July 28, 2014

Fil-Am visitors lift lean travel season*

      TOURIST NUMBERS have picked up with the arrival of some 300 Filipino-Americans and their mainstream American friends, just as the lean travel season has set in.

The visiting Fil-Ams are in Manila for the 9th Ambassadors, Consuls General and Tourism Directors Tour of the Philippines (ACGTDT) from July 28 to 31, which features an audience with President Aquino, lunch at Heroes’ Hall, and a tour of Malacañang on July 30. Aquino is expected to speak to the participants and boast of his administration’s successes on the economic front and his drive against corruption.

“Through this successful tour program, we are able to entice Filipino-Americans as well as their friends in the US to visit us and to deepen their appreciation of the history, heritage and culture of our country and the natural warmth of our people. Aside from being a safe place to travel, the Philippines is one of the best places for medical and wellness tourism as well as a retirement haven,” said Domingo Ramon Enerio III, chief operating officer of the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), in a press statement released over the weekend. The TPB is the marketing arm of the Department of Tourism (DOT), one of the lead agencies that implements this tour program.

The lean travel season usually begins in June and lasts until October-November, reflecting the country’s monsoon season which also attracts a number of strong typhoons.

The balikbayans (returning Filipinos) and their American friends will be coming from Washington D.C., where the Philippine Embassy in the US is located, as well as Hagatña, Guam; Chicago; Honolulu; Los Angeles; New York; and San Francisco, which host Philippine consular offices.

The program was launched in 2005 during the term of then Philippine Ambassador to the US (now Foreign Affairs Secretary) Albert del Rosario and implemented in cooperation with the DOT and TPB.

In July 2011,  it was designated as a banner tourism project under the DOT’s Pinoy Homecoming Program. Major sponsors include the Western Union, Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (Tieza), Duty-Free Philippines (DFP), and Philippine Retirement Authority. Tieza and DFP are also attached agencies of the DOT.

In a separate press statement, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia, Jr. described the 9th ACGTDT as “a wonderful opportunity for balikbayans and our American friends to experience some of the Philippines’ best tourist destinations.”  He will be leading the delegation from the US.

Enerio said tour participants arrived to a VIP reception with sampaguita leis at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on Sunday, with the rest arriving today, Monday.

The participants paid for a basic tour package, which cost $530 (excluding airfare) for a four-day/three-night (double occupancy) stay at Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati with daily buffet breakfast, lunches and a welcome dinner with entertainment at the Makati Shangri-la Hotel, and a fellowship night hosted by Western Union. Roundrip international airfare was via Philippine Airlines where applicable.

Enerio added that participants will also join the wreath-laying ceremony at the historic Rizal Monument in Rizal Park (formerly Luneta), and may opt to go on special tours to Corregidor, Intramuros, the Metropolitan Museum at the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Manila Ocean Park, shopping malls, or have spa treatments.

“To cap this year’s visit, the participants will be brought via guided tours to the luxurious resort of Pico de Loro Cove at Hamilo Coast in Nasugbu, Batangas. They will arrive to a festive welcome of native songs and dances with rondalla music with the ‘Star for All Seasons”, now Provincial Governor, Vilma Santos-Recto, and Nasugbu Mayor Charito Apacible personally joining them throughout their stay at Hamilo Coast,” the TPB chief said.

The participants will feast on a sumptuous Southern Tagalog lunch and be entertained with a cultural show.  They will have a free afternoon where they can enjoy indoor games and outdoor sports, go island-hopping, swimming, snorkelling, or scuba diving. The coastal area of Batangas is located within the Verde Island Passage dubbed by marine biologists as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity.” More than 65 percent of the world’s marine species, endangered sea creatures, and some 300 coral species can be found in this area.

Meanwhile, Rajah Tour Philippines has arranged optional tours for the participants to other destinations Laoag-Vigan, Cagayan de Oro-Camiguin, golf clubs in Southern Luzon, Davao, Cebu-Bohol, Iloilo-Bacolod, Kalibo-Boracay, Camarines Sur-Albay, and Puerto Princesa-Palawan. These tours are scheduled from July 31 to Aug. 2.

From January to April 2014, visitors from the US (266,972) and Canada (56,571) accounted for 19 percent of the 1.7 million total visitor arrivals for the period.

“We encourage our countrymen here to invite their relatives and friends in the US and Canada to plan and book for these tours, especially for ‘Visit Philippines 2015,’” said Enerio.

The DOT has targetted foreign visitor arrivals to reach 6.8 million for 2014, and 8.2 million for 2015. Foreign visitor arrivals numbered 4.7 million in 2013, falling short of the 5.2-million target for the year.

*Have no idea if my piece was published in the BusinessMirror today as its web site is under construction. So there.


SORRY guys! I've been remiss again in my blogging duties. Too much work! (on Twitter, Facebook, Viber...yeah, yeah.) Will rev this up soon. Like today!

Thanks for checking in.

March 30, 2014

New air pact, stronger DOT marketing to increase Singapore visitors to PHL

SINGAPORE continues to be the top source of tourists for the Philippines in the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), encouraging the Department of Tourism (DOT) to continue its strong marketing push in the city-state.

In 2013 there were 175,304 visitors from Singapore, up 18.09 percent from the arrivals in 2012. For the first month of 2014, the Singaporean market contributed 13,399 visitors to the Philippines, an increase of 10.46 percent from the January 2013 level.

There is optimism at the DOT that those numbers for Singapore would rise significantly over the next few months, with increased flights between the city-state and the Philippines, and a more strategic marketing initiative by government tourism bodies.

In an interview, Tourism Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Market Development Benito Bengzon Jr. said one of the aims of the recently concluded air talks between the Philippines and Singapore was to grant additional traffic rights to the designated carriers of both countries. “The increase in frequencies and the opening of new routes would provide more opportunities to increase two-way traffic between the Philippines and Singapore,” Bengzon told the BusinessMirror.

He added that the agreement “also paves the way for promoting both countries, particularly to long-haul markets.” The designated Philippine carriers that would benefit from the new air pact are Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Tiger Airways Philippines.

The Philippines and Singapore finalized a new air-service agreement in February, increasing the number of seats from Manila to Singapore to 17,600 per week, from 13,800 for each country.

Also, the new memorandum of understanding between both countries expands their fifth-freedom traffic rights, allowing Singapore carriers to pick up passengers from the Philippines, and bring them directly to China, on top of Osaka and Seoul. Philippine carriers, on the other hand, are now allowed to pick up passengers from Singapore to India, on top of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.

As such, the DOT will now “step up our market-development efforts in Singapore, targeting young couples, divers and expats,” Bengzon said.

For his part, Tourism Promotions Board (TPB) Chief Operating Officer Domingo Ramon Enerio III said: “Singaporeans look for eco adventure and nature tour options because they’re surrounded by urban infrastructure with limited opportunities for outdoor activities. They look for the relaxing space to escape from their fast-paced work style.” The Philippines, he pointed out, offers Singaporeans that kind of escape from their urban jungle.

He added that “they’re our No. 1 market from Asean and have potential to grow even more.” TPB is an attached agency of the DOT tasked with marketing the Philippines to local and foreign tourists.

Meanwhile, in the first month of 2014, total visitors to the Philippines rose 5.8 percent to 461,383.

South Korea again emerged as the top market for the Philippines, with 118,308 visitors, accounting for 25.64 percent of the total. However, South Korean visitors dropped by 12.36 percent from 134,994 in January 2013.

In the second spot was the United States at 71,042, which accounted for 15.4 percent of market share; followed by China at 49,538 (10.74-percent market share); Japan at 35,160 (7.62 percent); Australia at 20,747 (4.5 percent); Canada at 16,413 (3.56 percent); Singapore at 13,399 (2.9 percent); Taiwan at 12,448 (2.7 percent); Hong Kong at 11,587 (2.51 percent); the United Kingdom at 11,098 (2.41 percent); Malaysia at 8,697 (1.88 percent); and Germany at 7,616 (1.65 percent).

Diplomatic issues aside, the mainland China market grew substantially by 98.53 percent from the January 2013 level of 24,952, as well as the Hong Kong market, which rose by 39.43 percent from 8,310. The Taiwanese market, however, slipped by 23.02 percent from 16,170 in January 2013.

(This piece was published in the BusinessMirror on March 27, 2014.)

March 29, 2014

Travel Bites: The 'Galapagos of Asia'

THE first time I heard about Sibuyan Island was from my father. During World War II, as the Japanese military forces spread to the Visayan region, my father’s family left home in Capiz and took refuge on the island, in the province of Romblon.

If you look at the map, it’s easy to see why. Sibuyan’s relative isolation it is one of the three major islands that make up Romblon—made it an ideal sanctuary from the vagaries of war. And while there has been intermittent commercial air service between Manila and Tablas (the larger of the province’s islands), travel to Sibuyan has mainly been via ferry or pumpboat.

On the upside, the island’s relative seclusion has kept its environment pristine. It’s been dubbed as the “Galapagos of Asia” because of its rich biodiversity, with over 50 tree species found unique only to Sibuyan, as well as a number of endangered mammals and birds that are endemic to the island. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) web site, “the forest density in Sibuyan is 1,551 trees per hectare, making it the densest forest ever recorded in the Philippines.”

Mount Guiting-Guiting is a favorite of mountain climbers. It's name is taken from the vernacular describing its jagged edges, or "guiting-guiting". (Photo from http://www.wowromblon.com/)
Many of these flora and fauna can be found deep in the forests of Sibuyan and are now endangered because of previous DENR policies that allowed the cutting of trees as well as commercial mining operations. Despite the fervent opposition of the local government, the Catholic Church, and Sibuyan residents to mining, the island was not included in President Aquino’s Executive Order on mining, which listed 78 protected zones (only Romblon island was categorized a “no-go” zone).

Every December, the main municipality of San Fernando celebrates the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) through the Pag-alad Festival, with costume and float parades, and street dancing. It’s best to visit Sibuyan during the dry months, although sea transports still operate during the monsoon season. Just be prepared for a rough and tumble ride.

After setting down your bags in your local inn or resort, you can hire a tricycle or Jeepney to take you around the island. Here are a few spots of interest:

Mount Guiting-Guiting is a favorite of mountaineers because of the tremendous challenges in climbing it. It is a series of jagged peaks—hence, the name guiting-guiting in the vernacular—so expect terrain pitches up to angles of 90 degrees. It was declared a national park in 1996; but the unfettered encroachment of upland settlers who live off the mountain has resulted in some areas of balding due to slash-and-burn farming. Still, it makes for a great hike in the lower regions of the mountain. Those who intend to climb to the summit need to secure a permit and a local guide at the DENR Substation in Barangay  Tampayan, in the town of Magdiwang. (For inquiries, contact: Hurley Salig, provincial environment officer of Odiongan, Romblon at (042)567-5030; or  0917-8831125).

Swim with the fish and shrimps in the Cantingas River, declared as the “cleanest inland body of water in the Philippines,” and the second-cleanest river in the world. The river has carved its own path amid a lush, fertile valley, which visitors can view in its entirety by climbing a viewing platform, or taking a zip-line ride hosted by the Cantingas River Resort in San Fernando. Thrillseekers can also jump off specific ledges and dive into the cool waters of the river. (Contact: Aniceto Aganan, 0906-1617708).

Firefly watching at the Magdiwang River (Photo from www.romblon.com)
Take a cruise at dusk along the Magdiwang River to watch fireflies! These winged beetles try to attract their mates or prey with their luminous bellies and are seen usually flitting about mangrove trees making the latter look like lit-up Christmas trees! After the one-hour cruise, you can have dinner at the river’s Floating Restaurant. There is also a fish sanctuary nearby which can be visited earlier, if you’re into snorkeling. (Contact: Teroy Rivero at 0919-802907).

Frolic in the cool waters of several waterfalls on the island. Busay Falls and Dagubdub Falls are in San Fernando, while Lambingan Falls is in Magdiwang. Be warned, however, that there is some amount of rock climbing and trekking involved so wear comfortable hiking shoes and bring a change of clothes. Aside from the rocks where these waterfalls flow over and around, there are a myriad of local flora that might be easily missed. On closer inspection, for instance, the carnivorous pitcher plants abound in Dagubdub Falls. Because of its height, Busay Falls is the most picturesque of the three. (Tricycles can take you to the various waterfalls but at some point, you have to hike the rest of the way.)

One shouldn’t miss the Cresta de Gallo Island, a relatively uninhabited islet 45 minutes away by outrigger pumpboat from Barangay Azagra in San Fernando. Although there are no resorts and other tourist facilities on the islet, it is getting popular because of its powdery white-sand beach, and an incredible swimming/snorkeling experience in its clear turquoise waters. Aside from multicolored fish, there are reported sightings of stingrays, turtles, even dolphins! A family that takes care of the islet is a useful source of information and can be approached to catch fresh fish for meals. An overnight stay is recommended just to max out your visit, but you have to bring all your camping essentials, as well as food and water.

An old 17th-centrury chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary of Candeleria can also be found in Azagra. Its stone façade and exteriors have been preserved but its interiors are modern. You can also visit Lamao Lake, a 7-hectare natural lake in the barangay and walk to its hills where a solar-powered lighthouse looks out to the sea. Wait for the sun to set and be amazed.

Needless to say, fresh seafood abound on Sibuyan Island so you can have a veritable array of choices from among the small carinderias, local resort restaurants and in the stalls in the public market. Due to the rising number of tourists on the island, a few restaurants serving pizzas and pastas have also cropped up in San Fernando.  Popular local delicacies include kinilaw, dried fish like the bulad, as well as spicy ginamos, the local version of the bagoong.

Where to stay
If you want to wake up amid lush surroundings with a view of the mighty Mount Guiting-Guiting, you may want to check out Sanctuary Garden Resort (http://sanctuarygardenresort.com/index.html) in Barangay Tampayan, Magdiwang. The accommodations are patterned after native huts and built of wood materials, with air-conditioned rooms for couples and groups. It offers local guided tours, free maps to nearby points of interest, as well as transportation for rent to go around the island (bikes, motorbikes, Jeepneys).

For clean and safe budget accommodations, go to Seabreeze Inn in San Fernando. The place is fairly well known among the locals so any tricycle can take you there. Its bamboo huts have verandas, which face the sea.

Getting there
Travelers with a reasonable amount of an adventurous streak will probably forget the slight amount of pain in getting to Sibuyan Island as soon as they sink into the breathtaking scenery.

From Manila, take a flight to Roxas City via PAL Express or Cebu Pacific, and then go to Culasi Port for a four- to six-hour pumpboat ride to Sibuyan Island.

You can also travel by sea from the Batangas Port to Sibuyan via Romblon. Shipping lines that travel to Romblon and Sibuyan Island are Montenegro Ferry (T# 043-723-6980/723-8294); Super Shuttle Ferry; Romblon Shipping Lines Inc.; Rapal Inter-island Shipping  (T# 872-5725); and the CSGA Ferry Corp.  (Check the Philippine Ports Authority Batangas Office for accurate departure schedules.)

For more on Sibuyan tourism, check out the Sibuyan Island Sentinels League for the Environment Inc. (http://www.sibuyan.com/tourism.html), which runs independent tours around the island.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, June 24, 2013.)

Travel Bites: The Queen of the North

NAMED after Queen Isabela II of Spain, the province of Isabela is known as the largest corn producer in the country. Most of the corn is harvested and sold to feed millers who, in turn, sell the feeds to poultry and livestock growers. Isabela is also a major rice-production area, and known as the Rice Granary of the North.

Aside from being known for its agricultural commodities, Isabela is also trying to style itself as a tourism destination, recently highlighting a scarecrow festival called “Bambanti,” in gratitude of good harvests; and  promoting its historic churches, beaches, and extreme adventure activities.
Isabela is also home to the delicious Pancit Cabagan, made of miki, with hardboiled quail eggs, mixed vegetables, and topped with lechon carajay (Lechon kawali) and sliced red onions providing the crunch and spice. One taste and you will wonder where it’s been all your life.

Isabela has a number of historic churches—(top, left) is the Parish Church of Saint Matthias in Tumauini, with its belfry designed like a white wedding cake; and (top, right) is the San Pablo Church in San Pablo, said to be the oldest in the province. (Bottom, right) is teacher Jocelyn Taron, owner of the famous Josie Panciteria, which makes the best Pancit Cabagan in the province. She also sells pure cacao balls for chocolate drinks and dessert. (Photos are blogger's own/Created by Picstitch)

One of the most popular tourist destinations in the province is the Saint Matthias Parish Church in the town of Tumauini, built in 1783. Made of red brick, its façade features headless statues of saints. To its right, its bell tower stands out like a white four-layered wedding cake, with piped red frosting. The church was closed when I visited it with friends last week but it was a truly impressive structure with its red bricks used as ornamental decoration, not just to build the structure itself.

Another church not to be missed is the San Pablo Church in the town of San Pablo. Work appears to be ongoing to restore the church, which was originally made of adobe and soft stone. Built in 1624, it is said to be the oldest in Isabela, and its belfry reputed to be the tallest in the entire Cagayan Valley.

For more history, take a trip to Palanan where Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo surrendered to the American forces in March 1901, thus ending the Philippine Revolution. On the supposed site where the first Philippines President was captured now stands the Aguinaldo Shrine.

Palanan also has a number of white-sand beaches with crystal-clear waters (Culasi Beach, Kanaipang Beach and Dicotcotan Beach), as well as waterfalls ideal for swimming and picnics (Dicarangayan Falls, Diminalno Falls, Disadsad Falls and Sisangkilan Falls). There are no hotels and resorts here, so most visitors stay at the homes of hospitable residents.

While not as massive as the Hoover Dam in Colorado, Magat Dam (Barangay Aguinaldo, Ramon town) still makes one impressive sight. At the time of its construction in the 1980s, it was the largest in Asia. A tourism resort complex has since been built, allowing visitors have a picnic, and even take a boat ride in the reservoir lake with waters supplied by the Magat River, a tributary of the mighty Cagayan River. Magat Dam supplies both hydroelectric power to the province and helps irrigate its farms.

What was once used mainly by illegal loggers to ferry their illicitly cut timber, the Abuan River is now being promoted as the country’s next whitewater rafting destination. Now the bugadores (timber haulers) have been trained as boatmen, skillfully navigating the river’s rapids. There’s also a calmer portion in the river where visitors can kayak. The main tour of Abuan River includes a trek to the three-tier Sulimanan Falls, as well as some rappelling. (Call Luis Caraan at 0927-6556-845 or e-mail him at lcaraan@wwf.org.ph for inquiries, or Anton Carag Jr. of Adventures and Expeditions Philippines Inc. at 0917-5327480/E-mail  anton@whitewater.ph for tours.)

How about visiting some farms in Cauayan City? Visitors can pick fruits at the Cortez Fruit Farm and pay for these before leaving, or admire the flowers and other ornamentals at the Dacuycuy Farms. After, drop by the Mushroom Center at Barangay Tagaran and pick up some fresh oyster mushrooms, pickles, burger patties and other mushroom-based products. (To arrange the farm visits, call the Department of Tourism in Tuguegarao City, Cagayan at 078-844-1621 or e-mail cvtourism2@gmail.com.)

For a different kind of dining experience, drop by Josie  Panciteria (13 National Highway, Purok 7, Anao, Cabagan, near the Milagros Hospital.  0919-2509140) for her Pancit Cabagan made more savory because the broth she uses is made from boiling pork bones all day. A teacher, Josie Taron also makes pure dark chocolate balls from the cacao seeds she purchases from her students; the balls can be mixed in hot water to make a chocolate drink, or eaten as is, like dessert. So every purchase of these chocolate balls also helps Cabagan students stay in school.

Where to stay
Truth to tell, there are very limited choices for accommodations in Isabela, offering only basic facilities and amenities, with inns mostly run by families. Among those recommended by the DOT are: Amity Inn (National Highway, Cauayan/ 078-652-2010); Grand Cauayan Hotel (Don Ancilliary Street, Cauayan 078-635-2023; Queen Jennifer Hotel & Restaurant (National Highway, San Fermin, Cauayan/078-652-0066 or 0077); Hotel Romans Ville (Rizal Street, Centro, Ilagan/078-624-2029); Marjs Hotel (Gangan Avenue, San Vicente, Ilagan/ 078-622-3599); and San Antonio Hotel (12 Burgos Stree., Ilagan/078-624-2170).

You may want to drive the four hours to Tuguegarao City instead if you plan to stay only overnight. Stay at the new Villa Victoria Hotel (11-a Highway Pengue-Ruyu Tuguegarao/078-844- 0436) with its clean and tastefully-designed rooms. Love its crispy fried chicken.

Getting there
Cebu Pacific flies to Cauayan, Isabela every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Cyclone Airways flies from Cauayan City to Palanan every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

By land, you can take the bus to Isabela via Victory Liner, GV Florida (T# 352-5393), and Baliwag Transit (T# 912-3343/912-3361).

You can also drive to Isabela via the North Luzon Expressway passing through San Fernando, Pampanga, going to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, via the Pan-Philippine Highway. Staying on the same highway, you will pass Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, then reach Santiago City, Isabela.  Cauayan, where the provincial airport is located, is about 20 kilometers away. From Cauayan to Ilagan, the provincial capital, is about 25 km. The trip from Manila is about six to eight hours, depending on your speed. (For more on Isabela tourism and tour packages, click www.dotregion2.com.ph/d2/)

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, June 17, 2013. All rights reserved for these photos.)

Travel Bites: Metro Naga eyes 20% hike in tourists by 2016 on higher infrastructure spend

METRO Naga is projecting a 20-percent growth in tourist arrivals over the next three years, as it positions itself as a premier destination in the Bicol region.

This developed as Naga City Mayor John Bongat told  the BusinessMirror he is looking to spend some P1 billion for tourism-related infrastructure projects over the medium term that would further boost the area’s chances of attracting more visitors.

“We will solicit support from national government sources,” he said of the proposed budget. Bongat was in Manila on Friday to launch Naga Excursions (Naga X), a tourism brand that pushes the exciting destinations of Metro Naga—composed of 16 local government units in the province of Camarines Sur, with Naga City as its anchor.

One of the most popular festivals in Bicol is the feast day of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, which features a fluvial procession. (Photo by Remate)
About P400 million to P600 million of the proposed infrastructure budget will be spent to rehabilitate the Naga River. “This is the site of the fluvial parade [during the Feast of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia], so we would like to help the river recover, construct a plaza and other gathering areas along its banks,” said Alec Francis Santos, chief of the Arts, Culture and Tourism Office of Naga City, the capital of Camarines Sur.

The rest of the P1-billion proposed budget would be for the repair and construction of roads, bridges, promenades and walkways.

In 2013, the national government allocated P52 million to build a city museum in Naga in memory of the late Interior and Secretary Jesse Robredo, Santos added.

He also said Bongat had recently written a letter to Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya for help in upgrading the Naga City Airport, which is regularly flooded during the monsoon season. The mayor is also seeking Abaya’s support to raise the priority of return flights from Naga, so planes would be able to land on time in Manila.

According to the General Appropriations Act of 2013, the Department of Public Works and Highways is constructing some P338 million in tourism infrastructure projects in Camarines Sur this year. The projects are mainly for the upgrading and improvement of roads to specific tourism areas in the province.

“Metro Naga is now gearing up and positioning itself as the tourism hub for Region 5 [Bicol region],” said Bongat, who is also chairman of the Metro Naga Development Council (MNDC), which groups 16 local governments representing the municipalities of Bombon, Bula, Calabanga, Camaligan, Canaman, Gainza, Libmanan, Magarao, Milaor, Minalabac, Ocampo, Pamplona, San Fernando, Pili, Pasacao and Naga City. The MNDC is an initiative funded by the Canadian International Development Agency through the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

The group “seeks to bring about accelerated, equitable and sustainable growth and development by maximizing the resources of its members, following an integrated area development framework. Through local economic development, the MNDC seeks to strengthen the links between urban Naga City and its neighboring rural municipalities to widen the economic benefits derived from its phenomenal growth,” says its project web site.

“For a long time, tourists going to Camarines Sur stay in Metro Naga. So we’ve identified destinations that are ready for promotions, as well as others for tourism development,” said Santos.

Naga X is designed as a one-stop shop for tourists, offering a variety of “highly customizable” travel packages that cover accommodations, tours and other activities in key destinations in Metro Naga, connecting to other tourist sites in the other provinces in Camarines Sur. The province has 35 towns and two cities.

Caramoan is often called the Secret Paradise because of its distance from major urban cities or centers of commerce. It is a favorite location for the reality TV series, Survivor. (Photo from http://www.caramoan.co/)
The packages feature trips to nearby islands like Caramoan, the location for various Survivor series (Islands Excursions), churches like the Minor Basilica of the Virgin of Peñafrancia (Pilgrimage Excursions), cultural landmarks via walking tour of Centro Naga (Heritage Excursions), or a hike through the Mount  Isarog National Park (Highlands Excursions), among other places, with rates starting as low as P550 per person.

Basic inclusions in the package tours are ground handling (land and boat transfers), Department of Tourism (DOT) accredited tour guides and travel insurance.

“Naga X is also a consortium that groups local players in the tourism industry that includes hotels, transport providers, tour operators, restaurants, coffee shops, spas and allied services,” added Santos. All of the members cooperate in marketing Metro Naga, and are expected to adhere to strict standards for operations to make the tourist experience truly satisfying.

From 3.1 million tourists in 2010, tourists to the Bicol region have leaped by almost 20 percent to 3.7 million, according to DOT data. Of the total visitor arrivals in the region, Metro Naga/Camarines Sur accounted for 34 percent in 2010, steadily growing to 51 percent, or 1.9 million arrivals in 2012. Domestic travelers comprise the bulk of the visitor arrivals in Camarines Sur, while foreign tourists account for some 25 percent.

Bongat said the construction of the Camsur Watersports Complex  (CWC) in Pili has helped spur tourism in Metro Naga and the entire province.
Aside from the CWC, the annual festival celebrating the feast day of the Virgin of Peñafrancia plus meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) have helped attract more tourists to the province.

Santos added that tourism receipts generated in Metro Naga alone grew by 23.5 percent to P741 million in 2012 from P600 million in 2010.

The growth in tourist arrivals in Camarines Sur has encouraged more private-sector investments in the accommodations sector, he said. From only 22 hotels in 2000, with 551 rooms, there were 56 hotels with 1,609 rooms in Metro Naga as of the end of 2012, which included the Eurotel hotel chain. He also said some 200 more rooms will be added to the accommodations sector this year.

Metro Naga is easily accessible by land or air. PAL Express and Cebu Pacific  fly daily to Naga City. By land, which usually takes eight hours, tourists can take the bus via PhiltrancoPeñafrancia Tours or Isarog Line , Cagsawa Travel and Tours (T# 913-4514/0917-6063918)  and DLTB Co. 

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on June 3, 2013.)

Travel Bites: The smiling land of beauty

THE province of Cagayan is known as a spelunker’s and game fisher’s paradise.

It has a number of caves that attract the adventurous who bravely go into their deeper recesses to gaze at formations that took millions of years to shape by dripping water.

With the waters from the Pacific Ocean swirling in to meet the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), a mix of fish species can be caught off the municipality of Santa Ana and Palaui Island, which sports fishers say can rival even Hawaii’s best fishing areas.

Tourists will also likely enjoy visiting Cagayan’s historic churches, hiking through its lush mountains, or just chilling by the beach.

Palaui Island is a declared marine reserve and features a white beach, rugged terrain, and an ancient lighthouse. (Photo from http://www.islandsofthephilippines.com/)
Its most celebrated time of the year is the Aggao na Cagayan held in the province’s capital of Tuguegarao City every year  from June 23 to 29, with the last day having been declared a non-working holiday since then-President Ferdinand Marcos’s time. This year will be the festival’s 430th year, which will likely be observed with beauty contests, sports tournaments, street dancing, an exhibit of local art and indigenous products and a trade fair.

Also during the month of August, Tuguegarao residents gather for their annual Pav-vurulun Festival. The weeklong affair features a variety of activities in honor of its patron saint, Saint Hyacinth, whose feast day is on August 16.

While in Cagayan, one must not miss its famous dish called Pancit Batil-Patong, made up of miki noodles and topped with minced carabao meat, pork chicharon, bean sprouts and other vegetables and a sunny-side up egg. It is usually mixed with a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce and calamansi with chopped onions.


FIRST stop in a tour of the province should be the Cagayan Provincial Museum and Historical Research Center (Capitol Hills, Tuguegarao City). It features extensive research on the Callao Cave, where the fossilized remains of the so-called Callao Man were discovered in 2007. While research is still ongoing on the Callao Man’s origins, some believe he could antedate the 47,000-year-old Tabon Man and could be the ancestor of the Atis, who were the first indigenous tribe in Cagayan. The museum also houses antique pieces and religious artifacts.

The Callao Cave (municipality of Peñablanca) with its seven chambers is probably the most popular tourist spot in the province. It has magnificent limestone rock formations, which look like an elephant’s head, an angel, a dog’s head, a lion’s head, etc. Shafts of light illuminate darker recesses of the cave through natural crevices in the rocks. Locals have turned its first chamber into a chapel.

One must climb about 190 steps to get to the cave’s main entrance. Local tour guides are available to take visitors into the cave. (Getting there: From the city’s main terminal, take a jeep or tricycle going to the town of Peñablanca—you can ask the driver to drop you at the dock where bancas ply the clean and scenic Pinacanauan River, which will lead you to the Callao Cave. Local entrance fees apply.)

With some 300 caves that can be explored in Cagayan, it’s best to consult professional spelunkers to guide you. Contact the Sierra Madre Outdoor Club (078-844-2359/0917-2726-494. Look for Francisco Battung).

Pinacanauan River itself is a tourist attraction and visitors can pay the boatmen a fee to take them around the river. By 6 p.m., there is a particular spot on the river where one can marvel at the scores of bats flying out to look for their first meal of the day.

The Basilica Minore de Nuestra Señora de Piat (The Basilica of Our Lady of Piat) is dubbed the Pilgrimage Center of the North as thousands of devotees go there to pray to the over 400-year-old Black Virgin Mary. There is a stairway that leads to the back of the Lady, where devotees can touch her dress through small windows. The feast of the Lady is on July 2. (From the Tuguegarao City terminal, take a bus or jeep going to Piat.)

The Basilica of Our Lady of Piat, above, 
and its most venerated resident, below. 
(Photos from www.cagayanvalley.com)
One should also drop by the Saints Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral along Rizal Street, Tuguegarao City,  famous for its five-story belltower. White columns frame the structure built from red bricks. Another must-visit is the Iguig Church and the nearby Calvary Hills, whose main attraction is the life-sized 14 Stations of the Cross. (From Tuguegarao, take a passenger van to Iguig, then a tricycle to Calvary Hills.)

If you’re into game fishing, check out the municipality of Santa Ana, on the north coast of Cagayan. (Take a passenger van from Tuguegarao to San Vicente—about three hours away). The waters are home to the Pacific sailfish, Pacific black and Pacific blue marlin, Giant Trevally, Sailfish, Wahoo, King Mackerel, Dorado and the barracuda. The Philippine Game Fishing Foundation (PGFF) (http://pgff.net/xe/index.php) hosts regular local and international game fishing competitions there. Planes may be chartered to land at the Philippine Navy Camp where the PGFF maintains its own fishing camp.

Some local anglers also make the 12- to 14-hour trip from Manila to Santa Ana, dragging their own light boats for deployment in waters. April to June are the usual months for sailfishing, but other anglers are known to catch fish even during the monsoon season.

From the port in San Vicente, one can also take a boat trip to Palaui Island where a centuries-old lighthouse still stands. (Supposedly the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority is undertaking its rehabilitation.) Located on a hill in Cape Engaño (a 30-minute hike), the lighthouse and its environs provide a panoramic view of the rolling terrain and the surrounding waters, the same overwhelming raw beauty one can see in Batanes.

Santa Ana is also home to the pristine Anguib Beach with its creamy white sand perfect for lying around under sun. Its waters are quite shallow but so transparent, one can see through straight to the sea floor. There are no beachfront resorts here, which probably explains why it remains to be in relatively immaculate condition. There are small huts for rent where you can store your stuff and eat. There are grilling stations where you can cook freshly caught seafood by fisherfolk. (Either take tricycle ride from town proper or a boat ride from the San Vicente pier.)

Another beach that shouldn’t be missed is the remote Centinela Beach in the town of Claveria, with its fine sand and tranquil waters. (Take a passenger bus from Tuguegarao to Claveria, then a tricycle to the beach.)
Check out the Department of Tourism’s web site for other interesting sights in Cagayan.

Where to stay
IN Tuguegarao City, try out the newly opened Hotel Lorita (67 Rizal Street, 078-846-2565) with its inexpensive rooms, and a courteous staff that go out of their way to make each guest’s stay very memorable. It’s also located strategically in the city proper, and has its own café.

In Santa Ana check into Jotay Resort (http://www.jotayresort.com) with its clean rooms, swimming pool and Internet access. It also offers boat trips for sport fishing or beach tours. It has a shuttle bus service from Tuguegarao.

Getting there

PHILIPPINE Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly daily to Tuguegarao.

You can also take the bus from Manila to Tuguegarao via Victory Liner from its Pasay City terminal or Florida Bus from its Sampaloc, Manila, terminal (T# 743-3809/912-5354/781-5894).

By private vehicle, from the North Luzon Expressway passing San Fernando, Pampanga, drive along the national highway all the way through Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija; Bayombong City, Nueva Vizcaya; then taking the Santiago-Tuguegarao road in Santiago, Isabela, and arriving in Tuguegarao. The trip takes about  seven to10 hours depending on your car speed and the number of stops you make along the way.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on May 27, 2013.)

March 27, 2014

Travel Bites: An island born of fire

SAY “Camiguin,” and at once, it conjures up images of the round, luscious, fleshy fruit called lanzones.

The volcanic soil on this island off Misamis Oriental has made it possible for the lanzones as well as other fruits and vegetables to thrive lushly in Camiguin. Lanzones-growing is a major source of livelihood for most Camiguingnons.

As such, every third week of October, the island erupts into a four-day festival celebrating the small pale-brown balls of golden sweetness, with a street dancing contest, a parade, a trade fair and a beauty pageant.

Just a little under 30,000 hectares, the pear-shaped island has seven volcanoes including Mount Hibok-Hibok (also known as Catarman Volcano), still considered active with the last rumblings and eruptions occurring between 1948 and 1951. With such volcanic activities, it’s no wonder Camiguin has often been described as  an “island born of fire.”

Camiguin Island has beaches including a white sandbar, hot springs, water falls and deep diving spots filled with corals and colorful marine life. It is also rich in religious history and is known for the annual Holy Week pilgrimage called Panaad Festival. Locals and visitors, as part of their religious vow (saad in Cebuano), walk the main circumferential road hugging the island’s coastline, and praying the Stations of the Cross while trekking up the walkway of Mount Vulcan.

The friendly and helpful locals speak Cebuano, although indigenous tribes possibly of the original Manobo settlers, still speak their own Kinamiguin dialect.

The best time of the year to visit Camiguin is from April to July, during the dry season.

Street dancer shows off newly-harvested lanzones during the four-day Lanzones Festival in Camiguin. (Photo from http://www.timonera.com)
The White Island is actually a sandbar that takes on different shapes  depending on the tides, but most often it is splayed out under the sun, much like the beachgoers who are there to swim, snorkel or sunbathe.  (It disappears during high tide.)

There are also a number of gray to black-sand beaches along the island’s coastline, though the most popular, such as the Yumbing Beach (where one can admire the golden setting sun) and Camiguin Beach, are in the main municipality of Mambajao.  Toward the south in Barangay Cantaan, 30 minutes away from Mambajao, is the Kabila White Beach, a secluded cove that has a giant clam nursery. (Donations to the foundation operating the nursery are encouraged.)

In 1871, a massive volcanic eruption occurred in Camiguin, wiping out a 175-year-old Spanish settlement in the municipality of Catarman. What remain are the adobe walls and belfry of Catarman Church (Guiob Church). Inside the ruins is a tiny chapel. Aside from the Catarman Church Ruins, there is also a cross nearby marking the community cemetery, which sank during the 1871 eruption. The area is also a popular dive site.

Aside from the beaches, there are also breathtaking waterfalls such as the Katibawasan Falls, which drops from a height of some 80 meters into an icy-cold pool below. The area is also teeming with orchids, ferns and other vegetation. It is about 20-minute ride from the Mambajao town proper.

Tuasan Falls in Barangay Mainit, Catarman, cascades from a height of 25 meters. It’s not exactly the easiest spot to go to as this involves some hiking along a cliff to reach a river to the falls. But visitors are rewarded with its pristine beauty and natural rock formations.

Being a volcanic island, Camiguin is also rich in hot and cool sulfur springs. There is the Ardent Hot Spring in Barangay Esperanza in Tagdo, about 2 km away from the Mambajao town proper. There are several pools fed by Mount Hibok Hibok but one is just truly hot, making a swim there truly rejuvenating. Food and picnic tables are available onsite.

The Macaw Cold Spring in Barangay Tupsan Pequeno, Mahinog town, has a deep smoky-blue color supposedly because it is rich in minerals. You can take a dip—entrance is free—or hike around the area, which has lush vegetation. It’s about 12 km south of Mambajao.

Mount Hibok-Hibok is still considered an active volcano. Its previous eruptions have made the soil in Camiguin rich in nutrients and thus, a good area to grow crops. (Photo from http://tropicalvacationspotsblog.com

Do snorkel or dive in Camiguin as it has a number of rich diverse dive sites, with an abundant marine life. Recommended dive sites are the Jicduf Shoal, Burias Shoal and Kantaan Dive Site (for advanced divers), Mantigue Island, Cabuan Point, to name a few.

Feast on the local cuisine and delicacies. It has grilled chicken; pastel, a soft bun filled with yema (Vjandep Bakeshop, 57 Plaridel Street, Mambajao/T# 088-387-0049); kiping, which is made from sweet potato and served deep-fried with latik (coconut sauce);  and an assortment of seafood. There are respectable Italian and Mexican restaurants on the island as well.

Check out Little Bridges Taberna Ramada (Anito Barangay Road, Anito) for its muffins and quiches, creamy cheesy lasagna and pizza.

If you’re an avid mountaineer, do climb the challenging Mount Hibok-Hibok. Once you reach its peak, you are rewarded with stunning views of Bohol, Cebu and Negros provinces.

Pastel, a soft roll filled with sweet yema, is one of the more famous food delicacies in Camiguin. (Photo from Vjandep Pastel FB account)

Where to stay
Casa Roca Inn (http://www.casarocacamiguin.com/) along the National Highway in Naasag, Mambajao, is a full-service bed and breakfast, where the attraction is not only the sea that guests can look out to from their bedroom balconies, but its owners Jim and Evelyn who make every guest feel at home. They also whip up fantastic feasts that will make every tummy sing. The entire house is also available for rent for large groups of families and friends.

Golden Sunset Beach Resort (T# 088-387-9163) in Barangay Yumbing, Mambajao, just lies across the famous White Island—you are there in just 10 minutes. Its rooms are spacious and clean, with a salt-water pool that also overlooks a wide expanse of ocean.

Getting there: There are flights to Cagayan de Oro City from Manila, Bacolod, Cebu and Davao,  or via major carriers. From Cagayan de Oro, take a cab to the Agora Market, where buses go to the town of Balingoan. From there, catch a ferry going to Camiguin.

(For more on Camiguin island, check the Facebook page of the Camiguin Tourism Office, or you may call 088-3871-097 local 120, or e-mail: camiguin.tourism@gmail.com).

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, April 29, 2013.)

March 25, 2014

DOT targets over 1 million tourists in 1st quarter, 2014

THE Department of Tourism (DOT) has projected “over 1 million” foreign visitors by the end of the first quarter this year, as it intensifies its marketing efforts for the Philippines in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

This was the optimistic prediction of Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez Jr. even as he announced the agency’s visitor arrivals target for 2014 at 6 million, down from the 6.8 million target the agency officially uses for budgeting purposes.

The Philippines has missed its visitors’ targets in the past two years owing to diplomatic issues, political skirmishes in the south and natural calamities, which have discouraged the arrival of more foreign tourists.

In an interview on the sidelines of the Philippine Economic Briefing, entitled “Enhancing Resilience to Sustain Inclusive Growth,” at the Philippine International Convention Center on Tuesday (March 18), Jimenez expressed confidence that some 500,000 foreign visitors arrived in January and February this year.

The first quarter of the year usually brings in foreign tourists, especially for the Yuletide-New Year holiday, as well as the Chinese New Year. Last year the Philippines attracted 1.15 million visitors in the first quarter alone.

The DOT chief said his agency is intensifying the Philippines’s exposure in markets, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Russia, India and the Middle East.

This is aside from the DOT’s new marketing tack to promote the Philippines and its major provincial destinations in the European market.

In an interview with the BusinessMirror in January, Tourism Assistant Secretary for Market Development Benito Bengzon Jr. said: “For 2014, we have identified new opportunity markets in Europe, such as France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain and Russia. Through a strong market development push, we hope to generate more than 250,000 arrivals from these markets, with France and Russia expected to provide about 50,000 each. Together with existing key markets in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, we hope to generate a total of over half-a-million visitors from Europe this year.” (Click "DOT ‘sees’ 5.7M tourists in 2014; more Europeans eyed," BusinessMirror, Jan. 11, 2014.)

Meanwhile, Jimenez said the agency will also be implementing “tactical campaigns” for Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong.

“The Philippines’s is Singapore’s value extension, especially when we become the destination of cruise lines that are docked in Singapore. That is why we are working closely with the Singapore Tourism Board and cruise-line companies, such as Carnival Cruises, Genting World [Star Cruises], Royal Caribbean International, etc., on this,” he explained.

While Chinese tourists continue to flock to the Philippines for rest and recreation, diplomatic issues between both countries continue to put a damper on their arrival.

Similarly, Hong Kong’s recent visa restrictions on travel to the region affecting Philippine government officials indicate the continuing undercurrent of tension between both countries, stemming from the botched rescue of Hong Kong tourists in 2010, and the Philippine government’s refusal to apologize for it.

Chinese visitors accounted for 9.11-percent market share of the 4.7 million total tourists to the Philippines last year; Singapore was 3.74 percent; and Hong Kong 2.69 percent.

Jimenez’s optimism is also shaped by the fact that the Philippines is looking to add at least 26 new inbound flights that would generate some 10,404 additional seats per week.

These new inbound flights and additional flight frequencies could come from Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Japan, Brazil and New Zealand, which have conducted bilateral air negotiations with the Philippines recently.

During the economic briefing, Jimenez stressed the importance of developing competitive tourism products and destinations, which can fuel inclusive growth through generating quality jobs and business opportunities in host communities.

“The merits of visiting the Philippines have been noticed by publications such as Condé Nast and the New York Times in the past year. Our international tourist receipts have grown by 15.38 percent in 2013. However, we are not going to rest on our laurels, but continue to develop competitive tourism products and destinations so that we can augment and sustain this rapid growth well into the future.”

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, Jan. 11, 2014.)

Tourism industry seen to gain much from PHL participation in Berlin fair

THE Philippines successfully participated in this year’s ITB Berlin (Internationale Tourismus-Börse Berlin), considered the world’s leading tourism and trade fair, which could give massive European exposure to tourist destinations.

In an interview, Domingo Ramon Enerio III, chief operating officer of the Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), an attached agency of the Department of Tourism (DOT), said the Philippines booth had a bigger space this year at 270 square meters, allowing more Philippines tour operators and travel participants to join and sell more to German and European buyers.

“Though the booth was smaller in size compared to Thailand’s and Malaysia’s, it attracted so much more positive feedback for being spacious, fresh looking and conducive to business meetings,” he said.

Enerio headed the 50-man Philippines delegation to ITB Berlin held from March 5 to 9. The delegation was composed of 27 tour and travel companies, including Philippine Airlines, which participated in the tourism event for the first time. It also included hotels and resorts, representatives from the local government of Bohol, the Philippine Embassy in Berlin and members of the House Committee on Tourism, headed by its chairman, Rep. Rene Lopez Relampagos of Bohol.

The TPB chief said other provinces and major Philippines destinations were strongly represented and promoted at the ITB, such as Palawan, Boracay, Cebu, Manila, Iloilo, Negros Occidental and Banaue.

The Philippines made a splash at the recent ITB Berlin, the world’s leading travel fair, held from  March  5 to 9. A 50-man Philippines delegation attended the event. It was led by the Tourism Promotions Board, various tour and travel operators, hotels and resorts, as well as representatives from the Bohol local government and members of the House of Representatives Committee on Tourism. This year’s Philippines pavilion was 270 square meters and allowed more Philippines sellers to promote their respective establishments and the Philippines as a destination.
Enerio said he also met with five companies that do digital and social- media marketing, like iAmbassador, which networks with travel bloggers; and FVM, a German travel trade publication. “My meetings, in particular, focused on how the Philippines can maximize the digital and social media to engage more Europeans and encourage them to talk about Philippines tourism.  This is in line with TPB’s No. 1  strategy to maximize the digital format and utilize the social media in various platforms, including mobile apps.”

He also met with eight European tour operators “to discuss possible areas of cooperation.”

According to a news statement, ITB Berlin received a 4-percent increase in trade visitors and a larger business volume, estimated at €6.5 billion this year.

The TPB, formerly known as the Philippine Visitors and Conventions Center, is the marketing arm of the DOT and tasked with marketing the Philippines as a prime tourist destination to local and international tourists.

The DOT is keen on attracting more tourists from Europe, especially since the European Commission ban on travel to and from the Philippines had been lifted.

For 2014, it has identified new opportunity markets in Europe, such as France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Spain and Russia. Together with existing key markets in Europe, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, the DOT hopes to generate a total of over half a million visitors from Europe this year.

The DOT is targeting at least 5.7 million foreign visitors this year, and 10 million foreign visitors by 2016.

(This piece was originally published in the front page of the BusinessMirror, March 13, 2014. Photo courtesy Tourism Promotions Board.)

Travel Bites: Oriental Mindoro - Beyond Puerto Galera

ORIENTAL Mindoro has got to be one of the most blessed provinces in the Philippines. It is rich in natural beauty with beaches so fair and fine, an abundance of marine resources, an incredible array of tropical flora and fauna, and gushing waterfalls that make their way through lush tropical rain forests that cover its mountains.

It sits at the center of the most diverse marine ecosystem in the world—the Verde Island Passage—where close to 3,000 species of marine life have been documented.

The most popular attraction in the province is, no doubt about it, the municipality of Puerto Galera, with its white-sand beaches (White Beach and Sabang Beach) and crystal-clear water. Aside from the beach, there are quite a few other attractions there as well, as in the capital city of Calapan and the municipality of Naujan that both boast of ecotourism and historical sites.

The White Beach (Photo from http://www.famousdestination.com/)
Oriental Mindoro is also home to the tamaraw, a water buffalo that is now on the endangered-species list, as well as the Mangyans, an indigenous tribe that supposedly hails from Indonesia, and has since settled in  the highlands of the province.

Located in Barangay Bancurro in the municipality of Naujan, the Simbahang Bato (Bancuro Church Ruins), is what remains of a former Augustinian priory founded in the late 17th century. After several tries, marauding Moro pirates finally overran the place, wanting to steal the church’s bell supposedly made of gold, but not finding it, they burned the church to the ground in 1824. The church, which was made of stone and coral as was the fashion of the time, was never rebuilt, although a small chapel within was established in the 1960s.  Locals apparently fear the place due to the alleged hauntings by spirits and supernatural entities. Awoooo!

Have a picnic and watch the birds feed at the Naujan Lake Natural Park, a government-managed and protected wildlife area. The Naujan Lake is the fifth-largest freshwater lake in the Philippines and hosts a number of protected fish species and migratory birds. It has been categorized as an important wetland because of its rich biodiversity, although it is a struggle to keep its environs safe from poachers and population stress.

At 8,482 feet, Mount Halcon is only the 18th highest peak in the country. Let not those statistics fool you as most mountaineers still grade the mountain as a difficult climb due to its slippery slopes and single-track trails. Located in the  municipality of Baco, the mountain is also home to the Mangyans who revere it, and endangered plant species like the Mindoro Bleeding Heart and a stick insect endemic to the province.

The climber who makes it to the peak is rewarded with magnificent views of the entire Mindoro and surrounding islands and, on a clear day, even the summit of Mount  Mayon in Albay province in the Bicol Region. At present, Mount Halcon is closed to mountaineers.

Because it is mainly a coastal province, there are numerous beaches that can be found in Oriental Mindoro, apart from those found in Puerto Galera. In the capital of Calapan, for instance, most locals go to the Suqui Beach when they want to cool off and have a swim. It is just 15 minutes away from the town proper by tricycle.

Bancuro Church Ruins (Photo from http://mindoropost.wordpress.com/)
Bongol Beach, for another, is a 2-km stretch of gray-white sand in Bongol, Pinamalayan. It is a secluded beach as it is harder to reach than most beaches, but if it’s privacy you wish, this is the place to be. From Calapan, take an air-conditioned van to Pinamalayan, then a tricycle to the beach. (There is also Melco Beach in the municipality of Roxas.)

Puerto Galera itself, aside from its popular White Beach and Sabang Beach, also holds other interesting features such as the Tamaraw Falls. Located in Barangay Villaflor, the water pours from a height of 423 feet, dropping asymmetrically into a series of little falls over an outcropping of rocks and vegetation into a pool below. A small fee is collected from those who want to picnic in the area or take a dip in the pool. From Puerto Galera, take a Jeepney bound for Barangay Villaflor—Tamaraw Falls can be seen on the side of the road.

While White Beach and Sabang Beach are where the action is, ahem, Aninuan Beach (next door to White Beach) is the choice of people who want less of the crowds. The sand is grayish-white with some smooth round pebbles and stones on the shore but the waters here are immaculately clean.

Aside from hanging out by the beach and swimming, diving is also a popular recreation in Puerto Galera because of the vast marine resources around it. If you don’t know how to dive, you can check out the numerous dive centers along the beach such as South Sea Divers (http://www.southseadivers.com/), a pioneer in the area offering reasonable fees, or the Blue Ribbon Dive Resort (http://blueribbondivers.com/) with attractive dive packages.

One of the more exciting attractions in Puerto Galera is the annual Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival held outdoors in a grass terraced ampitheater at Mount Malasimbo (about 30 minutes away from White Beach) usually between February and March. Aside from local artists whose works are featured around the festival grounds, local and foreign music acts have played at Malasimbo, mesmerizing guests with their traditional music and sacred chants, jazz, pop and chill-out tunes. During the last festival from March 1 to 3, ethno-folk artists Bob Aves and Grace Nono, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff and soul siren Joss Stone performed before an estimated 4,000 participants. (UPDATE: This year, the festival featured Swedish folk/Latino singer/songwriter Jose Gonzalez, jazz group The Robert Glasper Experiment, our very own Mishka Adams, to name a few.)

Jose Gonzalez at the Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival held from Feb. 27 to March 3, 2014. (Photo from InterAksyon.com)
Dining options

When in Oriental Mindoro, one shouldn’t miss the suman sa lihiya with coco jam (steamed rice cake soaked in coconut milk and treated in lye) from Merl’s Native Delicacies (Ubas Street, Lalud, Calapan City, 043-286-7684/0916-356-6381 and 0922-847-3458). These tiny round cakes of sweetness make for a great and filling breakfast or merienda snack, as well as  a pasalubong treat for loved ones.

In Puerto Galera, one of the most popular restaurant’s is Hemingway’s Bistro (Sabang Beach, 043-287-3560/0920-2060-553) for its succulent steaks, fresh seafood and impeccable wine list. Though prices at the bistro may be on the high end, the dishes are worth every centavo. The staff are also amazingly helpful, with the kitchen eager to please diners with special requests.

Of course, what attracts many to Puerto Galera is not only the scuba diving and the white beaches, but the throbbing nightlife. Bars are aplenty here. For family-oriented and more wholesome partying, stick to the bars at the White Beach. For the rest of your wilder, baser needs, go to Sabang. Wherever you end up though, make sure you have a taste of the Mindoro sling—a rum and juice cocktail that reminds you of the refreshing outdoors of the province, with a punch of excitement.

Where to stay
In Calapan, stay at the Filipiniana Resort Hotel (http://www.filipinianacalapan.com/), which is strategically located, with a mall and banks nearby. The rooms are wide and clean, with an expansive swimming pool.

Out of the Blue Luxury Resort (http://www.outoftheblue.com.ph/), which overlooks the Small La Laguna Beach recently received the “Best Service” commendation among Tripadvisor’s members. Bookings are efficient, with the food quite hearty and excellent, and superb professional staff. It has spacious villas perfect for a barkada getaway or a family outing, and has two indoor pools that look out to stunning views.

Getting there
Most tourists going to Oriental Mindoro take the bus to the Batangas City Port such as JAM Liner (from Cubao or Buendia Avenue/ http://www.jam.com.ph), or the Tritran Bus Lines (2124 Taft Avenue, Pasay City/ 831-4700), but make sure the bus passes the Calabarzon Expressway for a shorter trip.

From the pier, take a ferry (e.g. SuperCat) or RO-RO either to Calapan, if that’s your end destination, or to Puerto Galera. At Terminal 3 in the Batangas pier, there are designated ferries that can take you to White Beach or Sabang Beach.

If going to Puerto Galera, you can also take the Sikat Bus/Ferry service (708-96-28) from the CityState Tower along Mabini Street in Ermita, Manila.

(This piece was originally published on April 22, 2013 in the BusinessMirror.)