Saturday, March 13, 2010


A Rich Rediscovery

During a break from work, Stephen and I decided to go to Panay; we last set foot on it several years ago. We wanted to rediscover our roots; his parents grew up in Antique, while my father spent most of his life in Iloilo. We planned the trip to last for five days and to happen four months from the time of our conversation. It took us a year before the trip pushed through, but better late than never.

Prior to the trip, Villa Beach was the only nice place I knew in Iloilo City. I wasn't bitten with the travel bug yet, so I was oblivious to the province's other tourist destinations. Now older and eager to travel around, I found out that Iloilo - and the rest of Panay - is a perfect getaway. Boracay isn't the only place to go. As Stephen and I realized during the trip, one needs an adventurous spirit to discover Panay's most gorgeous sights.

Old is the New Cool

The Philippines doesn't have the majestic structures that Europe is renowned for, but it has old churches to make up for it. Iloilo has lots, and the good weather all year round keeps many of them in good condition.

Miag-ao Church was the first in the itinerary. When Stephen and I arrived there, the first thing we looked at was the church's front side. It's filled with eye-catching figures. Spain's colonial years are carved in these stones; I gaped at the figure of an elderly Aztec chief. At the top center is a carving of coconut leaves, so abundant in the Philippines. While Stephen took pictures of the church's side structures, I took a closer look at one of the church's two watchtower belfries to see if the material is really made up of clay. I pondered for a minute, but I couldn't come to a conclusion afterwards.

After we were done taking pictures, we went to Guimbal, the next town. Its church was built during the 19th century. Its features may not be as special as Miag-ao's, but the afternoon sun gives it an imposing look. Tigbauan's Church is no different from Guimbal's, which was also built during the 1800s. Locals were attending a mass by the time we got there. Stephen and I ate bibingkas (native rice cakes) while observing the people that crowded the entrance.

Molo's Church of St. Anne was our last stop. Stephen took shots of the church, while I sat down on one of the park benches in front of it and stared. Its front side reminded me of the towered churches in Western Europe: a lovely sight. We called it a day afterwards. Both of us weren't able to sleep immediately because we thought of the beaches that we would see the next day.

Life's a Beach

Stephen and I boarded a bus to Pandan, Antique before sunrise. It took a couple of hours to cross the mountainous border that separates Iloilo and Antique. Half an hour later, we were greeted by the sight of a rice field. It had a terrace-like feature. It was the same with the succeeding rice fields the bus passed by. I surmissed that this was one of the distinctive features of Antique.

In the background is the Cordillera Mountain Range, which separates Antique from the rest of Panay. One hour later, Mount Madia-as, the island's highest peak, was in full view. Stephen told me we were near Culasi, which is located in the middle of the province. He talked about one of the town's islands, which he visited when he was a lad. He had fond memories of it, and I could see why moments later.

Mararison Island is several kilometers away from Culasi's coast. It's an underdeveloped isle with a lovely beach to laze around on. But that wasn't what Stephen was excited about; it was its pyramid-shaped sandbar, a few meters from the beach, that he asked the boatman to take us to. It took us a few minutes to walk around the sandbar. We rested for a moment. We gazed at Madia-as, which looked breathtaking from where we sat. We didn't stay long, as we needed to reach Pandan by afternoon.

Stephen was elated when we arrived at Pandan's public park two hours later. My curiousity was piqued by the statue of Jose Rizal, who looked like he was in deep thought. This was a one-of-a-kind statue of the national hero; most that I saw in other places have the same solemn expression. Stephen noticed it too, but he wasn't interested in it; he rather reminded me of his hometown's most popular destinations, which are Phaidon Beach and Malumpati Cold Springs.

The sun was setting by the time we reached Phaidon. The beach was deserted when we reached the place. Only a Dalmatian dog, owned by the resort owner, was frolicking in the waters. I wanted to take a good photo of this Boracay-like beach. The dog might have sensed my intention because he went to where was and sat. I took many shots of the beach with Stein (the dog's name); it was more than I could ask for. Stephen and I walked the coastline until dusk. He promised that our visit to Malumpati the following day would be more memorable. He was right.

Spring's Mini-fall

The spring is several kilometers away from the poblacion (town center). The mini-falls in front of the 20-foot pool are its beast feature. I was about to take a bath when Stephen suggested that we went to the source of the spring. The river trek took us about an hour. It could have been shorter, but we took time to absorb the verdant riverbanks, gorgeous rock formations and the emerald-colored waters.

The water source was something I least expected - a pond that looked like a mixture of green and yellow (more greenish), surrounded by woods that seemed endemic in Antique. There was a mysterious feel to the area, which made me reluctant to go down the slope and take a bath. Stephen and I traced back our steps after several minutes of looking around. We called it a day after swimming in the cold pool.

Crystal Cove Island was on the itinerary the next day. It's a small isle located between Boracay and Caticlan that can be reached in half an hour. The island's main attraction is the Coral Garden, where stone houses are surrounded by gorgeous corals of various shapes. It took us half an hour to look around and gape at the structures. We went down a cave that offered a view of waves crashing onto the corals below. Not a bad sight. On our way back, we were stopped by a boat, in which a man was selling popsicles and ice cream.

While waiting for the world-famous sunset, Stephen and I assessed our five-day trip. We'd seen many places, but we wanted more. We planned to include Capiz on our next trip to Panay. The only question was when.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on January 2010)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Compostella Valley

Highlands with a View

Davao region may be the Philippines' ultimate highland escapade. It's not that the Cordillera region isn't short of tourist attractions, but I was astonished at what I discovered during my first visit to Davao three years ago - lots of multi-tiered and plunging waterfalls, assorted hot and cold springs, breathtaking vistas of verdant mountain ranges.

In Davao, several peaks rise above 8,000 feet. Most of them are found in Compostella Valley. This southern province was once part of Davao del Norte. It became independent in 1998 via the Republic Act No. 8470. Mountains are the first things I see whenever I visit Mindanao. It's also the sight that lingers in my mind long after the trip is over. But it's a different level in th case of Comval, the province's nickname. My recent visit tells me that it's the final frontier in local tourism.

Leonard Kniaseff, one of Mindanao's active volcanoes, is located in Comval's southern region. Like Mount Pinatubo, this strato-volcano is a few thousand feet high and one must ride on a plane in able to identify it. In Leonard's case, the areas close to it would give visitors a hint of its presence.

Some Like It Hot

Several kilometers away from the municipality of Maco is Mainit Hot Springs. Water cascades down a 15-foot, sulfur-covered slope. The chemical substance makes the water hot. Not suitable when the sun is way up, which I found out when I dropped by one humid afternoon.

Half an hour later, I explored Maco, a sleepy town near Lake Leonard. It doesn't take ten minutes to reach the crater lake, which is a source of livelihood to the inhabitants. Rows of bamboos on one side indicate that the lake is a breeding ground for tilapia, mudfish and milkfish.

Lake Leonard looks splendid from above. A tree-covered slope on one side of the lake looks gorgeous when it's bathed with the afternoon sun. But even in faint sunlight, the lake is an eye-catcher. No one can tell the depth, but this isn't important, as the clear reflection of the clouds and the mountain range makes this lake a must-see.

Comval's Best

Water is eternal in this province. In every town I went, there were pools that locals flock to during weekends. It's like the resorts lining up in Calamba and Los Banos in Laguna.

One of the barangays near Nabunturan (the provincial capital) is home to one of the province's lumads, a tribal group found only in the Davao areas. Some of the elder residents were hospitable to perform a tribal dance for us. They didn't don tribal costumes or use native instruments, but the rhythmic music and dance steps reminded me that Mindanao, like India, is multicultural.

Comval isn't only about highlands; Mabini is a seaside town with a scenic spot to offer. One of its resorts is on stilts, several meters away from the beach. Not far from it is Kopiat Island, a pear-shaped isle surrounded by white sands. The island isn't developed yet, but it offers some potential; Christine Dompor, the Provincial Tourism Officer, said that it's ideal for water sports activities, and its vicinity has unspoiled reefs that are homes for exotic tropical fish.

I like Kopiat's fine sands and clear waters, but it's the highlands that I want to explore next time. There are more waterfalls to see and more springs to check out.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on December 2009)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bucas Grande Island, Surigao del Norte

A Hundred Islets off Surigao

Claver is the last town in Surigao del Norte that visitors pass by before reaching Surigao del Sur. I like its scenery when I first visited three years ago. Behind the poblacion (town proper) is the Iron Mountain, which is along the border of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur. Facing the town is a cluster of islands of different sizes.

During sunny weather, the mountain's brick-red soil glistens while the isles seem to beckon. Both are eye-catching sights, and I was lucky to see them again. They can be viewed from the town wharf, which I did while waiting for the boat that would take me to Bucas Grande Island. It was a humid afternoon when the boat arrived.

I felt confused when I first saw Bucas Grande. Located behind Siargao Island, it was hard to tell if Bucas is an island with numerous islets or simply a cluster of islets. I got more perplexed when the boat was meters aways from the isle.

Bucas is inaccessible by road. I saw floras endemic in Caraga; I spotted a few magcono woods and pitcher plants not far from the guest house. I didn't see any mammals, but the occasional sounds of primates suggest that wildlife abounds.

The water is about twenty feet deep within the isle's territory. While resting in the guest house. I stared at the verdant mounds. They could be islets close together. They could be rolling hills that define the isle. They could be both. Miro Ajoc, the island's barangay captain, couldn't tell either. What he's certain of, though, is Bucas has more than a hundred islets. He then pointed out that it was low tide; he suggested that we go to Suhoton Cove, Bucas' most popular destination.

A few hundred meters from the guest house is a partly-exposed passageway. It's the path to Suhoton Cove. Stalactites were a few meters above our heads while the boat passed through; a huge one shaped like a horseshoe greeted us as we entered the cove. Suhoton is a big lake surrounded by numerous islets, many of which resemble Bohol's Chocolate Hills. As I observed the tranquil surroundings, Miro told me that there are a number of caves within the area. We went to Crystal Cave, which is partially submerged. The faint sunlight was enough for me to see and gape at the cave's ceiling. Milky white. Smooth. No stalactites. We stood on a boulder in the middle of the small cave in order to see the bottom of the cave. The water is about ten feet deep, and there no traces of shells and rocks. The white sands seem to glow. It's an otherworldly place - too bad my digital camera isn't waterproof.

Dusk set in as we left Suhoton. As the boat traveled back to the guest house, I witnessed what Bucas Grande looked like in the early evening. A canopy of stars lit up the isle and the sea. The noises made by insects were in unison. It was one of a kind.

Like a dream

A half-day tour isn't long enough to see the entire island, but it's more than enough to see other areas not far from the guest house.

Miro first took me to a lagoon teeming with non-stinging jellyfish. He claimed that only Palau and Bucas Grande have jellyfish of this kind. Then we went to Bucas' own version of Hundred Islands; some have pocket white beaches, which we checked out. Tiktikan, one of the isle's numerous lakes, was our next destination. We rested and enjoyed the view from the open hut that was perched on a slope above the lake.

I left for the mainland after lunch. As Bucas became obscure, I realized that the entire trip was like a dream. I wondered if there was another isle like it.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on November 2009)