Quick. Name a natural attraction in Nueva Ecija.
Nine out of ten will probably give no answer. One out of ten will just answer rice or onions.
Only very few people outside of Nueva Ecija know about the Minalungao National Park located in Sitio Minalungao, Barangay Pias, in the town of General Tinio.
The park is located on the foot of Sierra Madre. In June 17, 1967, under Republic Act 5100, Minalungao National Park was established as protected area of the Philippines. The park covers an area of 2,018 hectares centered along the scenic Peñaranda River bordered on both sides by up to 16-meter high limestone walls in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The park is considered one of the few remaining natural environments in this region north of Manila. It is promoted by the local government as an ecotourism destination offering breath-taking scenery of a green pristine river and unique rock formations. A system of unexplored subterranean caverns has also been identified as potential attractions.
The town where the park is located also has a very interesting history. According to legends, the town got its original name Papaya from miscommunication with Spanish colonizers. The natives thought the Spaniards were asking about the fruits that were growing abundantly in the place. The locals were finally able to correct the name in August 19, 1957 when the name Papaya was changed to General Tinio, in honor of General Manuel Tinio, a Nueva Ecija native and revolutionary leader who fought against the Spaniards. Older folks still call General Tinio the town as Papaya.
The name Minalungao also has an interesting origin: it was derived from the word “mina” and “lungao” meaning “mine of gold in caves”.
For several decades, Minalungao National Park remained a secret mainly from accessability. Three years ago, adventurers started discovering Minalungao and posted about it on social media.
Nowadays, Minalungao is now the most popular destination in Nueva Ecija, particularly for those seeking a cooler retreat from the long summer heat.
How to get there
The usual way to reach Minalungao is to drive north from Manila to NLEX and then exit from Santa Rita and continue drive to Maharlika Highway passing thru the towns of Plaridel, San Rafael, San Ildenfonso and San Miguel before finally entering Nueva Ecija via Gapan City. From Gapan, turn right and continue drive to Penaranda and then finally to General Tinio, entering thru the “Welcome to Papaya” arc. About a kilometer from the public market, turn right to cross the narrow bridge, and then continue drive for about 10 kilometers to reach the park.
As the Bulacan portion of Maharlika Highway is now heavy with traffic, the alternative way is to take the San Simon exit and continue drive to Santa Ana, Arayat, Cabiao and San Isidro before finally going to Minalungao via Gapan.
What to see, what to do
With the road now going to Minalungao almost completely paved, the park is an ideal place to bring the whole family or the whole barkada for a picnic.
It is not expensive to be there. Entrance to the park is only P100 per person. You spend additional only if you wish to rent a raft or a cottage, hire a guide or sample some of the offerings like zip line and kayaking.
Renting a bamboo raft is optional, but this is the way to enjoy the river. Rafts have tables and guests can enjoy going on a river cruise while enjoying the food that they brought. Having a raft also makes it possible to be taken upriver where water is cooler and cleaner for swimming.
There is also a hanging bridge that one can climb to get a good view of the limestone cliffs. Across the river after the hanging bridge is a trail that goes up to the view deck and a cross. Called 1,000 Steps, it is a trail the passes thru beautiful stone formations and bamboo forest. Midway along the trail is a tomb of a Korean missionary whose dying wish was to have her ash placed in a tomb in Minalungao. At the end of the 1,000 Steps is a large cross and a view deck that affords a breathtaking view of the many peaks of Sierra Madre.
The park also has several caves that can be explored. Those who still long for some action can try the zip-lines, the kayaks and the rubber tubings. Due to safety concerns, it is no longer allowed to go on cliff jumping. Those with off-road vehicles can cross the river to get the prime parking spots across the river.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are two ways to enjoy Minalungao: either you come very early to avoid the crowd, or you stay overnight and enjoy the park when most of the day-trippers have all left.
For those staying overnight, there’s the Minalungao Green Earth Hotel (room for 4-5 at P2,000 per night) right inside the park. It is also possible to camp at the park grounds.
For dining, there’s the Minalungao Café and Restaurant that serves Filipino favorites like sinigang, inihaw and adobo. There’s one dish signature dish that is sourced directly from the river: the Crispy Fried Biya. There are also several stalls selling chicken and pork barbecues, bangus and tilapia inihaw and vegetable dishes like ginataang laing and ampalaya with egg.
However, there is no better way to enjoy Minalungao than bringing food cooked from home, like those Pinoy Spaghetti with banana ketchup and hotdog, fried chicken and banana ketchup and of course, home-cooked adobo dipped in banana ketchup again.
Simple meals shared with family and friends, on a hidden park that takes you closer to nature.