1 Comment 09 July 2010

The Philippines’ once pristine island of Boracay has become extremely overdeveloped, with its famous beach now choked by sewage and too many bars, the country’s new tourism minister said.

In an interview with the news agency Agence France-Presse on July 9, Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim suggested it was time tourists visited equally beautiful beaches in the country other than Boracay, which the government said drew 650,000 tourists last year.

“If you go to Boracay you’d love the beach, you’d love the night life and the good restaurants. But it’s so dense, it’s so dense,” Lim said.

“It is now, you know, too commercial. It’s become Phuket,” he said, referring to the much larger Thai beach resort island.

Lim, who joined President Benigno Aquino’s cabinet when it took power on June 30, said the 10.3 square-kilometer (four square-mile) central Philippine island of Boracay was a different place a generation ago.

The sprawl that followed the tourist dollars caused the seawater off the four-kilometer (2.5 mile) white-sand beachfront to sprout algae, which was fed by sewage from the hotels and restaurants, he said.

“Thirty years ago they tried to set the rules but they were not successful. The local government did not cooperate… so people started overbuilding,” Lim said.

“Of course, bad sewage — that’s why (you are seeing) algae at certain times of the year. It’s green. It’s the result of the sewage seeping out. The algae there is not yucky, it’s moss. Maybe fish eat it. But it’s an indication that there’s a problem below the surface.”

Asked if the problem, which first made world headlines in the mid-1990s, had been solved, Lim said: “I’m not sure. I don’t think so, that’s why at certain times of the year the algae forms.”

Lim said environmental and zoning regulations were not being enforced, leading to structures even being built inside the high-water mark.

“And they continue to build. They’re building huge hotels in the mountains.”

Lim suggested the government may in the end be unable to halt overdevelopment.

“We have world-class laws but nobody follows them,” he said, adding tourists may just have to look elsewhere.

“The thing about Boracay is the quality of the sand, (it is) very white. But there are other places that have better quality sand, but (they are) very expensive,” Lim said. (Agence France-Presse)




1 Comment 26 May 2010

By Maribel Castillo

Like many Filipino empty nesters residing abroad, my husband and I have come to that point in our lives when travel to parts unknown has become a much-anticipated annual ritual and a well-deserved reward for years of hard work in a foreign land. We pore over travelogues, scour the shelves of the local library’s travel section, and roam the internet for interesting and affordable travel finds. Too often, like many kababayans, we overlook our own backyard in search of that perfect vacation paradise in exotic locales.

This year, we’re glad we didn’t.

We focused our searchlights on a tiny speck of land in the Pacific. Badian Island Resort and Spa is located on an island on the Tañon Strait, a protected seascape off Cebu. It was a gem of a find! Nestled on eight hectares of pristine white sandy beach fringed by swaying coconut trees, the island getaway easily rivals the best in the world, including world-famous waterfront playgrounds in Greece, Italy, Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Thailand and Bali.

We were picked up by a friendly guide at Cebu’s Mactan Airport for a comfortable two-and-a-half-hour drive through the Cebu countryside to the water’s edge. A motorized banca was waiting to ferry us across the crystal waters of Badian Bay and in 15 minutes, we could hear the strains of “Mabuhay” sung with gusto by a band of welcomers. It signalled the start of three days of unequalled pampering at the Badian Island Resort and Spa.

Badian Isaland long shot550

Range of accommodations

The resort has a range of accommodations, from the superbly crafted junior and family suites to the luxurious Thalasso Pool Villas, all tastefully furnished in the fashion of high-end resorts. The decor makes use of native materials such as nipa, capiz, tobacco leaves, shells, etc.

For those vacationers celebrating a special occasion such as a wedding, anniversary, retirement, or birthday, we recommend the ultimate in luxury – the Pool Villa. The Pool Villa has 96 square meters of well-appointed living area and is larger than most North American apartments! Add a sun-drenched deck and a lavish marble tub overlooking sparkling sea, sand, mountain, and blue sky and you have the recipe for a sublime holiday.

Tropical flowers greeted us everywhere! Strewn over the coffee table, on the king-size bed, floating in the tub, the flowers were harvested from the island’s lush vegetation. A luxuriant vine of bougainvilleas was draped over the sundeck, adding a splash of fuschia to the already brilliant tropical scene.

Over the top is what I would call the Pool Villa’s piece de resistance: a private plunge pool overlooking the bay. Our hosts urged us to soak in the pool’s ionized seawater which they say works to rejuvenate both body and soul.


Gastronomic adventure

Dining at Badian Island is a gastronomic adventure. Chef Menchu, a native of the Bicol region, works her magic on the bounty of the sea, foodstuff transported from the mainland of Cebu, as well as island-grown organic herbs and vegetables. The result is a blending of native sensibilities with European haute cuisine. Daily, she surprised us with a “Health & Beauty” menu consisting of local delicacies, and an array of delicious and exquisitely presented Japanese, European and American fare. Daily, the chef created original dishes of what could perhaps be described as fusion island cuisine.

The resort also has a well-stocked tropical bar right on the beach, where guests can enjoy an aperitif just before a beach-front or pool-side dinner.

There is no shortage of entertainment on the island. During our visit, our fellow guests – honeymooners, young families, and a big group of adventure bikers from Switzerland – were pleasantly surprised by the after-dinner entertainment. A troupe of young dancers from the island amazed us with traditional Philippine dance routines, featuring the always popular bamboo dance, the Tinikling. A talented pair of Cebuano singers — a balladeer and a jazz singer — regaled guests with all-time favorites. To cap the evening show, the more energetic guests were cajoled to dance to the reggae beat of the limbo rock, and the evening ended on a lively note.

Wellness Program

A highlight of our stay was a sampling of Badian’s famous Wellness Program, meticulously designed to renew each guest’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Asian beauty secrets blend with traditional beauty recipes as well as modern trends in wellness and health. The Spa’s Health and Beauty Coordinator plans and organizes a daily program together with the guest. For instance, a customized Health & Beauty Program could include: early morning stretching or dancing exercises at the beach; a delightful healthy breakfast from the Health & Beauty menu; swimming and water sports; a picnic lunch at Badian’s Coral Garden; choice of a Badian hilot with pure virgin coconut oil or a deluxe synchronized 4-hand massage; a renewal facial with fresh seaweed mask; and, finally, a relaxing poolside dinner also from the Health & Beauty menu.

Badian beach-relaxation550

Peaceful and private, Badian Island is a far cry from other popular beach resorts all over the Philippines, where rowdy crowds descend upon the beach and packs of noisy tourists dot every square meter of sandy shore. Perhaps drawn by Badian’s promise of quiet and serenity, local and international celebrities have been known to visit the island incognito, enjoying the comfortable seclusion that the resort is known for.

Dive spots

Another major attraction of Badian Island Resort & Spa is easy access to some of the country’s best dive spots. At the guest’s request, the Badian Diving Center can organize a diving expedition to any of the 16 nearby dive spots such as Coral Garden, Garden Eels, Badian Wall, Fisherman’s Cove, Pescador Island, Tongo Point, among others. The dive spots are from five to sixty minutes boat ride from Badian Island. Needless to say, Badian boasts of some of the region’s most experienced dive instructors, dive guides and boat captains.

Service, hospitality and attention to each guest’s every need are what makes Badian Island Resort & Spa stand apart from other run-of-the-mill resorts. The resort’s highly-trained management and staff exude the island’s traditional graciousness and hospitality. The facility employs 175 staff, at least 60 per cent of them locals. The resort’s Chairman, Hartwig Scholz, and its General Manager, Maria Catral, have put in a lot of effort for nearly 30 years not only to design and develop the amazing facilities of the resort, but also to educate islanders on the varied facets of the resort business. Not surprisingly, many islanders are only too grateful to have Badian Island Resort and Spa on their island.

For more information, go to To inquire about the resort’s special Balikbayan Rate, email




No Comments 07 May 2010

By Pepper Marcelo

Once upon a time, the Pasig River was a vibrant and vital waterway in Metro Manila. Historically, its importance was so essential that the Spaniards constructed the Walled City of Intramuros at its mouth.

But for the younger generation, the Pasig River has been known simply as a massive sewage system. Murky waters, an unbearable stench and decrepit shacks along its banks have characterized its continual decline. Many observers, losing hope for its renewal, have labeled the stream “biologically dead.”

There have been several efforts to revive the once-proud passage. A Pasig River Rehabilitation Program was established in 1989, but it wasn’t until former President Joseph Estrada signed Executive Order No. 54 in 1999 that the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission (PRRC) was created. One of its tasks was to “ensure that the waterway is rehabilitated to its pristine conditions conducive to transport, recreation and tourism.”

PRRC’s collaboration with the Department of Environment and Natural resources (DENR) has resulted to noticeable improvements over time. A widespread crackdown on illegal dumping of garbage and other assorted wastes along the river, as well as unclogging and cleaning the various tributaries, esteros, and creeks leading up to it, has been instituted. The water is also being treated with catchments, filtration systems and bioremediation (helpful bacteria) to restore it to its original state.

In addition, almost 8,000 households along the riverbanks, which are blamed for up to 60 percent of the garbage dumped in the river, have been relocated to various sites in Rizal and Cavite. PRRC expects a total of 10,000 households will be removed from the riverbanks by the end of the year.

“It’s much better now than it used to be, but there are still problems hounding the river, such as pollution, both solid and chemical, and human excrements,” says University of Santo Tomas Professor and historian Manuel Noche. “Compared to the past when the river was declared biologically dead, the river today is in a better condition.”

With the continued rehabilitation of the Pasig River, a tourism component has been introduced to enhance its earning potential for the surrounding communities. The Philippine Tourism Authority (PHILTOA), an association of travel operators whose purpose is to promote in-bound and domestic tourism, has launched “Beyond the Usual” campaign, which encourages tourists to go beyond the typical sightseeing and vacation activities. One of its attractions is the Pasig River Ferry Tour.

“The potential of the river mirrors the potential of the country. It might take a generation to make it happen, but the river, and the country, can be transformed,” said Tourism Secretary Ace Durano during launch of “Beyond the Usual” last June 2009.

“The Philippines is one of the countries that don’t boast of a river tour. Bangkok, Malaysia, New York, Boston, Paris, Hamburg, Amsterdam – they have a river or canal tour,” says Cesar Cruz, head of PHILTOA who, in partnership with the DOT, devised “IT” Philippines as the greater, all-encompassing banner to promote a wholly unique alternative to experiencing the country in a different, more adventurous manner.

Currently, there are a total of 16 operational stations for the Pasig River Ferry Service, with 10 main, including: Plaza Mexico, Escolta, Lawton, Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), Sta. Ana, Lambingan, Valenzuela, Hulo, Guadalupe and San Joaquin and an additional 7 “satellite” stations: Pineda, Bambang, Kalawaan, Pinagbuhatan-Acasia, Nagpayong, with Napindan and a second Sta. Ana station currently in construction.

At present, there are six ferry boats. Although referred to as a ferry, the vehicle is more akin to a water bus. “Walang traffic, tuloy-tuloy at walang pollution,” says Amelita Gamay, Operations Manager for the Pasig River Ferry Service.

They are also convenient in terms of comfort, with a maximum seating capacity of more than 150 per boat, air-conditioning, flat-screen television, and a restroom. “Passengers can just relax for a while and not have to worry.”

At Php25, Php35 and Php45, the prices from point to point are slightly higher than a jeepney, bus or train, but way lower than a taxi (fares of which starts at Php30).

The speed is quite fast compared to most common transportation. From Intramuros to Taguig, for example, the ferry would take less than an hour and a half, whereas if one were to commute on the road, factoring in traffic, it would take more than two and a half hours.

On most weekdays and Saturdays (Sundays are closed), the ferry receives approximately 1,500 to 2,000 passengers, which approximately amounts to under 40,000 per month. “December was a peak season for us, inabot ng 3,000 per day,” Gamay says.

Of the total amount monthly, most comprise of regular passengers, or employees (28,000), followed by students (7-8,000), with seniors being the least (1,800-2,000). The amount does not include specialized, appointment tours for foreign visitors and company outings.

“It’s our hope we can increase the passenger volume of this Pasig Ferry, not just for tourists and foreigners, but for regular commuters,” says Cruz.

On the Pasig River Ferry Tour, visitors will be able to experience many sights of Metro Manila that many local residents haven’t seen. Aboard a comfortable, air-conditioned, 150-seater boat, tourists can explore historical sites such as Malacanang Palace, Sta. Ana, Intramuros and Binondo, from a different perspective, compared to run-of-the-mill bus and foot tours.

PHILTOA is developing other unique, “experiential” tours, including Sta. Ana, which hosts archeological finds, and Guadalupe, from where one can take a bus to the shopping meccas at Ayala Center in Makati and Ortigas Center in Mandaluyong and Pasig

To be sure, there is a lot of work to be done to fully rehabilitate the Pasig River and maximize its transport and tourism potentials. But Cruz points out that the launch of the river tour is “an all-encompassing symbol of the improvement of the Pasig River as a whole.”

“The river was beautiful, then it died. Now let’s see the end vision of what the river is about. We’re presenting [the tour] as the end result of the rehabilitation of the river,” he says.

(For more information, visit the PHILTOA website at




No Comments 23 April 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

Friends Sid, Fr. Ed and Mackoy have a project in the northernmost Quezon town, Gen. Nakar, facing the Pacific Ocean and close to the boundary of Aurora, and I am invited to tag along as they are aware I am interested in the ecotourist components of the trip.

First, we pass through Laguna, along Laguna de Bay, largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and I renew my acquaintance with a succession of scenic Laguna towns along the foothills of the Sierra Madre: Lumban, Kalayaan, Paete, Pakil, Pangil, Siniloan and Famy.

This phase of the journey alone is a treat for the tourist as well as pilgrim.

Most if not all of these towns have old, interesting churches. In Paete, famous for its sculptures, Last Suppers and papier-mâché, is the parish of St. James the Apostle, known to Paeteños as Santiago de Apostol, first constructed in 1646 but destroyed and rebuilt several times during the centuries. It has five ornate altars.

The church tilted a bit during the earthquake in 1990, and suffered damage. While doing repairs, carpenters removed a large painting and discovered a fresco showing St. Christopher carrying the child Jesus on his shoulders.

The church in Pakil has a main altar with a pantheon of 14 saints and is dedicated to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores de Turumba (Our Lady of the Sorrows of Turumba). The church is famous for the boisterous Turumba Festival, with the image of the Virgin borne triumphantly along the streets of Pakil.

A famous native son of the town is visual artist Danilo Dalena, whose paintings capture the mass of humanity and the riot that is the Turumba Fiesta. The festival is celebrated twice a year — around Holy week (March-April) and in September.

Once past the lowlands, we ascended the mountains and we were surprised to find the road well-paved and smooth, leading to the first northern Quezon town, Real. The province itself was announced by a boundary marker: Sulong (Onward) Quezon! The checkpoint was manned by polite soldiers in camouflage uniforms asking where we were bound for.

They, no doubt, wanted to make sure we were not NPA rebels, Quezon known to be an NPA bailiwick. The tourist need not fear, however, for the rebels maintain a low profile and do not bother visitors (unless they are in a military convoy). There would be a few more checkpoints along the way.

The scenery was distracting. This part of the Sierra Madre range is well-maintained, or so it appeared to those passing through. There were trees of various species all around, cold spring waters, mini-falls, valleys, rivers, and glimpses of Lamon Bay and Polillo Strait. But there was a caveat: signs proclaiming Danger Falling Rocks.

To the east, beckoning to adventure tourists, was the Polillo Group of Islands.

It was cool and windy even in the afternoon. There were a few communities along the way, with shops displaying well-crafted, sturdy and attractive bamboo furniture which were not cheap.

After Real came Infanta, an area hard hit by torrential rains, floods and landslides a few years ago. We began to descend and finally reached Gen. Nakar, a town named after a World War II hero, General Guillermo Nakar, who hailed from Barangay Anoling of the town.

The municipal Hall is a new, modern and imposing building, with stained-glass art above the lobby. The town, which has lots of breathing space (you can buy a lot and retire here), recently celebrated its 60th foundating anniversary. In the distance you can see the mountains of Baler, Aurora, which are also part of the Sierra Madre.

There, to my surprise, I learned that there are many tourist attractions in Gen. Nakar, although far-flung, and this makes them attractive to adventure tourists: mountains and beaches, notably Catablingan; forests where indigenous peoples dwell, their culture intact; coastal cliffs and rock formations, Kidadayaig Falls, Depalyong Falls in Barangay Sablang, and Tulaog Cave in San Marcelino.

Barangay Pamplona and Catablingan have beach resorts with lodgings.

In the forests of Barangay Pagsanjan is found the Raffleasia, one of the world’s biggest flowers; while in Barangay Banglos the fisherfolk are known for their wood sculptures. From the forests have come herbs which are made into medicinal products by women’s groups.

The best-known tourist destination in Gen. Nakar, says Municipal Tourism Officer Kareen R. Leynes, is Tulaog Cave, which is near Tulaog Beach. It is actually a cluster of caves which is 1 ½ hours by boat from the town proper. The indigenous peoples (katutubo) from nearby towns go there simply by walking several kilometers, being a hardy race.

They converge there on August 4 every year for their Pasasalamat or thanksgiving to their deity, Makidyapat. They rest, cook, hold ceremonies, pray, and stay there for several days. Visitors who go there to watch or document the proceedings should respect the culture and religion of the katutubo, for tribal lore maintains that outsiders who go there with bad intentions never return to where they came from.

Exploiters, you have been warned.




No Comments 27 March 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

They say we Pinoys have a funny way of observing the Passion & Death of Our Lord, most of us being practicing or nominal Catholics with a dash of paganism or hedonism. It’s vacation time come Holy Week, and it’s time to go to the beach and to frolic, even if it’s Holy Thursday or Good Friday.

In Baguio City at one time, the discos were going full blast during those solemn days. Some protested, but the dancers did not appear to feel any guilt. When a major earthquake struck Baguio later, the devout said it was God’s wrath. Well, I wouldn’t go that far…

Metro Manila is virtually empty during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Only a few commercial vehicles ply their route, and car owners have a field day. The malls and the movie houses are closed, and the Light Rail Transit and the Metro Star Express (MRT) are silent.

The churches, however, come alive on Good Friday, especially at 3 p.m., as the faithful come to listen to Los Sietes Palabras (The Seven Last Words) of Jesus. And I take the time to pray to the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, carrying my decades-old Ateneo Retreat Manual.

I usually recall the time when my sister and I were children, and our mother would take us on a Visita Iglesia, visiting as many churches as we could. (I think the required number was seven.)

The Sabado de Gloria of my youth (when we were told to jump three times upon waking up so as to grow tall) is now Black Saturday, officially still a day of mourning. But it’s back to normal for most people in the city, as the malls reopen. As for me, it’s time to go to the provinces with friends (Baler, Aurora again this year) for that needed vacation, even as I recall the holy shrines I have visited during recent travels in the archipelago.

Far–off Cagayan in the Cagayan Valley (Region 2) is a nice place to visit during the Lenten season, having a rugged beauty of its own. That is, if you don’t mind a long trip by bus or car – about 12 hours.

Coming from Manila and passing through Central Luzon, then Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela northward, you will come upon Cagayan, the first town (now a city) being the capital of Tuguegarao. A 30-minute drive away is Peñablanca, with its Callao Caves National Park, which is also a resort with cottages, seminar facilities, and tennis courts along the river.

The provincial marker declares: “The Callao Caves, which bear the imprint of God, are Cagayan’s priceless heritage…”

We ascended 100 steps, this city slicker heaving and panting a bit, and came upon the first chamber, which is also the biggest and most impressive of the caves. It has been transformed into a catacomb – like church, with natural rock formations and cemented pews before a natural altar. Water drips down the walls, and during the day sunlight streams down from a big natural hole above.

There are more caves in the interior, the way becoming darker and more slippery, the guides said. So I was just content to stay in this big chamber. In a smaller cave, devotees placed images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Also near Tuguegarao is the centuries-old church of Iguig, which overlooks the Cagayan River and the surrounding countryside, a wide plateau, with low-lying mountain ranges in the background.

The parish church of Iguig is known for its Calvary Hill, stretching over 11 hectares of rolling terrain. There are colorful, life-size, man-made figures and symbols of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, starting with Jesus Being Condemned to Death, and culminating with the Crucifixion between two thieves, and Jesus Taken Down from the Cross.

The last Station is particularly poignant, showing Mother Mary attending to her son. It is the Pieta of Cagayan Valley.

Let us journey down South this time, specifically the scenic island province of Camiguin in Northern Mindanao, off the mainland, accessible by boat from Balingoan, northeast Misamis Oriental, and from Cagayan de Oro City.

Camiguin has five towns and seven volcanoes, among them Hibok – Hibok (which erupted in the 1950s) and Mt. Vulcan (Old Volcano), which blew its top in 1871, killing many people and destroying the old capital of the province, Cotta Bato, and its church.

The ruins of the old church still stand there, and a makeshift chapel has been constructed.

Mt. Vulcan is also the site of Camiguin’s version of the Fourteen Stations of the Cross. The figures are also life-size but whitewashed this time, and are scattered along the mountain trails. You have to trek upward to reach each Station, the sea and coconut trees nearby.

The way upward becomes more difficult (you are, after all, expected to make sacrifices during Lent) and then you pass through a tunnel to reach the resurrected Christ. This shrine attracts many pilgrims and penitents come Holy Week.

Farther south in Mindanao, along the western peninsula, is the city of Zamboanga, famous for the song we sang as children: “No te vayas, no te vayas a Zamboanga… (Oh don’t you go, oh don’t go to Zamboanga…) In those days, Zamboanga seemed to be so far from Manila.

Standing by the sea is history-laden Fort Pilar, scene of battles with foreign invaders, from the Dutch in the 17th century to the Japanese during World War II. The fort is now, among other things, a museum and a church where open-air Masses are held, dramatically lighted by a throng of candles.

Looming over the city is Holy Hill, a project of the late (assassinated) Mayor Cesar Climaco, with its Stations of the Cross – mercifully accessible through paved roads – leading to the mountain peak. There, you will behold a giant Cross facing the bay and the sometimes troubled province of Basilan. Cross and countryside make for a striking sight.

PHOTO: Chapel inside Callao Cave in Cagayan




No Comments 25 February 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

An impressive, almost awesome sight.

Sprawling over a 400-hectare area facing Bagac Bay, Bataan, with its bracing sea breeze, are over 20 imposing ancestral homes, transplanted from their native soil, brought by brick by brick by trucks to this town (Bagac) known for its resorts, coded, reassembled, painstakingly reconstructed, and restored to their former splendor.

This is Cuidad Real de Acuzar, a project of Gerry Acuzar, 54, an art collector from the capital city of Balanga, and owner of San Jose Builders. “I believe that it is every Filipino’s duty and responsibility to safeguard his cultural agency,” Acuzar feels.

Acuzar bought the houses, which were in a state of neglect, from the owners, and in some cases also purchased the lot where the bygone mansions stood. The owners of ancestral homes which were well-preserved were not approached. There are no houses from Vigan.

The project actually started eight years ago but only gained momentum during the past three years. The bahay na bato, or great houses made of stone on the first floor and of wood on the second (constructed this way to withstand earthquakes), come from Tondo, Binondo and Quiapo, Manila; Quezon, Pampanga, La Union, the Ilocos and Cagayan.

A recent exposure trip organized by the Museum Foundation of the Philippines introduced the Ciudad to media persons and others interested, or involved in, heritage conservation. Location shooting was also ongoing for an ABS-CBN costume telenovela, with the cast and some stars promenading in Old-World attire. An informal photo-op ensued, and there were some extras dressed as guardia civil.

The Ciudad has a workforce of 130, including 10 wood sculptors, three metal sculptors, 30 craftsmen who design ceilings, along with construction workers. There are also five architects, two of them historical architects, and two artists.

Art director Jose Ceriola estimates the houses are in a 60-70 percent original condition. In one house, tiles have become fresco paintings depicting imaginative scenes from olden days.

In a fit of whimsy, for instance, Ceriola painted one native in tribal gear who is – texting!

The bodega (warehouse) has materials (Philippine hardwood) good for 50 houses. Ceriola said 22 mansions have been constructed, eventually to reach 50.

Many of the houses have four-poster beds, grand staircases, capiz-shell windows, vintage photos and paintings, santó and other objects redolent of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

“The most impressive house,” said tour guide Nico Manalo, is that of Rafael Enriquez, a well-known visual artist of the late 19th century. Indeed, it is a grand structure, built by architect Felix Roxas in 1970.  On the other hand, the “daintiest house” is in pink while the most “macho” (as in grey and massive) came from Candaba, Pampanga. The Novicio Santo Romano House was once owned by a relative of the Lunas from Badoc, Ilocos Norte. Many important meetings were held here during World War II.

One house used to belong to a Nueva Ecija warlord who was the target of assassination attempts during the 1970s and 1920s. The term used to describe it was “pinaulanan ng bala (literally bullets rained down upon him). He survived.

A day tour (walk-in or reservations) of the Cuidad de Real Azucar costs P750 per. There is also a big building, Escolta, which is distinct from the others. It is modeled on the architecture of the old shopping district of Manila, and may soon function as a hotel, for the rooms are ready.




6 Comments 12 February 2010

By Pepper Marcelo

Experiencing the country in different ways. That is the mantra that local tour operators and the Department of Tourism (DOT) are conveying to foreign and domestic tourists interested in exploring the archipelago. The “Philippine Travel Mart,” was held recently to showcase prime destinations, special tour packages and other travel opportunities to prospective buyers and consumers. It was co-sponsored by the Philippine Tour Operators Association (PHILTOA) and the DOT.

Whether it be touring the city of Manila by boat on the Pasig River, or partaking in an exotic, culinary-themed tour of Pampanga, or engaging in more physically-oriented activities in typical relaxation areas such as Boracay, repeat clients and visitors are being offered a more adventurous, unique tourism experience.

Yung ganda ng bansa is everywhere,” says Tourism Secretary Joseph “Ace” Durano. “However, what has been happening in the last three years is that a lot new places have been developed. A lot of new places are part of the mainstream tourism traffic of the country already. People want to get new information before exploring, and this is the place.”

In 2008, the DOT and PHILTOA formulated a National Ecotourism Strategy Initiative to provide an assortment of new activities to entice tourists and to promote the protection and conservation of the environment as well.

“We’re proudly showing to the world that we’re taking care of the environment,” says Cesar Cruz, general manger of PHILTOA. “Eco-activities are nature based. You have to have good rivers, good forests and a good habitat for wild animals and flora and fauna.”

In 2009, the DOT and PHILTOA developed 24 adventure tour packages, also called modules, with specialized themes and concepts building on what each province and region can to offer. For example, for surfing and kayaking enthusiasts, there’s “Paddle & Surf” in Pangasinan’s Hundred Islands, as well as in La Union and Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte. On kayak boats, tourists could go explore coves and islets. And though the country is not known to be a premier destination for surfing, the coastal towns of La Union offer several spots promising consistent “waves and breaks.”

For those that want both a land and sea escapade, “Crawl & Row” offers spelunking (or cave exploring) at Nueva Vizcaya’s Capisanan Cave System, as well as whitewater rafting at the Chico River in the Cordilleras. Then there’s Sagada in Mountain Province with caves so deep they appear to extend down to the ends of the earth. Also up north in Tuguegarao is the famous Callao cave, and down south, in Palawan, there is the St. Paul National Park with its caves that can be explored through the underground river.

Also popular among trekkers and trail-hikers is Mt. Pinatubo, which traverses the provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales, where one can view the spectacular landscape. The area is also very popular among 4X4 enthusiasts who enjoy riding through creeks, dunes and rocks.

For a more immersive, cultural experience, there’s “Every Island, an Adventure,” with a wide assortment of activities the whole family can enjoy. Unique activities include oyster gathering in Calamianes Group of Islands and a safari tour of Calauit Game Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary, both in Palawan.

Not for the faint-hearted, there’s “Tuna, Tubing & Tibolis” in Sarangani province with its local version of the bouncy, soaking, white-water rafting, called “tubing” (where instead of a traditional raft, the passengers sit on recycled rubber tires).

For its part, Cebu has a number of beautiful islands to explore. Famous beaches like those in Sumilon, Malapascua, Camotes and Bantayan islands present a variety of physically-oriented prospects, such as jet skiing, parasailing, snorkeling and banana boat riding. With ample attractions, beach front Cebu hotels, adventures and restaurants, Cebu invites travelers for enjoying a remarkable vacation.

Farther down south, Davao is a popular locale for extreme sports, with activities like hiking, trekking, snorkeling, diving, bungee-jumping, bird-watching, island-hopping and camping. There’s the “Highlands to Islands” tour, which consists of a tuna dinner, Philippine Eagle and wildlife tour, mountain biking and zip-­lining on the longest zipline in the region.

Other specialized-theme activities for tourists include, but are not limited to, “Rafting & Rappelling,” which encompasses whitewater rafting, zipline and cultural immersion in Cagayan de Oro and rappelling in Camiguin; “Hike & Wave,” which consist of wakeboarding in Camarines Sur and climbing Mt. Mayon in Albay; the “Bicol Xpress,” which also includes wakeboarding in Camarines Sur, but with the added bonus of a whale-shark interaction tour in Donsol; and “Rock & Surf,” which consists of rock-climbing in Atimonan and surfing in Daet.

Activities are not limited to sports. There are also special educational opportunities for visitors to interact with local residents and learn about indigenous cultures such as that of the T’boli tribe of Lake Sebu in Mindanao.

“Tourists can have the chance to do a cultural diversion, to live with the natives and learn from them,” says Cruz. “It’s a very educational and positive activity.”

Durano says he has sampled every tour adventure module and thoroughly enjoyed them. “I like being outdoors and experiencing nature in different ways. Whether it be spelunking, rappelling, or kayaking, I enjoy experiencing things with some physical activity.”

Cruz says that it’s not only foreigners that are getting into these activities, but the locals as well. “More and more of our countrymen are beginning to appreciate them. Even surfing, it used to be an unknown activity here. But now, you go to places like La Union, you see Filipinos conducting surfing clinics.”

With rural provinces and islands naturally getting most of the attention due to their exotic and relaxing atmosphere, Metro Manila has been gradually losing its appeal. To prop up its touristy draw, the government and the private sector have teamed up to introduce the Pasig River Travel Cruise, a unique way of touring the metropolis aboard air-conditioned boats that cruise the Pasig. Besides providing a different view of the city, peripheral tours corresponding to each station destination have been developed. At the Binondo station, for example, tourists can embark the boat and go on a culinary walking tour of Chinatown. In historic Sta. Ana, there’s the Heritage Tour, where visitors can explore archeological finds and heritage structures. On Lawton, there’s the “Manila Madness Tour,” where shoppers can visit the nearby tiangges and malls. Last, but not least, there’s the Walled City of Intramuros, with its own distinct historical walking tour.

No matter the location or one’s preference — whether to relax and simply enjoy the view and breeze, or engage in the most strenuous of physical adventures — the Philippines has it.

“A lot of our kababayans abroad, when they left the country, the tourism industry in the country was still in its infancy stage,” says Durano. “It’s not in their minds that if they want to have a good experience during a vacation, they can do it here in the Philippines. Today, they can do that. In the past, people would just come home to visit their friends and family. You can do that and at the same time have some ‘R and R.’ There are so many places and things you can do here.”




No Comments 24 January 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

From a small town derided for being the capital of a feudal province with a big gap between rich and poor, Bacolod has grown through the decades to become a cosmopolitan city with malls, fast-food outlets, and convention centers. Alas, many historical landmarks of the past are gone, but there is still the Bacolod Cathedral and its two bells enshrined in the churchyard.

Bacolod is famous for its cuisine, notably the chicken inasal (barbecue) which makes for a great meal when eaten with rice and washed down with a little beer. Look for the row of eateries called Manukan, loved by domestic and foreign tourists who are not sosyal (uppity).

The leading hotels – like L’Fisher, Bacolod Convention Center and Goldenfield Garden (the latter near a lively district at night) – all have large-scale convention facilities. Standard and budget hotels include Sugarland, Sea Breeze, Pension Plaza, Bacolod Plaza and Cactus Inn. And once a year (late October) Bacolod forgets its troubles and stages its lively Masskara Festival, with its folk art and masked dancers.

Bustling Cebu

Bustling, modern Cebu City is the gateway to the rest of the province, which is the No.1 tourist destination outside of Metro Manila. Leading hotels within the city are Shangri-la Mactan Resort Hotel, Crown Regency, Marco Polo Plaza, and Hilton Cebu Resort & Spa but there are standard and budget tourists hotels and inns too numerous to mention, like YMCA.

For the first-time visitor, the city has many interesting sites redolent of history. The most famous is the shrine of Magellan’s Cross (original parts are encased in the replica) right in downtown Cebu. Here devout old women (manangs) will dance and say a prayer for you, and, of course, ask for a little money. Also not to be missed are the Santo Niño Basilica and the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Taoist Temple, Fort San Pedro, the University of San Carlos Museum and Casa Gorordo, a heritage mansion transformed into a museum.

Cebu’s tribute to the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus), the Sinulog. is in January.

Ilonggo cuisine

Iloilo City has six districts, each with a church. For me the two most impressive are the Molo Church and the Jaro Cathedral. The church has twin red spires and is famous for its array of all-women saints (a touch of religious feminism!). National Hero Jose Rizal visited the church on his way to exile in Dapitan, Mindanao, in 1896. the Jaro Cathedral, built in 1864, is the home of Our Lady of the Candles (Nuestra Señora de Candeleria) whose limestone statue is said to be growing, and no longer fits into its original niche.

The phalanx of saints here, this time, is all-male. And Our Lady is the only “rose.”

While in  Iloilo, check out, while they are still around, landmarks like the Kerr & Co. Building in Ortiz St., the Ledesma mansions in front of Museo Iloilo, the Lopez-Vito residence in Jaro, and the Lizares Mansion (now a school), which is spectacularly a – glow with lights come Christmastime.

 The city is also known for its cuisine, like the popular batchoy and  pancit  molo, now served everywhere in the country but best to be tested in Iloilo. These are soup with noodles and lots of meat (with an egg as option), in the case of batchoy, and pork dumplings for the pancit molo.

Ilonggos like to bring their visitors to Tatoy’s Manokan & Seafoods, a seaside restaurant whose specialty is barbecued native chicken stuffed with pandan leaves and roasted over charcoal.

 The main Iloilo festival, Dinagyang, is also held in January.

Picturesque city

Tagbilaran is the capital city of Bohol, one of the most picturesque provinces in the Philippines. It is now commercialized, with many new buildings, but can still be enjoyed for its own sake for it is beside the sea. Places to stay here include Metro Centre, La Roca, Meridian, G. Gardens, and Sea Breeze. Right next to the city, connected by a bridge, is Panglao Island, where some of the best beach resorts – like Panglao Island Nature Resort – can be found.

 Within the city limits is the seaside monument celebrating the Blood Compact between Rajah Sikatuna and the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The best time to visit Tagbilaran is during July, when the Sandugo Festival is celebrated with much merrymaking, drums, dancing in the streets, and youthful contingents from all over Bohol and neighboring provinces like Leyte.

 Tacloban is the capital city of Leyte and the regional center of Eastern Visayas. It is right beside Palo Beach, famous for being the landing area of US Gen. Douglas McArthur during his return to the Philippines in 1944, during World War II. The Landing Memorial is, in fact, near the McArthur Park Beach Resort.

Another place worth visiting is the Leyte Park Hotel, which has a scenic swimming pool along San Juanico Bay.

Once, in the company of friends, I undertook a taxi ride from Manila all the way to Tacloban, or 860 kms south. It was quite an experience, rewarded at the end by the sight of the mountains in Tacloban, coming from Samar, as we were crossing the San Juanico Bridge. Our mission was to document 38 charcoal drawings highlighting Philippine history by the late, great visual artist Amadeo Manalad, housed at the Santo Niño Shrine & Heritage Museum, another reason for visiting Tacloban.




3 Comments 24 January 2010

By Amadís Ma. Guerrero

Rich in history, its beginnings dating back to 320 A.D., Butuan is the capital of Agusan del Sur and the center as well of the Caraga region (which brings together the four Agusan and Surigao provinces in northeast Mindanao)

Your tour of Butuan should begin with the Butuan Regional Museum where you will see relics and artifacts, gold jewelry, including the Golden Tara of Agusan; and other archeological diggings. Nine ancient boats known as balangay are found at the Balangay Shrine Museum. Also check out the Diocesan Liturgical Museum.

Places to stay in Butuan include Balanghai Hotel & Convection Center, Almont Inland Resort, and Hotel Karaga.

Cagayan de Oro, regional center of Northern Mindanao, bills itself as “the City of Golden Friendship.” Although quite developed, it attracts adventure tourists because of its Mambuaya River, excellent for whitewater-rafting, the Macahambus Cave-Gorge, and Catanico Falls. Twelve kms from the city proper, overlooking Macajalar Bay, is the showpiece Gardens of Malasag Eco-Tourism Village, with its tribal architecture, trees and nurseries, tribal huts and cottages, amphitheater for performances, and indigenous artifacts and souvenirs.

Davao City was in the news again recently because of the death squads which kill petty criminals and sometimes innocent persons. The Commission on Human Rights has investigated and found human rights violations. There was even an independent film on these killings, Engkwentro, which won for its young director, Pepe Diokno, a major award at the recent Venice International Film Festival.

Despite this negative image, Davao remains an interesting place for domestic and foreign tourists. It is a large, sprawling city with modern malls (you can skip these if you’re tired of malls), convection facilities, and fine hotels like Malagos Garden Resort, Apo View, Durian Hotel, and many more recently established.

Davao is also a feast for the lover of sea food, especially tuna. Check out restaurant row along Florentino Torres St. and get your fill of broiled giant tuna (bariles), panga, (head), buntot (tail), tungol (walls of intestines), bihod (eggs) and obol-obol (throat). Perfect when eaten with steaming rice and washed down with beer, as you exchange jokes and tall stories with your hosts and friends.

The same can be said for General Santos City (known as GenSan to its residents), which faces Sarangani Bay in South Coatabato. It thrives on tuna for domestic and export markets. The giant tuna and marlins arrive by fishing boats in front of the public market in the morning, and you can see local and foreign (mostly Japanese) traders buy these by the ton.

While in GenSan you can stay at Sydney Hotel, Sansu or Anchor; and dine out at Fiesta as Barrio, Lola Sisay or Ribs N’ Jazz. Resorts within the city include London Beach, Olaer, and South Sea Tropical.

 The well-maintained Shrine City of Dapitan in Zamboanga is for the lover of Philippine history, notably the admirer of National Hero Jose Rizal. Everywhere you see reminders of Rizal’s exile here, including a park with replicas of his clinic and residence. A gem is the Church of St. James, constructed by the Jesuits in the 1870’s, where Rizal heard Mass. In front of the church is a relief map of Mindanao said to have carved out by Rizal who was, among other accomplishments, a sculptor.

A 15-minute drive away from the city proper is the upscale Dakak Park Beach Resort, with its towering cliffs, palm trees, well-manicured lawns, hidden cottages, and white-sand beach cove.

Include Iligan in your discovery or rediscovery of Mindanao, if only because it is “the city of waterfalls.” You can start with the spectacular Ma. Christina Falls, which can only be viewed during weekends (and you cannot swim here). But there are over 20 waterfalls within the city.

There’s the smaller Mimbalut Falls, with a lot of boulders nearby and shallow but ever flowing waters. Move awesome is Tinago Falls, accessible downward through 315-step stairway of stone. The waters fall into a deep, natural swimming, and there is a raft attached to a rope overhead, plus other smaller falls. And if you get tired of cold spring waters, there’s always the Timoga de la Mar Swimming Pools, another popular destination.

If Iligan is the city of waterfalls, Islamic Marawi, only an hour’s drive away, is the city of mosques. There are over 70 of these places of worship, some of them grand and majestic. Also visit the King Faisal Mosque and Center for Islamic Studies, and the Mindanao State University and its attractive campus overlooking Lake Lanao.

The place to stay in Marawi is the elegant Marawi Resort Hotel, located within the MSU campus.

When in Zamboanga City, be sure to be a pilgrim and visit Holy Hill, trekking (or even riding) up the paved zigzag and the Fourteen Stations of the Cross, which leads to the mountain summit and its giant cross. There you will be rewarded by a grand view of all of the city, Santa Cruz Island and, separated by the bay, the mountains of Basilan province.




1 Comment 24 January 2010

By Pepper Marcelo

When one visits a foreign country for the first time, the first and sometimes only native person he encounters is the tour guide. Not only does this person introduce and explain the history, culture and landmarks of the country, but a more crucial element is that the guide frequently becomes the de facto representative of an entire people. Questions that are often asked upon their return: “Were they friendly?”, “Did they have good manners?”

Thus, it is essential to put one’s best foot forward in order to make the best impression upon visiting guests. After all, a satisfied visitor that was treated well will more likely visit again (and again) and through positive word of mouth, recommend that country to friends and family. This bodes well for that nation’s local tourism industry and, in turn, contributes to the overall economy.

Cognizant of this, the Department of Tourism (DOT) has created a program called “Mabuhay Guides” to train extensively an eager group of men and women to become not only the most knowledgeable and friendly tour guides, but, in essence, be “ambassadors of a nation.”

With the improvement of many sectors of the tourism industry, it was only logical that tourist guides themselves get an upgrade.

“The quality of hotels, the service of our airlines, the travel agencies, the tour operators are improving. There was a missing component that was very important in enhancing the tourist experience, and that was the tourist guide,” says Tourism Secretary Ace Durano.

“We needed a new breed of tour guides that has different perspective, sees the Philippines differently,” he adds. “No matter how you train someone as a tour guide, how you feel about your product and how you feel about your country will really come out. So we needed a fresh perspective.”

Another proponent of the program is Susan Calo-Medina, producer-host of the ANC show Travel Time.

“The Philippines has long been known for its beautiful vistas and a warm, welcoming people,” she says. “By developing both, the Department of Tourism hopes to create an unbeatable combination.”

An advertisement for DOT tourist guides was placed on Calo-Medina’s program and local newspapers, and over 200 aspirants from various disciplines – from teachers to advertising professionals – applied. After a rigid screening, the list was trimmed to a core group of 25.

“I see tour guiding as an extension of teaching. Whereas I used to teach inside a classroom, I now teach outside the confines of classroom, with the [tourist] sites themselves as my visual aides,” explains Irene Fernandez why she joined the program.

The first batch of Mabuhay Guides underwent an intensive six-week training course on many aspects of Philippine culture – from history, arts, architecture, and geography, to the environment, cuisine and music.

“Our first batch of graduates comes from different backgrounds, different professions and went through such a rigorous program taking seminars from the best resource persons,” says Durano.

The lecturers were experts and luminaries in their respective fields, including National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, UP Humanities Professor Felipe de Leon Jr. and former Central Bank Governor Jaime Laya, who is an avid antique and art collector.

“What attracted me [to the program] were the lecturers,” says Therese Carlos. ”I wanted to undergo training under these prominent people in their respective fields.”

The guides also underwent training in various skills and subject matters, such as grooming, good manners, health issues, personality development and first aid. Moreover, representatives from the prestigious London Blue Badge, the premier qualification group for tour guides in Britain, engaged the trainees in rigorous, on-site sessions by bus and foot.

The rigorous and specialized instruction demonstrate that tour guiding is more than simply dishing out historical and cultural facts, but, more importantly, it is connecting with, and even entertaining, a discriminating audience.

“I realize that tour guiding involves developing a lot of empathy for the tourist, so we think about his safety and comfort, and how he reacts to what we’re saying,” says guide Yael Fernandez.

After the training, Mabuhay Guides are given their certificate and an official badge. Because the program is associated with the DOT, the graduates became fully accredited members of the World Federation of Tourist Guide Association.

In a speech during the graduation ceremonies, Fernandez said, “Our reason for joining was one and the same: all of us share the same vision, a strong desire to share our talents for the benefit of the tourism industry and the Philippines. We consider it an honor and privilege to be called Mabuhay Guides, and we are committed to serve the department and be the best we can be so that other people can appreciate the country the way we do.”

Currently, the Mabuhay Guides are individually deployed on an appointment basis through the DOT, servicing an assortment of visitors from all over the world – business investors, trade industry players and niché travelers – in and around the Metro Manila area. Trips include visits to the Walled City of Intramuros covering such historical sites as Fort Santiago, Manila Cathedral, San Agustin Church and Palacio del Gobernador. The city itinerary also covers neighboring Binondo, Escolta and Quiapo.  

Visitors and guides explore the city by bus and on foot along main roads like Roxas Boulevard and Ayala Avenue and by boat on the Pasig River. The DOT is working on expanding the tour routes to neighboring provinces like Batangas, Cavite and Rizal.

Becoming a Mabuhay Guide has expanded one’s initial objectives of gaining employment and traveling.

“I envision that my tour guiding would impact on nation-building, that this will not be a simple job for me, but something that would influence my fellow countrymen to be proud of the Philippines and for us to really promote tourism in the country,” says guide Maria Morena Galvelo.

Calo-Medina concurs: “We all have a Mabuhay Guide in each of us, waiting to be let loose. All we have to do is know more about our country and our culture and share it with the world.”


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