flora and fauna makes you wonder if real magic was ever at play here. And perhaps there is: Maria Makiling, one of Philippine mythology’s most enduring goddesses, to whom locals pray for protection against natural disasters, is said to be its guardian.

Before your trip, heed this: You may eat the fruits that grow on the mountain, but may not take them home. It’s best not to test the goddesses’ wrath, for Maria Makiling could lead you astray in revenge. Some climbers will even turn their shirts inside out as proof of their honesty. Mystical rules of engagement aside, people report feeling especially rejuvenated after hiking through Makiling’s wild profusion of flora. Just arm your visit with a heightened reverence for nature.


MT. CRISTOBAL | QUEZON PROVINCE

Welcome to “The Devil’s Mountain,” whose peak is believed to be the residence of the devil himself. Situated right across Mount Banahaw, Mount Cristobal is said to be as evil as Banahaw is holy. It’s known to be Banahaw’s alter-ego and absorbs all of its negative energies, emitting them through incessant hauntings and evil spirits that pursue those who dare to hike its dark and eerie trails.

Ask any mountain climber: Cristobal is notorious for ghost stories, freak accidents, and all sorts of spooks. Similar to a pilgrimage, its climbers are left with a lingering supernatural sensation—only this time, it’s the kind that gives you the creeps. Call it a pilgrimage to test your faith, perhaps, or to test your mettle.


MT. LANTOY | CEBU

If you consider yourself a devout disciple of chocolate, prioritize this peak for a pilgrimage. Mount Lantoy’s designated mythological guardian is none other than the goddess Maria Cacao, named after the thriving cacao plantation in the mountain. She’s said to live in the cave behind this cacao plantation and, when it rains, travel downriver in her golden ship bearing fruit and cacao for the locals.

This river is in today’s Argao, a town famous for making arguably the best tablea in Cebu. The townsfolk still respect the presence of Maria Cacao in the mountain and attribute their good harvest to her and the good spirits. Through the years, accounts of Maria Cacao’s golden ship of gifts have also transformed into anecdotes telling of a ghost ship harvesting souls to take to the netherworld—especially during typhoons. If you think you see one, they say, don’t get on.


BUD BONGAO | TAWI-TAWI

The sacred nature of Bud Bongao is attributed to a legend that says one of the first followers of Islam in the Philippines is buried at its peak. Since then, it has become a site for shrines and burial areas for Muslim priests and believers. Visit this place with respect and awareness of local customs; you may have to don a native sawal or cloth around your neck as a sign of respect to the local culture.

A popular tradition of both Muslim and Christian pilgrims here is to tie colored plastic bags to the surrounding trees in hopes of more blessings and answered prayers. Bud Bongao holds another special treat: look south and you can see Borneo from its peak, making it the country’s only mountain from which foreign land can be seen.

This story was originally published in

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