The Marilaque Highway: Best Scenic Drive Near Manila
The Philippines has many beautiful scenic drives. Some are coastal drives whilst others are mountain drives. Most are located well away from the major cities and popular tourist spots. However, there’s one that is an easy day trip from Manila – the Marilaque Highway.
This scenic highway traverses Luzon from the outskirts of Metro Manila to Infanta on the Pacific coast. It’s about 110km long and crosses the Sierra Madre mountain range, reaching a height of a little over 2,500ft (770m).
The Marilaque Highway winds its way through small villages and scattered roadside settlements, through patches of rainforest, past picturesque waterfalls, and on most days will take you above the clouds or through foggy stretches that are reminiscent of mountain drives at much higher elevations.
The condition of the road is generally good, but in December 2015 a landslide swept away the Querocep Bridge just after the 90km mark. Progress on rebuilding the bridge has been slow, and as at the beginning of 2019, only two concrete spans had been prefabricated on site.
A temporary one-lane steel bridge was opened early in 2018 but it is suitable only for light vehicles. On the Infanta side of the temporary bridge, there is a fairly steep dirt road that has to be negotiated for about 100 metres before vehicles are back on the concrete road.
Most conventional vehicles should be able to negotiate that section in dry weather, but in wet weather it is suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles only, or at the very least SUVs with all-terrain tyres.
Therefore visitors who are planning to hire a car to experience this drive, should hire a four-wheel drive or SUV to keep open the option of crossing the temporary bridge and continuing to the end of the Marilaque Highway because the drive from that point down into the Agos River valley is one of the most picturesque sections of the highway.
Heading east from Manila
The Marilaque Highway starts in Marikina as an extension of Aurora Boulevard – a busy thoroughfare that heads directly east from Cubao. This section of the highway, which is still within Metro Manila, is commonly known as the Marcos Highway and is 8-10 lanes wide.
The common use of its alternative name probably arises from the fact that many people are not too sure how to pronounce ‘Marilaque’. The word is a portmanteau of Marikina and the three provinces through which the highway passes (Rizal, Laguna and Quezon).
Weekdays are the best days to do the drive. It’s essential to make an early start because although the drive takes only three hours from Marikina to Infanta, you will want to stop along the way, and more importantly, you will need to allow time to clear the rush hour traffic in Manila. Fortunately you will be travelling against the worst of the traffic when leaving, but getting to Marikina still can take more than an hour from some parts of the city.
Saturday is the worst day to do the drive because not only is traffic in the city as bad as on weekdays, it’s the day that the Marilaque Highway carries its heaviest traffic. Sunday is easiest day for getting out of the city, but traffic on the highway is nearly as heavy as Saturday.
After Marikina, the highway passes the Sta. Lucia and SM Masinag shopping malls and then reduces to four lanes. From here through to Cogeo the road is very busy every day of the week and there are many squatter settlements on either side of the road. After Cogeo the traffic eases as the road gently climbs to the Boso Boso Highlands and the first views of the Sierra Madre mountain range can be seen to the north.
The road then dips down into a rice-growing valley and past the village of Pinugay, and then back up into the mountains. From this point on, the highway has a 50kph speed limit.
New speed limit
The speed limit was introduced in 2018 in response to frequent motorcycle accidents. The Marilaque Highway is a popular weekend drive for Manila motorcyclists, many of whom have likened the highway to the infamous ‘Tail of the Dragon’ in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which many US motorcyclists call ‘the best ride in North America’.
However, like the ‘Tail of the Dragon’, the Marilaque Highway has experienced many fatal accidents as a result of motorcyclists taking curves too fast or overtaking in places that were not safe. This made the road dangerous for motorists too, but hopefully the new speed limit will make the highway safer for all road users.
After Cogeo, the only town of any note is Sampaloc, Tanay. This is a mango-growing region and it’s worth stopping at one of the fruit stalls along the roadside to stock up on mangoes and other tropical fruits.
The mangoes that you will buy here will be fresh from the orchards so will last longer than those bought in the city. They will usually be sweeter and juicier, because mangoes that are harvested for sale in the city are usually picked before they have fully ripened.
Between Cogeo and Sampaloc, there are several places where you will have good views of Laguna de Bay – the largest lake in the Philippines, and the source of most of the freshwater fish that is sold in the capital.
After Sampaloc the highway is only two lanes wide, but traffic is light, so it’s easy to drive. However, as the road climbs higher, there will often be foggy patches as low cloud blankets the highway, requiring drivers to slow down and use lights if the fog becomes thick.
About three-quarters of the way to Infanta, near one of the highest points of the highway, is an eating-place called Jariel’s Peak. It’s near the 94km road marker, but keep in mind the road markers are from Rizal Park in Manila, not the start of the Marilaque Highway. From the start of the highway proper in Marikina, this point is a little over 80km.
Jariel’s Peak is often as far as bikers travel at the weekend as evidenced by the Yamaha advertising signs and many motorcycle-themed stickers plastered all over its damp walls.
The restaurant is often shrouded in fog and is usually very crowded at weekends. It has a menu offering exotic foods such as deer, rabbit, frogs, python and mountain snails. For those with weaker stomachs, there are three other eating-places along the same stretch of highway, all with same 180-degree views of the mountains to the south (fog permitting).
From here it’s about another 10km to the Querocep Bridge. The temporary bridge is often closed for short periods when construction materials are being moved around, so drivers should be prepared for delays.
It’s best that travellers have contingency plans should it not be possible to cross the temporary bridge, or if the delay is likely to be longer than they can accommodate in their itinerary.
For those who may have to travel back the same route to Manila, remember that scenery looks completely different when travelling in the other direction, so the drive back will be just as enjoyable as the drive there.
For those who are able to cross the bridge and continue towards Infanta, look out for the Kakawayan Bridge about one kilometre further on. It’s just after the 110km road marker. On the other side of the bridge there is a waterfall with space for about 3-4 cars to pull off the road. It’s a nice spot to stop and freshen up as there are good views over the mountains to the north.
From here on down to Infanta it’s an easy downhill drive with some spectacular views over the Agos River valley. However there are often landslides along this section of the highway, and the road narrows to one lane where road repairs are being carried out.
The Marilaque Highway finishes where it joins the Famy-Real-Infanta Road. Here you have the option of turning right and taking the route back through Real and Famy to Manila (which takes about an hour longer than the Marilaque Highway) or continuing straight ahead to Infanta.
There is not much to see in Infanta, but it takes only 10 minutes to reach the town, and then another 10 minutes to the Pacific coast, and many travellers like to do this so that they can say they’ve driven from one side of Luzon to the other.
The beaches on this part of the east coast are grey sand and are subject to tidal rips, so are not recommended for swimming. Also access to the beach is difficult because most of the properties on the beach are private and accessible only along dirt tracks.
However, there are a few small (and very basic) ‘resorts’ along the beach that advertise ‘restaurants’ (again, very basic) and buying a snack or a few soft drinks at one of these places will usually give you access to the beach.
Routes back to Manila
Assuming you’ve reached Infanta by lunchtime, the best alternative route back is along the Famy-Real-Infanta road which will take you first through the town of Real (which is in Quezon province) and then up into the mountains again to Famy (which is in Laguna province).
This mountain drive is not as high as the Marilaque Highway drive, but it’s nevertheless very picturesque with the road winding through green coconut plantations with red cordylines lining the roadsides at the higher elevations.
Between the towns of Real and Famy, just before the road leaves the coast, there is a small fishing village where fresh seafood is sold by the side of the road. It’s worth taking an icebox so you can stock up on ocean fish, crabs, squid and prawns at prices much cheaper than back in the city.
The fish here has all been caught in the Pacific Ocean, which means it won’t contain heavy metals or other pollutants that have been detected in some fish species that have been raised in the Laguna de Bay fish farms.
As the road descends towards Laguna de Bay after Famy, look out for a pasalubong (souvenir) shop on the right hand side of the road. They sell the most delicious peanut and cheese tartlets, as well as a wide range of other local delicacies.
When the road reaches the national highway at the bottom of the hill, you will turn right and head towards Manila. After about 5km, the road climbs back up into the hills and passes the Pillila wind farm. This part of the highway is known as the Manila East Road.
Along the highway there are many places selling rattan products. This is one of the cheapest places in the Philippines to buy a rattan hammock. There are also many fruit stalls selling bananas and pineapples -- and longans when in season.
Between Pillila and Morong, the highway passes along the eastern shore of Laguna de Bay, and there are many restaurants and coffee shops along this stretch of highway. If it’s dinnertime by the time you reach here, you may wish to eat at one of these roadside restaurants, or alternatively head up to Antipolo via Teresa and have dinner at one of the many eating-places there.
From Antipolo you can take the Sumulong Highway back down to the Marcos Highway at Masinag. There are several open-air bars on the left hand side of the Sumulong Highway that offer impressive nighttime views of the city lights.
But if you are staying on the southern side of Manila, you may prefer to stay on the Manila East Road and head back to the city via Binangonan and Taytay. There are not so many eating options on that route, but there are several shopping malls along the way.
Alternative return routes
For those who had to turn back at the Querocep Bridge, or who decided to go no further than Jariel’s Peak, there is an alternative route back that is longer than the direct route on the Marilaque Highway, but much shorter than the Famy-Real-Infanta road.
About 6km back from Jariel’s Peak, look for a road that is signed to Santa Maria, Laguna. This road provides some very good views of Laguna de Bay as it descends from the Marilaque Highway directly down to the Manila East Road.
The first two kilometres of the road is quite narrow – barely two lanes wide – but it’s a concrete road and is reasonably easy to drive with care. After that there is a short stretch of gravel road before the road widens into a full two-lane wide concrete road.
This road is not recommended to drive at night because in the narrow section it may be hard to see the edge of the road, but during the day it is fine. This route provides the same dinner options as route back via Real and Famy.
For those who decide to take the Marilaque Highway back to Marikina, there are several good restaurants and a steakhouse on the highland ridges between Sampaloc and the Masungi Georeserve, which make good stops for dinner.
There’s also a quirky café by the strange name of Park, Rest and Dine that serves ‘home-cooked’ style Filipino food that is tucked away in the rainforest on the right hand side as the highway descends back down towards Pinugay. However, it sometimes gets invaded by large mosquitoes around dusk, so is best for a late afternoon meal while it is still light, or dinner after dark.
Whichever route you decide to take, the Marilaque Highway provides a memorable day out for those who enjoy nature, clean air, mountain scenery and time away from the traffic congestion and air pollution of the big city.
Header image: The Agos River valley from the Marilaque Highway
Editor’s note: Two hours after this article was published we read that a landslide had closed the Marilaque Highway near the Infanta end. This only reinforces the need to have contingency plans when tackling this drive – especially during wet weather.