Top 5 Things To Do In Paris

Paris at night

Paris at night

Musee du Louvre at night

Musee du Louvre at night

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

view of Paris from the top of Eiffel Tower

sidewalk bookstore

sidewalk bookstore

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

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a street musician

a street musician

In a pavement café nearby a man scribbles on a notepad, his cigarette jutting out precariously from his pursed lips as he breathes out smoke through his nostrils. With one arm dangling at the back of his chair, he holds his gaze on passersby as if prowling for inspiration. Not far away, a young couple canoodles on a park bench backdropped by the Eiffel Tower, oblivious of the street artist sketching away their fervid affection. I sip on a Bordeaux, wondering if I’ve just caught the ghosts of Hemingway and Picasso.

It is early July, and the buttery aroma of warm croissants rolls on the soft summer breeze. The bistro’s terrace buzzes with multilingual tete-a-tetes of lounging tourists and locals. I cut through my filet mignon slowly, letting its pink juices spill into the buttery pepper sauce before I raise a tiny piece to my mouth. Though tempted to devour it quickly and ravenously, I slice it with carefulness better suited to retouching a valuable Renaissance painting. In a city that has been perfecting beauty and l’art de vivre since the reign of Napoleon III, it would be a shame not to take pleasure in both fine things and the mundane. Even the crisp-collared waitresses across me glide with elegance, like ballerinas dancing to the cadence of porcelain cups tapping against saucers, between neatly arranged tables.

Paris induces a trance-like obedience in its visitors, making them slow down, listen to the street jazz musicians and appreciate the sensual details of nearby statues. It inspires non-poets to scribble a line or two, as it did some of the world’s greatest painters and writers, like Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. Everywhere I look is a head-spinning array of historical monuments and architectural wonders- centuries-old cathedrals, chandeliered chateaus and museums filled with the world’s greatest masterpieces. While it may take a lifetime to fully experience Paris, here are five things to do to at least scratch the surface:

1.) See the Eiffel Tower at night

Ditching my backpack at a graffiti-covered hostel with cracked front door glass, I rush out to catch a Metro to the Eiffel Tower. To see the iconic landmark, especially at night, has to be anyone’s first order of business in the City of Lights. As I step out of the carriage, the streets are in full swing. Chicly dressed tourists saunter on the sidewalk. Brasseries are filled with men and women deep in wine and conversation. Then I see it, a wondrous vision bathed in ethereal, golden light. The Eiffel Tower soars a thousand feet into the sky, looking like a sparkling rocket of iron lacework. I pause to admire its imposing presence. How on earth did I get lucky?

It is hard to imagine that Parisians were initially against it. In 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Engineer Gustave Alexandre Eiffel completed this elegant, 320-meter tall signature skyscraper as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair. It was publicly denounced as useless and monstrous by a group of artists and intellectuals, and was already scheduled for demolition in 1909 until the government saw its potential as a transmitter of telegraph and converted it into a grand science laboratory for radio communications and weather research. Over the years, research and innovations conducted at the Eiffel Tower have brought dramatic payoffs, saving it from becoming a pile of scrap. During World War I, for instance, the French Army used the tower to intercept the German communications, which led to the arrest of a notorious spy. Today, the Eiffel Tower attracts around seven million visitors each year, making it the most visited paid for attraction in the world.

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your truly :)

your truly :)

2.) Douse yourself in art at the Louvre Museum

The grandeur of Musee du Louvre is impossible to ignore. Lining up to enter the massive glass pyramid at the center of the courtyard, I let my eyes survey the palace buildings around the museum, moving across its ornate walls and intricately carved pediments inch by inch. Set into the stone facade high above the ground are statues of angels and noted French scholars, looking like stalwart guardians of the palace, which was originally built as a fortress by King Philippe-Auguste in 1190. In the 16th century, it was reconstructed into a royal residence, and was expanded many times to become the astounding palace that it is today. When King Louis XIV moved his household to Chateau Versailles in the 17th century, the Louvre became a grand museum that exhibited the royal collection and artifacts.

My predicament is that an entire day seems insufficient for the staggering collection inside the museum. Besides masterpieces from neighboring countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Louvre also houses artworks from Africa and the Middle East. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in the 18th century, he demanded art pieces from the countries he conquered. Acclaimed paintings, Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, each piece silently tells a story of the bygone era’s opulence and tragedy.

With strained eyes and aching feet, I follow the signs pointing to the mysterious lady who attracts nearly 10 million visitors each year. Deep into the endless labyrinth of paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” sits behind a bulletproof glass, flanked by guards. She is lovely; her enigmatic smile fades and reappears, depending on my viewpoint. She is much smaller than everyone thinks she is, only 21 by 30 inches, but inarguably the most famous among the 35,000 artworks displayed inside the world’s largest museum. I would pay much more to see her in solitude, but with a crowd constantly battling for a good photo with her, I know it is one hopeless wish.

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Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

ornate facade of the Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

Louvre Palace

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The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

The Mona Lisa is protected by a bullet proof glass

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo's masterpiece inside the Louvre

Michaelangelo’s masterpiece inside the Louvre

yours truly :)

yours truly :)

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3.) Climb the bell tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Without blinking an eye, I try to figure out which biblical events are depicted by the intricate carvings on the three large portals of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I only recognize two: the resurrection of Jesus and the coronation of the Virgin Mary. The angry-looking gargoyles perched atop the bell towers seem displeased at my ignorance. At the center of the façade, a large rose forms a halo around the sculpture of the Holy Mother, who carries the baby Jesus and is flanked by two angels. I join the queue at the entrance, stealing glances at the statues of Israelite kings carved right above the portals.

Soaring 223 feet into the sky, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, a style that originated in France during the Middle Ages and is characterized by pointed arcs, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. The construction of the edifice began in 1163, under the reign of Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. The grand Cathedral has played host to many religious ceremonies and historical events, such as the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804, the wedding of King Henry IV to Margaret of Valois in 1572 and the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920.

Inside, I stroll along the pews, oftentimes pausing to admire the curves and contours of the vaulted ceilings and the elaborate carvings of the Stations of the Cross. In a rainbow burst of colors, the stained glass windows above filter the sunshine through images of Jesus, the Apostles, saints and martyrs.

Puffing heavy breaths as I climb up the tower, I somehow keep a lookout for a hunchbacked man moping in a dark corner near the 300-year old bell. The Cathedral’s imposing towers became legend because of 19th century novelist Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1829 with the intent of saving the gothic church from neglect and demolition. Of course, there is no monstrous man at the tower, just statues of grimacing demons and chimeras staring out into the city, petrified over time. Expecting a nice bird’s eye view of the city, I am not disappointed. The tower perhaps has the best view of Paris, and I can clearly see the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

ornate facade of Nore Dame Cathedral

yours truly

yours truly

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

inside Notre Dame Cathedral

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view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

view of the city from the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral

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4.) Indulge in some royal scandal at Chateau Versailles

“King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Therese were actually first cousins,” says a tour guide in her thick French accent, eliciting gasps of shock from a group of Asians. I run my fingers on the pink marble walls of the Grand Trianon, an elegantly proportioned single-storey mansion located near the main palace of Versailles. Outside, geometrically arranged beds of orange and purple flowers nod and sway in the light breeze. “King Louis XIV housed one of his mistresses, Madame de Montespan, here at the Grand Trianon. Rumor has it that he also had an affair with his brother’s wife!” the guide continues, raising a finger across her lips.

For the French peasants in the 17th and 18th century, the Chateau Versailles was an offensive display of opulence and power. In 1661, King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a grand palace and gardens, with the intent of creating a place where his court could live under his watchful eye. So costly it nearly wiped out the treasury of France, the apartments of the palace are lavished with countless paintings and sculptures, velvet draperies, carpets, gilded bronze, chandeliers and large mirrors, which were staggeringly expensive back then. The Chateau Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682, when King Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre, until 1789, when the royal family was forced to return to central Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution. Three generations of self-glorifying kings lived here: Louis XIV, XV and XVI, each spinning their own brand of scandals that fueled the public hatred, which eventually led to the decapitation of the youngest Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Chateau Versailles

Chateau Versailles

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

large fountain at the Versailles gardens

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Chateau Versailles

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Chateau Versailles

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

Hall of Mirrors inside the Versailles Palace

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ornate walls and ceiling inside the Chateau Versailles

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chapel inside the Versailles Palace

chapel inside the Versailles Palace

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

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royal portraits

royal portraits

royal portraits

the Grand Trianon

the Grand Trianon

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Grand Trianon

Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

inside the Grand Trianon

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Versailles gardens

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outside the Versailles Palace

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5.) Retrace the steps of Hemingway and Picasso in Montmarte

Deftly moving the bow across the strings, a grizzly old violinist in a dirty beret serenades strollers on a crowded street in Montmartre. Tourists munching on overpriced crepes line the staircase that reaches up to the sparkling white Basilica of Sacre Couer, whose domes curve like women’s breasts pointing to the sky. I make my way up the hill to find Place du Tertre, a small square frequented by Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway during the decadent years of Post WWI Paris.

Montmartre is a large hill on the outskirts of Paris known for the white-domed basilica on its summit and as a nightclub district. At the beginning of the twentieth century, flocks of artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso had studios here because of the low rent and the congenial atmosphere. The neighborhood also fueled the creative fires of expatriate writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, who was so enamored with Paris he wrote a few books about it.

Today, artists are banished to outdoor sheds because of skyrocketing rent. Art studios have been replaced with gaudy nightclubs, souvenir stores and sex shops that sell unimaginable things. Past a street of pimps who discreetly invite passersby for a “boom boom”, I find the legendary Moulin Rouge, a cabaret known for its extravagant circus-like shows and overflowing champagne. Here, courtesans in exotic feathered costumes popularized the can-can dance, a high-energy dance that involves high kicks, jump splits and cartwheels. The Moulin Rouge eventually became a symbol of Paris’ exciting nightlife during its most glorious years, when arts and festivities combined and life was all about beauty and pleasure.

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

Sacre Couer Basilica

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OTHER PLACES TO SEE IN PARIS:

St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

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amazing stained glass windows inside St. Chapelle

St Chapelle's gate

St Chapelle’s gate

Arc De Triomphe

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Musee d’Orsay

Musee D'Orsay

Musee D’Orsay

outside Musee D'Orsay

outside Musee D’Orsay

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

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a Van Gogh painting

 

a Claude Monet painting

a Claude Monet painting

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Claude Monet’s

Claude Monet's painting

Claude Monet’s painting

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Roadtrip to Sahara

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

at the Sahara Desert

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

Ait Benhaddou (aka Yunkai in Game of Thrones)

hilltop villages

hilltop villages

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Glamping in Sahara Desert

Innumerable stars scatter across the heavens like diamond dust on a blanket of total blackness. Some are dull, merely flickering into existence, but many are brilliant enough to illuminate the dark, moonless night. Occasionally across the quiet panorama, a meteor plummets; usually faint, glimpsed only from the eye’s periphery, gone before it registers in my brain. Suddenly, from the campfire in the middle of the desert echoes the deep and melodious plucking of the ginbri and the clashing of the qarqaba, blending with the soulful voices of our Africans guides. For a moment I am whisked away from reality by a magic carpet, which takes me on a whirlwind ride over the gigantic dunes of the Sahara Desert.

The Sahara, which is Arabic for “the greatest desert”, is indeed the world’s largest hot desert, covering 9 million square kilometers, or about 31% of Africa. It covers huge parts of Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia. The desert is one of the driest and hottest spots in the world, with temperature soaring as high as 58 degrees Celsius. Practically uninhabitable, although there is a small group of livestock-raising nomads called the Tuareg who lives on its outer edges.

Day 1

As the sweltering madness of Marrakech begins to wear me out, I hop into a van with ten other backpackers from different continents and set off for the Sahara. Tapping our fingers to the African beats on the radio, we drive through dusty roads that snake from imperial Marrakech to rusty red hillside villages that camouflage the mountains. The scenery mutates at every bend; one moment cliffs, the next vast landscape peppered with bald acacia trees and date palms. Quintessential Africa. Some twelve kilometers from Marrakech we reach the beginning of the Atlas Mountain chain, where we drive past biblical-looking Berbers pulling on the lead of their donkeys and tending to their sheep. Some are perched on the roadside, surrounded by shelves of tagines and brightly colored plates for sale. The Berbers, I find out, are the indigenous North Africans who were forced to move to the Atlas Mountains during the Arab invasion in the 7th century. Occasionally we pull over at roadside cliffs a thousand meters above the ground to stretch our legs and to oooh and aaah at the breathtaking sceneries.

Berber villages

Berber villages

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

scenic roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

roadside view

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

Berber villages

The sun is hammering its fiery red fists on our head when we arrive in Ouarzazate, where we find a crumbling walled village that wouldn’t look out of place in Game of Thrones. And I am right, our guide Youssef confirms that the ancient village of Ait-Benhaddou, which layers its way up a hillside, indeed backdropped the popular TV show and a string of movies including Gladiator, Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Sweat is pouring from my head down into my eyes as I climb up the streets to the granary on the hilltop, but the view of the palmeraie, the stony desert that stretches out to infinity and the russet mud house village below is a breathtaking novelty (at least for me). Recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site and a striking example of Southern Moroccan architecture, Ait-Benhaddou is massive fortification which has six kasbahs (citadels)and around fifty ksours (mud houses), all built using local organic materials and covered with thick red mud plaster. It is believed that the village was founded in 757 AD when merchants from Sudan and the imperial cities of Morocco used the site as a trading post. The locals took advantage of the bustle along the trade route and earned a living by offering food and shelter to travelling merchants. The presence of valuable goods such as gold and spices attracted bandits, so high defensive walls were also built around the village. Today, only six families remain in Ait-Benhaddou as most of its inhabitants have moved to the modern town across the river.

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

the granary at Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

new village outside Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

Youssef then takes us to a house where his friend Ahmed delightfully receives us with sweet Moroccan mint tea, poured high above our cups in a streaming waterfall. “We call this the Berber whiskey,” he says with an ear-to-ear smile. I suddenly remember those aggressive merchants in Marrakesh, who try to hook their prospective customers with tea and sweet talk. Is Ahmed going to sell us rugs? Caftans? Or maybe there is no motive at all, just genuine hospitality. After a cheerful banter with the group, Ahmed asks his daughter to show us how to spin combed wool into yarn, which they use to weave carpets. I knew it! Halfway through our tea, brightly colored carpets made of camel and sheep wools come flying onto the floor. Ahmed spreads carpet after carpet for our perusal. “No obligation to buy. Just take a look,” he says. To be fair, the carpets have a topnotch quality- thick fibers, closely knitted and intricate designs. “Sometimes it takes almost a year to finish one,” he continues. There are two problems though: First, we’re all stringent “carry-on only” backpackers and second, the carpets are too expensive. I’d certainly feel terrible haggling for a gorgeous carpet, which took his poor daughter eight months to finish. So we politely decline, walk away before any on us succumb to his insistence and disappear into a roadside hostel to spend the night.

having tea with a Berber family

having tea with a Berber family

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a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

a Moroccan hostel

Day 2

Early morning the following day, we are zig-zagging on the road and zooming past red adobe towns strewn with goats, sheep and donkeys. Vast farmlands dotted with pomegranate trees and olive groves roll up into red and mauve barren hills. Despite the wind whipping up clouds of dust that gets into my eyes, I do not dare blink and miss a roadside scenery. Soon, massive orange limestone cliffs push out of the ground toward the sky, engulfing us in every direction. Gravity-defying boulders stack up threateningly on the hillside, looking like they’ll crumble on us anytime. Arriving at Todra Gorge has me gawking in awe, with half my body out the window to make sure I absorb the details of this grand visual symphony. At the foot of the towering rock walls is the Todra River, which has now dried up a little and is crowded with partially submerged children trying to escape the blistering summer heat. It is said that the river and the harsh weather conditions have sculpted the rock walls into the landscape over time. Walking along the gorge, I see a man in a fedora bursting out of a crevice on a horse (cue in the Indiana Jones music). Some locals here actually offer horseback riding activities to reenact the adventures of Indiana Jones.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

After soaking up on the glorious scenery, we drive a few more hours along a rugged terrain, which eventually smoothens out into fine sand. Then we see it! Wavering above the scorching desert horizon, as if yearning for rain, are the golden-orange peaks of the gigantic dunes, flawless and velvety against the brilliant blue sky. Finally, we have arrived at the legendary Sahara Desert! The Sahara Desert represents those exotic places that I only heard of from my father’s car stereo or read about in encyclopedias when I was a child, so actually seeing it is beyond surreal.

It is too hot to do anything other than sit in the shade and stare into the distance as we wait for the camels to take us to our camp. The wind sculpts Zen waves in the dunes, erasing bird and human footprints. We excitedly swath our heads with thick and colorful tagelmust (turbans), which the Tuaregs use to protect themselves from the blasts of biting sand during the day and for warmth when the temperature plunges at night. Soon, our Bedouin guides beckon us to hop on the camels, whose legs splay out in the sand like cars with flat tires. Our camel procession starts barely an hour before dusk when the sun, round and full like a giant yolk about to be pricked, casts a gorgeous pattern of dark shadows and golden highlights on the sand. Up and down the towering dunes we go, gripping on to the handlebars for our lives while trying to comprehend the size of the magnificent desert, which rolls out as far as the eyes can see.

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

Sahara Desert

The deep blue sky fades into soft mauve when we arrive at the campsite. Expecting only shabby tents to shelter us for the night, we are surprised to find large tents draped in lush fabrics and fully decked out with king-size beds, mattresses, Berber carpets, toilets and bathrooms. Shortly, we are served with chobbes (round Moroccan bread) and a piping hot buffet of couscous, vegetable salad and beef tagine. Chatter ceases and a gratified silence descends as we eat hungrily to the last morsel. Hardly do we know that the day is far from over. The Sahara may be breathtaking by day but by night, it is out of this world. A phenomenal blanket of stars bedecks the heavens and the Milky Way sweeps its arc across the center. Soon, our guides, who coax us to sing and clap with them, serenade us with their anthems. We gather around a bonfire and let the hypnotic beats of African music chase the silence away.

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

Glamping in Sahara desert

vegetable couscous for dinner

vegetable couscous for dinner

Getting There:

For arranged tours to Sahara Desert, please visit www.discovermorocco-tours.com.

 

Sweet Escape To Siargao

(Published in Manila Bullettin on July 10, 2016 http://www.mb.com.ph/on-cloud-9/ )

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

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Sugba Lagoon

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Guyam Island

As I clamber over the jagged cliff, my legs shake uncontrollably. The Magpupungko tide pool’s depth and clarity are far from scary, but the thought of a potential injury makes my heart thump like a trapped wild animal, desperate to escape. What if I miscalculate my jump and slam my head on the steep rock wall before plummeting into the water? I watch children before me leap off the rocks effortlessly and splash into the lucent water below. Children! I am in fear of a disaster that has never occurred beyond the realm of my annoyingly creative imagination. “Go on, jump!” a boy with sun-bleached hair prods, trying to stifle his laughter at my awkward position. Don’t you dare be a wimp and embarrass yourself in front of the children, my subconscious berates me. The cool summer breeze feels like needles upon my bare skin. I shut my eyes, gather my breath to murmur a pathetic prayer and plunge into the pool.

Magpupungko Tide Pool

Magpupungko Tide Pool

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tida Flats

Kissed by the sun and sculpted by the massive barreling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the small, teardrop-shaped island of Siargao stands brave-faced just off the coast of Surigao Del Norte, a province in the northernmost part of Mindanao. Siargao is considered the surfing Mecca of the country, with waves averaging 7 feet during the last quarter of the year, attracting surfers from all over the world. But there’s more to the island than adrenalin-inducing waves. It is also blessed with postcard-perfect beaches, enchanting lagoons, caves, lush coral reefs, bizarre rock formations and expansive mangrove reserves.

Towards the end of the two-hour boat ride from the town of General Luna, we catch sight of broccoli-shaped limestone hills and gray bluffs sprouting with lush plant life. They sit mirrored amid the stillness of the clear emerald waters. We are at Sugba Lagoon in the town of Del Carmen on the western part of Siargao. I ask the boatman why the place is called Sugba, which means “to barbeque” in Visayan. “This used to be a hideaway of fisher folks. Here, they’d gather to grill their catch and have a few drinks,” he says. Our chatter is interrupted by a startling cry above the forest canopy on the opposite bank. “That’s the resident White-Breasted Eagle!” the boatman blurts out excitedly. The majestic bird circles against the clear blue skies with measured wing flaps before landing on a high branch and, as we watch, it dawns on us that it is building a nest.

A two-story wooden house, which was built by the local government to cater to visitors, rises up from the placid waters. Besides the lady caretaker, whom we ask to grill the meat and fish we bought at the public market earlier, there is no one at the house when we arrive. My friends and I rush to the second floor veranda to admire the gorgeous vista of the lagoon from a higher vantage point. “Can we spend the rest of the day here?” someone in the group asks, completely enamored with the scenery. Without thinking twice, we cancel our plan to visit other islands in the afternoon. I check out the empty hall behind the glass sliding doors. Here, guests can spend the night if they wish to. The hall has large glass windows that extend to the floor, flaunting a view of the lagoon on both sides.

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

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lunch in Sugba Lagoon

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snorkeling in Sugba Lagoon

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We snorkel to our hearts’ content and swim with the stingless Spotted Jelly, which can only be seen during the summer months. Before sunset, we head back to General Luna, where we rent a motorbike to explore the island’s nightlife. Our grumbling tummies lead us to Mama’s Grill, a rustic and unassuming open-air eatery, which according to locals and tourists has the best barbeque in the island. After an hour of waiting in a long line, we find out what the fuss is about. The impeccable balance of the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth grilled meat and its sweet, spicy sauce is indeed to-die-for. We could’ve driven past the restaurant, but the horde of customers outside, mostly foreign tourists, is impossible to miss.

Mama's Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted :)

Mama’s Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted :)

Siargao Island’s motto is pretty simple and straightforward: Eat, Surf, Sleep, Repeat. Travelers from all over the world come here to surf, only to be smitten with the island’s charm. Many have decided to stay indefinitely when they discovered that there’s more to Siargao than enormous waves. Among them is Pal Martenson, a Swedish man who owns Villa Solaria, the lovely 2000 sq. meter resort where we are staying. Pal recalls how he fell in love with the island and its people when he visited two and a half years ago. “The people here are friendly and beautiful and they take care of each other,” he says fondly. When the property was offered to him two years ago, he knew he’d regret for the rest of his life if he passed it up.

Welcoming guests in a lush garden setting, Villa Solaria is a three-minute motorcycle ride to Cloud 9, the island’s primary surfing spot. It is perfect for solo backpackers, couples and big groups. Here, Php 300 a night can get you a cozy bunk bed and vibrant, sun-worshipping globetrotters for neighbors. Those who come in large groups can choose among the six two-story thatched bungalows that could fit up to 5 people, the most expensive priced at only Php 2,000 per night. Not bad at all! To keep his guests entertained, Pal regularly organizes island hopping, diving, running and fishing activities. He also offers all-inclusive surf packages for both amateurs and professionals.

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bunk beds in Villa Solaria

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Pal Martenson, owner of Villa Solaria

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Lit by the orange glow of sunrise, a gorgeous speck of land in the middle of the sea catches our attention. We are standing against the bobbing of the boat as we approach Naked Island. Fittingly, the islet is devoid of any structures or trees, save for a few patches of grass that have pretty purple flowers. We have the islet to ourselves when we arrive, and the rare solitude and freedom in a popular destination bring out the audacious adventurer in us. “Let’s go skinny dipping!” somebody in the group suggests. “Seriously?” another asks. “Yes!” I have always wondered how it felt to swim au naturel. I think this would make a hilarious Instagram post- Naked in Naked Island! Kicking cool sand along the way, we run to the other side of the islet where we are partially concealed by an elevated mound of sand, pull off our clothes and dive into the clear turquoise water.

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

Naked Island

Naked Island

As the sun drags itself above the horizon, we move to the nearby Guyam Island, a privately owned shape-shifting islet that is less than a hundred meters in length. Aptly, guyam means “small” in Visayan. It is quite stunning from afar: gorgeous white sand, sparkling waters, swaying coconut and Talisay trees, a handful of wooden cottages and razor-sharp rock formations on one side. Quiet and uninhabited, Guyam Island seems like the perfect place to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

There is sand all over our hair and the skin on our back have grown red and taut. We are catching our breath in heavy sighs after several failed attempts to do acroyoga in thesweltering heat. I may have mastered the art of blissfully contorting and doing #YogaEveryDamnDay poses against stunning beaches and sunsets, but the simplest acroyoga pose is not as easy as it looks. Daku Island would’ve made a perfect backdrop for one, making our Instagram friends drool with envy. The largest among the three islands, Daku Island is home to a small fishing community living contentedly in the absence of materialistic distractions and pollutants. Nestled under sweeping coconut trees, a cluster of wooden cottages invites us to bask in the gorgeous view of the sea and the nearby islands. We decide to drop our ambitious acroyoga “photo shoot” and soon, we are gulping down ice-cold soda and brushing Cheetos dust from our fingers. Our next challenge is to stay awake. It is difficult to when all we hear are the soothing cadence of the crashing waves, the rustling of the palms and the birdsong.

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

It is noon and a slow hour at Cloud 9 when we arrive. A few surfers walk lazily along the shore. The waves are small and the tide is low, treacherously exposing razor-sharp corals and sunbaked rocks on the seabed. Feeling lethargic after finishing a pan of three-layer pizza at Aventino’s, we decide to languish by the viewing deck at the end of the long wooden ramp. Cloud 9 is the most popular break in the island, and this is where the action usually happens. Several international surfing competitions are held here during the months of August until November, attracting surfers all the way from the United States, Europe, Australia and Indonesia.

Aventino's three-layer pizza

Aventino’s three-layer pizza

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Surfing in Cloud 9

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The waves haven’t picked up and after a long lull, our surfing coach takes us to the nearby Rock Island, named after a massive outcrop of rock rising up from the swirling waters. It is the surfers’ playground at low tide. After a quick lesson on standing up and balancing on the surfboard, we paddle into the current. Soon, our coach signals us to pop up and ride the incoming wave. Keep your weight centered on the board, my coach’s instruction reverberates in my head. In one quick motion I jump up in a crouch, arms stretched and feet wide, only to be tipped over as the wave’s peak begins to crash. The waves knock me over countless times. God! Surfing is not as easy as it looks. Standing centered on the board was so much easier on the sand earlier. My friends, on the other hand, are doing much better. They appear effortless as they glide along the crest of the wave. On my final attempt, I manage to stay upright on the board until the wave dissipates. I scream and wave my arms up and down excitedly as if I have just won the Surfing Cup. This must be how it feels to be “stoked”.

surfing in Rock Island

surfing in Rock Island

Surfer or not, anyone who visits Siargao won’t run out of things to relish. Inarguably, the friendly faces everywhere and the charming, relaxed atmosphere of surf living and beach bumming have made this tiny and sun-drenched island irresistible for so long.

 

Getting There:

1.)  By Plane- Cebu Pacific flies directly to Siargao (Sayak Airport) from Cebu.

2.)   By Ferry- Go to the main pier of Surigao City and ride a Roll-on-Roll-off vessel to Dapa Port in Siargao Island. The earliest boat departs at 6 am and the latest at 12 noon. Travel time is 3.5 hours

 

Where To Stay:

Villa Solaria

Tuazon Point, Brgy. Catangnan,

8419 General Luna, Siargao Island

Surigao Del Norte

http://www.villasolaria.surf/

Email: villa_solaria@yahoo.com

09204077730

 

5 Reasons To Go Camping in Balabac

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

the whitest and finest san in Ph

the whitest and finest san in Ph

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island

breathtaking water in Onuk Island

breathtaking water in Onuk Island

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Lit by the kaleidoscopic glow of sunset, a bright white egret wades along the edges of the ebbing water, occasionally flicking its wings forward over its head as it hunts for its prey. The tide has abandoned the shore, uncovering swathes of velvety white sand that seem to stretch out to infinity. All is quiet except for the spirited chatter of migratory birds among the pine trees.

Nature is raw and alive at the tip of the Philippine’s last frontier. Tucked away in the south-westernmost part of Palawan, the Balabac Group of Islands is composed of 31 unspoiled islands and 20 small villages that thrive on fishing and seaweed farming. It is a peaceful home to the Palaw-an, a Manobo-based linguistic group, and the Molbog, a Muslim ethno-linguistic group that is believed to be its earliest inhabitants. Getting there is a tedious eight-hour journey, and the absence of resort facilities has attracted only hell-bent travelers who don’t mind roughing it just to see the country’s finest beaches and clearest waters.

Here are 5 reasons to pack your camping essentials and go.

1.) Punta Sebaring has the finest and whitest sand among the beaches in the country.

The rich whistling songs of the Orioles and the warm golden-hued rays of sunrise awaken you. You slip out of your tent to enjoy a quiet stroll along the beach while everyone else is still asleep. On one side of you is an evergreen mass of conifer trees, on the other the cerulean of the slothful sea. Under your bare feet is sand, white sand- consistently soft and silky it feels like you are walking on a carpet of baby powder. You are in Punta Sebaring in Bugsuk Island; you have found the Mecca of white-sand beaches.

In the morning when the tide is low, the rippled shore extends quite far out until it disappears into the sparkling shallows. The entire island is a 119 square kilometer stretch of immaculate white sand where you bask on to a crisp all day.

Punta Sebaring has the finest sand among the beaches in the country.

Punta Sebaring has the finest sand among the beaches in the country.

Bugsuk Island

Bugsuk Island

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Sunrise in Punta Sebar

Sunrise in Punta Sebaring

2.) Its waters are the clearest you’ll ever see.

In the excitement you blurt out profanities when you see the waters surrounding Onuk Island. The panorama unfolding in front of you is heart swelling. You gawk, wanting to completely absorb every single detail of its beauty. The water is incredibly clear you could see the boat’s shadow on the seabed below. Sitting on the outrigger’s bow, you easily spot some hawksbill and green sea turtles gliding away, shunning the attention. The boatman is right; your snorkels are practically useless when you reach the island because the water’s clarity extends as far as the eyes can see. On a lucky day, you are told, one can even see dolphins and whale sharks in the underwater cliff wall nearby.

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3.) It is nice to be unplugged from the rest of the world once in a while.

Balabac disconnects you from the rest of the world. Mobile connection is bad and you are forced to put your phone away. Your Instagram followers must be eagerly waiting for your beach yoga photos by now. You don’t even know what day or time it is, but by the funfair of barbecued aromas wafting through the air and the sun’s heat, which bakes you like a potato in an oven, you could tell the day is approaching high noon. You continue floating about in your plastic raft, bobbing up and down in the incoming tide.

You and your fellow campers, who you instantly click with, break the afternoon’s serenity with endless banters and rambunctious laughter. You are laughing so hard you are clutching your sides when somebody in the group pretends to flirt and throw himself at his crush. Sometimes not one in the group knows what exactly is so funny, you all simply laugh. What you know, however, is that it feels great to laugh without constraint and be away from your daily stressors.

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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Team Baklabac :)

Team Baklabac :)

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4.) Balabac has a rich biodiversity.

It doesn’t take you much tiptoeing and stalking to spot that peculiar-looking bird on the high branch of a Talisay tree. You are in Palawan, a vast reserve of natural beauty and tremendous biodiversity. Here, songs of more than 200 kinds of birds permeate the air. Some ten of those are endemic to Balabac, including the Philippine Cockatoo, Nicobar Pigeon, Grey Imperial Pigeon, Blue-headed Racket Tail and the Palawan Hornbill.

A globally significant number of flora and fauna can be found in Balabac. Among these are the Philippine Mousedeers, scaly anteater, estuarine crocodiles, 30 coral species, 440 reef fish species and more than 60 mangrove species. Migratory species like tuna, sea turtles, whales, sharks and dolphins also dwell within its waters.

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5.) Camping in Balabac teaches you a lesson in simplicity and gratitude.

As the sun scorches you to a toast, you wish you had an ice-cold soda and Cheetos in hand. Too bad the nearest sari-sari store is two islands away, (You bet your life they don’t sell Cheetos in there!) so you reach for that sun-warmed bottle of water and Rebisco crackers you have been ignoring for days. The biscuit doesn’t taste bad at all, the briny tang of the sea breeze mingles with it. Or maybe it’s the deprivation talking.

Life in the island is as simple as it can get. A local’s hectic day involves hanging his seaweed harvests on bamboo poles to dry, or scraping dry coconut meat out of the shell. Devoid of electricity, the island’s music comes from the coos and whistles of migratory birds. Nights are best spent on meaningful conversations with your new friends under the starlit skies.

You eventually forget about that ice-cold Coke and find contentment in fresh coconut water. Everything around you makes you realize that the simplest pleasures bring the most joy and relaxation. And when you have to fetch pails of water from a nearby well at midnight because there is none in the toilet (Must be the raw sea urchins you ate. Oh, the things you put in your mouth!), you realize that not having a hot shower isn’t the worst thing in life. Here, whatever you don’t have, find a way to do without. Most importantly, you learn to appreciate and be grateful for the little luxuries you have at home.

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Palaw-an kids

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seaweeds left to dry under the sun

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Fish left to dry under the sun

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Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

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Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

Candaraman Island

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yours truly

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Getting There:

1.)  Since most of the islands are privately owned, you have to coordinate with the owners prior to the visit. Carlos Renato Principe owns Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island. You may contact him at 09291403125.

2.)  From Puerto Princesa City, go to San Jose Terminal and ride a van going to Rio Tuba. Travel time is 4-5 hours. Make sure you arrive in Rio Tuba before 10 am. Fare is Php 450.

3.)  At the Rio Tuba Port, ride a boat to Balabac mainland. Travel time is 3 hours. The only boat to Balabac leaves at 12 nn, but could be earlier depending on the number of passengers. Fare is Php 250.

Expenses:

6 Days/5 Nights Package(full-board meals, island hopping)-Php 7,500

Airfare from Manila to Puerto Princesa vv- Php 1,200

Van ride from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba vv- Php 800

2-night hotel accommodation in Puerto Princesa- Php 700

Meals in Puerto Princesa- Php 500

TOTAL- Php 10,700

Tokyo On The Cheap

Shibuya Crossing3

Shibuya Crossing

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

Sensoji Temple and the Tokyo Skytree

There’s not a scrap of usable Japanese word in my pocket-sized notebook to help us explain our conundrum. After pointing on the map our planned destination, the gentle-faced policeman gives us a confusing instruction full of hand gestures. We nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. One thing is certain; we’d inadvertently gotten on the wrong train to Asakusa.

A Tokyo first-timer is bound to get lost. With intricate piles of overlapping routes, the map of the train stations looks like a bowl of tangled ramen noodles. “Check the color,” the policeman says, pertaining to the color-coded subway lines on the map. You see, there are at least three different companies that run the city’s train system, and each company has several lines. To add complexity, some trains even operate on the tracks of other companies. Perhaps doubtful that he made himself sufficiently clear, he beckons us to follow him all the way down to a long tunnel that leads to the next terminal station. “Wait for your train here,” he smiles with an unfeigned effort to catch his breath. After bombarding him with “arigatou”, we hop on the next train, eager to explore the world’s largest metropolis.

Day 1: Asakusa and Akihibara

“Coming through! Coming Through!” A young shafu (rickshaw driver) wearing a brown happi coat and zori sandals rushes past the crowd at the iconic Kaminarimon Gate, pulling a two-wheeled vehicle with high-perch seats called the jinrikisha (rickshaw). There are several shafu near the gate, sometimes yelling to attract prospective passengers. A popular method of transportation during the late 1800’s, the jinrikisha completes the old-world ambience of Asakusa, Tokyo’s leading entertainment district before World War II. Tourists flock to Asakusa to see ancient temples, shrines and other historic structures wedged between modern buildings and bustling streets.

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa skyscrapers

Asakusa sidewalk

Asakusa sidewalk

at the Azuma Bridge over the Sumida River

Beyond the thousand-year old Kaminarimon Gate is the Nakamise-dori, a 250-meter shopping street that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) of the Japanese history. Sauntering down the arcade’s narrow lanes, I am drawn to the traditional shops that sell Japanese souvenirs like paper fans, samurai figurines, trinkets and geisha wigs. The mouthwatering aromas of freshly cooked takoyaki and ningyo-yaki from the nearby stalls waft through the air.

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

the iconic Kaminarimon Gate

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping district

Nakamise shopping center

Nakamise shopping center

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

the shopping arcade leading to Sensoji Temple

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street food stall in Nakamise

streetfood

streetfood

Takoyaki vendor

at a Takoyaki stall

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

a Nakamise stall attendant dressed as a ninja

street food in Asakusa

Asakusa’s main tourist draw is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple which was built in the 7th century to enshrine the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, after it was found by two fishermen in the nearby Sumida River. Here, I see visitors fanning the smoke from the large incense burner toward their bodies with their hands. “It is for healing and for good fortune as well. Try it!” says the lady attendant of the stall that sells omamori or good luck charms. It doesn’t take me much convincing. What fool would resist good fortune?

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Yours Truly at the Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

the pagoda beside Sensoji Temple

Towering above skyscrapers, the Tokyo Skytree is impossible to ignore from the temple or from anywhere in the district. This new famous attraction opened only in May 2012 and is considered the world’s tallest communications tower, standing 2,080 feet tall. It has observation decks at 1,148 and 1,476 feet where visitors can enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the vibrant city.

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree towering above skyscrapers

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

The Tokyo Skytree offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the city

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

breathtaking view from the Tokyo Skytree

After gawking at the cityscape, we catch a train bound for Akihibara, a district whose bustling streets and massive neon lights and signboards evoke a rush of excitement. Also known as the “Electric Town”, it is a jungle of electronic shops that sell every technological gadget one can imagine at a reasonable price. Turn a corner and you’ll find a store devoted entirely to, say, cameras or computers. In the recent years, Akihibara has emerged as the center of the anime culture, with shops specializing in video games and anything anime sandwiched between electronic retailers. Walk further and you’ll find several maid cafes, where waitresses dress up and act like maids or anime characters.

Akihibara, the Electric Town

Akihibara, the Electric Town

 

Day 2: Harajuku and Shibuya

A large jungle crow squawks and soars from its perch as we enter the torri gate of the Meiji Shrine, a shrinededicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Walking under the imposing torri, we are transported to a different world as the sounds of a bustling city are replaced with the rustle of the trees. The 70-hectare forest surrounding the shrine has over 100,000 trees, donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was built in 1920. Emperor Meiji is highly revered for modernizing Japan without sacrificing its ancient traditions. He abolished the feudal system and the national seclusion policy and introduced the system of compulsory education.

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate of Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

the Torri gate at Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

one must wash his hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

the Meiji Shrine forest has over 120,000 trees

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

a good luck charm stall just outside Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine entrance

Meiji Shrine entrance

an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

PHOTO BY TOPHER ASTRAQUILLO an engaged couple at the Meiji Shrine

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

Barrels of Sake offered to Meiji Shrine and Empress Shoken..

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

barrels of wine to be consecrated at Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Fortune-telling booth outside the Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine Museum

Meiji Shrine Museum

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken

Meiji Shrine Garden

Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Kiyomasa-Ido Well at the Meiji Shrine Garden

Munching on a few sticks of butabara (skewered pork belly) and torinuku (skewered chicken), we cross to the concrete jungle called Harajuku, a district known as the center of Japanese youth culture and street fashion. We find ourselves walking in between teenage girls with heavy make up, pigtailed blonde hair and gingham miniskirts as we stroll along Takeshita Dori, a narrow street lined with fashion boutiques and quaint cafes. I later on find out that cosplayers usually gather at the Harajuku Station on weekends. Seeing women in traditional kimono, rockabillies with outlandish hairdos, trucks with anime designs blasting Japanese pop music, I am rather overwhelmed by the vibrant environment of the district.

yakitori

butabara

Japanese streetfood

in Harajuku

in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

an expensive doll house in Harajuku

Time seems to fly so fast in Shibuya, another colorful and busy district heavily decorated by neon advertisements and giant video screens. It is full to bursting with restaurants, nightclubs and shops that sell pretty much everything under the sun: apparel, car accessories, gadgets, furniture and even kinky sex toys, which are surprisingly sold in multi-floored specialty stores. It would be a shame not to walk across Shibuya Crossing, the famous intersection just outside Shibuya Station. Unabashedly armed with a selfie stick, I follow the surge of pedestrians as soon as the traffic lights turn red at the same time in every direction.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Yours Truly atbthe Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

Not far from the crossing is the statue of Hachiko, the Akita who waited for his late master at the Shibuya Station everyday from 1923 to 1935, eventually becoming famous for his loyalty.

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

he statue of HACHIKO, the loyal Akita

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

the famous statue of HACHIKO, the loyal dog

For extremely cheap finds, we go to 109 Men’s and Don Quixote. These stores cost me more yen than I want to think about. Thank God for the small ramen joint with bright yellow Japanese signs near the Berksha building. One sip of its thick, smoky-flavored ramen broth alleviates my guilt for splurging on new shoes and gadgets.

Shibuya at night

Yours truly Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night..

Shops everywhere in Shibuya

Shibuya at night.....

Shibuya at night

authentic bowl of Ramen

authentic bowl of Ramen

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Shibuya at night

Shibuya at night

 

Day 3: Odaiba and Ginza

“Irashaimase!” A smiling woman greets us with a nod at the entrance hall of the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, simply known as Miraikan, on the reclaimed island of Odaiba in the middle of Tokyo Bay. We arrive quite early, excited to see a humanoid robot, which I hear is being programmed to give guided tours at the museum in the future. Here, robotics makes up a large portion of the exhibits. A robot on display that is usually swarmed by giggling children takes the form of a baby seal, which reacts to people’s touch. Another section talks about the dangers of plastic to the environment and the current research to make plant-based plastic. We are thrilled to see a full size model of a section of the International Space Station, where visitors can walk inside to have a glimpse of an astronaut’s life in outer space. The museum also has highly interactive, bizarre and fascinating exhibits about information technology, medicine and biology.

Miraikan Museum building

Miraikan Museum building

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum.

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan Museum

inside Miraikan

inside Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

geek mode at Miraikan

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

an interactive activity inside the Miraikan Museum

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

a robot on display at the Miraikan Museum:

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Japan’s unforgiving cold this time of the year brings us to a hot spring theme park called Oedo Onsen Monogatari, just a short walk from Miraikan. Inside, a replica of an ancient street filled with bars, restaurants and game booths recreates the ambience of the Edo Period of the Japanese history. Guests, who are required to change to a yutaka (kimono) and obi (belt), can experience at least 14 bathing facilities using natural hot spring water coming from the underground. It is also important to note that tattooed guests are unwelcome at any onsen (hot spring baths). This disfavor dates back to the ancient times when criminals were forcibly branded with tattoos.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Oedo Onsen Monogatari, a hot spring bath house

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Topher at the Oedo Onsen Monogatari premises

Odaiba has pretty much everything to keep us entertained the entire day. Here, we see some of Tokyo’s boldest architectural designs, like the Telecom Center and the Fuji TV building. One cannot miss the gigantic Gundam Robot statue standing head to head with Diver City Tokyo Plaza. At night, the robot’s eyes and body light up and change to different colors, making it seem like it has come to life. A short walk from the statue is another shopping and entertainment complex called Palette Town, where we see a 115 meter tall Ferris wheel, museum of vintage cars, showroom of Toyota’s latest car models and a huge gaming arcade. At the nearby Decks Tokyo Beach, also a shopping mall, we get a good view of the breathtaking cityscape and the brightly lit Rainbow Bridge, which connects Odaiba to the rest of Tokyo.

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Diver City Plaza and the giant Gundam statue

Gundam robot statue at night

Gundam robot statue at night

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Odaiba skyscrapers

Odaiba skyscrapers

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Pallette Town in Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

vintage cars at the Venus Fort

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

the museum of vintage cars at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

vintage car exhibit at Venus Fort, Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Telecom Building in Odaiba

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Rainbow Bridge and the Tokyo skyline

Madam Tussaund's

Lady Gaga and I @Madam Tussaund’s

If unlike us you don’t watch every yen, head to the upscale Ginza district, where every leading international brand name in fashion and cosmetics has a presence. Time-constrained, we skip the fancy malls and head straight to the Kabukiza Theatre to catch the last Kabuki show for the evening. A Kabuki is a traditional Japanese drama performed with elaborate costumes and highly stylized singing and dancing. A full performance comprises of three or four acts and usually lasts more than four hours. Thankfully, we are allowed to buy tickets for just a single act. The performance we catch tells a story of a fugitive named Naozamurai who risks one last meeting with his lover, the courtesan Michitose. Accompanied by the Kiyomoto narrative music, the act ends with the lovers parting forever.

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza

 

Day 4: Tokyo DisneySea

We keep a tight grip on the rail as our smoke-powered subterranean vehicle accelerates into a dark tunnel. Illuminated only by colorful glowing crystals, the car enters a mushroom forest, which is inhabited by giant strange-looking insects. Suddenly, the ground shakes, causing the cavern to crumble, forcing our car down another path filled with huge egg-like sacks. We are nearly struck by a lightning as we emerge on a shore. Before we could catch our breath, our vehicle plunges into the depth of an active volcano, where we come face-to-face with a monstrous centipede.

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We are breathless at the end of The Journey To The Center of the Earth. It is one of the highlights at the Tokyo DisneySea, a 70-hectare amusement park that is inspired by the myths and legends of the sea. Here, we experience our wildest childhood imagination through its seven themed ports: Mermaid Lagoon, Mediterranean Harbor, Mysterious Island, Arabian Coast, Lost River Delta, Port Discovery and American Waterfront. Centerpieced by Mt. Prometheus, an active volcano that spews out balls of fire every hour, the park is beautifully crafted and has magnificent architecture that takes us to different parts of the world. The entrance, for example, is styled after an Italian port town, complete with Venice style canals and gondolas. Though suitable for all ages, Tokyo DisneySea was designed to appeal to an older audience, with faster and scarier roller coaster rides.

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon at the Tokyo DisneySea

Mermaid Lagoon.

Mermaid Lagoon.

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Tokyo DisneySea:Tokyo DisneySea....

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Venice-like port at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea...

Tokyo DisneySea…

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea::

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo DisneySea,, Tokyo DisneySea,,, Tokyo DisneySea,,,,

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Venice-style architecture, canal and gondola at the Tokyo DisneySea..

Tokyo DisneySea

Lost River Delta port at Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

at the Arabian Coast at the Tokyo DisneySea

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

panoramic view of the Tokyo DisnyeSea at dusk

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

the Italian-style village at the Tokyo DisneySea

Tokyo is chaotic yet orderly, modern yet traditional, crazy yet peaceful. Yes it is expensive but with careful planning, a shoestring budget can go a long way. And what’s not to love about the Japanese? They are amazingly well disciplined, big-city people with warm countryside attitude. Despite the language barrier, they take pleasure in helping an ignorant backpacker with directions. Full of contradictions and surprises, Tokyo is an exciting city to get lost in.

 

How To Get There:

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have direct flights to Tokyo (Narita Airport).

 

Expenses
Airfare 15,000 Yen
Accommodation (Azure Narita) 4 nights 15,900 Yen
Train fare 6,000 Yen
Food 8,000 Yen
Tokyo Skytree entrance 2,600 Yen
Kabuki ticket 1,200 Yen
DisneySea entrance 6,900 Yen
Meiji Shrine Museum and Garden entrance 1,000 Yen
Miraikan entrance 600 Yen
TOTAL 57,200 Yen (roughly Php 22,880)

 

Roadtrip To Ilocos Norte

 

I’m losing control! A steep slope pushes my steering wheel to a different direction. I scream in panic and excitement as the ATV gets stuck on the edge of a ridge, roaring and stirring sand as it digs itself deeper. Driving one on a seemingly infinite stretch of coastal sand dunes is a constant wrestle with the wheels. Illuminated by the sunset’s afterglow, some 4×4 trucks emerge from the dust and roar throughout the dunes as they race with each other. I arduously push the vehicle out towards a gentler trail and find my way to the middle of the desert.

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

at the Paoay Sand Dunes

I am at the Paoay Sand Dunes, an 88-hectare expanse of wild thirsty sand that is remarkably gaining popularity among tourists and thrill seekers travelling to Ilocos Norte, a province located at the northwest corner of Luzon Island. With its endless hills and valleys, the landscape resembles the waves of the adjacent West Philippine Sea. Here, one can either traverse the silky dunes through 4×4 Rough Riding vehicles or try sand boarding, a sport that requires its players to ride a plank of wood and slide over sand folds.

Iconic

The Ilocos region is home to some of the country’s oldest colonial-era churches. I find myself gawking with wonder at a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following morning. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate St. Augustine Church’s bold and magnificent Baroque architecture. Also known as the Paoay Church, it was built in 1694 by Augustinian Friar Antonio Estavillo. To prevent possible destruction due to earthquakes, enormous buttresses of about 1.67 meters thick were built to support the sides and back of the massive edifice. While its façade displays few Gothic features such as the use of finials, its triangular pediment shows Chinese and Oriental influence. Just like other Spanish-era churches in the country, the Paoay Church is made of large coral stones on the lower part and bricks at the upper levels. A three-storey bell tower, which was constructed separately to prevent it from toppling over the church during earthquakes, stands a few meters away. A survivor to bloody rebellions and countless catastrophes, the belfry was used as an observation post by the katipuneros during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1898 and again, by the Filipino guerillas during the World War II.

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

St. Augustine Church in Paoay

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant

Fueled by a peculiar yet delicious brunch of Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant just across the church, we drive to Malacanang ti Amianan(Malacanang of the North) in the municipality of Suba. Built as a gift of Imelda Marcos to former President Ferdinand Marcos on his 60th birthday, the two-storey mansion with a traditional “bahay na bato” design stands on a scenic 5-hectare property. It has large rooms and a grand sala with antique furniture and fixtures, a well-tended garden, balcony and capiz-shell windows that open to a breathtaking view of the Paoay Lake. The Philippine Government sequestered this property when the president was overthrown from power in 1986. After more than 20 years, the mansion was handed over to the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte. It was renovated, restored and later on, converted into a museum, where mementoes of the former President and his family are reposited.

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

Malacanang Ti Amianan

A young girl selling souvenir items and snacks calls out to us as we exit the mansion’s gate. The mouthwatering aroma of a freshly cooked Empanada wafts through the air. How can I resist an authentic Ilocos Empanada? The orange-crusted half-moon shaped delicacy is cooked as ordered to ensure crunchiness and it only takes seconds for the girl to make one. She skillfully rolls out the dough, fills it with shredded young papaya, cracks an egg over the center, seals it edges and drops it in boiling oil. She says it tastes even better when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). I finish three large servings.

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

At the empanadahan across Malacanang Ti Amianan

We drive further to see the rock formations in the town of Burgos, located on the northwestern tip of Ilocos Norte. Beautifully sculpted over the years by the roaring waves of Bangui Bay, the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation is a sight to behold especially under the blazing sunlight, when its chalk-like and creamy white surface gleams brightly. Kapurpurawan comes from the Ilokano word “puraw”, which means white. One needs to trek along a craggy trail or go horseback riding to see the stunning limestone formations up close.

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

horseback riding at the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Here, it is impossible to miss the enormous windmills towering over the surrounding hills, their blades constantly swirling in the wind. There are hundreds of them, says the driver, and to see some of them up close, we head to the nearby Bangui Wind Farm, which was built by the Northwind Power Development Corporation to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases and to generate clean and renewable energy for the province. The nine-kilometer windswept shoreline of Bangui Bay has 20 units of 70-meter wind turbines, each capable of producing electricity up to a maximum capacity of 1.65 MW. Amazingly, the windmills of Bangui alone support forty percent of Ilocos Norte’s electricity.

IMG_7234

Bangui Wind Farm

Bangui Windmill

Bangui Wind Farm

Another iconic landmark one shouldn’t miss in Burgos is the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. The 66-feet cultural heritage structure was one of the many lighthouses built during the Spanish period and was first lit on March 30, 1892. Perched on top of the Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the scenic Cape Bojeador, it still functions today as a guiding light for ships that sail the northwestern part of the Philippine archipelago.

Cape Bojeador

Cape Bojeador

Not-So-Secret Paradise

“Ako po’y pagod na pagod at ang sapatos ko’y pudpod!” (I’m extremely tired and my shoes are worn-out!)

This famous line by the Batangueno peddler who once came to the village of Tongotong resonates to this day. It became popular among bystanders that Tongotong was renamed as Pagud-pudpod and later shortened to Pagudpud.

At the northern tip of Pagudpud, we find a beautiful cove named Maira-ira Point, more popularly known as Blue Lagoon, tucked behind the verdant rolling hills. A glance at the long strip of white sand and the clear aquamarine waters delivers a rush of excitement. We find a good spot to watch surfers ride the big swirling waves. One side of the beach is strewn with picnickers playing volleyball and frisbee.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

IMG_0763

With the influx of beachgoers, the Blue Lagoon is hardly a secret these days. There are newly built resorts, restaurants and cottages near the beach for the convenience of those who traveled long hours to see this paradise.

After romping in the churning surf, we head straight to Kabigan Falls in the village of Balaoi to wash off the salt on our skin. A thirty-minute trek along a scenic trail lined up with Narra and Bagobo trees takes us to the foot of the waterfalls. We watch the mesmerizing cascade in silence as it rushes 112 feet down into a concaved basin. Squinting through the haze of the large spray, our guide says the falls is an important water source for the rice fields nearby. Unmindful of the punishing cold, we jump into the rocky pool and swim to our hearts’ content.

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

Kabigan Falls

The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” plays in my head when we reach the Patapat Viaduct, the last stop of our sightseeing tour. It is located at the foot of the cliff of the North Cordillera Mountain Range, which snakes throughout Northern Luzon. The 1.3-kilometer coastal bridge, which hangs 31 meters above sea level, was built during the Marcos regime to connect Ilocos Norte to the Cagayan Valley Region. Just imagine the convenience this brings to motorists and travelers.

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

the Patapat Viaduct

Culinary Gems

Besides the Pinakbet Pizza and Empanada, the poqui-poqui and warek-warek shouldn’t be skipped when you are in Ilocos. Don’t be deceived by their funny names because they are pretty much pleasing to the palate. To cook poqui-poqui, the eggplants are first grilled then sautéed with onion, garlic, tomato and eggs. It is usually eaten for breakfast or served as a side dish. The warek-warek is a famous delicacy you’ll find in almost every occasion up north. Comparable to the sisig, it is made of grilled pork’s face, tongue, brain and liver. Those with sweet tooth can enjoy the vibrant pink dragon fruit ice cream, which is available from the streets to the finest Ilocano restaurants.

warek-warek

warek-warek

Poqui-poqui

Poqui-poqui

The Ilocos Region is crowded with tourists these days, but it’s all for the right reasons. Rich history and culture, breathtaking views, magnificent architecture, delightful local cuisine and thrilling adventures can all be enjoyed here, putting it on top of the must-visit places in the country.

 

Getting There:

By Plane: Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines have regular flights to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte

By Bus: Go to the Cubao Bus Terminal and ride a sleeper bus bound for Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. Several bus companies like GV Florida, Partas and Farinas Transit have regular trips to Laoag City. Travel time is 10-12 hours.

To go to Pagudpud from Laoag City:

Option A: Ride a jeepney from the Terminal. Travel time is 2 hours

Option B: Ride a tricycle to Claveria Tours, then ride a bus bound for Claveria. Tell the  conductor to drop you off at Pagudpud’s Baduang Market. Travel time is 1-2 hours

To go to Paoay from Laoag City:

Ride a tricycle to the jeepney terminal, then look for one that is bound for Paoay. Travel time is about an hour.

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

Saramsam Cafe Pasta

dinengdeng

dinengdeng

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

Saramsam Cafe in Laoag City

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

at the Marcos Museum

Vigan: A Blast From The Past

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Warek-warek

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

Calle Crisologo before dawn

The cobbled street glistens from the early morning drizzle. Streetlamps cast a golden glow on the Spanish ancestral houses, which loom hazily on either side, their arched wooden doors and dilapidated capiz window panels in full display. Colorful Christmas lanterns sway in the breeze, dangling from the lamppost along the sidewalk. Calle Crisologo is eerily quiet before dawn. I walk around, peering at cafes and souvenir shops now yawning in the inky darkness, running my fingers on vintage signs and decors that hang on whitewashed brick walls. The clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones occasionally echoes in the silence. Who could be riding the calesa at this ungodly hour? Bygone abaniko-carrying ladies in ternos on their way to the misa di gallo at the nearby cathedral? A prayle, perhaps? One’s imagination runs wild in an ancient city.

Vigan City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the capital of Ilocos Sur, is steeped in history. It has witnessed not only the opulence of ancient commerce in Northern Luzon but also generations of bloody rebellion against the foreign colonizers. Chinese traders once occupied the 500-meter Calle Crisologo, which was already a bustling commercial settlement when the Spanish explorers, led by Juan de Salcedo, came in 1572. He named the town “Villa Fernandina De Vigan” in honor of King Philip II’s son, Prince Ferdinand. During the Galleon Trade from the 15th to the early 18th century, goods from western and mid-eastern countries also found their way to the streets of Vigan.

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Have you ever wondered how it felt to be an illustrado during the Spanish Era? As the golden streetlights dissolve into the white and gray background, I find myself in Hotel Felicidad, a hotel that promises a glimpse of the old life. The century-old building was once home to spouses Dr. Filadelfo Rosario de Leon and Dona Primitiva Encarnacion Donato. It is within Vigan’s Heritage Village and is just a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, Plaza Burgos, Plaza Salcedo and several museums. Imagine waking up each morning to the resounding clang of the bell from the cathedral. “It was a status symbol back then. The homes of the rich and prominent were located near the church and plaza,” says Lian, my guide. The couple’s grandchildren subsequently inherited the ancestral house, until a private corporation acquired it a few years ago. It was then meticulously restored and refurbished to become Hotel Felicidad.

Hote Felicidad

Hote Felicidad

The hotel’s Hispanic colonial character evokes a sense of nostalgia. Going up to the second floor, I travel a few centuries back as I am welcomed by a wide balustraded staircase, polished Narra plank floors, full height wooden frames and capiz windows and a Grand Sala with antique art pieces and fixtures. Owner Bonito Singson says the house’s original features were preserved and faithfully adopted during the restoration process.

The hotel has 34 spacious rooms, which are classified into standard, superior, deluxe, dormitory and Grand Suites. The latter is further categorized into Ninos Suite, La Casa Rosa, La Casa Verde, Maestro Suite and Maestra Suite. The last two are the most elegant, inarguably befitting the don and the donya, and are even furnished with genuine antique aparador, baul and Tres Lunas dressers to complete the old-world ambience. Most rooms boast of 18th century four-poster beds made of solid Kamagong and Molave and accessorized with Vigan Abel mosquito nets and bed runners. Despite the traditional setup though, each room is equipped with modern amenities such as air-conditioning system, flat screen LED television sets with satellite programs, Wi-Fi access, safety deposit box, and hot and cold shower system.

Hotel Felicidad lobby

Hotel Felicidad lobby

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

Hotel Felicidad 2nd floor

the Grand Sala in Hotel Felicidad

the Grand Sala in Hotel Felicidad

 

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

dining area in Hotel Felicidad

the Reading Area inside Hotel Felicidad

the Reading Area inside Hotel Felicidad

Doe=rm-type rooms in Hotel Felicidad

Dorm-type rooms in Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad

Deluxe Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Deluxe Suite in Hotel Felicidad

antique fixtures in Hotel Felicidad

antique fixtures in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Maestra Suite in Hotel Felicidad

Hotel Felicidad also offers tour assistance and bike rental. “Vigan is practically a museum of a city. We encourage our guests to go out and enjoy a blast from the past experience,” says Mia, the hotel’s general manager.

Museum City

“So who are the Crisologos anyway?” I ask obliviously as I wander inside the Crisologo ancestral house, now a museum that exhibits mementoes and original furnishings. My question is met by an old lady’s raised eyebrow. The portraits and old photographs on the wall set things straight: the Crisologos are one of the most influential political families in the province. Don Mena Pecson Crisologo was an eminent Ilokano writer and the first provincial governor of Ilocos Sur in 1901. The world-famous street in Vigan, Calle Crislologo, is named after him. Another Crisologo also caught the entire country’s attention during the 70s. Floro Crisologo, a brilliant lawyer and congressman who authored bills that created the Social Security System and the Virginia Tobacco Law, was assassinated inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. The clothes that he died in and his family’s antique collection such as rebultos, glass chandeliers, kitchenware, carruaje and a vintage car are just some of the things that can be seen inside the museum.

Crisologo Museum

Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

IMG_1285 IMG_1275

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

IMG_1264 IMG_1263

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

inside Crisologo Museum

Just a short calesa ride away from the Crisologo Museum is the Syquia Mansion. It has maintained its original Bahay na Bato design; thick brick walls on the ground floor and hardwood on the second. Dona Alicia Syquia Quirino, wife of the country’s sixth president Elpidio Quirino, owned this grand ancestral house, now also a museum. “You break a mirror, you suffer seven years of bad luck,” jests the caretaker. It is impossible to ignore the life-size Venetian mirrors that decorate almost every corner of the second floor. “Mirrors were very expensive back then since they were imported from Murano Island in Italy. Accidentally breaking one means you’d have to work for years to pay for it,” he continues. He then leads us to more high-ceilinged rooms filled with antique vases, giant rebultos, chinaware and art pieces from countries all over the world. Huge oil portraits of the family done by national artist Fernando Amorsolo and a replica of the Spolarium hang on the living room. The dining hall is just as grand, and the huge drapes, called punkah, that hang from the ceiling are hard to miss. The punkahs were used as fans to drive away flies and were manually operated by servants for the diners.

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion. the punkah hangs over the dining table

inside Syquia Mansion. the punkah hangs over the dining table

inside Syquia Mansion

inside Syquia Mansion

Artifacts that portray the Ilocano culture, livelihoods and traditions are reposited inside the 300-year old provincial jail, which was recently converted into a national museum. This is also the birthplace of President Elpidio Quirino in 1890, whose father was then the jail warden. Here, I see traditional clay jars, musical instruments, weapons, utensils, basketry, costumes and dioramas showing historical events in Ilocos Sur. One of the rooms exhibits the Basi Revolt Paintings of Don Esteban Villanueva, a businessman and painter who recorded the 1821 bloody rebellion of the Ilokanos against the Spanish government, which implemented the Basi (sugarcane wine) and Tobacco monopoly to increase its revenue for the campaigns to take possession of Mindanao.

The New National Museum

The New National Museum

inside Syquia Mansion

inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

The Basi Revolt Paintings inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

artifacts inside the New National Museum

Elpidio Quirino's portrait by  Fernando Amorsolo

Elpidio Quirino’s portrait by Fernando Amorsolo

Elpidio Quirino's bed, inside the New National Museum

Elpidio Quirino’s bed, inside the New National Museum

inside the New National Museum

inside the New National Museum

Testament to a glorious past, beautifully preserved colonial era churches stand stalwartly around the city. One of them is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in Earthquake Baroque architectural design (with bell tower built separately to prevent it from toppling over the church) and completed in 1800. The original structure, made of wood and thatch, was built in 1574 upon the command of the Spanish founder of Vigan, Juan de Salcedo.

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

St.Paul's Cathedral

St.Paul’s Cathedral

The majestic St. Augustine Parish Church (Bantay Church), in the municipality of Bantay, is a silent witness to many bloody rebellions and atrocities in the past. Its surroundings were where Diego Silang and his troops fought the Spaniards in 1763. Built with a neo-gothic design in 1590, the church has deep-brown façade made of bricks and mud, and also has a separate belfry that sits on top of a hill. The bell tower was part of the town’s defense against the Moro pirates during the 16th century. Visitors can climb up a rickety staircase to the top of the tower, where five enormous World War II bells hang and a breathtaking panoramic view of Vigan and the West Philippine Sea awaits.

Bantay Church

Bantay Church

inside Bantay Church

inside Bantay Church

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

Bantay Bell Tower

World War II bells

World War II bells

Foodie Haven

The grumble in my stomach tells me to give my taste buds a thrill they’ll never forget. Riding a calesa, I ask the kutsero (driver) to take me to the best empanadahan in the city. “It depends on your taste,” he says, but recommends Irene’s, right along Calle Crisologo. It is unforgivable to skip the delectable half-moon shaped empanada when you are in Vigan. Attendants usually make it as ordered to ensure crunchiness, skillfully rolling out dough as thinly as possible, filling it with shredded papaya and cabbage, cracking an egg over the center, sprinkling it with longganisa bits, folding the dough over and finally sealing its edges together before deep-frying until crispy. This version of empanada tastes best when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). Most empanada stalls also serve okoy, a crunchy shrimp fritter made of tiny shrimps and glutinous rice batter.

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada and okoy on Calle Crisologo

the mouthwatering emapanada and okoy on Calle Crisologo

Okoy

Okoy

The cluster of stalls near Plaza Burgos offers more culinary gems such as the sinanglaw and Vigan longganisa. The former is a savory soup dish made of beef and beef innards and flavored with onion, garlic, ginger and kamias. “We Ilokanos aren’t wasteful. Sometimes, we even include latteg (cow testicles) in the sinanglaw,” says the attendant. The latter is staple on the Ilokano breakfast table and is a favorite pasalubong among visitors. It is distinctly garlicky and doesn’t have the sweet taste of a typical longganisa. It is said to be an influence of the Mexican salami and has existed since the period of the Galleon trade, when Spanish goods reached the province.

Sinanglaw

Sinanglaw

Latteg, cow's testicles

Latteg, cow’s testicles

Shortly after I finish a serving of longganisa, I sink my teeth into a chunk of deep-fried pork with crackling and blistered skin, dipped in vinegar with garlic, onion and hot chili. It is sinfully good I eat it with abandon. One should never leave Vigan without trying the bagnet, a slab of pork belly that is boiled until tender, seasoned with salt and pepper and deep-fried twice to attain its extra crispy texture. The bagnet also makes a perfect topping for the pinakbet, another Ilokano dish I sample at the Pinakbet Farm, a restaurant in a farm setting. The pinakbet is a vegetable dish made of small bitter gourd, eggplant, okra, string beans and chili and flavored with bagoong (fermented fish). In Pinakbet Farm, the vegetables are grown organically in a garden just beside the restaurant.

Vigan Longganisa

Vigan Longganisa

Bagnet

Bagnet

Pinakbet at Pinakbet Farm

Pinakbet at Pinakbet Farm

Don’t forget to try the tinubong as well. The name comes from “tubong”, the internode of a bamboo. This sweet and filling snack is made of glutinous rice, coconut milk, coconut strips and sugar cooked inside the tubong over charcoal.

Tinubong

Tinubong

Souvenir Hunt

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

In Vigan, the much sought-after souvenir is an earthenware called burnay. The making of burnay dates back to the pre-colonial times when migratory traders from China settled in the province. They practiced the craft of making earthenware using clay that can be found in the Western area of Vigan. These jars are traditionally used as containers for locally made vinegar, basi and bagoong. Locals swear that these products taste even better when stored inside the burnay. Thankfully, the continuous demand for these wares has sustained the burnay factories and preserved the ancient industry. Today, at the Pagburnayan, a village at the southwestern end of Liberation Boulevard, visitors can see factories making these jars using pre-historic methods of production.

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

Pagburnayan

The abel cloth, a traditional woven product in Vigan, also has its own story to tell. The craft dates back to the early years of the Spanish occupation and were said to be a major export during the galleon trade. The process of weaving abel cloths, which are made of locally-grown sagut (cotton), is intricate and labor-intensive. However, they are durable and beautifully designed that some families even have them as heirlooms. Today, there are still few who practice the age-old craft and they can be found in the village of Camangaan, Mindoro and San Pedro.

Abel cloth

Abel cloth

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

Abel cloth weaver

As twilight descends, I sit in one of the caritela benches that line Calle Crisologo. An approaching calesa click-clacks along the street to complete a breathtaking portrait of antiquity. I savor the scenery. The next day will find me back to the real world. If only I could freeze time, just like this ancient city.

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

Calle Crisologo

How to Get There:

From Manila, ride a bus bound for Vigan at the Cubao Bus Terminal. Fare is Php 600

Where to Stay:

Hotel Felicidad
#9 V. delos Reyes cor Florentino St.
Vigan city, Ilocos Sur
09178568309/09328912468/09399252402
+63 77 722 0008
www.hotelfelicidadvigan.com

the dancing fountain in Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in  Plaza Salcedo

the dancing fountains, a nightly attraction in Plaza Salcedo

Hidden Garden restaurant

Hidden Garden restaurant

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

You can buy all sorts of ornamental plants at the Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

Hidden Garden

at the Hidden Garden

at the Hidden Garden

at the Baluarte of Chavit Singzon

at the Baluarte of Chavit Singzon

Samar’s Secrets

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breathtaking interiors of Lobo Cave in Jiabong, Samar

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the cascade inside Lobo Cave

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breathtaking interiors of Lobo Cave in Jiabong, Samar

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underground river in Lobo Cave

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an angel crystal formation

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descending through narrow chimney to reach the cave’s lower level

Lobo Cave

I look down the hole, stomach unsettled at the thought of the vast depth below. How far down, I have no idea. I tighten my grip on the rope from which my life depended and watch the beam of my headlamp disappear into the gaping abyss. There is no turning back. “Here, you conquer all your fears at once,” says Joni, the cave master and guide. Sweating profusely while descending into the narrow chimney, I struggle to find a foothold on the wall of the cave. The inches-wide ledge, from which my quivering feet have come to rest, extends horizontally along the boulders’ surface. I edge along, flattening myself against the rocks. As I claw my way to the right, the slim ledge becomes no more than an inch wide. Suddenly, I find myself in another chamber. The roaring echo in the darkness tells me I am not far away from a waterfall. Clambering over the slippery ramp, I am taken aback by the gorgeous cascade tucked behind the massive stalagmites, breathtaking draperies and crystals and coral-shaped calcites.

The waterfall is just one of the many attractions inside Lobo Cave. The thunderous plunge of ice-cold water, which looks like silk draping beautifully on the age-old flowstones, spills into the passageways and tunnels that lead to the other chambers. “Every inch of those took at least a hundred years to form, and they’re fragile. Make sure you don’t hit them with your helmets,” warns Joni as he shows us the stalactites that hang like candlesticks and chandeliers from the ceiling. Wading further, we stop to admire the imposing columns and flowstone arches in one of the chambers, which is even more majestic than the last.

Tucked away in the municipality of Jiabong in Western Samar, Lobo Cave is often referred to as the most beautiful cave in the country by foreign tourists. Its mouth can be reached through a 30-minute trek across an upland pineapple plantation from the village of Tagbayaon. Until 2005, nobody but a fearless explorer named Joni Bonifacio dared the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers inside it. “Before, I was curious why Italian spelunkers would come just to explore our caves while locals were scared of spirits and deadly creatures inside them,” he recalls. According to him, there are more than a thousand caves in the province alone, most of them still unexplored. “Samar isn’t called the Caving Capital of the Philippines for nothing,” he continues. In fact, the Langun-Gobingob Cave in the town of Calbiga is the largest cave system in the Philippines and the second largest in Southeast Asia. That, and the fact that Samar is the third largest island in country, I shamefully didn’t know.

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Julius before going down the hole

mud facial inside Lobo Cave

mud facial inside Lobo Cave

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the cave's entrance

the cave’s entrance

the cave's entrance

the cave’s entrance

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stalactites

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yen, julius and i enjoying the cascade’s ice-cold water

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the bowl-shaped rock formation

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dangerous but fun

outside the cave

outside the cave

 

Ulot River

As if the nearly seven-hour spelunking hasn’t strained every muscle in our body, we find ourselves racing along the churning rapids of Ulot River the following day, shrieking hysterically as our slender torpedo boat swerves, catches water, soars over hurdles of unseen boulders and slams into a foamy wave. And just when our adrenaline shoots up, we drift towards a quiet stretch, quiet enough for us to catch our breath and admire the rock formations and the lush greenery spilling down to the water’s edge. “The torpedo adventure may not be for the faint-hearted,” says Dexter, our boatman and guide. We couldn’t agree more. As we enjoy the cool crisp air, we maintain a sharp lookout for exotic birds lurking among the trees. We see plenty of blue-feathered saliksik (kingfisher) and a few wild ducks flapping low across the green water. A tiny monitor lizard rushes from the bank into midwater, crossing ahead of our path. Above us, an elusive banog (serpent eagle) soars peacefully like a kite.

The Torpedo Boat ride starts on the river shore of Sitio Camp Uno in Barangay Tenani in the town of Paranas and ends at Deni Point, around 10 kilometers from the jumpoff point. You will probably hold your breath again when you reach Deni Point. Natural rock pools and peculiar-looking boulders bedeck the already-breathtaking scenery. And if the nerve-racking boat ride feels amateur to you, you may jump from the highest boulder and plunge into the frigid, swirling waters. Just make sure to leave your protective gears on to avoid injury.

Besides being a major attraction for extreme adventure seekers, Ulot River is also the longest river in Samar, measuring almost 100 kilometers. Its waters come from the upland San Jose de Buan town and drain in the coastal town of Taft in the east. The river is within the Samar Island Natural Park, the largest lowland forest in the country covering three towns- Paranas, Basey and Marabut. Mostly endemic, around 38 species of mammals, 215 species of birds, 51 species of reptiles, 26 species of amphibians and more than 1,000 species of plants have been recorded in the area.

jumping into the raging waters of Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

jumping into the raging waters of Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

jumping into the swirling waters

jumping into the swirling waters

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Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Yen in one of the rock pools of Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Yen in one of the rock pools of Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

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the TORPEDO boat ride in Ulot River

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Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

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one of the many small waterfalls in Ulot River

riverside cascade

riverside cascade

 

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 Quinabut-an Cold Spring

When our adrenalin fades into exhaustion, we drive to a nearby resort called Villa Escober for a dip at Quinabut-an Cold Spring. Its sparkling and mineral-rich water, which emanates from a small cave at the base of a hill, is a refreshing treat on such a hot day. It is believed that soaking in mineral springs stimulates blood circulation and relieves muscle pain. Homey and beautifully landscaped, Villa Escober is the perfect place to relax after two days of hardcore activities.

Bent on promoting local tourism, owner and Catbalogan City Councilor Tintin Escober says her family heavily invested on the facilities around the cold spring for the convenience of those who travel from afar just to see the beautiful spots in this side of Samar. “Before, all we had were kiosks for picnickers. Then visitors started clamoring for overnight facilities since the nearest hotels are some 30 minutes away from here,” she says. Ask anyone in Paranas and Catbalogan City, he/she most likely has fond memories of the Villa Escober and Quinabut-an Cold Spring.

The six-hectare resort is a favorite go-to destination for family gatherings and corporate affairs. “Our family would come here a lot when I was a child. When I was in high school, my friends and I would hangout here after our exams,” says one of the local guests.

Villa Escober has five family-sized rooms, a function hall, cottages beside the cold spring and a garden that is a perfect venue for weddings. Though equipped with basic facilities, the resort is carefully designed not to ruin the natural environment. According to Tintin, whose advocacies include sustainable tourism and a healthy environment, she plans to build a swimming pool, videoke room, a spa and a few villas to accommodate the surge of guests especially on holidays. Besides the torpedo boat ride at the nearby Ulot River, she also plans to add trekking activities across the hill at the back of the resort. “Cellular phone signal here is sparse, but that’s one thing our guests love about our place. They are forced to put away their gadgets, enjoy nature and actually talk to each other,” says Tintin.

the Quinabut-an Cold Spring in Paranas, Samar

the Quinabut-an Cold Spring in Paranas, Samar

Councilor Tintin Escober, owner of Villa Escober where the Quinabut-an Cold Spring is

Councilor Tintin Escober, owner of Villa Escober where the Quinabut-an Cold Spring is

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober's garden

Villa Escober’s garden

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

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Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

Villa Escober

one of the rooms in Villa Escober

one of the rooms in Villa Escober

Delicacies

For a vibrant nightlife and great food that is memorable to the taste buds, head to Catbalogan City, which is just 45 minutes away from Paranas. Here, you’d find a mouthwatering delicacy called Tamalos, Samar’s version of the Tamales in South America. Packed with chunks of tender pork belly cooked with glutinous rice flour and creamy peanut sauce, this dish has the familiar flavors of kare-kare. Tamalos has two variations: the sweet and the spicy.

Don’t forget to try the Queseo as well. Queseo is homemade white cheese processed from carabao milk and is usually present at any Samarnon’s breakfast table.

It may be an acquired taste for visitors, but understanding its meticulous production and the importance it has to the people’s livelihood would make you appreciate its sharp and salty taste.

 

Queseo

Queseo

Tamalos

Tamalos

Can you honestly say you know something about Samar besides the fact that it hosts the other tip of San Juanico Bridge? Until a few days ago, I couldn’t. Beautiful yet underrated, Samar has so many secrets any jaded traveler would itch to tell the world about.

 

For more information, you may contact the following:

 1.)  Lobo Cave in Jiabong, Samar 

Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore

Phone Numbers: 09192943865/09276750062/(055) 251-2301

Email: trexplore@yahoo.com

Website: www.trexplore.blogspot.com

 2.) Ulot River in Paranas, Samar

DOT Region 8

Phone Numbers: (053) 321-2046, (053) 8320901, 09988889715

Email: dotreg8@yahoo.com

Website: www.sparksamar.com

 

3.)  Villa Escober/Quinabut-an Cold Spring in Paranas, Samar

Phone Number: 09988589952

 

 

(PART II) FORBIDDEN ISLANDS: Basilan and Zamboanga City

the breathtaking beach in Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

the breathtaking beach in Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Basilan Provincial Capitol

Basilan Provincial Capitol

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Before sunrise, we find ourselves on a plane to Zamboanga City, our jump-off point to a province our mothers vehemently forbade us from visiting-Basilan. The name evokes fear, and admittedly, I associate the place with terrorists and their mutilated victims. Perhaps expecting an occasional gunfire or at least a little tension in the air, we are surprised to find Isabela City, its capital, to be just like any rustic city we’ve been to. Bustling streets and business establishments. Boisterous teenagers on the sidewalk. A crowded Jollibee. “This is our typical day. Contrary to what you see on television, our city is safe.” assures Ate Yanyan Pineda, our vivacious guide from the tourism office. According to her, Mayor Cherrylyn Santos-Akbar is keen on reversing the negative image brought about by the Abu Sayaff by ensuring tight security at all times.

Basilan is home to several ethnic groups, such as the Yakan, Tausug and Badjao, whose stilt villages fringe the Isabela Channel. Though most of these groups thrive on fishing, agriculture is the province’s main source of livelihood. Aside from the typical palay, corn and coconut, Isabela’s rolling hills are strewn with coffee plants and rubber trees.

A scenic boat ride along the channel, followed by a quick habal-habal ride, takes us to a secluded slice in Malamawi Island, where a beautiful white beach awaits us. The sand is fine and soft like flour and the water, clean and sparkling. If the province’s notorious reputation has done any good, it has kept Malamawi Island away from irresponsible tourists. There are few cottages for rent, and soon, overnight facilities will be completed. “Aren’t you scared of our province?” asks one of the locals. “Do I have a reason to be scared?” I ask him back. He smiles, and tells me that just like any other place, unfortunate events happen sporadically. “It is generally peaceful here,” he declares. Though pressed for time, we linger a little more. I tell you, the water here is irresistible.

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Malamawi Island in Isabela, Basilan

Ate Yanyan then takes us to Cabunbata Falls, a roadside scenery located just 7 kilometers from the city center. Concealed by a few Mahogany and Rubber trees, it is a perfect place to just sit meditatively and listen to the gentle cascade and the whistling of the birds among the lush vegetation. We also drop by the Rubber tree plantation and the rubber factory. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know rubbers come from trees. According to a factory attendant, rubber production is a meticulous process. They carefully tap the trees as early as two in the morning because the cool air encourages the latex to flow freely. Rubber is among the major agricultural products of the city.

Cabunbata Falls

Cabunbata Falls

inside the rubber factory

inside the rubber factory

inside the rubber factory

inside the rubber factory

The Rubber Tree Plantation

The Rubber Tree Plantation

the process of "tapping" is used to collect latex from the Rubber Tree

the process of “tapping” is used to collect latex from the Rubber Tree

Latin City

Sunset finds us back in Zamboanga City, munching on a popular snack called Knickerbocker (fresh fruits with milk and ice cream) at Paseo del Mar, aseafront parkway that is clustered with bars and restaurants. Locals and tourists converge here at dusk to enjoy the view, the fresh air and the good food. Like Tawi-Tawi and Basilan, Zamboanga is unfortunately plagued with a notorious image. Remember the siege two years ago? “Everything is peaceful now as it normally is,” assures Huge, our friend who is a local. The local government’s effort to turn the tide of fear is evident on the presence of police officers in public places.

a popular dessert in Zamboanga, KnickerBocker

a popular dessert in Zamboanga, KnickerBocker

Paseo Del Mar

Paseo Del Mar

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boodlefight at Paseo Del Mar

boodlefight at Paseo Del Mar

 

When you visit this progressive city, don’t be surprised when the least Spanish-looking person inside the jeepney says “Pasahe, por favor!” It doesn’t take a genius to see Spain’s legacy to the Zamboangenos. The Chavacano dialect (a fusion of Spanish and Visayan languages), old stone houses and the ancient coral walls of Fort Pilar are just a few of the obvious ones. Zamboanga City was once a Spanish settlement and a garrison town that protected Spain’s interest in the region. In 1635, Fort Pilar was built as a defense fortress against the Moro pirates and raiders upon the request of the Jesuit missionaries. An important landmark, it stands today as an outdoor Roman Catholic shrine and a museum.

Fort Pilar

Fort Pilar

the Catholoc Shrine in Fort Pilar

the Catholoc Shrine in Fort Pilar

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Fort Pilar

Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

A Catholic Shrine in Fort Pilar

On our last day, we decide to check out the remote Merloquet Falls. Located in the village of Sibulao around 78 kilometers east of the city, the waterfalls is only for those who are willing to endure a 2-hour bus ride from the city center, a 30-minute habal-habal ride and a 10-minute trek. Determined, we proceed despite the heavy downpour and the bumpy motorcycle ride. Our exhaustion vanishes when we see the wide and gorgeous cascade draping beautifully on the moss-covered cliff. The falls has an upper tier that is not visible from the ground. Smaller but just as beautiful, it can be accessed by climbing a slippery and difficult trail, with a rope and the trees’ undergrowth as handholds. I sit with my back against the cascade for a while. The natural massage is pure bliss.

Merloquet Falls

Merloquet Falls

Merloquet Falls

Merloquet Falls

Merloquet Falls

Merloquet Falls

Don’t leave Zamboanga City without visiting the Canelar Trading Center. Inside the open-air shopping mecca are endless rows of colorful and intricately designed malongs, bags, batik dresses and sarongs. Serious bargain hunters would be delighted to find Malaysian and Indonesian products, from clothes to chocolates, at dirt-cheap prices.

Admittedly, I brave these forbidden places for bragging rights but I end up humbled and educated. While most think that terrorism is an everyday occurrence in the region, we experience the people’s genuine warmth and their tremendously rich culture. Not everything you hear in the news is true.

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

the explosion of colours at the Canelar Trading Center

 

Getting There:

1.)  ZAMBOANGA CITY- There are daily flights from Manila, Cebu and Davao to Zamboanga City

  • Fort Pilar, Paseo Del Mar and the Canelar Treading Center are just a tricycle-ride away from anywhere in the city.
  • To reach Merloquet Falls, ride a bus bound for Ipil, Pagadian or Dipolog at the terminal. Alight at the bus stop in Brgy. Vitali. (2 hours, Php 130) Hire a habal-habal to Merloquet Falls in Brgy. Sibulao. (30 minutes, Php 130)

2.)  BASILAN- Fly to Zamboanga City, ride a tricycle to the port and ride a Weesam Express to Isabela City in Basilan (45 minutes, Php 150) Unless you personally know a local who can show you around, make sure to coordinate with the tourism office for accredited guides.

  • There are small boats that go regularly to Malamawi Island from the Isabele City port. Just ask around. (5 minutes, Php 5 fare)

Who to Call:

1.)  Zamboanga City Tourism Office- (062) 992-6242

2.)  Yanyan Pineda of Basilan Tourism Office 09158553785

 

 

 

(PART I) FORBIDDEN ISLANDS: Tawi-Tawi

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

sunrise in Celebes Sea

sunrise in Celebes Sea

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

a sea cucumber vendor

a sea cucumber vendor

Sea cucumbers

Sea cucumbers

Floating village in Sibutu

Floating village in Sibutu

The tide is low, and a handful of Tausug villagers, who live in stilt houses near the shore, paddles into the shallows in their small hand-carved boats to collect seaweedsfromthe filaments mounted on wooden poles. The silence is broken only by the occasional squawks of the Egrets and the swish of the farmers in the placid waters of Celebes Sea. Beaming from ear to ear, Joyce claps her hands in excitement. “Everyone warned me about this place. I never imagined I’d be here,” she says. Had we flinched upon hearing about the recent bomb explosions, kidnappings and beheadings in the infamous provinces in Mindanao, we wouldn’t have seen Omapuy Island, which for us is one of the country’s most beautiful islands. The island, whose wide swathes of powdery white sand glow from afar, is tucked away in Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost province in the country.

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

seaweed farmer

seaweed farmer

seaweed farmer in Omapuy Ilsnad

seaweed farmer in Omapuy Ilsnad

Tawi-Tawi shares sea borders with the island of Borneo to the west. It is a peaceful home to several indigenous tribes: the Sama, who comprise a large percentage of the population; the Tausug, a Moro-ethnic group who are dominant politically and economically; the Badjao, the seafaring gypsies; and the Jama Mapun, a group largely found in the isolated Cagayan Mapun and Turtle Island Group.

An ARMM territory, Tawi-Tawi looks nothing like an island of dread. With bright-eyed enthusiasm, Ate Nursida Jaluddin, a tourism staff at the Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, makes last-minute tour arrangements for us after our original guide bailed out without notice. After a hefty breakfast of satti (grilled chicken and rice drenched in spicy curry sauce), junai (steamed rice mixed with burnt coconut grates and paired with hard-boiled egg) and tiyula-itum (beef stew that is also blackened with burnt coconut grates), we board a lantsa (a large wooden boat) at the bustling Chinese Pier. The pungent smell of marang, durian and dried fish wafts in the air. The lantsa is brimming not just with passengers but also with huge boxes of goods that can be bought only in Bongao, the province’s economic capital. A four-hour boat ride takes us to the humble town of Sibutu, the jump-off point to the remote islands in our itinerary.

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Satti, grilled chicken in spicy curry sauce

Satti, grilled chicken in spicy curry sauce

inside the lantsa

inside the lantsa

the bustling chinese pier in Bongao

the bustling chinese pier in Bongao

Team Pabebe with Ate Nurside of the Tourism Office

Team Pabebe with Ate Nurside of the Tourism Office

inside the lantsa

inside the lantsa

 

Bud Bongao from afar

Bud Bongao from afar

At The Southern Tip

“Surreal!” We unanimously agree about the feeling of reaching Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the Philippines, just 40 kilometers away from the Malaysian state of Sabah. Its gorgeous transparent waters reveal hectares of luxuriant sea grass and corals. “On a clear day, the mountains of Sabah can be seen from this island,” says Alnour, our guide, as our boat crawls over the coralline reef. Here, the Tausug and the Sama Dilaut, who share the bounties of the sea for livelihood, live peacefully in a small settlement along the white beach. On a typical day, one would find women and children on the shore, sorting out their seaweed harvests before hanging them on wooden poles to dry.

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

seaweed farming is a major livelihood of the Tausug and Sama Dilaut in Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

seaweed farming is a major livelihood of the Tausug and Sama Dilaut in Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

Saluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

the old and the new lighthouses in Saluag Island

the old and the new lighthouses in Saluag Island

the clear waters ofSaluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

the clear waters ofSaluag Island, the southernmost island in the country

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

Venice Of The South

Not far from Saluag Island is the municipality of Sitangkai, a lively settlement that stands not on land but on reef. Approaching Sitangkai is like entering a different world. It has a one-kilometer marine causeway that is fringed with stores that sell dry wares, fresh produce and even bizarre merchandise like dried stingrays and puffer fish, which according to a vendor is actually safe to eat. Here, footbridges connect one house to another and pump boats are the only mode of transportation. Traffic usually happens in the morning, when people from nearby islands come to purchase supplies. Many peddlers would crowd the 20-feet wide waterway to sell directly from their boats.

Besides the unusual trade and commerce, seaweed farming is also another source of livelihood in the island. In fact, Sitangkai is the largest producer of seaweeds in the country.

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

stilt houses

stilt houses

stilt houses

stilt houses

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

a vendor in the municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

a vendor in the municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

fried Kilor of Breadfruit

fried Kilor of Breadfruit

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

The floating municipality of Sitangkai, dubbed as the Venice of the South

a pufferfish vendor in Sitangkai

a pufferfish vendor in Sitangkai

dried stingray in Sitangkai

dried stingray in Sitangkai

seaweed vendor in Sitangkai :)

seaweed vendor in Sitangkai :)

Team Pabebe in Sitangkai

Team Pabebe in Sitangkai

stilt houses

stilt houses

Holy Ground

Setting foot in Simunul Island is another surreal experience. “We are standing exactly on the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines,” says our guide. We are speechless with excitement. In 1380 AD, an Arab missionary and trader from Mecca named Sheikh Karim Ul-Makhdum arrived in Simunul Island to preach Islam to our tree-worshiping ancestors, long before the Spaniards came. Today, a mosque named after him stands in Brgy. Tubig -Indangan as an important landmark where the first Islamic temple in the archipelago was built. Inside it are four intricately designed Ipil-wood pillars, which are said to be from the original 14th century mosque.

While many believe that the sheik’s remains are interred just within the mosque’s premises, others assert that his real grave is the one enshrined in Barangay Tandubanak in Sibutu. The latter is considered a national heritage site. Both graveyards are revered pilgrimage sites of Filipino Muslims.

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

the clear waters of Simunul Island, the birthplace if Islam in the Philippines

Sheikh Makhdum Mosque, a landmark of the very first mosque in the Philippines

Sheikh Makhdum Mosque, a landmark of the very first mosque in the Philippines

Sheikh Makhdum Mosque, a landmark of the very first mosque in the Philippines

Sheikh Makhdum Mosque, a landmark of the very first mosque in the Philippines

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Sheikh Mahkdum's grave in Simunul Island

Sheikh Mahkdum’s grave in Simunul Island

Sheikh Makhdum Memorial in Sibutu

Sheikh Makhdum Memorial in Sibutu

Sacred Mountain

“Say a prayer when you reach the summit, then promise to come back if your wish comes true,” says Lance, our guide to Bud Bongao, the highest peak in Tawi-Tawi. We are unsure if he is serious, until we meet families who hike up just to pray and meditate. Soaring 340 meters above the sea, Bud Bongao (“bud” is Tausug for mountain) dominates Tawi-Tawi’s landscape and is easily recognized from afar due to its distinct U-shape. The trail is clear, and lofty Molave, Kalantas and Lumbang trees cover our heads from the harsh daylight as we climb. Sweat-drenched, we walk in silence as we near the tampat (shrine) just below the peak, where pilgrims whisper their prayers. We see three holy shrines not far from each other, and according to our guide, one of Sheikh Makhdum’s original followers was buried in the vicinity. Upon reaching the summit, the vast greenery below and the calm glistening waters of the Celebes Sea render us breathless and oblivious of the scorching high-noon sun. Besides being a pilgrimage site, Bud Bongao is also a treasure trove of biodiversity. It is home to the Pugad Lawin, the Orange Albatross, monitor lizards, the Short-nosed Fruit Bats and the Philippine Monkeys/ long-tailed macaques, which we have to please with bread offerings halfway through our descent.

at the peak of Bud Bonggao

at the peak of Bud Bonggao

a Philippine Monkey in Bud Bonggao

a Philippine Monkey in Bud Bonggao

Philippine Monkeys in Bud Bonggao

Philippine Monkeys in Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

the peak of Bud Bonggao

a "tampat" or holy shrine near the summit of Bud Bonggao

a “tampat” or holy shrine near the summit of Bud Bonggao

our uncomfortable but fun boat ride from Sibutu to Bongao

our uncomfortable but fun boat ride from Sibutu to Bongao

Provincial Capitol Building of Tawi-Tawi

Provincial Capitol Building of Tawi-Tawi

Getting There:

1.)  Cebu Pacific has flights from Zamboanga City to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

2.)  To go to OMAPUY and SALUAG ISLANDS, go to the Chinese Pier in Bongao as early as 10 a.m. and ride a lantsa bound for SIBUTU (3 hours, Php 200), the jump-off point to these 2 islands. There’s only one boat to Sibutu daily. Make sure to coordinate with the tourism office beforehand for the accommodation and island hopping. There are no hotels in Sibutu and rates of the accommodation depend on the owner of the house you’ll spend the night in. Boats for island hopping also depend on the owners. We spent around Php 5,000 for the land and sea transportation to Omapuy, Saluag and Sitangkai.

3.)   If you want to go to SIMUNUL, the jump-off point is Bongao. Just go directly to the Tourism Office at the airport to inquire for boats. You may also want to check out Panampangan Island, which many travelers have been raving about. A speedboat to both Simunul and Panampangan can be as expensive as Php 8,000 so bring your adventurous friends to save on expenses. Bawal ang pabebe sa Tawi-Tawi! haha J

4.)  To go to BUD BONGAO, coordinate also with the Tourism Office at the airport for accredited tour guides.

Who to Call:

1.)  Salve Pescadera of the Tawi-Tawi Tourism Office- 09051547865/09106716367

2.)  Nursida Jaluddin of the Tourism Office at the airport- 09206140860

 

floating village in Sibutu

floating village in Sibutu

Team Pabebe

Team Pabebe

halo-halo by the bay

halo-halo by the bay

Pastil, a Tausug delicacy with bison as filling. It is usually paired with vinegar

Pastil, a Tausug delicacy with bison as filling. It is usually paired with vinegar

boatmaking is one of Badjao's livelihood.

boatmaking is one of Badjao’s livelihood.

Fried Kilor or Breadfruit makes a good snack

Fried Kilor or Breadfruit makes a good snack

Alnour, our protective guide. :)

Alnour, our protective guide. :)

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stilt houses

stilt houses

stilt houses

stilt houses

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

the clear waters of Celebes Sea

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the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

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the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

the breathtaking Omapuy Island

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a backyard cemetery in Sibutu

a backyard cemetery in Sibutu

cows are pretty common in Tawi-Tawi

cows are pretty common in Tawi-Tawi

only the freshest seafood in Tawi-Tawi

only the freshest seafood in Tawi-Tawi

roadtrip to Brgy Tandu Owak in Sibutu, our jumpoff point to Saluag Island

roadtrip to Brgy Tandu Owak in Sibutu, our jumpoff point to Saluag Island

Club Paradise

Kayangan Bay

Kayangan Bay

Kayangan Lake is dubbed as the cleanest lake in Asia

Kayangan Lake is dubbed as the cleanest lake in Asia

the limestone hills of Coron

the limestone hills of Coron

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Cub Paradise's beachfront cottage

Cub Paradise’s beachfront cottage

imagine waking up to this! it is possible when you are in Club Paradise.

imagine waking up to this! it is possible when you are in Club Paradise.

the gorgeous Palawan sunset

the gorgeous Palawan sunset

While indulging in a beachfront massage one afternoon in Dimakya Island, I steal glances at the breathtaking vista of the placid sea and the mountains from the cabana. Are these what we need to be happy? A beautiful island, sumptuous food and a little bit of pampering? For a few days the complexities of my everyday life seem nonexistent. I know I have found my paradise.

The Sanctuary

I never thought the screech-like squawks of the fruit bats dangling from the Calumpang trees would be music to my ears. Those and the rich, whistling songs of the Black-naped Orioles, whose striking yellow plumage blazes from the high branches like fire, wake me up from my slumber. Lying still in a hammock that surrounds me like a cocoon while relishing the languid salty air, I watch the bright blue skies give way to pale yellows and pinks above the mountains on the island across. The delicate splashes of the sea and the rustle of the Talisay trees nearby drown the laughter of the children frolicking in the shallows.

panoramic view of Dimakya Island

panoramic view of Dimakya Island

Dimakya Island's gorgeous beach

Dimakya Island’s gorgeous beach

First Day in Paradise

Club Paradise, a Discovery World Resort, lives up to its name. Located in the sun drenched and secluded Dimakya Island in Coron, Palawan, the island resort has a 700-meter beautiful white sand beach and is surrounded by a luxuriant vegetation, an abode to the White-bellied Sea Eagles, Monitor Lizards, Rufous Night Herons and seventy more exotic animal species. The turquoise waters around it serve as a sanctuary to a wide array of flora and fauna, including the sea cows and the Green Sea Turtles, which are easily spotted in the nearby reef. Listed as one of the 10 best Scuba diving destinations in the world by the Forbes Traveler Magazine, Coron has an amazing marine life and a dozen sunken Japanese warships and freighters of depths between 10 and 40 meters off Coron and Dimakya Islands.

The beaming staff strumming their guitars breaks into a song as I alight from the speedboat, welcoming me to Club Paradise. Sipping on a refreshing cucumber drink, I am rendered speechless by the gorgeous panorama from the beachfront lounge. Verdant mountains and rugged cliffs rise up from the sparkling waters of different hues. Pardon the cliché but there’s truly nothing like kicking off my shoes to sink my exhausted feet into the warm silky-white squeaky-clean beach sand. The welcome song continues as I walk to my beachfront cottage, where another staff awaits at the foyer. “Would you like a foot massage?” she offers. A genuine smile wrinkles her sun-kissed face. How does she know I want one so bad?

Club Paradise’s unique and personalized welcome extends to my room. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I am to see my framed photographs on the wooden table next to my bed and a banner that says “Welcome Home” with my name plastered on the wall. The hospitality, served with sugary treats like homemade pastries, freshly cooked maruya (banana fritters) and biko (sticky rice pudding) brought regularlyto my porch during snack time, makes me feel like I am just visiting a relative’s gorgeous beach house. This kind of service, I learn later on, is a Discovery signature. Joegil, the resort’s manager, says they invest on their staff’s training. “We want to maintain our unparalleled quality service. As we always say, ours is a ‘service that’s all heart’.”

Unquestionably inspired by the rustic Filipino hut, the beachfront cottages look simple yet charming. Though the walls are concrete, they have thatched roofs, amakan accents and a shady wooden veranda kitted out with lounge chairs and a hammock where you can watch the magnificent Palawan sunset or the clear starlit skies at night. The 19-hectare island resort has a total of 55 rooms: 20 Beachfront cottages, 4 Sea View, 7 Hillside, 4 Garden View and 20 Island View Suites. They were all carefully designed not to encroach on the natural environment. “The presence of the exotic animals means Dimakya Island has a healthy environment. We intend to keep it that way,” says Joegil. He also mentions that there are plans to upgrade the rooms and facilities within the year.

Dimakya Island

Dimakya Island

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise's beachfront cottage

Club Paradise’s beachfront cottage

Club Paradise's beachfront cottage

Club Paradise’s beachfront cottage

inside the beachfront cottage

inside the beachfront cottage

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Dimakya Island

Dimakya Island

the beachfront massage area

the beachfront massage area

Island Hopping

Though I’ve visited Coron a few years ago, I still find myself awestruck by the majesty of the towering jungle-covered karst formations erupting from the cobalt blue waters. “There are 13 lakes here in Coron, but only two are open to the public: Kayangan and Barracuda Lake. The rest are protected and considered sacred by the indigenous Tagbanuas.” says Raymund, our boatman and guide. A short but exhausting trek across a dense rainforest takes some sweat-drenched American tourists and me to Kayangan Lake, which according to Raymund has won accolades as the cleanest lake in the country. The mysterious crystal clear lake, hidden by an array of steep black limestone hills, never fails to enchant even its jaded visitors. And just when you think the spectacle ends with what is seen above the brackish waters, you are rendered breathless by the stunning sharp-edged walls and stalagmite formations underneath. “It’s like the castle from The Little Mermaid,” describes a little boy as he pulls himself back onto a bamboo raft.

Kayangan Lake

Kayangan Lake

under the brackish waters of Kayangan Lake

under the brackish waters of Kayangan Lake

The Twin Lagoon, not far from the Kayangan Lake, is just as beautiful. Here, two lagoons converge through a small cave-like opening at the base of a limestone cliff. During low tide, one can easily swim from one lagoon to the other. When the tide is high, one may use a wooden ladder built on the cliff to get to the other side. “You will notice that the water is a mixture of warm and cold. That’s because it is in this lagoon where the freshwater and seawater meet,” says Raymund.

en route to the Twin Lagoon

en route to the Twin Lagoon

Lunch!

Lunch!

Myth says that long ago, seven children drowned at the sea while looking for their parents. Seven rocky islets arose from the area where the tragedy happened, and it is now known as the Siete Pecados. Excited to have a glimpse of Coron’s renowned underwater wildlife, I hastily slip on my snorkel and a pair of flippers before splashing into the water. As I settle into the cadenced pattern of my breathing, I am taken aback by the profusion of life radiating beneath me. Large coral tables, densely surrounded by soft and branching corals, serve as playground to vibrant fishes. Startled by my presence, a parrotfish and a school of angelfish glide past me, looking beautiful and shiny. A clown fish storms back and forth from its bright pink anemone, as if threatening me not to swim any closer to its home. It is easy to lose track of time when you are surrounded with an extraordinary sight like this. Surfacing briefly, I realize that I have been carried far away from the boat by the subtle current.

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

a profusion of corals in Siete Pecados

“Don’t jump into the pool right away! The water’s temperature can sometimes go as high as 40 degrees,” warns a caretaker of the Maquinit Hot Spring. The warm and soothing water cascading gently on my shoulders from a small elevated pool is the rejuvenescence I need after an exhausting day of island hopping, snorkeling and trekking. Surrounded by lush mangroves and lofty flowering trees, the spring has a natural heat that is said to come from a nearby underground volcano.

the Maquinit Hot spring

the Maquinit Hot spring

Club Paradise also offers escapades to some of its neighboring islands: Isla Walang Lang-aw (Island Without Trees) and Isla Walang Tao (uninhabited island). Devoid of any vegetation, Isla Walang Lang-aw has stunning rock formations adorning its 300-meter sparkling beach and luminous waters. Here, only the splashes of the sea and the squawks of the seagulls can be heard. Located ten minutes away from Dimakya Island, the islet is a favorite among couples who want privacy and an isolated picnic. “If we see a beach umbrella on the sandbar, we avoid getting close to the island. We respect our guests’ solitude,” says the boatman.

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Snorkels are practically useless when you reach the glass-clear waters of Isla Walang Tao, a quiet and charming islet with soft white sand that sinks my feet and a few Puzzle Trees that cover my head from the harsh midday sun. A vast coral garden starts right at the shoreline, almost immediately below the water surface. Sightings of Black Tip Sharks, Napoleon Wrasses, Bumpheads and Eagle Rays have been reported in this area so I make a vain attempt to look for them behind the large Cabbage Corals and Elephant Ear sponges. It may not be my lucky day, but the schools of colorful reef fish darting around me are just as entertaining.

the clear waters of Isla Walang Tao

the clear waters of Isla Walang Tao

Besides island hopping and snorkeling, Club Paradise also offers activities like kayaking, paraw sailing, diving and bottom fishing. Its leisure and adventure facilities include the Dugong Dive Center, a clubhouse and bar, an entertainment room equipped with karaoke machines, a spa, swimming pool, tennis court and an activity area for children. Joegil, the resort’s manager, says there are plans to add watersports facilities at the nearby Diatoy Island, also under the jurisdiction of Club Paradise.

Diatoy Island

Diatoy Island

at Diatoy Island

at Diatoy Island

On my last morning in Dimakya Island, I find myself strolling along the beach, often stopping to peer beneath the crystalline water to spy on vibrant fishes darting in the shallows. Afterwards, I sit on the cool powdery sand for a while, admiring the glass-like surface of the sea, which shimmers with hues of orange and purple in the morning light. The breathtaking colors stretch out toward the distant mountains and the West Philippine Sea. Evidently, every aspect of this tranquil island conspires to create a relaxing and blissful atmosphere. Now this is exactly how a vacation should be.

beachfront massage

beachfront massage

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Dimakya Island

Dimakya Island

hundreds of bats dangling from the Calumpang Tree

hundreds of bats dangling from the Calumpang Tree

Fruit Bats hovering Dimakya Island

Fruit Bats hovering Dimakya Islandan

an Asian Glossy Starling, looking for crumbs at the restaurant

an Asian Glossy Starling, looking for crumbs at the restaurant

Club Paradise's Ocean Restaurant

Club Paradise’s Ocean Restaurant

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Club Paradise's clubhouse

Club Paradise’s clubhouse

the Glow Spa

the Glow Spa

the Glow Spa

the Glow Spa

the resort has great food!!

the resort has great food!!

the resort has great food!!

the resort has great food!!

Club Paradise

Club Paradise

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Isla Walang Lang-aw

Dimakya Islan'd sparkling waters

Dimakya Islan’d sparkling waters

 

How To Go To Coron:

1.)  By air to Busuanga Airport via Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Skyjet

2.)  By sea to Coron Pier via 2GO

 

Club Paradise Manila Sales and Reservations Office

41st Floor, Discovery Suites

ADB Avenue, Ortigas Center, Pasig City 1600

Telephone: (+632) 719.6971 to 6974

Trunkline: (+632) 719.6988

Email: cp.reservations@discovery.com.ph

 

Club Paradise             

Dimakya Island, Coron, Northern Palawan

www.discoveryhotels-resorts.com

 

The Isla Rancho Country

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Animasola Island

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Animasola Island

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Tinalisayan Island

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“Where is Masbate?” I embarrassingly search in Google after receiving an invitation to the Isla Rancho Festival in San Pascual. Truth be told, the province has never appeared on any list of popular summer destinations. Which is actually a good thing. For years, their beautiful beaches have escaped the scourge of mass tourism. Unexpectedly, Masbate has quite a list of pristine destinations waiting to be explored.

Located in the Bicol Region, Masbate lies at the center of the Philippine archipelago. Its hilly terrain is an ideal pastureland for cattle and other livestock. Relative to mainland Bicol, the province faces the southwestern coasts of Camarines Sur, Albay and Sorsogon. It consists of three major islands: Masbate, Ticao and Burias, where the municipality of San Pascual, known as the island of the cattle ranches, is located.

The Festival

We arrive at the port of San Pascual with brightly colored banderitas flapping above our heads and a marching band practicing their piece at the plaza. Children are giggling and running across the streets, some are rehearsing their routines for the grand street dancing competition later that week. During the Isla Rancho Festival, celebrated every second week of May, this typically quiet community becomes vibrant with an endless list of peculiar and sometimes action-packed spectacles.

Many activities during this festival allow us a glimpse of the townspeople’s everyday life. Besides the calf lassoing competition, we witness a regular festival competition called the Bangkarera, derived from the words bangka (boat) and karera (race). Here, the bangka is propelled only by the boatman’s reliable paddle. Common to agricultural communities, traditional contests such as Coconut Husking, Wood Chopping and Load Carrying are also among the weeklong activities. There is also the Rancher’s Night, where everyone can partake in the Lechon Baka (RoastedCow) and some ice-cold beer while listening to the local bands. One of the highlights of the festival, and without a doubt the most spectacular, is the street dancing competition, where the performers from different villages are dressed in flamboyant and eye-popping costumes. And have I mentioned extravagant? This year’s winner gets a hundred thousand cash prize!

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Island Hopping

The coral fragments carpeting Animasola Island welcome me with a gentle pinch under my feet. Surrounded with clear and sparkling cerulean waters that allow us a glimpse of the luxuriant marine life, the island is an exhibit of spectacular rock formations. A few greens dangle from the towering rock cliff, which is decorated with lines running horizontally along its sides. Our guide Ningning says these lines are caused by weathering and erosion over time. Animasola Island is a surprising visual treat to our group of jaded travelers.

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Animasola Island

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Animasola Island

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Animasola Island

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Animasola Island

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Animasola Island

The Tinalisayan Island shouldn’t be missed either. The small white sand island is backdropped with rust-colored coral-like cliffs and boulders. Not far from the island are some rock formations rising up beautifully from the sunset side of the sea and a long strip of gorgeous white sandbar.

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

Tinalisayan Island

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The Balinsasayaw House

It is only in San Pascual where we see around eighty thousand swiftlets coexisting with humans under the same roof. Usually cave dwellers, the balinsasayaw started building their nests at the basement of the house of Eddie Espares in 1991. According to experts, the cave-like temperature of the house’s basement has caused this strange phenomenon. Despite the rancid smell, the family considers their boarders a blessing. They use the bird’s excrement as fertilizer to their organic farm. Also, they have easy access to the swiftlet’s nest, the rarest and most expensive ingredient of the Bird’s Nest Soup or the Nido Soup, a Chinese delicacy that is popular in the country. The nest, made of the bird’s saliva, is traditionally believed to provide health benefits such as strengthening the immune system and increasing libido.

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Ancient Structures

Besides the Balinsasayaw House, the Spanish-inspired ancestral houses are also worthwhile stopovers. Built in the 1930s, its walls and trusses made of local hardwood trees like hamorawon, dungon and kansayud are still intact. Inside these houses are antique religious statuettes, furniture pieces, decors and even rare archaeological artifacts like chinaware and ceramics.

History enthusiasts would be delighted to know that one of the oldest churches in the Philippines can be found at the center of San Pascual. Although there is no extant record of its construction date, it is believed that the original structure of San Pascual Baylon Parish Church was built around 1570. The edifice is simple, yet its coralstone walls are thick and impregnable, typical of the any Spanish-era church.

a Spanish-inspired ancestral house

a Spanish-inspired ancestral house

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inside the old house

inside the old house

San Pascual Baylon Church, one of the oldest churches in the country

San Pascual Baylon Church, one of the oldest churches in the country

The Countryside

On our last day, we decide to visit the highlands, mangrove areas and the bat sanctuary. The farms and rolling hills that we pass by are nothing less than picturesque. Oblivious of the bumpy ride, we stare in dreamy contentment at the cattle grazing upon the steep hillside pastures. Blessed with an ideal landscape, San Pascual alone has around 15 huge ranches, which supplies beef to other provinces in Luzon. Besides the ranches, the town also has an impressive expanse of mangrove plantation, with a total area of 1,287 hectares from its 20 identified villages.

 

Not far from the mangrove areas is the Mapanique River. Living up to its name, it is a home to several species of big fruit-eating bats, which we see dangling from the branches of the lofty Calumpang trees. Sometimes, some would detach and flap their wings heavily before disappearing around a bend in the river. Enjoying the cool refreshing air as we squeeze ourselves on the tiny fishing boat, we maintain a sharp lookout for exotic birds lurking among the lush vegetation. The first few minutes are uneventful, until we see wild ducks flapping low across the water. Occasionally, colorful birds would rise from their perch and fly swiftly away as our boat pass them by.

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“What is in Masbate anyway?” The question crossed my mind a few days ago. I am guilty of downplaying the province’s ability of amaze its visitors. Turns out the surprisingly beautiful destinations we saw for the past three days in San Pascual, Burias Island are just a glimpse of what this unassuming province can offer.

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Sombrero Island

Sombrero Island

How to Go To San Pascual, Burias Island in Masbate:

1.) via Naga Airport:

a.) Go to the North Bound Terminal and ride a jeepney/van going to Pasacao Port (1 hour)

b.) At the Pasacao Port, ride a boat going to San Pascual, Burias Island (2 hours)

 

2.) via Masbate Airport

a.) Go to the Masbate City Port

b.) Ride a boat going to Claveria in Burias Island (2 hours)

c.) Ride a motorcycle/habal-habal to San Pascual (30 minutes)

 

Tour Packages:

1.)  2D1N- Php 1,800

Inclusions: Meals (Lunch and Dinner)

Aircon Room Accommodations

Transportation for Island Hopping

Entrance Fees

Tour Guide Services

 

2.)  3D2N-Php 2,800

Inclusions: Meals (Lunch and Dinner)

Aircon Room Accommodations

Transportation for Island Hopping

Entrance Fees

Tour Guide Services

You may call Cecille of San Pascual Tourism Office for inquiries: 09199112270

Where to Stay:

 

Sunset View Tourist Inn

Rates: Single with aircon and tv (common bathroom)- Php 680

Double Deluxe with aircon and tv (common bathroom)- Php 1,300

Family Room Good for 6 with aircon, tv and private bathroom-Php 2,500

Call  Erma 09484729467 or Jeric 09108056661 for reservations

Balabac, A Secret Paradise

approaching Onuk Island

approaching Onuk Island

the red coral in Patawan Island

the red coral in Patawan Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

Look at the waters surrounding Bugsuk Island!!!

Look at the waters surrounding Bugsuk Island!!!

The Sanctuary

In the excitement I blurt out occasional profanities in front of people I have just met. Certainly a terrible way to make an impression, but I find it difficult to shut my mouth when I see awesomeness unfolding before me. Not far from the boat, a few large pawikan glide effortlessly under the sparkling aquamarine waters. “Those are the green sea turtles. Here, you don’t have to snorkel to see them,” says Kap Andong, the gracious boatman and guide, who is obviously delighted with our reaction. The incredibly clear visibility of the waters surrounding Onuk Island extends as far as the eyes can see. Clambering over the outrigger’s slender bow, I am temporarily silenced by the spectacle beneath us. A profusion of coral reefs, brightly colored fishes and giant clams radiates from the pale seabed. On a lucky day, according to Kap Andong, one can even see dolphins and whale sharks in the underwater cliff wall nearby.

The privately owned Onuk Island is just one of the thirty-two beautiful islands in the municipality of Balabac, off the south-westernmost part of Palawan. Notable for its endemic plant and animal species like the Pilandok (Philippine mouse-deer), the Katala (Philippine Cockatoo) and Siete Colores (Nicobar Pigeon), the Balabac Group of Islands is a peaceful home to the Palaw-an, a Manobo-based linguistic group, and the Molbog, a Muslim ethno-linguistic group that is believed to be its earliest inhabitants. A five-hour van ride from Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba in the town of Bataraza, followed by a queasy three-hour boat ride to mainland Balabac, takes me and two other hell-bent travellers, Jen and Aiu, to the tip of the last frontier. The exhausting discontinuous travel and the absence of resorts have prevented mass tourism, leaving the islands in its raw state.

We are breathless as our boat nears Onuk Island. “This is paradise!” says Aiu with a big smile on her face. The island beckons and we are hypnotically drawn to its glowing white sandbar despite the intense midday heat. We savor our lunch of fresh crabs and flying fish at the wooden cottage built on stilts, overlooking the rich luminous waters of Sulu Sea. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of a few pawikan swimming from afar. A sanctuary for the endangered hawksbill and green sea turtles, Onuk Island has dedicated caretakers that keep the hatchlings safe from their natural enemies until they reach maturity. “Can we just spend the rest of the afternoon here?” I suggest. Also smitten by the island’s beauty, the girls agree, forgetting about the other islands on our list.

Onuk Island

Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

Onuk Island

Onuk Island

Onuk Island

Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

the veeeeeery clear waters of Onuk Island

a green sea turle in Onuk Island

a green sea turle in Onuk Island

Endless White Sand

Mornings in Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island are truly breathtaking. When the tide is low, the sea reveals a seemingly infinite expanse of rippled and very fine white sand. Fringed with pine trees and mangroves on one side and coconut trees on the other, the privately owned Bugsuk Island is a 119 sq. km. stretch of powdery white sand.

Life here is simple. To bask in its magnificence means to pitch a tent near the shore, under the lush vegetation. Devoid of electricity, the island’s music comes from the coos and whistles of migratory birds. A good spectacle means a glimpse of the wildlife’s peculiar behavior. Mobile phone signal is sparse, so nights are best spent on meaningful conversations with fellow campers under the starlit skies.

A small fishing village thrives in one portion of the island. Walking along the shore, we see fishermen hanging their bountiful seaweed harvest on wooden poles. Some are arranging a variety of sliced and gutted fish on bamboo trays to dry. Further, a group of men’s hectic day involves scraping dry coconut meat out of the shell. Armed with their bolo, children can be seen scouring the shore for wakwak on a typical morning. Wakwak is a beach worm that feeds on sand. Cooked only in vinegar, it is considered a delicacy. Locals also use it as bait for fishing.

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the mangrove area in Punta Sibaring during low tide

the mangrove area in Punta Sibaring during low tide

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

Bugsuk Island's white sand extends as far as the eyes can see

Bugsuk Island’s white sand extends as far as the eyes can see

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

the seemingly endless white sand of Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island

Punta Sibaring

Punta Sibaring

aiu, basking in punta sibaring's magnifecence

aiu, basking in punta sibaring’s magnifecence

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daing

daing

sea weeds are left to dry under the sun

sea weeds are left to dry under the sun

a villager hanging the sea weeds to dry

a villager hanging the sea weeds to dry

the wakwak, a beach worm

the wakwak, a beach worm

The Wakwak Slayer

The Wakwak Slayer

a sea snake washed ashore

a sea snake washed ashore

the bayawak

the bayawak

Red Corals

We have Patawan Island all to ourselves when we arrive. As I stroll down the beach, tiny pieces of red corals pinch my feet softly. Though small, the island is a standout because it doesn’t have white sand. It has pink! Its rare color comes from the naturally pulverized red organ pipe corals, which are abundant in the area, mixed with the white sand. Also privately owned, the gorgeous uninhabited island has a small forest of pandan trees, where birds entertain us with their songs as we bask in the scorching sun with abandon.

Patawan Island used to be a nesting area for sea turtles but the local poachers, who deal with illegal Chinese traders, have driven them away. Just last year, the Philippine Navy in Palawan recovered 140 chemically preserved sea turtles hidden in a village in Balabac, awaiting shipment into the black market trade.

Rolling up her colorful tent on our last day, Jen says she will come back next year. “Me too!” Aui and I blurt out in unison. Kap Andong says that there are still many islands to be explored, even more beautiful than the ones we have seen, which is quite difficult to imagine. Have you ever seen something so beautiful that you want to take it home with you? The Balabac Islands have that effect on me. I will definitely brave the rough waves of Sulu Sea again soon.

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Notice the pinkish sand of Patawan Island

Patawan Island

Patawan Island

yoga lovin' in Patawa Island

yoga lovin’ in Patawa Island

Patawan Island

Patawan Island

Getting There:

1.)  Since most of the islands are privately owned, you have to coordinate properly with the owners if you wish to visit or camp in the islands. Sir Renato Principe owns Punta Sibaring in Bugsuk Island, which I believe has the widest shoreline and finest sand among the islands. You may contact him at 09291403125.

TRAVELYOUNG also has occasional tours to the islands. You may reach them at 09174106099, 09153030595, 09297716488, 032 5469009, book@travelyoung.ph

2.)  From Puerto Princesa City, go to San Jose Terminal and ride a van going to Rio Tuba. Travel time is 4-5 hours. Make sure you arrive in Rio Tuba before 10 am. Fare is Php 450 as of this writing.

3.)  At the Rio Tuba Port, ride a boat to Balabac mainland. Travel time is 3 hours. The only boat to Balabac leaves at 12 nn, but could be earlier depending on the number of passengers. Fare is Php 250 as of this writing.

Expenses:

Airfare Manila to Puerto Princesa vv- Php 1,200 (piso fare)

3d2n Tour Package (inclusive of food, camping fee, boat, guide)- Php 3,500 * as of this writing

Boat fare Rio Tuba to Balabac vv- Php 500

Van Fare Puerto Princesa to Rio Tuba vv- Php 900

Total- Php 6,100

Tips:

1.)  It is not advisable to do a Do-It-Yourself tour. Again, most islands are privately owned. Proper coordination is needed.

2.)  Bring powerbanks and extra batteries for your cameras. Trust me you’ll need them.

3.)  Bring flashlight, insect repellant lotion, sunblock and just enough set of clothes.

4.)  If you want to see the islands, you reaaally really have to want it, otherwise you’ll end up cranky. DO NOT go there if you don’t enjoy camping, long walks, basking in the sun, island hopping and the simple life. Also, the islands already have enough people who have so much disrespect for nature (poachers who deal with illegal Chinese traders, fishermen who are into blast fishing etc), so if you are one of them, just go to China instead. :)

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The Other Side of Cebu

The Gentle Giants

If Sofio, the boatman, glances my way, he would see the childish astonishment on my face. “Do not panic. They’re harmless,” he calls out to a lady who furiously back-paddles when a giant tuki or whale shark breaks into the surface amongst a dozen snorkelers. Holding my breath, I freeze for a moment when a larger one heads straight towards me. Its broad mouth is agape as if ready to swallow me whole. Nervously fumbling for the buttons of my small camera, I watch in awe as the seven-meter creature glides within a few feet from my face, turning its enormous and beautifully dotted body away from me only seconds before impact.

“We used to ride them when we were children, but we discourage it now because they become frisky,” says Sofio. According to him, the tuki have been frequenting the shores of Oslob for centuries due to the abundance of alamang (small saltwater shrimps), which is their primary food. The whale shark or Rhincodon Typus is the largest known fish specie, which can grow up to 18 meters long. Despite its size, the whale shark does not pose significant peril to humans because it only feeds on tiny food, like plankton, by sucking water through its wide mouth.

A fourth income class municipality in the province of Cebu, Oslob became a popular destination in 2011 when tourists started flocking to its sleepy seaside village, Tan-awan, to see the gentle giants. This has provided additional income to the townspeople, who live mainly on fishing and agriculture.

Seeing more dorsal fins on the surface, I find myself reluctant to leave the clear glistening waters. But since each visitor is limited only to a 30-minute whale shark interaction, Kuya Raul, the gracious driver from the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, excitedly suggests that I also visit the nearby waterfalls.

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Tumalog Falls

A 15-minute van ride from the whale-watching area followed by a 500-meter trek on a steep mountainside pathway takes me to the foot of Tumalog Falls. Squinting through the large spray from the mushroom-like rock formations, I see why Tumalog Falls easily enthralls many visitors. The stream of clear water bounces several times from one rock to another before it reaches the shallow pool below. Surrounded by towering age-old butong (bamboo) trees, the cascade looks like silk that drapes beautifully on the moss-covered cliff. Besides being a major tourist attraction in Oslob, the waterfalls is also an important water source for the villagers.

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Rich Heritage

When the Moro piratical attacks on Christian communities all over the country began in the 16th century, the small coastal towns of Cebu were not spared. These pillages were the Moros’ retaliation against the Spanish invaders, who had displaced them from the political and economical dominance they once enjoyed. For more than two centuries, many Christianized Filipinos were either killed or captured for slavery and their villages looted and burned to the ground. Determined to end the atrocity, an Augustinian Friar named Julian Bermejo, who was assigned to Boljoon Parish in southeast Cebu, organized a defense system and led the construction of a series of baluartes (watchtowers) where cannons were mounted, stonewalled churches that served both as places of worship and refuge and barangayes (fast-sailing ships used to pursue Muslim boats). Many of these watchtowers and centuries-old churches still stand today as silent reminders to the traumatic era.

One of the resilient edifices is the church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Oslob, which was started in 1830. Since the parish only relied on voluntary labor from the townspeople, the construction was finished 18 years later. In 1858, the bell tower was built. The thick sturdy walls of the church and the three-tier belfry were constructed out of corals quarried from the nearby seas and lime from powdered seashells. Parts of the church burned down during the Second World War in 1955. It was eventually restored but was hit by fire again in 2008. Its restoration was completed once again in 2010.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Within the vicinity of the church are two other historical structures: the cuartel and the watchtower ruins. Started in 1860, the unfinished building, also made of coral blocks, was intended to be the cuartel or barracks for the Spanish armies. It was not completed due to the arrival of the Americans in 1899, which marked the end of the Spanish regime. Not far from the cuartel are the ruins of one of the seven baluartes along the coastline of Oslob. Built in 1788, the 7-meter tall watchtower has a hexagonal structure, thick stonewalls and a small entrance.

the cuartel

the cuartel

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the cuartel

the cuartel

the cuartel

the baluarte ruins, behind the statue of Fr. Julian Bermejo

the baluarte ruins, behind the statue of Fr. Julian Bermejo

In the town of Boljoon, next to Oslob, stands the oldest remaining original stone church in Cebu. In 1999, the Boljoon Church or the Church of Nuestra Senora Patrocinio de Maria was declared as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines. It was started in 1783 after the original church crumbled in fire, and was completed in 1814. The church has a simple barn-like structure, with high arch windows just below its pediment. Being in the center of Fr. Julian Bermejo’s defense network, its walls were made very thick with impregnable coral slabs, lime and mortar. Despite the calamities that struck Cebu during the past years, about 90 percent of the church is of its original construction, including the clay roofing, choir’s loft and the pulpit.

Boljoon Chuch, the oldest stone church in Cebu

Boljoon Chuch, the oldest stone church in Cebu

the ancient walls of Boljoon Church

the ancient walls of Boljoon Church

Adjacent to the church is the largest existing Spanish watchtower in the Philippines built in 1808. Referred to as El Gran Baluarte, it served as Fr. Bermejo’s headquarters during the peak of the Moro raids. Today, the two-story blockhouse serves as a bell tower, with iron-cast bells replacing the artilleries that were once installed in its crenellated walls. Its ground floor has a prison cell and a storehouse for ammunition.

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El Gran Baluarte, the largest existing Spanish era watchtower

At the back of El Gran Baluarte is an American era stone house called Esculea Catolica, which has a double grand staircase. Built in 1940, this was a dormitory for children who were required to stay in-house the night before their first Holy Communion.

Escuela Catolica

Escuela Catolica

Further, in the town of Carcar, I see another beautiful Spanish period church. The two Muslim-style bell towers, each with a crucifix on top, on both sides of the low-pitched pediment make the St. Catherine of Alexandria Church distinct. Its construction began in 1860 and was completed in 1875. The patio is surrounded with a concrete fence and pedestalled statues of the Apostles. Inside, my eyes feast on the beautiful ceiling of blue and gold, intricately sculpted Stations of the Cross, statues of angels holding the lampposts on the columns and the tombstones of the church’s previous caretakers on the walls.

St. Catherine of Alexandria Church

St. Catherine of Alexandria Church

the  church's interiors

the church’s interiors

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It is only in Carcar where I see so many well-preserved American era structures. Under the intense afternoon sun, I find myself drawn to the Carcar Dispensary, an eye-catching two-story building with exquisite latticework and stained glass doors and windows. It was built between 1929 and 1938, and houses the Carcar Museum today. The municipal building beside it also exhibits the same detailed woodwork. Also on the same street is the ornate Saint Catherine School, an all-girl Catholic school founded in 1923.

The Carcar Dispensary

The Carcar Dispensary

The Carcar Municipal Buiding

The Carcar Municipal Buiding

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Luxury in Paradise

Even the lucent aquamarine waters suckling on the white sandbar of Sumilon Island have secrets to tell. In 1813, this dreamy island silently witnessed a bloody battle between the locals led by Fr. Julian Bermejo and the Moro pirates, where the latter had decisively fallen. Since then the marauders no longer dared to show themselves anywhere near Cebu.

Sumilon Island's gorgeous sandbar

Sumilon Island’s gorgeous sandbar

The name Sumilon is believed to come from the word sumilong (to take shelter) since the island has mangroves and small natural caves that provided refuge to fishermen during storms. Teeming with underwater life, Sumilon Island was declared a marine sanctuary by the Silliman University in 1974. The 24-hectare coral island can be reached through a 15-minute boat ride from the coast of Bancongon in Oslob.

Noticing the beads of sweat on my face, the staff from Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort offers me a cold towel, a Lemongrass Cooler and a sincere welcoming smile as soon as I alight from the boat. Lunch is hefty and unforgettably delicious. I enjoy a full-course meal consisting of Cream of Lettuce, Shrimp Salad, Chicken Adobo Canapé, Fillet Steak, Mashed Potato and Tablea Swirl Cheesecake at the resort’s pavilion, which offers a gorgeous vista of the sea and the nearby mountains.

Afterwards, Evianne, the assistant manager ushers me to my elegant seafront villa. She asks if I want to tour the island. “Yes, please,” I eagerly reply.

Trekking on the rocky irregular terrain, my guide Dondon and I stop by the ruins of another 200-year old watchtower. Nestled in the luxuriant forest at the topmost part of the island, the baluarte has indeed a strategic location that might have contributed greatly to the downfall of the pirates during the epic battle. A nerve-racking climb to the top of the solar-powered lighthouse beside it rewards me with a breathtaking panoramic view of the island.

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the modern lighthouse in Sumilon Island

As we move further, I see that despite the luxurious amenities the solitary resort offers, a large part of Sumilon Island, including the pocket beaches around it, has remained pristine. The cottages along the largest beach are made only of natural materials.

The island also has a natural lagoon, surrounded by thriving mangroves, where visitors can feed the fish and go kayaking. Beside the lagoon is the “glamping” or glamorous camping area for guests who want to experience camping without sacrificing comfort.

Exhausted and unable to think of anything else to do, I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon at the medium-sized infinity pool overlooking the turquoise waters of the Bohol Sea. Watching the bright blue skies give way to pale yellows and purples while listening to the sea waves below is the perfect conclusion to a sweltering day of swimming, trekking and church hopping. Or is it? I am suddenly undecided when I see the bamboo cabanas, where guests can get a hilot massage, perched on one side of the cliff. I end up doing both. After all, it’s not everyday that I get to have a deluxe experience in paradise.

a view from the top

a view from the top

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the jacuzzi overlooking the Bohol Sea

the jacuzzi overlooking the Bohol Sea

the massage area

the massage area

inside the villa

inside the villa

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inside the villa

the infinity pool at sunrise

the infinity pool at sunrise

the seafront villa

the seafront villa

the infinity pool at night

the infinity pool at night

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Honey Mustard Roasted Chicken and Baked Tahong

Honey Mustard Roasted Chicken and Baked Tahong

the appetizer, salad and soup

the appetizer, salad and soup

Cream of Lettuce

Cream of Lettuce

Shrimp Salad

Shrimp Salad

the super rich Chocolate Cake

the super rich Chocolate Cake

Tablea Swirl Cheesecake

Tablea Swirl Cheesecake

Steak Fillet and Mashed Potato

Steak Fillet and Mashed Potato

Breakfast at the pavilion

Breakfast at the pavilion

 

How To Get There:

1.)  Tan-awan, Oslob (whale-watching area)

  • If you are coming from Cebu City, go to the South Cebu Bus Terminal. Ride the Ceres Bus Line bound for Oslob. Travel time is 3-4 hours and fare is around Php 150
  • If you are coming from Dumaguete, which is nearer, ride a tricycle or multicab to Sibulan Port (Php 150), where you can ride a ferry (php 60) to Liloan in Cebu. The ferry departs every hour and travel time is around 15 minutes. From Liloan Port, ride a tricycle or bus to Tan-awan, Oslob. Travel time is around 15-20 minutes.

2.)  Sumilon Island

  • Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort provides shuttle services and boat transfers upon reservation
  • If you won’t stay at the resort, you may rent a boat from Brgy. Bancongon in Oslob. (Php 1,500)

3.) Tumalog Falls

  • You’ll find motorcycles that take tourists to Tumalog Falls right outside the whale watching area (Php 120).

 

Where to Stay:

Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort

Bancongon, Oslob, Cebu 6025

09176317514 or 09176317512

Email: fo.sumilon@bluewater.com.ph

www.bluewater.com.ph

 

 

 

 

A Travel Guide to 4 of Caraga’s Most Stunning Secrets

The Enchanted River

The Enchanted River

Tinuy-an Falls

Tinuy-an Falls

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Bucas Grande Island

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Located in the northeast section of Mindanao, the Caraga Region is an 18,847-km2 stretch of lush evergreen forests, rugged coastline lapped by sparkling waters, towering waterfalls, limestone karst bedrocks that house many spectacular caves and soil endowed with rich mineral resources. The region is composed of five provinces: Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur and Dinagat Islands.

A few days ago, my travel buddy Aimee and I braved the stressful bus commute and the seemingly endless habal-habal ride on a dirt road to see four of the region’s most beautiful destinations.

1.) Bucas Grande in Socorro, Surigao del Norte

Our chatter is interspersed with silence as soon as our flat-bottomed boat sails toward Sohoton Cove in Bucas Grande Island. Small jungle-covered hills sprouting out of the placid and clear emerald waters greet us from the half-submerged entrance. I have not seen this much green in my life. As we marvel at the carnivorous and brightly colored Pitcher plants dangling over the water, our silence is punctuated by the cooing of the birds among the Magcono trees (Philippine Ironwood), which is said to yield the hardest timber.

There are many caves among the seven broccoli-shaped islets inside Sohoton Cove, most of them unexplored. After the nerve-racking skin dive at the beautiful Hagukan Sea-cave, our guide Zeewar takes us to Magkukuob Cave. Kuob means to bow. “Be careful, you might injure your head,” he warns. Indeed, one has to bow his head to avoid the pointed stalactites at the cavern’s low ceiling. A short climb through a dark passage, whose adjoining walls exhibit many jaw dropping rock formations, takes us to a wooden platform on a cliff. According to our guide, the easiest way out of the cave is to jump off twenty feet into the clear turquoise water below. Exciting indeed!

Besides the enchanting Sohoton Cove, Bucas Grande is also a home to the stingless jellyfish, many small white-sand beaches, and inland lakes clad in dense wilderness.

How to Get There:

From the Surigao City airport in Surigao del Norte, ride a tricycle to Pier Uno (15 minutes), where you would find a boat going to Socorro town in Bucas Grande Island (3 hours). Make sure to arrive before noon because there is only one trip everyday. In Socorro, hire a bangka (outrigger boat) to Sohoton National Park.

Where To Stay:

Villa Harkrisha Resort

Brgy. Taruc, Socorro, Surigao Del Norte

09102924264

My Expenses (excluding airfare):

Tricycle from the airport to Pier Uno- Php 150

Boat to Socorro- Php 200

Hotel (Php800/night for 2)- Php 400 each

Food- Php 500

Boat Rental to Bucas Grande (Php 2,000 for 2)- Php 1,000 each

Sohoton Cave Tour (Php 1,410 for 2)- Php 705 each

Total- Php 2,955

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the half-submerged entrance to Sohoton Cove

the half-submerged entrance to Sohoton Cove

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a beautiful white-sand beach at the Bucas Grande Island

a beautiful white-sand beach at the Bucas Grande Island

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playtime :)

playtime :)

the stingless jellyfish at the Bucas Grande Island

the stingless jellyfish at the Bucas Grande Island

selfie with a stunning background

selfie with a stunning background

2.) Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig City, Surigao Del Sur

Tinuy-an means an intentional act to achieve something. Indeed, one has to deviate from the well-paved main road and endure a bumpy and dusty habal-habal ride to see this four-tiered waterfalls in Burboanan village. Nestled in a rainforest with lofty century-old trees and rich biodiversity, Tinuy-an Falls is said to be the widest in the country. The largest tier has a breathtaking width of 95 meters and its cool clear waters plunge 55 meters into a rocky pool that shelters many freshwater fishes.

Crossing the river on a bamboo raft, we are drawn to the beautiful stair-like rock walls behind the thundering waters. “Beautiful. They look like they’ve been carved by human hands,” says Aimee, her eyes fixed on the flat boulders at the bottom of the waterfalls.

According to Kuya Marco, our driver, Tinuy-an Falls has only been opened to tourists in the late 2000, after the shutdown of a large paper company that operated within the area.

How to Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus bound for Bislig (4-5 hours). Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to Tinuy-an Falls. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you are coming from Surigao del Norte, go to the bus terminal and ride a van to Butuan (2 hours). At the Butuan Bus Terminal, ride a van/bus bound for Mangagoy in Bislig City (4 hours). From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle) to Tinuy-an Falls.

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Casa De Babano

Bislig City, Surigao del Sur

+63 86 853 1297

My Expenses:

Van fare from Surigao City to Bislig City via Butuan (3 rides)- Php 400

Hotel (1 night)– Php 1,000

Food- Php 500

Habal-habal to both Enchanted and Tinuy-an- Php 1,500

Souvenir-Php 100

Total-Php 3,500

Tinuy-an Falls

Tinuy-an Falls

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3.) Enchanted River in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur

“It looks even more beautiful than in photographs.” I overhear a tourist who is eagerly fumbling for the camera in her duffel bag. I easily agree with her. I have never seen a river as clear and blue as the one before my eyes.

Hidden among the towering rocky mountains, the Enchanted River is clad in mystery because its exact source has never been determined. Palm trees and indigenous ferns surround its sparkling waters, which is a home to some fishes like the Maya-maya, Katambak, Danggit and Kitong.

A glance at the river takes me back to my childhood when my nanny would tell me stories about the engkantos and their beautiful abode. According to some residents, they grew up listening to stories about fairies and mermaids who guard the river and give it its strange bluish color.

The river glints silver under the afternoon sun, as if enticing us to explore its unfathomable depth. Our guide says the a group of divers once attempted to explore its abysses but were only able to reach 150 feet after consuming several tanks of oxygen. The current underneath is also said to be very strong, making it impossible to dive deeper, thus making some people believe that the river is indeed enchanted.

How to Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus to the town of Hinatuan. Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to the Enchanted River. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Casa De Babano

Bislig City, Surigao del Sur

+63 86 853 1297

My Expenses:

Please see #2 (under Tinuy-an Falls)

The Enchanted River

The Enchanted River

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4.) The Britania Group of Islands in San Agustin, Surigao del Sur

“Only six among the 25 Britania Islands are open for tourists, but it doesn’t mean you’d go home feeling shortchanged,” says Manong Isko, our friendly boatman. I understand what he means when we reach Hagonoy Island, our first stop. As we sink our feet into the soft sugar-colored sand, we are greeted by the breathtaking view of the forest-covered islets rising up from the sea. We find it difficult to resist the clear turquoise water crashing gently on the shore, so despite the intense midday heat, we frolic in the shallows with abandon.

Still devoid of massive tourism, the Britania islands are the perfect conclusion to an exhausting Caraga adventure.

How To Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus to San Agustin. Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to the Britania Group of Islands. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Mac Arthur’s Place

Britania, San Agustin, Surigao del Sur

09999910845, 09399163745, 09328823460, 09258221481, 09165850171

Expenses:

Habal-habal ride from Bislig to San Agustin (Php 1,000 for 2)- Php 500 each (this is not the recommended mode of transportation because both towns are far from each other, but since the regular commute takes a longer time, we rode a habal-habal instead)

Food- Php 500

Hotel(Php 1,000 per night)- Php 500 each

Island Hopping (Php 1,200/2 persons) – Php 600 each

Fare from the highway to the port and back- Php 100

Total php 2,200

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Our 5D4N Surigao del Norte/Surigao del Sur Itinerary

Day 1

9:30am- ETA from Cebu to Surigao City Airport via Cebu Pac

10am- depart to Pier Uno, early lunch etc.

12nn- boat departs from Surigao City to Soccoro town

3pm onwards- boat arrives in Socorro, hotel check-in, explore the town, dinner

Day 2

6am to 11am- hotel check-out, start of island hopping to Bucas Grande, quick lunch

12 nn- arrive at Hayanggabon Port via same boat for island hopping, depart to the   town of Badas where we’d find vans for Butuan

1pm- ride a Butuan-bound van at the Badas Terminal

3pm- arrive in Butuan Terminal, ride a bus bound for Mangagoy, Bislig

8pm- arrive in Bislig, hotel check-in, dinner, rest

Day 3

8am to 4pm – explore Tinuy-an Falls and Enchanted River

Day 4

5am- hotel check-out, depart to San Agustin for the Britania island hopping

8am- arrive in Britania port

8:30 am- start the tour to the Britania Group of Islands

12nn- end of tour, lunch

1pm- ride a van to Tandag City***

2pm- arrive in Tandag, ride a bus bound for Surigao City

8pm- arrive in Surigao City, hotel check-in, rest

Day 5

7am- explore Surigao City (public market, museums, churches etc.)

1pm- flight back to Cebu via Cebu Pac

 

*** Tandag City in Surigao del Sur has an airport but there are no flights on weekends so we decided to just go back to our starting point, which, by the way, is very exhausting. If you want to explore these 4 destinations in 5 days, make sure you arrive at the Surigao del Norte airport and depart at the Surigao del Sur airport to avoid the long travel time.

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

6 Things You Need To Do When Going To Sagada

the hanging coffins of Sagada

the hanging coffins of Sagada

the breathtaking view on the way to Sagada

the breathtaking view on the way to Sagada

“One wrong step and I’m dead.” I laugh nervously as I fumble for a foothold on the wet flowstone ramp before clambering over the slippery, mud-covered boulders. A dark passage descends steeply before us, its earthy odor wafting through the cold air.

Our teenage guide “Bad Boy” raises his Petromax lantern, breaking the darkness inside the massive chambers of Sumaguing Cave, whose walls are flanked by stunning rock formations. “Whose birthday is it today? Because we have a birthday cake over there.” Bad Boy rhetorically asks, pointing at the formation that resembles a giant round cake. He leads us further down the cave. The steepness increases, making the descent more challenging. Below, the cave rooms are more astounding than the last one. Our eyes feast on the towering flowstone arches, which I’m sure took millions of years to form, and curtain and animal-like rock formations.

Ang ganda! This is worth straining every nerve of my body for.” I tell “Good Boy”, the other guide, who gladly volunteers to take our photographs with these jaw-dropping backdrops. And before I could even catch my breath, I am hypnotically drawn towards the pool of bone-chilling and crystal clear water at the bottom of the cave. “Your Sagada experience is nothing without exploring this cave,” says Good Boy. I couldn’t agree more.

Sagada, a small town in the Mountain Province in Northern Luzon, has been known as a mecca for nature lovers and culture enthusiasts. Travelers go to Sagada for the unique caving experience, the beautiful mountains and to witness the well-preserved traditional practices of the natives, the Kankanaeys. Getting there may take up to 14 hours of nauseating van ride from Manila, but any stress caused by this is guaranteed to dissipate into the cool fresh air once you pass by the breathtaking cliffs overlooking the pine sceneries and the age-old rice terraces.

Sure, there could be hundreds of things to do in a place as naturally blessed as Sagada, but for the time-constrained, here are six you dare not miss.

1.) Drop by the Banaue Rice Terraces Viewpoint

The world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces

The world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces

Beautiful, isn't it?

Beautiful, isn’t it?

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Travelers who take the Banaue route to Sagada can marvel at this 2000-year old National Cultural Treasure from the roadside. Carved into the Ifugao mountains by the ancestors of the indigenous people largely by hand, these mud-walled terraces are said to be the highest (5,000 feet above sea level), best built and most expansive in the world, covering an area of 10,360 square kilometers of mountainside.

Natives to this day still practice traditional farming; laboriously planting rice and high value vegetables on the terraces while observing ancient rituals from rice cultivation to rice harvest.

a warm welcoming smile on a very cold day

a warm welcoming smile on a very cold day

2.) See the Unique Hanging Coffins

the hanging coffins of Sagada

the hanging coffins of Sagada

Echo Valley

Echo Valley

An exhausting trek through Echo Valley rewards me with a close-up view of the hanging coffins. Suspending the caskets of the deceased on the cliffside may be unthinkable for most of us but for the natives or the Kankanaeys, it means putting their loved ones closer to heaven.The Kankanaeys have a deep reverence for the dead, who they believe have a continued existence and have the power to influence the fate of the living. This ancient practice also prevents their deceased from being eaten by animals and decomposing quickly.

The funerary custom is claimed to be over 2,000 years old and is still being observed by a few today. According to studies, there is a possibility that this originated in Southern China, where the Bo and Guyue tribes bury their dead on the cliffside as well. The tradition says that only a person who dies of old age can be buried in the hanging coffins, otherwise it is considered bad luck. Some elders even take the initiative of making their own coffins.

The Kankanaeys have many interesting rituals prior to the burial of their deceased. Among them are the animal sacrifices and the analysis and interpretation of the bile sac, various chants and prayers, and the tying of the corpse to a wooden chair (sangabil) during the mourning period. Before placing the deceased in the coffin during the day of the burial, it is removed from the sangabil, wrapped in a blanket and positioned like a fetus because they believe that a person should exit the world the same way he/she was born. Doing this would bring complete peace to the dead’s soul. The body is then secured with rattan leaves and carried to the burial site in a procession, where mourners would silently attempt to touch it due to the belief that a smear of deeng orthe juice from the rotting body would bring good fortune.

me and fellow travellers :)

me and fellow travellers :)

 

 3.) Trek through the Fedelisan Village Rice Terraces to see the Bomod-ok Falls

stunning view if the Fedelisan Rice Terraces  from above

stunning view if the Fedelisan Rice Terraces from above

the Fedelisan Rice Terraces

the Fedelisan Rice Terraces

To see Bomod-ok Falls (or the Big Falls), which is located north of the Sagada town center, one must trek the three-kilometer well-paved path through the Fedelisan Village Rice Terraces.

The Fedelisan Village, according to Ate Belen, our guide, is the oldest village in Sagada. Houses of tin and galvanized iron sheets glint silver under the sun as we walk along the sleepy community. “Are there any traditional houses left?” I ask after noticing the endless rows of shiny structures. She points to one small house next to a guava tree. Its dilapidated thatched roof barely shelters the sturdy-looking pinewood walls. “Most people use corrugated sheets nowadays, they’re cheaper and easier to transport to the mountains,” says Ate Belen.

an old traditional house

an old traditional house

Down further, we pass by the community center or the dap-ayan, where agricultural rites and celebrations usually take place to honor their ancestors. These rituals are done before rice planting (ubaya), before the harvest (wange) and after the harvest as thanksgiving (kesep).

The stunning view of the Fedelisan Rice Terraces renders me oblivious of the afternoon heat. “This falls better be worth it.” Catching her breath, a lady tourist behind me grumbles. After an hour of walking, I finally get an unobstructed view of the majestic Bomod-ok Falls, a 200-meter stream of clear and ice-cold water rushing down to a rocky pool. Is it worth the knee-wobbling trek? Oh yes! I close my eyes to enjoy its cool refreshing spray. Besides being a major tourist attraction in Sagada, this waterfall is also an important water source for the household and agriculture.

the majestic Bomod-ok Falls

the majestic Bomod-ok Falls

  

4.) Explore the Caves of Lumiang and Sumaguing

the Lumiang Cave entrance

the Lumiang Cave entrance

the age-old coffins at the mouth of Lumiang Cave

the age-old coffins at the mouth of Lumiang Cave

groupie with the ancient coffins at the Lumiang Burial Cave

groupie with the ancient coffins at the Lumiang Burial Cave

A visit to Sagada is incomplete without exploring its magnificent caves, especially Lumiang and Sumaguing.

The Lumiang Cave speaks volumes of the Kankanaeys’ rich culture and traditions. Within the dark corners of its mouth lay stacks of age-old coffins, which are made of hollowed out logs from a tree trunk. “Some of those still have the remains of the oldest Igorot ancestors,” says Good Boy, our guide. He adds that the deceased were placed in a fetal position to fit the coffins, which are noticeably smaller than an average grown-up man.

Some coffins are suspended in the higher corners of the cave walls. According to ancient tradition, this signifies how important and valued the deceased is.

the stunning rock formations inside Sumaguing Cave

the stunning rock formations inside Sumaguing Cave

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inside the Sumaguing Cave

inside the Sumaguing Cave

Sumaguing Cave adventure

Sumaguing Cave adventure

Sumaguing Cave (or the Big Cave) is the most popular among the caves because of its massive chambers. Exploring its deep dark recesses may take up to three hours of clambering over slippery boulders but the stunning and unusual rock formations inside are not to be missed.

5.) Sample Their Delicacies

Chicken Pinikpikan, a traditional Cordilleran dish

Chicken Pinikpikan, a traditional Cordilleran dish

Sagada’s growing tourism industry has prompted locals to open many interesting restaurants that allow travelers a glimpse of their everyday life and culture.

The Pinikpikan Haus, located on South Road, serves a specialty dish in the Cordillera Region called the Chicken Pinikpikan. The name comes from the word pikpik, which means light beating. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary chicken tinola. The difference is on the distinct savory and smoky flavors of the meat, which are achieved through its unusual preparation. The live chicken is beaten with a wooden stick. This bruises the chicken’s flesh, bringing blood to its surface, which makes it more flavorful. Afterwards, the feathers are slowly singed in fire, hence the smoky taste.

For the ancient Cordilleran, the dish is only served during special occasions, usually after a ritual. A chicken is slaughtered to appease the ancestors’ spirits, who are believed to have influence over the living, and the squawking of the chicken is meant to call their attention. After the chicken is cleaned up, the bile and liver are taken out for the tribal priests to interpret. A visible bile means good omen. If the liver conceals the bile, the whole ritual is repeated until they get a visible one. This practice is an integral part of their decision-making.

The Lemon Pie, a must-try

The Lemon Pie, a must-try

Red Spicy Chicken at the Sagada Lemon Pie House

Red Spicy Chicken at the Sagada Lemon Pie House

Another delicacy that should not be missed is the famous Lemon Pie at the Sagada Lemon Pie House, located in Atey, Dao-Angan. The sweet, sour and creamy flavors of the filling share the same crust harmoniously that I find myself finishing three more slices.

6.) Buy Souvenirs at the Sagada Pottery House and Sagada Weaving and Souvenir Shop

The best way to support the tourism industry of the places we visit is to patronize what the locals offer- buy their food and produce, get their tour packages, stay at their hotels and buy their souvenirs.

The Sagada Weaving, located in Nangonogan Poblacion, has been producing traditional, high quality and manually woven products such as bags, slippers, hats and other souvenir items since 1968. Weaving is an important part of the Kankanaeys’ rich culture. During death rites for example, the deceased’s hand-woven attire and blanket determine his social class. Also, the deceased’s clothes should be similar to his ancestors for him to be identified in the spirit world.

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Sagada Pottery House

Sagada Pottery House

Pottery also has an important role in Sagada’s culture. The natives use earthen jars and utensils during their rituals; hence they are considered sacred and valuable. These jars are used to keep the tapuey or the rice wine and before one opens a jar, there should be a accompanying whispered ritual. The Sagada Pottery House is where you can find these traditional clayware and buy them as souvenirs. Two Sagadan ceramic artists, Tessie Baldo and Siegrid Bangyay, currently manage the place.

the breathtaking view on the way to Sagada

the breathtaking view on the way to Sagada

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yours truly

How To Get There:

1.)  There are no direct buses to Sagada. You can either take the Manila-Baguio-Sagada route or the Manila-Banaue-Sagada route. Travel time is the same-12 up to 14 hours. I suggest you take the Banaue route so you’d see the world-famous rice terraces.

2.)  Take an Ohiyami Bus bound for Banaue. Their terminal is located in Lacson Avenue, cor, Fajardo Street, Sampaloc, Manila. Their schedules are: 9pm and 10pm Manila-Banaue and 6:45pm and 7:00pm Banaue-Manila. Travel time is approx. 9 hours and fare is a Php 400++. Call Ohiyami Bus to reserve, their numbers are 09276493055/ 02 516-0501.

3.)  From Banaue, take a jeepney to Sagada. Travel time is around 3 hours and fare is Php 250.

4.)  For a hassle free trip to Sagada, get a tour package from TRAVELVENTOURS. You may reach them at 09159576550. Their packages include the van fare, hotel, tours, environmental and entrance fees.

 

 

Expenses:

Travelventours Tour Package Php 4,000 (it would have been cheaper if I didn’t go alone :))

Food Php 2000

Pasalubong Php 500

Total Php 6500

 

A Perfect Morning in Kalanggaman Island

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We had Kalanggaman Island only to ourselves that morning.

The other visitors had left, I could tell even if my eyes were closed. The reverberant sound of their boat’s engine was slowly fading into the horizon, leaving only a quiet swell and wash of the waves, whose whispers oddly harmonized with the shrill screams of the sea gulls overhead. The streaks of sunlight, filtering through the fronds of the coconut tree, gently warmed my face. I lay motionlessly on the grainy sand, enjoying the cool salty breeze. Drowsed by the ocean’s dreamy lullabies, I drifted into a deep slumber.

Kuya, Let’s eat!” I was awakened by my sister’s voice coming from the small bamboo cottage. The heavenly aromas wafted from the grilling stations, nestled among the regrowing palm and talisay trees. Rubbing the sleep off my eyes, I prayed gratefully for that moment- that despite the tragedy that almost obliterated this beautiful island and the entire Leyte and Samar some months ago, we were alive to witness such a perfect morning.

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It is said that the island is called Kalanggaman because of the long white sandbars in its eastern and western ends, which resemble the wings of a bird from afar. “Langgam” is a Visayan word for “bird”.

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WHERE IT IS

The tranquil island of Kalanggaman lies about 15 nautical miles from Palompon, a town on the western coast of Leyte. A 3-hour van/bus ride from Tacloban City or an hour van ride from Ormoc City, followed by a 45-minute boat ride from the Palompon Ecotours Office will take you this pristine island known for its vanishing sandbars and very clear turquoise water.

It would be best if you coordinate with the Palompon Ecotour Office first at least a day before the visit. They can be reached at 09173037267.

HOW TO ENJOY KALANGGAMAN ISLAND

There are no resorts in Kalangggaman Island but there are several cottages for rent, toilets, grilling stations, kayaks and a small volleyball court. Visitors can stay overnight and should bring their camping equipment. The island has no electricity, however, there are solar lamps and torches provided for campers.

Also, there are no commercial stores and restaurants in the 6.8-hectare island, so visitors are advised to bring their own food and drink. Thankfully, the Palompon Market, where you can buy the freshest catch and other supplies, is just a two-minute walk from the Ecotours Office.

EXPENSES

The van fare from Tacloban City to Palompon is around Php 150. Once you arrive in the municipality of Palompon, head straight to their Ecotour Office to register and rent a boat to Kalanggaman Island. As of this writing, the smallest boat that could accommodate 15 passengers costs Php 3,000 (roundtrip). The island’s entrance fee is Php 150 per person for a day tour and Php 250 for an overnight stay. Cottages range from Php 250 to Php 500.

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The majestic St. Francis Xavier Church in Palompon, Leyte. The church dates back to 1784.

The majestic St. Francis Xavier Church in Palompon, Leyte. The church dates back to 1784.

 

Food, Fun and a Little History in Dumaguete

 

“Oh My God!” I closed my eyes, savoring the rich buttercream within layers of meringue wafers, allowing it to linger on my tongue until it melted. The occasional crunch of crushed cashews fuelled the lust in my mouth.

The Sans Rival was nothing unfamiliar, really, but the fact that I was indulging my sweet tooth at the famous Sans Rival Cakes and Pastries in Dumaguete City made it taste even better. Besides the Sans Rival, Cathy (my instant travel buddy) and I also sampled their other equally addictive bestsellers: the Date and Walnut Dacquioise, Sylvanas and Salted Caramel Cheesecake.

Established in 1977, Sans Rival Cakes and Pastries was born unexpectedly. Trining Teves-Sagarbarria, the owner, loved to treat her family and friends with her special homemade sylvanas. The delicious treats became popular and generated word of mouth demand, prompting her family to convert their garage into a small pastry shop. Now, it continues to serve slices of happiness on San Jose Street corner Rizal Avenue, facing Rizal Boulevard.

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the much-loved Sans Rival

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With no expectations, I went to Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental in Central Visayas, only because it was my jump-off point to Siquijor and Apo Island. But just like many foreign tourists I’ve talked to, I fell in love with “the City of Gentle People”. It must be the laidback vibe created by the gargantuan acacia trees thriving in the city. Or the simple and warm locals who’d take afternoon strolls at Rizal Boulevard to enjoy some kikiam and the clean ocean breeze. Or perhaps the quaint bars and restaurants lining up the bustling yet unpolluted streets. Whatever charm this progressive city has is enough for it to be included on the list of the most ideal places to retire around the world by The Overseas Retirement Letter, a publication dedicated to the concerns of retirees.

DSC05230 While waiting for my ferry to Siquijor, I hopped on a tricycle for a quick tour to some of the city’s historical sights.

Dumaguete City is the home of the majestic St. Catherine Alexandria Cathedral, the oldest stone church in Negros. Standing prominently at the gate are four stone pillars with intricate statues of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on top. The church’s construction began in 1754 and was completed in 1776. In 1885, it had undergone reconstruction and in 1936, it was extended with the present façade. The parish church of St. Catherine of Alexandria became a cathedral when Dumaguete was established as a diocese in 1955.

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St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral, the oldest stone church in Negros

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A few meters from the church is the oldest surviving structure in Dumaguete, the Belfry Tower, which dates back to 1811. Built to warn the locals of an approaching danger, the tower is a silent reminder of the horrendous Moro piratical attacks on Christian communities during the Spanish colonial period. Now, it houses the grotto of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where devotees can light candles, offer flowers and say their prayers.

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the ancient belfry tower of Dumaguete, erected to forewarn the locals of an upcoming danger

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Another important and perhaps the most famous landmark in Dumaguete City is the Silliman University. Dotted with over 300 gigantic acacia trees, the 62-hectare university is one of the biggest in the country. Founded in 1901 by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, Silliman is the first American University in the Philippines and Asia. It is named after Dr. Horace Brinsmade Silliman, a philanthropist, who gave an initial sum of $10,000 to start the institution.

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A majestic building in Silliman University

the beautifully designed Luce Auditorioum

the beautifully designed Luce Auditorioum

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After exploring the raw and white sand beaches of Siquijor, Cathy and I went back to Dumaguete City in afternoon the following day. Since we only had one more night in the city, we challenged our insatiable stomach to visit as many restaurants as we can. The city is a foodie haven, with a dazzling variety of interesting restaurants lining up the streets.

Starving, we decided to get warmed up at the Kikiam stalls along Rizal Boulevard, named after, of course, Dr. Jose Rizal. It is said that the Philippine National Hero took a brief stroll here before heading to the neighboring island of Dapitan where he was exiled for four years, following the Spanish authorities’ suspicion that he was about to lead a revolution. With beige lampposts and acacia and coconut trees lining up the stretch, Rizal Boulevard contributes immensely to the city’s laidback charm. Many locals and tourists go there at night to enjoy the fresh air, the barbeque and the bright city lights.

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Rizal Boulevard at night

Making tusok-tusok the kikiam at Rizal Boulevard

Making tusok-tusok the kikiam at Rizal Boulevard

“You should go to Kri!” Some friends I surveyed in Facebook came up with a unanimous suggestion. We found Kri Restaurant at 53rd Silliman Avenue, just across the Silliman University Post Office. Cathy and I had their bestseller, the Truffle, Bleu Cheese and Bacon Burger. The warm soft bun, the fresh lettuce and tomato, the savory dressing, the crunchy bacon and the thick and dripping pure-beef patty created a delightful combination of taste and texture. Cathy and I agreed that it was the best burger we had in a long time.

That unforgettable burger at Kri.

That unforgettable burger at Kri.

As if the hefty burger wasn’t enough, we hopped to another restaurant my friends were raving about, Hayahay Treehouse. Located on Flores Avenue, Hayahay Treehouse overlooks Piapi Beach and is the perfect place to just chill out, listen to a live band and have some ice-cold beer. According to some locals, the restaurant serves good pizza. We would’ve loved to try some, but we just had burger at Kri’s. Instead, we ordered Dumaguete Express, a bestseller, and Buttered Chicken. The former is a savory mix of fish, squid, shrimp, coconut meat and lechon kawali all cooked in coconut milk. With their delicious inexpensive food, large servings and good ambience, it’s a no-brainer why this restaurant is a heavy favorite among locals and tourists.

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we had huge servings of Buttered Chicken and Dumaguete Express

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Later that night, we joined some locals and fellow travellers who became our friends over an all-you-can-eat buffet at Mifune Japanese Restaurant, located on Sta. Catalina Street. Mifune satisfied our cravings for tempura, sushi and other authentic Japanese dishes for just Php 333.

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Tempura galore

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Without a doubt, Watever! Family KTV was the highlight of our night. Located on Silliman Avenue, this KTV Bar has affordable rates, comfortable rooms and updated song lists. I’m not big on videoke but I had a blast, thanks to a great company and an interesting repertoire.

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I should have known that there’s more to Dumaguete than the aforementioned and I wish I had stayed longer. I hear that there is a beautiful sandbar somewhere up north, where you can also watch several species of dolphins and occasionally, whales. And besides Apo Island, there are other stunning dive sites around the province. Now I have good reasons to go back soon.

 

How to Get There:

There are direct flights from Manila and Cebu to Dumaguete.

If you are coming from Cebu City, you can reach Dumaguete the cheaper way. Just go to the North Integrated Bus Terminal and ride a Ceres bus to Liloan Port. Travel time is approximately 3 hours. From Liloan Port, ride a ferry to Sibulan Port in Dumaguete. Travel time is 30 minutes.

Where To Stay:

Harold’s Mansion at 205 Hibbard Ave, Dumaguete City. The hotel also has a dive shop and the staff can arrange your tours if you plan to visit Apo Island, Oslob and other nearby attractions. You may reach them at 09173024455.

Expenses (from Cebu):

Ceres Bus from Cebu City to Liloan Port Roundtrip              Php 350

Ferry from Liloan Port to Sibulan Port Roundtrip                   Php 130

Hotel (1 night)                                                                       Php 800

Food/Drinks                                                                          Php 1500

Pasalubong                                                                          Php 600

Tricycle and jeepney fare                                                       Php 100

Apo Island Day Tour                                                              Php 1000

TOTAL                                                                                  Php 4480

 

A Magical Day in Siquijor

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“The Sorceress’ Boat” Dumanjog Beach

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Cambugahay Falls

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The 400-year old Balete Tree

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Kagusuan Beach

“Finish your meal or the wakwak from Siquijor will rip out your innards and eat them!” Our help would growl and raise her fingers like a monster’s claws, scaring the ill-mannered six-year old me to consume the last morsel on my plate. Her impression of the aswang from Shake, Rattle and Roll never failed to make me behave and sit frozenly like the antique statuettes on our altar. Raised in the countryside, I grew up listening to stories about the mambabarang (black magic practitioner) and the shape-shifting creatures that skulk in the rooftop to feed on infants and the ailing. According to the stories, they abound in Siquijor, a small province located between the Visayan Islands of Negros and Mindanao. As I grew older, I heard of the wakwak less and more of the beautiful white sand beaches that make up most of the 102-kilometer coastline of the island. After packing my bag on impulse, I headed to the province I once thought was the scariest place in the country.

Called “Isla del Fuego” or “Island of Fire” by the Spaniards in the 16th century, Siquijor is home to swarms of fireflies that cast an eerie glow among the numerous gigantic trees at night. A folk legend says that the island rose from the ocean’s abysses after a tumultuous period of storm, earthquake, thunder and lightning.

Alighting from a small ferry after an hour ride from Dumaguete City, I was welcomed by the salty breeze that ruffled the crystalline water of Siquijor Beach just beside the port. The midday sun highlighted the vast radiant shoreline, as if hinting about the small island’s overflowing treasures.

Siquijor Beach, beside the port

Siquijor Beach, beside the port

“Those are just stories, nothing has been proven.” Kuya Edgar, our tricycle driver and guide, quickly debunked the island’s age-old reputation as a place of sorcery and unearthly beings. “There are some mananambal here though, mostly in the mountains,” he continued. He was referring to the folk healers who use roots, leaves and barks of certain trees to treat maladies. According to him, these herbal practitioners gather every Good Friday to cook up concoctions and perform healing rituals.

In the town of Siquijor not far from the port stands the St. Francis of Assisi Church. Built in 1793 and completed only in 1831 under the supervision of Spanish priests, it was the only Catholic Church in the island until the 1850s. It has undergone several restorations already but the rough coral stones on the walls somehow gave us a glimpse of the island’s roots. The belfry across the church, like most ancient towers in the country, is a silent reminder of the horrifying Moro piratical attacks on Christian communities during the Spanish colonial period. It was constructed in 1891 to forewarn the island folks of an approaching danger.

St. Francis of Asissi Church

St. Francis of Assisi Church

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The belfry tower in Siquijor Town

En route to our lodge, we had a brief stopover at the Guiwanon Spring Park in Barangay Luyang. The small roadside entrance led us to a bamboo bridge above the thriving mangroves and to a couple of Nipa houses perched on the stout branches of the Pagatpat trees. According to the caretaker, travelers can stay in these huts for as low as Php 250 a night. Sitting on the terrace, I savored the fresh aroma of the sea as the gentle wind rustled the lush woody vegetation. Below, a bouncy school of fish glinted in the emerald green water.

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

The bouncy school of fish at Guiwanon Spring Park

The bouncy school of fish at Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Guiwanon Spring Park

Dark thick clouds started to shroud the skies, creating a mysterious atmosphere around the empty fishing village of Dumanhog when we arrived. The tide was low, revealing wide swathes of powdery white sand. The fishermen must have decided to call it a day, leaving their colorful fishing boats to lounge on the shore. Also in the town of Siquijor, Dumanhog Beach is a tourist favorite because of its vast shoreline, according to Kuya Edgar.

Dumanjog Beach

Dumanjog Beach

Dumanjog Beach

Dumanjog Beach

Tucked away from the main road in the town of San Juan is another pristine white sand beach, marred only by the dead seagrass washed ashore during the monsoon season. Quiet and undeveloped, Paliton Beach has clear turquoise waters that expose a few clusters of coral and tiny fishes, allowing me a glimpse of its colorful underwater life. This hidden strip of paradise is usually not included in the day tours but tourists can request for a stopover.

Paliton Beach

Paliton Beach

Travelers won’t run out of stunning white sand beaches to lounge by in the town of San Juan, which has also the highest concentration of cozy beachfront resorts. After checking out some, I settled with JJ’s Backpacker for Php 600 a night, though I could’ve spent only half in the neighboring resorts. The wooden lodge with amakan interiors and the fine white sandbar of Sulangon Beach in front were too charming to resist.

JJ's Backpacker Resort

JJ’s Backpackers Resort

The beautiful Sulangon Beach in front of JJ's Backpacker

The beautiful Sulangon Beach in front of JJ’s Backpackers

JJ's Backpacker

JJ’s Backpackers

Sulangon Beach during low tide

Sulangon Beach during low tide

Shrouded by the lush roadside greenery in Barangay Campalanas in the town of Lazi is a humongous 400-year old Balete tree, one of the oldest in the country. Long vines hang like hair from the tree’s outstretched branches and the roots cling thickly around its massive trunk. I was reminded of the stories of my childhood, about the hairy kapre (dark smoking giants), the white lady and the vindictive duwende (elves) who according to the elderly dwell in ancient trees. According to Kuya Edgar, some locals claim to have seen apparitions within the area at night.

A stream that emanates from the base of the tree flows into a man-made pool, which is a home to the garra rufa or the doctor fish. These fish thrive in rivers and hot springs and are usually integrated in spa treatments. Visitors are allowed to dip their calloused feet into the pool for the doctor fish to nibble on. Oddly, the locals do not know where the water comes from, fuelling the strange stories about the place.

the ancient Balete Tree

the ancient Balete Tree

free fish spa beneath the Balete Tree

free fish spa beneath the Balete Tree

Two National Historical Shrines stand among the gigantesque acacia trees in the town of Lazi: the San Isidro Labrador Church and the Lazi Convent.

The San Isidro Labrador Church was built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1857 and was completed 27 years after. Its meter-thick walls are made of coral stones and wood. Unlike many baroque churches in the country, it has a simple façade but nonetheless beautiful. It is also one of the few Spanish era churches in the country that still has its original wooden flooring and pulpits. The majestic belfry tower beside it was constructed in 1885

The complementary convent, which was then used by the friars for recreational purposes, stands across the street and dates back to 1887. Encompassing an area of 42 by 38 meters, the Lazi Convent is considered as the largest in the country. Its thick and sturdy walls are made of boulders, coral blocks and wood.

The majestic San Isidro Labrador Church

The majestic San Isidro Labrador Church

the Lazi Convent

the Lazi Convent

Two kilometers from the town of Lazi is another beautiful treasure, the Cambugahay Falls, which we had all to ourselves when we arrived. To get there, we had to take a 135-step concrete stairs that descend to the clear greenish-blue stream. Nestled among luxuriant vegetation, it consists of three-tiered waterfalls, with fresh and warm water coming from the springs in the mountains. It is a perfect place to just sit meditatively and listen to the sound of the water cascading gently over the rocks and the whistling of the birds among the trees.

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

After a relaxing swim at Cambugahay Falls, we drove further down north to the town of Maria. A few minutes after we passed through a small man-made forest, we alighted on a paved parking area beside a cliff, which has concrete stairs descending to Kagusuan Beach. Like sentinels posted to watch for intruders, several huge coral rocks stand sporadically on the pristine shore. Secluded and undeveloped, Kagusuan Beach is ideal for those who want to quietly enjoy the white sand, the clear waters and gentle splashing of the waves against the rocks.

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Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Kagusuan Beach

Siquijor has also around 45 caves, the most famous of which is the Cantabon Cave. Not far from it is the Mt. Bandilaan National Park, the island’s highest point. Upland farmers claim to have unearthed giant shells and fossils from this area, supporting the theory that the island indeed rose from the ocean’s womb.

The tales of magic about the island are indeed true, though not exactly the kind that inspired fear for ages. Siquijor’s true magic is not on voodoo dolls and terrifying shapeshifting creatures, but on the raw breathtaking beaches, jungle-covered streams and waterfalls, centuries-old religious edifices, unique caves, rich marine sanctuaries, abundant waters and friendly locals.

sunset in Siquijor

sunset in Siquijor

Shades of Blue

Shades of Blue

Heaven's Wrath

Heaven’s Wrath

Cathy's Wrecking Ball moment

Cathy’s Wrecking Ball moment

Coco Grove Resort

Coco Grove Resort

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Sulangon Beach

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How To Get There:

There are no direct flights to Siquijor. The easiest way to reach the “Island of Fire” is through Dumaguete City. Cebu Pacific and PAL fly daily to Dumaguete. From the port of Dumaguete City, take a ferry to Siquijor. Travel time is 1 hour and the fare is Php 120.

 

 

Expenses (1 whole day tour + overnight stay):

Tricycle (whole-day tour)                                  Php 1000

Food and Drinks                                              Php 1000

Accommodation (JJ’s Backpacker, San Juan) Php  600

Pasalubong                                                     Php  500

Boat Fare                                                        Php  240

Entrance Fees                                                 Php  100

TOTAL                                                             Php 3440

 

10 Reasons Why I’m Madly In Love With Batanes

My swelling excitement burst like a bubble when I felt something squishy under my shoe. “Holy shit!” I looked around, acting normally like a tourist who hadn’t clumsily stepped on a bun of fresh cow dung. The rest of the group was too mesmerized by the breathtaking sight to notice. Thank God! After discreetly rubbing off the feces on the pupusud grass, I ran towards a steep slope overlooking the endless waves of rolling hills. The bright skies highlighted the vast greenery.

“Wow! Aaaang ganda!” I gasped in awe, like a child in his favorite toy store. “I’ll charge you a peso everytime you say that.” Jay Ann, our amiable guide, jested. She said she hears the same reaction many times everyday from tourists. The unassuming grandeur before my eyes transcended my expectations.

I gambled on a Batanes trip in July, the start of the stormy season. After booking the cheapest flight I could afford, I called TRavelYoung (09174106099/09153030595) for my tour arrangement. I was given four tour options: North Batan, Sabtang Island, South Batan and Itbayat Island. The last however requires at least an overnight stay in the island and since I only had three whole days, I chose the first three.

After a week of anxiety due to vicious rains and typhoons, I arrived at the diminutive Basco airport to a surprisingly sunny weather. Trekking up the nearest hill to Marfel’s, my lodge, I was greeted by the stunning view of the Basco lighthouse, standing like a dauntless soldier on the lush greens of Naidi Hills. Below it, the water of Baluarte Bay would swell up in foamy rolls before crashing against the ragged cliffs, breaking up into large sprays. That marked the beginning of my love affair with Batanes. Little had I known that the typhoon-battered province would amaze me in more ways than I can imagine.

DSC03615   1.) Tinyan Viewpoint/ Chamantad Cove

Any distress caused by the ferocious waves en route to Sabtang Island is guaranteed to dissipate once you reach the Tinyan Viewpoint/Chamantad Cove. If I’d be asked for only one reason to love with Batanes, this is it. Art, our guide for that day, agrees with me. The grass-covered gentle slopes of Tinyan serves as a communal pastureland for cattle. Alighting from our cogon-roofed tricycle, Art classified the vast land into three areas: nice, beautiful and mind-blowing. Indeed, the farthest slope, which offered a view of Chamantad Cove, is mind-blowing. The wind whistled and the waves from the Pacific Ocean crashed onto the rocks below. Euphoric, I was almost in tears while admiring the breathtaking panorama. Tinyan Viewpoint/Chamantad Cove is part of the Sabtang Island Tour. Sabtang Island can be reached through a 45-minute faluwa ride from the Ivana port. Faluwa is a flat-bottomed motorized boat with no outriggers, designed to withstand the rough waves on the area where the Pacific Ocean merges with the South China Sea.

A view of the Chamantad Cove

A view of the Chamantad Cove

Breathtaking, isn't it?

Breathtaking, isn’t it?

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Meet Joyce, a friend i found at the hilltop :)

Meet Joyce, a friend i found at the hilltop :)

DSC04208   2.) Vayang Rolling Hills

Sitting meditatively on a steep slope, I was hypnotized by the panorama from my vantage point. The seeming infinity of the grass-laden crumpled terrain is backdropped by Mt. Iraya, whose summit was surrounded with white puffy clouds that afternoon. The strong winds howled as they swept through tall hedgerows of grass and reeds, drowning the sound of the waves from the South China Sea once in a while. The goats and cattle, looking like ants from afar, grazed obliviously along the steep slopes. Everything was just so magical and movingly beautiful The Vayang Rolling Hills, also a communal pastureland, is the highlight of the North Batan Tour.

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The overwhelming grandeur of Vayang Rolling Hills

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Jumpshot, with 505 chance of rolling down the hill :)

Jumpshot, with 505 chance of rolling down the hill :)

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Who doesn’t want a selfie with a stunning background? Not me!

3.) Racuh a Payaman or Marlboro Hills

A traveler friend once said that a Batanes trip is incomplete if you don’t experience a storm. On my last day in the province, all tours were canceled because of Typhoon Henry. Hell-bent, I coerced Art, the tour guide, to take me to South Batan. Waterproofed with helmets and thick raincoats, we braved the piercing rain and the slippery roads on a motorcycle. The Marlboro Hills was worth the risk. Originally called Racuh a Payaman, it was nicknamed “Marlboro Country” by some foreign tourists because the vastitude of the green rolling hills reminded them of the Marlboro Cigarette advertisement. It looks much like Vayang, but has wider and gentler slopes. Mt. Iraya, which stood from afar, hid bashfully behind the dark thick clouds. According to the old Ivatans, whenever clouds circle its apex, somebody in the province is dying. Only one thing proved to be true that moment: Racuh a Payaman is beautiful despite the melancholic skies.

Beautiful despite the gloomy skies

Beautiful despite the gloomy skies

DSC04461   4.) Unique Beaches

Valugan Boulder Beach

When Mt. Iraya erupted in 1454, it spewed out boulders onto the shore. These volcanic rocks were eventually smoothened by the angry waves of the Pacific Ocean. Valugan Boulder Beach is part of the North Batan Tour.

DSC03789  Morong Beach/ Nakabuang Cave/ Mayahaw Arc

The beautiful Morong Beach, which has a long stretch of white grainy sand, is located in Brgy. Malakdang in Sabtang Island. It is adorned with a huge natural arc formation called Mayahaw Arc. Beside it is the small Nakabuang Cave.

DSC04346DSC04365DSC04337White Beach

This roadside beach with white grainy sand is surrounded with towering rock cliffs. White Beach is included in the South Batan Tour.

DSC04592   5.) Old Stone Houses

Chavayan and Savidug Villages

Walking along the drowsy streets of Chavayan Village was like entering a time warp. Backdropped by towering rock cliffs, the centuries-old stone houses line up like weary veterans who survived countless wars. “These walls are made of limestones, dead corals, boulders and firewood. It takes a long time to build one,” Art explained as I ran my fingers through the rough thick walls. The houses are roofed with several layers of Cogon and Vuchid grass, about 1/3 of a meter thick. The Spaniards introduced the limestone technology when they claimed Batanes in 1783. The stone houses were obviously designed to withstand the extreme weather conditions in the islands. The Villages of Chavayan and Savidug in Sabtang Island still abound with these old-fashioned houses.

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Wala kayo sa lolo ko!!!!

DSC04316DSC04312DSC04298 DSC04065 DSC04322 DSC04294   House of Dakay

The House of Dakay is the oldest and most beautifully preserved stone house in Batan Island. It was constructed in 1887 and had survived the magnitude 8.3 earthquake in September 1918. The House of Dakay is part of the South Batan Tour.

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There House of Dakay

DSC04553DSC04568   6.) Beautiful Churches

Tukon Church or Mt. Carmel Church

Imagine your wedding on a small stone house-inspired hilltop church overlooking the seemingly infinite waves of rolling hills and the stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea on both sides. Breathtaking, isn’t it? As if the scenery outside wasn’t enough, the ceiling of the church has beautiful paintings of saints made by the scholars of the late Pacita Abad, an internationally-acclaimed artist. Woodcarvings of the Stations of the Cross, shipped from Paete Laguna, decorate the white walls. Mt. Carmel Church is part of the North Batan Tour.

The hilltop Tukon Church is in between Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea

The hilltop Tukon Church is in between Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea

DSC03644 DSC03658   Sto. Domingo Church

The church was built in 1783 in honor of Sto. Domingo De Guzman. It burned down in 1860 and was rebuilt in 1863. It survived the Filipino-American War in the late 1800’s and World War II in the 1940s. A large part of it crumbled during the earthquake in 2000 and was restored in 2002. Sto. Domingo Church is included in the North Batan Tour.

Sto.Domingo Church

Sto.Domingo Church

Chavayan Chapel or Sta. Rosa De Lima Chapel

The chapel stands among the ancient and weary stone houses in Chavayan Village in Sabtang Island. This is the only remaining church with a cog on roofing.

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Chavayan Chapel

Church of Ivana

This church was built in 1795 and also crumbled during the earthquake in 2000. It was restored in 2001. The Church of Ivana is usually part of the South Batan Tour.

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The Church of Ivana

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel in Imnajbu

The chapel is young, built only in 2000. The site, however, was where the first mass and the first baptism in the Batanes soil were administered. This is included in the South Batan Tour

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel

7.) Charming Lighthouses

Basco Lighthouse, Naidi Hills

Like a soldier who had just won a battle, the Basco Lighthouse stands boldly on the lush greens of Naidi Hills, facing the crumpled terrain of Batan Island, the billowing waves of the Pacific Ocean and the boulder-fringed Baluarte Bay. In the 1920s during the American regime, the telegraph facilities were installed on this site. The lighthouse during sunset is a sight to behold. Basco Lighthouse is included in the North Batan Tour. DSC03946DSC03951DSC03969 DSC03940   Malakdang Lighthouse

The lighthouse calls for attention once you reach Sabtang Island. It stands on a rocky cliff on the left of the port, facing the treacherous waves of the sea.

Malakdang Lighthouse

Malakdang Lighthouse

8.) Stunning Rock Formations and Roadside Views

Alapad Hill and Rock Formations

Art, i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako!”                                                                                              I was on the brink of asking Art, my guide, to recreate with me the famous scene of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta in the movie “Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit”. But then he would find it weird, so I just silently admired the stunning rock formations surrounding Alapad Hill, the exact location of the scene. Below, the waves broke up into foamy sprays as they crashed against the craggy rocks. The Alapad Hill and Rock Formations are included in the South Batan tour. DSC04504

the "i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako" location

the “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” location

the "i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako" location

the “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” location

Basco Idjang

The Basco Idjang was the first settlement of the Ivatan people before they lived in tribes. It also served as their fortress.

The first settlement area of the Ivatans

The first settlement area of the Ivatans

Stunning Roadside Scenery

“We haven’t reached our destination yet pero busog na ang mga mata ko.” I found myself saying this over and over as we passed by the roadside cliffs going to South Batan, the breathtakingly creepy seascape in Sabtang Island and the waves of rolling hills in North Batan. Previous visitors weren’t exaggerating when they said that Batanes is beautiful in every angle. DSC04500DSC04487 DSC04040DSC03700 DSC04595   9.) The Ivatans’ Integrity

The Honesty Coffee Shop

There’s nothing atypical about this store, until you realize that nobody is manning it. You get what you need, write the item and its corresponding amount on the logbook and leave the payment in the milk can. This tiny store in Ivana, which thrives on faith, says something big about the Ivatans’ integrity and attitude towards others. I remember a scenario when I visited the stone houses in Brgy. Savidug. While the villagers were probably tending their cattle or crops in the mountains, their houses were either open or unlocked. “Why are the Ivatans too trusting?” I asked Art. “Because everyone here is trustworthy,” He quickly replied. In a country governed by thieves, it is amazing to find a population who seems incapable of ill thoughts and distrust.

The famous Honesty Store

The famous Honesty Store

10.) The Ivatans’ Simplicity and Charm

One afternoon, I asked our genial innkeeper if she secretly wished for big commercial establishments in Batanes. Unblinkingly, she answered, “No, we value our heritage and modernization would change that.” Looking around, I was convinced of her assertion. Tarpaulins condemning the selling of Ivatan lands to outside investors hung on fences of homes and restaurants. The Ivatans seem happy and content with the humble things they have. Strolling around Basco, I was greeted by elderly men on their bicycles, nodding at me as if we were acquainted. The aged women, sitting idly on wooden benches outside their homes, were always ready with their warm smiles and good mornings. “Wala ka bang payong? Mainit eh.” One asked upon noticing the beads of sweat trickling down my face. Smiling back, I shook my head. “I have one here. Sira nga lang. Pero pwede mo nang pagtiyagaan.” She offered. The umbrella was quickly dismantled by the strong wind when I trekked up the hill, and so was my apprehension for traveling alone. That night, I slept soundly as if I was in my room back home. Batanes felt like home.

An interesting man i met on the waiting shed. At 59, just biked 18 km to attend the sunday service.

An interesting man i met on the waiting shed. At 59, he just biked 18 km to attend the sunday service.

************ HOW TO GET THERE

Philippine Airlines and SkyJet have flights to Basco, Batanes from Manila.

WHERE TO STAY

Budget-conscious travelers, like me, should stay at Marfel’s. I felt like I never left home. Guests can watch TV in the living room and cook their meals in the kitchen. They also have a sari-sari store, which operates Honesty Store-style. I paid a measly Php 350 per night for my cozy fan-room. For reservations, call Ate Fe 09178833249/ 09209764966

EXPENSES for my 4D/3N Batanes Getaway

Airfare (Philippine Airlines)RT   Php 7,100

3-day tour through TRavelYoung (lunch included)    Php 4,800

Food Php 2,000

Pasalubong Php 2,000

3-day accommodation (Marfel’s)  Php 1,050

Total   Php  16,950

 

TOUR ITINERARY

Ryan Cordona and TRavelYoung took care of my tours. They have the most affordable rates so far. You may reach them at 09174106099/09153030595. Below is the typical itinerary.

A.) North Batan Tour Mt. Carmel Chapel, Pag-asa Radar Station, Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge, Basco Idjang Viewing, WWII Japanese Hideout/Tunnel, Boulder Beach in Valugan, Sto.Domingo Cathedra,l Vayang Rolling Hills, Basco Lighthouse in Naidi Hills

B.) Sabtang Island Tour San Vicenter Ferrer Church, Malakdang Lighthouse, Savidug Village Stone houses, Sto. Tomas Chapel, Savidug Idjang Viewing, Chamantad-Tinyan Viewpoint, Chavayan Village Stone Houses, Sabtang Weavers Association, Nakabuang Cave/Morong Beach/Mayahaw Arc

C.) South Batan Tour Paderes Point and Cliff Road Chawa Viewing Deck, Mahatao Boat Shelter Port, Mahatao Town Tour, San Carlos Borromeo Church, Mahatao Spanish Lighthouse, Mahatao Sumbao Windmill, Mahatao Tayid Lighthouse, Marlboro Hills Alapad Hills and Rock Formation, Lo-Ran Old Naval Base, San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel, Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Chapel, Song-song Ruins, San Antonio De Florencia Church, Honesty Store, House of Dakay and Old Spanish Bridge, Malapad Rock Formation White Beach and Hohmoron Lagoon

Song-Song Ruins

Song-Song Ruins

the cogon-roofed tricycle

the cogon-roofed tricycle

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The Japanese Tunnel

The Japanese Tunnel

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a breathtaking sight for breakfast. anyone?

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Octagon RestoBar

Octagon RestoBar

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The beautiful woodcarvings in Octagon RestoBar

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