Recollection On A Quick Tour of Bicol
By Apolinario Villalobos
During the ‘80s, when the peso was not yet more than twenty to a dollar, going around the country was kind of affordable. That was the “golden era” of tourism during which Filipinos were encouraged to visit the countryside. I had this opportunity when I tried “exploring” Bicol, at least the mainland areas, that did not include the island of Catanduanes.
I started my jaunt from Naga to which I took a jetprop flight from Manila. After having my fill of the city and the countryside that included a visit to the Libmanan Cave, all squeezed in two days, I took a bus early at dawn of the third day, for Iriga. As the sun was about to rise, we reached Baao which prides in its centuries old church. Our bus finally reached Naga after about twenty minutes more of smooth travel over paved highway.
Aside from Nora Aunor, the “girl with the golden voice”, Iriga is also famous for its grotto with its x-shaped staircase, and Mt. Isarog which is among the favorite of trekkers who go for an easy climb. I got off the aforementioned religious landmark and patiently made my way to the grotto from the veranda of which the whole city of Iriga can be viewed.
That morning, I took a trip to Buhi, home to “sinarapan”, reputedly the smallest fish in the world, and thrive in the tranquil Lake Buhi. Along the way, the almost perfect cone of Mayon occasionally peeped from behind clouds as if hurrying me up to proceed to Legaspi. After a fifteen- minute trip, we reached Buhi where I was met by itinerant vendors selling “tabios” at one peso per measure of a chupa, which was a little bigger than a coffee mug.
As there was not much to see in Buhi, I went back to Iriga to pick up my things for my trip to Legaspi. I was just on time to catch a passing bus on its way to the city which we reached in almost an hour. What I saw along the way, confirmed what I have read from books regarding the extent of Christianization of the region during the Spanish regime. Practically, all towns have their own centuries- old church which became the focal point of the people’s lives. The old structures dominate the landscape of every town that we passed.
As we were nearing Legaspi City, the vegetation on the gentle slopes of the active volcano became more discernible. The sight almost stole my attention from the citrus orchards of Camalig which during the time, every tree was heavily laden with ripening fruits. Camalig, until today, is touted as the source of the best pili sweets and the hot “pinangat na gabi”, yam leaves cooked in coconut milk made hot by a generous sprinkling of native chili.
Several minutes later, we reached Daraga, site of the Cagsawa ruins. Only the belfry of the church was what remained when the town was buried by the lava spewed by Mayon during its most violent eruption.
Our bus arrived in Legaspi at a little past noon. I immediately deposited my things in a hotel and hurriedly looked for a motorcycle that could be hired for Tiwi with its Hot Springs National Park and Geothermal Saltmaking Plant of the Commission on Volcanology. I was advised that the motorcycle was the best mode for better mobility around the city and the countryside.
At Tiwi, I went first to a privately-owned thermal bath resort to try its hot and cold swimming pools for an entrance fee of one peso. As soon as I was inside the resort, I was free to use all facilities that included a sauna bath, aside from the two pools. The sauna bath was actually a “hut” with bamboo benches where I sat to be steamed by the vapors coming from the vents.
From the private thermal resort, I went to the Hot Springs National Park where I saw holes with literally boiling water. The holes were fenced for the safety of the visitors. The area was enveloped by vapors from the holes and vents.
My next stop was the saltmaking plant under the administration of the Commission on Volcanology. Interestingly, the source of the sea water was several kilometers from the plant site, transported to the latter through a pipe. The end product was a very white salt finer than white sugar.
Late lunch was taken at Tabaco, a progressive town of the province. From there we proceeded to Daraga with its beautiful church built on top of a hill overlooking the ruins of Cagsawa. We went down to Cagsawa for a closer look at the devastation that the buried town suffered from the rains of molten rocks and fiery lava. I imagined how the Cagsawanons scurried in all directions in their futile effort to escape from the spewed wrath of the volcano.
From Cagsawa ruins, we went to Camalig to see how the famed pili sweets were made, and also to have a taste of the authentic “pinangat”. I found out that there was a “regular” pinangat which was not laced with the hot chili. I was shown how to distinguish the hot from the regular veggie delicacy by checking how the strip of coconut leaf that bound the bundled leaves was done.
On our way back to the city of Legaspi, we dropped by the homes of abaca weavers. The women of the families were involved in the cottage industry that produced beautifully designed table runners, placemats, handkerchiefs and carpets. Their products were often pre-ordered for export, but some find their way in shopping centers of Manila, especially, those that cater to tourists. Abaca has always been one of the main agricultural produce of Bicol, with the most famous early exports, being the manila hemp and manila rope.
When I took the flight back to Manila from Legaspi, I was resolved to be back for a more exhaustive exploration of the Bicolandia and might coincide my return with their festivals, Peῆafrancia of Naga held during Septembaer and Ibalong of Legaspi held during August.