It wasn’t my first time to visit region 5. I was in Legaspi City sometime in 2005, and was stranded in Naga City for 3 days during Typhoon Ondoy’s onslaught. However, I never got to enjoy the sites and scenery of the great Daragang Magayon. But before 2011 ended, I was offered another opportunity to enjoy Bicolandia via an official assignment with the day-job. I wasn’t too keen on the work, so I consoled myself with the idea that I will get to travel for free and visit an exciting new place. Maybe I will finally see Mt. Mayon’s legendary perfect cone, a sight reserved for so-called “virgins”, whatever that means.
The Legaspi airport was familiar; still too small for aircrafts and notorious for cancelled flights because of the clouds. Zooming into the city proper, I noticed a new tourist spot by the boulevard, the newly developed “Embarcadero”. I made a mental note to make sure I visit the place since it was just a few blocks away from our hotel. While we were initially billeted at Hotel St. Ellis, we were eventually transferred to Tychee Hotel, a “boutique” hotel touted as the city’s newest and fanciest lodging place. That’s another plus, because the last time I was in Legaspi, the Vice-Governor made us stay at the Governor’s mansion, a Marcos-Era infrastructure whose grandeur also reflects its ghosts (literally).
Although the hotel failed to provide me a map or a brochure of local tourist spots, I had already done my research and was happy to note that a local church famous for its altar made from hardened lava was only a walking distance from our hotel. I could even catch the Immaculate Conception mass for December 8. Also called San Raphael church, the Church of Legaspi’s modern design betrays its historical past. It was one of those early parishes which got transferred from one township to another. In its case, it used to be part of Cagsaua, when it got burned down in the 1750s and got destroyed by Mayon’s eruption in 1814, until was reconstructed in 1834.
Like the classic Filipina of yore, Mayon proved to be hard to woo. She barely showed herself to us that first day and hid behind thick, white clouds. Our view of the bay from the newly-built boulevard was great, but Mayon refused to be a backdrop. All we got was the nearby hills known as the “sleeping lion”.
By the promenade was also a new feature – a statue of the late adelantado Don Miguel Lopez de Legaspi in whose honor Albay Pueblo and Albay Nuevo were renamed to become present day Legaspi City. The marker was made possible by a generous contribution from the Spanish government, of course.
Like all rural capitals, Legaspi didn’t become a social and political hub without also being a religious center. So besides the numerous churches, there are also Shrines like Our Lady of Guadalupe in Buraguis. Depicting the passion of Christ, the steep stairs built on a sheer rock face by the road had life-size images portraying the 13 Stations of the Cross. Similar to the one in Quezon province, the limited space makes it a short, but nonetheless, hard climb.
The Daraga Church was our next destination. Also known as Nuestra Senora de la Porteria or Our Lady of the Gate church, it was only considered a National Cultural Treasure in 2007 by the National Museum and finally declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission in 2008. A restoration marker states that its parish convent, function areas and perimeter walls are already undergoing reconstruction. Although its façade and church walls have been restored according to the authority of the NCCA and the National Museum, its white paint is an ugly contrast to the old stone look of the bell tower.
From this distance, it is not hard to imagine how one of Mt. Mayon’s eruptions managed to damage the church. It is still one of the best places to get a view of the popular volcano. And at this point, Mayon indulged us a view of her slopes but not her crater, much like how a lady shows off her arms or legs, but not her shoulders. That whole week, I patiently waited for the clouds to clear; like a lover, each day hoping to see her in her full form.
Our initial attempt to visit Cagsawa Ruins was an “epic fail”. We were thwarted by heavy traffic en route to our destination. No, it wasn’t due to the rush hour traffic, but to a strange flood on the highway. It was kind of cloudy when we first arrived; still the rainshowers we experienced didn’t warrant an actual flooding. Our driver explained to us that after typhoon Reming a few years back, the small river that traversed the area overflowed and caused some flooding. When the waters eventually receded, they found out the river had changed its course and now passes through a roadside barangay. The original riverbed has since dried up and residents of the barangay had to deal with submerged residences and constant heavy traffic on the highway.
A few days later, we finally got to visit Cagsawa Ruins. Official work was done and we had just enough time to do some souvenir shopping. We were told there were many roadside shops at Cagsawa. Along the way, we noted the huge boulders lining the road. Our guide from the Provincial Tourism Office said they came from Mayon itself, when mudslides and flashfloods caused by typhoon Reming rolled them down effortlessly unto the unsuspecting populace below. Many residents in the area died – drowned when their homes were washed out by rampaging waters that carried volcanic rocks and torn vegetation. The bridge leading to the actual ruins was also destroyed and isolated the small community living near the belltower site. Their souvenir shops too, were all washed out. So, some vendors who survived the tragedy have moved their new shops across the makeshift wooden bridge that could no longer allow motorized vehicles.
These tragedies have taught Bicolanos well, and Region 5 now boasts of the first and only calamity-preparedness and disaster management academy in the Philippines. Constantly battered by volcanic eruptions, typhoons and flooding, the provincial government has put up this facility as an answer to permanent environmental issues and climate change impacts.
Interestingly, we asked about all these developments in Bicol. Multinationals have come in as partners for the geo-thermal plants deemed to provide electric power to the region. Our driver commented that because of this, the small hot spring resorts open to the public have diminished. And no longer is it part of a tourist attraction to watch an egg boil in one of those volcanic vents.
Around the time we were in Albay, it was also their Karanggahan food festival. A veritable feast of a food fair, I got my fill of authentic Bicol express, laing and pinangat, and my first taste of Tiwi’s famous halo-halo. I learned that the enormous crabs and shrimps made available were the pride of Sorsogon. The highlight of my gastronomic experience was the “kinunot”, a seafood delicacy made from either stringray or baby sharks. Appearing fibrous and creamy like ginataang langka, it was extra hot and spicy to diffuse the “fishiness” of the seafood that made up its core.
On our last day in Bicol, Mt. Mayon finally cooperated and graced us with a magnificent appearance. Like a lady ultimately bringing down the fan covering her face, Daragang Magayon let down her defences. With the sun shining brightly, clouds momentarily stepping aside, she showed us her full majestic form – her perfect slopes, verdant and imposing on the plains below. Even her crater was clearly visible; the soft curve of a lip belying the destruction and force it is capable of spewing.
Another breath-taking view of Mayon is from Lignon Hill. Besides its viewing deck and ziplines, this tourist spot boasts of the Japanese tunnel, reminiscent of the role Legaspi City had in World War II. At this height, the city as well as the airport can be seen on one side, and the great Mayon Volcano on the other.
Seeing the airport runway at this point quickly reminded us that this trip was about to end. Our flight for Manila was in a few hours, and although the airport was a mere 15 minutes away, we could not delay our departure no longer. Armed with souvenir Tshirts, ref magnets and key chains, and a good hoard of pili nuts and mazapan candybars in hand, we were ready to terminate our Albay visit.
We came, all of us, to see Mayon volcano like gentlemen callers, but we were the ones who left bearing gifts from the land of Daragang Magayon – ultimately enamored with Bicolandia’s charm.