Rugged Bicol: Waterfalls, Churches, and the Perfect Volcano

Travel log: December 26-30, 2015; Philippines

1 St. Dominic de Guzman Parish Church 2
St. Dominic de Guzman Parish Church, Albay
6 Nabontolan Falls 4
Nabontolan Falls, Mt. Isarog National Park

Bicol is a place for the hungry. There is the famously spicy cuisine, of course, but more than that Bicol offers attractions for all types of travelers. Whether you’re into religious history or the great outdoors, this popular region—replete with churches, mountains, and unspoiled beaches all across six provinces—is sure to stoke your palate. Bicol is full of surprises, too: picturesque views seem always just around the corner, and even in Donsol, famous for its whale sharks, you never know if today will be your lucky day.

A trip like this is best enjoyed on buses, vans, or from the back of a motorcycle. Only on the road can you feel that this land is indeed alive, with volcanoes rising above the landscape and the earth curving underneath—revealing its rushing wonders only to the determined.

From Manila, most tourists fly into Bicol, landing either in Naga or Legazpi. A variety of bus options are available, but since it’s a 10-hour ride we recommend taking the sleeper bus. It’s not that much cheaper than flying, but it’s fairly comfortable, as long as you bundle up and choose the lower deck—away from the air conditioner. Also avoid the first two beds near the driver, as these are slightly smaller.

NAGA

Naga is a good entry point for Bicol. Much smaller and sleepier than Legazpi, the city nonetheless boasts an abundance of churches and waterfalls, allowing visitors to get a taste of what’s yet to come.

Plaza Quince Martires

This plaza is located at the heart of downtown Naga. It houses a monument commemorating the 15 Bicolano martyrs who were arrested in 1896 for allegedly conspiring to kill Spaniards. The lovely San Francisco Church is nearby.

2 Plaza Quince Martires 1

3 San Francisco Church 2

Naga Metropolitan Cathedral

This cathedral used to have a more photogenic façade, but has since been repainted an unflattering gray. Inside, however, are beautiful stained glass windows which more than make up for the unappealing exterior.

7 Naga Metropolitan Cathedral 2

A few steps away are the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary and Porta Mariae. The latter is a triumphal arch built in honor of the 300th anniversary of devotion to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary known locally as Ina or Mother.

8 Holy Rosary Minor Seminary

8 Porta Mariae

Our Lady of Peñafrancia Shrine and Parish

The statue of Ina is now housed in a larger basilica, but its original home was this atmospheric chapel.

10 Our Lady of Peñafrancia Shrine 2

Peñafrancia Basilica

Constructed to accommodate the growing popularity of Ina, this basilica plays an important role during the annual Feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia. The holy image is escorted to and from the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral, with the return marked by a colorful fluvial procession along the Naga River.

9 Basilica Minore 1

Malabsay Falls

This popular attraction, located inside Mt. Isarog National Park, is less than an hour away from Naga. From the city, we took a jeepney bound for Carolina, where we hired a habal-habal (moto-taxi) to go up to Panicuason, which lies at the foot of the national park. We had heard about a jeepney that goes straight to Panicuason, but apparently it only makes the route once a day around noon.

5 Malabsay Falls 1

At 40 feet, Malabsay Falls cannot be called stunning—especially if you’ve been to more impressive waterfalls, like Tinago Falls in Iligan. It is, however, a good spot to visit if you want to get away from the city. And the trek up the dirt road provides many lovely sights of local life. Just remember to look back occasionally to admire a view of Naga.

4 En route to falls 4

Nabontolan Falls

Nearby but along a totally different trail is Nabontolan Falls. The trek through forest is a little more challenging, but also more intimate. The falls itself is supposedly smaller than Malabsay, but we found it both more beautiful and more photogenic (see top of post).

LEGAZPI

Vans to Legazpi are available all day at the Naga terminal. There is no fixed schedule, but passengers arrive frequently and vans leave as soon as they are filled. The journey takes approximately two hours.

We recommend renting a motorcycle to tour the sites around Mayon Volcano. Bicol Rental Buddies has reasonable rates.

Daraga Church

The Nuestra Señora de la Porteria Parish Church in Daraga is considered a National Cultural Treasure. Its interior is standard, but it does have a photogenic façade carved from volcanic stones. Located atop a slope, Daraga Church sits beside a gorgeous view of Mayon Volcano. The massive mountain is actually visible from almost anywhere in and around Legazpi, but unobstructed views like this—save for clouds—are not as common in the city.

1 Daraga Church 1

Cagsawa Ruins

The most famous view of Mayon Volcano is from the Cagsawa Ruins. The site contains the remnants of a Franciscan church destroyed and buried by the volcano’s 1814 eruption. It’s worth visiting to see the remaining belfry, but the viewpoint itself is not the best, and is in fact often crowded.

2 Cagsawa Ruins 4

Mayon Volcano is notorious for being coy, often hiding its cone behind slow-moving clouds. Don’t spend too much time waiting around in Cagsawa, as Mayon will probably reveal itself when you’re least expecting it, and there are other, better viewpoints.

Camalig Church

More properly known as St. John the Baptist Parish, this church is located further along the highway. While it exudes old-world charm, its dilapidated windows and scruffy exterior belie its reputation as one of the province’s best-preserved churches. Drop by if you’re en route to Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave, but otherwise skip it.

3 Camalig Church

Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave

Even though it’s far and out of the way, we visited Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave because of its history as a former guerilla hideout. Unfortunately, there is nothing much to see here. The limestone formations are lackluster, and whatever challenges the cave might have offered by way of spelunking have been renounced for easy accessibility. Among the cave’s features: wide, man-made steps and electric lights strung between stalactites.

4 Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave 3

4 Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave 7

Hoyop-Hoyopan Cave gets its name from the strong wind that blows through its widest entrance. Hearing it was the best part of the tour, but overall it’s worth neither the distance nor the entrance fee (P300 per group).

Ligñon Hill Nature Park

Apart from surprise glimpses along the road or at unusual spots—a plane, a boat in Donsol—the best view of Mayon Volcano is from Ligñon Hill. Cars and motorcycles can be taken partway up the steep slope, but you have to walk the final stretch. Make sure to set out early if you want to catch the sunrise or sunset.

5 Ligñon Hill 5

5 Ligñon Hill 6

Up close, it’s clear that Mayon Volcano does not have a perfect cone—but one has to put the crater somewhere. Don’t fret if you’re still not granted a glimpse. Instead look for a big signboard detailing the legend of Mayon: your frustration might be assuaged by the lovely story behind those clouds.

According to legend, Mayon Volcano grew from the shared grave of Princess Magayon and Prince Ulap, whose plans to marry had been thwarted by a jilted lover. Today, the volcano is seen as the princess’ embodiment. The clouds (ulap) surrounding it are explained as the embraces of her prince, while eruptions are interpreted as the spurned lover’s jealousy.

Santo Domingo Church

After a day spent touring the west side of Legazpi, we decided to explore the much less popular northeast side. One benefit of renting a motorcycle is that you’re free to wander anywhere, with no expectations and no destination in mind. It’s the best way to get swift but lasting impressions of a place—beyond the obvious attractions and postcard pictures.

2 Wandering around 4

That morning, we passed through town after town, skirting the coast of the Albay Gulf. In some places, locals openly stared at us, wondering what tourists were doing in their out-of-the-way corner of Bicol. But provincial life is not without its charms, and we even stumbled upon surprise gems like the beautiful St. Dominic de Guzman Parish Church in Santo Domingo.

1 St. Dominic de Guzman Parish Church 1

Where to eat

At the time of our visit, Sibid-Sibid was the most recommended restaurant on TripAdvisor. We entered with grumbling stomachs and left with deflated expectations. The food was satisfying enough, if a little overpriced, but not even the best dishes could have compensated for the extremely slow service we suffered. The place was ridiculously understaffed. By the end, we were so tired of waiting that we paid the bill at the counter.

Hungry travelers should instead head for 1st Colonial Grill. Don’t be put off by its fast food vibe; 1st Colonial offers an impressive array of Filipino and Bicolano dishes. The atmosphere is bland compared to Sibid-Sibid, but the food tastes great, and everything is very affordable.

1 1st Colonial 1

DONSOL

As with the Naga-Legazpi route, vans to Donsol leave frequently from the Legazpi terminal. The journey lasts over an hour along a well-paved but very winding road. Don’t sit up front with the driver, as the seat by the gearshift is narrow and uncomfortable.

Where to sleep

Upon alighting from the van, you will be accosted by a small band of tricycle drivers. Don’t panic. Just choose one to take you to the tourism office or your hotel. There are many swankier options, but for a pleasant yet inexpensive stay we highly recommend Victoria’s Guesthouse. An en-suite beach cottage room only cost us P800 per night.

1 Victoria's Guesthouse 1

Victoria is a wonderful, accommodating hostess. Some of the best meals we had in Bicol were at her guesthouse. Home-cooked meals are offered at a rate of P400 for two, although the food is really enough for 3-4 people.

1 Victoria's Guesthouse 2

Firefly River Tour

Next to the famous whale sharks, river fireflies rank second among Donsol’s attractions. Unlike the migratory sharks, fireflies are present all year round, although their number and congregation pattern vary from week to week. According to our guide they are often found scattered among many trees, flickering here and there—but always hope to chance upon a large group gathered around a single tree. The experience is magical, like seeing nature’s own Christmas tree.

We were lucky enough to have gone on one such evening. We saw two separate trees with an abundance of fireflies circling them. At one point we waded through calf-deep water to stand on the muddy riverbank, where we cupped low-flying fireflies in our palms.

Our cameras weren’t powerful enough to take pictures in the dark, but that night will remain deeply etched in my memory. I will never forget how the fireflies flew slowly overhead against a blanket of stars and darkness, as if the sky itself had come to life.

The firefly river tour lasts about an hour and costs P1,250 per boat, which can fit up to five tourists. You can find people willing to share a boat at your hotel or at the Dancalan Bridge, where the tour starts. Even for couples, the experience is the same whether you’re alone or not, as there will be other people in the river anyway. Just sit near the guide so you can ask him questions, and keep an eye out for luminescent plankton.

Whale Shark Interaction

The highlight of any trip to Donsol is swimming with the world-famous butanding or whale sharks. Unless you’re already a group of six, head over to the Donsol Tourism Office by 7 am to find people to share a boat with. There are two other trips later in the day, but there won’t be as many tourists—and the boatmen charge P3,500 regardless. With the registration fee (P100 for Filipinos, P300 for foreigners) and snorkeling gear rental (P350 per set), the butanding experience does not come cheap.

Sightings are not guaranteed either. There had been a typhoon two weeks before our visit, and when we arrived butanding had not been seen for four days. We considered going island hopping instead, including snorkeling in San Miguel Island, but all the other tourists—and there were many!—wanted to try their luck with the butanding. As we couldn’t afford to go island hopping by ourselves, we took the risk as well.

2 Butanding hunting 1

2 Butanding hunting 3

Not a tail, not a fin, nada. If you have the luxury of time, like one couple we met, better wait until there are confirmed sightings. Otherwise you might end up spending three boring hours on a boat. In any case, don’t feel too bad: your money will go toward the care and preservation of these gentle giants.

Cockfights

After our failed butanding chase, we hung out at the tourism office, wondering how else to spend our last full day in Bicol. Helpful staff suggested scuba diving, snorkeling, watching the cockfights in a nearby barangay. As diving was too expensive and Donsol’s snorkeling spots couldn’t rival San Miguel Island, we chose the third option. Damien had wanted to see cockfights even when we were still in Manila.

3 Cockfighting 6

3 Cockfighting 12

It was an experience unlike any other. Locals, mostly men, shouted over each other and swapped bills as gamecocks were readied and boys clambered up trees for a better view. A few meters away, one man was carving up a whole pig.

Thick fumes of cigarette smoke enveloped the makeshift arena. During the fights, men cheered with every slash and flap of wings—the gamecocks either white- or red-feathered, the men in varying combinations of caps, shorts, and slippers.

Shrimp Catching

We arranged this unregulated activity through our hostess Victoria. The fisherman came at dusk, the best time to catch shrimps, and off we went with his gigantic bamboo net.

4 Shrimp catching 2

It was difficult to navigate a sea littered with typhoon debris, but we enjoyed ourselves and took home a good catch. We could see the shrimps jumping in the water, but it was a surprise to also find small crabs, squid, and blowfish in our net. We tipped the fisherman well, and proudly shared with Victoria the result of our evening’s hard work.

4 Shrimp catching 3
Disclaimer: we suspect the fisherman returned to the sea to bolster our catch.
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