I WAS born in Cavite, the land of Nardong Putik and Pepeng Agimat. My old folks on both sides were firm believers of the mystical and occult. My grandfather was an albularyo or a folk healer. My other grandfather had several anting-antings and a white cloth that was supposed to make him invisible.
And so when I was born “suhi” or footling breach baby (or born feet first), the whole family had a big celebration. “Suhi” babies born this way are expected to become good healers when they grow up.
Early in life, I was trained to become one someday. I was a Harry Potter waiting for my magic wand. I was first taught how to cure people who swallowed fish bones or tinik. I can do this by massaging the neck of the victim while reciting a Latin mantra. I also learned to distinguish between a mangkukulam and mangbabarang, and how to reverse their curses. I learned many things about the super natural even before I went to formal school.
I was told that my transformation into a full-time healer would be completed once I went to and passed the spiritual test at the Holy Mountain, Mount Banahaw.
Things did not turn out this way though. Reality happened. I went to school and finished engineering. Those things that I was told as a child suddenly all sounded bizarre and ludicrous.
But I went to Mount Banahaw afterwards and returned many times. The first visit was out of curiosity. The next visits were to satisfy my sense of adventure.
Mount Banahaw, before it was closed to climbers 10 years ago, is one of the most challenging mountains to climb in Southern Tagalog. Standing 2,170 meters, this active volcano last erupted in 1730 emptying the water of its crater lake to the surrounding towns. Its two most popular trails, Cristalino and Tatlong Tangke, start in Barangay Kinabuhayan in Dolores. Climbing takes at least a day to reach the peaks, which are actually the rim of the caldera. Mount Banahaw remains closed to climbers.
For pilgrims, the Holy Mountain remains open as long as they do not go up all the way to the caldera. Over a dozen religious sects and over 50 cult groups have set up camp at the foot of the mountain in Dolores. They are those with mystical dreams, visions of energy vortices and apparitions of the Holy Trinity. They are those who believe that Jose Rizal is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. And they are those who come to receive their gift of healing.
For whatever reason, a visit to this small town of Dolores in Quezon will give the visitors a glimpse into the unique world of the mystics, occultists, psychics and naturalists.
How to get there
Dolores, Quezon is about 98 kilometers from Manila. It usually takes between two to three hours to get there.
Those with private vehicles can drive south via SLEX, continue via STAR and then exit from Santo Tomas. From Santo Tomas, continue driving via Maharlika Highway, passing by Alaminos, then San Pablo City (take the by-pass road) and after about 2 kilometers, turn left to the road going to Dolores. There is another road right after Tiaong, Quezon that also leads to Dolores.
For those commuting, there are buses in Buendia, Makati City and Alabang, Muntinlupa City that goes to San Pablo City, Laguna. Take them as most of them have bus terminals in the city. In San Pablo City, proceed to the jeepney terminal near the public market and take the jeepneys going to Dolores. In Dolores, there are tricycles that take passengers to Kinabuhayan or Santa Lucia.
What to so, what to see
Those who wish to do a mystical tour of Dolores must start in Santa Lucia.
Mount Banahaw is filled with sacred shrines called pwestos. These pwestos are rock formations, caves, rivers and natural springs where pilgrims light candles and say prayers.
Pilgrims start by going down the 260 steps leading to Lagnas River. Along the way, there are pwestos where pilgrims must light a candle and say a prayer. At the end of concrete steps is a giant rock with the image of Santa Lucia sitting on it. Pilgrims must light the last candle and pray for forgiveness.
Next step is the cleansing ritual. Pilgrims must bathe at the two waterfalls before soaking into the cold water of Lagnas River. The waters of Banahaw are believed to have both physical and spiritual healing powers. After cleansing, the pilgrims climb back and proceed to the sacred shrines or Santong Lugar.
The sacred shrines start with Kaban ni San Isidro where pilgrims have to stretch their hands inside a cave to touch a protruding rock while reciting a prayer. This will be followed by several Presintahan – caves that one must enter – including the Santong Husgado, a narrow, twisting 40-meter cave that tests the purity of those who enters.
From there, the pilgrims must continue the climbs to the mossy trail thru Via Crucis before finally reaching Santos Kalbaryo, where a prayer of thanks must be made.
Further down the road is the last barangay of Kinabuhayan. This used to be teeming with climbers going up to the summit. Pilgrims come here to gear and get water from a small well that is said to have healing power.
Visitors can also go up all the way, with an aide of a local guide, to Kweba ng Dios Ama, passing by the beautiful Kristalino Falls and the magical reflections on the calm pool called Salamin Bubog.
There are many more attractions around Dolores but they must remain off-limits for surrounding vegetation to regenerate.
Where to stay, where to eat
Dolores offers two unique places to hang out for several days on the foot of Mount Banahaw.
Jay Herrera, an artist, has a cozy tree-house-style cottage called Kinabuhayan Café and Bed and Breakfast. He is known to prepare delicious baba ganoush, mushroom risotto and fresh pako salad.
Dion Pullan, an environmentalist and bird watching enthusiast, rents out his several nipa cottages at Bankong Kahoy Valley and serves organically-grown fruits and vegetables.
Dolores has many stalls selling anting-anting or brass medallions, mutya or smooth white stones with inscriptions, santong kahoy or cut branches and many other talismans. They also sell medicinal plants that can cure anything from fever to diabetes.
Whether you come to Dolores to go on spiritual cleansing or out of curiosity, the cool and quiet surroundings, the warm people and the unique rituals will surely calm your souls.
Afterword: Have I become a healer after my many visits to Dolores? Ask my 77-year old mom. Whenever I leave home, she asks me to touch her belly. And this always makes her feel better.