A Morning with My Preschooler at La Mesa Eco Park

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
marcel proust
I still remember when I first visited La Mesa Eco Park in Quezon City for a fashion editorial shoot (one of my favorites!).  I was amazed that a park that large (33 hectares) could be hidden within this crowded city. That was in 2010 and I hadn't been back since, until a few weeks ago when E's nursery class visited the park for their end-of-year field trip and family day. I am glad to report that the park is still as green and well-kept as it was many years ago (which is not often the case for public areas in Manila, unfortunately).

One of the joys of having children is that I get to be a traveller in my hometown. I've lived in Metro Manila for most of my life and I've visited most of the kid-friendly places in the city, thanks to the 11 years I spent as a writer and then an editor for three kids' magazines (first, K-Zone; then, Monster Allergy; then, finally, my beloved Total Girl). But I was not yet a parent in those days.

Visiting with a preschooler on a mission to fully experience everything rather than with a fashion editorial team on a tight schedule allowed me to see the park with fresh, eager, and gracious eyes. I know some may dread taking their young kids out in public because of the potential for disaster—I know because, on some days, I am one of those people—but I urge you to bring a venti cup of coffee to rinse away the pessimism  and try to see all the potential for wonder, three feet from the ground, arms outstretched, head in constant motion. Up, down, back, around, then back up again. And if, on that morning, you are having trouble finding joy, bring a magnifying glass. No, really. Literally. Because if you do, I guarantee your preschooler will have no trouble pointing out to you that there is much to wonder about hiding in plain view.

The Butterfly Haven

We started at the Butterfly Pavillion (Php60/person) where we were able to observe the life cycle of a butterfly from egg to pupa to butterfly. This was a treat because what child isn't familiar with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, right? It was helpful to have this book in my memory while we looked at the different stages. I'd never realized that the little egg that lay on the leaf was really a tiny, little speck of a thing, with so many brothers and sisters around it to boot. If that familiar story had been written realistically, there's no way the very hungry caterpillar could have eaten three plums all by himself, or all of Saturday's gluttonous feast, for that matter; he'd have had to elbow his siblings out of the way to get his share. (If he had elbows, that is.)

One thing of note was that there was a very helpful guard on site. Guard, not guide, although there was one of those, too. It was the guard who was very eager to explain everything to us, even citing scientific names of the different species. He aided us with the handling of the caterpillars, for those who were brave enough to have the hands-on experience. Ticklish. Prickly.

After the breeding area, we went to the butterfly sanctuary where the hatched and metamorphosed caterpillars had already taken flight. A feeder filled with water and flowers enticed the fluttering fliers to alight and stay still long enough for us to observe them in wonder. Proboscis was the new word of the day, a butterfly's drinking straw that dipped delicately into the nectar-sweetened water. It's hard to keep a preschooler's attention, but this experience did the trick.

Shell Flower Terraces

The next stop was unplanned, but when three-year-olds see a flower-covered hill, they must climb it. And then run back down, of course, while their worried parents watch, visions of "Jack and Jill" and broken crowns in their heads (No? Just me then?). It's funny how kids lose their sense of hearing when in a grassy green space so that calls of "this is the last time, okay?" and "let's go" never seem to reach their ears. Must be the wind.

This was E's favorite area. She must have climbed up and run down that hill more than twenty times. And when she got tired of that, she did it again—on a bike.

Bring Your Own Bike

A sign said bicycles were available for rent, but we'd brought E's Strider. We'd never brought her bike out of the village before, so this was a treat. The wide pathway let her zoom around past couples with selfie sticks and photographers trying to capture graduation photos (to the class of 2016, we apologize for that blur in your background). There were enough uphills and downhills to keep her ride interesting and challenging, while the flatter areas allowed her curious classmates to try out the two-wheeled, pedal-less anomaly. The absence of cars also made this a relatively safe place for her to explore, riding fast and hard, just the way she likes to.

The Little Things 

Being in a nature park was, of course, a great time to talk about nature. We pointed out the different plant species we saw, marveled at giant leaves, looked for frogs, and wondered how a plant could grow in just water.

There's an orchidarium as well, which we weren't able to visit (though I remember it to be quite beautiful when we shot there in 2010). At lunchtime, we ate under giant trees and talked about tree trunks and tree bark. We wondered what kinds of animals would enjoy the bananas and apples we'd brought. She decided that most animals would probably like the cookies and chips the best.

Preschool time may seem like its all rush, rush, rush, but sometimes there are wonderful opportunities to slow down; to be quiet and listen; to sit and enjoy each other's company.

We'll Be Back!

The park's website lists a lot of other activities that we didn't have time for, that we didn't prepare for (next time, we'll bring our swimsuits!), or that were not as child-friendly, but that older visitors may enjoy. I like that we have options for future visits. I can imagine an overnight camping trip in our future (there were colorful tents set up when we visited), or perhaps a boat ride, a trip to learn about water and the dam, or even a forest-themed birthday party held in one of their rentable areas. Most of the facilities have fees, but the cost is minimal and a small price to pay for the upkeep of such a large space. (Click image to enlarge or see rates here.)

Just think of your entrance fee as a vote for green spaces such as this. And our city kids desperately need green spaces such as this, with real grass and tall trees, and plants not cordoned off behind a do not touch sign. In the Senate bill that declares La Mesa Eco Park a protected area, it is called "the last remaining rainforest of its size in Metro Manila." Remaining—that means there used to be more.

If you visit, post about it, write about, tell your friends about it, so people know that green spaces matter in this city of malls. If you visit with your kids, talk to them about forests and trees, why they are important, and why we don't see so many of them around anymore. Maybe, someday, we'll see a sign that says, soon to rise, a park, not a parking lot.

Or, environmental consciousness and conservationism aside, just bring your kids here to remind the child in you what she's been missing out on. (I really want my own bike now.)

Need to Know

La Mesa Dam Compound,
Greater Lagro, Quezon City
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except Christmas Day and New Year's Eve)

Before You Go

  • Pack snacks. There are food stalls, fish balls, and fruit shakes, but my preschooler preferred the snacks we brought from home. 
  • Pack bug spray. There weren't too many mosquitos around the park when we went, but it is an outdoor area and you never know when those buggers will decide it's mealtime. 
  • Pack a picnic blanket. We found a comfortable round table and benches to sit on, but on crowded days when a field trip or tour group is around, I imagine the seating can get filled up quickly.
  • Pack a band-aid. Scrapes may happen when a three-year-old is having fun. At least for me, it's easier to remedy than to constantly remind her to slow down, watch where you're going, or be careful. 

Getting There

Know any other green spaces in the city? We'd love to hear about them and visit them, too!