Friday, November 7, 2008

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)

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