"a caterpillar doesn't just grow into a butterfly. a caterpillar must undergo metamorphosis, and a cocoon is where a caterpillar risks it all: enters total chaos, undergoes total rebuilding, and is born to a new way of living. only in taking the risk of entering that inert cocoon can the caterpillar go from dormancy to potency, from ugliness to beauty."

Monday, April 22, 2013

the taraw adventure: cliff climbing in el nido, palawan


“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; 
and from the beginning think what may be the end.” 
-- Edward Whymper


getting to know the taraw cliffs from afar

one rainy late afternoon in august 2009, my friends and i were walking around in el nido town when one of the locals talked us into climbing taraw -- the towering karst that dominates the town proper's coastal landscape.


more than just a backdrop
the taraw cliffs of el nido, palawan as seen from bacuit bay

we had just completed memorable days of island hopping in bacuit bay and, by walking around relaxed and unhurried, we were allowing things to wind down after all the exciting island adventures (and low pressure area-related misadventures, too) which we experienced in northern palawan. as we took in and enjoyed the rural vibe, along came kuya on the street telling us to pursue the taraw adventure.

at the mention of taraw, our attention shifted towards the intimidating cliffs -- massive and irregular walls of eroded limestone naturally defining one side of el nido town with sharp peaks, jagged rock faces, and vegetated high walls carved over ages by the sea, the winds, and other forces of nature. our initial reaction at the sight was, "really, it's safe for us to climb all the way to the top?"

under the gloomy sky that august afternoon, taraw looked like a part of mordor -- dark and ominous, impressive yet unfriendly. why climb it?


taraw as seen from el nido town

no cliff climbing adventure happened to any of us that time. the circumstances just weren't right. first, taraw was drenched by the rains and the rocky paths to the top were guaranteed slippery. why risk it? second, the day was about to end and darkness was about to set in. without daylight, climbing meant groping in the dark with nothing to see at the top but the flickering distant lights of the town. we also didn't have enough time to spare for the climb as our schedule was already full and we were soon leaving el nido for an additional one-day adventure in puerto princesa. why push it? most importantly, we just weren't ready then to take on the challenge of conquering the taraw cliffs. why dare the odds and flirt with too much trouble if you're not up for it?

BUT the desire to reach the peak of el nido's taraw took seed and grew in the backburner. the taraw adventure became part of the "one day, someday" to-do list.


the lure of taraw, the lure of the famous limestone cliffs on the eastern section of el nido poblacion

with good circumstances like sunny weather, great schedule, and adequate preparedness, taraw cliff climbing is an awesome adventure. it seems really risky and too physically demanding to scale the cliffs but reaching the peak is rewarding.


the awesome panorama as seen from the summit of taraw cliffs

there's the promise of seeing bacuit bay and more of el nido from an elevation of about 200 meters. the unobstructed breathtaking views -- bacuit bay, el nido poblacion, the coastline, and the lush forests of the northwest --  at the top make the climb more than worth it.

since 2009, i have been checking out online posts of people who dared and bravely stood at the top of taraw. i did my research on the cliffs this way and familiarized myself with the risks based on the online write-ups i've read and the taraw videos i've seen in youtube. i took inspiration from the informative posts and knew in my heart that, even though i am no seasoned climber, i, too, can conquer el nido's taraw someday.


destination: taraw peak

that someday happened to me last february, when i pursued a solo trip to palawan. having been to el nido before, the place felt so familiar and i was so at home and confident moving around in el nido town on my own. on the first day of my return in el nido, i joined a group tour to reach the hidden beach and the secret beach, two island hopping destinations which my friends and i didn't get to see during our adventures in 2009 due to unfavorable wave conditions.

towards the end of the island hopping tour, while our boat was docked on the shores of helicopter island and i was just sitting on white sand, i got the chance to share with our tour guide and our lifeguard-of-the-day my plan of pursuing the taraw cliff climbing adventure.


when in el nido, palawan, experience more than the usual

they're licensed guides for the cliff climbing activity, too, and they encouraged me to push through with my plan. i got their reassurance that climbing the taraw would not be as daunting as i first imagined it to be. with that, i was convinced not to pass up the opportunity. the first thing that i did, when our tour boat returned to the mainland, was to sign up for the taraw climb at the booking office of servant tours. the girl at the booking office took my name, checked my el nido ETDF (eco-tourism development fund) form-slash-ID, and assigned my guide for the following day. i was issued an official receipt for my climb fee -- PhP500, the standard rate in el nido for a solo guided climb.


23rd of february 2013
getting to know the taraw cliffs up close
a real deal rock climbing adventure in el nido, palawan

i set out early from my place of stay in el nido town. after informing my host that i was going to the cliffs that morning, i walked a short distance and, at 5:30am, i knocked at the booking office of servant tours. my guide, junjun concepcion, was already there. we agreed to meet early so i could start my taraw adventure at first light.

since it was still very dark when i showed up, junjun suggested that we wait for awhile before we head for the jump-off. although i came prepared and even had a headlamp in my light backpack, i understood the wisdom of postponing the start of the trek to the cliffs a wee bit so we won't have to walk in darkness. to while away the time, i went to the beach -- just some twenty steps away -- and took some pictures as the day's morning colors started to show.


anticipating daylight at the beachfront | el nido, palawan

cold sunrise | the panorama as seen from the beachfront in el nido, palawan

then, at 6am, it was time to get moving. junjun led the way and we entered a maze of alleys to reach the jump-off.

the jump-off is a natural pile of huge rocks at the foot of taraw and, in my opinion, the easiest part of the taraw cliff climbing challenge. once you get past it, expect to deal with more rocks -- bigger, sharper, and higher walls of rock -- as you make your way up, up, and up all the way to the top. right from the start, it is not an easy breezy kind of adventure. you have to be willing to use your hands, stretch your arms and legs, and be wise in choosing footholds as some rocks are unstable.


the journey to the top of the cliffs
following the invisible path to the summit

for safety reasons, climbing the taraw cliffs requires going with someone who knows his way up and down the cliffs. this is where climbing with a licensed guide comes into the picture. each licensed guide is only allowed to accompany a maximum of two guests per climb for a rate of PhP350 per person. for solo climbers, the guide fee is PhP500. the guide's knowledge of the path is crucial in helping you get to the peak of the taraw cliffs and in finding your way back to the town proper.

locating the jump-off point alone is a challenge in itself. one could easily get lost in the narrow community pathways and eventually miss the section of rocks where the trails to the top start. there are trails that the local guides established for the relative safety of their guests. a known trail, although you're likely not to see it on your own, is chosen based on whether one wants to go to the peak of the lower cliffs, which takes a shorter time to conquer, or to the summit of the higher peaks, which takes longer to reach but is more rewarding.


my guide, junjun, on the trail

where there are jagged rocks, more jagged rocks, and impressively high natural walls, there are actually established trails -- the "invisible paths" on taraw -- that the licensed local guides know by heart. reaching the top of the cliffs means befriending the rocks regardless of texture, shape, or size because, not only do they provide the handholds and the footholds, they are, collectively, the trail!

i aimed for the higher peaks of taraw and my guide, junjun, gamely led me to them.


taraw cliffs: lush vegetation and the high walls
oh, yes, part of the trail!

the trail to the summit was very irregular and the climb really required effort. there were only a few short portions of the trail where i was able to do normal walking. for the most part, i had to do scrambling and rock climbing -- never mind that i had no training nor much experience in either of the two, they're really essential to reach the top. avoiding the rocks, multi-storey high vertical walls, and pinnacles of the trail was not an option -- they're everywhere and, more importantly, although they undeniably represent RISKS in big bold letters, they're really the only way up.


looking at the world from the inner walls of the taraw karst
about one-half of the way to the top, i had this early morning view of bacuit bay

there were no ropes, harnesses, or other protective gear and falling was definitely not an option, too. i only had my hands, feet, strength, balance, common sense, and prayers. countless times, i really had to stretch my limbs to reach the next reliable handhold and to securely step on a stable foothold while pulling myself up the walls of rock. most of the handholds were really sharp and painful to grip but it's a good thing that i did not end up having cuts and scratches at all. it's a good thing, too, that i was comfortable with my tribu footwear -- i had no tripping nor slipping issues.

this adventure is not for the weak!


on the footbridge of pinnacles!

when we reached about three-fourths of the way up, we had to get to the other side of the cliffs via a most unlikely footbridge -- very high spiky rocks, irregularly-spaced pinnacles! in my opinion, this is the most difficult part of the trail. good balance is the key to avoid falling off the edges of these very high and very sharp rocks. my guide, who wore only thin-soled flip flops, casually walked on the tip of these rocks. i wanted to do the crossing like he did but my legs shook uncontrollably at the sight of the rocky skewers below so i crouched and crawled, hehe.

as we got closer to the summit and covered more altitude, the distances from foothold to foothold and between handholds became better. the pinnacles along the way were closely-spaced, too. while all these made climbing easier for me, the sheer height from the ground and the dangers of falling became more pronounced, making my knees feel wobbly involuntarily.


walking on a mountain cliff trail | sharp rocks everywhere

i noticed that some of the pinnacles close to the summit already have chipped edges -- the once very sharp tips must have broken off after several occasions of being stepped on or being gripped. seeing them made me realize then that i should even be more careful when putting some of my weight on the sharp edges of the rocks. i really had to stay sharp -- no pun intended, haha --- to plan my movements well. my thought was, "should these sharp sections give way so untimely, i could slip or lose my grip and, consequently, lose my balance."

the chipped edges made me realize one other thing, too: i was not surrounded by ordinary limestone! i was about 200 meters above sea level and i was traipsing on metamorphosed limestone -- marble!!! oh, marvelous!


experiencing the joy of being at the summit of the taraw cliffs
impressions of a self-confessed acrophobic

after an hour-long arduous climb with nothing to hold, step onto, and rest upon but piles of jagged rocks, crevices on vertical walls, and a footbridge of pinnacles, i finally reached the top of the taraw cliffs and was rewarded with a very stunning view of bacuit bay.


taraw cliff climbing? yes, great big check on my to-do list!

nobody else was at the top of the cliffs that morning. just as well. the summit offers unobstructed views of the great expanse below and beyond, effectively allowing one's sight to reach far and wide. however, in stark contrast to the seemingly limitless field that one's eyes can behold from that vantage is the very limited space where one can safely move around -- the top of the taraw cliffs cannot accommodate a lot of people. the summit is a lot like the trail -- very irregular and, because there is no flat surface to step on, the danger of losing good footing is very real.

and so it was great that i was able to have summit all to myself that sunny morning. sure, a guide was with me, but his presence didn't eat up the limited space and didn't take away the peace and quiet. with no one else moving about at that altitude, i felt solitude and that over-all relaxing atmosphere at the top of the taraw cliffs.

awesome! the sights to see from above really, really are!! the pictures do not even do justice to them.


basking in the rewarding joy of daring and cliff climbing!
below and beyond: the awesome view from the top of taraw cliffs :)

i stayed awhile just sitting close to the edge -- not the very edge! -- and allowed my senses to feast upon the sights: bacuit bay and the numerous boats, cadlao island, el nido town and the streets, the forested hills, and the white sand beaches. i stared with much appreciation at the wonderful world before me and, for a few moments, i actually forgot that i was acrophobic. haha.


jutting giant rocks and a peek at the world below the peak:
el nido town proper and bacuit bay



descending from the clifftop
getting to know the trail in reverse

because i dared to climb all the way to the top of el nido's taraw cliffs, i also had to take on the challenge of facing my fear of heights squarely, most especially when it was time to leave the clifftop. the trail going down is the same trail going up and, with pinnacles and vertical rock faces everywhere, the descent proved to be more daunting than the gruelling ascent since watching where i was going meant seeing how dangerously high i was from safe ground -- and, worse, there's no safe ground to fall onto the taraw trail.

with the help of my guide who assisted me in choosing what to grip and where to place my feet while scaling down the high walls, i did manage to get down safely.


the first level of rocks on the way up and the last level of rocks on the way down
yup, this is the jump-off point! :)

it took my guide and me an hour to reach the summit. it also took us an hour to descend all the way from the summit. in less than three hours -- with all that real deal climbing experience using only hands, feet, strength, and balance -- my guide and i were back in the town center.

what can i say? although they looked so sinister with their towering height and sharp facets, the rocks of taraw were so kind to me and did not give me injuries -- no cuts, no scratches, and no bruises; just some shaken nerves, haha.

what more can i say? it was a great morning made even greater by the fact that i made it safely to the summit and back. i dared to climb all the way to the top of el nido's taraw cliffs and the adventure did not disappoint. sure, both the ascent and the descent took a lot of effort but i was still able to enjoy and learn from the journey. i finally understood, too, what i first heard in 2009: go cliff climbing or your el nido adventure would not be complete without it. ,'-)


some useful postscripts

the taraw cliff climbing adventure is not for everyone. dare if you can but make sure you are well aware of your limits. the trail will require a lot more than what you normally give for the usual day hike or for a long walk in the park. be prepared to do free soloing -- rock climbing with no ropes! needless to say, this adventure is physically demanding.

it's not enough that you are an adrenaline junkie, your total being should be up for the challenge.


straight ahead: part the trail
no joke, you have to climb that wall (and that's not the only one!)

the easiest parts of the the taraw cliff climbing challenge? the start and the end... getting past the jump-off point, that is. why? because, there, the rocks are not too sharp, the angle of ascent/descent is not to steep, the risk of falling is not too much, and, in case of emergency, you are closer to getting more help. :D


leave your baggage behind. do not go to the cliffs with a heavy load. i mean that literally and figuratively: travel light and leave your troubles behind.

remember, you're going up the cliffs, where you would be pulling yourself up jagged rocks and vertical walls. bringing unnecessary stuff will not do good to your strength, balance, and over-all well-being. unnecessary load -- whether in your daypack or in your heart and mind -- will only significantly slow you down (if it doesn't do worse, like, actually bring you down).

wear what's appropriate for the activity and bring only what you need. keep your pack light and comfortable to carry.

in my case, my backpack had these: water, trail food, a pair of gloves (which i didn't use), headlamp, a small flashlight, insect repellant, cellphone, and first aid kit. the only "bulky" thing in my bag, aside from the bottles of water, was my dslr camera. i kept my point-and-shoot in the front pocket of my shorts.

remember to bring drinking water. it is essential.


establish camaraderie with your guide. of course, the pre-requisite to this is: go with a local guide, a licensed guide. do not go cliff climbing in el nido without one.


 at the summit | my guide, junjun concepcion

your guide is your necessary climb buddy. he will not only show you where the trails are, he will also help you get up or down the rocks safely. he will tell you to climb a multi-storey cliff face and you will think he's just kidding but he's not. he will assist you in choosing the handholds and the footholds appropriate for your built. his knowledge of the cliffs and the dangers will help you avoid falling into pits and dark cave-like openings, bumping your head against overhangs, stepping on unstable rocks, and tripping on wild vines. listening to his stories will keep you alert, making you more appreciative of your adventure.

at the summit, he will take your pictures. hehe.


respect the place, leave no trace. do not be like the others who went to the taraw cliffs before me and irresponsibly left their empty water bottles and food wrappers along the trail and at the summit. be a courteous guest of the cliffs. do not carve your name or leave any form of graffiti on the rocks of taraw. vandalizing the cliffs just so others will know that you've been there is not the way to build your legacy.


mind the rains, mind the sun. pray that it doesn't rain just before, during ascent, while you're there at the top, and during the descent. the mountain cliff trail is composed of rocks, rocks, and rocks, which are guaranteed slippery and difficult to deal with when wet. pray for just enough sunshine. doing the climb when the sun's already high up is not ideal -- your body will be needing more water for hydration, the rocks will be too hot to touch, and staying at the summit, where there is no shade, will be far from relaxing.


be careful. you do know that cliff climbing is risky, right?


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