Mandaue Unboxed

Small city that’s big on homegrown surprises

Mandaue City is home. I’ve spent four decades of my life here, seeing it evolve from a laid-back, tightly knit community to a small but dense city of vibrant economic districts.

And yet like a tightly wrapped package, Mandaue City continues to surprise.

Ironically it is during the pandemic when we found ourselves getting “boxed” in one place that I got to know about my beloved city even more.

Like many developing cities, Mandaue is not perfect. But I’ve seen many good things here over the years, thanks to a citizenry that continues to support forward-thinking leaders both in the public and private sectors.

Such a healthy dynamic between the government and its people has been crucial for Mandaue to deal with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has brought upon.

Such a healthy dynamic between the government and its people has been crucial for Mandaue to deal with the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic has brought upon.

So when I was asked to support an initiative to promote homegrown enterprises in Mandaue, I didn’t think twice.

And today, June 25, the Mandaue Investment Promotions Action Center (MIPAC), the investment and promotions arm of the City of Mandaue, will launch “Experience Mandaue” to help boost the City’s economy.

This is the second edition of the #ChooseMandaue campaign that was launched last year, and one cannot stress the importance of its role to promote Mandaue City’s local products and services, particularly Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that have been badly affected by the pandemic.

Now, I’m aware that Mandaue, despite its small size, is host to numerous business enterprises, mainly commercial and industrial. But I only had a clearer grasp of what the city produces and how diverse it is when MIPAC sent me a package with a #TatakMandaue label.

Guess what’s inside the box?

But before I get into that, I’d just like to point out to you that Mandaue City lies in the heart of the island of Cebu.

And the metaphor is apt: everyone passes through Mandaue. Vehicles from the north that want to get to Cebu City and further down south need to go through Mandaue, and vice versa. Airport arrivals and departures to and from mainland Cebu must transit through Mandaue.

Mandaue is at the center of everything.

In short, Mandaue is at the center of everything. No wonder then that commerce and industry has flourished in this city of barely 35 square kilometers, the smallest among five cities in Cebu.

So what does Mandaue have to offer? That package of #TatakMandaue goods that found its way to our doorstep several days ago offers several clues.

All these goodies are certified Tatak Mandaue!

Upon unboxing, I saw a sampler of Mandaue’s homegrown food products, many of which I didn’t realize were produced in this city.

Some of the #TatakMandaue goodies inside were all-time favorite pasalubongs like Cebu’s famous dried mangoes from FPD Food International Inc. (7D brand) and Profood International Corp. (Philippine brand).

These two brands got me thinking: Mandaue isn’t big on direct tourism, but when it comes to tourism-related sales, the city is a pasalubong colossus.

Mandaue isn’t big on direct tourism, but when it comes to tourism-related sales, the city is a pasalubong colossus.

Not only that, I also learned that Mandaue hosts another huge food enterprise, Prifood Corp., which produces a sizeable range of popular snacks such as Super Crunch.

Then there’s Mandaue’s iconic delicacy called masareal, particularly Didangs Delicious Masareal, as well as excellent Polvoron from Mandaue’s Nutricious and addictive Baked Squid Bites from Baker’s Mill.

The box also came along with a package from Mama’s Little Secret Creative Burgers, which was quite a filling treat.

  • Samplers…

Of course, the best of #TatakMandaue cannot fit in a box, so I’d like to make a shoutout to homegrown faves such as Vcente’s classic La Paz Batchoy and Bebong’s to-die-for Mango Cake.

The list of #TatakMandaue brands is quite a long one, and we’ve barely touched the surface. I suggest you head out to this side of Cebu and get yourself a good old #TatakMandaue treat.


On the Road with Kids

Planning a road trip with the family? Here are 12 tips you need to follow

The Great Philippine Country Roads

In a road trip article I wrote, one of the tips I gave drew a sharp rebuke from the wife. “Bring lots of chips and candies” was my advice to keep the kids preoccupied and their spirits — and sugar levels — high. “You should have suggested something healthy like fruit and veggie snacks,” she said. In hindsight, she was right. Now, I’m the last person anyone would seek advice about healthy food, so I’d rather skip that part — there’s always Google — and stick to road trip tips I’d be confident enough to impart. Here are a few of those tips, with kids in mind:

Ice cream after Apo Island

1. Get plenty of rest before the trip

For longer road trips, especially at night, expect your kids to doze off. The driver, however, can’t afford such a luxury. One way to keep awake and stay alert — and many adults take this for granted — is to get sufficient rest prior to the trip. And just before the long drive, treat yourselves to a hearty meal to keep your energy levels up. And don’t forget the healthy snacks.

Road trips to beautiufl beaches like this in Aloguinsan, Cebu are always worth the long drive.

2. When in doubt, visit your doctor

Again, I’m not qualified to dish out advice on specific health issues, which is why it makes sense for you to visit your doctor for that purpose, just to make sure. You’re expected to have your car checked up for the road trip, so why not you, the driver and your co-driver? Remember, road trips can get draining and mentally taxing — especially when the kids are on beast mode — so the driver’s fitness must never be compromised. Besides, you should take long drives only when you’re fit because your family’s safety and yours are at stake.

Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig, Surigao del Sur

3. Prepare re-usable water bottles for everyone

“Keep rehydrated” is one advice many take for granted. But whether it’s summer or not, the heat can get unbearable, putting you and the kids at risk of dehydration (ask your doctor). So, stock up on water and drink those fluids especially off the road to keep your road trip crew rehydrated. The last thing you’d want is to get dehydrated during your vacation. To avoid peeing a lot, avoid sodas and caffeinated drinks. Even then, there’ll always be that random gas station or restaurant in the middle of nowhere to do number one and even number two.

Hanging coffins of Sagada

4. Get creative on the road

I read from a blogger mom about coming up with games for kids while roadtripping. Riddles, puns and similar brain games will keep them entertained while you deal with hundreds of kilometers of road, some of which will cut through desolate forests or mindnumbing monotonous flatlands. During our return trip from Sagada in 2013, Arwen decided to preoccupy herself by counting Iglesia Ni Cristo churches — the distinct architecture must have caught her fancy — starting in Nueva Ecija. With an overnight stop in Manila, she counted roughly 40 churches by the time we reached Matnog in Sorsogon, Luzon’s southern tip.

5. Don’t forget your checklists and playlists

Each child should have his or her own checklist, including for toiletries, personal effects, meds and vitamins. Make sure to double check the contents of your emergency and first aid kits. And here’s one list that would keep your spirits high on the road: playlists. Our eldest Amber definitely had one. If each kid gets to contribute a road trip playlist, make sure all of them get their fair share of “airplay.”

Sugar cane selfie stick in Bais City

6. Keep those gadgets and power banks handy

Some parents opt to leave gadgets behind so that their kids may truly experience rural living and commune with nature to the max. Fine, except that when you’re riding a car, you have barely anything to do other than sleep. So, even if you’re driving fast, time at times could still crawl achingly slow, and chances are, the kids would tire of the brain games and get restless. In that case, your trusty gadgets loaded with game apps, with power banks at hand, can keep them preoccupied. This worked for our toddler Cyan. Of course, you can always limit the use of gadgets as you see fit.

7. Make money matter

Don’t keep your money in one place. Make sure to stash some backup cash. And even though the most remote of areas have ATM machines, don’t count on it, as these could run out of cash or become unavailable. Give older kids some emergency cash and brief them about when to use it (definitely not on candy).

Sunset in Samboan, Cebu

8. Have a Plan B for your Plan B

So you’ve made a checklist and itinerary and run through them a number of times. That means this should be the most perfect road trip ever, right? Wrong. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly, so it pays to have a backup plan to your backup plan. Here are things to consider: the unpredictable weather, vehicle breakdowns, heavy traffic, even ailments, among many others. Also, assess your kids needs, abilities and limits and draft your plans around these.

Sipalay Island, Negros Occidental

9. Don’t sweat the small stuff

While you can plan all the way to Plan E, don’t make the mistake of going obsessive compulsive with the details. Instead, keep each plan simple and sensible, like keeping a short list of accommodations should you get left behind by the ro-ro vessel. Don’t discuss worst-case scenarios with your kids. The last thing you’d want as passengers are children who have freaked out and all of you aren’t even there yet.

Epic bibingka in Asturias

10. Don’t let yourselves go hungry

I won’t talk about what constitutes healthy food, but I definitely will touch on eating while road tripping. Long road trips are a good time to introduce your kids to different cuisines in the country, and for us, the best food is street food, which includes the neighborhood carenderia. But not everyone can handle street food, so if you need full meals, there are always restaurants in most town centers in the country, and most probably a fastfood place named after that ubiquitous bee.

Somewhere in Negros Island

11. If you feel drowsy, stop

If you feel drowsy while driving and no one else can take over the wheel, pull over the side of the road and get a power nap. A 15-minute nap can significantly restore your energy levels. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or a hundred kilometers to go, just stop driving. If you feel drowsy again after 50 or a hundred kilometers of road, take another nap. Repeat until you get to your destination safely. If this happens at night, try looking for a police or file station, if not, a well-lit area where you can park and doze off. After 15 minutes, you’d be good to go.

Bilar, Bohol

12. Have a nice trip!

And that’s no lip service. To make the road trip really enjoyable, make the kids look forward to the destination. When their spirits seem low, tell them about the beautiful beach that awaits them or what adventures the foggy mountains have in store. Become a child yourself and share their excitement. Now go.

Danjugan Island, Negros Occidental

(A version of this article was published on SunStar Cebu in March 2015)

Road trips: a survival guide

A checklist of travel essentials for that epic drive

The Great Philippine Country Roads

Road trips aren’t joy rides, but they can become rewarding, if not life-changing experiences. So, if you’re going to take that trip, here are essentials to consider:

The Plan

Research and plot your trip and stops thoroughly, but not to the last obsessive-compulsive detail.

Be flexible with your plans. The weather can turn ugly any time, although five-day forecasts from the Internet tend to be reliable. Expect the worst and hope for the best.

Find good company. Travel only with those you trust, have confidence in, and are comfortable with. Thresholds for long travel vary from person to person, from family to family. Patience can run dry faster than your SUV’s fuel.

If it’s your first time to go on a long trip, it’s better to travel in a group or convoy. Decide on a lead driver, as he will determine how fast you should go and which turns and stops to make.

Keep emergency numbers handy.

Long is the road and hard is the way that leads up to light.

The vehicle

Have your vehicle thoroughly checked. Go over the usual maintenance steps, such as oil change, filter replacements, and wheel alignment and rotation.

Ask the mechanic for a straight answer: is your vehicle in good enough condition to travel insanely long distances? How about the battery or tires?

Inflate those tires, including the spare. Check the car tools.

Also ask yourself this: are you willing to subject your beloved vehicle to a long, grueling ride?

Almost got stranded in Candijay, Bohol


Don’t overpack or overload. Bring only the essentials and enough food and water. If you’re traveling along the Maharlika Highway or Pan-Philippine Highway, there should be plenty of stops where you can get supplies and eat along the way.

If you’re using a pickup truck, a tarp cover will protect cargo against heat and rain. Also, keep stuff inside waterproof containers.

Don’t forget chargers for all those gadgets. Also, that Swiss knife should come in handy.

Parking area at viewpoint near the Mayon Volcano Observatory

Fuel consumption

Peg fuel consumption at a conservative 10 kilometers per liter of fuel, and do rough computations based on estimated travel distance back and forth. For example, if you drive 1,000 kilometers from Cebu to Manila, your car will consume roughly 100 liters of fuel one way.

Keep a full tank but you don’t have to “fill ‘er up” in every town.

On cost of fuel: the farther a place is from the Capital or major fuel depots, the more expensive fuel costs per liter.

Boarding the ro-ro ferry at the Cebu City Pier

Roro crossings

The Pan-Philippine Highway or the Maharlika Highway is connected by a series of roll-on roll-off (Roro) ferry routes, so always take into consideration travel time when plotting your trip.

The driver needs to present only the photocopy of the official receipt (OR) and certificate of registration (CR) of the vehicle for boarding on the Roro ferry. Prepare an ID.

Fare: the driver’s fare comes with the vehicle charge. The rest of the passengers each have to pay the fare. Rates vary depending on travel distance and type of vehicle.

Take note of the schedules. Be at the port an hour or two before departure schedule.

While trips are regular, there’s no assurance the vessel will depart on time. Set aside another two hours allowance for delays.

At the Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao

Traveling with kids

If traveling with children, prepare a bagful of barf bags. Long, winding drives take their toll on kids, making them nauseous or road sick.

Bring lots of candy. More kids mean more candy. Somehow, candy alleviates road sickness.

Kids can manage long trips as long as an adult can attend to their needs. When they get tired, they’ll easily fall asleep during long drives.

Keep children pre-occupied. Those tablet games and DVD movies will definitely do the trick.

Bringing a yaya along is optional.

Be mindful of the road especially in the dark. See that sign up ahead?

On the road

1. Keep calm and drive.

2. Psyche yourself before each trip. One way is to think of an eight-hour drive as no different from spending an entire day working at an office desk, plus overtime.

3. Keep pace with the lead driver, who in turn must make sure that no one’s left behind.

4. Take shortcuts only when you’re 100 percent sure of the route.

5. Take as many overnight stops as possible to rejuvinate, especially after eight-hour plus drives.

6. Even if you feel tired, be prepared to push yourself to the limit, such as when you’re driving on the highway in the middle of nowhere.

7. But if you’re drowsy, let someone else take the wheel. If there’s no sub, alert the lead driver right away that you need a power nap, so long as you think safety isn’t compromised.

8. For convoys, always keep communication lines open and agree on basic signals (useful for “pee breaks.”)

9. Backseat drivers are a no-no as they create tension and make the actual driver lose focus. Instead, let someone be your trusted co-navigator, the person who checks and double checks maps to ensure you’re following the correct route.

10. Lastly, enjoy the drive. Stop for landmarks and tourist spots. Once the entire trip is done, every kilometer will be worth it.

Update: In late 2019, transport authorities began strictly implementing the law against riding in the back of pick-up truck or pick-up type vehicles, so please refrain from letting passengers, especially your kids, ride in the cargo provisions of your vehicle especially during road trips.

So are you ready for that long road trip?

(A version of this article was published on SunStar Cebu)

Indescribable El Nido

So who deserves to see Heaven on Earth?

Time Travel in Palawan

“EIGHT hours?!”

That’s what I get every time I tell someone how long it takes to travel from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Of course, I fail to mention that’s by bus, which takes a hundred of stops picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.

But there’s a faster way, I assure them — by van. Only five hours.

“Five hours?!”

More driftwood at 7 Commando Beach

At this point of the conversation, I am tempted to drop the thing entirely, but decide against it, and instead nudge the aspiring El Nido tourist into action.

“Yes, five hours,” I’d say, citing the recent trip we made. “But that’s ‘Heaven on Earth’ we’re talking about. And we did it with children.”

Arwen, 8, Amber, 12, Cyan, 3

I’d then talk about how smooth the trip along the concrete highway to paradise was, except for the last 45 minutes or so of unpaved road, and omitting that part when one of the kids puked twice during the stretch where the highway snaked through the rainforest.

There would be no need to tell the aspiring El Nido tourist how priceless a reward of reaching this popular destination would be, because everyone already knows that, but I felt that travelers have an obligation to persuade others to take a vacation from their comfort zones.

Playing near driftwood at Secret Lagoon
Lunch at the beach is almost ready

“Make that trip happen,” I’d challenge the reluctant tourist more. “We’re not getting any younger.”

Nothing like the last statement prompts a soul filled with wanderlust into action. On the other hand, nothing could be as false as the exclusivist idea that the best kind of travel is restricted to a particular demographic, the way paradise, in its archaic sense, is reserved for a few.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age. Like our group, for example — my wife and I, our three kids, and my mother-in-law.

El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age.

Behind that boat are two crevices leading to Secret Beach

Powered by chaolong

The key to good travel is preparation that falls within the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too much, not too little).

Yet I felt that the kids should be prepared to endure the length of time they’ll be spending on the road. So, a couple of months before the trip to El Nido, we took a road trip along with another family and drove all the way from Cebu to Sagada in the Mountain Province, and back. A total of 72 hours spent on the road would be more than enough to prepare the children for that five-hour trip to El Nido. My wife and Momyla, my mother-in-law who’d be joining us, thought so as well.

Let’s do this!

So on the day of the trip to Palawan last June, we were confident the kids would do just fine, behave and sit still. But five hours is five hours, so we didn’t take any chances and hoarded lots of chewable candy (for dizziness) and a dozen barf bags we stashed from the flight from Cebu. We also needed to take a full meal for the long trip ahead.

After booking a van ride for El Nido at a “terminal” just outside the Puerto Princesa airport, we headed straight to our favorite noodle place in the country, Bona’s Chaolong, a hole-in-the-wall on Manalo St. just a couple of minutes away.

A legacy of Vietnamese who took refuge in Palawan decaddes ago, chaolong is pho with a Filipino twist. This satisfying noodle dish with a savory broth has started to become ubiquitous in the city, but Bona’s arguably are the locals’ favorite.

Ever since I found out about Bona’s Chaolong last year, I realized my trip to Palawan would never be complete without a lovely serving of beef stew or pork bone noodles garnished with fresh mung bean sprouts and even fresher mint leaves, paired with honest-to-goodness garlic French bread.

And I thought, what better way to start a trip to El Nido than with chaolong.

Five hours, 200 kilometers

We had arranged for the van driver to pick us up at the chaolong house at 1 p.m., and in no time we were cruising along the national highway. The van made two 15-minute stops — one in Roxas town after two hours, then in Taytay an hour later. Wonderful scenery greeted us along the way.

After close to five hours and more than 200 kilometers on the road, we knew El Nido was near, as the jagged limestone karsts began to peek from the horizon. We arrived a bit ahead on time, shortly before 6 p.m. The sun was still up.

Upon stepping out of the van at the terminal, massive limestone karst cliffs called “taraw” loomed before us. At its feet was the new market, where we would buy cheap lapulapu, squid and prawns for dinner days later. Hidden behind the cliffs was the reason El Nido has been called “Heaven on Earth” – clusters of astonishing geological formations scattered across Bacuit Bay. We couldn’t wait to see what “paradise” looked like.

We took a short tricycle ride through town to the edge of Rizal St., at the beach front where our lodgings were. Our room on the second floor of the inn was spartan, but it accommodated all six of us and offered a fantastic view of the bay and nearby Cadlao Island, which rose 600 meters above the sea, twice taller than the country’s tallest building. Dozens of outrigger boats anchored near the shore floated still.

Down below the inn, the streets were still abuzz with life, even as nighttime fell.

After having dinner at a carenderia run by a Filipino chef, we went straight home and slept. The tiny airconditioner groaned, but we hardly noticed. It will eventually give up before our three-day stay in El Nido is over.

Tours A and C, if there’s time

Every day, electricity in paradise goes out at exactly 6 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. I began to suspect that this was scheduled that way to force travelers to leave their rooms and take any of the four tour packages on offer, if not head to the town’s other attractions.

But the power shortage sounds legit — since El Nido is quite remote, electricity here must be pretty expensive, just like most basic commodities, with the exception of seafood.

View from our room…

Now taking the tours is a must. First timers in El Nido are advised to take Tour A or C, or if they have the time, both. There’s an option for a combined Tour A and C, since the each cluster of islands are just nearby. The tour starts at 9 a.m. and ends shortly past mid-afternoon.

We took Tour A first, then Tour C the following day. Both tours included lunch.

The tour begins: first stop, Helicopter Island
Will it rain?

Tour A centered on the lagoons: after a dip off Seven Commando Island, we headed to Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, had lunch at a beach beside Secret Lagoon, and then ended the day after snorkeling off Shimizu Island.

Tour C was mostly a trip in and around Matinloc Island, a long stretch of rock that holds pockets of beaches and many other secrets. We visited Secret Beach, had lunch at Talisay Beach, explored Matinloc Shrine, and spent the rest of the afternoon at Hidden Beach during low tide. We were glad we did both tours separately.

The sights probably meant little to the boatmen, but we, their passengers, were in awe. Each destination was just incredibly beautiful and each spot was uniquely breathtaking. One of the lagoons even inspired some writer to write a book, only it wasn’t about the place. (What’s the name of that book, again?) But still.

And it wasn’t just the scenery — it was the experience of discovering for oneself what other wondrous sights were hidden behind a clump of towering islands or walls of rough-hewn cliffs, for instance, swimming through a crevice to find the clear blue waters of a lagoon surrounded by even taller limestone karst cliffs lush with bizarre greenery.

7 Commando Beach

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands hunched on both sides — many taller than highrise buildings — appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands… appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.

Hidden Beach

Elsewhere, boulders jutted from the water, their serrated edges cutting the surface of the sea at odd angles, like rigid waves. One could imagine meteors falling from the sky millions of years ago. Farther still, clumps of rock lined the horizon, blurred, suggesting only depth and distance. Somehow, we managed to get there, and closer.

By the end of the first tour, I realized that no words can describe this place. In the middle of Tour C, I was resigned to the idea that no photograph or video can capture the essence of Bacuit Bay and its geological wonders.

Swimming in the Small Lagoon
What a view from Matinloc Island!

For example, to stand on the shores of Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island can be disorienting, because everywhere one turns, he is surrounded by exceptional natural beauty he can immerse himself in. This holds true to just about every spot in Bacuit Bay.

We expected to see something beautiful and amazing in El Nido, but not this many in only a few clusters of islands, not 360 degrees of breathtaking awesomeness at any random spot.

Here in El Nido, before each wondrous sight, one runs out of breath and superlatives. Heaven on Earth — that’s the best we can come up with?

(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Hidden Beach up close. Until next time, El Nido…

Time Travel in Palawan (Part 2): Finding Bliss and Bioluminescence

Fisherman in Sabang, Puerto Princesa

IN mid-October last year, two girls and a boy — ages three, seven and 11 — rode an airplane for the first time. They were going to this place said to be one of the most amazing in the world.

Their parents — my wife and I, that is — begged for clear skies. We got more than what we asked for: near-perfect weather and a smooth, turbulence-free plane ride to the island of Palawan.  

It had been six years since Bretha and I last set foot in Puerto Princesa. Now with three kids in tow, we had a feeling that this experience, though familiar, would even be more special. It was.

Island hopping on Honda Bay under clear blue skies

First, we were there less as a couple and more as parents, taking the kids to recommended tours in Honda Bay and the city, making them pose with a baby croc and a bearcat at the Crocodile Farm, letting them loose on quirky but fun Baker’s Hill, and taking them to Palawan’s famous “prison facility,” the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, where benign inmates stayed out of jail cells and hawked handicraft to willing tourists like us.

And then there’s Puerto Princesa’s emerging food culture. We couldn’t pass up on the chance to eat some tamilok, that translucent elongated mollusk that feeds on mangrove driftwood, in Sabang.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

The beef or pork bone stew with rice noodles — garnished with mung bean sprouts and min — is a culinary tradition left behind by Vietnamese refugees who settled in Palawan more than two decades ago. Paired with freshly baked French bread sandwiches, chaolong can be habit-forming.

But what made that journey really special was having experienced, as a family, Puerto Princesa’s best-kept open secrets: the underground river tour and firefly watching. We could miss the other city tours but not these two.

No Cyan, it’s not ice candy

Urban sprawl and the ‘peak season’

There was only one downside to the entire Palawan trip: we noticed that the city center, especially along the main thoroughfares, had lost some of its charm. This became apparent shortly after our arrival, as we rode through the city streets on board a tricycle, whose driver sidelined as our tour guide.

It can be disorienting to find what six years of development can do to a city that only dozens of kilometers away hides a natural wonder 20 million years in the making.

The urban sprawl that greeted us in Puerto Princesa was impressive and jarring at the same time. Tricycles and automobiles choked the main thoroughfares now lined with multi-story, some uninspired, concrete structures on lots where majestic trees once stood. In short, Puerto Princesa had become a typical progressive Philippine city, no different from the one we had tried to escape momentarily from.

Despite all these, much of Puerto Princesa’s 2,381 square kilometers remained very much “livable” and didn’t seem crowded.

As our tricycle shuttled through the highway, I spotted a number of backpackers milling outside vans at a “terminal.” Meters away, another group of tourists emerged from a convenience store. Wasn’t it the wet season?

“When’s the peak season, Manong?” I asked the tricycle driver in Tagalog.

It took him a moment to answer.

“All the time. It’s now peak season here all the time,” said our driver, whom we later learned left the capital in the 80s and stayed for good in Puerto Princesa, at a time when the only travelers who wound up there were those who wanted to get lost.

‘No Permit, No entry’ policy

Our driver, though, had no complaints now that Palawan is a full-blown tourist destination, mainly due to the inclusion of the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature earlier last year, setting off huge waves of publicity that reached distant shores.

As a result, local and foreign tourists were now arriving by the planeloads. The government and community were caught by surprise. So were travelers like us.

In 2006, going to the underground river was such a breeze, if you didn’t mind the poor condition of the dirt roads. Now, tourists who hadn’t made reservations had to take their chances at the Underground River Booking Office in the city proper and wait for hours.

Waves of tourist started arriving on Palawan’s shores

“We didn’t expect the tourists to come in droves,” a government employee at the booking office told us. They had to implement a “No Permit, No Entry” policy to control access to the underground river to 900 visitors a day. This was to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

We were lucky to get slots for the next day’s trip.

That night, to make the most of our stay, we took a nearby ecological tour that was offered only in 2010 yet: firefly watching in the Iwahig River. That nighttime ride on a paddleboat turned out to be an transformative 45-minutes of unforgettable beauty.

Statue at Puerto Princesa Baywalk, but the text on the corroded plaque was unreadable

Lasting impression

As expected, the Underground River tour left a lasting impression on our children, lighting the pristine caverns inside their heads with wonder.

The road trip to PPUR the next day aboard a spacious van was comfortable – our kids hardly complained. The entire 76-kilometer road leading to Sabang was paved, cutting travel time to a smooth two hours. (In 2006, it was three hours of rough road). The outrigger boat ride from Sabang to the PPUR entrance was just as smooth, considering the weather was unpredictable that time of year.

As for our boatman, he went on with his routine of identifying each stunning rock formation, many named after vegetables (e.g. The Mushroom), animals (e.g. The Crocodile), and religious references (e.g. the Holy Trinity). There were some Rated R material to be named but he held back (kids, were on board, he figured).

The boatman that took us to the Underground River entry point gave the kids these origami made from palm fronds
5 of the 900 lucky travelers who are allowed access to the Underground River that day
Arwen in her element at the entry point of the Underground River

Yet the perfunctory way the boatman conducted the PPUR tour was in stark contrast to how his Iwahig River counterpart does his. Both go about their task in the darkness, paddling through even darker waters, but their methods of touring guests are different.

While an underground river boatman is content to draw laughs by assigning quotidian, often half-comical, names to otherwise spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations millions of years old, a boatman in the Iwahig River tour strives to educate his passengers, both young and old, on the importance of Puerto Princesa’s eco-tourism projects.

And whoever runs the Iwahig tour gets it: visits to Palawan aren’t justfor sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

…visits to Palawan aren’t just for sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

Where to next, little feet, big feet?

Watching fireflies

In the Iwahig tour the night before, we jumped into two paddleboats, each with its own boatman. The smaller kids — Arwen and Cyan — stayed with Bretha, while Amber, our eldest, was with me.

Our boatman carefully paddled away from the faintly lit wooden dock by the river bank and into the darkness, trailing the other boat slightly ahead. He talked about the firefly, its short lifespan (from a few days to a couple of months), how it produces light (bioluminescence, enzymes and all), and why it glows (to select mates).

“Fireflies thrive in mangrove forests, like those lining the river banks,” our boatman said in a mix of English and Tagalog, as he points his laser pen at a cluster of mangroves, their contours visible in the darkness.

An unforgettable 45 minutes in the darkness up and down the Iwahig River
Crocodile handicraft

As the boatmen talked, all five of us children listened attentively. From time to time, both of them would keep silent, almost motionless.

“Are there crocodiles in the river?” I heard a little girl’s voice ask from the other boat. The boatman assured there was none in the Iwahig River, which flows toward the penal colony.

In the distance, a clump of mangroves slowly flickered with thousands of tiny lights. I could hear the five of us holding our breath in awe.

Mangrove seedlings at one of the uninhabited islands of Honda Bay

As we drifted farther into the river, more and more mangroves along the banks lit up.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

There was only the fresh air and the clear sky, through which the brightest moon and the brightest stars shone.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

The boatman pointed his laser pen at a star then traced the Big Dipper, then the Small Dipper, then Cassiopeia. My wife, my children and the child in me were transfixed.

My thoughts began to drift. I thought about the light that traveled all the way from those constellations and the number of light years it took to get to this part of Palawan.

I wondered about the light that burns inside every firefly. Bioluminescence: what a big word for such a small thing.

Bretha back in the Underground River, this time with the kids


(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Time Travel in Palawan (Part 1): Of Pacts and Underground Wonders

The road to the Underground River circa 2006

“EVEN if it’s no longer us,” a boy — or was it the girl? — once said, “let’s still go to Palawan, together.”

“Whatever the circumstance?”

“Yes, whatever the circumstance?”


That pact took place shortly before the turn of the millennium, when it was difficult – and expensive – to set foot in Palawan, a place only few had the chance to demystify.

That pact took place shortly before the turn of the millennium, when it was difficult – and expensive – to set foot in Palawan, a place only few had the chance to demystify. 

Air travel was prohibitive — the P1 fare was yet a far-fetched idea — and this made a dream trip to Palawan all the more of a fixation between two wistful youths coming to grips with what togetherness meant and how fleeting it seemed.

But the break up with this girl with whom the boy shared a number of dreams did not happen. Instead, they tied the knot a year – or was it two? – from the day of The Pact. And just as quickly, we – that’s right, the boy and that girl – were gifted with our firstborn.

That meant Palawan had to wait another six years.

Outside our homestay, a mistimed jump shot 2006 B.I. (Before Instagram) #nofilter

All that time, my wife Bretha and I built our nest and watched it grow, but we kept tabs about Palawan’s soaring repute as a must-see destination, thanks to the now ubiquitous promo fares that have made the common travelers’ desires within reach.

And so in 2006, Bretha and I, as wife and husband, took that first of three trips to Palawan that chance finally afforded us.

Our first few steps in Puerto Princesa under canopies of imposing trees took us to a number of shops with remarkable woodcraft and other items made from indigenous materials on display.

See that wooden frog? We took home a pig sculpture as big as that back home. That’s our backpack at the homestay, by the way.

Shopping for souvenirs had never been our thing, but we ended up with a good number of Palawan woodwork and handicraft, some the weight of a small human, including a slender “boat” longer than my arm span, a couple of traditional reed mats, and a wild boar sculpture. (How we brought all those items back to Cebu now escapes me.)

The Puerto Princesa City tour, which included the Crocodile Farm and the Iwahig Penal Colony, and the island hopping in Honda Bay were obligatory. But it was the Underground River in the city’s edge that we were dying to see.

At that time the road leading to Sabang was bad, with a long stretch dusty and unpaved. But as our van neared the village, the sight of the karst outcrop of the St. Paul mountain range emerging from the blur of thickets made us giddier. The guide onboard explained that the underground river stretched through a cave within the mountain range.

At that time the road leading to Sabang was bad, with a long stretch dusty and unpaved.

Halo there, monitor lizard 🙂

After a bumpy three-hour ride, the van reached Sabang, from where we took a picturesque 20-minute ride on an outrigger boat to an unspoiled strip of sand hidden behind karst cliffs that jutted into the South China Sea. The cave entrance was another five-minute hike in a forest trail mostly on a wooden pathway.

Walking past loitering monitor lizards and monkeys got Bretha and I more excited, but nothing could have prepared us for what waited inside the St. Paul cave.

Wearing the mandatory hard hats and life vests, we sat with a group of fellow tourists on a tiny river boat. At the rear was the boatman stirring the water with a paddle.

The boatman would instruct one of the tourists to point the spotlight at a section of the cave, and as though on cue the stalactites and stalagmites would come to life.

As the unsteady light from the slow moving boat animated the rock formation, the boatman, in his stand-up best, would give its name.

“That’s called the T-Rex,” he’d say, pointing to what looks like, well, a dinosaur’s head. “And that’s the vegetable section,” he’d add, drawing muffled laughter from his audience, although those thinking about sea snakes writhing under the boat wouldn’t be amused.

Going underground

“Are there snakes in the water,” one tourist who couldn’t hold it any longer finally asked.

“Maybe,” said our boatman cum tour guide. Few asked questions after that.

Behind us, the cave’s mouth disappeared in the darkness. The sound of dripping water surrounded our boat, so did peculiar odors, probably from bat poop and pee.

Before the Underground River blew us away

Gradually, the subterranean river’s hidden treasures were revealed: stunning natural rock formations of different shapes, sizes and shades, some rising as high as the ceiling’s caverns or hanging from the eerie walls.

The tour took roughly an hour or so, but the immense beauty of the place only began to sink in as we reached the river bank outside. We explored only a fraction of the 24-kilometer-long subterranean cave, and we can only wonder what other secrets it holds.

Surely, it takes more than an hour of touring – and far more than a boatman’s imagination – to appreciate a geographical wonder of caverns and labyrinths formed roughly 20 million years ago.

It takes more than an hour of touring – and far more than a boatman’s imagination – to appreciate a geographical wonder of caverns and labyrinths formed roughly 20 million years ago

Time to leave the Underground River

In awe, Bretha kept still beside me as the boat heads to the exit, the faint light of the cave entrance flickering at a distance.

And I wonder what thoughts are flowing through her head.

Perhaps it took her back to a time when a girl and a boy made a pact to be as one in Palawan.

Karst outcrops at the entrance of the Underground River

(Another version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back (Part 3)

Rites and Rides on a Good Friday and Black Saturday

Young roadtrippers at the Banaue Terraces, a 2,000-year-old engineering wonder

BEAUTY, the Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal wrote, has another side to it, and a beautiful place, “like a round loaf of bread,” offers the question whether one could love even what is imperfect, unpleasant, neglected.
The Cebu-Sagada-Cebu road trip, foremost, was about seeing all these beautiful places, those that we only saw in postcards and had dreamed of visiting ever since. And then there’s the entire process of getting to these places and going back. In both cases – the seeing and searching – were marked by extremes.

Tunnel from Sagada to Bontoc

During our long drives, the scenery shifts from breathtaking to dismal, from dramatic to depressing, all without warning. At several points, one can no longer distinguish the urban from the rural, the sprawl of progress from decay. But travelers in hurry have no time to mull over these sad realities, whether there is something to love in spite of these imperfections, unpleasantness and neglect. All there was to do was to get away as fast as we can to reach the next picture-perfect destination.

Kadchog Rice Terraces

That was the story so far on the road – leaving the environmental sob story that is Baguio to get to Sagada, and now two days later, leaving Sagada via a different route to avoid Baguio. This meant passing the road that cuts through Bontoc then down to Banaue in search of a famed man-made wonder. And along the way, the unexpected began to unfold.

Bay-yo Village with its rice terraces was inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage List

The good thing about not having done much research for this road trip was that we were always in for a surprise, bad or good. But along the last remaining stretch of the Halsema Highway in the soft Cordillera daylight, it was all good – smooth roads, stunning scenery, landslides that procrastinated. Then slowly from down below, rice terraces carved on the edge of the river banks appeared. The Kadchog Rice Terraces with the Chico River that cuts through, we’d later learn. And farther down we’d find the Bayyo Rice Terraces. We were all bent on seeing the “world’s eight wonder” some 60 kilometers from Sagada that we didn’t expect to see these other earthen monuments to Ifugao expertise.

Bay-yo Village viewpoint

The two-hour descent from Sagada – including a stop in Bontoc where Jethro was overjoyed to find at long last packets of momma sold along the sidewalks – took us to the Banaue Rice Terraces, the most popular destination in the Cordilleras. This 2,000-year-old man-made marvel 1,500 meters above sea level covers 10,000 kilometers (nearly half the area of Mandaue City). Shops selling woodcraft and souvenir items lined both sides of the road. A few dozen steps below is a platform that offers lowlanders an expansive view of the terraces.

Banaue Rice Terraces

It was a perfect time to enthrall the kids about how the Ifugaos carved these terraces from the mountains with their bare hands, how they irrigated the rice paddies, how they cultivated rice and crops. And while all of which were feats of engineering and agriculture, the terraces, the kids had to know, are the wellspring of life, art and culture in this idyllic part of the world.

It was tempting to stay for a couple more days and venture to Batad with its stone-walled terraces and witness how the upland life is in this village of some 1,500 people. But we had to leave, our desire to see beautiful places barely satiated, stirred all the more. Nevertheless, we – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors and Jethro, perhaps the biggest traveler in these parts – were grateful for a tranquil drive through a magnificent landscape that makes any traveler vow to his inner anitos of a return.

View from the roadside: the Chico River cuts through the Kadchog Rice Terraces

We drove further down the Mountain Province-Ifugao-Nueva Vizcaya highway, until we reached “civilization,” driving through Nueva Ecija, then past the insufferably monotonous flatlands of Tarlac, before we found ourselves hurtling along the expressways at breakneck speeds, neck and neck with Luzon’s notorious buses, straight back to the metropolis.

…We found ourselves hurtling along the expressways at breakneck speeds, neck and neck with Luzon’s notorious buses, straight back to the metropolis.

After dealing with Edsa’s moderate late evening traffic, we reached our hotel in Mandaluyong, where the betel nut from Bontoc was sampled (nice, it was). We realized it was Maundy Thursday, six days since we began this pilgrimage of sorts from Cebu. Except for Jethro who would be taking the plane back to Cebu, tomorrow, Good Friday was time for us to retrace our route. That meant close to half an unclimactic day’s drive to Legazpi City in Albay.

800 kilometers: the distance between the Banaue Rice Terraces and Mayon Volcano

The plan earlier was to spend a day in CamSur, but time had run out. We decided to stay overnight in Legazpi. I tried to recall the 14-hour drive from Matnog, Sorsogon – Luzon Island’s southern tip – to Mandaluyong City five days ago. It was uneventful, if not for the few exceptional minutes through Albay when the elusive Mt. Mayon suddenly emerged from the skyline, then disappeared, before it emerged again, and a good spot drew us out to take snapshots of this beautiful volcano that had gained notoriety for hiding its peak behind clouds from tourists. How lucky we were that Mayon revealed itself to us that Sunday.

Penitents on a Good Friday in Albay

The 10-hour drive the next morning came to an abrupt halt in the heart of Legazpi where the main roads where shut for the Good Friday procession. Going past flagellants with bloodied backs, we drove around in search of accommodations (that is correct, we did not make reservations for the Albay stop, bravo).

Really good street food in Legazpi

After two hours, we finally found a decent hotel, whose guard was nice enough to point us to a good place to eat. And by good, that meant street food preferred by locals of the Bicol region. Two tricycles took us to the middle of town where a number of food carts converged every night on an otherwise empty lot. Various Bicolano fare was served alongside goto, fried chicken and silog dishes. I had tapsilog with the best binagoongang rice on the planet.

The next morning, Black Saturday, we went to the town of Daraga to visit the Cagsawa Ruins, or what remains of a church that was buried in rocks and lava when the nearby volcano erupted in February 1814. Again it was an opportunity to impart some knowledge to our kids, our well-behaved passengers who endured dozens of hours on the road just to see with their own eyes these natural and man-made wonders that they read so often in their textbooks.

Thanks to Reggie Fernandez for the family pic 🙂

This time, it was a story about how the lives of Bicolanons have been built around something so beautiful yet so destructive. And it was right in front of these youngest of travelers: rising close to 2,500 meters to the cloudy sky in all its terrifying elegance.

We finally left Luzon in mid-day. As Jong on his Fortuner and I on my Strada “expertly” negotiated the desolate highways of Samar, the less than 500 kilometers to go no longer seemed that daunting.

Cagsawa Ruins

I looked back at the last few days and the 2,500 kilometers behind us and what we saw that will leave permanent impressions in our mind, perhaps begging us to return one day: Mayon, Banaue, Bontoc, Sagada. But what was this trip all about?

Another European writer, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq said tourists are motivated by one thing when they travel: to confirm with their own eyes what they saw on postcards and travel magazines. Our trip was like that in some way, I admit. But by traveling 3,000 kilometers from Cebu to Sagada and back along the Pan-Philippine Highway, there was something we longed to experience and discover, and we did, from the mundane to the, well, profound. And how we experienced for ourselves the things people endure to see something beautiful.

Lovely handicraft at a row of stalls just outside the Cagsawa Ruins in Daraga, Albay

True, this road trip confirmed how beautiful this country is. But what of loving the other side, all that imperfection, unpleasantness and neglect that tried to call our attention – dilapidated roads, bad architecture, the sad state of our Ro-ro ports, Baguio – reminders that something went wrong somewhere? Did we learn to love those as well? Probably not. But it’s something one learns to accept as one proceeds to leave.

From Matnog, Sorsogon: Farewell, beautiful island of Luzon

As I drove through the highway that leads to Ormoc City, where we’d take a boat straight to Cebu City the next morning, Easter Sunday, fatigue and drowsiness had set in. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light. What apt words for a Black Saturday night. To keep myself awake, I had to slap myself so hard the foundations of this lovely republic shook, the earth’s axis shifting slightly each time. But I made it, we made it back.

Back home, after traveling 72 hours on 3,000 kilometers of road, I was asked: would we do it again, drive from Cebu to Sagada and back?

Back home, after traveling 72 hours on 3,000 kilometers of road, I was asked: would we do it again, drive from Cebu to Sagada and back? No, probably not, I said. Because we’d be driving off to somewhere else, some other place that’s just as achingly beautiful, imperfections and all.

Mount Mayon, one last time


(Also published on SunStar Travel in February 2014)

For a summary of the entire trip, click here to read “The Long and Short of It: An Epic Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back by The Traveling Vs.

Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back (Part 2)

Past Mordor to the land of momma and magic mushrooms (Part 2)

And when we passed by this beauty on Day 2 of the road trip, we had to stop and admire Mt. Mayon from an unusual vantage point in Albay, which I love owing to the contrasts and layers.

IT’S just like working in the office. You sit for hours straight to get the job done – getting from point A to point B. Extra hours spent on the road meant overtime. Or think about it as a job where you get to watch movies all day – the windshield or car windows the screen, where all those beautiful sights unfold past you scene after scene, reel after reel.

Sagada, Mountain Province

Well, that was the idea I tried to sell when this whole road trip thing cropped up, only that I somehow forgot that even supposedly good movies have parts that can make you cringe.

Bad scripts, pointless scenes, terrible endings: all these were flashing through my head as our two-car convoy crawled up Kennon Road that Monday afternoon, triggered perhaps by the sight of barren cliff walls to our left that looked like a colossal abandoned quarry, the edges cutting ruthlessly against the late afternoon sky above the Cordilleras.

Sagada sunset

Mordor, just like Mordor, I thought out loud, as I dealt with the road’s sharp turns and sudden climbs. Well, at least the road to Baguio City is well-paved and we needn’t have to ascend on bare feet like those poor hobbits did. Besides, we’ll get some good night’s rest in the summer capital, right?
Wrong. The moment we drove past the city’s edge, a horrendous gridlock 1,400 meters above the sea stopped us in our tracks. As our cars crept wearily into the heart of the city, we crossed paths with hordes of orcs steering garish passenger jeepneys, fighting for nanometers of road space, elbowing us at the slightest chance out of our lane.

Half-turkey half-chicken in Sagada

Manila’s notorious drivers seemed like well-bred elves compared to their Baguio counterparts. Road courtesy must have disappeared along with thousands of majestic pine trees that used to cover the mountainsides, now strewn with shoddy dwellings that resembled none of the charming log cabins that our pretty script said we would find.
The sorry state of this upland city shocked us. We felt unwelcome. Go away, the phantoms of Baguio past seemed to tell us, as we inched our way through its mind-boggling network of narrow roads, driving in circles past or under or around an improbable flyover that rose like an ingrown toenail – it looked painful – above choke points, street corners lined with shops that had seen better days.

The sorry state of this upland city shocked us. We felt unwelcome. Go away, the phantoms of Baguio past seemed to tell us…

We had to leave. Ditching our plans to sleep overnight in Baguio, our road trip party of 11 – the Fernandezes, us Villaflors, and the visual artist Jethro Estimo, who joined us in Mandaluyong City that morning – decided to drive straight to Sagada. The town, said Google Maps, was only 146 kilometers from Baguio. Jethro, who had arranged the accommodations in Sagada, sent a text message to the innkeeper that we were on our way.

Danum Lake, Sagada

At a refueling station, Jong jumped out of his SUV, the lead car, and approached a group of van drivers who had called it a day. How far is it from Sagada, Jong asked. Five to six hours, said one. Just spend the night here – you’re not familiar with the road, said another. Jong relayed the message: “Mga lima ka oras kuno bai.” I nodded, “Payts.”
The locals sniggered, one of whom, head shaking, turned towards the group and remarked in their own tongue, in a half-incredulous, half-mocking tone, something that questioned our wisdom, if not our sanity. Crazy lowlanders, they must have muttered. Crazy because Halsema Highway, it turns out, is reputed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads. But at that time we had no idea that it was, as we really didn’t do much research.

Crazy lowlanders, they must have muttered. Crazy because Halsema Highway, it turns out, is reputed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads.

We said thanks and drove off along the Halsema Highway. The fresh air of Baguio’s outskirts filled the car as I opened the windows. Bretha and our three kids – ages 12, 8, and three – looked relaxed in the backseat, and so did Jethro on the passenger side.
By now we had spent some 30 hours on the road with two overnight stops: an hour from Cebu City to Danao, nine hours from Isabel, Leyte to Allen, Samar, 12 hours from Matnog, Sorsogon to Metro Manila, and eight hours to Baguio. We left on a Saturday morning from Cebu. It was now Monday night.

As I followed the Fernandezes’ car along Halsema, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and ease. I just focused on the road knowing the cliff’s edge was always just a few feet away. And there wasn’t anything to see there at night, except for the silhouettes of Mt. Pulag and smaller mountains, and the sign that said you were standing on the highest point of the Philippine highway system at 2,255 meters above sea level, which meant you had to stop and take the obligatory group photo.

(Photo by Reggie Fernandez)

And for the first three hours, the steady uphill climb on smooth concrete roads never felt risky, the dips, turns and ascents almost predictable. This was going to be one laid-back stretch to Sagada. That’s what I thought.
We had passed a number of sleepy villages that were hours apart, but there was one I’ll never forget. On the front wall of what seemed like the barangay hall was a sign that read “In memory of…” Since we merely slowed down past the hall at a curve, I couldn’t read the rest of the message and the list that followed.
A few minutes later, as the highway descended along the mountainside, we plunged – without warning – straight into thick, heavy fog that covered a dozen kilometers or so of road. I had to tailgate Jong’s car otherwise I would lose sight of him, the headlights and fog lamps of my pickup no match for the endless, impenetrable blanket of fog blocking my view.

…as the highway descended along the mountainside, we plunged – without warning – straight into thick, heavy fog that covered a dozen kilometers or so of road.

I then realized what the sign on the barangay hall was for: it must have been in memory of those who drove their last in this perilous stretch of invisible road, and the list, never mind.
While we did not expect to traverse such a scary road, the strenuous drive to Allen a couple of nights ago somehow prepared us mentally for the remaining stretch that would lead us to Sagada. So we drove on, tired but confident, but not after having goose bumps in this bone-chilling Cordillera air, which cleared eventually.

An elderly man visits tombs of World War II veterans at Sagada Public Cemetery

In the backseat, the wife and kids were sleeping soundly even if all four of them looked like they were trying to pull off submission moves on each other: limbs intertwined, a tiny foot or two resting on someone’s face, cheek pressed against cheek. To while away the time, Jethro, a trivia wunderkind, would throw historical anecdotes about Sagada (e.g. Do you know that many locals in Sagada are descendants of the Chinese pirate Limahong, who sought refuge in the Cordilleras after a failed invasion of Manila in the 16th century?).

Finally, we reached a junction with a signboard that pointed to Sagada. (Take the road to the left, the one to the right will take you all the way to Bontoc, texted the innkeeper earlier.)

Burial cave with ancient wooden coffins in Sagada

We drove up a dirt road – half of which was being paved – and reached Sagada in half an hour. It was one past midnight, a Tuesday.

Our innkeeper was waiting at a street corner, and led us down an alley to a small parking lot several meters from Kanip-aw Pines Lodge, where our austere rooms, sitting on the edge of a karst cliff, were waiting. From the balcony where it was freezing cold, I stared into a coal-black chasm below. Right across was a swathe of dark grey. It was time to rest.

The following morning while the kids were still asleep, Bretha and I stepped out in the same balcony that was just as freezing cold as the night before and gazed at the vision before us: a limestone ridge covered with pine trees all the way the valley below, a veil of fog hovering above. We wanted to stay for as long as we can.

Someone slept like a baby in Sagada

But in our two days in Sagada, we saw what needed to be seen: the Hanging Coffins, sacred burial sites, the Sumaguing Cave, Kiltepan Peak, the Sagada Rice Terraces, a pretty lake, an elevated clearing for sunset-watching.

The Villaflor and Fernandez kids at the Hanging Coffins

And the town proper – it seemed like a place from some make-believe land: houses covered in plain metal sheets for insulation, odd selections of food (e.g. pinikpikan side-by-side waffles and yoghurt salad), fruit wines that were more addictive than we cared to admit, free-range fowl that’s half-turkey, half-chicken.

Jethro and Bretha at Kanip-aw Lodge

And then who could ignore those ever-present signs that read: “No spitting of momma” on roadsides, one that got Jethro and I curious? The prohibition, our tour guide said, had to do with sanitation issues and the crimson stain the spit left behind. True enough we couldn’t find anyone selling momma, or betel nut anywhere.

Instead, what we found – or what the hyperactive sidekick of our tour guide found – was something that had more “magical” effects, something the youth of Sagada were probably just as familiar with. While trekking down a trail that led to a burial cave, the sidekick suddenly jumped up with joy: he had found something at the foot of a pine tree.

Trail leading to Sumaguing Cave

“Look!” he exclaimed, like a child showing off his discovery. 

“Oh, a magic mushroom,” I said. It was a guess – I haven’t seen a magic mushroom up close yet, but I’ve heard about it a couple of times. I asked Jethro to take a look. He chuckled.

Our guide shows Jethro some kind of mushroom

The sidekick looked at me, then at Jethro, at Jong, father of two, then at his find.

“It’s bad for kids,” he said, then threw the evil thing near a clump of bushes. We were sure he’d pick it up on his way back.

Reggie, Bretha and Arwen descent from some boulders inside Sumaguing Cave

But while magic mushrooms and momma are definitely bad for kids, a long trip to Sagada isn’t. Ours was an enchanting experience for the children, the town chockfull of magical tales of cursed mummies and talking skulls, with sceneries straight out of a movie about the unbelievable that came true.

 I’d like to think of the 1,500-kilometer trip from Cebu to Sagada as one plotless narrative, one that didn’t make sense, one that has been excruciating at times, but one that moved us in an indescribable, inexplicable manner. And we were only halfway.

The Villaflor and Fernandez kids taking some rest in wondrous Sumaguing Cave


Allen, Samar to Sagada Leg:

Road Trip 2013: Pt. A to Pt. B and back, March 23 to 31. In short: roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

*Allen to Matnog, Sorsogon (2 hours ro-ro)
*Matnog to Legazpi City, Albay (3 hours road)
*Legazpi to Mandaluyong, Metro Manila (12 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Baguio City (7 hours road)
*Baguio to Sagada (5 hours)

(Also published on SunStar Travel in February 2014)

Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back (Part 1)

Allen Encounter: 2 Families Embark on Epic Journey

400-kilometer drive and  a boat crossing:
Cebu – Isabel, Leyte – Tacloban, Leyte – Allen, Samar

“ASA na mo dapit?”

That was a text message from my friend Jethro, asking where we were at this point in time. The text hardly sounded urgent but was no less unnerving. He had flown ahead to Manila, where we’d agreed to meet the day after and head for Sagada, our room there sitting on the edge of a karst cliff, waiting for guests who probably won’t arrive on time, or might not even make it.

After hours of delay, the roll-on roll-off boat from Danao, City Cebu finally left port.

So where were we?

“Tacloban,” I texted back during a stop near a fork in the road. I wasn’t sure. One tortuous, poorly paved stretch in Ormoc City made the ride so jarring it made dirt roads seem first world. I shot uneasy glances at my passengers: my wife and youngest beside me, and the two girls in the backseat. They seemed docile, unperturbed. Despite the incredibly slow, wearisome Roro crossing from the Danao City to Isabel, the late lunch and loads of chips and candy kept their spirits at manageable levels.

I looked up the rear view mirror – Jong emerges from the driver’s side of his white Fortuner and approaches our pickup. I stepped out, folded map on hand. He was all smiles. I supposed the rest of the Fernandezes were doing fine as well. I forced a grin.

This really slow roll-on roll-off boat from Danao, City Cebu finally arrived at the wharf in Isabel, Leyte. With rest of the Traveling Vs, I drove a pickup truck during the road trip, while the Fernandezes brought an SUV.

I think we’re headed the wrong way, I said, pointing to a sign that read “To Maasin City.” Jong studied the sign, then the busy road to the right that led all the way to Southern Leyte, and nodded. That same road would have led to my grandmother-in-law’s hometown in scenic Panaon Island, which rests placidly right across Surigao City, Mindanao’s northernmost tip. The thought of changing courses on a whim sounded inviting.

Apparently, I had missed by a few meters the sign that pointed to Tacloban. But that delay was a mere hiccup, because no matter what we did, we already found ourselves three hours off schedule that Saturday morning, no thanks to the ancient vessel from Cebu that took forever to leave and even longer to find our port in Leyte.

Bretha and Reggie plot our route the old school way: with a paper map. The map would never look the same after the 3,000-kilometer road trip.

We had planned to reach Allen, Samar by nightfall to catch the last Ro-Ro trip to Matnog, Sorsogon in the island of Luzon. But it was now mid-afternoon: to cover 250 kilometers to reach Allen on schedule meant having to drive like maniacs who bear no scruples in violating all of Newton’s laws of motion. We must have been mad to have gone on a road trip from Cebu all the way to Sagada and back –with our families in tow at that – but I’m pretty sure none of us was crazy enough to dare turn this road trip into a physics experiment. Allen before midnight now seemed the more realistic outcome.

Let’s go to Plan B, I told Jong about our options. (Plan C was to cut the trip short and just text Jethro the bad news. End of road trip, end of story). But Plan B meant spending the night in Allen and taking the first Roro trip the next morning, and as soon as we disembark from Matnog, we’ll just have to drive all the way to Mandaluyong City in Metro Manila, hoping to get there by Sunday evening.

Road to Tacloban City

“Okay ra na bay,” Jong – Mr. Fernandez in the consultancy industry – said. Always composed and cheerful, this guy made for a perfect road trip companion. We had been talking about taking such a trip for years, and finally took the chance in March last year. Spanning the entire Holy Week, plus the weekend before that, the road trip would take nine days in all.

Spanning the entire Holy Week, plus the weekend before that, the road trip would take nine days in all.

The initial plan was only up to Metro Manila. Sagada came into the picture when my balikbayan friend Manok – don’t ask about the nick, long story – regaled Jethro and I about how mystical and unspoilt the place was and how much he enjoyed his recent trip there, never mind if he nearly keeled over after unwittingly swallowing the juices of some “momma,” or betel nut, he was chewing on.

After hearing Manok’s story, I told Jethro about the plan to take a road trip to Manila. I asked him if he wanted to join us if we proceeded to Sagada. Great idea, he said, but he’ll fly directly to Manila and just meet us there. It made sense – Jethro is 300 pounds of muscle, and with his girth, Cebu as starting point would be brutal for him. Manila to the Cordilleras, though, sounded doable and charming. Just imagine a gentle behemoth soaking up the sun in the bed of a pickup truck.

Jong didn’t need much persuading when I threw Sagada into the road trip equation. My wife Bretha and Jong’s wife Reggie didn’t put up much resistance to the idea either. The kids were excited, only because they had no clue how long the trip was going to take. Consider these figures: the road trip from Cebu to Sagada via the Pan-Philippine Highway will cover some 1,500 kilometers of road, apart from the two crossings over sea. Anyway, the date was fixed: March 23 to 31, 2013.

The kids were excited, only because they had no clue how long the trip was going to take.

We left Metro Cebu on a Saturday morning, and after an uneventful, bone-rattling, energy sapping eight hours of travel over sea and land, we made our first wrong turn near the edge of Tacloban City. We would soon realize that all stops – whether by mistake or on purpose – were a welcome chance to stretch some weary limbs, to find our bearings.

San Juanico Bridge, which connects the islands of Leyte and Samar

The road to Tacloban City was busy but smooth. Shops old and new lined the streets. The numerous car showrooms were shimmering announcements that Tacloban has arrived. Even if we were just passing through, it was hard to ignore that the country’s gateway to the Visayas was a bustling, progressive city so full of promise. But little did anyone know that such a promise would be snuffed out eight months later by a natural force so ferocious and malevolent, a natural force that, indifferent as it sounds, was also just passing through.

“Asa na mo?” Jethro’s message flashed, now almost taunting.

Pedestrians from the Samar side

We’re about to cross the San Juanico Bridge, I texted back. The handsome bridge that snaked across the strait that separated Leyte from Samar got everyone excited. But this sense of elation will be short-lived because in roughly an hour the most difficult part of the entire road trip would have begun – the 90-kilometer drive to Catbalogan. And this difficulty had little to do with the state of the road. In fact, this national highway in the north western part of Samar was surprisingly good, except for the last 30-minute stretch leading to Allen.

But as the body begins to feel the first signs of fatigue, something else happens inside the head. Deeper into the mountainous forest where the road to Catbalogan cuts through, the signal from the mobile networks began to fade, along with the last traces of sunlight. We would not receive any text message for hours from Jethro, who right now was probably stretched out in a soft king-size bed in Manila, snoring a hundred decibels to his nostrils’ content.

But as the body begins to feel the first signs of fatigue, something else happens inside the head.

Good thing the children and the wife didn’t find it hard to fall asleep on the car seats, and better still that I found it easy to stay awake. What was hard to brush off was this question: What have we gotten ourselves into? And harder still was to persuade myself that this insanely long road trip in the tightest of schedules was not a mistake. These are the kinds of question one asks when one sees nothing but a pitch black curtain at the edge of the car beams. And what if we caught a flat tire, or worse, got into an accident in the middle of nowhere? What if bandits waylaid us? What if the tales of the undead were true?

What have we gotten ourselves into? And harder still was to persuade myself that this insanely long road trip in the tightest of schedules was not a mistake.

While some turn to prayer in times of unbearable darkness, or get philosophical (“Live – or drive – to the point of tears”), I bombarded my head with images that inspired awe and wonder, the very reasons this road trip was conceived in the first place: the Hanging Coffins of Sagada, the Banaue Rice Terraces, Mayon Volcano. Mr. Fernandez, meanwhile, turned to bottles upon bottles of Cobra Energy Drink.

And that was how we managed to drive on for hours until we eased back to civilization, stopping by Catbalogan for dinner at Jollibee, after which Jong took over as lead driver of our two-vehicle convoy on the way to Calbayog some 70 kilometers away along similar environs, before we finally endured the last 80-kilometer stretch, reaching the quiet town of Allen shortly before midnight. We missed the Roro, of course, but we found accommodations at an inn by the sea, close to the port.

We missed the Roro, of course, but we found accommodations at an inn by the sea, close to the port.

So how did we fare, so far?

After driving 400 kilometers of road for close to a dozen hours, I looked at the numbers: 1,100 kilometers more to negotiate from Allen to Sagada, not to mention the 1,500 kilometers we needed to traverse all the way back to Cebu. For a moment there, Plan C became a tempting option that needed serious consideration.

At the edge of the shore near the inn, I could see faint lights from across where I was standing. Must be the town of Matnog in the Province of Sorsogon in the island of Luzon. They say there’s a magnificent natural wonder not too far away. The world’s most perfect cone, they say. Surely that volcano alone is worth the trip.



Road Trip 2013: Pt. A to Pt. B and back, March 23 to 31. In short: roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

Danao, Cebu to Allen, Samar Leg:

*Danao City to Isabel (5 hours ro-ro trip)
*Isabel to Tacloban City, Leyte (3 hours road)
*Tacloban City to Allen, Samar (9 hours road)

Road Trippers before the road trip (Photo by Reggie Fernandez, March 2013)

Car 1, Toyota Fortuner, automatic: Jong Fernandez (lead driver), Reggie Fernandez (navigator), Gelo and Geli Fernandez, Abby (support crew)

Car 2, Mitsubishi Strada, manual: Noel Villaflor (driver), Bretha Mellado Villaflor (navigator), Amber, Arwen and Cyan (support crew), Jethro Estimo (cameo appearance).

(Also published on SunStar Travel in February 2014)

The Long and Short of It: An Epic Road Trip from Cebu to Sagada and Back

THE ROUTE. Road Trip 2013: Pt. A to Pt. B and back, March 23 to 31. In short: roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

It looked difficult enough on paper. The actual road trip bordered on the absurd. But our small group of 11 on board two vehicles did it, driving from Cebu to Sagada and back. The entire trip took nine days, from March 23 to March 31. In all we drove some 3,000 kilometers and spent roughly 70 hours on the road, excluding the ferry crossings.

Getting lost in the urban areas that cost us precious minutes was the worst setback we encountered, and well a miscalculation of mine that cost hours of delay at the start of the trip. But this group of road trippers — the Villaflors and Fernandezes, plus the big guy Jethro Estimo — did well.
Having been spared of accidents, engine trouble, or even a flat tire, we considered ourselves lucky, after driving at an average of 80 kilometers per hour on pitch black roads in the middle of nowhere. We did just about enough planning: Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D and Plan E. Of course, we had to improvise along the way.

Here, I’m sharing a summary of our Cebu-Sagada-Cebu road trip:

Car 1, Toyota Fortuner, automatic: Jong Fernandez (lead driver), Reggie Fernandez (navigator), Gelo and Geli Fernandez, Abby (support crew)
Car 2, Mitsubishi Strada, manual: Noel Villaflor (driver), Bretha Mellado Villaflor (navigator), Amber, Arwen and Cyan (support crew), Jethro Estimo (who joined us in Manila).

From Cebu:
*Danao City to Isabel (5 hours ro-ro trip)
*Isabel to Tacloban City, Leyte (3 hours road)
*Tacloban City to Allen, Samar (9 hours road)
*Allen to Matnog, Sorsogon (2 hours ro-ro)
*Matnog to Legazpi City, Albay (3 hours road)
*Legazpi to Mandaluyong, Metro Manila (12 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Baguio City (7 hours road)
*Baguio to Sagada (5 hours)

Return trip:
*Sagada to Bontoc, Mountain Province (2 hours road)
*Bontoc to Banaue, Ifugao (2 hours road)
*Banaue to Mandaluyong (6 hours road)
*Mandaluyong to Legazpi (12 hours road)
*Legazpi to Matnog (3 hours road)
*Matnog to Allen (2 hours ro-ro)
*Allen to Ormoc City, Leyte (9 hours road)
*Ormoc to Cebu City (5 hours ro-ro)

In all, that was roughly 74 hours spent driving on the road, covering some 3,000 kilometers to and fro.

The idea for a road trip was hatched two years ago, when my friend Abe Acosta, a lawyer based in Manila, posted on Facebook a road trip he made from Manila to Cebu. He provided crucial details, such as travel time estimates and the state of the roads along the Pan-Philippine Highway, which he said was generally good. The roll-on roll-off ferry crossings (Cebu to Leyte and then Allen, Samar to Matnog, Sorsogon in Luzon) had regular schedules and the fares were reasonable. He brought his family along. In short, the trip was manageable, even with children.

The Fernandez’s car: what car wash? (Photo by Reggie Fernandez)

In 2011, I proposed the idea to several friends but only Jong Fernandez, a corporate consultant, seemed excited about the idea. We finally decided to take the March trip in time for the Holy Week this year. Jong brought his entire family: his wife Reggie and two kids, ages 12 and 8. My wife Bretha and I brought along our three kids, ages 12, 8 and 3. Jong would drive a Fortuner, I a Strada. Big guy Jethro Estimo, a Cebuano artist and educator, joined us on Day 2 in Mandaluyong City for the Manila-Sagada leg.

Everything was a go, except for one major change of plan: instead of a Cebu-Manila-Cebu trip, we decided to go all the way to Sagada, and back. That single change resulted in the best vacation we’ve ever had.

Peak of Majestic Mount Mayon peeking.

There were many reasons to do the trip, one of which was to see along the long route the many fantastic sights that we grew up seeing only on postcards: the San Juanico Bridge, Mayon Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces. Sagada only gained popularity as a destination only recently, but we had to go there. Another reason was to prove that this ridiculously long trip can be done. The blogs and online forums warned: “don’t bring children,” or “better take a plane,” or that “the risk isn’t worth it.”

The blogs and online forums warned: “don’t bring children,” or “better take a plane,” or that “the risk isn’t worth it.”

At the Banaue Rice Terraces

Perhaps they were right, but we had to find out for ourselves. What we found along the way – kids and adults alike – was an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or twice, maybe. And why not?

(A version of this post was published on SunStar Weekend in April 2013)