Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Gang Wolfing on Sagada (rather, leisurely taking-in the sights, sounds and culinary delights of Sagada)

Famished (we could eat a mammoth) from the long jeepney ride from Batad, Banaue but still with energy enough to crawl toward the nearest hole-in-the-wall, we soon found ourselves instead inside Masferre Café. The café is hard to miss with its log cabin-inspired exterior and its location is just down the road from the Municipal Hall. Without skipping a bit, everyone barked orders for the meal with the quickest preparation. Waiting for the orders to be served was such an agony. Looking at the lechon kawali on the other table was another. Imagine a truckload of hungry wolves waiting to ambush its prey. This time, the prey was in a burger-and-fries clothing. Of course, as soon as the food was served, it was gone faster than anyone can say ‘ketchup please...’ 

By sundown, the cool mountain breeze turned into wind, fog began to blanket and the temperature started to dip. After having the gang signed up for caving the next  day, many decided to hole up at the cottage, build fire in the fireplace and wolf on the carcass of the take-out meal. A handful opted to check-out what Ganduyan Museum, in the center of town, has to offer.

After gingerly making our way through the narrow passageway leading to the museum on the second floor, a woman in her 50s was busy explaining the pieces on display. When it was our turn, she introduced herself as Lola Christina. She took the time to tell backstories of the important pieces—from the traditional backpack to headhunting (read: literally headhunting!) during the old days to the distinctive patterns of weaving by each tribe in the Cordilleras. In between, she shared snippets of her family’s story.

It was getting late but with the streets still filled with people and with a couple of hours before curfew, hanging out in Yoghurt House won’t hurt. But it was a long weekend, so the crowd spilled onto street. The alternative would have to be Lemon Pie House at the far end of the stretch. Lemon Pie House proved to be less frequented by diners late at night. There were a couple of people seated at one corner and were at the tail-end of their meal. They left soon after, leaving the whole area to ourselves. The pies, together with cups of tea, were finally served. The pies, baked to perfection, tasted a bit crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside. The tangy lemon taste was heightened with the warm lemongrass tea. With that said, I got myself another helping.      
The cottage at Mapya-aw is a 15-minute leisurely walk from downtown, passing by St. Joseph’s Inn, St. Mary’s Church, Mission Hospital, makeshift market, limestone cliffs and what I think is a another cemetery on a hill. By the time we walked through town, the main road was dark and the whole town sleeping.

When we got to the cottage, it was quite already. Save for the fire making a crackling sound and the wind outside telling its secrets to the spirits of the mountain.  

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bangkok: a City Like No Other

The sight as I cross the Cambodia-Thailand border ripped my heart: rickshaws being pulled by women; my homework about Bangkok left me with the impression that it is much like Manila. To borrow Claire Danes words: " ...a ghastly city which smelled of cockroaches." (which later earned the actress "persona non-grata"; Danes apologized later on). Getting on with Bangkok, its smell and sound, colors and what-not, I can't help but take back what was tucked inside my head.

 The transport system is well organised. I mean the BTS and MRT. Forget about Bangkok Jam. Monstrous traffic is but a staple in every mega city. The streets are clean. Pockets of green are everywhere. The food, from street food to food sold at the floating market, dang! it tasted friggin' good! I am now one with my boss who, before I left for this trip, shamelessly said Thai Cuisine is the best in the world!

And the people! With a ready smile, baby! Thai in every corner are more than willing to help you with directions. Moreover, I've never seen a city (i.e. in SouthEast Asia) so fashion forward. The people, I mean. Practically Thai in every corner, from Khao San to Siam Square, are dressed up like the whole city is one extended runway. Astig!

And of course, where else is the center of Asia's backpacking universe, the jump-off point before hitting the beaches of Thailand or other Asian destinations--Khao San Road. The verve is so infectious round the clock!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Road to Sagada (from Batad Village, Banaue)

In many of my travels, I have always placed 'getting into the local verve' at the top of my tick list. The company I keep, though for most of my travels I travel solo and meet new friends along the way, comes close at second spot. But this trip to Sagada opened up something new. Or maybe, just maybe, it was there all along, at the back of my mind, and during this trip, it was swelling, ripe enough, perfect for picking. Wookie. Wookie. Before this entry triggers the warning bulb and bursts into an explosion of saccharine proportion, let's get down to the business of budget traveling. In the mean time, let's keep the mystery like a riddle. If you got answers, I'm giving out prizes. The major prize is, drum rolls puulease, trip to Jerusalem. Nah! I'm just pulling your leg.

Getting back on track, the Philippine version of Shangri-la, Sagada may not be Utopian but it is definitely remote and exotic says Robert Gardner of aenet dot org. And I couldn't agree more. This lovely little town of about eleven thousand people is tucked in a valley in Central Cordillera. Aside from spelunking and nature hikes that will lead you to the hanging coffins (hanging coffins was a traditional way of burying people that is not utilized anymore. Not anyone was qualified to be buried this way; one had to, among other things, be married and have this town 275 km. North of Manila also offers homey inns and guesthouses with charming owners.

Under the drizzle, treading on a slippery trail, we were like goats piling toward the shelter at the rib of the mountain. By the time we got to the shelter, there was no jeepney waiting for us. By the minute, travellers arrived in truckloads. Fog grew thicker and the rain heavier. By the time the rain stopped, our hired jeepney arrived. "It's been raining non-stop. Landslide sir..." the barker explained in broken English. We hurried inside to further escape the afternoon cold and in a few hearbeats, the engine started and we soon found ourselves bouncing like balls inside. The ride was getting rough than ever. On the drive toward town, we had to stop ocassionally either to wait for the landslide to be cleared off or pay courtesy to an incoming car on the one-lane road, clinging dangerously between a slippery road and a seemingly never-ending ravine.

After the thirty-minute bumpy ride, the jeepney finally snaked a paved road that led us to the town center of Banaue. The plan was to take the bus to Bontoc from there. And from Bontoc, take the jeepney to Sagada. But we were not prepared for a bus bursting at the seams! So, we had to create plan B. With chance and weather working against us, we were left with no choice but hire the same jeepney to Sagada for such a hefty price tag of four grand!  

The ride to Sagada, in spite of the rain was, by far, the best part of the trip. I braved my way to sit on the luggage rack on top of the jeepney, pulled my raincoat and enjoyed the business class view on a third class seat. Mountains are never-ending backbones of green dragons sleeping side by side. A river gracefully carve its way between them. The road is a brown trimming. I couldn't get any view better than this. I snapped my camera between taking-in the experience, the view, the feel of the cold moutain air against my face, the people waving from the road and more. But my upper deck privelege had to be cut short near Bontoc. The barker explained the traffic regulations.
Bontoc, Moutain Province

In Bontoc, I secured the return ticket to Manila before heading to Sagada. Better early than sorry. The stop was also a good way to stretch my muscles after the two-hour ride. The sun was shining this part of the Cordilleras. By three in the afternoon, the air grew thinner, the mountain's character more distinct and town quietier. It only means one thing: WELCOME TO SAGADA!

DISCOVER: Food destinations include Yoghurt House, Masferre Cafe and Lemon Pie House while places of interest are Sumaguing and Lumiang Caves, Bomod-ok and Bokong Falls, Rice terraces, Echo Valley, Kiltepan Tower, Underground River and Lake Danum.
next entry: Things to do and places to see in Sagada.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Boracay on a Budget (for Php6,999.00 or less)

The road to Boracay on a shoestring budget was a done deal. At first though, with a tight budget and a long weekend to burn, I got mixed signals about going. As it turned out, it was breezier than I thought it would be. If you’d like to ask me about the secret ingredients, these were research and planning. So, what gives?

First off, we are taking the scenic route so let’s cut the monopoly of Caticlan or Kalibo as the gateway to Boracay. Let's go south to the towns of Cabatuan-Santa Barbara, the site of the new Iloilo airport, 19 km. from Iloilo City. I got a dirt-priced airfare to Iloilo. Cebu Pacific Air and Philippine Airlines fly from Cebu to Iloilo twice daily.  Tip: book earlier and get the first flight out of Cebu so you have the whole day to explore Iloilo. You can even get as lucky as my friend who got a roundtrip for a hundred pesos.

From the airport, there are vans-for-hire that will take you until the doorstep of SM City Iloilo. By the time you get there, SM Traveler’s Lounge (tel: +63.33.320.9601 to 02) would be open already, leave your backpack for a minimal fee and ask directions to the nearest Miag-ao jeepney stop near UP Iloilo City.

My penchant for architecture and history led me to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Miag-ao Church (40 km. SW of Iloilo) and San Joaquin Catholic Cemetery (53 km. SW of Iloilo). Not to miss are the details in the façade of the centuries-old Baroque church at Miag-ao. Thirty minutes onward is San Joaquin Cemetery built in 1892.

Find your way to the city past lunchtime and explore the museums and old churches. The feminist Catholic Church (c.1831) is in the old Chinese District of Molo. Pillars of the cavernous Santa Ana church are pedestals of images of many female saints while Jaro Cathedral (c.1864) has the male saints.

By sundown, claim your baggage, wolf on seafood at Breakthrough Villa, hole up in a budget accommodation and get rested for the first trip to Caticlan (224 km. from Iloilo, four or five hours by bus) that leaves at four in the morning. The bus stops right in front of the jetty port. Boats leave every 30 minutes. After paying the Php25.00 boat fare and a Php50.00 environmental fee, you are ready to get smitten by the world’s best beach! The four kilometer stretch of the fabled beach, all yours.

For first-timers, the four kilometer Boracay White Beach has an imaginary line called stations. Station Two, in the middle, is where all the noise and actions are—D’mall, Talipapa, bars, restos and hotels. Station One has the upscale stretch while Station Three has the moderately priced accommodations and the quieter side of the White Beach. One of the alternative accommodations is the DepEd hostel. It's located beside a public school and very near D’Mall. No big deal. You only go back to your bed to sleep anyway. You have the whole day to enjoy the sand, surf and sun. As for eating, bread from Julies Bakeshop, chicken from Andok's or Mang Inasal or pizza from Yellow Cab, grocery stores or  hit the carenderias  in the inner road which are as ubiquitos as the island workers themselves. Tip: The best time to hit the beach for a tan, swim or thumb-through your favorite paperback is in the morning when the white beach is the last place to go for beachcombers nursing last night's hangover. 

Sign up for the day-long island hopping trip. My group that time was a motley crew of strangers. The Php750.00 fee includes snorkeling, lunch and a stop at the quiet and deserted Puka Beach—the romanticized beach named after the shell abundant in the area. At first, I was never smitten by Boracay. The stretch of beach rather looks like one big mall with fine white sand, turquoise water and people shop in swimmers but on this trip, Puka Beach’s peace and quiet worked its magic on me.

Fast forward, it’s time to get back to the grind at the workplace. On your way back, scenic options include working your way out to Cebu via Iloilo and Bacolod by bus and ferry. The twelve-hour long bus ride is simply peanuts.

Lest I forget, I couldn’t underscore the importance of planning ahead and doing tons of research. It sure does wonders to your travels and saves you the trouble of a burnt wallet.

Here goes. The budget breakdown:

1,014.00 CBU-ILO
120.00 taxi to airport
200.00 terminal fee
50.00 van fare from Iloilo Airport to SM Iloilo
30.00 luggage fee at SM Traveller’s Lounge
7.00 jeepney from SM City to UP-Iloilo
30.00 jeepney from UP Iloilo to Miag-ao (about an hour ride)
80.00 lunch near Miag-ao Churchgrounds
15.00 jeepney fare from Miag-ao to San Joaquin town
60.00 jeepney fare San Joaquin town to Iloilo City Bus Terminal
7.00 jeepney fare from Terminal to Sta. Ana Church
50.00 taxi to Jaro Cathedral
7.00 Jaro to SM City
50.00 taxi from SM to Family Pension House
275.00 fan room with own t/b. rather very spartan.
100.00 taxi from pension house to Bus Terminal
325.00 Ceres Bus from Iloilo to Caticlan

50.00 environmental fee
25.00 banca boat fare
50.00 terminal fee
15.00 tricycle to station one
140.00 x 2 = 280.00
1,200.00 studio room. queen size bed. 4 days/3nights. the place all to myself.
320.00 80.00 x 4 days breakfast
450.00 150.00 x 3 days lunch
1,050.00 350.0 x 3 days buffet dinner

324.00 Ceres Bus to Iloilo
100.00 taxi to Oceanjet Teminal
250.00 Oceanjet Iloilo-Bacolod
20.00 jeepney (waiting at the gate) to Ceres Terminal
270.00 Ceres Bacolod to Dumaguete

2,420.00 CEBU-ILOILO
3,300.00 CATICLAN-BORACAY and back

I miscalculated the budget. Excluded here is the Php750.00 island hopping fee (with seafood lunch and drinks) plus crystal cove entrance fee of Php150.00. Check out the two caves in the island. Cave two is worth the adventure especially if the waves come crushing at you in high tide.

Plus. Plus Php1,000.00 alcohol allowance on your barhopping spree. Beer and vodka is at Php25.00-50.00 during happy hour and could shoot at Php80.00 a bottle of beer thereafter. At any rate, there are many convenience stores dotting the shoreline for a better deal.

Plus. Plus. Plus: Php150.00 Dumaguete-Cebu by Ceres Bus