March 27, 2012

My favorite destinations in the Philippines

THE cool, powdery-white sands of Boracay.

The massive limestone cliffs in El Nido.

The clear, blue waters of Cebu.

The lush, rolling hills of Batanes.

The almost-perfect cone of majestic Mayon Volcano.

These are just some of the awe-inspiring sites to behold when traveling around the Philippines.

I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to quite a number of lovely places in the country primarily because of my profession, and due to a brief stint in the government in the early '90s, accompanying three successive Cabinet secretaries who frequently monitored their agency’s provincial projects.

Nothing compares to the beauty of the Philippines, simply because it offers a myriad of choices to travelers of all persuasions and budgets. And whether you’re a fellow Filipino or a foreigner, one can be sure of friendly locals at these tourist destinations, eager to help and ensure you have a great time.

Here are some of my favorite places in the country:


Mayon Volcano as seen from the Cagsawa Ruins.

THE still-active Mayon Volcano is one of the most moving and powerful sights I’ve ever been fortunate to behold in my life. Its near-perfect cone is simply breathtaking.

Aside from trekking to the volcano, you can also take an all-terrain vehicle straight up to the lava front. Other sites to visit are the Our Lady of the Gate Parish Church in Daraga that was built in the 18th century, the Cagsawa Ruins, Busay Falls, and Liñgon Hills where an underground tunnel built by the Japanese forces can be found.

Of course, the best part about visiting Albay is eating spicy Bicolano dishes, such as Bicol Express, a variety of meats and fishes cooked with coconut milk, and my favorite dried fish called New Look.

Where to stay: Hotel Venezia ( if you’re staying in Legazpi City and want comfortable, clean and value-for-money accommodations. For a luxury feel, check out Misibis Bay Resort in Cagraray Island (


A traditional Ivatan stone house in Basco, Batanes.

SOME foreigners have compared Batanes to Scotland because of its wide-open spaces, lush greenery and deep-plunging cliffs.

Take a trip to “Marlboro Country”—a rolling hill with horses and cows roaming around or feeding on the grass. Visit colorful old churches, such as the Basco Cathedral built in 1783, the Mahatao Church (1787), San Jose Church (1814), etc. And if you can take a seasickness-inducing boat ride to Sabtang (one of three major inhabited islands of Batanes), drop by Savidug, a village of traditional limestone houses still used by the locals (or Ivatans).

Where to stay: Batanes Resort is a 10-minute ride from the capital, and sits on a hill overlooking the sea. Built to resemble the Ivatan houses, the establishment is clean and inexpensive, with basic amenities, such as hot and cold water. They also serve local Ivatan cuisine where I got my first taste of fried flying fish—delish! (For inquiries and reservations, call 927-2393, 0927-5829078.)


The tarsier is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Bohol. (Photo by

ASIDE from the world-famous Chocolate Hills, the must-see places in Bohol are the 18th-century churches, such as the baroque-inspired Baclayon Church and Loboc Church, which has an extensive collection of images of various and other religious paraphernalia.

Have a hearty lunch of Boholano dishes while cruising down Loboc River, then visit the smallest primate in the world, the tarsier, in several of the minizoos located along the river.

Other activities include swimming on Alona beach, scuba-diving on Balicasag Island, and dolphin-watching on Pamilican Island.

I was recently told that my favorite resort no longer offers the best customer experience so better click for a list of accommodations.

Boracay Island, Aklan

Boracay - the all-time best beach in the country and one of the most popular in the world.

NO doubt the long stretch of white-sand beach and its clear turquoise waters are still the major reasons people continue to flock to Boracay.

Aside from the usual island tours, spa massages, food tripping and bar hopping, and banana-boat rides, there is an amazing number of fun activities that can also be pursued. There’s rolling down a hill in a zorb (, feeding the fish while helmet diving, and para-sailing, to name a few.

Visitors have a choice of resorts featuring the barest minimum amenities to the most luxurious, while foodies will surely enjoy an array of local and international cuisine cooked with the most authentic ingredients.

Where to stay: Discovery Shores in Station 1, if you want the best luxury accommodations with the friendliest staff to boot (; and Sun Villa in Station 2, for a quiet escape, the best value spa, and home-cooked cuisine (


Visit the Taoist Temple in Cebu City, and make your petitions to the gods.

I HAVE loved Cebu since I started going there in the 1980s. One can be sure of warm, friendly smiles, an inexpensive but belly-busting meal, and just great entertainment because after all, isn’t this the land of country’s best singers? And, of course, the tasty, herb-filled Cebu lechon is simply one of the best-tasting in the country.

Some of the most interesting sites are the Shrine of Magellan’s Cross which was planted by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s men upon his arrival in Cebu in 1521; the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño where the oldest image of the Christ Child is enshrined; and the Taoist Temple, which is guarded by fierce dragons and where the local Chinese go to pray and seek favors from ancestors and ancient gods.

Also take a trip to Carcar, which is less than an hour drive from the city, which is famous for its chicharon, leather sandals, Spanish-era and American-period houses, and the historic St. Catherine’s Church, which is the second-oldest church in Cebu, after the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño.

Where to stay: BE Resort in Mactan for its hip, cool interiors, beach and tasty restaurant dishes (; Islands Stay Hotel in Cebu City for a value-chic stay ( accessible to major malls, offices and tourist sites in the city.


Dr. Bo Puentespina's 'bird talk' at the Malagos Garden Resort's interactive bird show. (Photo courtesy Malagos Garden Resort.)

DAVAO’S marketing slogan “From islands to highlands” says it all.

You will need boundless energy and at least a week to enjoy all the pleasurable offerings of this region.

Climb Mount Apo and catch the sun breaking through the clouds; visit the mighty but endangered Philippine eagle at the Philippine Eagle Center; watch an entertaining interactive bird show at the Malagos Garden Resort; see the creepy bat cave on Samal island; or go ziplining in what is reputed to be Asia’s longest, which is definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Eating durian can be a challenge to first-time visitors—it tastes like heaven but smells like hell, goes a local saying—so if the smell is off-putting, you can try its other variants like candies, coffee (at the homegrown Blu Gre café), or ice cream (Donnabelle brand). Other than durian, pomelo and mangosteen are also plentiful and readily available in the market, supermarkets, and roadside fruit stands.

One of the remarkable food finds in Davao is the artisanal goat cheeses under the brand of Malagos Farms which are comparable in texture and taste to the foreign brands.

Where to stay: Marco Polo Hotel ( is still the finest hotel in the city with its large comfortable rooms, and possibly the best Chinese restaurant in the area.


Massive limestone cliffs dot the clear torquoise waters of El Nido, Palawan. (Photo from

ONE of my most memorable trips has got to be in El Nido, in northern Palawan.

Take a pump-boat ride and marvel at the colossal limestone cliffs or swim in the clean waters of Bacuit Bay where you can see schools of colorful fishes and other marine life. Or why not stop by a sandbar and enjoy the cold powder-fine, white sand under your feet?

Where to stay: Miniloc Island Resort ( is in itself a tourist attraction, with its lush surroundings and water cottages built on stilts.

A must-see in Palawan is the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which has been gaining a massive amount of publicity since it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The main attraction is the St. Paul’s underground cave where stalactites and stalagmites have formed over the years.

Where to stay: Hotel Fleuris in Puerto Princesa ( loves hosting groups—whether families or friends, so make sure you avail yourself of its barkada package.

By no means is this list complete. There are so many other gorgeous places to visit in the Philippines, and where travelers are assured of warm smiles and fun times.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror, Feb. 26, 2012. All photos by this blogger, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.)

March 26, 2012

Festivals of the Odd

Taong Putik festival in Nueva Ecija. (Photo by Bullit Marquez/AP via Daily Telegraph)

It’s definitely more fun in the Philippines—to quote the Department of Tourism’s new marketing slogan—because the country is always alive with the many festivals going on in some part of the country somewhere.

Most fiestas are still steeped in the Catholic tradition—celebrations of a city or province’s good fortune believed to be accorded by a patron saint. Then there is the devotion to the Virgin Mary in all her incarnations, and her son the Baby Jesus or Santo Niño, like the Sinulog festival in Cebu and the Ati-Atihan festival in Aklan, both of which will culminate today. Also worth mentioning is the grand annual celebration of Tondo, Manila, fiesta also to Santo Niño.

There are also the festivals that celebrate a town’s founding anniversary, or its native products.

Whatever the basis for the merrymaking, you can bet on a lot of food served, overflowing drinks, much singing and dancing, and contests in all shapes and forms. Costumes and parades are also de rigueur for a number of the festivals as well.

But there are a few festivals in the country, which are still not too well known by the majority, and have odd or unusual beginnings.

Just monkeying around

Down South, in Surigao del Norte, the municipality of Malimono pays homage to human-sized monkeys said to have existed in the coastal area even before the time of the Spaniards, by celebrating the Onggoyan Festival.

In fact “Malimono” got its name from the mischief and mayhem caused by the monkeys. Legend has it that the monkeys (“unggoy”), seeing human beings perhaps for the first time, plotted and stole the food and personal belongings of a group of Spanish travelers when night fell. The next morning, finding themselves bereft of belongings, the leader of the group cried “mal mono” (bad monkeys) in disgust.

The natives, however, thought the monkeys were gods, according to the Provincial Tourism Office. So every May 15, the residents of Malimono make offerings to these monkey gods by preparing their favorite foods like bananas, cassava, etc., in the hope that the mischievous ones leave the residents alone.

While the festival is held intermittently due to scant financial resources, when the event is mounted, people go around dressed up as monkeys, and play tricks on neighbors. Tricks are played by one family on their neighbor, there is a lot of singing and dancing, and people tell stories or mount plays based on the lives of the monkey gods.

Local products are also on display during this festival, as street dancers go around imitating the movements of monkeys.


If Surigao del Norte has its mischievous monkeys, Nueva Ecija has its mud people.

Every June 24, Catholics in the country observe the feast day of Saint John the Baptist. Many barangays nationwide, especially those named after the saint, celebrate the feast by dousing their neighbors and passersby with water.

In Barangay Bibiclat, in the town of Aliaga, Nueva Ecija, the feast day of the baptizing saint takes on a different color as devotees literally transform themselves into mud people or “taong putik.” Residents call the ritual “Pagsa-San Juan” (Imitating St. John), while outsiders have dubbed it the “Taong Putik Festival.”

Devotees, because of their panata or vow to the saint, or perhaps as a way of thanking him for blessings received, smear their entire bodies with mud, and then wrap themselves in banana leaves, tied end to end, to make sure their identities are kept secret. They then go around, knocking on doors to beg for candles or money to buy candles to be offered to the saint during the Mass at church. After the Mass, everyone removes the banana leaves to reveal himself or herself and participate in the procession in honor of the saint.

Healers gather in Siquijor during Holy Week to make their 'magic' potions. (Photo from MySariSari Store)

The residents, even old timers, don’t know exactly when the festival began. They believe it started as early 1876. According to some, early Ilocano settlers brought an image of St. John the Baptist to Bibiclat, which helped rid the area of poisonous snakes. “Biclat” is actually Ilocano for “snake.”

Others say the ritual started in World War II when Japanese soldiers wanted to take revenge on the village whose residents they thought killed fellow soldiers. As the Japanese soldiers were about to execute all the males in the village, it rained so hard that the prisoners had to be brought into the church. Supposedly, the Japanese soldiers had a change of heart and freed the men instead. The village attributed this miracle to their patron saint. Thereafter, the villagers vowed to celebrate his feast day by wearing costumes patterned after the saint’s, but using native materials like banana leaves.

Witches’ brew

Every Black Saturday, “witches” from all over the country descend on Barangay San Antonio in Siquijor, Siquijor, for a grand meeting.

What people believe as witches, however, are really herbalists, locally known as albularios, who come from all over the Visayas and Mindanao to recharge their healing powers. They usually gather at Crocodile Hill, overlooking the Bay of Lazi and Mindanao Sea.

According to those who have been able to witness the ritual, these healers merely throw in tree barks, herbs, insects, roots of certain crops, into a giant vat of coconut oil, roiling to a boil over fire. Participants in this annual “Witches Festival” invoke the spirits and other mystical forces by saying ritualistic verses in a rhythmic monotone believed to energize the brew and give its handlers the power to heal. The “witches” then dip their flasks or containers into the brew to take home and use in their treatment of the ill.

Siquijanons say the ritual takes place during Black Saturday because this is the time Jesus Christ has yet to rise from the dead and thus, supernatural forces are able to go about freely and share their gifts of healing with humans.

Due to Siquijor’s relative isolation from the rest of the Visayas and Mindanao, and perhaps due to their level of education, the locals still believe in mananambals (herbalists) or mangbabarangs (black witches). As such, the festival has taken on an occult or mystic feel. But festival participants insist they are nothing more than ordinary people given the gift to heal.

Flying pests

El Nido, Palawan, is well known for its bird’s nests prized in Chinese cuisine, as well as its diverse marine ecosystem. But it is also famous for its high incidence of malaria cases.

To kick off an anti-malaria campaign, the El Nido Foundation mounted the very first Pista ng Kulambo (Feast of Mosquito Nets) in 1999. Since then, the festival is held every first or second week of December, and serves as the culminating activity for the year for the town.

The foundation believes that the festival helps reinforce malaria awareness and encourage people to use “impregnated” mosquito nets. That means that the mosquito nets are immersed in insecticide and air dried before being put to use. While there are medicines to protect or treat people ill with malaria, these are usually expensive. The cheaper alternative is to use mosquito nets to prevent from being bitten by these nasty flying insects.

Organizers of the festival usually come up with a lot of gimmicks to enable the residents of the 18 villages in El Nido to use their mosquito nets creatively. There have been contests on the best-dressed in a mosquito net, the biggest net, or the smallest net, etc.

Aside from bringing out the creativity of the residents of El Nido, the annual festival has enabled the town to dramatically reduce its malaria cases by over 80 percent since it was first held in 1999. Now isn’t that a good reason to celebrate?

Residents of El Nido, Palawan parade in their mosquito nets in their annual Pista ng Kulambo. (Photo by Mon Corpuz via Flickriver.)

Where the laundrywoman is actually…a man

But one doesn’t have to go far into the provinces to see unusual festivals.

Mandaluyong City, for example, has its own feast of the odd—a Lavandero Festival.

Conceptualized to celebrate the city’s foundation and liberation day, the festival is usually the highlight of weeklong activities held from February 1 to 9. (But there are times the festival is also held in November.)

The City Administrator’s Office created the festival in 2000 celebrating a traditional means of livelihood in old Mandaluyong during the Spanish era and right until after World War II. This was when Pasig River was still clean and teeming with fish.

“Mandaluyong was known for its men who supported their families while washing clothes. Many of them were able to send their children to college by being laundrymen. In fact two of Mandaluyong’s mayors used to be laundrymen—Pedro P. Cruz in the 1940s and Isaac Lopez in the mid-’50s. And I found out that the men’s way of washing clothes is very much different from the women. Hinahataw nila sa bato, tapos pinipilipit. [They whip it against the rocks or stones by the banks of the Pasig River then twist it],” says Jeffrey Sison, who first mounted this festival. Women, on the other hand, wash clothes by rubbing the front of their fists against each other, then wringing the water out.

“An oldtimer told me during the course of my research that before, being a laundryman was considered ‘macho’ [unlike now when it is seen as being ‘under the saya’]. Besides it was only the men who had enough strength to wash heavy garments then like blankets, the sotanas of the priests, etc.”

During the Lavandero Festival, male residents dress up in a typical washerwoman’s attire, a red or maroon patadyong with a white hand towel wrapped around their head. Imagine the delight of onlookers to watch these macho men dancing during the parade carrying a washbasin and a wooden palo-palo!

Exciting contests and shows are held by the banks of the Pasig River as part of the festivities.

As in most festivals, even these odd ones are celebrated with typical Filipino charm, humor and creativity.

(For a list of Philippine festivals, click on the Department of Tourism web site. This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on Jan. 15, 2012.)

The stuff champions are made of

Trekking the craggy boulders of Mt. Apo. (Photo by Rhonson Ng)

EVEN as a child, champion racer/mountaineer Jonathan Pido constantly tried to outdo himself.

A native of Carmen, Davao del Norte, Pido came from humble beginnings—the son of a farmer, Pedro Pido (now deceased), and Vivien, a food vendor.

He said when he was in grade school, he would help out in his father’s farm planting rice, bananas and vegetables. “Pero nu’ng namatay s’ya, bumalik na ulit sa may-ari ’yung lupa. Tenant lang ang papa ko. Ang mama ko, nagtitinda ng banana cue, barbecue, nagbabalot ng ulam.”

Pido, a police officer by profession, was the grand-prize winner of the 1st International Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge held last year in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur. He, along with his team mates Angelito Sibayan and Edwin Bueno (Team Carmen), bested 18 local and foreign teams, and clocked in at 22 hours, 51 minutes, and 42 seconds. The team won $3,500 (about P154,000) and a trophy for its effort.

I met him at the recent press briefing to announce the 2nd International Boulder Face Challenge, which will be held on April 28 and 29. With neither “hiking” nor “mountain climbing” in my vocabulary, I wanted to discover for myself the stuff champion racers/mountaineers were made of.

The second to the last child in a brood of 12, Pido said when his father passed away, “naghiwalay-hiwalay na kami.” Some of his siblings went to find work in Manila, some went abroad, while he and a few others stuck close to home. All the siblings, he said, now help out to support their widowed mother.

Despite the family’s financial circumstances, Pido wasdetermined to continue his education and graduate from a university, hoping to become a soldier or a police officer. He said he was inspired by his relatives who were in the Philippine Army and in the police force. “I was attracted to their keen sense of leadership, and their self-discipline,” he explained in the vernacular.

To support himself in his studies, he worked in a banana plantation tending to the flowering plants, then as a bagger wrapping huge plastic bags around the fruit bunches. “It’s backbreaking work,” said Pido half-chuckling and wincing at the memory. He said he had to wake up at 4 am to be at the plantation by 6 am for “assembly time”, and work continued until 2 pm, just as the sun was shining at its mightiest. By 4:30 pm, he was off to school where classes lasted until 9:30 pm.

Amid his hectic work and school schedules, Pido said he still managed to find time to join school clubs, become an officer in the Student Council, and even help in the local Kiwanis chapter.

In college, he joined the varsity volleyball team to help defray his tuition. His hard work and focus on his professional goal paid off. Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from the University of Mindanao-Panabo College, he applied at the Philippine National Police and passed its entrance exam in 2009.

Pido has been a cop for three years now. As P01 with the Regional Public Safety Battalion, 2nd Maneuvering Company of the PNP Region 11 Command, Pido helps beef up the checkpoints in Davao to ensure that the city and its surrounding environs are always safe from criminal elements.

Taking part in extreme sports or activities appears to be second nature to Pido, now 28, having faced adversity most of his life. He runs to keep fit but also takes part in running competitions and marathons. (Last December, he also ruled the Century Properties Ultra Marathon in Manila.)

He said he took up mountaineering in 2007 and first climbed Mount Apo with newfound friends from the Panabo Eco-Adventures and Keepers. “Matagal ko ng gusto mag-mountain climbing, at umakyat ng Mount Apo,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Wala lang, out of curiosity,” he answered. But I sensed it was probably due to a desire to again challenge himself with some new activity.

It’s easy to comprehend why Mount Apo holds an immense allure for mountaineers and other extreme sports enthusiasts. At close to 10,000 feet, it is the highest point in the Philippines. According to, the still active volcano “possesses a formidable array of landscapes, from craggy rockscapes to virgin forests; from mossy swamps to volcanic structures,” thus offering “the widest spectrum of environments” for climbers.

Despite their relative expertise in climbing Mount Apo, Pido and his teammates still faced quite a few formidable challenges during the race. One was the sulfur emissions from the volcano—they didn’t have masks to protect themselves from the fumes. And second was battling hypothermia.

Pido said the team reached the peak at 10 pm, or 12 hours after they had set off from the Municipal Plaza in Sta. Cruz, the starting point of the race.

By then, he said, the temperature at the summit was freezing and they were garbed only in singlets (sleeveless running shirts), their shorts, and running shoes. “Wala kaming pang-ginaw,” he said. Fortunately, they stumbled on cellophane bags which they used to wrap themselves with and keep warm.

Because it was a race, there were no breaks except at the designated checkpoints, and to eat their meals. “Ang baon namin pork adobo at kanin, at saka mga energy bars. Kailangan mo talaga ng kanin para sa carbo-loading, para me energy ka umakyat,” Pido explained.

According to Art Boncato, regional director of the Department of Tourism Region 11 (Davao Region), the Boulder Face Challenge was first held in 2008, but in 2011, they decided to encourage international teams to attend as well.

“The Mount Apo Boulder Face Challenge is one of the toughest adventure races in the Philippines,” he said. “It is a 24-hour extreme challenge using various disciplines such as mountain biking, trekking, water tubing and road running. The race starts from the Sta. Cruz beach lines and participants will navigate through the town’s tough trails and raging rivers, scale the boulder face of Mt. Apo, and culminate in the skyline of the country’s highest mountain.”

The event is one of the highlights of the annual Pista sa Kinaiyahan (Feast of the Environment) of the municipality of Sta. Cruz. Boncato said the annual competition has made the region of Davao a leading destination for eco-adventure tourism. It has also helped increase awareness about the importance of protecting the environment. This year, organizers expect participants to reach the maximum 35 teams—each team consisting of two racers and one logistical crew.

Declared a national park in 1936 and a protected area in 2004, Mount Apo is home to the Philippine eagle, and hundreds of other critically threatened bird and plant species. The national park is on the tentative list of Unescoas a World Heritage Site.

Despite the handicaps, and competing against better-prepared international racers and climbers, it’s amazing how Pido and his teammates still managed to snag the top prize last year. Asked what he did to his share of the prize money, he said with a hint of pride, “Bumili ako ng lupa, one hectare lang. Ginawa kong sagingan.

Still unmarried (“Gusto ko muna makapag-invest para ‘pag panahon na, at least handa na ako.”), Pido said he intends to join this year’s challenge and is quite focused on winning again. And maybe someday, he said, he’ll make it to the top of Mount Everest as well.

To join the 2nd International Mount Apo Boulder Face Challenge, register online at

In lower photo, P01 Jonathan Pido, left, and teammate Angelito Sibayan cross the finish line in the 1st International Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge in April 2011. The Department of Tourism Region 11 has announced the 2nd International Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge, which is scheduled on April 28 and 29 at Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur.(Photo courtesy

(My column, Something Like Life, is usually published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on Feb. 10, 2012. Yes, I've remiss in my posts. Wah.)