Sagada: Take Two

Sagada in the morning

Second time in Sagada, and I’m still struck with awe.

My first visit was with my brother and we joined a group tour for an overnighter in this beautiful, distant place nestled on the mountains up north from Manila. Back then, I was asleep throughout most of the journey. I remember highlights of that trip included having a taste of the famous lemon pie, a very delicious strawberry cake, trekking the Echo Valley to the hanging coffins, and walking the stream leading to an underground river. It was a whirlwind of fun packing everything that needed to be done in those 2 days (side trip to Baguio and Banaue included).

This time was different: D agreed to drive, so we had the car just to ourselves and managed to do quick photo stops along the way whenever we came upon something spectacular. Plus I was awake throughout the duration of the trip (well, except for the first four hours because we left at 2:30 in the morning). We took the route that Google Maps recommended. It said 9 hours’ total travel time, and we were to skip the roads to Baguio or Banaue, and take the Cervantes, Ilocos Sur route. I’ve never heard of Cervantes. We drove near the sea at La Union and took the road less traveled.HaystacksClear streams

I played navigator while D bravely drove through the long winding roads that connected Ilocos Sur to Mountain Province. It turned out to be a scenic route – breathtaking view of the mountains and valleys, clear streams, waterfalls, and rice terraces. The view kept getting better and better once we got to the Bessang Pass Natural Monument in Sigay, Ilocos Sur. It is a protected area and memorial commemorating the victory of Philippine soldiers over the Imperial Japanese army on 14 June 1945. The mountains were so beautiful, we saw birds of different kinds, the air was cool and fresh. It reminded us of Batanes and Switzerland. D was definitely impressed (yay!). Except when passing towns, we rarely saw other cars through that route. I wonder how the locals managed commuting…Mountain

So the route was very scenic, but it was also a bit scary. Several times I held my breath and asked D to speed up because we would pass signages that say ‘beware of falling rocks’. And those rocks that we saw on the road were boulders. We also passed by roads next to landslides. Some stretches were dirtroads as the lanes were being repaired from erosions from a recent typhoon (Ompong) that hit the province.Landslide

Landslide

The 9 hours estimate by Google Maps was short by 3 hours. We reached our hotel, Labanet Lodge, at 2:30 in the afternoon. Our room was facing the town, and the hotel was walking distance to the restaurants and market. When we checked in I saw some ‘Sagada Do’s and Don’ts’ posted on the frontdesk. I also saw this list when we registered for a tour at the Municipal Information Center. These rules are:

1. Register at the Municipal Information Center and present the receipt when going to tourist sites like the caves, falls, Echo Valley.

2. Engage the services of local guides. Not children.

3. Respect all sacred grounds and sites.

4. Do not take photos of local rituals. Ask permission first.

5. No scanty clothing. No necking in public.

6. Use only designated parking areas.

7. No littering.

8. Bring your own bag (preferably eco bag) when shopping.

9. Minimize use of plastic bottles. Refill at water stations.

10. Inform the hotel of whereabouts past 10 PM.

I am all for these rules. I don’t recall seeing these during my first trip. Kudos to the municipality of Sagada for reinforcing these basics to tourists.

After the twelve hour drive I rewarded D lemon pie and tea at the Lemon Pie House. I rekindled my relationship with Sagada’s mountain tea. During my first trip I bought a bag of the leaves thinking I could brew it at home – but my version did not turn out good at all. So this time, I asked the staff at the restaurants as to how they brew their mountain tea because it was so good I just have to make it work at this time.

Around 4 in the afternoon we walked less than a kilometer from the hotel to Gaia Arts and Crafts Cafe, a quaint little restaurant that was featured in a local hit film ‘That Thing Called Tadhana’. Along the way we met a cute, friendly labrador. (I made a mental note to say hi to her again on our way back to the hotel). We also saw a couple of hanging coffins – these were different from the ones I saw at the Echo Valley. Just as a background, people who die past the age of 100 are buried in the hanging coffins. We were told by a local that the hanging coffins could be seen at different places coming from the Echo Valley to the Sumaging Caves. Our destination, Gaia, was near the caves.Gaia

Gaia serves vegetarian food and offers a nice view of rice terraces and fields. This is where we had our early dinner. I got the vegetarian adobo and D had the fried breaded tofu. I was giddy with excitement because I was looking forward to the side salad and the red rice. You see, only in Sagada do I get to eat red rice. I have to learn how to cook it properly, so it won’t end up too dry.The Wayfarers

When we got back to the hotel it was almost dark. For the first time in a long time we went to bed very early – 6 o’clock in the evening. Boy, did we have a long good night sleep.

Day 2 was a big day: we had a healthy, filling breakfast at the Strawberry Cafe. Afterwards, D and I registered for a tour and did a 3 hour trek to the Bomod-Ok Falls. It was a good cardio workout and a sight to behold. Our guide was also engaging and she provided a lot of educational information about the culture and traditions of the local community.Bomod-Ok

After the tiring trek we had lunch at the Sagada Brew. I’ve raved about this restaurant in TripAdvisor because I loved their breakfast. Lunch was good, but I didn’t enjoy their lava cake this time. It just looked good, but it was stale and dry.

In the afternoon we checked out the market and the Sagada Weaving store. Was able to get my stash of fresh greens for salad, and the award-winning Sagada Bana coffee from the market. At Sagada Weaving we got to watch the weavers in action. Got myself a belt bag as a souvenir.Sagada Weaving

That night there was a bit of a drizzle but the cold air was quite nice. We had dinner at the Yoghurt House. And then for the second night in a row we slept early.

On the third day we had an early breakfast at Bana Cafe. Their coffee was indeed a hit! It’s a good thing we were able to buy the coffee from the market because there we were able to negotiate for a discounted price.Bana Coffee

On our way back we were able to see the sea of clouds. We tried to deviate from Google’s recommended route because we planned to pass through Baguio. It was a mistake! Thirty minutes in to the new route we came upon a dead end because the roads were closed due to a landslide during Typhoon Ompong. Needless to say, we retraced our steps and heeded what Maps told us to take. So we passed by the long scenic road again. Come to think of it, it wasn’t so bad.Sagada in the morning

I asked D what he thought of Sagada and he loved it. It can now compete with Batanes, his favorite destination in the Philippines. I doubt he would want to drive back though. The way to and from Sagada was an adventure on its own. It was just too long – longer than a plane ride from the Philippines to another country. I’ll try to convince him again maybe in a couple of years.Scenic

Sagada – it was nice to be back! Hope to see you again soon. Maybe next time I will bring my folks and relatives so they can also get to appreciate you. It definitely is more fun in the Philippines!

Sunset and homeward bound

Two Days in San Diego

sunset

My first week during my 1-month visit to the United States was spent with my mom at my Aunt Noellie’s home in San Fernando Valley, California. I got to explore Los Angeles and Malibu, and we drove for about 3 hours to visit San Diego.

Because we were pressed for time, we booked somewhere near the Marina and the Balboa Park so we could be near these two destinations. We checked in at the Hyatt beside the Seaport Village and I was fascinated by the view from our hotel room – we just had to stop for a cup of tea, while taking in the beautiful midday view. viewview

After checking in our stuff at the hotel, off we drove to the Balboa Park. It was a big interactive park with lots of things to do and to discover. It was a busy Saturday too, and there were lots of people having a picnic, playing at the park, or walking around exploring like us.

From where we parked we walked past the San Diego Air and Space Museum (couldn’t miss the jet displayed at the museum’s front); had a peek at the Starlight Bowl theatre; and walked into some countries’ houses in the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages. Here I read through the different countries’ information and browsed the items on exhibit. Germany

Germany Cottage

Afterwards, we had lunch at The Prado. We waited to be seated for about 5 minutes which wasn’t so bad given how busy that afternoon was. I was immediately impressed by the restaurant’s interiors. I liked my sandwich and greek salad. Lunch wouldnt’t be complete without a glass of their sangria which was a bit strong (but good!) for me. The Prado was located in The House of Hospitality – one of the most honored structures in Balboa Park which was built in 1915, using Spanish Baroque style. A few meters away from the resto is the lovely Japanese Friendship Garden. Balboa

The House of Hospitality

Sangria

Sangria and lunch at The Prado
Japanese Garden

When we headed back to the hotel after lunch, my mom, aunt and uncle opted to rest and have their afternoon nap. I, on the other hand, needed to complete my ten thousand steps for that day so I walked to the Seaport Village. I liked the quaint little shops, cafes and restaurants in the Seaport Village. I kept walking and eventually reached the U.S.S. San Diego Memorial sculpture by Eugene Daub and Louis Quaintance. It was an artwork in commemoration of the U.S.S. San Diego and her crew who played a big role using courage and selflessness during the World War II. Seaport VillageSeaport Village

A few hundred meters more, I reached the bronze monument dedicated to Clifton A.F. Sprague; and then the kissing statue called Unconditional Surrender. When I was a child I saw a photo of a this in my dad’s coffee table book. Clifton A.F Sprague memorialkissing statue

Close by is the National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military – a cluster of sculptures with a recording of Bob Hope’s speech being continiously played. It was almost dusk when I got to this place and the view of the sunset was spectacular.Navy Pier

The next day I woke up early and had a bit of a walk to go to Little Italy. I went to attend service at a nice little church called Our Lady of the Rosary. It had beautifully painted ceilings.church

When we checked out of the hotel I brought the folks to the Unconditional Surrender, and we drove off to have lunch at National City where there were several Filipino restaurants clustered together.

If you liked what I’ve written on this post, check my other trips in North America: Montreal, Chicago, and Turkey Run State Park.

Two Weeks in Chicago

Cloud Gate

I usually write about my Top 5 favorites in places that I go to, and I’ve always wanted to write about my fun-filled two weeks in Chicago when I kicked off blogging. The reason I’ve procrastinated is because I struggle to choose just 5 favorites about The Windy City.

To give a bit of a background: the first time I got see Chicago was 13 years ago, when I went to Illinois for a short business trip. Back then, I squeezed in what I could for only about 3 days, on weekends. Despite the short trip, I was already mesmerized by the vibrant city. It was also my first visit to the United States, and at the time it was autumn. Coming from a tropical country with only 2 seasons (dry and wet) and mostly hot and humid all year round, I quickly fell in love with autumn – the cool temperature, and the beautiful colors of the changing leaves. Subsequently, almost all holidays I had with D fell around the autumn months.

Except for the second time I went to Chicago, this time a sort of longer trip. It was winter of 2008 and we spent time with relatives. Winter is an interesting season for D and me – but we decided we’d stick to our autumn holidays.

So this year, first time after 10 years, I visited Chicago once again. It was almost summer when I went, so I had a share of the changing temperatures from cool to warm. I went to Chicago after my solo travel to Montreal. I stayed with my aunts for two weeks and was able to spend more time with relatives during this trip. I’m very thankful to my aunts Jane, Salud, Bel and Zeny; uncle Oscar; cousins May, Juvy and Mike: they warmly welcomed me to their homes, showed me the beauty of their city and allowed me to get to know Chicago more up close and personal.img_9659

Chicago’s Art Scene

I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago when my cousin Juvy and I did the Big Bus Hop-On and Hop-off tour. Prior to going, I read that this museum was rated one of the best museums by TripAdvisor for some years now so it definitely was a must to visit. The grand entrance was beautiful, with its lion statues. There were friendly staff and maps located everywhere in the museum which really helped as the museum was big and one could easily get lost. My favorite exhibits were the Impressionist, New Contemporary, Medieval and Renaissance art galleries. We only spent a couple of hours in the museum and I would love to go back. I think I’d need at least a full day to explore the Art Institute of Chicago. My favorites works of art were The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, and the portrait of Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol.

I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) which my niece recommended. She said I wouldn’t miss the steps to the entrance of the building. She was right – and I just had to take a photo. I got to visit the MCA during their free museum day. I find contemporary art interesting and this was a good place to start exploring.

MCA
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The next museum where I had free entrance to was the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA). I had to do a bit of research before finding this museum and including it in my To Go To – I understand it was not as well known as the first 2 museums I went to. It’s in the Loyola University at N Michigan Ave, near the Old Water Tower. This is my second favorite museum, next to the Art Institute of Chicago. Their gallery was small, but I really liked their exhibits. At the time, there was an exhibit by Gregory Beals called They Arrived Last Night; and a photography exhibit by Tonika Lewis Johnson called Everyday Englewood. I was looking at the photos by Gregory Beals and there were moments I teared up. The photos were very captivating, and they incited a lot of emotions from me as a viewer. The permanent displays at the third floor had a lot of religious relics. Photos were not allowed inside the museum.

Another way that I appreciated art in Chicago was whenever I stumbled upon street art. Here are some of the delightful street art finds while walking the streets near Wicker Park:

Walking in the parks

Top of mind when it comes to Chicago parks is the Millennium Park. Been here four times (I went twice during this last visit, bringing my friend Paolo with me) – and I never get tired of it. It’s a nice place to stroll, or take in the surrounding buildings’ architecture. In every visit, I watch the water being squirted by the different faces displayed at the Crowd Fountain; and take selfies at the Cloud Gate (also known as The Bean).

Walking distance to the Millennium Park is the Grant Park where Paolo and I gazed at the Buckingham Fountain.

The Lincoln Park is somewhere I had to commute to from my aunts’ place at Wicker Park. I took the bus with a ventra card to get there and it was worth the trip. The park was big, and I did have a good long lovely walk. I got to the Lincoln Zoo – I try to avoid zoos as much as I can but this was the last stop of the walk along Lincoln Park. In this zoo, I saw the lions sleeping and I wondered if they could really have a peaceful sleep as the kids around me were shouting at them – this was the part that broke my heart.

Wicker Park was walking distance from my aunts’. It’s a small park close to a lot of good restaurants (like Stan’s Donuts where I got my bagels from; Goddess and Grocer where I got a healthy salad snack; and cafes). I’ve been curious about this because I remember a movie starring Josh Hartnett entitled Wicker Park. I liked that movie.

A few minutes’ walk from the wicker park is the 606 trail. It is an elevated trail for bikers and runners and I also saw an art sculpture along the way.

Last on my list is – and I’m not sure if this falls under the parks category – the Garfield Observatory. It showcased different plants and flowers – I was quite overwhelmed by the pretty blooms from different seasons!

observatory
a view of the interiors of Garfield Observatory

Diverse Architecture and the Chicago Skyline

A good way to see the most of Chicago’s architecture is through the hop on and hop off bus tour, and the Chicago Architectural River Cruise. The river cruise gives a good vantage point and the guides gave detailed information about the buildings’ histories.  One of my favorites is the historic Old Water Tower.riverriver

For the Chicago skyline views, the best place in my opinion is to view it from the museum campus, next to the Adler Planetarium. I go here every single time I am in Chicago and like the Millennium Park, it never gets old. Other places for the skyline view are the Navy Pier and Lincoln Park.skyline

Lincoln Park

Paolo and I also did the Riverwalk. We stopped several times to appreciate the buildings along the river, and also to enjoy the sunset next to the City Winery. I also met a cute dog being walked along the City Winery – he’s sooo adorable!

U2 Concert!

This was a super awesome surprise welcome gift to me by Mike and Juvy – I was ecstatic!! I’ve always wanted to watch a U2 concert so I was pumped when Juvy showed me the tickets. I literally cried tears of joy. We watched it at the United Center. The concert’s production was high tech and spectacular. Left me humming to Beautiful Day every morning during the rest of my trip. I’m actually listening to a U2 playlist in Spotify as I am typing this blog now.

Chicago Cubs

First baseball game I’ve ever watched live. I remember how I used to like playing baseball in high school. It was fun (and surreal) going to the Cubs vs Giants game – there were stores selling shirts, caps and other items around the area; beer and hot dogs were overflowing; and the fans were dressed up to their teams. Some of the fans were seated on the rooftops of the nearby buildings – hats off to them because it was so hot that day yet there they all throughout . There’s a park outside with a huge screen playing the game.

Two weeks isn’t enough as there are just too many things to do and explore in Chicago. Still, I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to visit this city once again and spend time with relatives and friends. Next time I would love to watch some theater plays or shows and spend more time in the museums (visit more of them too).

Hancock
This is a magnificent view from the John Hancock Tower where my aunts’ family friend lives

I’m sure next time I go to Chicago, I’d come across more spectacular finds (just like the giant pretzel from a bar I went to with my cousin – I was just speechless in awe!)

pretzel
a gigantic pretzel!

Five Faves in Baguio

Camp John Hay

Back in the day, Baguio was considered a summer destination. Because it is located at a higher elevation, it is cooler there than in Metro Manila. But then, a trip to Baguio took a longer time of planning and preparation – because the drive was about 8 hours. Now, thanks to the new highways connecting Manila to the northern part of Luzon, driving to Baguio takes normally just about a little over 4 hours.

D was always hesitant to go because he had been hearing horror stories about the bad traffic and the pollution. After months of convincing he finally agreed to drive with me to Baguio provided we go on a Sunday (with the hopes that tourists coming up for a weekend getaway would be going home to Manila by then) and I have to book a hotel away from the city center. I reserved our rooms right away before he could even change his mind.

So very early Sunday morning we drove northbound, enjoyed the views of rice paddies, took a couple of stops for breakfast and took photos of Mt. Arayat and some bridges.

We checked in at Forest House Bed and Breakfast, which was a close drive to Camp John Hay. Our room was cozy with an overlooking view of their backyard garden.

Bencab Museum

This was our first stop, because I cannot get enough of museums. And pretty much because it was also the farthest from the city so we drove there first. Bencab Musuem exhibits the works and collections of Ben Cabrera, a National Artist, renowned for his Philippine contemporary art. If not for D, I would have spent a whole day admiring the different paintings and artwork. We also spent time appreciating the view of their garden and koi, and the adjacent hills.

The Bell House

Walking inside Camp John Hay was reminiscent of what I saw Baguio as when I was a child. Though there are new establishments, it was not crowded and I am glad the place is still filled with hundreds of pine trees.

Inside Camp John Hay is The Bell House. My understanding is that it used to be a residence when the Philippines was still a colony of the USA. Nowadays it stands as a museum. It has an amphitheater next to it, which was beautifully lined with flowering plants. I had fun taking photos of the amphitheater.

The Bell House is big and the atmosphere inside was light and airy. D and I began exploring the house going separate ways. I was amazed at how the furniture was maintained and preserved. As I walked out the patio I pretended I was living in the 50s and wondered how I could have made each day productive without my gadgets back then.

There was also a secret garden next to The Bell House. I can’t recall if it was called ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’. We were just told by the museum staff to check it out so we did. It felt almost magical as I walked through the garden, with trees and mist enveloping us.

Baguio Market

A visit to Baguio will not be complete without going to the market at the city center. Sure, it was crowded, but it wasn’t as crowded as, say, Mall of Asia or Megamall on a payday weekend sale. We could still walk comfortably around, though we had to be careful of our belongings because we had to, as signs around the market would say, Beware of Pickpockets.

We bought vegetables and fruit, which sell much cheaper in Baguio compared to Manila. I was able to get all my salad ingredients here. For fruit we got strawberries and native berries. We also bought jam and ube (purple yam). We took a Grabcar on our way from and back to the b&b because this is one part of the trip that D would not have the patience driving to. Traffic wasn’t bad but parking would have been.

Diplomat Hotel

Now going here entailed use of our car. Atop Dominican Hill is the old and abandoned Diplomat Hotel. The spooky facade and the mist surrounding the place makes it a popular go to by tourists seeking some ‘scary’ thrills. Its history is narrated next to the entrance. It was built by the Dominicans as a vacation house on 1913. It was then converted to a school and named Colegio Del Santissimo Rosario from 1915-1918. During WWII it served as a refuge for families and Dominican priests from 1942-1945. In 1945, the Japanese used it as their last stand until it was bombed by the Americans. After reconstruction, it became the Diplomat Hotel which operated from 1973-1987.

Laperal White House

Since we were in the mood for scares we also went to the Laperal Guest House. We passed this anyway as we headed to the Pink Sisters’ Convent and Chapel. One wouldn’t miss this mysterious-looking old white house. I heard ghost stories about this place, even saw some documentaries about it many Halloweens ago. Unfortunately they were closed at that time so we weren’t able to get in. Pink Sisters’ Convent

So those are my five favorite spots in Baguio. I’d say it was worth driving to, and though it wasn’t as secluded and pristine it was decades ago, I was still able to enjoy the sights, the food and the cool temperature with my D.

Beautiful Borobudur Temple

panoramic

D and I flew all the way to Indonesia with one main destination in mind: the Borobudur Temple in Magelang, in the province of Central Java. Borobudur was built in the mid-9th century during the Syailendra dynasty’s reign. It is 35 meters high and is one of the world’s largest Buddhist temples. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1991, and I remember when I was young, my dad brought home a coffee table book from Indonesia, and I was mesmerized by the photos of Borobudur. I always thought it took a lot of effort to go to, so over the years it did not cross my mind to go until I saw my friend Kyle’s recent Instagram photos. The beautiful pictures he took replicated what I remember from the old book. I asked him how to get there and found that it was not too complicated after all. Though there were no direct flights from Manila to Borobudur, we took the Manila-Jakarta-Yogjakarta route.

Upon arrival to Yogjakarta Airport, we were welcomed by our gracious host, Ika. The drive from Yogjakarta to Ika’s B&B in Borobudur took us about an hour and a half.

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Yogjakarta Airport

When we got to Ika’s place, the Efata Homestay, his wife gave us a map and a list of Indonesian words we could use when ordering food at the restaurants. This proved to be very helpful because it was quite hard to relay my diet requirements whenever we ate out in Indonesia. Our room was simple, clean and comfortable. It had air-conditioning, hot shower, towels, toiletries, and drinking water. Surrounding restaurants at Efata offered very good food at surprisingly affordable prices.

Breakfast at Efata Homestay was delicious (I fell in love with their coffee) and gave us a taste of local cuisine. On our first day we had egg sandwich, mango (harvested from their garden), sticky rice and vegetable roll. The next day we had fresh fruit, Japanese porridge with tofu in coconut milk, egg roll and potato ball.

Prior to this trip I’ve seen reviews about both the sunrise and sunset temple tours, and I asked Ika what he would recommend for D and me to take. He said that the sunrise tour was spectacular – though the sun is not guaranteed to always show, it was beautiful nonetheless. The sunset tour was more tranquil, as there were fewer tourists during this time. But because the temple is surrounded by hills, the sun ‘sets’ rather quickly (not like in the beach where one can enjoy it for a longer time). So we decided to go for the sunrise tour.

We woke up early and met Ika at 4 o’clock in the morning. Though Efata Homestay was only 10 minutes’ walk to the temple grounds, we drove all the way to a different entrance, closer to the Manohara Restaurant. It is the only restaurant located inside the Borobudur temple grounds, and this is where everyone gets their sunrise tour tickets from. At the time, the cost per ticket for foreign guest was IDR 450,000 (approximately US$30). Sunrise ticket for domestic guests cost IDR 350,000 (US$23).

It’s a good thing we got there early because the entrance to the Borobudur Temple opens at 430 AM. We were one of the first few guests who have arrived and were able to secure the best seats. I thought it would not be flocked by tourists because we went on a Tuesday morning, but when I turned around after about an hour, the place was packed. I appreciate the guests who went at the time because the quietness of the place was maintained, and everybody respected everyone else’s personal space.

The sun did not rise dramatically, but I was still astounded by the slow lifting of the early morning mist, and the views surrounding the temple were breathtaking. We walked around each level of the temple and spent time admiring the stupas and the intricately carved reliefs. In the brochure, it stated that Borobudur Temple has 2,672 reliefs, 72 stupas and 504 Buddha statues. Some of the stones had white round marks on them – Ika explained that these were not original stones and were the ones restored.

We headed back afterwards to the Manohara restaurant where snacks and drinks were served. We were also given a souvenir when we returned the flashlights we were provided during the tour.

Next we climbed up the Dagi Hill for a different view of the temple and the hills, visited the Archaeological Museum and had a Javanese photo taken for our souvenir.

The part of the temple grounds that we skipped and I tried hard to avoid was the elephant rides. I saw the poor animals separated from one another, chains around their legs. I am strongly against use of animals in tours and entertainment, so when I saw them I was brokenhearted.

I hope you liked my review of my trip to the Borobudur Temple. We were lucky to have found such good hosts like Ika and his wife. If you are flying to Jakarta or Bali soon, and are the type of traveler that likes to experience rich culture, and more laid back places,  why not squeeze in a couple of days and explore Borobudur?

Take Me Back to El Nido

Secret Beach

“I’m moving, I’m coming. Can you hear what I hear? It’s calling you, my dear, out of reach. Take me to my beach. I can hear it calling you. I’m coming, not drowning swimming closer to you.” – All Saints, Pure Shores

Yes, the beaches of El Nido had been calling me for years. I have always been keen on going, but I was just waiting for the right time – in other words, a seat sale. You see, direct flights between Manila and El Nido are usually expensive, and as far as I know there is only 1 airline (AirSwift) that flies direct. A cheaper alternative is flying to Puerto Princesa in Palawan, which is 230 kilometers away from El Nido. From Puerto Princesa, it would be another 5 to 9 hours’ land travel to El Nido.  So when earlier this year AirSwift announced a limited offer seat sale, I immediately booked tickets.

Sunblock, shades, and swimsuits in my backpack, I excitedly went to NAIA Terminal 4 for our weekend getaway. The flight to El Nido was smooth and took less than an hour. El Nido airport was a charm on its own. It was simple, clean and had a modern Asian architecture.

Airswift
AirSwift airlines at El Nido airport

Day 1: Getting around by motorbike

Public transportation in El Nido can be quite expensive, especially if one wants to roam the different beaches. For us to get to our Corong Corong beachfront bungalow from the airport, we paid 300 pesos (US$6) for a 30 minute ride. When I was doing my research, I read that daily rental of tricycles to be able to get around El Nido can cost up to P1,500 (US$30).

It’s good that my husband is an adventurer, and whenever we go to beaches in the Philippines the first item on his list is to rent a motorbike. We have done this in Batanes and Baler and he is comfortable getting lost and finding our way (so as long as we have enough gas left in the tank!). We rented a motorbike for 500 pesos for a day, and headed off to our 3 main beach destinations.

BikeElNido
The bike we rented to explore El Nido, Day 1

Nacpan Beach

Nacpan is 20 kilometers north of El Nido town proper. It is a beautiful 4 km long white sand beach that has a “twin” called Calitang Beach. Prior to our trip, I have read several raves from tourists citing Nacpan as the most beautiful beach in the world for them.

The beach was almost empty that afternoon. There are several restaurants next to the parking space. We had lunch at the Mad Monkey hostel and bar, where we had a nice view of the beach and the coconut trees. Everyone in the restaurant was friendly and relaxed. At the bar, there was a ‘Pacquiao Punch (Do It For Your Country) contest’ that looked like fun – they had a running tally of which guests from what country had the most number of shots. I wish we could drop by at night and join in on the party, if only Nacpan just wasn’t so far away. At that time, the country leading the ‘contest’ was Canada….

Duli Beach

Next stop was Duli Beach, considered to be a surfer’s destination in El Nido because of the huge waves. This is by far, the most beautiful and secluded beach for me in El Nido, and we had the long stretch of white sand lined with coconut trees all to ourselves.

It is northeast of Nacpan, 14 kilometers away. It was not easy to access. We stopped several times to ask for directions, and the dirt road was narrow. Because we drove through rough roads, it took us 30 minutes by motorbike.  Driving to this paradise alone was an adventure, and I’m happy we braved through almost crashing through the mud because this beach was just awesome!

Duli
We had the beach all to ourselves!

We hung out inside a ‘kubo’ (Filipino word for ‘hut) and drank juice from a freshly picked coconut.  We got to chat with a regular surfer and he said that the best months to surf are from November to April.  I hope that Duli Beach will not be commercialized – its raw beauty is astounding as it is.

Marimegmeg Beach

After heading back to our B&B in Corong Corong and resting for an hour, we headed out again for late afternoon drinks and dinner. The locals referred us to go to Las Cabanas for a perfect view of the sunset. We learned that Las Cabanas is also called Marimegmeg Beach, just a few hundred meters away from where we were staying. It was a downhill hike from where we were parked. There were many bars and restaurants in the area, and the Sun Bar caught our interest because of the lively vibe and good music. Everyone secured a spot facing the sea while enjoying their drinks. The sunset, I must say, was spectacular. Vibrant colors of pink, violet, orange, and yellow filled the sky – it’s the picture perfect sunset, like the ones I try hard to paint (but have never succeeded in completing yet).

Beachsunset
Sunset at the Las Cabanas beach

Day 2: Island Tour – Tour C

Island tours are popular in El Nido. Below are the most popular tours, along with the price per person at the time I was there:

Tour A (P1,200 or US$22) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island , and 7 Commando Beach

Tour B: (P1,300 or US$24) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, Cudugnon Cave and a snorkeling activity

Tour C: (P1,400 or US$26) – a 7-hour tour with the following destinations: Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach, and Hidden Beach

The tours include buffet lunch, snorkeling equipment and bottled water for drinking. I asked the locals what tour they recommend, and most of them answered Tour C. So, yep, that’s what I signed up for.

On Day 2, my husband and I were picked up from our B&B and we headed to Bacuit Bay at the El Nido town. This is where our tour commenced from. There were several boats filled with tourists like us, and most of them were headed out for Tours A and B. Our boat for Tour C only had 4 pairs of guests – which was good because we were not crowded. For safety, were all required to wear our life vests at all times.

Helicopter Island got its name because the island was shaped like a helicopter. Its real name is Dilumacad Island. We spent about 20 minutes snorkeling here. The water was clear and I saw a lot of fish. After snorkeling, I had fresh coconut juice. It was so refreshing!

All 8 of us in the boat opted to skip Matinloc shrine as it required a bit of a hike and additional payment. So we hung out on the Star Beach, and snorkeled some more while our tour guide and captain cooked lunch. We had a sumptuous meal on the boat (and I had another fresh coconut juice, because I just couldn’t get enough of it).

For the Secret Beach and Hidden Beach, we swam in deep water about a hundred meters to get to the beach. The beach could have been beautiful if not for the big crowd – turned out they’re not so secret after all. It pained me to see some of the tourists step on the corals of the Hidden Beach. I wish this part of the tour could be skipped altogether to preserve the corals.

Boodle Fight Restaurant (and B&B)

After the 7 hour trip, we headed to our new B&B at the Boodle Fight Resto & Bar. They offered a simple room with private bath and WIFI, and their food options from the restaurant were yummy. The owners of this B&B were very helpful and friendly. They are located along the main road of Corong Corong and was close to other restaurants and establishments. I found my kombucha drink at an organic store close to the B&B. What I liked about the store is they promoted recycling, and asked for me to return my bottle after I finished my drink.

Day 3: Lio Beach

On our last day, we rented a tricycle to get to the El Nido airport. Our driver was kind enough to let us stop over at the Lio Beach which was close to the airport, while he waited at the parking lot. Lio was more commercialized, but was empty at that time. There were several restaurants in the resort, and this is so far only place I have been to in El Nido that accepted credit card payments for our quick lunch.

Lio
Lio Beach and pier

Everything I’ve written so far are the good things about El Nido, right? If I’m asked what are the cons of going to El Nido, I can only think of 2: sand flies and the looming commercialization. First, the sand flies, which I realized only on Day 3 (via the signs at Lio Beach). I noticed bug bites at the end of Days 1 and 2 and thought all along they were mosquito bites and they were soooo itchy. As for the looming commercialization, I say this because I saw some ongoing construction on the island. In Nacpan and Duli Beach, we were asked for parking fee and ‘entrance’ fee by locals. The price was not the issue, it was just fishy for me because they did not issue any receipts at all. I don’t know what those ‘fees’ were for, really.

As for the majority of our El Nido trip, I can say, hand on my heart, that it truly is more fun in the Philippines. I can’t wait to go back to this beautiful place, and I wish that its beauty and simplicity will be preserved. It would break my heart if it becomes another Boracay. I hope not.

To book with AirSwift, check out their website at https://air-swift.com/. To book a room with Boodle Fight Resto & Bar, check out their Facebook page here. And lastly, for more information on Duli Beach, check out their Facebook page here.

Five Faves from My Weekend in Adelaide

museum

I quite enjoyed my recent vacation in Australia. All my prior trips were business-related, and with this one I got to spend more quality time with my sister. Also, for the first time, I got to go to South Australia to visit my brother-in-law’s family.

We drove Friday night all the way from Melbourne and arrived on the wee hours of Saturday morning.  The drive was comfortable as we had several stops along the way. Because we were only staying for two days, we rested for just a couple of hours before heading out to explore the beautiful city of Adelaide.

First Stop: Glenelg Beach

Glenelg has a nice beach. It is only a few minutes’ drive from the city centre and is accessible via tram. My brother-in-law said that when he was a teenager, he and his friends would always hang out at the Glenelg Beach.

Glenelg Beach
Glenelg Beach

There are several cafes and restaurants, and we had brunch at the PURE Boutique Coffee Bar which was near the Glenelg Town Hall.

Overall I liked the chill, relaxed vibe of this place, and I liked watching people run with their dogs on the beach.

Shopping at Adelaide Central Market

With our eco-bags in tow, we headed off to do a bit of grocery shopping at the Adelaide Central Market. Though it was quite busy on that Saturday morning, I enjoyed exploring the place.

We first went to one of my sister’s go-to shops: Little Tokyo, which sells Japanese groceries and homeware. This is where she regularly gets her Japanese spices, snacks, hibachi and nattou from.  She was so pleased when she found the rice crackers she loved in Tokyo here.

Next, she brought me to a popup bookshop which sells vintage books. It was a delight browsing through their shelves – lots of interesting books of different genres. I could spend hours there.

Lastly we went to the Goodies and Grains shop. I liked how they stacked their different products in jars and bottles and customers could refill their own-brought containers (lesser plastic use, yay!). They have a wide variety of items from honey, oil, coffee, nuts and so much more. This is where I found my new favorite flavored kombucha drink.

Free Exhibits at The Art Gallery of South Australia

After lunch we had time to check out the free exhibitions at The Art Gallery of South Australia. The museum has a beautiful building, and I was amazed by The Life of Stars – a stainless steel sculpture which is a permanent display at the main entrance. I like how it reflected the city.

At the time the Diane Arbus – American Portraits, and Tracey Moffatt: Body Remembers, were both on exhibit (from 14 July – 1 October 2018).Museum

The museum’s facade

Photography

My favorite display

A Relaxing Stroll at Himeji Gardens

My sister has researched about the Himeji Gardens and insisted from the start that it should be included in our weekend agenda. We had to use Google Maps to locate the place. It turned out to be worth looking for because it was a picturesque garden – felt like being in a Zen oasis in the middle of the city. The Himeji Gardens celebrates the Sister City relationship between the Japanese ancient city of Himeji and Adelaide.

As per the sign at the entrance of the garden, two classic Japanese styles are combined here – the ‘senzui ‘ (a lake and mountain garden), and the ‘kare senzui’ (a dry garden).

Entrance was free, and we spent about thirty minutes walking through the garden, listening to the sound of the birds and the water.  I imagine if could spend a longer time there, it would be a good place to meditate, or sit and read a book.

Skyline View at Mt Lofty Summit

On Sunday, before heading out to Hahndorf, we stopped by the Mt Lofty Summit. Initially we planned on doing the trail, but it was closed at the time due to restoration work.

At the summit, we were able to see the panoramic view of the Adelaide skyline. There was a Visitor Information Centre and a gift shop, and I was able to purchase some souvenirs there.  There was also a restaurant with a view at the summit.

Mt Adelaide
Mt Lofty Summit panoramic skyline view

So that was the highlight of my short visit to Adelaide. I’m so happy my sister and brother-in-law brought me there. I would like to get to know the city more, and perhaps spend a longer time there when I go back to Australia. Overall, I think the city was very charming, and I liked being able to go to different places like the beach, museum, market, parks which are all just within a few kilometers’ driving distance from each other.

Five Fave Things to Do In and Around Baler, Aurora

Baler

This is a late post, so pardon me for reminiscing…

I’ve always wanted to go to Baler. I’ve heard a lot of raves about it but it just seemed so far from Metro Manila. I finally had the motivation to go, when early this year I won a free trip to the Tribes & Treks Tour by Mad Travel. So we booked a 2 night stay in Baler, packed our bags and went to an adventure to the north.

It was indeed a long drive from Manila. We left early Friday morning to beat the weekend traffic, and arrived after 6 hours of driving (stopovers for breakfast and snacks included). We were able to see a Tourist Information office along the way and everyone was more than willing to help give us directions to our hotel.

Baler Town
Baler Town Proper

Our hotel was about 200 meters from the Sabang Beach. We could see the huge waves from our room, and I instantly fell in love.

First things first: Surf.

I’ve been fascinated with surfers and how they could balance themselves and glide through the waves with such grace and ease. I was told it was not as easy as it looks but it was tons of fun. The competitiveness in me kicked in such that as soon as we checked in to the hotel I asked where I could learn surfing. Surfing lesson and board rental cost P300 per hour. My instructor, Kuya Gerry, was kind enough to encourage me saying he would even waive my lesson fee if I do not make it to ride the waves successfully within an hour. I gleefully agreed and began my lesson. It was the most surreal experience ever – and I was able to ride the waves three times in 35 minutes! I would never forget how exhilarating surfing felt.

Surf Lessons
Learning to surf was tiring and fun!

Rent a motorbike and explore.

To get around in Baler, we left our car in the hotel and rented a motorbike near Costa Pacifica. The rent was P500 per day, and we had the gas tank filled. We were able to go to the town, Museum de Baler, and the Baler Hanging Bridge  which was about ten minutes away from Sabang Beach. The bridge is made of wood and it was a bit of an adventure walking across it. We got there at sunset and it was beautiful.

Baler Hanging Bridge
Walking along the swaying Baler hanging bridge

Vegan Resto: Charlie Does

I was pleasantly surprised to find this resto. It was a few meters away from the beach, right behind Costa Pacifica Hotel. The place looked very cozy – you wouldn’t miss the garden with its couches. They were pet-friendly too as I saw a cute labrador and beagle ‘parked’ next to one of the couches in the garden.

The vibe in Charlie Does is relaxing and homey. Their wait staff were also very warm and friendly. We got ourselves a banana shake and an all green shake, hummus and pita for our afternoon snack which was filling and refreshing.

Food at Charlie Does
Vegan snacks from Charlie Does

River and Falls Trek

On Day 2 I woke up early for the trip with Mad Travel to Diteki, San Luis. It was about 30 minutes’ ride by tricycle from Circle Hostel. We trekked through the Diyaboboo River and came to the our swimming area where there was a falls and the water was so clear. We had the place all to ourselves – well, along with hawks flying above us. Yes, there were hawks! It was so magical to see them, and for a few minutes I was just basking in the fresh air and the peaceful unspoiled place. I really wish that this piece of heaven on earth will be preserved for many more generations to come.

When we headed back to Diteki, we feasted on the local food prepared by our hosts, the Altas. The Altas are the indigenous tribe in Aurora, and they shared not only good food but also their stories and a bit of overview of the medicinal herbs they’ve used through the years.

Diteki Falls
Clear waters of Diyaboboo

RV Cacao Farm

Before heading back to Baler, Mad Travel also brought us to RV Cacao Farm. We were welcomed by JM, who manages the farm. He gave us a quick tour and showed us how to harvest the cacao fruit. We also were able to have a taste of one of their best sellers – chocolate ice cream. Their products are all organic and preservative-free. JM shared how he developed the farm and grew the business. I was inspired by JM’s story and I became more appreciative of homegrown enterprises.

RV Cacao Farm
RV Cacao Farm

I am honored to have been given a chance by Mad Travel to participate in the Tribes and Treks tour. Their advocacy on supporting the tribes and local livelihood through tourism is very inspiring, and tours like this make a difference to these communities.

When I have friends or family coming over and asking where best to go to within Luzon, I’d say Baler in a heartbeat. The surfing and the good food were all fun and memorable, and the Tribes and Treks tour was the icing on the cake.