2018 marks a milestone for my travel blog! It’s the 10th year anniversary of EAZY Traveler, since I started this online travel journal on March 2, 2008 – urged by the burning desire to see more of my homeland, the Philippines.
Since then, my travels have taken me across all corners of the world’s second-largest archipelago on personal trips, sponsored media tours, and for commissioned assignments as a freelance travel journalist – many of them for Smile, the inflight magazine of Cebu Pacific, the largest airline in the country that flies to 37 domestic destinations. The well-read publication gave me my professional break as a travel writer when I covered Catanduanes, and I’ve been a regular contributor ever since.
I’ve visited all 81 provinces in the country, but there’s still so much more left to see and experience for the next decade or more. Here’s 10 of my most unforgettable adventures since I started blogging:
10. Searching for rare dolphins off Negros
Last year, an environmental conservation story for Smile brought me to the small town of Pulupandan, 25 km south of Bacolod City, where Irrawaddy dolphins – one of the world’s most endangered cetaceans – was discovered by science in 2004. I’ve been fascinated by these unique aquatic mammals since I first encountered them in 2013 at the Laos-Cambodia border of the Mekong River, an area where they have been declared extinct a few years after my visit.
I spent two days with marine biologist Mark de la Paz and his students conducting a study of the subpopulation off the mouth of the Bago River, where they number less than 20. Like populations elsewhere, these elusive animals are threatened by net entanglement, boat collisions and water pollution. Read more about my encounter with the last Irrawaddy dolphins of Negros here.
9. Eco-cultural immersion in Agusan Marsh
The Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is a vast wetland of swamp forests, watercourses and lakes covering an area of nearly 15,000 hectares – roughly the size of Metro Manila! The protected area is accessible by motorized boat ride from the township of Bunawan, Agusan del Sur. My first visit was with my sister in 2009. We were the first tourists permitted by the town officials of Bunawan to enter Lake Mihaba, the site of a macabre crocodile attack on a Manobo schoolgirl eight months earlier. Apparently, the killer croc – presumed by many to be 20-foot Lolong, the world’s largest captive crocodile captured in 2011 – was still lurking in the area. It was an unnerving yet exciting experience, paddling around the lake in a tiny baroto (canoe), merely a speck in what’s considered the country’s largest wetland.
I returned in 2016 to spend the night at the Panlabuhan floating village, a newly launched tourist attraction providing guests with an immersion into the traditional culture and everyday lives of the indigenous Manobo people of the marshlands. Read more about my cultural immersion in Agusan Marsh here.
8. Meeting the sorcerers of Siquijor
Its tourist attractions – mostly Spanish-period churches, beaches and waterfalls – aren’t exactly standouts, but Siquijor has an overall rustic atmosphere that captivates me on every visit. Perhaps it truly is enchanted, casting a spell on visitors – given its longstanding reputation for witchcraft and folk healing, an aspect of the island that intrigues rather than scares me.
In 2012, I met my first mananambal (healer), the late Consolation Achay, to experience the bolo-bolo, a cleansing ritual, which utilizes a glass of water, bamboo straw, and a sacred black stone to purge hexes and illnesses. Four years later, I returned to the island on assignment, and got the opportunity to interview Alberto Baroro, a mambabarang (sorcerer) who showed me how he uses a human skull to practice paktol, a deadly curse he places on enemies of his clients. Read my cover story on Siquijor for Silkwinds magazine here.
7. Trekking up Mt. Hamiguitan
Last year, another conservation feature for Smile got me trekking Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 – the first in Mindanao! I joined a three-day assessment climb, organized by the municipal government of San Isidro, the gateway to the national park, in preparation for the reopening of mountain to recreational hikers. Since 2010, access to the core zone had been limited only to scientific exploration.
Rising only 1,620m above sea level, Mount Hamiguitan’s biggest draw isn’t its stature. It doesn’t quite match up to Mount Apo, which straddles North Cotabato and Davao del Sur — at 2,954m, the country’s tallest mountain is almost twice Mount Hamiguitan’s height. But what sets it apart is the sheer diversity and variety of its resident wildlife. Its crowning glory is 1,200 hectares of the world’s largest pygmy forest – centuries-old trees stunted by mineral-rich soil with an average height of only 4.5 feet! Continue reading about my Mt. Hamiguitan climb here.
6. Getting inked in Kalinga
I first fell in love with Kalinga on a backpacking trip in 2010. We rode atop jeepneys that careened along cliffside roads with the most breathtaking mountain views, high above the raging waters of the Chico River, to get to the remote traditional villages of Tulgao and Butbut, where we slept in a traditional hut warmed by a pine-scented open fire.
Five years later I returned, I finally got to Buscalan village, home of the world-famous Apo Whang-od Oggay, the last master mambabatok or tattoo artist of the Kalinga people. Traditional tattoos are hand-tapped onto the skin, using a citrus thorn dipped in a mixture of soot and water, and attached to bamboo stick. After documenting a dozen visitors get inked, I spontaneously decided to get one on my upper arm. Both Whang-od and her niece and protege, Grace Palicas, tattooed a ginay’gayaman or centipede – a traditional design believed to protect the wearer from harm. Centipedes are also considered friends of Kalinga warriors, and messengers of the gods.
5. Risky sojourn in Sulu
Decades of socio-political tension and violence in isolated areas have unfairly marred the reputation of the entire Mindanao region. But no where else is this stigma stronger than in Sulu, a group of islands which have long been the stronghold of terrorist groups, who have claimed responsibility for kidnappings and bombings across the country.
In 2014, I toured Sulu for five days with the assistance of the Philippine Marine Corps. To ensure our safety, armed soldiers accommodated us in their military camps and escorted us wherever we went. We toured Camp Bud Datu, visited Tulay Mosque, watched pangalay dances in Jolo, and explored Maimbung Bay and Marungas Island. My favorite experience was spending the night at the replica of the royal palace of the Sulu Sultanate in Talipao.
Without a doubt, Sulu should be an overwhelming source of pride not only for its inhabitants but also for all Filipinos. As an eco-cultural treasure waiting to be discovered when peace and order prevails, these southern isles are truly the country’s best-kept secret, if not its most fiercely guarded.
4. Getting stranded in Itbayat
Even after touring the rest of Batanes, Itbayat – the country’s northernmost inhabited island – is a league of its own. A massive 83 sq km hunk of coral stone, it harbors some of the country’s otherworldly landscapes. Lying much closer to Taiwan than mainland Luzon, this fortress-like island is topped by rolling meadows, and completely surrounded by ramparts of sheer cliffs that drop 150 meters straight down to crashing waves.
Getting here is an adventure in itself: visitors must travel by falowa (wooden boat) for two to four hours from the provincial capital of Basco, often battling the moody waters of the Bashi Channel. Our boat trip going to Itbayat was smooth, but the monsoon weather turned for the worse a few days later, stranding us on the island for nearly a week due to the extremely rough sea conditions. On the bright side, this gave us more time to explore the island on a leisurely pace, hiking up mountains and along dramatic seaside cliffs, and venturing into a few caves. For more about Itbayat, and other secret spots in Batanes, check out this post.
3. Sailing Across the Calamianes
By far, the best island-hopping adventure I’ve experienced was the five-day, four-night cruise from El Nido to Coron via Linapacan and Culion aboard the Balátik, a handsome 72-foot paraw or traditional wooden sailboat powered by both wind and engine. The largest of its kind in the archipelago, it’s the newest addition to Tao Philippines (pronounced ta-o), a pioneering company that has been taking adventurers for the past decade on freewheeling expeditions across a labyrinth of more than 200 islands in northern Palawan, a playground of limestone karst, fine beaches, jungle-clad islands, technicolor reefs and WW-II shipwrecks. Read my full account of our paraw expedition here.
2. Caving marathon in Samar
I’ve visited numerous caves in my travels across the Philippines, but none of them can match the thrill and grandeur I experienced exploring the subterranean realms in Western Samar with Catbalogan-based master spelunker Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore. Over the course of four days, we explored Central Cave in Catbalogan City and Lobo Cave in Jiabong, before embarking on an overnight trek through Langun-Gobingob Cave in Calbiga – the largest cave system in the Philippines. We clambered through chambers as huge as football fields, limestone formations as big as trees, and underground pools teeming with rare creatures like blind crabs and Caecogobius cryptophthalmus – a species of blind cave fish only found in this cave system. Read my feature story for Smile here.
1. Off the grid in Northern Sierra Madre
Pristine, virgin, unspoiled. Such travel writer’s cliches become unworthy when you behold the incomparable purity that is the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, the largest protected landscape and seascape in the Philippines that’s bigger than Switzerland. A steamy swath of riotous rainforest with plants and animals found nowhere else tumbles onto the Pacific – the proverbial Eden of the country that will soon vanish in a few decades if persistent illegal logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and mining in this nature reserve won’t be stopped.
On assignment for Smile feature story in 2014, our journey to the remote Pacific coast of Isabela province started in Santa Ana port in Cagayan province (near Palaui Island), where we waited for a bangka for three days to depart to Maconacon – a trip that took us 14 hours due to an engine problem! Along the way, we witnessed a flawless sunrise and we were joined by bow-riding dolphins.
At Maconacon, we swam at the crystal-clear Blos River and dine on freshly caught lobsters. We then rode a 4X4 pick-up to the next town of Divilican, where we met nomadic Agta villagers who have settled along the shore. We then chartered another bangka for four hours to Palanan, where we visited a rainforest lagoon, a waterfall and quiet stretch of beach before finally catching a 30-minute flight on a six-seater turboprop plane to Cauyan City, traversing the sea of trees blanketing the Sierra Madre mountain range.
Embark on your next adventure across the Philippines by booking a flight with Cebu Pacific, the country’s largest airlines which flies to 37 domestic destinations!