A couple of hours drive east of Manila, is one hidden gem that deserves to get more attention that it presently does. For the longest time the Philippines hasn’t had a zoo to be proud of, but thanks to the efforts of a private individual who happens to have a passion for animals, we have something that comes close.
The place is called Avilon, in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal. While it’s no Singapore Zoo, for a private endeavor what they were able to do here is quite an amazing feat.
Avilon is around 2 hours from Manila, more or less, and can be reached only through the narrow and constricted highways (highway by name, but in reality more like inter-connected provincial roads) of the province of Rizal. The locale is not as accessible as one would hope, but the “expedition” you have to go through to get there adds more to the allure of the place. Going there feels like embarking on a trip to the wilderness, except that the “wilderness” is composed of narrow roads clogged by jeepneys and tricycles.
As you get to Rodriguez (or Montalban if you’re more used to calling it by its old name), you have another hurdle to go through. Avilon is off the main road, and the only access to it is a couple of kilometers of nothing more than dirt. It was muddy when we went there, and it looked like I was driving through a section of the World Rally Championships.
After all that traffic and mud that you go through though, you will be rewarded with 7 hectares of exotic flora and fauna. The place is not so large by zoo standards, and the shape is irregular, giving a maze-like arrangement that could disorient those without a sense of direction. But therein also lies the fun. There’s a sense of excitement in not knowing what animal you’ll see just around the bend.
It’s amazing that they were able to fit such a wide variety of fauna in such a limited space, and still allow a comfortable amount of space for both the animals and the visitors. The animal variety is mostly heavy on mammals, birds and reptiles, though the freshwater fishes also have some representation. Perhaps the most fascinating for the kids would be an encounter with the big cats – the Tigers, Leopard and Cougars, and next to that would be the noisy parrots who mimic human words. They could also take turns feeding the carnivorous fresh-water fish called the arapaima (a larger cousin of the well known arowana), or have their pictures taken with a chimpanzee, or with birds of prey like the white breasted see eagle and the owl, or with a reticulated python if they would dare.
There are lots of other animals less awe-inspiring but nonetheless interesting, from those that dwell in swamps like crocodiles and flamingos, to those that live in deserts like the foxes and jackals. Overall, the place is very educational for kids and the kids at heart, and unless you are looking for large mammals like a Giraffe or an Elephant or an Orca (They have none of those of course. How can they fit all that in 7 hectares?), then you wouldn’t be disappointed.
The ticket price isn’t that steep. Entry is at Php 300 for adults and kids above 3 feet, while children smaller than that are charged Php 200, and unfortunately though, only babies below 1 year old are free. Still, the price is definitely reasonable. After all, if you want to see that many animals in a healthy state, and well cared for, then you have to chip in for the expenses. The entrance fee, plus the traffic jams and the muddy road, is all very much worth it…and if you have a pre-school or grade-school age child, then it’s almost a crime to not bring them there at least once.
* We visited Avilon last April 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.