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6 Must-See World Heritage Sites in India

Agra Fort

Yogapose in front of the Taj Mahal

elephant ride at the Amber Fort

Humayon’s Tomb

Fatehpur Sikri

At noon in Jaipur, it is a major challenge to cross the smog-filled streets without getting run over by impatient motorcycles or herds of stray cattle. I can only pray to one of the 330 million Hindu deities for my life. Blithely disregarding traffic lanes, hordes of trucks, cars and auto-rickshaws crammed with nervous tourists whiz by at organ-recoiling speed on the seemingly lawless highway, all honking incessantly. The smell of gasoline exhaust mingles with the aromas of the market, of overripe pineapples, pomegranate, cumin, coriander and chicken curry. Cows and dogs scrounge through garbage heaps while monkeys frolic by the roadside. As the traffic comes to a halt, swarms of women with babies come out of nowhere to tap on car windows for alms. Hawkers weave through the snarl of vehicles to scream their carved camels and elephants, greasy snacks and glittering pieces of jewelry. At a nearby intersection, a young man and his monkey twirl around in brightly colored robes to entertain snobbish passers-by. Adding to the clamor of horns and eardrum-shattering street drills, devotional chants blare like an air-raid siren from the roof of a run-down temple, refusing to be drowned by a Bollywood hit pulsating from the loudspeakers of a souvenir shop across. I am shocked, and nothing could’ve prepared me, or anyone, for this insane introduction to India.

With over 1.2 billion people, representing a myriad of language and ethnic groups, India is an extremely diverse country held together largely by centuries-old religions and social customs. India is the home of one of the world’s oldest civilizations-dating back more than 3,000 years- and the birthplace of several religions, including Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion that is still the faith of most Indians. While it may take a lifetime to fully experience India, a visit to the Golden Triangle (cities of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra) allows visitors a glimpse of the country’s cultural and historical splendor. It is called such because of the triangular shape formed on the map by the three cities, each boasting a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Here are 6 sites you should not miss:

1.) Taj Mahal (Agra)

yours truly at the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal at dawn

As my guide rattles off history and overwhelming statistics about the mist-shrouded Taj Mahal, I slip into an ethereal coma, my mind awash with awe, wholly consumed by its beauty as it glows rosy pink in the early morning sun. I am a little teary-eyed. I know it is the famous Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but I had no idea about its grandeur, complexity and how seeing it for the first time would have an emotional impact. Walking up a steep path, past the perfectly sculpted Persian-style gardens and a pool that mirrors the white-marbled mausoleum, I see details not normally captured in postcard photos. Throughout the building, Arabic inscriptions in black marble are used as decorative elements. “Those are passages from the Quran,” my guide says. I let my eyes survey the pointed arches and exterior walls of the monument, moving across the labyrinth of intricate floral carvings, precious stone inlays and geometric and abstract designs inch by inch. Like a glistening, almost-translucent crown, a voluptuous onion-shaped dome adorns the mausoleum’s roof, its colors ever changing to emulate the reflecting sun and sky. Besides its physical allure, the Taj Mahal is also perfectly symmetrical. In fact, if not for the landscape and reflection pool, it is difficult to tell which side is the front.

At the dome’s corners are four smaller domed chattris (kiosks), impeccably placed to emphasize its curves and enormity. Towering by the mausoleum’s corners are four elegant minarets, each divided into three levels and topped with a balcony surmounted by a chattri that echoes the design of the ones surrounding the central dome. On both sides of the mausoleum are red sandstone buildings; to the west a mosque and to the east an identical building built only for symmetry.

Handcrafted for 22 years by 20,000 skilled workers, the Taj Mahal was commissioned by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 to house the tomb of his second and favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. According to stories, they could not bear to be apart from one another, and Mumtaz would often travel with the emperor even to war. It was on one expedition in 1631 that she died while giving birth to their 14th child. Shortly, Shah Jahan employed some of the best architects, builders and artisans from different parts of the world to build a unique memorial in ivory-white marble as a symbol of his grief and eternal love, spending almost all of the treasury’s money. The Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of Mughal Architecture, a style that combines elements from Persian, Indian and Islamic architectural styles.

2.) Agra Fort (Agra)

Agra Fort

Agra Fort’s colossal entrance

There are plenty of white-marbled buildings at the Agra Fort

view from the Kras Mahal at the Agra Fort

Like Jaipur, Agra hits me like a shockwave, and before I can even regain my balance, I see homeless men squatting by the roadside, defecating in plain sight for everyone to see. Over the next few minutes we drive past shirtless men rolling their bodies along the dusty road. According to my driver, many Hindu male devotees in Southern India roll on the road to reach the temple as an act of penitence. This practice is called the Shayanapradikshanam. Further, we come across painted camels loaded with bricks going the wrong way down the fast lane, causing heavy traffic. Soon, my eyes are captured by the burst of colors exploding everywhere from the roadside bazaars, which are usually swarmed by women in bright sarees. We pass by humpback cows sleeping in the middle of the highway, beggars sleeping on the sidewalk and women gathering up cattle feces and laying it out to dry. There is no shortage of bizarre things to see on my way to the Agra Fort, another grand monument to attest the architectural brilliance of the Mughal Dynasty.

Rising over 70 feet in height, Agra Fort’s colossal red sandstone walls are indeed impressive. Fending off touts and beggars and clutching my wallet tighter, I enter the lofty Amar Singh gate only to find another impregnable gate inside, wisely built to delay attackers who made it past the first line of defense. You see, Mughal Emperor Akbar originally built this fort as a military structure in 1565. Later on, it was converted into a grand palace and court by his grandson Shah Jahan, the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal. The straight path leads to a courtyard and a maze of red sandstone and white-marbled buildings, forming a city within a city. According to my guide, there used to be more than 500 buildings here, but most of them were destroyed when the British colonizers used the fort as garrison. Among the most exquisite buildings are Jahangiri Mahal (palace used mainly by the wives of Akbar), Khas Mahal (an open-air edifice overlooking the garden, built for the women of the royal household), Musamman Burj (the ornamental pavilion of Mumtaz Mahal, whom the Taj Mahal was built for), Diwan-I Khas (Hall of Private Audience), Diwan-I-Aam (Hall of Public Audience) and Mina Masjid (Heavenly Mosque). It was in Musamman Burj where Shah Jahan spent his remaining years as a prisoner by his power-grabbing son, Aurangzeb. According to stories, the emperor died looking at the Taj Mahal, which can be viewed from the tower’s marbled balcony.

3.) Fatehpur Sikri (Agra)

After a 40-kilometer drive to the western part of Agra, I am whisked away by a bus to yet another heritage site, a hilltop ancient city called Fatehpur Sikri. Desperate for a son, Mughal Emperor Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri in 1556 as homage to a saint named Shaikh Salim Chishti, whose blessing gave him three children. Shortly after its completion, the magnificent fortified city was made the political capital of the Mughal Empire for a mere 15 years. In 1585, Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned due to scarcity of water and the capital was moved back to central Agra.

At first glance, one may think that the Buland Darwaza, the city’s massive gate built with red sandstone and marble, alone had wiped half of the empire’s treasury. It may take time to get past the gate, as everyone pauses by the steps to admire its carved ornamentation, lofty arches and carved verses from the Quran. One of the Persian inscriptions even reads “Jesus son of Mary”, which I find fascinating since it is an Islamic edifice. According to my guide, the gate was built in 1575 as a triumphal arch following Emperor Akbar’s success in conquering the state of Gujarat. Inside, I am drawn to the Diwan-I Amm (public audience hall), towering over a vast colonnaded courtyard. Not as ornate as the surrounding buildings, the Diwan-I Amm used to be the place where the emperor interacted with the commoners and pronounced punishment for those guilty of crimes. Not far away, the Diwan-i-Khas (hall of private audience) easily catches attention with its four chattris on top and a central pillar that some some of the most intricate Hindu carvings I have ever seen. Here, the emperor used to hold discourse with foreign dignitaries, kings and different religious leaders. Without doubt, the most eye-catching structure is the section is the Panch Mahal, a five storey-building that is crowned with a domed chattri. It was once the living quarters of the royal ladies and mistresses. Running my fingers on the walls, I realize that there’s hardly a pillar or wall in the complex that is not covered in intricate carvings and inscriptions. Walking further, I come across three grand apartments, built for each of Emperor Akbar’s three wives- one Christian, one Muslim and one Hindu. It is said that the sizes of the apartments vary depending on the Emperor’s fondness of the lady. The Hindu wife’s quarter is the biggest, since it was she who gave the emperor children. Among the numerous lavishly decorated buildings inside the palace complex, he tomb of the saint Salim Chishti is considered the most important. Built in 1580, it lies in the huge courtyard of the Jama Masjid (a mosque) and the only structure here made out of carved white marble.

4.) Amber Fort (Jaipur)

Perched atop an enormous brightly tattooed elephant, my feet resting on its silk-laden body, I imagine myself as a maharaja being transported up a hill to the Amber Fort and Palace. Soon, I am clinging firmly to the handrails of the basket-like seat, enjoying the toss and turn of a bumpy ride and the view of the fortified walls circling far out through the rugged mountains, which are mirrored by the lake below. The magnificent Amber Fort dates back to 1592 during the reign of Raja Man Singh I of the Kachhwaja dynasty. Built with white marble and yellow and red sandstone, the fort and palace complex was completed two centuries after.

The elephant ride concludes at the Suraj Pol or the Sun Gate, and after handing a hundred-rupee tip to the elephant driver (many locals ask for tips for almost everything!), I hop out into an elevated platform and wander around the Jaleb Chowk or the fort’s main courtyard, where returning armies during the ancient times would display their war booties to the populace. Soon, I walk up a large stairway that leads to the main palace, where I am greeted by another courtyard. Just like other forts and palaces, the Amber Fort also has a Diwan-i-Amm, an open-air ornamented hall where the emperor listened to the public’s sentiments. Towards the opposite side is the ivory-inlaid Sukh Niwas or the Residence of Pleasure, where the emperors and their women hung out to unwind. Fronted with a well-sculpted garden, the hall has a small channel that carries cold water across the rooms, an ancient method for keeping a place cool. From here, one can enjoy a panoramic view of the mountains, the palace walls, the parade of elephants and the Maota Lake below. Further, I find the maharaja’s apartment or Ganesh Pol, which surrounds the third courtyard. Like the other halls, its walls are festooned with paintings and swirling floral designs. It also has a screened balcony where the maharaja could look out unseen on the activities below. Secluded in the fourth courtyard is the zenana, or the women’s quarters. The chambers are built independent, wisely designed so the king could visit his wives and concubines without the others knowing. Here, it is impossible to miss the Sheesh Mahal or the Mirror Palace. Every bit of space on its walls and ceiling is embellished with intricate patterns and glasses. According to stories, this palace was built for a queen who loved sleeping under the stars. Back then, women were forbidden to sleep in open air so the king had a building constructed and filled with tiny pieces of mirrors to resemble the stars.

5.) Jama Masjid (Delhi)

 

I am dazzled by the energy, traffic and crazy tangle of humanity outside Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. There are bearded men in flowing robes, women in brightly colored sarees and groups of young men weaving through the crowds, some holding hands, which I find odd in an ultra-conservative country. It turns out that for Indians, the gesture is just a sign of deep friendship. Beggars, their hair and clothes thick with dust and dirt, hound every non-Indian looking person for a rupee as vendors and hawkers scream their wares melodiously. “Shoes and slippers are not allowed inside,” says the dark-skinned man at the mosque’s gate. I reluctantly remove my favorite Nike’s, not knowing if I’ll see them again.

Glancing down, I find myself tiptoeing frantically to avoid pigeon droppings scattered in the sprawling courtyard in front of the mosque. According to my guide, the courtyard can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers at once. Every element of the mosque is grand and eye-catching, which is not surprising since it was Emperor Shah Jahan, the man behind the Taj Mahal, who ordered the construction of this edifice in 1650 after he moved his empire’s capital from Agra to Delhi. On top of the mosque are three massive onion-shaped domes in black and white marble, and its entrance is adorned with imposing arches, floral carvings and calligraphic inscriptions. Right in front of it is the hauz, or pool, where worshippers can wash their hands, feet and face before entering the mosque. On both sides of the mosque are two lofty minarets, standing 40 meters high, decorated in longitudinal stripes of white marble and red sandstone. It is said that over 5,000 laborers and artisans worked together to finish the mosque in six years.

6.) Humayon’s Tomb (Delhi)

At first glance, Humayon’s tomb looks more like a luxurious palace than a mausoleum. Not as world-famous as the Taj Mahal, the magnificent tomb of Emperor Humayon actually became the inspiration of Emperor Shah Jahan to build the Wonder of the World, which was only constructed about century after, and many other important structures throughout the Mughal Empire. In 1569, 14 years after the death of Emperor Humayon, his first wife Bega Begum commissioned a grand mausoleum to house the remains of his husband which was exhumed twice, first in Purana Quila in Delhi and second in Punjab. Walking around the edifice. I discover that each side is the exactly the same with the others, just like the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum is a two-storey structure built in red sandstone and topped with a massive Persian double dome that towers 43 meters from the roof. On the corners of the dome are four marble-flanked chattris, a distinct Indian architectural feature. Surrounding the tomb is a well-maintained garden that is divided into four sections by causeways, in the center of which runs shallow water channels.

Admiring the tomb from afar, I realize that India has some of the most amazing architectural innovations in the world. It has an enormous treasure trove of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among the top countries that have the most. Have I mentioned India’s groundbreaking contributions in the fields of medicine, mathematics, science and technology and the arts? Don’t be discouraged by the mendicants and garbage heaps. As long as you keep your mind and senses open, you will surely see how incredible India is.

Getting There:

There are no direct flights from the Philippines to Delhi in India. You may take a flight to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, then take another flight to Delhi.

You must apply for a visa through this website: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/tvoa.html

 

 

 

 

5 Ways To Enjoy Santorini Without Breaking the Bank

Every heartbeat on the cobblestone walkway comes to a halt as the sun balances precariously on the threadlike horizon, spilling its brilliant rays into the Aegean Sea. Cameras click simultaneously as the sky transforms from pale blue to flaming crimsons and golds. Far below, a lonely cruise ship hums quietly into harbor, leaving a bright silvery trail that breaks the stillness of the water. Soon, the sun drops its glare, trickles down like a pricked egg yolk and disappears completely into the sea, eliciting applause from the mesmerized crowd.

One by one, lights from cliffside villages begin to appear like fireflies. Whitewashed houses and blue-domed chapels now glow with pastel hues in the reflection of the ever-changing sky. A lighthouse blinks its giant eye across the islands of the caldera, which form a scraggly crescent around the bay. Santorini is by far more beautiful than any photograph can attempt to capture.

The island has often been associated with Atlantis, a mythical “lost” continent that the great philosopher Plato vividly described in his books. According to him, the god of the sea, Poseidon, created Atlantis as a dwelling place for himself, his mortal wife Cleito and their ten sons, who each ruled a part of the continent. The Atlantians lived in peace and opulence for generations. They built grand palaces, temples, docks, intricate water systems and other structures that were far ahead of their time. Eventually, greed and immorality crept in, prompting Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods, to send violent earthquakes and floods that vanished the land to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, the highly influential Minoan Civilization flourished in Santorini and its nearby islands from approximately 3600 to 1400 BC. Like the legendary Atlantians, the Minoans were excellent engineers, artists, traders and sailors. They were also the first to create and use a writing system in Europe. At its height, however, the Minoan Civilization disappeared entirely following a massive explosion of the Santorini volcano in 1500 BC, leaving only traces of their existence in one of their settlements, Akrotiri, where well-preserved artifacts such as fine frescoes, three storey-buildings, pottery, furniture and an advanced drainage system have been found beneath volcanic ashes. The striking similarities between the two islands have led many to believe that Santorini is what was left of Atlantis. Myth or not, one thing is certain: Santorini looks every bit like a playground of the gods, attracting millions of visitors every year.

While it is true that Santorini vacations often carry a hefty price tag, here are nice things to enjoy that don’t require your entire life savings:

1.) Laze the day away in a Jacuzzi/pool with a panoramic ocean view

There’s nothing lovelier than gazing into the horizon while lounging in a Jacuzzi on a terrace perched precariously atop a craggy volcanic cliff. Right before my eyes is the rich deep blue sea, which rocks the sparkles of reflected light cast by the fervid noon sun. To my right, a crisp white village clings to the edge of the caldera as quaint hotels race down to the ebony coast below.

Santorini is synonymous with dramatic views and luxury. While the Greek island is postcard-worthy in every angle, it is where you stay that will define your experience. Here, days are best spent in an outdoor tub or a spacious sun deck while sipping a Vinsanto or simply gawking out at the incredible view, so do not scrimp on accommodation and settle on budget travel experiences. I tell you, it is every bit worth the cost. Surprisingly, many booking websites like Agoda and Expedia offer affordable deals for posh hotels especially if you book far in advance. It also helps if you travel with a friend to share the expenses with.

There are three gorgeous villages in Santorini that face the iconic sunset and the Aegean Sea: Fira (the capital), Imerovigli (the highest point) and Oia (the best sunset view). Wherever you choose to stay, make sure to find a villa that captures the essence of this breathtaking island.

Where To Stay:

Kamares Apartments

Fira Santorini, Fira 847 00

Greece

www.kamares-apartments.gr

Expenses:

Php 17,000 per night (with breakfast, villa originally priced at Php 20,000) /2 persons= Php8,500 per pax or 158 Euros

 

2.) Catch the sunset in Oia Village

A gorgeous bride in a sweeping white dress kisses her groom as they stand atop a volcanic cliff overlooking the sea. It is half an hour before sunset, and I scramble to find a vacant perch near the ruins of the Byzantine Castle. The steep cobbled pathways and balconies are thick with affectionate couples and tourists who assemble not to witness the ceremony below but to see its heart-stopping backdrop. It is no secret that Oia Village, a cluster of whitewashed houses that sits on the northwest edge of the caldera, has the island’s best view of the sunset.

The busiest and the most photographed village in the island, Oia is a maze of narrow alleyways, small squares and age-old cave houses, which now hosts thousands of tourists who want to experience the island’s iconic views. Long before the tourist invasion, Oia was a seamen’s town that flourished economically as a result of maritime trade throughout the Mediterranean, particularly as part of the trade route between Russia and Alexandria. Be warned: Oia gets crowded hours before the golden hour as throngs of sunset-obsessed romantics and photography enthusiasts pour into the labyrinthine streets to secure a perfect vantage point. Fortunately, any spot in the village offers a good view of the spectacle, whether it’s by a hotel’s infinity pool or atop some random wall. Truth is, sunsets are pretty much similar and straightforward everywhere, but being perched on a thousand-foot volcanic cliff while gazing into the mirror-calm sea, the caldera and the kaleidoscopic skies adds much drama to the experience.

Expenses:

Bus fare (Fira-Oia RT)– Php 171.20 or 3.20 Euros

 

 3.)Taste some wine at SantoWines Winery

Sitting on a cliffside terrace looking out dreamily at the gentle waves lapping against the soaring red caldera, I safely assume that Santorini is known solely for its gorgeous panoramas. However, much to my surprise, the island has a 5,000-year history in winemaking. When the Greek’s worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, spread throughout the ancient world, Greek wines became popular and were traded throughout the Mediterranean. Thanks to the strong gusts of sea air and the volcanic activities centuries ago, which has made the island’s soil porous enough to retain moisture even during the hottest summer months, some forty grape varieties thrive abundantly and acquire a refreshing acidity that the wines here are known for.

Wine and cheese with a scenic view? Oh please, anytime! Among the 10 wineries in the island, which offer wine tasting and tours of their facilities, the SantoWines Winery looks is an obvious choice among tourists. Located on the outskirts of Pyrgos Village, SantoWine’s restaurant and tasting room sits on top of a hill facing the Aegean Sea and the caldera. The place gets easily crowded especially at sunset, so it would be a smart idea to reserve your seats online prior to the visit.

Where To Go:

SantoWines

Pyrgos, Thira 847 00, Greece

https://www.santowines.gr

Expenses:

Bus Fare (Fira-Pyrgos RT)– Php 171.20 or 3.20 Euros

12-glass wine tasting set-Php 909.50 or 17 Euros

TOTAL= Php1,080.70 or 20.20 Euros

 

 4.) Indulge in authentic Greek cuisine

Santorini is a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds. The volcanic catastrophes not only defined the island’s geography but also its local cuisine, which is mainly based on the agricultural products that grow abundantly on its lava-infused soil. Since vine-grown vegetables thrive well on the island, it is only natural that they are used as key ingredients of perhaps the most iconic among the Greek dishes, the Greek Salad. The dish is a healthy and flavorful mélange of juicy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, red onions, green peppers, feta cheese, olives, capers, oregano and olive oil. Quite surprisingly, an authentic Greek salad doesn’t have lettuce or any other leafy greens in it.

Meat lovers can also have their fix with lesser guilt, as the Greeks love their pork, lamb and chicken lightly seasoned and cooked to perfection on a rotisserie or over coal-fired grill. The grilled meat, called gyros if cooked on a rotisserie and souvlaki if skewered, is usually served with lightly toasted pita bread, tomatoes, lettuce, a dusting of parika and tsatziki (yogurt, garlic and cucumber dip), becoming a complete and heavy meal. Easily available in many corner food stalls, souvlaki has become the most popular, convenient and cost-effective food option among budget travellers. One hearty serving should only set you back around 4 Euros.

If your palate is yearning for something rich and savory, try the moussaka, a traditional Greek dish that is made by layering sliced eggplants with lamb meat sauce and creamy béchamel sauce before baking it to golden perfection.

Expenses:

Inexpensive restaurants will cost around 10 Euros per meal while the nicer ones around 18 Euros, with a drink.

 

5.) Go on a scenic hike from Fira to Oia

 

There’s no better way to discover the Greek Island’s most stunning views than to hike the 10-kilometer trail from Fira to Oia, so I put my sneakers on and head out to the nearby road. I start from the center of Fira, the island’s capital, where I pass by several crisp white churches and souvenir stalls before heading north. Walking along the well-paved path along the caldera and passing through several quaint villages, I pause every so often to catch my breath, take photographs and soak up the stunning views of the volcano and the Aegean Sea. Never mind the blazing sun overhead, the scenery becomes even more beautiful as I move from one vantage point to another. Following the cobblestone street upward, I reach the village of Imerovigli, which sits at the highest and most central part of the caldera. Here, I find an abandoned 13th century castle on top of an enormous rock. To the left, whitewashed luxury hotels sit seductively on top of the highest cliffs, their infinity pools sparkling in the sun. I can only imagine how fabulous it is to stay in one of those. Dear God, please make me rich! Sweat is pouring from my head down to my eyes as I continue to the north, passing by the Church of Agios Antonios and the Church of Prophet Elias, both offering a gorgeous view of the nearby islands. The trail ends in Oia, the village that usually appears in postcards and photographs because of its whitewashed houses, blue-domed chapels and traditional windmills.

The hike may take up to 5 hours if you allow yourself plenty of stopovers to take photographs. Also, it is best to start early in the afternoon to arrive in Oia just in time for the world-famous sunset.

Expenses:

Bus Fare (Oia-Fira)- Php 85.50 or 1.60 Euros

 

One Summer Day in Paris

The Louvre, Paris

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.

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

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. I instinctively reach into my duffel bag to fish out my camera and snap photographs of the chicly dressed locals and tourists. I have nothing else planned for the day but to wander around and get lost in the romantic city. It is true, Paris induces a trance-like obedience in its visitors, making them slow down, listen to the street jazz musicians and appreciate the details of centuries-old monuments. And there’s nothing better than enjoying a leisurely walk all day without having to run back to the hotel every so often to grab a change of shoes, a pair of sunglasses or perhaps a book. My customized leather duffel bag from Cleora comfortably fits everything that I need for the day: cameras, maps, on-the-go cosmetics, water bottle and extra shirts and shoes for the Instagram poses by the Louvre. Throw in the fact that it is stylish, photogenic and easy to carry around, I might have just found the perfect travel partner.

Cleora is the latest local brand to specialize in high-quality and personalized cowhide leather bags, fashion leather items and corporate giveaways. Cleora is not exactly a newbie to the industry, as it is the sister company of Lordman Leather Craft, a Marikina-based supplier of top-notch leather gun holsters throughout the country for over 40 years. Check out their sample designs on Instagram (@cleaorafashionhouse) or you may reach them at 09055266765, 09423518027 and 09498675003.

Piaza Navona, Rome

Coloseo, Rome

Venice, Romance

a quiet canal in Venice

a quiet canal in Venice

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

a palace beside Piazza San Marco

elegant gondolas

elegant gondolas

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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All I want is to find my hotel, unburden my shoulders of a hefty backpack and jump face-forward to the bed, but instead I linger in Piazza San Marco far too long. It doesn’t help that I arrive in Venice at sunset, when its skyline of Gothic towers, spires and domes glow golden above the Adriatic Sea. Pastel skies, warm streetlights and marble buildings of bright colors reflect in the still waters of the Grand Canal. Gondoliers break into an aria as they pull their oars with a gentle splash, their gondolas bobbing up and down as vaporettis (water taxi) glide by. A blatant reminder of my solitude, couples hold hands as they listen to serenading violins. There’s really no competition. For romance, Venice has the perfect ambiance.

the city's ambiance is perfect for couples

the city’s ambiance is perfect for couples

Timeworn cobblestones lead me on through a tangle of alleyways and bridges, and at the point of desperation when I realize I am nowhere near my hotel, I duck into a tiny gelato store where the gentle-faced owner gives me a confusing direction full of hand gestures. I nod pleasantly, trying to make sense of his floundering English. The sight of other baffled tourists, who can’t figure out where “take a left, then go straight” went wrong, somehow consoles me. Apparently, getting lost is part of the deal when visiting this love-infested city.

yours truly :)

yours truly 🙂

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one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Venice is not a typical Italian city. It is a vast agglomeration of roughly 120 islands linked together by a mind-bending 409 bridges and countless pedestrian conduits that can disorient even the best sense of direction yet lead to a multitude of backstreet gems, such as Renaissance opera houses and museums, quaint restaurants and hidden gardens. There are no cars and motorcycles to honk strolling lovers to the sidewalk, and the only way to get around is either by foot or by boat. I let my eyes survey the marble façade of the Santa Maria Della Salute and the nearby palaces, moving across their lacelike stonework and Baroque swirls inch by inch. The city is nothing less than a vast aquatic gallery of elegant architecture, an urban maze of a museum that reminds everyone of its glorious past. Enriched by trade and cultural contacts with the East and the Mediterranean, Venice had seen opulence in the Middle Ages. Not only was the city an important port and commercial center, it was also celebrated for its music and painting, exquisite glasswares and magnificent palaces and churches.

Today a city for lovers, Venice wasn’t born out of romance. According to tradition it was founded in 421 AD, when the Celtic people called the Veneto fled to the remote islands of an Adriatic lagoon to escape the violent Barbarian invasions, which lasted until the sixth century. The settlers took advantage of their vast waterways and deep channels and started maritime trading with Egypt, Syria, Southeast Asia, Iran and China. Soon, they formed a loose federation and elected their first doge (duke) to assert their independence from the Byzantine Empire. By the Middle Ages, Venice flourished as a port and trading center and became one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Eventually, their wooden pile dwellings were replaced with brick houses, splendid palaces and Gothic churches. Venice became so powerful that it remained intact and unscathed despite the attacks of 15 kingdoms, which tried to suppress it from expanding towards the mainland. Its glory, however, did not last very long. By the end of the 15th century, the Americas were discovered and became the new trading port, triggering the commercial and political decline of the Venetian Republic. Furthermore, the recurring bubonic plague decimated its population. In the 18th century, it became politically irrelevant that Emperor Napoleon dissolved it and handed it over to Austria. Venice, however, did not prosper under Austria, and when the Prussians defeated the Austrians, Venice was allowed to join the new nation of Italy.

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endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

endless boutiques line up the narrow alleyways

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With a cappuccino in hand, I wind my way back to Piazza San Marco early morning the following day. The square is empty, save for the early-rising pigeons scattered on the patterned stone paving and a grumpy waiter setting out tables and chairs at a nearby café. Laid out in the ninth century as a gathering place for the Venetians, the sprawling piazza is bordered by historic buildings. As if by instinct, I walk toward the Basilica di San Marco on the eastern end of the square. Glinting in the sunlight, its pinnacles, domes and intricate mosaics and arches instantly draw attention. A hodgepodge of different architectural styles- Gothic, Byzantine and Islamic, the basilica was built in 1071 to shelter the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, which were stolen by two Venetian merchants from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. A stone’s throw away from the basilica is its campanile, (bell tower) soaring 99 meters into the sky. Originally built in the ninth century, the imposing landmark was reconstructed in 1912 after the original tower collapsed in 1902. The other dominant building in Piazza San Marco is the 14th century Doge’s Palace, which for centuries was the seat of government, the palace of justice and the Doge’s (duke) residence. Stepping back to admire the massive structure, I realize that its entire width is embellished with splendid patterns, perforations and Gothic arches, making it appear light and lacy. It is said that from these arches, the Doge would watch public executions in the piazza and announce death sentences.

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Basilica Di San Marco

Doge's Palace

Doge’s Palace

It is a hot summer day and by noon, the square is thick with smooching couples and tourists inspecting its marvels. Every square foot of sitting space is crowded with young people licking overpriced gelatos and making peace signs for photographs. Licking an overpriced gelato myself, I recognize plenty of Asian faces around, particularly Chinese. Most are tourists and some are residents, most likely descendants of the Chinese merchants who once traded in the Venetian shores. After basking in the piazza’s old world atmosphere, I stuff my map inside my bag and decide to get lost. Walking through labyrinthine alleyways, climbing bridge after bridge, I stumble upon the Chiesa di San Moise, an 8th century Baroque style church dedicated to Moses. Like other medieval churches, Chiesa di San Moise is heavily embellished with carved patterns and sculptures from its roof down to its entrance doors. Not far from the church, a crowd queues up for a gondola ride. Priced at 100 Euros for a 40-minute ride, the gondola experience is quite heavy to the pocket, but thankfully, a group invites me to split the cost with them. I say yes in a heartbeat. Soon, we are gliding past other gondolas filled with affectionate couples. Quietly, we stare at endless boutiques and gargoyle-bedecked buildings that line both sides of the canal. Just before we progress to the Grand Canal, we sail under the infamous Bridge of Sighs, which was named such because of the prisoners’ sighs of grief and remorse.It was through this Baroque bridge, which connects the interrogation rooms of the Doge’s Palace to the penitentiary across, that criminals in the past would catch their last glimpse of the outside world before they were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Shortly, the Grand Canal welcomes us with a chaotic procession of watercrafts swerving across the rush hour traffic and spilling newly arrived tourists to the wharfs. I strain my eyes to catch glimpse of the tapestries, chandeliers and frescoed ceilings through the windows of ornate buildings that fringe the waterway. One can only imagine the city’s grandeur during its golden years. Then, cargo vessels from different parts of the world unloaded gold, silk, spices, metal and textiles by the Rialto Bridge, which briefly blocks the sunlight as we drift by underneath. Built in 1588, the dignified Rialto Bridge connects the districts of San Polo and San Marco across the Grand Canal. It has always been the busiest crossing in Venice, now usually thronged by tourists instead of multicultural merchants during the city’s heyday. Complementing the dramatic ambiance, the sweet sound of accordion resonates from serene side canals, where colorful reflections dance beneath stately palaces and wooden bridges. Fishing boats of gaudy colors float steadily in front of crumbling buildings, seemingly frozen in time like still-life paintings. The magnificence of Venice is undeniable especially when viewed from the water.

the Chiesa di San Moise,

the Chiesa di San Moise

Bridge of Sighs

Bridge of Sighs

one of the many squares in the city

one of the many squares in the city

Rialto Bridge

Rialto Bridge

Truth be told, Venice has become exhaustingly crowded these days. During summer months, an average of 80,000 tourists a day throngs its narrow canals and alleyways, profoundly altering its economic flow. Businesses like restaurants and supermarkets now charge tourist rates even to locals and property owners have increasingly converted apartments and residences into hotels, skyrocketing the cost of permanent housing. As a result, the locals’ population has plummeted to an alarming 50,000 in the recent years and if the trend continues, the city may soon lose all of its full-time residents and become a mere Disneyland-like tourist attraction. One can only hope for an intervention that could save it from eventual demise. After all, a city as unique, visually satisfying and historically rich as Venice has to be experienced by travel enthusiasts at least once in their lives.

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

a palace hidden in the narrow alleyways

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

souvenir stalls by the sidewalk

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The Grand Canal

The Grand Canal

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Fez: A City Lost in Time

the old medina of Fez

the old medina of Fez

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

Moroccan breakfast with a view of the 9th century Fes-el-Bali

the 9th century medina

the 9th century medina

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

Chouara Tannery, the oldest tannery in Fez

one of the 300+ mosques

one of the 300+ mosques

Pigeons scatter skyward as a wailing call to prayer blares like an air-raid siren from a nearby minaret. From the roof terrace I watch the fading sun as it bathes the decaying city, its fortifications and the crumbling ruins of the ancient people’s tombs above a hill in blood-red light. Soon, the adhan (call to prayer) from all 365 mosques resonates throughout the city, echoing the same ghostly chant but with different tempos like an unrehearsed orchestra, drowning the squawks of the chickens, the incessant banging from the brass cookware shops and the shrieks of the hawkers.

At first it is disarming, but nothing can quite prepare me, or anyone, for the impact of Fes el-Bali, the ancient high-walled medina (old city) of Fez. With over 10,000 spiraling cobblestone streets and alleyways, which are too narrow for the tiniest car to get through, the city has turned the map in my hand into a squiggly-lined nonsense. A tight jumble of centuries-old riads (traditional Moroccan houses) stands shoulder-to-shoulder with elaborately tiled mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools). A head-spinning mixture of odors wafts along the tiny passages- freshly baked bread from wood-stoked ovens, sizzling kebabs, the stench of animal excrement and urine, cumin, overripe fruits, scented oils. I close my eyes to absorb the sweltering madness when a deep, loud voice penetrates my ears. “BALEK!” (“Watch out!”). A bearded man in white djellaba (long, hooded garment with full sleeves) gestures at me to stand aside and give way to him and his donkey!

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the old medina

Ruins of the ancient tombs

Ruins of the ancient tombs

narrow streets inside the medina

narrow streets inside the medina

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

the souks inside the medina sell spices of all kinds

Fez was the capital city of Morocco in Northern Africa until 1925, and it still remains as the country’s cultural, intellectual and religious heart. Its labyrinthine medina, Fes el-Bali, was established in the early 9th century, around the same time when Islam arrived in Morocco. The medina flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries and most of its buildings and architectural gems are from this period. It was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1981 and is believed to be the largest car-free urban area in the world.

Walking through the Bab Boujeloud, the monumental blue gate at the entrance of the medina, I don’t have difficulty imagining that I’ve traveled a thousand years back until I see cellular phones glued to the ears of biblical looking, mule-riding men. “What do you want, my friend? We have good leather, not from China!” Touters instantly throw themselves at tourists even from afar. “Are you Malaysian? Indonesian? Ah, Japanese! Such good people! Come, take a look inside!” Perky stall keepers beckon to me with their standard spiels for Asian-looking tourists. Haven’t they heard of the Philippines? Deep into the frantic maze of souks, merchants are more assumptive, oftentimes bordering on aggressive. Here, mounds upon piles of leather jackets, silk caftans, bloody chunks of camel meat, poultry, olives, dates, potions, strange herbs and spices my nose cannot distinguish and trinkets of various descriptions are displayed for the passing customers. Chatters of bargaining ripple throughout the medina. “No obligation to buy! Come in, have some tea!” I regretfully take heed and at first sip, a salesman has me firmly by the arm. And before I can come up with a lame excuse such as “I lost my wallet”, I find myself drowning in a pile of Berber carpets made of camel wool. The golden rule here is, never accept the first quote. Negotiation is a huge part of the Moroccan trade and prices always depend on one’s haggling skills. You must also understand that the Moroccans are supreme salesmen and if you’re as firm as a jellyfish, you’ll end up spending all your dirhams on a rug you don’t even like.

The Bab Boujeloud gate

The Bab Boujeloud gate

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

one of the many souks selling carpets and rugs

narrow passages inside the medina

narrow passages inside the medina

Moroxxan handicrafts

Moroxxan handicrafts

The heart of the medina and its most important site is the Al-Qaraouiyine Mosque and University. The mosque was established in 859 by Fatima el Fihria, a wealthy Tunisian woman refugee. Each of Morocco’s dynasties expanded and decorated it until it has settled to its current dazzling mold. One of the largest in North Africa, the mosque can accommodate up to 22,000 people at prayer. It eventually became an important learning center, well before the universities of Oxford, Bologna and Cambridge were founded, and served as a legitimate seat of scientific and religious knowledge. It is now considered as the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.

Al Qaraouiyine University

Al Qaraouiyine University

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

inside the Al Qaraouiyine-mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

detailed interior of the al-qaraouiyine mosque

the-al-qaraouiyine-mosque

A strong and unmistakable waft of feces and animal skin tells me I have reached the heart of the leather district. There are three leather tanneries in the medina, all of them dating back to the Middle Ages. A teenage boy offers to guide me to the oldest of the tanneries, the Chouara Tannery, for a few dirhams. He says his “father works there”. I suspect all would-be guides in the area say the same thing. Here, the stomach-churning process of turning hides (animal skin) into durable leather has hardly been updated. The tanners begin by manually pulling hair off the animal skin. The reeking hides are then soaked in pigeon droppings and cow urine, which apparently removes the fat and remaining hair. Later on, they are kneaded for hours with bare feet until softened and then dipped in limestone vats filled with colorful dyes. After happily explaining the process, the salesman at the viewing deck invites me to check out his leather bags, which he is certain my mother would love. Yet another sales pitch!

Chouara Tannery

Chouara Tannery

The medina is one interesting place to lose oneself in and work up a big appetite along the way. Soon, my famished stomach takes me back to the blue gate where I find a strip of inexpensive restaurants offering traditional dishes. Moroccan cuisine abounds with aromatic but subtle spices and interesting flavor combinations. Think sweet and velvety dates paired with tart olives stirred into a tagine (earthenware pot where meat is cooked) of succulent lamb. Lamb is always a good choice, and I’m in no mood for adventurous items in the menu such as camel burger and goat’s head meat. Exhausted from all the walking, I find myself a quiet spot in a restaurant’s second floor veranda. Here, I peacefully try to make sense of the chaos below.

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Lamb Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish

Getting There:

There are no direct flights from Manila to Morocco in North Africa, but Qatar Airways has flights to Marrakech and Casablanca from Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar. From Marrakech or Casablanca, you can either take another flight or ride the train or bus to Fez.

yours truly

yours truly

 

 

The Glory That Is Rome

 

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Tiber River

the Tiber River

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Vatican City

Vatican City

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The arena crackles with tension. A gladiator grips his sword with both hands and plunges the blade in a downward thrust, aiming the glistening tip at his opponent’s chest. Evading death, the opponent quickly rolls to the side and swings his sword in a wide arc, slicing the former’s stomach open to send him crashing to the dust, growling in agony. With leers of hungry monsters etched upon their faces, spectators cheer maniacally as blood sprays across the ground. The victorious warrior strides across to tower over his rival and with a lusty roar, pierces him through his eye, shattering his skull as the weapon penetrates into his brain.

Images of carnage flood my mind as I walk into the Colosseum’s underground tunnels and chambers. Trapped in the sweltering heat, the stale waft of the earth mingles with the stench of urine and decay. This is where slaves, vicious animals, convicts and gladiators awaited their slaughter more than a thousand years ago.

Bloodshed meant glory and power for the ancient Romans. Their predilection to war and extreme violence allowed them to build a massive empire, which controlled the entire Mediterranean basin and much of northwestern Europe during its peak. For centuries they embarked on imperial expansion, demolishing towns and gathering slaves who were forced to fight in gladiatorial games, or fed to lions and bears for public entertainment.

Where I queue up impatiently outside the Roman Colosseum on a hot July afternoon, centuries ago in 80 AD, the common public would clamor and wait similarly to witness the gruesome contests. Built by Emperor Vespasian of the Flavian Dynasty as a gift to the Romans, the amphitheater functioned as a center of entertainment, with spectacles such as gladiatorial combats, public executions and sea battle reenactments, where the arena floor was flooded with water from an underground river. The late afternoon sun crawls behind the upper arch windows, casting shadows on the seats where bloodthirsty crowds of up to 80,000 used to holler. It is said that in the hundred days of savagery to inaugurate the Colosseum, over 10,000 people and 5,000 wild animals perished. The brutal games persisted for centuries until Emperor Honorius banned it in 404 AD, following the protest of an Egyptian monk named Telemachus, who was immediately stoned to death by the angry spectators. The advent of Christianity eventually changed the demeanor of the Romans, making them less antagonistic and warlike.

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

Coloseum

the Coloseum

the Coloseum

The Coloseum

the Coloseum

Traveling Through Time

“Constantine,” I mumble as I pass by the ancient triumphal arch dedicated to Emperor Constantine, who ended the persecutions of Christians during his reign, “Are there more gory stories in that pile of rubble?” With a crumpled map in hand, I walk toward the ruins of the Roman Forum. Broken columns and skeletons of long-vanished temples stand precariously on the grass. Mutilated statues prop themselves against barren pedestals. Located between two hills, the sprawling ruin of architectural fragments was the social, political and commercial hub of the great Roman Empire. The Forum was originally a marshy area which the early Romans reclaimed following the alliance between King Romulus of the Palatine Hill and Titus Tatius of the Capitoline Hill, and eventually developed to include marketplaces, shrines, government offices and memorials. Kicking dust on the flagstone-paved walkway, I stroll along the length of Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, which was once the route of triumphal military parades and imperial processions. A stone’s throw away is the medieval Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda grafted onto and above the Temple of Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina. Emperors were routinely deified after their death but when Christianity proliferated, pagan temples were either demolished or converted to churches and basilicas. Walking past the remains of other temples dedicated to Roman gods, I find a group of tourist crowding the empty pedestals of the House of the Vestal Virgins, taking photos of the jumbled block of marbles where the sacred fire burned for centuries. The flame was guarded by the Vestals, priestesses of the goddess Vesta carefully chosen from patrician families. These women were among the most venerated citizens of ancient Rome and were believed to have special powers, such as the ability to pardon condemned criminals by simply touching them. Sweat drips from my brow as I climb the summit of the Palatine Hill, where I find the ruins of the Domus Augustana, the private section of the imperial palace where the emperors resided. Resting my back against a crumbling brick wall, I gaze out to admire the panorama of roofs and domes, clear-cut against the blood-red sunset.

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

the Arch of Constantine and the Coloseum

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

an excavation revealing the remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

remnants of ancient Rome

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

the Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

Arch of Titus

Arch of Titus

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

On Holy Ground

Fueled with a hefty slice of sidewalk pizza the following morning, I dodge through an army of hawkers and hucksters shilling souvenirs and rosaries. Pilgrims armed with large crucifixes and banners spill from a fleet of tour buses. At eight the streets around Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome, are already in full swing. After standing in seemingly endless security check queues, I hold my breath as I enter the massive metal doors of the Saint Peter’s Basilica, but nothing can quite prepare me the showpieces inside. Built in the early 16th century over the tomb of St. Peter, Basilica Papale di San Pietro is among the largest churches in the world and is considered the finest example of Renaissance architecture. It should be, as it was worked on by just about every great architect and artist of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries: Michaelangelo, Raphael, Bramante, Peruzzi, Maderno, Sangallo, Donatello and Bernini. Not far from the entrance, hordes of tourists pause contemplatively near an unmistakable marble carving. At last I see Michaelangelo’s Pieta with my own eyes! The haunting sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus Christ after the crucifixion. It sits behind a bulletproof acrylic glass after it was vandalized with an axe many years ago. My eyes instinctively survey the basilica’s nave, moving across its lavishly decorated walls and columns inch by inch. Decorated in mosaic, a colossal dome created by the great Michaelangelo soars 119 meters above the ground, supported by four stone pillars representing the relics of St. Helena, St. Longinus, St. Andrew and St. Veronica, whose statues adorn the niches designed by Lorenzo Bernini. Directly beneath the dome is St. Peter’s Baldachin, the basilica’s centerpiece. The 30-meter tall dark bronze canopy was also designed and sculpted by Bernini to shelter the papal altar and mark the spot where St. Peter was buried. Every inch of the vast interior exhibits some of the finest Renaissance masterpieces, including funerary monuments of popes whose tombs lay within the basilica.

Vatican City

Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

pilgrims marching to the Vatican City

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Bernini's baldachin

Bernini’s baldachin

Michaelangelo's dome

Michaelangelo’s dome

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's dome and Bernini's Baldachin at St. Peter's Basilica

Michaelangelo’s dome and Bernini’s Baldachin at St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

Michaelangelo's Pieta

Michaelangelo’s Pieta

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square

 

At the nearby Vatican Museums, I push my way through crowds of sweat-soaked tourists to see some of the world’s most treasured relics and masterpieces collected by the Popes over the centuries. Exhibits, which run along about 9 miles of halls and galleries, include classical sculptures, Etruscan bronzes, Flemish tapestries, Renaissance and modern paintings and even Egyptian mummies. The vast complex of museums was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and expanded by the succeeding pontiffs as the collections grew. Craning my neck from gallery to gallery, I try to absorb as much art as I can. Besides the Sistene Chapel, the most popular rooms inside the Vatican Museums are, without doubt, Raphael’s Rooms. The chambers are famous for their frescoed walls and ceilings, painted by Raphael himself who was commissioned by Popes Julius II and Leo X. In one of the rooms, everyone’s eyes are glued on a masterpiece called The School of Athens as a tour guide enumerates some whimsical details about it. The painting is a fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from different periods and places. What’s amusing about it is that Raphael painted the faces of himself and his colleagues Leonardo Da Vinci, Donato Bramante and Michaelangelo in there. After basking in its magnificence, I feel warmed up and ready for the Sistene Chapel.

inside the Vatican Museum

ancient sculptures at  the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

inside the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

painted ceiling at the Vatican Museum

Raphael's Room

Raphael’s Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael's Room

painted walls and ceiling of Raphael’s Room

School of Athens, Raphael's masterpiece

School of Athens, Raphael’s masterpiece

“SILENZIO!” The guard’s deep, terrifying voice resonates throughout the sacred room, causing a hush to fall over hundreds of excited mouths. I squeeze myself between awestruck tourists, my eyes dashing upon every inch of the breathtaking art on the walls and vaulted ceiling. The challenge is deciding where to stand to take it all in. A remnant from the glorious era of Renaissance, the Sistene Chapel is home to two of the world’s most celebrated artworks: Michaelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and his Giudizio Universale or The Last Judgment (1535-1541). This is also the place where the conclave gathers to elect a new pope. Racking my brains, I try to identify which biblical events are depicted on the ceiling frescoes, which glow rich and vibrant in the low light. In this heady series of paintings, Michaelangelo interpreted nine scenes from the book of Genesis, including the creation of the earth, creation of Man, the fall of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah. On the altar wall below, Michaelangelo painted a chilling interpretation of the Last Judgment. The painting shows Jesus Christ, who stands in the center, passing sentence over the souls of the dead as they are snatched out of their graves. The saved are able to enter the gates of heaven while the damned are thrown to the fires of hell. One disturbing part of the masterpiece, as one tour guide quietly points out, is that Michaelangelo painted himself as a soul on his way to eternal damnation.

Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Michaelangelo’s The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel

Discovering the Ancient City

Wandering through the ancient streets, I scrunch up the baffling map and stuff it in my pocket. My sense of adventure tells me that every corner of this once-mighty empire has a hidden surprise- a naked statue of a mystical god, an Egyptian obelisk, an unknown fountain chipped from pale stone or an excavation revealing the remains from antiquity. As I walk further away from Vatican City, an imposing cylindrical building looms into view, towering over the Tiber River. A horse-drawn open carriage passes by, the click-clack of the horse’s hooves making monotonous beats on the pavement. Lavished with precious marbles and statues of angels, the Castel Sant’ Angelo was built in 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian as a monumental tomb for himself and his family. According to legend, the name “Castel Sant’ Angelo” dates back to the day when Pope Gregory the Great, during a procession to plead for the end of a plague, saw Archangel Michael on top of the mausoleum, wiping blood from this sword. The succeeding emperors eventually used the mausoleum as a defensive bastion during the barbarian invasions, and when it was passed on to the hands of the pontiffs, Pope Boniface IX turned it into a papal residence, fortress and prison. An underground passage is said to connect it to the Vatican.

Castel Sant' Angelo

Castel Sant’ Angelo

wandering through the narrow streets

wandering through the narrow streets

Following a labyrinthine alley not far from the castle, I come across a bustling piazza (square), cocooned by old buildings of orange, lemon yellow and peach and bedecked with fine statues with a distinct, familiar style. The garlicky aromas of pizza and pasta roll on the soft summer breeze as nearby open-air restaurants call out for customers. Perhaps nothing is more quintessential Roman than Piazza Navona, which was built on the site where the Stadium of Domitian once stood. The piazza’s centerpiece is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a 17th century fountain adorned with a towering obelisk and four giant Bernini sculptures representing the great rivers of Ganges, Nile, Danube and Plate. Directly opposite the baroque fountain is the Church of Sant’ Agnes in Agose, built in the 17th century by an acclaimed Italian architect, Francesco Borromini. Once the performance space of jugglers, acrobats and mock naval battle actors, the square maintains its lively atmosphere with a continuous festival of painters, caricaturists and street performers. I find myself a quiet corner in a café. Piazza Navona is the perfect place to have a gelato break after a long, exhausting walk.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini's sculptures in Piazza Navona

Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

art vendors in Piazza Navona

Strolling past countless piazzas and heavily statued churches and fountains, I find an ancient-looking temple tucked between modern apartment buildings and restaurants. Supported by thick granite Corinthian columns, the Pantheon has survived unscathed for almost 2,000 years, though according to stories its marble facing and gilded bronze roof tiles were stripped off and used to embellish St. Peter’s Basilica centuries ago. Designed by Emperor Hadrian himself as a tribute to the planetary gods, the semicircular temple has a coffered 43-meter dome with a central opening that lets the sunlight in. Tourists flood continually through the massive bronze doors and shuffle about, their flag-carrying tour guides beckoning them to the gravesite of Raphael, a celebrated Italian architect and painter who requested to be buried inside the building. The Pantheon has been functioning as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs since the 7th Century.

the Pantheon

the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

square near the Pantheon

Wiping my sweaty brow with the back of my hand, I disappear among the hundreds of tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain. Among the hordes are different groups of people- young lovers canoodling and basking in the romance of the ancient edifice, friends giggling and posing for selfies, families with parents keeping a hawk eye on their toddlers. Excited, I shoulder my way to the center to behold the baroque fountain I have seen countless times in movies. The famous Trevi Fountain dates back to the ancient times when the 22-kilometer aqueduct, named Aqua Virgo or Virgin Waters to honor the young girl who discovered the water source, was built in 19 BC to provide water to the hot baths and the fountains of central Rome. Embedded into the façade of Pallazo Poli, the fountain is embellished with a handful of fine sculptures. In the center is the statue of Oceanus, the Roman God of the Sea, standing under a triumphal arch. Two sea horses, one wild and one docile to represent the opposing moods of the sea, are pulling his shell chariot. Leading them are two Tritons, one whistling on a shell as if to announce their arrival. I am interrupted from my contemplation by an affectionate couple who wants their photo taken, and I happily oblige. Behind them are people throwing coins over their shoulders into the fountain. Legend says that tossing a coin will guarantee your return to Rome, and if you toss a second coin, you will fall in love with an Italian. I sit on a cold stone bench for hours and wait for the crowds to vanish into the early evening shadows before grabbing a few coins from my pocket. While a couple of days may be enough to peek into the main attractions and the Roman way of life, I certainly wouldn’t mind returning to a historic city that has been perfecting beauty and the arts since the ancient times.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

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fountain near the Spanish Steps

fountain near the Spanish Steps

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when in Rome, eat like a Roman (or a Gladiator)

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you can’t go wrong with Pasta when you are in Italy

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

The Louvre, Paris

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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The Eiffel Tower, Paris

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 vvPhp 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.

IMG_3068

IMG_3060

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.

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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

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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 tiyulaitum (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