The makeshift greenhouse is made from eco bricks. We planted hundreds of seeds that day.

Travel For a Cause in Zambales

My friend Char wanted to do something different for her birthday. Last weekend she took us to Zambales for Tribes and Treks, an organized tour that’s different from your usual luxury or adventure travel. Through our immersion, the stories of our guide, Andrea Legaspi, and the accounts of Tribes and Treks founder, Raf Dionisio, we learned more about tourism that gives back.

Each Tribes and Treks tour can accommodate up to 20 people, max. My group of 12 joined other travelers.

It Started With An Instagram Post

Almost two years ago, Raf went on a cultural tour with the Aetas of Zambales. Like most Instagrammers, he posted a photo of his trip with the mountains as the backdrop. In awe of the scenery, he described how beautiful and lush the mountains are.

His friends from Mindanao, with their knowledge in forestry, commented, “They actually look like they’re dying.” This prompted Raf to research more about the state of the environment in San Felipe, Zambales.

He began immersing in the lives of the Yangil, one of the nine indigenous tribes of Zambales. For the last 20 months, Raf and his team of social entrepreneurs have helped the Aetas plant trees in an effort to re-forest 3,000 hectares of ancestral domain in San Felipe.

The valleys between mountains still have remnants of lahar (mudflow) from the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption. Pictured here is Jeff of Pinoy Fitness. Check out his video of our trip here.
The trek to Sitio Yangil takes about 1-2 hours, depending on how fast you walk. It includes river stops, where you can go for a dip with the carabaos (water buffalos).

Aside from visiting Sitio Yangil several times a month to check on their sustainability projects, Raf and his team wanted to share their knowledge of Yangil with other conscientious travelers. He enlisted the help of Circle Hostel and MAD Travel, and they came up with Tribes and Treks.

This tour lets you spend a day with the Aetas of Yangil, help them plant trees, break bread with the tribe, and learn about their lives—ancestry, culture, and means of livelihood. At the end of the tour, you head back to Circle Hostel, where San Felipe’s famous beach and surfing destination awaits.

What To Expect

For a slot in Tribes and Treks, the price is P1,500 per head. This excludes accommodation, transportation, and other personal expenses. The tour is every Saturday, and you need to secure your slot early by contacting Circle Hostel or MAD Travel. Your day pass includes:

1. Aeta tour guide
2. English-speaking tour guide
3. Carabao (buffalo) escort
4. Morning snack
5. Lunch

Our sumptuous lunch was prepared by the Yangil tribe. Clockwise from left: fried tilapia (fish), tinolang manok (chicken soup in ginger broth), adobong manok (chicken), and sliced tomatoes with onions.
In her 90s, Nanay Milyang (in red) is one of the oldest members of the Yangil tribe. Here, she is showing us the native courtship dance.

Highlights of the trip:

1. Trek through the valley of the Aeta ancestral domain
2. Swimming in the freshwater rivers
3. Experience indigenous culture with the Aeta elders
4. Tribal herbal medicine class
5. Tribal dance and music
6. Indigenous food (morning snack and lunch)
7. Archery lessons
8. Helping the Aetas replant the rainforest
9. Learn about sustainable community living and help the tribes become self-sufficient through agro-forestry

The makeshift greenhouse is made from eco bricks. We planted hundreds of seeds that day.
Tribe and Treks is organized by Circle Hostel (Zambales branch), MAD Tours (Make A Difference), and the local government of San Felipe.

According to MAD Travel, 30% of the revenue is spread out through the local community.

Why I Endorse This Tour

When our tour guide, Andrea, sat down with us pre-trip to explain the do’s and don’ts—like asking permission from the tribe before taking their photos and making sure we collect our trash to dispose after the trip—I knew this was a conscientious venture. No poverty porn, no treating the situation like a zoo viewing, and no exploitation.

Yangil’s village is at the foot of a mountain. To get there, we trekked through an expansive valley. Most of it is still covered in remnants of lahar (mudflow or debris) from the infamous Mt. Pinatubo eruption back in 1991. I was a little girl when this happened, but I remember how our house in Cavite and our school in Manila were covered in ash. Zambales is around 160 miles from Manila, so you can imagine the extent of the damage of the volcanic eruption.

My group takes a swimming break by the river. There are hardly any trees along the path, so it was hot.
Kate was here. Archery isn’t as easy as it looks.

My friend Sandra and I asked our Aeta guides about where they were during the 1991 eruption. Chief Erese, the head of the Yangil tribe, told us how the smell of sulfur (like rotten eggs) permeated the air that day, and soon enough Mt. Pinatubo started erupting. They lost a lot of lives—animals and crops included—and it took years to return to their normal lives.

When we arrived at the village, we learned that there is no electricity, and that they built their own houses from scratch. The Yangil people are seasoned in mountain climbing, trekking, hunting, and farming. For most of their needs, from medicinal to nourishment, they turn to the flaura and fauna of the forest.

To get to school every day, the kids have to walk one hour (the same lahar-ridden path we trekked under the scorching sun) to get to the school on the other side. “If we’re late for school, we run instead of walk, and it takes us 30 minutes to get there,” said Princess and Riana, two sisters who are in high school.

Don’t worry; this carabao wasn’t in distress. He simply decided to flop into the water as we crossed. Here, the Aetas are helping him cool down by splashing more water.
Lolo Doyong is the master of archery in their village. They use it to hunt.

That day we planted seeds in their makeshift greenhouse, went swimming with the carabaos in the rivers en route to Yangil village, ate a sumptuous lunch of Filipino food with the tribe, learned archery and herbal medicine, and got to know the Aetas beyond the stereotypes painted by our schoolbooks and TV reports.

How To Give Back After

The biggest lesson I learned about charity work and giving back to the community through the years is: don’t just dole out. To quote philosopher Maimonides: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Chief Erese, the head of the Yangil tribe, gives us a brief history of their tribe.
For a while, their cultural music and dance took a backseat as the tribe focused on alleviating poverty and feeding their tribe.

But they already know how to fish—figuratively and literally. In fact, they’re so much better at it than sheltered, privileged people like myself.

I asked Andrea, “What else can we do to help after this trip?” She told us they asked the Yangil tribe the same question before. No, they didn’t ask for donations in food, clothing, or other material necessities. “Just give us seeds,” they said.

Around the village you’ll see livestock, like pigs, chickens, and goats.
Group photo: 20 travelers from Manila and Australia, MAD Travel’s guides, and the Aetas of Sitio Yangil.

They need seeds to grow more plants and trees in order to rebuild the thousands of hectares of ancestral land that has not yet returned to its original thriving state since the Mt. Pinatubo eruption of 1991. They need seeds to grow crops that sustain their livelihood. The schoolchildren also need books in the Filipino language to help improve literacy and education.


Many of the seeds planted by the previous visitors have already begun to sprout.

If you’re planning to a book a slot in Tribes and Treks, ask the organizer what types of seeds you can donate to the tribe. Bring books (in Tagalog) for the schoolchildren. Take the seed-planting activity seriously and aim to plant hundreds of crops with your group.

When you get back home, more than posting hashtag-filled captions in your Instagram posts, spread the seeds of information about this hardworking tribe aiming to alleviate their community from poverty.

And then come back to see if the seeds have sprouted.

Date of visit: July 1, 2017

Photos by Kate Was Here. Additional photos courtesy of Liane Ng and Pinoy Fitness.