Sunday, May 23, 2010

4 Side Trips from Mayon

(Sunday Inquirer Magazine)
by Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

SUNLIGHT hits Leizel Peñaverde’s face as she awakens after a 10-hour bus ride from Manila. She immediately grabs the camera from her bag and captures the magnificent view of Mayon Volcano from her bus window.

She is seeing the world-famous volcano for the first time. Natives believe that when a visitor like Peñaverde sees it naked or free of clouds, it is a welcoming sign of blessing.

Peñaverde, 27, of Malate, Manila has joined her husband’s company outing. The tourists aboard chartered buses drop by the famous Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga, Albay for a closer view of Mt. Mayon.

Peñaverde says she is amazed by the volcano’s beauty, which she only used to see in textbooks. But tourists like her might ask, is there more to an Albay trip than viewing the 2,462-meter volcano?

Legazpi City, the capital city and regional center of Bicol, is strategically located in the province’s second district, from which tourists can easily jump off to other destinations in Albay and adjacent provinces.

Considered as the gateway to Bicolandia, Legazpi City can be reached via a 45-minute plane ride or a 10-hour land trip from Manila.

If you’re staying in any of the hotels in the city, there are many interesting places you can visit and new experiences to enjoy. Here’s a shortlist:

1. Ligñon Hill

Just a five-minute drive from any point in Legazpi City is Ligñon Hill, which offers a panoramic view of Mt. Mayon and a 360-degree view of the city and the neighboring Daraga town. It also has a 40-meter-long and 7-foot-deep tunnel which the Japanese forces used as an arsenal during World War II.

On top of the hill is a 320-meter zipline from which tourists can soar through the chilly air, with the scenic Mt. Mayon in the background. There are photographers to capture the picture-perfect moment.

Dianne Recomono, 16, of Pasig City tried the zipline and could not hide the excitement in her face as she plummeted through the hill’s lush green contour.

“This is a unique and worthwhile experience. It’s definitely something I would recommend to my friends,” says Recomono, who was with her family for a four-day summer vacation.

The hill also hosts other summer adventures and extreme sports, such as hiking, biking, rappelling, paintball, and airsoft – all managed by Globe Quest Adventure. Zipping and rappelling are at P200 per person while paintball costs P300 for 50 bullets, mask, vest, and a paintball gun.

Another adventure sport is biking on dried up gullies at the foot of Mayon. The gullies serve as pathways of loose sand and volcanic rocks swept away by heavy rains from the volcano’s slopes. Four-wheel All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) are available for rent at P1,500.

2. Forest adventure

The Mayon Volcano Natural Park is a favorite destination for nature lovers. Its main entry point is in Barangay (village) Lidong in Sto. Domingo town.

The 5,486-hectare park surrounding Mt. Mayon is a protected area that covers eight Albay towns. Aside from its rich flora and fauna, the park has 18 rivers and creeks. The scattered fertile plains, rough and narrow ridges and deep ravines add up to a great adventure.

Local mountain guides are ready to assist neophyte hikers and campers. Camp 1 is 1,650 meters above sea level, says Aldwin Orendain, 18, the park’s gatekeeper.

An alternative entrance to the forest nearer the city is in Barangay Buyuan in Legazpi City, where the Mayon Outdoor Group Association assists hikers and campers.

Other ecotourism destinations in Albay within a two-hour drive from the city are the boiling lake in Manito town, the 91-meter Busay Falls in Malilipot town, the ice-cold Vera Falls in Malinao town, and the black sand beaches of Sto. Domingo town.

There is also a butterfly garden and fruit bat sanctuary at the Bacman Geothermal Fields at the border of Manito, Albay and Bacon, Sorsogon.

Sorsogon province is home to the whale sharks of Donsol and the placid Bulusan Lake ideal for kayaking.

3. Native souvenirs

There are many souvenir shops at the Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga town which offer Bicol’s native products like cutlery, refined clay jars, pili nut candy varieties, abaca bags and crafts. There are also P300 shirts hand-painted with Mt. Mayon.

At Alne’s Crafts and Souvenirs, prices of abaca bags range from P100 to P650 depending on materials and design. Abaca slippers, P25 to P65 each, are also available.

The Mayon Artstone shop in Cagsawa sells sculptures made of hardened Mayon rocks. Its 50-year-old artist-owner Vicente Ajero, also known as “Enteng Bato,” uses only a hammer and a large nail as chisel to form different images. He also fashions bracelets and necklaces from volcanic stones.

Other souvenir shops can be found at the Legazpi City Grand Terminal. Bargain hunters are assured that the native bags here are half the price of those displayed at the Metro Manila malls.

For even greater bargains on local crafts, plus a learning experience, tourists can go directly to the abaca-weaving villages in Malilipot town, just a 30-minute drive from Legazpi.

For food pasalubong, the 74-year-old Albay Pilinut Candy in the Old Albay District is just a few minutes away from the Legazpi City Domestic Airport. Some of its bestsellers are the crispy pili, toffee rolls, yemas de pili, pili butternuts, and salted pili.

Pili is one of Bicol’s distinct produce. Pili nut is known as the Philippine almond, which is at par with the macadamia nut. A classic favorite delicacy is the sweet bar-shaped mazapan (pili nuts mixed with milk, egg, and sugar).

4. Bicol food

For a unique food experience, there are local restaurants that offer fusion cuisines.

The Small Talk Café offers Pasta Mayon, which is made from triangular ravioli pasta garnished to resemble Mayon’s nearly perfect cone. It is topped with sizzling red sauce, reminiscent of flowing lava.

Other Small Talk favorites are the laing (taro leaves in coconut milk) pasta and pizza, and the Bicol Express pasta.

Have you ever eaten spicy ice cream? It can be weird but truly delectable. You can try it at the First Colonial Grill, which has two branches in the city. It offers “native Bicol food with a twist.”

They have the homemade Bikol’s Pride Ice Cream with various local flavors such as sili (chili pepper), pili, tinutong (toasted rice), malunggay and lemon.

Other Colonial Grill favorites are tinapa fried rice, buko chopsuey, vegetable kare-kare, five-spice chicken, tinuto (a local variety of laing), kilawing tuna, and Bikol Express.

To visit all these sites, tourists can avail themselves of 24-hour taxi and car rental services. Local transport service provider Early Riser offers car rental services for as low as P250 per hour.

With a three-day stay in Legazpi, a tourist can already have an adventure-packed summer vacation. Indeed, in Bicol, there are places and experiences that can never be captured by photographs on crisp four-sided postcards.

10 Ways to Have a Whale of a Time

(Sunday Inquirer Magazine)
by: Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

IS this the summer you’ve planned for what Time Magazine once hailed as the “best animal encounter in Asia”?

If so, you still have a few weeks left for what experts say is the best time for sighting the famous whale shark in the small fishing town of Donsol, Sorsogon.

Locally known as “butanding,” the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the world’s largest fish, referred to as a “gentle giant” because of its calm and friendly ways in the water. The appearance of schools of whale shark along the coasts of Donsol have drawn eager tourists to the town each year, making it one of the country’s top three ecotourism sites.

There are two ways to get to Donsol from Manila. One is via Legazpi City in Albay Province, which can be reached in 45 minutes by plane or 10 hours by bus. From Legazpi City, it’s an hour ride by land to reach Donsol. Regular air fare from Manila is around P3,500 one way. But you can watch out for promo fares, available through early bookings and offered at great discounts by any of the budget airlines. Deluxe bus fare is around P950 one way.

The other way is via Sorsogon City in Sorsogon province, which is a 12-hour bus ride from Manila. From Sorsogon City, Donsol is also an hour’s travel by land.

Upon arrival in Donsol, tourists should first register at the Donsol Visitors’ Center at the coastal village of Dangcalan. The village, about a 10-minute ride from the town center, serves as the jump-off point to the whale shark interaction sites.

The registration fee is P100 for domestic tourists and P300 for foreign tourists.

If you’re planning a trip to Donsol soon, here are some tips that will help you have a whale of a time.

1. Six is the ideal number for group travel to Donsol. There’s nothing superstitious about the number six -- it’s just that the boats available for rent can accommodate only a maximum of six passengers. Boat rental is P3,500, so you’d be getting the best deal if you can round up a party of six family members or friends to share the experience with. Another option, of course, would be to share a boat with other tourists—and make new friends.

2. Pack light, a tried and tested travel tip that works out here as well as anywhere. You’re free to bring your own snorkeling gear—like mask, water vest, fins, and snorkel—but all these are also readily available for rent at the Donsol Visitors’ Center, manned by the local tourism office. Life vests are also available in the boats. You can bring your own food, but you may want to try the available fare from any of the tourism-accredited food establishments in the town. Or go real local and head for the town market—this way, you help boost the local economy as well.

3. Backpacking is more economical than packaged tours. Besides being more adventurous and exciting, backpacking gives you the freedom and privacy to spend your time the way you want it while on vacation with loved ones. There is enough information available online on how to get to Donsol. Resorts like the Vitton and Woodland can arrange your whale-watching activities with the tourism office, which is just adjacent to it. Annie Buenaagua, the resort’s booking officer, says many tourists, 70 percent of them foreigners, call her up directly to make arrangements. The resort also offers airport pickup and drop-off services.

4. Get the right accommodation that suits your style and budget. There’s a whole range available—from resorts to homestay services. There are four resorts along the Dangcalan coastline: Vitton and Woodland, Elysha, Amor, and Casabianca. Vitton and Woodland ( has 43 rooms and 5 duplex houses available at P1,500 to P3,500 per night. Amenities include air-conditioning, hot-and-cold showers, living rooms, kitchenettes, and bay-front verandas. The resorts are all located in Dangcalan, nearer the whale shark action site, unlike the homestay services found in downtown Donsol. Homestay is cheaper, however, at only P500 per night so an increasing number of tourists, especially budget travelers, opt for this type of accommodation.

Others do, however, not only because it’s cheaper but because they want to be immersed in the town’s culture, says Rogelyn Santiago-Dimaano, 39, who owns and manages the Santiago Home-Stay, the family’s ancestral house, whose entire upper floor with three rooms is available for rent. The old house has been there since 1933.

5. Bring cash not cards. There are no ATM machines in Donsol and there are, as yet, no establishments accepting credit cards.

6. Listen well to the briefing. All registered tourists are required to attend a briefing at the Donsol Visitors’ Center. Each boat has one designated Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). Follow the rules faithfully. There are penalties if you break any of them—but more than that, the rules are there for your safety.

7. Try to avoid the holiday rush. Butanding interaction officer Alan Amense says the peak season for whale-watching is actually from December to May, but the holiday crush is traditionally around Holy Week. So it’s best to plan your whale shark sighting away from this week. Not only does it save the whale sharks from undue stress, it also spares you from long queues at the Visitors’ Center.

8. Respect local culture. Environment preservation is part of Donsol’s culture, adds Amanse. This culture has developed as the tourism industry boosted the poor town’s economy, making the local folk appreciate and cherish the natural wonders that put food on their table. The whale sharks contribute P50 million annually to national economy, says Bicol tourism director Nini Ravanilla. Amanse advises tourists not to litter and to minimize their impact on the environment. Touching the whale shark is also strictly prohibited.

9. Best diving time is from 7 to 10 a.m. It is best to be at Donsol the night before your dive. This way, you’ll be able to get enough rest and prepare for a delightful whale-watching experience. Amanse says that during the peak season, there are around four to 15 whale shark sightings a day. This season alone, the World Wildlife Fund, which has a research center in Donsol, identified 160 whale sharks in the area.

10. Visit other tourist attractions in and around Donsol. Make the most of your trip to this part of the Bicol Region by seeing other sights. Try the night river cruise through the Sogod and Donsol rivers, where thousands of fireflies light up the night sky. Boats are available for rent at P1,250. Other interesting sidetrips are the Tangculan Mangrove Park near Dangcalan village and carabao-riding at Rawan Village.

And, if you’re still ready for more adventure, schedule a manta ray watching trip to nearby Ticao Island. •

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dethroned beauty gets passport, finally

Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 06:46:00 05/22/2010

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines—After her long fight to get her crown back, dethroned Binibining Pilipinas Maria Venus Raj finally got her passport Friday morning, which means she will now be allowed to compete in this year’s Miss Universe pageant to be held in Las Vegas.

Securing a passport was the condition of Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. (BPCI) for Raj to be reinstated after she was stripped of her title last month due to inconsistencies in her birth records and her verbal account of birth.

The BPCI Inc. claimed “misrepresentation” as its ground for unseating Raj, a cum laude journalism graduate and native of Bato, Camarines Sur.

The dethronement sparked public uproar in online forums.

The Bicolana beauty being a “poor countryside farm girl yet determined to reach her dreams” got much support and sympathy from the people.

Last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) declared that Raj is a Filipino citizen by virtue of the “jus saguinis” principle in the Philippine Constitution.

The jus sanguinis (Latin for “right of blood”) principle means that a person acquires the nationality of his natural parents regardless of his place of birth.

Eduardo Malaya, DFA spokesperson, said that after evaluating the beauty queen’s birth certificate, documents, and passport application, the committee formed to look into Raj’s case recommended the issuance of a passport.

Raj was born to a Filipino mother and an Indian father in Doha, Qatar, but they were not married. She was brought to the country a month after birth and was registered three years after.

Raj, in a phone interview, said she is happy and relieved that all her efforts and those of her supporters finally paid off.

She said that when she woke up hearing the news about the release of her passport, she got up and rushed to the DFA to claim it.

Raj said it had been a roller coaster ride for her. In as much as many people were there for her, there were also those who criticized her after the controversy.

“But I also thank those people because they have made me stronger and motivated me to push the fight,” Raj said.

She said they would still be waiting for the official statement of the BPCI reinstating her, after which she expects that her name will finally be cleared.

Raj has been training for the Miss Universe along with other Binibining Pilipinas winners since April.

In Barangay San Vicente in Bato town, Raj’s 59-year-old mother Ester Bayonito cried when she heard of the news.

“I cried out of joy and gratitude. I cannot thank those who helped my daughter enough. Thank God!” a jubilant Ester told the Inquirer in a phone interview. Ephraim Aguilar, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Catanduanes voter preserves ‘paipit’ or ‘gracia’

By Ephraim Aguilar
Inquirer Southern Luzon

LEGAZPI CITY—LIKE IT WAS New Year’s Eve, people stayed up late on the streets a night before Monday’s elections in many villages in the rural town of Pandan in the neighboring island-province of Catanduanes.

They were waiting for what is locally called “paipit (insertion)” or “gracia (blessing)” from politicians running for public office.

When Gerry Rubio found P2,120—two P1,000 bills, one P100 bill, and one P20 bill—on his doorstep at Our Lady’s Village in Virac town early Monday, he knew what to do. The money came from certain candidates for governor, congressman and a party-list group.

“The P2,120 I unwillingly received today will be millions worth of lesson in history. I will preserve this,” said Rubio, who vowed not to spend the money in exchange for his sacred vote.

He said he would put the bills under the glass cover of his office table. “This will be my contribution to history.”

Cigarette boxes

Inasmuch as it is shameful that massive vote-buying happens in his home province, it has to be exposed, he said.

Rubio, the public relations officer of Catanduanes State Colleges, is a volunteer of Pagbabago! (People’s Movement for Change), a multisectoral group that advocates clean and honest elections.

In Catanduanes, distribution of vote-buying money started at around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday till early Monday before the voting precincts open.

“Packs of money are sleekly delivered to homes. They are stapled with the candidates’ sample ballots,” Rubio said.

Others are brought to the houses of local leaders where people line up until dawn.

“Bundles of cash here are loaded in cigarette boxes. Politicians form a task force that segregates the money for stapling,” Rubio said.

He noted some enraged voters who will not pick a candidate if they do not receive anything. “These are the voters without backbone. But I believe there are still well-meaning people in our island who value values.”

In Masbate, a perennial election hot spot, every voter is paid at least P1,000, said Pagbabago-Bicol spokesperson Fr. Remar Soliza.

On Ticao Island in the same province, Soliza said voters would receive as much as P3,000 each from local mayoral candidates.

The group reported that supposed supporters of an incumbent congressman gave out P300 per voter.

In Milaor town in Camarines Sur, the same amount was distributed by the camp of another congressional candidate.

“By all indications this is also happening in all provinces in the region, where patronage and traditional politics is the norm,” Soliza said.

“We encourage voters to report such acts as well as other activities that undermine their votes. When [vote-buying] candidates come to power, they will definitely ransack the people’s coffers to defray their campaign expenses,” he said.

Busy banks

Banks this week had a barrage of transaction requests to convert millions of pesos into smaller bills, a bank teller in Bicol, who refused to be named for security reason, told the Inquirer.

The teller said that since last week, even nonclients or those without accounts had visited the bank to encash a P500,000-check for P100 bills.

“I would have up to five clients asking us to break down big amounts. It is unusual for an ordinary work day,” the teller said.

Rubio said vote-buying is an indication of flawed governance in the Philippines. “Something is acutely wrong with our political system. Why do they have to resort to cheating in all forms, buy votes, to win a public servant’s seat?” he said in a phone interview.

“And the electorates who patronize this dirty scheme are part of the rotten system.”

Rubio said vote-buying is endemic in a culture that regards electoral posts as “moneymaking machines.”