My excitement erases the rigors of eighteen hours of intercontinental flight from Toronto, Vancouver, and Hongkong as we descend in Terminal 3 of the Ninoy International Airport at 10:45 in the evening on January 10th. I have been to many airports in North America and most of the Caribbean islands and I could easily deduce how small the Philippine airport is. But unlike any other airports in the world, it is not the size nor the sophistication of the airport that struck me. I looked proudly at faces in front of us, outside the metal barricade that separates passengers from the welcoming crowd and I saw no sign of puny comparison. These people came in bunches – the entire family at the very least. It didn’t matter that it was late in the evening. They were there standing for hours, waiting excitedly for the arrival of loved ones, relatives, friends, etc. On their faces I saw resolute manifestation of their sense of connectedness and love with the person they came for. They made the effort, they took the sacrifice, and they showed unequivocally how much they care – one of the many traits of Filipinos that parallel with their strong family bondage. And such scenario seems to be unmatched anywhere else in the world. Only in the Philippines, and it’s true!
Provincial trip to Lamut, Ifugao was another eye opener. We left Quezon City slightly past midnight and the long stretches of NLEX, TPLEX and the early morning drive to Ifugao have taken us no more than six hours. The major highways and expressways bypassed the many towns and cities and led us swimmingly to our final destination. I have not been to Ifugao before the major highways were built but testimonies revealed that it used to take at least 10 hours to reach that far. Another hour and a half further north and we ended up viewing the panoramic picture of the world-renowned Rice Terraces of Banaue. On our way back to Lamut we took a side trip to Kiangan and visited the Ifugao Museum.
We were lucky to have been given accommodation by my long time friend, Andy Valenciano and his family of Lamut, Ifugao. For two nights and three days we stayed at their summer camp resort and feasted on delectable grilled fresh tilapia and authentic Ilokano dinengdeng.
Bacolod, the capital city of Negros Occidental, is the city of smiles known for its Masskara festival, part of the Western Visayas region in the old configuration, but had been regionalized in recent grouping as belonging to region VI. In contrast, traveling by plane to Bacolod only took 55 minutes, one of the highly urbanized cities in the Philippines, Bacolod built a new highway that links the city to the airport, cutting the travel time to the airport by more than half. In our three days and two nights in Negros Occidental, we traveled through Villadolid, San Enrique, Pulupandan, Talisay, Manapla, Kabangkalan and did not experience any major hold up in the road. We barely scratched the surface of Bacolod but we’re lucky to have the opportunity to visit a couple of its nuggets, The Ruins in Talisay, and the Hot Spring Resort in Mambukal, also a sanctuary of flying fox.
Bacolod city is still a home city for many who enjoy a city life without the setback of the daily traffic congestion. Sugar is still one of the major industries that fuel the local economy. The sugarlandia in Silay and in other parts of Negros Occidental where sugar scions rule, still speaks of the plight of Sakada in dire straits.
Our local trip from Manila to Taytay and Pililla Rizal brought us back to the daily grind of wading through the major metropolitan traffic gridlock. It measured only 17 kms from MOA Pasay City to Taytay, Rizal but it took us nearly 4 hours to reach Regina Rica in Tanay. Regina Rica is run by contemplative sisters who splintered from the Dominican Sisters of Molo. It is majestically fronted by the monumental image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, built on the top of the hill, which also houses a prayer chamber that can conveniently accommodate a group of 80 people who predispose themselves for spiritual encounter through contemplative prayer. Aside from being the popular destination for pilgrims, Regina Rica also facilitates a venue for spiritual retreats.
Our next Visayan trip was Cebu City. It sounded fittingly that we took the Cebu Pacific flight, for sure it would take us to Cebu, but little did we know that the airline’s standard operating procedure frequently includes advising passengers of technical problem that would cause a two-hour delay. And it was declared right off the counter as we checked in, as if it was already anticipated and part of their daily routine. Nevertheless, moving to another domestic carrier does not guarantee on-time flight schedule. Passengers are left with no better option. “Yan ang kalakaran dito,” said one of the frustrated passengers.
The Mactan airport registers as much bigger than the one in Bacolod and qualifies as international airfield. But crossing through the Mactan bridge from the airport to reach the city proper along the stretch of 14 kms would outrageously take over two hours in best time scenario. We took the nautical highway to get us to the northern part of Cebu in Danao City, where we shacked up in El Salvador Resort. Overall the drive from Cebu City to Danao City took approximately over three hours. Cebu’s highways are in desperate need for expansive development. The two-lane roads in most outlying areas outside of Cebu City are just too narrow and do not offer any emergency re-route in the event of accident or major traffic build up.
However, people of Cebu have found ways to go around such adversity. They creatively improvised, become enterprising and cashed in on Habal-habal, an accepted public transport that circumvents traffic deadlock. Habal-habal is a motorbike ride where passengers hop on a single motorcycle behind the driver who has no regard for the safety of his passenger as he squirts through narrow openings in a jammed traffic situation or speeds through median lanes and road shoulders. Habal-habal has grown popular and is the fastest means to get by a jammed thoroughfare in Cebu City. It may be the riskiest proposition to get to one place without considerable delay, but people on tight schedule and under time constraint prefer to risk personal safety as sometimes they ride without the benefit of a helmet. Metro Manila has its own version of the despicable proliferation of motorcycles in city streets that are exempted from number coding restriction but they are not known for public hire.
Going south from Danao City to Oslob, Cebu is another travel destination that is full of uncertain traffic eventualities. The driving distance from Danao to Oslob should not take longer than two hours in ideal driving situation but the stretch of about 200 kms has kept us in the van for almost five hours. We left Carmen at 4:30 in the morning and it was mid-morning when we got to Oslob where we encountered a crowd who, like everyone else, were too eager to hop in a boat and interact with the whales. On our way back to Carmen we stopped by at the Padre Pio church for a quick visit. The church has been mystically known for the many stories of Padre Pio’s apparition. From there we took another detour to reach the gargantuan edifice of the Simala Shrine. It was getting late in the afternoon and traffic was just getting worse, so we took another route to avoid getting caught in heavy traffic and headed up to the mountain of Busay, where we stopped by at the Temple of Leah and ate at the famous Lantaw restaurant. Metro Manila traffic situation may be one of the worst you may encounter at any given day and time. But Cebu City is no better in comparison.
We breathed a sigh of relief when we crossed Cebu to Bohol aboard a ferry boat. Bohol may just be two hours away from Cebu but it is exclusively in its own island, completely detached from the hustle and bustle of a big city where major roads and highways are wider and entirely free of traffic congestion. Traveling from Tubigon port to Panglao revealed the many beautiful sceneries that kept us entertained. The travel backdrop offered by verdant mountains and hills, rice farms and coconut plantations, are immensely everywhere. Breezy mountains, paved roads zigzagging through lofty hills and dense forests – a picture that etched in my memory as we zoomed past them.
Crossing the Visayan region east to west from Cebu brought us to Coron, Palawan. Palawan is part of the recent region grouping acronym MIMAROPA (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan), also known as Region IV-B. The only airport in Coron is located in Busuanga, one of the bigger islands situated between Mindoro and Palawan mainland. Busuanga airport can only accommodate small airplanes as its airstrips are not long enough for larger ones. Being one of the largest Calamian island in Coron, Busuanga serves as the tourist base for all tour trips by boats to many beautiful islands in Coron. Our three-nights-and-four-days in Busuanga was more than enough to get early familiarization of the main city which is concentrated on the 3-kilometer stretch along the Busuanga-Coron Road. You can easily walk from one end of the city to the other in basically 30 minutes. The main urbanized area of Busuanga is densely commercialized. Tourism is the only economic driver in the island and is on top of mind for all businessmen and entrepreneurs. Hotels, restaurants and bars, catered primarily to tourists, are built on both sides of the road, leaving no space for further expansion. Pedestrians share the road with the annoying tricycles as there is not enough paved road shoulders to walk on. Tricycles are the principal means of public transportation in the Busuanga downtown area, accounting for about 90% of motorized vehicles operating in the city proper. Tourists are the elite proponents of the large number of Hi-ace vans that pick them up either from the airport to their hotels or from their hotels to pier where they take their designated tour boats to the many islands in Coron.
Traveling further and back to my home town in Roxas City, Capiz, one of the four provinces in the island of Panay, is still a breeze compared to taking a Grab taxi from MOA to Mandaluyong, where for approximately 10 kms you’ll be confined in a cab for over two hours. Two hours delayed on another technical reason, this time via Philippine Airlines, it took us only 45 minutes to finally descend to the Roxas City Airport and another 45 minutes by private car to my hometown in Dumalag.
Roxas City still lagged miserably in urban development and needs a lot of catching up to tail behind Iloilo or Bacolod cities. What Roxas City lacked in parallel to progress is not what it is known for in the eyes of many tourists. Capiz is the seafood capital of the Philippines and it has its own share of nuggets of wonders such as the Panay Church, the Panubli-on Museum, Baybay beach which also offers a strip of native fresh food restaurants, the Dumalag Suhot Spring, the Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral, the Olotayan Island, to name a few. Roxas City modestly owns two medium size shopping malls, the refurbished Gaisano and the Robinsons. Traveling around the city or looking for something to buy around the city proper lifts Roxas City up in comparison to another major city in Panay in terms of travel ease and accessibility to stores as there is no traffic congestion to slow you down.
The road that spans Capiz to Iloilo has been improved tremendously. Road expansion projects are still underway in some areas but most municipalities have theirs already completed. What used to be a four-hour bus ride from Roxas City to Iloilo City has been drastically cut to more than half, with the diversion roads bypassing local municipalities, leading motorists all the way from Roxas City to the Iloilo City proper. Dubbed as the queen city of the South, Iloilo City’s transformation has leapfrogged many other major cities in the Philippines.
Six weeks is not enough to cover the many amazing tourist spots in the Philippines and my personal account was limited in magnitude. However, the details and facts are firsthand and may be sourced for reference if identical travel plans are considered. Traveling in one’s native country may sometimes sidetrack the original plan as consideration to meet family and friends is always an emotional agendum that weighs down the scale. This does not include uneventful occurrences such as sickness and illness which are always a primary concern for tourists coming from North America. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with your surrounding wherever you plan to stay in the Philippines. It will definitely help if you knew where the medical clinic or hospital is just in case you needed to see a doctor in times of emergency.
We have always been careful and check with our family doctor who advises us to take precautionary measures by taking Dukoral vials weeks before our departure to prevent diarrhea and other intestinal problem, and preventive pills for high fever. Generally, there are factors that have to be considered before you travel to other country, such as age, health, medical history, travel destination and length of travel.
In the Philippines, we never drink water from the tap or use ice for beverage such as halo-halo or iced drinks. The water being used to produce ice is definitely not distilled therefore the risk of ingesting impure or contaminated source of water is very high and may have adverse effect on your digestive system. It is a good practice to always purchase and carry popularly branded bottled water, especially during your first few weeks in the Philippines. You should be leery about buying a locally marketed or no-name bottled water as it may contain water supply taken indiscriminately from a public source. Overtime your system will adapt and you will eventually be able to drink common water supply just like the rest of the locals without fear of getting sick. Always bring along sunscreen and bug repellant to keep pesky mosquitoes at bay. Malaria has long been eradicated in Palawan, or in any other parts of the Philippines, but fear of dengue infection would leave unabated if you have no prevention.
My travel account will not be complete without recognizing a person who was responsible for our Bacolod vacation. He took time out of his busy schedule and personally led us to the many beautiful places in Bacolod, let alone providing us accommodations in some of his posh properties. Thank you, fray Mike and sis Jessica. Your hospitality and kindness will forever etch in our memory.