Friday, November 7, 2008

Negros Occidental

Negros Occidental: Sweeter than sweet

This writer thought there was little else to Negros Occidental than sugar canes. A familiarization tour a few weeks ago changed that. In fact, the provincial government wants to market it as just a short hop from Bohol, famed for its superb beaches. Negros is the country's fourth largest island, made up of Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. The latter is also known as ecotourist haven with wonders like Apo Island in Dumaguete.

A tour of Negros Occidental begins with Bacolod, the provincial capital, a flat landscape more than a towering city, that closely resembles a sprawling village. Lacson and Araneta Streets, the city's two main thoroughfares, host many of the city's must-sees.

Our guide, Lilibeth Cordova, said that a number of edifices in Bacolod date back to American period. The Provincial Capitol, for instance, resembles the columned architecture of the Central Post Office in Manila. Near the city's main routes lie a lovely lagoon and park, a wildlife sanctuary called the Negros Forest Ecological Foundation, and the Negros Showroom, renowned for its first-class souvenir and handicrafts items.

Not far from the Capitol is the Negros Museum where one learns that the province's bloodless uprising against the Spaniards made it actually the first ever People Power revolution, and that it was the site of a short-lived republic before the Americans came.

But the museum's main attraction is a doll collection donated by Mara Montelibano, a Negrense who spent most of her life overseas. The dolls represented the many countries she visited, and the Marushka dolls from Russia were clearly the most captivating of the lot.

North of Bacolod lies Sta. Clara Subdivision, home to the province's VIPs. What makes this residential community unique is its chapel, made up mostly of seashells. Designed by Nena Ledesma, 95,000 pieces of shells adorn the sliding doors, chandelier, framed portraits of the Stations of the Cross and the altar. The altar's backdrop was just as eye-catching, which showed a Madonna and child blessing a coastal village.

Even as we feasted on art and sights, we also feasted on the literal kind-the sweet delicacies of the province including the buttery biscotti-like biscocho, merengue and baked muffins, all of which are favorite pasalubong, or items to bring home.

The scenic northern Negros coastline

Heading north, the sight of sugar canes was endless. We passed by a milling company at Victoria's City, with our guide saying that about 5,000 sugar canes are processed each day. An old locomotive nicknamed Iron Dinosaur was on display, a reminder of the time when locals rode the train to travel around Negros.

Within the Victoria's Milling Corporation compound is another church named in honor of St. Joseph the Worker. The focal point of the church is Alfonso Ossorio's painting of an angry Christ facing the altar-certainly an image of Christ we see very little of. The other walls were painted with Byzantine-inspired saints.

Next to Victoria's is the city of Silas, home to at least 30 Vigan-styled abodes, large stone houses with designs dating back to the Spanish era. The most singular of these is the former residence Don Victor Gaston, a prominent landowner or hacendero. It now stands as a Balay Negrense Museum.

Our coastal trip reached as far as Sagay, where the Carbin Reef can be found. There are coral reefs for snorkelers but frolicking along the S-shaped, white sandbar is rewarding enough. The watchtower, which is about 100 meters away, offers a panoramic view of the sandbar.

We briefly stopped by Cadiz to buy the town's dried produce such as fish tocino, preserved in a sweetish marinade; fish bones (locally known as "Jurassic"); and bundles of stick fishes. A stopover in Manapla allowed us to savor the tastiest putos or rice muffins.

Reach for the falls

Mount Kanlaon, one of the numerous active volcanoes in the Philippines, lies southeast of Bacolod. Near the base of the volcano is Mambukal Resort.

Located in the city of Murcia, Mambukal is less than 300 meters above sea level. First discovered as an area of hot, sulfur springs and boiling mud, Japanese architect Ishitawa first developed the resort as a bathhouse and picnic garden. Now operated by the provincial government, recreational facilities such as swimming pools were added to the 23.6-hectare resort for visitors to enjoy.

The area boasts of seven nameless waterfalls, referred to by locals only as the first waterfall, the second waterfall, and so on. They gush from heights of 12 to 25 meters not far from the resort amenities and are best enjoyed by the athletic and adventurous. The challenge is to climb up the steep, narrow stairway close to the waterfalls and the streams in between.

Tropical foliage including trees, flowering plants and ferns surrounded the scenery. It took us about half an hour to reach the sixth falls. It was all the tourist group I was with could take. We couldn't bear another 30 minutes of trekking-at least-to get to the seventh. We were exhausted.

It was late afternoon when we sought the nearest sulfur spring to soothe our exhausted bodies. As we sank into the waters, a multitude of fruit bats awoke from their slumber, and flew out of the surrounding trees. They circled above us, a truly awesome sight.

(First published in What's On & Expat on April 3-9, 2005)

Bicol region

From steaming volcanoes to swimming with whale sharks

Mention the Bicol Region and the first image that comes to mind is Mayon Volcano. It may be a postcard cliché and the region may have plenty of other sights and destinations to boast of, but the volcano, perfectly symmetrical and perfectly active, remains the mother of all tourist attractions.

Few people know that Bicol, located at the southeastern tip of Luzon, the most prominent isle in the Philippines, is a chain of volcanic cones. During pre-Spanish times, three volcanoes, namely Labo (in the province of Camarines Norte), Aso (popularly known as Iriga, in Camarines Sur) and Bulusan (in Sorsogon) took turns with their eruptions. Mayon came into the picture when these peaks became extinct.

The first recorded accounts of Mayon's eruption were made by the Franciscan priests during the 18th century. Its most destructive explosion occurred in February 1814, when clouds of volcanic gas and waves of mud and lava destroyed the town of Cagsawa, about 16 kilometers away. More than 1,200 lives were lost. What remained was the church's bell tower and a few stone roofs, visible to this day and nearly as postcard-famous as the volcano itself.

Today there are on-site amenities like cottages, swimming pools and a resting shed where tourists can gawk at Mayon and perhaps think about how enraged it was hundreds of years ago.

Rising up to 7,943 feet (2,421 meters), Mayon is a superb example of what geologists call a stratovolcano. Its slopes were built up of layers (strata) of lava alternating with layers of ejected cinders and other materials. Such structure results in a graceful, symmetrical slope. Before sunrise is perhaps the best time to see the world-famed volcano-with its majestic form and its glowing crater puffing steam. I glimpsed it aboard a bus at Iriga. The sight was breathtaking.

In the buried town of Cagsawa, I explored the path that led to the submerged stone houses, as other tourists posed for pictures beside the belfry. The sky was clear enough for early visitors to gape at the volcano's beautiful symmetry but it was short lived, as clouds gradually covered the volcano.

The view from mid-peak

It takes an hour and a half of traveling along cemented roads to reach mid-peak. At the end of the snaked path, facilities set up for visitors were in spotty condition: an abandoned building, a soon-to-be-opened planetarium, a grotto and a park. The place also crawled with kids begging for alms.

The semi-circular mini-park and playground was a consolation. From that vantage point, we marveled at the Albay coastline and two mountains in the horizon, Mt. Masaraga and Mt. Malinao. A row of cottony clouds encircled the park minutes later.

Except for the open park, the grotto was the facility open to the public. It was filled with religious statues with ornamental plants adorning the area. In the middle of the grotto was a huge, white cross, imposing enough to rival the volcano above it. Nearby, locals sold bonsai plants.

Even in the city proper, Mayon's presence loomed as we checked the various abaca or hemp products at the local market or ducked into Legaspi's lone department store.

Come on in, the water's fine

While Mayon is the region's top tourist banana, there's another reason for making the 12-hour trip to Bicol. An hour and a half-hour drive from Legaspi is the municipality of Donsol. In 1997, the whale sharks that make Donsol's coastline their home was turned into a major eco-tourist attraction and enlivened this sleepy fishing town.

Locally known as a butanding (Rhincodon typus), so-called whale sharks are the world's biggest fish. They're marked by pale spots and stripes on its gray body. It feeds on planktons and other microscopic life forms that abound in the waters of Donsol. Butandings are an integral part of the sea's eco-system and a healthy indicator of the aquatic environment.

It was a humid morning when we arrived at Donsol Tourism Office. We filled up a form to assess our swimming abilities and paid for the boat and services of a local known as the Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). Moments later, I was in the motorboat with Algie, Charlotte, Eric, Joseph, KM and Lala, friends from college and career out-of-towners who block off their weekends and holidays to explore the country.

That morning, we were lucky. We sighted two butandings, magnificent and whale-like, they measured about 25 feet in length and 10 feet wide.

The fun part is actually swimming with these hulking creatures. Your designated Butanding Action Officer makes sure the activity is safe and memorable. I tried to do so myself but swimming isn't my strongest point so I ended up swallowing seawater. My friends, though, managed to catch a sight of them underwater.

According to our BIO named Leo, the best time to see butandings is at 8 AM when there aren't many boats around. Whale sharks turn reclusive during low tide or when there are too many people swimming in their waters. Leo added that manta rays and dolphins are found in Donsol too. Although there are real sharks, they're spooked by butandings.

For those who don't want to get wet, there are lots of other things to do aside from swimming with the butanding. The sight of Mayon and Bulusan volcanoes can be appreciated from the shores of Donsol, as are isles belonging to Masbate region.

One can also visit Nahulugan Falls, which is a few hours away, as well as a mangrove forest close to Donsol Bay, where the twinkling of the fireflies at night can be a spectacle. The town also commemorates whale sharks with the Butanding Festival, held between January and March. Originally called the Arriba Festival, the word by which locals herald the arrival of butandings in Donsol, the event is highlighted by fluvial parade of life-size butandings and other sea species like the turtle.

If you want to make the trip to Bicol, Legaspi City has a number of cozy accommodations, such as the Villa Angelina. Located a few blocks away from the Legaspi Plaza, this four-storey hotel boasts of quaint dining room, cozy bedrooms and classy bathrooms. Prices are reasonable.

So these days, Bicol is no longer known as just the land of fire. Its water destinations guarantee tourists the best of elemental delights.

(First published in What's On & Expat on March 13-19, 2005)

Los Baños Forest Club

Paradise around the corner

Who would ever think that a rice field could be a tourist attraction? The late Antonio Mercado apparently did when he began building the Los Baños Forest Club at Bay, Laguna in the nineties.

The place is located between barangays Puypuy and Masaya in Bay, Laguna, about two hours drive from Metro Manila. Despite its proximity to the city, this pocket paradise has been a well-kept secret for years, just like Laguna’s other concealed wonder, the Hidden Valley in Alaminos.

“My father was advised to take it easy after a quintuple bypass so he transformed this patch of rice field into a place where he can retreat and rest,” recalled Robbi Mercado, Antonio’s son and managing director of ARM Holding Inc., of which the Forest Club is a division. But as most good secrets go, this one couldn’t stay hush-hush for long.

Today, the club is open as a venue for corporate seminars and spiritual retreats.

Undoubtedly, the best feature of this two-and-a-half hectare club is the awesome sight of the Calauan mountain range. If the day is bright enough, visitors can even get a glimpse of Mount Banahaw. The sight of mountains soothes the weary soul.

Close to the entrance are recreation facilities such as a swimming pool that uses water from the hot springs. A two-story conference hall is intended for groups doing team-building activities.

There is also dining hall nearby that accommodates 100 people. With fare consisting of meat and mountains of vegetables during our visit, I did not hear any of the guests complaining.

Finally, less than 100 meters away are cottages where the balcony is conducive to meditation.

Before reaching the paddies, visitors can linger by the lagoon and open hut where they can view the sunrise and sunset, times when the spot can be most enchanting.

What remains of the rice paddies are today lined with walkways. Inspired by the Garden of Monet in Paris, the elderly Mercado covered the walkways with arched trellises and adorned them with gumamela flowers. What better way to enjoy the scenery than to stroll under it?

All around, the club teems with indigenous trees such as narra and palms, of which Antonio Mercado was fond. Some trees have been labeled to educate visitors.

Such thought to visitors are similarly given in privacy and space considerations. So if you think Laguna has nothing more to offer beyond the hot springs, check the Forest Club and change your mind.

(First published in Manila Times on January 14, 2005)


The waters of Caraga

The weather is the most unique feature of Caraga, the grouping of four provinces in northeastern Mindanao. There is no dry or wet season here, and you can't tell when there'll be a sudden rainfall. In Agusan del Sur, for example, a day isn't complete without a downpour or drizzle; so predictable is the rainfall that local claim that their climate is either wet or very wet. Caraga is also where two popular water attractions in the Philippines, Siargao, the so-called surfing capital of the country, and the Agusan marsh, known for its rich biodiversity, are found.

Travel south from the Surigao capitol and you'll come upon the Iron Mountain. It lies close to the Surigao del Norte-Surigao del Sur boundary and is nearly a thousand meters high and covered with pine trees, ironwood (magkono) and poyospos trees, whose flowers smell like the sweetest perfume. The view from the mountain affords a vista of some islands in the Pacific side of the province.

Surigao del Sur has numerous islets lined up close to its coastline, much like Pangasinan's Hundred Islands. Among them is Turtle Island in the municipality of Barobo, which has an outline akin to a turtle. A number of the islands, too, have features similar to Bohol's Chocolate Hills, like the Britannia Islets in San Agustin town. Twenty-for of these semi-spherical mounds are found there but only 11 are surrounded by water and powdery white sands.

Up north in Surigao del Norte is an unusual coast. The Filipinos' common conception of an enticing beach is blue sea and white sand. In Barangay Mabua, about a few kilometers away from the Surigao City proper is a kilometer-long tranquil beach line with round stones.

One of the most spectacular sights in Caraga can be found at the top of a small mountain beside a town named Jabonga in Agusan del Norte province. It's most famous body of water is Lake Mainit, the fourth largest lake in the country. It is surrounded by the gorgeous peaks of Hibok-Hibok volcano and the serene Butuan Bay. To one side is the lake's outlet, Kalinawan River.

Is it any surprise then that the town festivals would revolve around water? The Kaliguan festival is celebrated in Cagwait town every June in honor of St. John the Baptist; here, visitors get an unwelcome drenching at the shore of its U-shaped beach. The only way out the of the ritual is if you willingly jump into the beach's water first.

In Prosperidad, the provincial capital of Agusan del Sur, is the Gibong River. The river is bounded on two sides by two small mountains, and in some parts jagged walls covered by an overgrowth of plants and trees. It is thought that Gibong could have been an underground river whose cave ceiling collapsed millions of years before. In fact, at one part of the river remains partly submerged entrance to an underwater cave.

A short boat ride down the river leads to Binaba Falls, a 200-foot waterfall which cascades down a small mountain slope. Its source is three underground creeks, one of which has now sadly been blocked by the construction of concrete stairs which were thought to help tourism in the area. What is left is a moist, almost barren, slope where cool waters used to run down.

In the nearby municipality of San Francisco is also a source of local lore that has its basis in healing waters. Here rests the uncorrupted remains of Datu Anawa Kalipay, a “baylan” (mystic healer). It is said that when he was still alive, he datu used his special powers when he performed his rituals in the cave that bears his name. The cave is described to be generally wet and includes a water-sealed chamber, an underground creek and strange rock formations. It is said to be especially potent during Holy Week.

Located near the southernmost part of Surigao del Sur, at the end of a rocky and bumpy road is a town named Bislig, and the widest waterfalls in Mindanao, Tinuy-an Falls. Local residents call it the Niagara Falls of the Philippines. It's actually four waterfalls, the longest being 45 feet high; it is said to be the only place where you can actually predict the appearance of a rainbow (Tinuy-an's appears at around 9:00 to 11:00 AM).

Even the most plain-looking terrain can offer a few surprises, like the road in Barangay Makiangkiang in Bayugan, Agusan del Sur. It is rocky, tedious and quite similar to any other dirt road in the Philippine provinces...until the road opens up to rows of anthuriums, a variety of cutflowers, white wildflowers and assorted orchids on endless beds of fine grass. A small waterfall accentuate the loveliness of the place. It was totally untended and unknown, but today, not unappreciated.

(First published in Men's Zone Weekend Warriors on September 2004)

Jabonga, Agusan del Norte

Check out Jabonga! A haven for the ecotourist

Mark my words: Jabonga, Agusan del Norte will be the next biggest ecotourist destination in the Philippines. The nature lover is just beginning to discover this treasure in the Caraga region, and a lot of surprises await him.

Clear blue waters and a landscape rich in gentle slopes and abundant greens surrounds the town of Jabonga. Not far from the municipality is a handsome mountain, which provides a panoramic view of Lake Mainit, the third largest freshwater lake in the country. If mountaineering is not your thing, then a week-end drive along the national highway will also give you a splendid view of the lake. Either way, you will agree with me when I say that the picture you will see is truly breathtaking.

Endless natural wonders

In my recent trek up the mountain of Jabonga, every turn I made showed me one awesome sight to another.

From the one spot where I stood, the lush peaks looked like graceful eyelashes from below. And as I turned a little to my right, another stunning view met my eye: The snake-like Calinawan River that settled boldly below the slopes.

To my left were more natural wonders to see: The Butuan Bay and Camiguin’s Hibok-Hibok Volcano in the distant background. I thought then and there that Tagaytay’s view from its highest point—the Taal Lake and Volcano, specks of the Batangas countryside and Laguna de Bay in the distance—paled in comparison to what I saw.

One of the mountains encircling Lake Mainit is the 1,850 meter high Mabaho, which is one of the tallest peaks in Caraga. Moreover, it is in this elevated region that Caraga’s endemic species (the Philippine Eagle among them) can be found.

The clouds were fun to watch too. At one moment, they billowed like waves above the towering peaks. Everything looked so peaceful, so calm, from up there.

A trip to town

After the exhilarating nature trip, my host, Jabonga’s boyish-looking mayor Lolong Monton, took me to the town hall for refreshments. More sight seeing followed at the nearby parish church. The religious edifice, I was told, is the town’s most prominent landmark.

Our Lady of the Assumption Church is the oldest surviving church in Caraga. The Augustinian Recollect Friars built it in 1622, but the structure was eventually damaged in a fire. In 1878, the Jesuits rebuilt the Church using 14 types of hardwood, including narra, mangcono, tugas and bayong. Today, you will see an impressive altar made of 25 centimeter thick molave slabs. The beams and points are even thicker and are as hard as rock.

Beside the Church, meanwhile, is the municipal museum, housing artifacts that back to 1007 AD. The pieces, attest to a trade between Agusan del Norte and China and Vietnam.

In the end, I was sad to leave the picturesque town and the lakes and hills of Jabonga. But luck was on my side when I boarded the Super Ferry. It was a beautiful night, and although there was not a star in the sky, lights from the lower lands of Jabonga shone from afar. I could almost make out the beauty that lay behind them.

(First published in Manila Times on September 24, 2004)


Gaga over green in Bohol

The green water, the woods, the verdant hills. They all come to life in Bohol.

This southern isle is blessed with an eclectic range of both natural and man-made attractions, but the color green is what makes Bohol extra special. It’s everywhere in this part of the Visayas.

The Chocolate Hills may be “sweet” for their brown hue, but I felt lucky that I saw them green in our recent visit. The color made the famed natural wonder look fresh and vigorous, a breathtaking sight that made climbing the hills’ 213-step stairway less daunting and tiring.

Just as captivating are Bohol’s other sights.

The mahogany forest, which is situated between the municipalities of Loboc and Bilar, looks every bit a slice of the Middle Earth that Peter Jackson created for his screen adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Its waterfalls, particularly Mag-aso in Anteguerra, are a flowing veil of emerald green, the same luminous green water that makes Loboc River so enchanting. And the whiteness of Balicasag’s beaches set against the greenness of the island’s lush vegetation paints a balance of hues that beggars description.

I tell you, these visions of green during my trip to Bohol emptied my mind of all other thoughts. It is true what they say about the relaxing effects of the color of trees!

But the province itself has a colorful past as evidenced by its centuries-old churches and the must-see Blood Compact Shrine.

In Bohol, a visitor cannot help but to be in awe. It’s beauty does not fade when the sun comes down, the sea darkens, the sky turns to evening and the stars begin to twinkle. Bohol is green and gorgeous, night or day.

(First published in Manila Times on July 9, 2004)

Cebu City

View from Tops

Cebu City reeks of history but on a higher level, the metropolis has a different, attractive look. That’s what I found out while on top of Tops.

Our guide, Val Alonzo, must have read my mind when I kept on looking at the mountain range not far away while we encircled the city to view the historical sites. He mentioned about the viewing site called Tops, adding that three-fourths of Cebu City comprises the elevated terrain that gives the capital a glorious look.

It was a sunny but humid afternoon when my mother, Aunt Lily and I went to Tops. I must’ve been obsessed about that place because I didn’t keep track of how long we traveled. Rows upon rows of stores, countless houses, trees—the sights came in rapid succession and were left behind just as rapidly. Even Beverly Hills where the eye-catching Taoist Temple stands offered just a momentary distraction. However, a plant piqued my curiosity.

I asked the taxi driver about the name of the plant which we spotted in clumps. Its gumamela-like flowers were pointing downward. He was clueless. Even the other Cebuanos I asked after the trip had no idea. It was only in Bohol, a few days later, when I learned that catchubong is what abounds in Busay Hills.

It was the sight of that odd flower that made me realize that the taxi we were riding was lost in a snake-like track up above. We caught a glimpse of Cebu City from time to time, but it wasn’t long before we arrived at our destination. All it took was P150 (P50 per head) to give us a satisfying traveling experience.

The view was undoubtedly breathtaking, but it was the semi-circular structure that grabbed my attention right away. A passage from a book I read not long ago crossed my mind: “A perfectly round line, no beginning, no end, no deviation. If expanded infinitely, it would become the universe.”

Walking through the circular pathway of the resting shed was like being transported to another dimension. The shed’s stony arches had a resemblance to the megaliths (standing stones) in Europe. They evoked an aura of mystery. At the tip of Tops, the world revolves around Cebu City, neighboring Mandaue and nearby Mactan Island. With the surrounding mountains and sea, it felt like eternity—and a day.

I was busy clicking my camera when I came across a “friendship bell,” which could also be found on top of one of the Chocolate Hills. I didn’t bother to comprehend the instructions inscribed, but it made me wonder about its significance. For socializing perhaps?

The sun was about to be submerged in the sea when we left. Val advised us to stay longer to witness a different nighttime view. It didn’t matter to us though. Passing through the old landmarks once more indicated that our trip had come full circle.

(First published in Manila Times on June 25, 2004)

San Agustin, Surigao del Sur

Islets of beauty and delight

There’s a site down south called The Untold Islands that need to be told to everyone. Those who think that Pangasinan’s Hundred Islands are one of a kind are in for a surprise when they set their eyes on the islets of Britannia.

Our sojourn to Britannia took roughly four hours, but I unfortunately forgot to ask the origin of the name during that time. My forgetfulness was due to being constantly distracted by the fascinating sights, but it did cross my mind that Britannia rhymes with (Encyclopedia) Britannica.

Britannia is one of the many barangays of San Agustin, a municipality located in the central region of Surigao del Sur. This province in eastern Mindanao is gifted with isles of various sizes along its coastal area but the ones in Britannia are the most enticing.

There are 24 islets in existence but only 11 remain surrounded by the waters of the open sea. Some of them are semi-spherical in shape and have a slight resemblance to Bohol’s Chocolate Hills. A number of them are partly surrounded with white sands that glisten under the bright sun. However, we weren’t able to appreciate that view at first because dark clouds hovered above the islets when we arrived.

Provincial Tourism Officer Clara Ambray and Mercy Alameda, wife of San Agustin Mayor Manuel O. Alameda, opted to stay in the mainland while our group of five—guide Ace Orcullo, Bong Luna, Kim Mantilla, his friend and I—set off to our destination. I imagined what it’s like to set foot on that patch of white sand in the distant background while our boat plowed through the bluish-green sea but it turned out that our first stop was Boslon, the largest islet in the group.

Its beach may be less than 100 meters in length but walking on it felt heavenly—the sand was fine and powdered and the drizzle transformed its hue to cream. It was quite crowded with a few boats on the shore and locals frolicking or lazing around.

On the rightmost side of the beach was a grotto with the statue of the Virgin Mary. I was unable to go near it because a small circle of people on the other end distracted us. We found out that they were fussing over a mound of small sea urchins that were just picked up from the sea. A fraction of the urchins were ripped open. We didn’t get the chance to find out how its meat tastes like because Ace pointed us to a pile of boulder-sized corals a few meters away. There was a narrow passage in the middle of it, where we squeezed our bodies a bit for a few minutes to able to set foot on the opposite side of Boslon.

I preferred this side of the islet, as a couple of other islets are not more than 200 meters away. They’re called Panlangagan. The mass of white sand—known as “Naked Islet”—can be seen better. It’s not the farthest from the Surigao mainland as I first thought, as Ace pointed his left forefinger to another islet a few kilometers to the left of Boslon. It seemed as big as Naked Islet but has vegetation in the middle. It’s called Bonbon, which is privately owned.

I was starting to enjoy the scenery when we noticed a few locals staring at us. They thought that some of us were Japanese tourists. There wasn’t enough time to reflect on that remark because we detected a lean, semi-circular path that connects Boslon to one of the Panlangagan islets. No one has an idea how long it is but our guide told us that it can be crossed during low tide and it’s during those moments that adventurous souls can explore Panlangagan. There is no white sand to look forward to but there’s a cave beneath the thick vegetation.

Our next stop was Isla Verde, which was located a few hundred meters northwest of Boslon. Among the vegetated islets, Isla Verde seems to have the longest stretch of beach (about 150 meters). Curiously, there were no visitors around when we arrived. Just like Boslon, Isla Verde offers a lovely view of the other islets and the mountainous Surigao terrain. To the left, I noticed an islet with a house, and I pointed this out to Ace. He said that it’s called Panas, but we couldn’t drop by anymore because it was nearly lunchtime.

The weather turned sunny when we returned to the small fishing village. We feasted on kiwali and alimasag while admiring the islets from afar. The low tide exposed about 200 meters of muddied sand, which complemented the view while the irregular-shaped clouds made a perfect backdrop. I thought that we would call it a day but our itinerary wasn’t over yet.

We went to that coastal area where the islets no longer surrounded by seawater are located. Hidden within these lush surroundings is Davisol. Stone-carved structures made this community quite attractive. It looked like it was being developed as another tourist destination in San Agustin—there was a huge, rectangular-shaped hollow that could be a swimming pool in the near future. It was siesta time when we arrived there, which might be the reason why there were hardly any locals around to entertain us.

I headed toward a hill about 150 meters in height and that has a wooden house on its summit. The rest of the group declined to join me since they were already tired. Ma’am Lala offered me her hat to shield my slightly sunburned face. She brought me to a middle-aged man who would guide me on my way up. It was amusing that he neither talks nor understands Tagalog while I was still struggling to comprehend Bisaya. What we have in common was the dusty trail ahead of us.

I simply followed my guide as we slowly made our winding ascent to the top. Athletic bodies would take 15 to 20 minutes to reach the house but in my case, it was nearly twice as long. Hiking up wasn’t very difficult but the view below made me pause a number of times. I gazed around slowly after we made it.

The scenery was spectacular: the Britannia islets can be appreciated a lot more from the top. My only disappointment was that Naked Islet turned out to be a small patch of sand after all. The house was a resting hut for visitors and I stayed inside for a minute only, as I found out that the entire landscape below could be viewed better by standing on the rocky gate that surrounded the hut. It was quite risky taking photos while maintaining my balance and not letting the gusty winds knock me off.

I thought of lying inside the hut after I was done taking pictures but I sensed that my guide didn’t like to stay long. The descent was quicker and afterwards I declined an invitation from Ma’am Clara to visit a lanky house a few meters away from the hill. I wanted my sightseeing at the top of the hill to be my last image of my visit to Britannia.

It was “Next time!” instead of “Goodbye!” when we left the premises of San Agustin. We didn’t do any more swimming or islet-hopping—we’ll do all of that on our next visit.

(First published in Manila Times on November 13, 2003)

Agusan del Sur

Exploring Agusan del Sur

Agusan del Sur won’t elicit a second glance as one passes along the National Highway. All there is to see are kilometers of rice fields, numerous rivers and lush mountain ranges. However, the sight of both the toog and falcata, both found in that region only, is hard to ignore.

Then you’ll encounter a “Skylab,” which is what locals refer to a motorcycle with a wooden, rectangular board as long as the vehicle itself attached to both sides. It’s impossible not to get your eyes off passengers sitting on those boards. Then you’ll realize that Mindanao’s largest province is worth exploring.

A journey along Agusan’s subsidiary rivers brought me to a young Manobo lass who has a small flower bud pursed between her lips. In their custom, it means she’s the most beautiful. At a slope near the Bayugan Poblacion lies Barangay Makiangkang, with a climate as cool as the Cordillera Region. The place abounds with attractive anthuriums, orchids and other eye-catching ornamental plants. Its gorgeousness is accentuated by the presence of a small, man-made falls.

There’s more but I didn’t have enough time to explore further. Of my many recent journeys there, three struck me as both unusual and memorable.

Time travel

Gibong River in the municipal capital of Prosperidad is a tranquil, brown-hued body of water hugged by two-short mountain ranges. The sides aren’t sloped, but more cliff-like with stalactites partly covered by plants. The river also has a number of small rocky islets.

Chito Indias theorized that Gibong could have been a huge underground river eons ago whose ceiling collapsed when the water receded. He pointed a cave about halfway from where we departed. It is nearly submerged but when the water level is low, daring souls can enter it and explore the mountain’s interior.

We were on our way to Binaba Falls, which he recalled to be a magnificent site when he first set eyes on it a decade ago. It cascaded down a small mountain slope. Coming from three underground creeks. It is nearly 200 feet long. Chito’s wife, Jean, fondly remembered how she and her friends bathed there when they were young.

A pool and concrete stairs were built to make the spot more accessible to visitors. Unfortunately, it affected the flow of one of the creeks such that it lessened the width of the falls. When our baroto (a local term for boat) arrived , the couple showed me a moist, almost barren slope where the cool water used to run.

Visitors won’t be able to appreciate the beauty of Binaba Falls from a distance because it is partly covered by trees. After docking, we climbed 116 steps–water from the falls run down the part of the stairs closest to the river. We hiked a few meters to the left of the falls’ topmost point to be able to reach the pool, which is abandoned and is slimy green in color. I imagined how fascinating the pool was when it was cleaner and there were eating sheds besides. Chito showed me one of the creeks and its source, which is within the mountain.

After lunch, we walked back to the falls and then hiked about 150 meters further to the right to set foot on a clearing where there were man-made pools that cultivate carp and tilapia. The owner treated us to a local brand of puto while a turkey slowly walked around nearby. The thick vegetation camouflaged both this clearing and pool, as they can’t be seen from below.

There are plans to reclaim the original look of Binaba Falls. One of the creeks may be redirected to join the other two. The present condition of the site is a shadow of Laguna’s Hidden Valley. A little makeover is what the place needs to make the falls very attractive again.

Exploring Azpetia

Our adventure didn’t end at Gibong, as Chito took me to Azpetia, a barangay in Prosperidad, the following day. Both of us went there to see a hot spring. We walked through several kilometers of rice fields to reach it. Its curious feature is that this is a place where seawater and fresh water meet. No one had any idea how it could be possible as the Pacific Ocean is nearly 100 kilometers away.

The spring is located in a rice field. It has dead trees and plants floating in it. Chito checked the water’s temperature and found it to be lukewarm. An old farmer remembered the field to be a forest not long ago and all kinds of birds took a bath in the pond. Life was sucked out of it when the area began to be cultivated.

Not far from the pond is a small mountain range. A young lad and Aniseto (our Azpetia guide) led Chito and I to a cave that is found there. Aniseto led the way, as he brought along an “itak” (machete) to chop off the plants and woods that blocked our path. We entered the first opening they located underneath but we backed out after finding out that stalactites made the path too small for us to go through. We retraced our steps and returned to the rice fields. I thought we were through until our guide led us to a steep slope to climb. Another opening is found near the top.

He was successful this time and we entered after a few minutes rest. It was my first time to explore a cave and I struggled to walk inside, as I had no headlight to see in the dark with. The path we tread was muddy and my rubber shoes nearly got stuck a number of times. Sounds of a flying creature coming close to my face made me a bit scared but Chito assured me that it was a sparrow and that a number of them lived inside.

The cave gradually becomes smaller as we walked further. Chito was kind enough to point his flashlight at the ceiling to show me the sparrow’s nest. It was about 200 meters from the opening when we began to crawl our way in. I surprised myself when I managed to pass through some narrow passages (I’m slightly overweight). I’m an adventurous spirit but I’m ashamed to admit that I was relieved when he told us that we couldn’t go on further because the path was too small and difficult to pass through.

Sliding down the slope was easier than climbing down. The small pool at the base washed off the dirt in my legs and soothed the blisters as well. We went back to the poblacion at lunchtime. After the meal, Aniseto told us about a waterfall located not far from the cave we explored. I was too tired from our visit to the pond and cave so I declined.

Both the pond and the cave are virtually unknown outside of Azpetia. Both the cave and the falls don’t have a name yet. Who knows how many unknown spots can be found there and in other parts of Prosperidad as well? Chito’s zest for discovering these places was infectious and I’m hoping for another adventure with him when another chance comes.

The strange case of a dead datu

Mount Durian in the neighboring municipality of San Francisco is where the remains of Datu Anawa Kalipay are found. Juancho Vicente told me that the datu is a baylan (Manobo priest) and that he was known for his generosity in his locality of Barangay Lucac. He died in his 120s. Many good things were said about him but what many people might remember him most is what happened after his death 4 years ago–his body hasn’t decomposed yet.

We hiked a hard-soiled path frequently passed by carabaos and some locals. We got lost twice, which Mang Jeffrey jokingly blamed on his being engrossed in our conversations. Our journey hasn’t reached the half point yet but we were already depleted of our water supply. We strayed away from our path once to descend towards a nearby stream.

Slightly below the road, we rested for a bit underneath huge trees, ate the food we brought and drank the cool water from the stream. We resumed our trekking afterwards and we climbed Durian, which is a few hundred feet in height. It took us about two and a half hours to reach our destination. Juancho estimated our trek to be six kilometers.

We arrived at a small clearing with limestones and what looked like rice plants with red or yellow flowers. A bahay kubo (native hut) stood amid it and only the datu’s grandson was around. He told us that the rest of his kin went to the poblacion to buy some things for their forthcoming annual ritual. After a brief rest, he led us to another bahay kubo a few meters away. The same limestones and colorful rice plants are found there but this one was distinguished with a small toog and marang trees guarding the entrance and a wooden fence surrounding the kubo. It was the datu’s mausoleum.

Its external features were curious enough to look at. The table and upper part of the wooden seats (where visitors can relax) are triangular in shape. An offering tray hangs above, which is shaped like a chicken’s body and has fowl feathers attached to it. Christmas silver linings shaped like a heart and a triangle hang on the door and window, respectively. Both the door and the windows were locked. One of the datu’s children has the key and she was among those who went to town but his grandson instructed me to climb up in able to position my face on the narrow opening between the roof and window where I can view the body a few meters away.

A white-linen cloth covered it and a triangular-shaped wire fence protected the body. He said that it keeps off the rats, which chewed off a bit of the datu’s left cheek. I didn’t detect any rotten smell, which happens when a body is on a state of decomposition. Below the floor where the datu’s body lay were his wife’s remains. She died around 90 to 100 years old and her body hasn’t decomposed too. It’s also cloth-covered and wire-protected. The young man said that it was his grandfather who chose the site and how the kubo should looked like.

The triangle is a symbol of power in olden times and it’s known in Lucac that Anawa Kalipay had special powers. He performed his rituals in a cave named after him. It’s described to be wet and its special features include a water-sealed chamber, an underground creek and weird rock formations (according to Juancho who had been there many times). The family goes and stays in that cave every Holy Week.

No one can explain the phenomenon yet but the Datu Anawa Kalipay Cave, the datu and his wife’s bodies are all being tapped as potential tourist spots of San Francisco. It is a strange case, and curiosity will be its drawing power. I expect more than a horde to be piqued by it. I was one of those.

(First published in Manila Times on August 22, 2003)

La Paz, Agusan del Sur

The lumbia of the lake

We embarked on a trip to Lake Motong as early as 16 months ago, but we only made it halfway there because of problems with the boat’s engine.

Some of my companions were convinced that the forces of nature were not in our favor. After all, we had earlier been warned that one of us would not return in the event that we made it there. I was disappointed, but how does one contradict the legend surrounding the lake?

Motong is in the region of La Paz, one of the seven river municipalities of Agusan del Sur. It is said to be enchanted and that there are spirits guarding it.

Consider this: the lumbia tress in the lake – their physical features identical to coconut trees but with a difference: the long leaves of the lumbia point upward - are regularly seen moving. The Manobos living in the area claim that the movements occur if anyone cuts any of the trees or kills any animals without seeking the spirits’ permission. Deaths have reportedly occurred, indicating the ultimate price paid by those who dared hard the lake’s ecosystem.

Our initial setback did not dampen my eagerness to get to Motong, and we made our second attempt one drizzly morning in March. La Paz Mayor Renato Munez kindly drove our group - Tourism Officer Joy Tolentino, her friend Donna, Cesar Allonder, Ali Tabacon and me - to Barangay Panangagan, where our “outboard” (the local term for a boat) waited.

We passed four rivers - Adgawan, Hinayawan, Bubunawan and Tagacupan - before reaching the remote barangays of Langaslian and Angeles, where the lake is located. Along the way, I spotted some white egrets and small birds with a red-colored had and a turquoise-colored body.

The river became narrow and shallow as we neared our destination. The surrounding landscape changed from green plains to small, lush mountains. We reached Motong creek after a voyage that lasted close to three and a half hours, under a glaring sun. I estimated that we traveled around 50-60 kilometers on the river.

We walked barefoot on a rocky creek about 300 meters long. I was slightly uncomfortable but I was pushed to go on by the sound of a waterfall. In time, the sight of Motong Falls made the sunburn on my face, nape and arms more bearable.

We gaped at the waterfall’s beauty. It is about 25 meters high, with green weeds scattered in the shallow area of the pool below.

Suddenly, dark clouds appeared overhead and raindrops fell. I was a bit worried but Joy assured me that we would not have difficulty climbing up. Besides, she said, rain was a good omen, a sign of welcome.

Fortunately, the rain lasted but a few minutes and the dark clouds dispersed.

We took some photos, after which a Manobo accompanying us performed a strange ritual to ensure our safety from mishaps. We stood in front of a deity carved from the branched of a sagay (an itch-causing plant) and before which four lighted candles and a few eggs had been placed. He chanted a prayer, picked up a rooster and waved it at each one of us. Then he slit its throat, let the blood drip on a plate into which he dipped his left forefinger, and made a cross sign on the left foot of each member of the party.

After the ritual, Joy gave Ali and me three 1 peso coins that, she said, we should throw into the lake as an offering.

And then we were ready to go.

We climbed up earthen stairs with a rope to assist, an experience like walking up Banawe’s rice terraces. After about 10 minutes, we found ourselves a few steps away from the tip of the waterfall. Joy said we were standing at the mouth of the lake.

We walked a muddy path of about 200 meters accompanied only by the chirping of a cricket. Joy led the way, saying that the path would take us to a spot with a better view.

There, standing on a floating guiho (wood used for making chopping boards), we saw a profusion of lumbia trees as well as dragonflies colored, red and blue and transparent.

I was a bit startled when Joy pointed to a clump of lumbia a few meters to our right and said that when she and Mayor Munez visited last February 4, the clumb was further to the left.

She said there was a balete tree hidden within the clump. I looked, but didn’t see it.

Soon two bamboo rafts arrived, on which we were to explore the area. We admired the tree-covered mountains surrounding the lake, whose shores are populated with lumbia about 10 meters tall.

According to Joy, Lake Motong is around three kilometers long and about 100 meters wide. The subsidiary creeks are its source, and the waterfall its outlet. It is believed that the lake is deep, but no scuba diver has ever gone down to measure its depth.

Another eye-catching tree is the lanipao - not much leaves but with branches and leaves extending horizontally, resembling parallel lines. We also saw some huge yakal and narra trees. Except for a small slope where the trees had been cut, the rest of the landscape seemed untouched.

It is true that in many rural areas, tranquility is the norm. But in Motong it was unnaturally quiet. We heard nothing but the sound of the oars in motion and the barking of a dog from the lone bahay kubo on the shore.

The stillness made me a bit uneasy, and my mind raced with questions: what lies beneath the surface? What it’s like to spend the night there?

At least those who live in the kubo could answer the last one. One tale often told is that one moonlit evening they heard the rhythmic beat of a drum, which had such a hypnotic effect that it moved them to dance.

Our rafts went as far as a few hundred meters away from the guiho on which we stood. We didn’t venture farther because we didn’t want to be late in returning to Panangagan. On the slow way back, Joy pointed out to me three more clumps of lumbia that are said to move.

By the looks of it, and going by the stories that many will doubtless scoff at, those trees are standing in strategic spots, as though they were guardians of the lake. The mayor has a rational theory to offset the strange stories: the roots of the lumbia are attached to logs underwater, and they movie when the current is strong.

After our descent, we had a quick lunch while the Manobo who earlier performed the ritual chanted a thanksgiving prayer. I caught a last glimpse of the waterfall before we left.

The Manobo people consider Motong a sacred place. On the local government side, a resolution has been passed declaring it a forest reservation and water storage area.

Despite the distance (the road that connects La Paz to the National Highway is 60 kilometers long and the length of the river traverses makes it more than 100 kilometers), the place has the potential to be a tourist attraction. Motong Lake and Falls may be the local counterpart of New Zealand’s deep-blue, bowl-shaped Lake Quill and its outlet, the lofty Sutherland Falls.

There are plans to build some cottages there for visitors who intend to stay longer to enjoy the view and do some fishing. Indeed, a few days’ stay there would make up for the lengthy trip just to view this eerie lake and its splendid falls.

(First published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on August 3, 2003)

Butuan, Agusan del Norte

Butuan's storied past

There’s a hill in Butuan where a huge cross lords over the surrounding trees. It’s facing a mountain range in the distance where an eye-catching, plateau-topped peak stands out from that elevated region. Both the Bood Promontory and Mount Mayapay are prominent sights in Agusan del Norte’s capital. Both also signify the city’s unique attraction to visitors: a glorious past that compensates for its lack of natural wonders.

Is Butuan akin to Mexico’s Indian civilizations that flourished before Hernan Cortes’ arrival? Artifacts that were unearthed seem to point to that comparison; its regional museum’s stored historical and cultural materials prove Butuan’s prehistoric existence.

But it is the balangays that might be Butuan’s biggest claim to pre-Hispanic fame.

These wooden plank-built and edge-pegged boats average 15 meters in length and three meters wide across the beam. Nine have already been discovered in Sitio Ambangan, Barangay Libertad, which is near the Butuan Bay shores. The oldest among those excavated is about 1,650 years while the latest is about 700 years old. The vessels represent the main mean of transportation in our islands thousands of years ago.

History Professor William Henry Scott noted in his treatise called Boat Building and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society that the design of the balangay and its variations were of the same, basic style as the boats of the early Vikings, those Scandinavian seafaring warriors that colonized wide areas of Europe from the 9th to the 11th century. So it doesn’t seem remote to imagine that while our seafaring forefathers were navigating within the warm, tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean in balangay boats, at about the same time in the far, northern region of the Atlantic Ocean, the Vikings were riding around the cold, Scandinavian coastlines on wooden seacraft designed similarly as the balangay.

According to Chinese records (“Song Shi”/Sung History), Filipinos went to China before the Chinese came to our country. It describes Butuan (“Pu-duan”) as a small country in the sea to the east of Champa (South Vietnam), farther than May-I (Mindoro). A record on March 17, 1001 A.D states the arrival of King Quiling to China by means of balangay boats for a trade mission via Champa. A Butuan-China Friendship Arch will soon be erected near the domestic airport to commemorate the tribute mission of the Butuanons to China a millennium ago.

Another historic landmark is Ferdinand Magellan’s staging of the first Catholic Mass in the Philippines but it’s a controversial issue because history books and our government recognize the isle of Limasawa in southern Leyte as the site of the first mass. A priest happens to have a pile of proofs to bolster Butuan’s legitimacy.

Not far from the Agusan River is St. Joseph Cathedral. What would distract the devotees’ pious concentration are framed documents hanging near the entrance door. The writings feature the church’s history but the bulk of it shows scientific evidences that point to Butuan as where Magellan and the rest of the Spanish fleet landed before sailing to Cebu.

Reverend Father Joesilo C. Amalla gave a Mass during one fine Sunday evening and he invited me to the Diocesan Ecclesiastical Museum afterwards, which is located besides the church. A lot of stuff can be written about it, as the museum showcases collections of religious and liturgical arts and materials that were used by religious missionaries in Agusan and Surigao. But it’s Fr. Amalla’s words regarding the First Mass issue that attracted me most. It’s impossible for my sight to wander once he spoke because his pace of talking is fast and he’s more than voluble. For a moment, the priest turned into a scientist pounding off information faster than the speed of light (pun not intended as an offense).

The historical basis for locating the first Easter Mass dates to the diary of Antonio Pigafetta called First Voyage Around the World. Pigafetta was an Italian traveler who joined Magellan’s global voyage and was also among the few survivors who returned to Spain. American scholar James A. Robertson translated the Pigafetta manuscript and there’s a possibility that he made some mistakes because he wasn’t well acquainted with the Philippines. The most glaring of these mistakes is interpreting Mazaua, which Pigafetta and the other members of the crew called the mystery isle, as Limasawa.

Specifically, the following issues being disputed (on why the Mass wasn’t held in Limasawa, Leyte) are: (1) the name itself; (2) the travel time between the places visited before and after Mazaua; (3) the latitude position given by the voyagers; (4) the condition of the voyagers in arriving at the place; and (5) the geographical features of the place as described by those who were there.

An article regarding the issue was written by Sonia Zaide, daughter of historian Dr. Gregorio F. Zaide, published in Starweek Magazine in November 5, 1988. She lengthily discussed those five issues. But it was her father’s admission that a mistake was made in accepting Robertson’s interpretation that proves to be her article’s most revealing fact.

Fr. Amalla added that Limasawa could be passed by if one takes a ferry ride from southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao City. His description, as well as the other locals of Caraga I asked about, is that the isle is rocky and not as fertile as what Pigafetta recounted. On the other hand, the present geography of Mindanao reveals no islands in Butuan Bay. So how could the Agusan capital be the one?

He presented another batch of evidences showing how the landscape of northeastern Mindanao is different 5 centuries ago. It revealed some parts of the Butuan region as islands during the eve of Spanish colonization, gradually integrating to the Mindanao mainland as the century progressed (continental drifting is the scientific term for that). One of these islands is Masao, which fits Pigafetta’s descriptions.

I didn’t find it hard to believe because on a trip to Surigao del Sur, I encountered numerous vegetated hills, a few of them awkwardly located in long stretches of rice fields. A closer look at the lower parts reveals coral-like structures that hint at the possibility that these hills were surrounded by seawater a long time ago. Passing by Dinayhugan Dam in the northern municipality of Carrascal confirmed my hunch. A huge cliff overlooks the dam and the Dinayhugan River. One of the town’s oldest citizens told me a story he heard from his grandfather: the cliff once served as the locals’ fortress against sea-traveling enemies. No need to go near to detect the coral-like features of the cliff.

So what happened to Masao isle after the passing of the centuries? Experts believe that the Bood Promontory, which is not far from the National Highway and facing the lovely view of Mayapay and its neighboring peaks, could be the present site where Magellan staged the first Easter Mass. A cross approximately close to 7.5 meters in height was erected there and a park is being added as well, which is near completion.

As for Masao, it turns out to be an idyllic barangay by the seaside many kilometers away from the historic hilltop. Its small grandstand has sketches of Magellan’s landing and Easter celebration. The beach may not be blazing in sparkling whiteness but there’s a gorgeous view of Agusan’s mountain range on the right and Camiguin Island’s Hibok-Hibok Volcano on the left.

During the recent anniversary celebration of the First Easter Mass, Fr. Amalla pointed out that the embroiling dispute shouldn’t distract everyone from the fact that the numerous artifacts in preservation is proof that the Philippines, like ancient China and India, wasn’t a nonentity before the Europeans discovered Asia and that should be what the locals of Butuan should be celebrating.

(First published in Manila Times on August 1, 2003)

Bislig, Surigao del Sur

Why Bislig is a must-see

The road to Bislig is a long one–and still not cemented. I found out during one sunny Sunday afternoon, when all the bumps gave me a dizzy sensation that made me wonder if I was traveling a never-ending highway. Daylight was fading when the wheels of the pick-up truck finally touched the concrete path. And at last, our destination was close by.

Bislig is near the southernmost tip of Surigao del Sur. It became a chartered city on September 18, 2000. My visit lasted barely a day and a half, which I am told isn’t enough to be acquainted with the place. Still, I felt as if time stood still when I saw two of Bislig’s most attractive spots. They made me want to stay forever.

Our local Niagara

Some locals in Agusan del Sur recommended a site in Caraga (the popular name of northeastern Mindanao), which they boast is the Niagara Falls of the Philippines. The aerial shot of this body of water at the lobby of the Paper and Country Inn Hotel further piqued my curiosity, and I wondered whether my newfound friends were merely exaggerating.

But I was not disappointed. Tinuy-an Falls could arguably be the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines, and still its existence is virtually unknown beyond Mindanao.

The waterfalls are 19 kilometers away from the main road. If your vehicle is going to the direction of Tinuy-an, you’ll see a long stretch of rice fields to your right. At some point on the left, you’ll see a water reservoir of PICOP (Paper Industry Corp. of the Philippines). There is also an abundance of coconut trees, as well as falcata (a slender version of a malunggay tree), mangium and bay-ang, which is curious to look at because their branches and leaves are shaped like an inverted open umbrella.

Our van passed three barangays (San Isidro, Mone and Burbo-ana) on the way to Tinuy-an. We headed towards a small mountain range where the waterfalls are found. The first sighting was overwhelming: There stood the three-tiered waterfalls. I was standing close to the falls at first, which is about less than three meters in length, and approximately nine meters wide.

Edwin and my two other guides, Lorelei and Dodong, then gestured me to follow them. Between the first and second falls is a stream of about 100 meters in length. There are two falcata trunks that lie across them. We used one of the trunks to cross the stream, which was a bit slippery, while we used the second one to keep us balanced. It was on the left bank that one would be able to appreciate the view of the second falls.

The second falls is the tallest and definitely the most breathtaking. It’s close to 14 meters high and nine meters wide. Facing it is a pool that has a depth of nine meters. According to Lorelei, there is a shallow path where the water drops and visitors can cross it or position themselves to feel the thud of the water.

Above the second falls is third one, which is less than three meters in height as well. Edwin said there is actually a fourth falls, which can’t be seen from where the van was parked. Apparently, there’s also a different route to it.

My guides then encouraged me to take a dip in the pool but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the falls.
Lorelei recalled that a group of foreigners go there yearly, who all wait patiently for a rainbow to appear between nine and 11 in the morning. It was bad luck that it didn’t show up when I was there.
With the gradual influx of tourists, not much has been built around Tinuy-an to make it comfortable to them. There is, however, a plan to build a watchtower there. Other than that, city officials think it best to keep the area in its natural state with lots of vegetation, in order for visitors to appreciate its true beauty.

Coastal sightings

On a clear, bright day, Bislig Bay looks enticing for exploration, and exactly what we did when we made our way there the next morning.

Initially, it took us about 45 minutes to reach Hagonoy Island, which is one of the numerous isles and islets that line the coast of Surigao del Sur. It’s a pearl-shaped isle that has an area of one hectare. Vegetation, consisting mostly of coconuts, abounds in the center. Our boat soon landed on a white-powdered beach that is less than 150-meter long. Minutes after our arrival, Edwin and Bong accompanied me to stroll around the isle.

There is a tinge of red in the sand when we encircled the right corner. The opposite side is both rocky and filled with corals. We spotted tiny crabs and thick-bodied starfishes. It took us about 20 minutes to walk the entire coastline. It was lunchtime when we returned. It was also during that time that the water level near the shore gradually receded.

Before returning to the mainland, we passed by a hut on stilts that breeds milkfish (popularly known as bangus). Each succeeding cage showed the growth of the fish.

When we finally had our fill of coastal sightings, everyone was tired and wanted to rest, but we met a certain Dolores Marcojos who invited us for another nearby trip that should not be missed.

View from PICOP

The Paper Industry Corporation of the Philippines (PICOP) is 54 hectares wide. Marcojos toured us around the area and then took us first to the manmade coast way, where visitors can savor the bay up close and feel the sea breeze at the same time. It was a nice view but it was the Bayview Hill not far away that caught my attention.

The entire PICOP compound can be seen from up there. Bislig Bay looks lovely from above while Hagonoy seemed like a speck. Not far away is another islet in the neighboring municipality of Hinatuan. We drove around the village where PICOP employees live. Marcojos recalled monkeys littering the roadsides before but she said that they must have gone into seclusion when people began to arrive.

As I walked around, thoughts about Tinuy-an Falls and all the other sights came to mind again. While I thought I would never return to Bislig while I was on that bumpy road, seeing Tinuy-an changed everything. The long journey is definitely worth it.

(First published in Manila Times on July 18, 2003)

Paete, Laguna

Laguna one more time

My family and I used to go to Laguna during weekends and the hot spring resorts and Mount Makiling are what I remember most from those trips. The province is located just outside Metro Manila, making it a frequent destination of urban dwellers. There are many places of attraction: Hidden Valley, Mount Banahaw, the seven lakes around San Pablo, and Pagsanjan Falls, to name a few.

My fascination for Laguna waned after I visited Ifugao and Zambales provinces and certain parts of Mindanao. Not even a few days' stay at the Los Ba¤os Forest Club at Bay a few years ago rekindled my enthusiasm-until recently when the monsoon rains made Metro Manila a truly bleak place to live in. Dennis had invited me to a trip to Paete. I wasn't very excited, thinking there was nothing new to expect. I was wrong.

Somewhere between the Sierra Madre lies the town of Paete. When we arrived the dark clouds overhead made the mountain range look more imposing. A couple of tricycles took us to Exotik, a restaurant situated on a slope and a perfect spot to appreciate the municipality. The area includes multiple open-air cottages of various sizes (from the topmost cottage, one can view the landscape around Laguna de Bay and the old church bell tower that some residents claim was built during the Spanish era), an artificial waterfall with a stream below that cascades into a lovely pond, lush flora, and assorted animals (check the crowd-drawer-an Indian python named Samantha).

The restaurant is famous for its food (for example: fried breaded frog legs that taste like crisp chicken). I became hooked on the mango juice and told owner Roi Ema so.

But it is Exotik's gorgeous wood designs that show what Paete is most known for. The name of the town comes from the Spanish word "paet" (for "chisel"). The roadsides abound with woodcarving shops and souvenir stores, and even the churches feature carvings that tell stories about the town's heritage.

The stories reveal wood as the soul of Paete, but our visit was anything but wooden. One realizes, of course, that our wood supply is finite. The townsfolk, however, make use of other materials for their carving expertise, and we witnessed it one unpredictable morning.

The clouds indicated that rain was likely but the humidity was quite unbearable when we traversed a narrow road leading to a basketball court hemmed in by a roofed stage and the town hall. Blocks of ice rising to nearly four feet were lined on the court ground, carvers in white T-shirts were gathered around them, and spectators circled the scene. A brief rain shower had many of them dashing to the nearest shelter but they returned shortly afterward. And the Ukit (Carve) Festival began.

Jude busily moved around taking pictures while we stayed put right below the stage to avoid the stifling heat. It was amazing how vigorously the contestants applied themselves to carving those ice blocks under less than ideal conditions. Nearly an hour later we inspected the assorted figures, delighting in the artwork.

We weren't quite through when another batch of contestants began to chip away at new ice blocks.
But nature wasn't kind. A heavy rain fell, dispersing the people from the court area and leaving only a few watching from the stage. Nonetheless, the contestants' determination didn't waver and they were nearly through by the time the sun shone again.

The judging of the entries was marked by intermittent rain. As we expected, the figures of Pegasus and an Indian warrior took top honors.

The next day Inier insisted that we visit Lake Caliraya rain or shine before heading home. We rode past rain-soaked slopes covered by coconut trees and a small bridge nearly inundated by a raging river. The driver of our van might've been so absorbed by our conversation that he overlooked the lake. We arrived at an almost deserted resort and walked on the brick-red soil toward the lake.

Caliraya is man-made, which makes it impressive. I had no idea how huge it actually is. I admired the sight of the pine trees on our left side.

Raymond explored the area east of the resort while we enjoyed the view from one of the sheds close to the shore. Not one of us seemed willing to leave, with no signs of sunny weather ahead and Jude telling us a bittersweet story about someone he knew. If it weren't for the security guard who reminded us that the sheds were off-limits to visitors, we might've stayed longer.

It was raining hard when we dropped in on Mayor Elmoise Afurong preparatory to leaving Paete. The terrace is the best feature in the house. It offers an excellent view of Laguna de Bay, as well as the water lilies below and the mountain range on one side.

The mayor invited us to stay for lunch but we demurred. One of his visitors urged us not to leave, citing reports he had heard that parts of Metro Manila were flooded. We said we would have loved to stay but that we weren't on vacation...

The van was about to enter the South Superhighway again when I wondered what was the most lasting image of our trip. I could not decide if it was Samantha, the Sierra Madre, or the mango juice. Then I remembered our last night at Exotik. The lights put a spark to the place but it was the full moon close to the top of the slope that made the moment sumptuous. How unfortunate that my camera was unable to capture it.

(First published in Philippine Daily Inquirer on December 11, 2002)