Bicolandia…a Holy Week Road Trip (Part 1)

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We spent this year’s Holy Week (2014) on a long road trip down to the southern end of Luzon. Around 9 years ago I made two similar trips to the northern end, taking my then less than a year old Toyota Vios to the beaches of Pagudpud twice. The first was on that year’s holy week, and the second was some time later in that year. The first trip was a record breaking one for me, not only for the distance driven, but also the longest I stayed on the road…it took us 17 hours to get back from Pagudpud to Manila on Easter Sunday…17 hours of straight driving interrupted only by brief stops for lunch and dinner. Tarlac was such a big bottleneck in the north back then, when the SCTEX and the TPLEX weren’t even figments of the imagination yet. Back to the present – it took some time before I could embark on another road trip of that length. Though we hit the road to Baguio over a year ago, nothing beats the ultimate long distance driving to either end of the island of Luzon.

This time our destination was the city of Legazpi in the province of Albay, right at the heart of the Bicol region…an area of the country known for it’s perfectly shaped but fiery volcano, and its exquisite but equally fiery cuisine. We departed Manila at 5AM on Holy Thursday, an hour later than our planned departure time. Having pulled a late one at the office the night before, finishing stuff before going on holiday, I just couldn’t pull myself out of bed any earlier than 4AM.

Coming from Metro Manila, traffic at the South Luzon Expressway was moving, though the volume was noticeably heavier than normal, until we hit the toll gates at Calamba where traffic builds as each vehicle stops to exit the tollway. From Calamba it was a steady cruise again via the SLEX extension until Santo Tomas, Batangas where traffic crawled again as the highway cut through busy intersections. It was past 7 when we got past the snarl at Santo Tomas and made our way through to San Pablo and the first set of Towns in Quezon Province, but traffic came to a complete stop after Candelaria which we reached before 8, and from then on it was a game of inches until we got past Sariaya almost 2 hours later. The narrow roads of the old town of Sariaya could simply not take on the volume of vehicles trying to pass through it, and there was no bypass road anywhere. The bottleneck stretched for miles, literally, as the number of vehicles able to pass through and exit the town was far outstripped by the number piling up on its approaches. And thus we learned, the beautiful old towns of Quezon could be hell on Earth during holidays.

We exited Sariaya around 10AM, more than 5 hours after the trip started. We sped through the diversion road of Lucena, hoping to claw back the more than 1.5 hours lost staring at tail lights in Sariaya, just stopping for a quick brunch on a fast food outlet along the way. We were past Pagbilao well before noon and were on the zigzag roads of the Quezon National Forest by midday. More popularly known as the “bitukang manok” (“chicken intestines” in English, which the winding mountain road resembles), the zigzag road is an exhilerating drive. The sharp curves and steep inclines make it look scarier than it is, but a good control of your gears is all it needs, and drivers of vehicles with automatic transmission have virtually nothing to worry about. It is, however, the worst place to drive an overloaded and underpowered vehicle. The scenery here though is amazing, but being the driver, I couldn’t take any pictures which is an abolute shame.

We resumed steady cruising after the zigzag road all the way to Gumaca, passing by scenic seaside roads, but traffic took a turn for the worse again when we approached the town of Lopez at 1PM therabouts, dashing any hope recovering the time lost in traffic earlier in the day. This time the culprit was half-impassable portions of the national highway due to ongoing construction in areas scattered along the entire stretch from Lopez to the border of the Quezon province. It was past 3PM when we finally reached the borders of the Province of Camarines Norte, and took the turn to the Andaya highway which would take us straight to the Bicol provinces.

The Andaya Highway was pretty much wide open, although the condition of the road left much to be desired. Portions of the road looked like it was no longer maintained for decades, and my eyes were constantly scanning for potholes, which weren’t scarce. The surface of the road, especially on the Quezon side of the highway, was so badly worn it felt like our mini SUV was having a boxing match with the pavement the whole stretch, even at 60kph. The road got better when we finally reached Camarines Sur, and though there were still a few potholes here and there, it was safe enough to run at speeds of 80kph or more.

The sun was very low on the horizon when we finally came to the central rotunda of the city of Naga, the largest metropolitan area in Bicol. To avoid arriving on our final destination too late, we just passed right through on the road to Legazpi, which we finally reached just before 9pm. We spent a total of 16 hours on the road, just an hour shy of my personal record set nine years ago.

The Ruins of Cagsawa

The first stop on the following day was the famous ruins of Cagsawa in the nearby town of Daraga. The belfry of the old church, which got buried by lava from the nearby Mayon volcano in a eruption almost two centuries ago, is as familiar a landmark of the region as the volcano itself. Being on a national holiday, the place was filled with people in the morning of Good Friday, and taking a photo of the belfry without anyone intruding into your frame was impossible, but it was a very good place for a close-up look of the geometrically perfect Mayon volcano. From the back of the ruins, one can see flat farmlands that rise dramatically into the slopes of the volcano. It was just too bad for us that the skies were a little too cloudy that morning.

There is a small entrance fee to see the ruins of Cagsawa, and right nearby are souvenir shops that sell t-shirts, magnets and virtually anything you can print the word “Bicol” on. There are also stalls that sell sili (chili) shakes, which are fruit shakes with a piece of chili blended in. We tried some and found that with the amount of fruit and ice blend in, the chili leaves just a tiny bit of heat in the aftertaste…definitely not as scary as it may seem.

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Mayon Volcano, from the Cagsawa Ruins

Mayon Volcano, from the Cagsawa Ruins

The Church of Daraga

After an hour milling about in Cagsawa we hit the road again and went to the church of Daraga a couple of kilometers away. Perched atop a hill, at the highest point of the town like many old churches do, the church of Daraga holds an enviable scenic spot, as it gives an almost unobstructed view of the nearby volcano. The church itself also exudes a sense of history, having a baroque architecture that was common across churches built in the country during the 18th century.

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Lignon Hill

Back in Legazpi, we went up Lignon hill early in the afternoon. Declared as a Natural Park, the hill, in the outskirts of the city, is one of the top draws of the area that is not a church nor a volcano. A steep, winding, tree lined road leads up to the top of the hill, though there was a long line of cars waiting to go up the flat-topped hill on good Friday. Parking at the hilltop was limited, so cars had to wait in line at the base, for parking slots to become available. It was a bit of a wait – it took us almost a half hour before we were allowed to go up, and some people decided to just park their cars at the base and take a thorough cardiovascular workout by going up on foot.

The top of the hill though was very much worth the wait. From here the entire city of Legazpi was laid down infront of us, we could even see the entire stretch of the Legazpi airport’s runway. The other side of the hill also give a picture perfect view of the Mayon volcano, and we were a bit lucky that by the time we were there, there were but a few clouds covering Mayon’s parfect slopes.

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Legazpi Boulevard

Legazpi is a coastal city, and on its southern shoreline is rather new road-cum-promenade called the Legazpi Boulevard. Though still almost totally empty, the boulevard offers the city-folk a good place for jogging and cycling, and it gives a very good view of Mayon, especially at sunset. On that Friday afternoon, the place started to get filled with people as the sun got lower, the majority of them tourists like us looking for the perfect spot to get a picture with the perfectly conical volcano behind then. There are also stalls by the roadside that serve all sorts of street food, refreshments and even beers, for those looking for a drink in the sea breeze.

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Embarcadero

The Embarcadero looks like it was supposed to be the city’s most happening mall, but frankly it does not have much to offer. It looks pretty however, being on the sea side and all that, and it’s got a clean cheap hotel above it, and that’s where we stayed in Legazpi. The Ellis Ecotel, which is right inside the Embarcadero, is a good no frills hotel, for those who are not looking for some pampering. It’s one of the cheapest ones in the city, and it is pretty much clean and the rooms are of reasonable size – two people can definitely move around. It’s got cable TV, hot and cold shower, strong airconditioning and good comfy beds, though the only drawback is that you could hear if there’s a snorer in the next room, and there’s no free breakfast. Overall the hotel isn’t bad at all, consider how much (or how little) you pay for.

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Mayon, from Embarcadero, in the morning.

Mayon, from Embarcadero, in the morning.

Bigg’s Diner

Legazpi is still pretty a much a traditional little city, so there was only a handful of establishments open on Good Friday. One of the few that were was Bigg’s Diner, a chain of restaurants in Bicol, and their branch in Legazpi was overflowing that day. Though their menu is heavy on western style food, they did have one item that reminds you where you are. Their Bicol Special, a tandem of Pork Chop and Laing (a local delicacy) with rice, was our first taste if Bicolano food in Bicol. The restaurant did leave a very good impression on us…food was good, the place was nice, and the service was fast despite that fact that they were bursting at the seams. (And I know…Good Friday…Pork…Bad, but there were very few other places to choose from, so forgive me.)

The Bicol Special (Pork chop and Laing)

The Bicol Special (Pork chop and Laing)

Graceland

For dinner we decided to avoid the closed roads in Central Legaspi, due to the Good Friday processions, and we escaped back to neighbouring Daraga. There we seeked out Graceland, a local fastfood chain. They served the usual staples of Filpino fast food like Lechon Kawali (deep fried pork) and “Barbecue” (skewered pork), paired with local sidings like Laing again, or Bicol Express. They were also our first taste of the bicolano-style of halo-halo, which comes with cheese. Service was fast and their prices were cheap, and overall I say Graceland is a good place for a quick, cheap Bicolano meal.

Lechon Kawali with Bicol Express

Lechon Kawali with Bicol Express

Pork Barbecue with Laing

Pork Barbecue with Laing

Graceland's Halo-halo

Graceland’s Halo-halo

Graceland in Daraga, Albay

Graceland in Daraga, Albay

* All photos taken April 2014, with an Olympus EPM-2.

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