Friday, July 30, 2010

Sagada: The Hidden Gem of the North

September of last year was not the best time for me, despite it being my birth month. Good thing a spontaneous trip to this beautiful mountain town saved me. And that is why a year after that trip Sagada will always be close to my heart.

My godfather is an Episcopalian (the predominant religion in the mountain provinces) and is chairman of the board of St. Luke's Medical Center. Besides providing world-class healthcare, SLMC has also been very active in building churches in the northern parts of the country. I am Catholic, but it was during one of those Episcopalian church visits that brought me to Sagada and started my love affair with the town.

Ate Eden and I took this bus that looked like it couldn't even get out of their terminal in one piece. The terminal is along E. Rodriguez Ave. in front of Starbucks. It was this bus that would take us all the way to Besao, Mountain Province, and from there we would have to take a jeep that would go all the way up to Sagada. That was how the jeep we rode in looked. And it was so cool that people would actually go up the roof despite that bumpy, upward trip. Dangerous but something I'd love to try! :D

It was an extremely long trip because the bus driver didn't seem to have a schedule to follow, unlike the big bus companies who get timed the moment they leave their terminal. We were on the bus for about 14 hours. The jeepney ride took about 45 minutes due to the road construction.

Despite the long journey we had, Ate Eden and I didn't waste time lounging around. Oh and by the way, don't laugh, during our stay Ate Eden and I, along with some SLMC people, bunked at the newly built St. Theodore's Hospital, in the middle of town. Since it was newly built I didn't have any problems in getting contaminated by anything or sleeping in a bed which someone died on.

A Sagada trip will not be complete without conquering the complex cave systems. Since we did it late in the afternoon, we were advised by the trusty tour guide not to do the cave connection anymore. A cave connection would take roughly 6 hours, so we made do with the Sumaguing Caves which proved to be a toughie. Seriously not for the faint-hearted.

Sorry for the dark photos, it was pitch black inside, and the colemans used by the guide wasn't enough to light up the path. When the guide helped the other slowpokes who were tagging behind, he would tell us not to move because we wouldn't be able to see anything anymore. Good thing I already conquered my fear of the dark. :)

As you would see in the pics below, we were all wet. It was up in the mountains but we had an instant swim in the cold mountain spring. One important reminder: NO DRINKING PLEASE! The water is very clean, but the guide told me that the water had other elements that our bodies might reject.

TIPS: If you decide to do the cave connection or just the Sumaguing Caves, don't wear pants or any clothing made of heavy material. IT'S GOING TO BE A WET AND COLD ADVENTURE! Bring your own flashlight too so you won't be left grappling in the dark. Cameras are optional, the guides are 100% certified camera keepers. They do this everyday of their Sagada lives, and they have mastered taking pictures in the dark and keeping the camera very-much dry the entire time! :)

It was just ONE cave, but it took us forever! Now, I wonder what the cave connection would be like. While we were at the Sumaguing Caves, the guide would sometimes point out another group in the higher section of cave telling us that they were doing the cave connection.

After 2 long hours we emerged from the dark and back out into the light of day. We had to wash off bat poop from our feet. But it was so cool! Never mind the pain in my legs, I was happy that I didn't back off on that adventure, it would've been a pity!

Another tip: BE PREPARED TO WALK. Sagada has really narrow and steep roads. Cars could fit sure, but there aren't too many public transportation available. So dont' complain when the guides tell you you'd have to walk. Bring comfy walking shoes.

Getting back to the town proper, we were given snacks. We ate at the famous Masferre Restaurant.

The next day, we had the entire morning to ourselves. After a quick breakfast by the side of the road, we went off to see for ourselves other landmarks of Sagada. We went to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the cemetery which will lead to the Echo Valley. But since Ate Eden was an unadventurous person, we got as far as the cemetery and went on back. Making me a bit pissed. But we did see the hanging coffins! And it still baffles me how the ancestors were able to put those coffins by the edge of the mountain! Simply amazing! :)

By that day, the pain in our legs was already beyond description. Walking, sittting, and standing up proved to be a difficult task for about a week for me. But I found out when we got back from the cemetery that my godfather dared us to go up this mountain to go the see SLMC's other church project. I didn't know if I was going to be thrilled by this, but I went, together with the group we did the Sumaguing Caves with.

The sights, just like the steep mountain climb, took our breath away. We stopped, huffed and puffed, and took pictures. As we went higher up, we had more to see, just like these rice terraces and the bridge over not-so-troubled waters.

When we came back from the mountain town, we were given snacks as a reward for conquering the trail. But just before we left, the Igorots, the ethnic group of the Mountain Province, thanked us by performing this ancient-old dance.

Despite it being a year ago, I decided to do this blog entry because Sagada has captured my heart in a really special way. I've been to provinces in our country, but nothing compares to Sagada. I am especially thrilled because this year in September, I'd be going back to discover more of Sagada's hidden treasure troves such as the Echo Valley and Marlboro Country, and conquer the cave connection. I can't wait!!

In the city where we try to keep up with the fast-paced changes, Sagada has proven that being stuck in the olden times ain't so bad after all. It is this back-ward culture that makes Sagada unique and mysterious. The Igorots take their ancestors' works seriously, they even think of it as sacred. And maybe that is what we need, to preserve the past, because taking a once-in-a-while glimpse at it will make us appreciate our present.

The world wide web has tons of info on Sagada, but these are the sites I highly recommend, especially the first 2 sites. You'd get the information you need by just clicking on the links below:
The same association also has a MULTIPLY SITE.
SAGADA: Your Philippine Mountain Paradise

Thursday, July 29, 2010

10 Years of Friendship and the Beauty of Bohol

Sorry for the hiatus in my blogging, we spent the whole weekend and a good part of this week hauling boxes, packing and unpacking, going back and forth from our old, rented apartment in Makati to our very own house in Cainta, Rizal. I'd probably post pics of our humble abode soon, just gotta tidy things up over there first! :)

Anyway, on to the blog. My best friends and I always make it a point to go somewhere every year during summer. So far, we've been to Batangas, Olongapo, and Dagupan. But this year is extra special for us because it's our 10 year anniversary as a barkada. It's a major feat for us, as we juggle work, studies, other relationships, and other barkadas. So to celebrate, we decided to go to Panglao, Bohol.

It's a first for our barkada because it's our first official plane ride together. As pathetic as it may sound, we've been a sheltered group when we were still students. But now that we earn our own keep, the parentals have cut us some or never right?! :D

April 30, was the eventful day. We had an early morning Zest Air flight. And luckily for us our flight was very much on time! :) It was my first time to ride on Zest Air, and honestly it wasn't as bad as I thought, well except for some snooty flight attendant who asked a passenger to sit down in a not-so-accommodating way. But it was a smooth flight, so can't really complain, and since it was cheaper, there wasn't much spectacle to it.

After an hour's flight we arrived at our destination: Tagbilaran Airport. We just had to ask a random manong to take a picture of us at the tarmac! :)

The sad thing upon our arrival was that our hotel, Alona Tropical Beach Resort, forgot to pick us up at the airport. I had specifically e-mailed them 2 days before our trip to remind them of our flight details. They had replied to the e-mail saying that they would be there on the said time, but we waited in vain. Thankfully there were vans for hire, so we decided to go for it, and at the same time arrange our tour for the next 2 days. So maybe getting forgotten by the hotel was a blessing in disguise.

Just a tip for first-time Bohol trippers IT IS BEST TO MAKE YOUR OWN TOUR ARRANGEMENTS. It's cheaper by a couple of thousands, and you could also customize your itinerary. Although it would be convenient to let your hotel do it for you, the prices can be a bit heavy on the pocket. So do it yourself, ask any of the drivers, and they'd be happy to be at your service.

Our hotel was about a 45-minute drive from Tagbilaran Airport. Alona Tropical is located at Alona Beach in Panglao, another island town. After checking in and telling the management about their huge boo-boo in forgetting about us, we went to our rooms to get ready and immediately start our trip. We had no idea how grand our room was 'til we got there! My goodness, it was HUGE!

This would be our front porch, with two cozy wooden chairs.

And this would be the huge foyer. See the refrigerator, the sala, and the dining table. We didn't even use this space that much, except for the sala part because the TV was there.

And these would be the two HUGE queen-sized beds. Trency and I took the first bed, and Mike and Amanda used the second.

Our first itinerary on the tour was at the Marine Sanctuary. We took a boat that brought us to an island. It was kinda far, it took us more than an hour to get there. Ok, I got the pictures. Hindi ako nakatiis hehehe! This was our during our "I-thought-our-boat-ride-would-never-end" pictures.

But we had hellavuh good time at the Marine Sanctuary. I have never seen so much fish in my life. They were so colorful! They gave us crackers that we pounded to a powdery state, and fed them to the fishes. They came near us and it was so cool to see them feed on the crackers! Here's me feeding the fishes with the Skyflakes crackers! You could actually feel them nipping at the cracker, and then sometimes then nip at you! But it wasn't painful, so it was fun! :)

And it seemed like a popular scuba diving spot. We got there late in the afternoon so most of the divers were already preparing to go back to Alona Beach.

The next day our itinerary was packed! We woke up early from a HAPPY night, to get on our countryside tour. First on the list was the adorable tarsiers. Soft and fluffy, they are the smallest primates endemic only to Bohol in our country. Other tarsier species are found in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia. Other trivia about these cutie-pies are their eyes are bigger than their brains, they're nocturnal creatures, and they commit HARAKIRI or SEPPUKU when stressed! I don't really know how they do it, and I have no intention whatsoever to see that happen. That would be traumatizing.

Oh and if visiting these tarsier places, please do not use your camera's flash. Their eyes are sensitive and it's bad enough that they can't sleep during the day! Please be considerate, I'm very much sure you wouldn't want to see a tarsier commit suicide right in front of your eyes!

The tarsier places also sell trinkets and souvenir, it's one of the best places to buy stuff for your loved ones. It's expensive when you buy in the airport or those commercialized souvenir shops. One of the best things to bring back from Bohol are these Peanut Kisses. Just don't mind the model, it's bad advertisement I know! But these little suckers are soooo damn good I can finish 2 boxes of these! Not too sweet but oozing with peanut-y goodness! I love peanut butter, so this treat is just perfect!! :)

Next stop is what made Bohol famous both for Filipinos but foreign tourists as well: the famed Chocolate Hills. But before you get there, you have to pass through the man-made forest. Bohol's former governor was an environmentalist, so he had these trees planted along the main highway. It was breathtaking, and the air was so cool and clean, we just had to open our car window and just breathe it all in!

You'd see the Chocolate Hills even before you get to the viewing deck. They're scattered all over the place, and you'd begin to wonder what the hell they're all doing there. According to sources, these mounds aren't hills but coral deposits. Eons of years ago the place where the "hills" are now used to be under water, and when the water receded it left these unusual mounds.

A survey said that the total "hill" count is at 1,776. They're called Chocolate Hills because during the dry seasons, the grass which covers the hills, get all dried up giving it a brown chocolate-y hue.

Group pic taken by Mr. Foreigner dude! :)

And this would be us goofing around. It was quite embarrassing since we went up this rock right smack in the middle of the viewing deck. People were laughing at us, but who cares! :D I call it Ang Bagong Bantayog ng Kagitingan.

All the walking around made us totally hungry. So for lunch, we went to yet another famous Bohol must-try: The Loboc River Cruise! Besides the river cruise, another thing that made Loboc famous was it's zest for music, getting its tag as the musical town of Bohol. The famous Loboc Children's Choir, who have won many international awards and besting the best European choirs, hails from this simple, quiet town. In the picture below, you would see the equally famous Loboc Church, this is where the children would spend long afternoons of practice.

I remember during my first visit in Bohol, my godfather was a major donor for the choir (he donated the keyboards they now use), so upon his beck and call, the kids were all brought to the riverside and serenaded our group while having lunch. I swear their voices were angelic!

It was cool that they already renovated the riverside. They have constructed this nice terminal for people to wait in. My first visit, I remember it was just a cemented thing, not really good for tourism. But now, it's beautiful. You could also pick your choice of boat to eat lunch in, just take a look at their menu, which offers a good variety, pay-up, and just get to the designated loading area in the terminal. This would be Amanda and Mike on food-duty.

On the boat, you just have to wait a little while to get in line for the buffet. In fairness, they have an organized system, so people aren't kept waiting too long to get their fill. Food is also served hot and freshly cooked. Every trip, they have their food refilled, so rest assured it's really good.

The cruise, which takes about an hour, gives you a relaxed feel. With the boat silently chugging slowly down the river, you'd hear the birds chirping and you could see fishes swim in the emerald green waters. It's so peaceful, after eating, you could just hang around the sides of the boat and look at the trees and breathe in fresh country air.

You'd know when you've reached the end when you see these small waterfalls. The boat makes a u-turn here and while it slowly does, you could take pictures of the falls.

After a filling buffet lunch at the Loboc River, it was time to visit the old churches. Bohol has lots of old churches, almost right beside each other. The one we visited is the Baclayon Church, also known as the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Built by the Jesuits, this church is said to be one of the oldest churches in the country. But before you get in, when wearing a skimpy outfit such as shorts or a sleeveless top, they make you wear these horid tela things. I was not particularly thrilled by this, because the males could get in wearing shorts, but the females can't. And since we were all in BEACH MODE, we three had to unfortunately wear them during our entire stay inside the church. Does it make us holier than thou?

This is the altar, and we noticed that you could go up there and touch the relics. See the blurry image of the people touching the Virgin Mary? That's how devout Catholics, we Filipinos are. Faith rules our way of life, and for many, they wouldn't have it any other way.

But there was one spectacle in the church we liked the most. The stained glass windows of the church splashed color in the drab gray walls and brown floor. It was beautiful and we couldn't resist taking a couple of pictures.

Outside, we just couldn't resist the usual MUST-HAVE jump shot. It's just weird that we had to do it outside of the church hahaha!

It was tiring, but the tour was super fun! It was our last whole day in Bohol, but we were too tired to go swim in the beach. Amanda, Mike and I slept, while an energetic Trency just had to soak in as much sun as she could.

And since it was our last night, we decided to discover Alona Beach. It's no Boracay, but the sand was white and fine. There are several restaurants to choose from, and bars to get sloshed in. I'd add more of the pictures when I grab them from Trency. While walking along the shore after a heavy dinner, we chanced upon this firedancer. It was so cool! I loved the shapes it made as he twirled the fire around. It would be so cool to do that! :)

And just like in Boracay where they have that sand art thing, Bohol also had their own version. And true to being the tourists we all were, we just had to have our picture taken! :)

Sadly, the next day was our goodbye day. Still hung over after a night of getting AUTHENTICALLY SLOSHED (no thanks to Sauza Hornitos, Baileys from the Cebuanos we befriended during our DRUNKEN state, San Mig Light, and drinking with the boys) at our hotel's bar, we had to haul ourselves out of bed, take this one last picture at Alona Beach and run to the airport to catch our Cebu Pacific flight.

It was a great way to celebrate our 10 years! I love my girlies and I am very sure, sa sobrang dami ba naman naming pinagdaan, we'd never ever get sick and tired of each other. Being an only child ain't so bad when you have two girls such as these for BEST FRIENDS. They're the closest I've got to sisters, and I'm fortunate. So here's to more years of friendship bruhas! Love you both!! :)

If you want to have the room just like ours click on their website to check out their rates and other packages. Here's the Alona Tropical Beach Resort.
It's time anyone flew on Cebu Pacific. Check out their airfares and promos here.
For Zest Air, check out their website.

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