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)

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