THE sleepy barangay of Imugan in Santa Fe, Nueva Vizcaya has always been my favorite hideaway ever since I set foot on the place almost two decades ago. It was a photo assignment to document the Ikalahan tribe that took me to Imugan.
I still remember the first time I visited this village high up in the Caraballo mountain range. We took an overnight Dangwa bus, arrived by dawn in Santa Fe town and by early morning, we were already riding a service pick-up truck along the gravel road to Imugan.
I wasn’t sure how far Imugan was then from the Santa Fe junction, but it felt like eternity before we finally reached town. I remembered the narrow, winding road going up to Imugan. It was very slippery and from where I sat in front, I could see where we could fall should our driver make a wrong turn. We were coasting through the magnificent canyon of Caraballo, but I was too tense to even appreciate the magnificent vista ahead of me. Only when we finally arrived in Imugan that I was able to calm down and started to be fully aware of the beauty of the place.
The idyllic village of Imugan reminded me of the photographs of small European villages that I often see in calendars. I saw a dozen of wooden houses all framed by the green mountains and lovely rice terraces.
When I finished my documentation assignment early, I spent the rest of the weekend just walking around the village trying to get to know more about Imugan and the Ikalahan tribe. I was even accompanied by the locals to a trek to their waterfalls. There was no established trail then so we just had to follow the where the river leads us.
I now go to Imugan as often as I could. It is my secret hideaway when I wish to relax for a few days. The roads going to Imugan are now mostly paved. Imugan is now easier to climb and explore its many places.
How to get there
Imugan is sandwiched by two mighty mountain ranges of the north: Caraballo and Cordillera. To reach Imugan, drive north from Manila via NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, then exit to Guimba via Pura. From Guimba, continue driving to Munoz and then San Jose, both in Nueva Ecija.
Another way is to drive north via NLEX, then exit to Santa Rita, then continue driving to National Highway, passing through the towns of Baliuag, Plaridel and San Miguel in Bulacan, before finally entering Nueva Ecija via Gapan. From Gapan, it is about an hour’s drive passing through Cabanatuan before finally reaching San Jose.
From San Jose, road climbs to Caraballo via Dalton Pass before finally descending to Santa Fe. From Santa Fe, turn left after the bridge. Imugan is only 5 kilometers away.
Those taking public transport can take any bus going to Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela and Cagayan, then alight in Santa Fe. From Santa Fe, take a jeepney going to Imugan.
What to see, what to do
With good roads, progress has finally reached Imugan. What used to be a cluster of old dilapidated wooden structures of two decades before have been replaced with several concrete buildings – most prominent of which is the new barangay (village) hall.
Outside the town center, however, everything looks the same. The roads after the wooden bridge are still gravel and dirt. And the wooden houses framed by a magnificent vista are all still there.
All visitors who wish to explore Imugan are now required to register at the barangay outpost and an entrance fee of P25 is collected from every visitor.
Trekking to Imugan Waterfalls can be done even without a guide because the trail is now well established and properly marked. So it is now easy to trek to where the waterfall is located.
The jump-off point to Imugan Falls starts after a hundred meters from the barangay hall. Look for a marker where an arrow points out to where to begin trekking to the falls. The trail passes through several houses before climbing through patches of land planted with vegetables. It is a moderately easy trail that does not require much climbing skills. It takes about 2 kilometers and 30 minutes before climbers can get a glimpse of Imugan Falls.
The final assault to the waterfalls requires some balancing act. One has to step on several unstable rocks to cross the river before finally reaching the main pool of the waterfalls. The waters of Imugan Falls are always refreshingly cool and clear.
Besides trekking to Imugan Falls, there are many ways this sleepy town can be best explored.
The Ikahalahan tribe that populates this upper Caraballo valley have a very rich cultural heritage and they continue to practice their rituals of planting and harvesting rice. The Ikalahan Foundation has developed several wines , candies and jams made from hibiscus (gumamela flower), bignay and wild berries, and the ladies of the foundation are more than happy to show how they are made.
Recently, the forests around Imugan have become favorite sites for bird watching. The trail in Barangay Malico in Salacsac (about 10 kilometers from Imugan) leads to a lovely mountain refuge.
Soon, the Imugan road will finally connect with the road to San Nicolas, Pangasinan, opening a possibility of doing road adventure all the way to San Roque Dam along the Agno River.
Where to stay, where to eat
Places to stay in Imugan are very limited. The Ikalahan Foundation has a dormitory that it rents out to visiting non-government organizations and backpackers. It is also possible to camp out near the waterfalls. Just inform the barangay that you will be camping overnight around the area.
The only place to buy food is at the public market located on the ground floor of the barangay hall. So it is best to bring your own food. Otherwise, you have to get your meals in the Santa Fe proper.
But those who wish to try some unique food items from Imugan can visit the small store of the Ikalahan foundation. The foundation has been quite successful in developing preserves from mountain fruits and berries. Bringing home a bottle or two will help support the many projects of the foundation and will remind visitors of the beauty of Nueva Vizcaya’s secret Shangri-La. These are cool products from an even cooler place.