Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Off to Laing Paradise


I almost bailed out of this trip. Why shouldn't I? All the "signs" said we shouldn't go.
  • My leave was not approved INITIALLY, I got my approval a week before our target date
  • Because of the late approval, all flights to Legaspi were already booked - we decided to take the 10-hour bus ride to Legaspi and take a flight back
  • On the day of our departure, a typhoon hit the country - thankfully, Bicol wasn't on the direct path, but I was informed by my Bicol-based friend Diane that it has been raining really hard in Legaspi
  • I called for a cab to pick me up at 5pm but the cab arrived early and the driver got impatient so he left. I had to wait another 30 minute to get a new cab.
  • We missed our Legaspi stop!!! Yes, we missed our stop. We were waiting for the driver to say "Legaspi" but instead he said "Satellite". So we ignored him until there were few passengers left. We went all the way to Tabaco!
Anyway, nothing happened after that so I guess it was meant to be, after all.

Day 0.

The decision to go to Donsol was finalized last January. After that, I searched the net to see our options - where to stay, what to do, what to see. By February, I got in touch with Donsol Ecotours, c/o Jessica Noelle Wong. I emailed in the morning and got a reply within the day. Since then, we exchanged LOTS of emails finalizing our itinerary. You see, Ariel and I don't like being idle on our vacations. We want activity-packed days to maximize our stay in a new destination. While Donsol is famous for the whale shark interactions, we also found out that there are other activities we can do like firefly watching and river kayaking. I asked about island hopping and was told that we can do that as well. Also, we wanted to get as close as possible to Mayon volcano so we arranged a trek while we are in Legaspi. Jessica arranged everything. I asked her to arrange our flights and hotel accommodations as well. We were very happy with the way she helped us with this vacation. Even when I told her that our vacation might not push through (after a hundred email exchanges finalizing our itinerary), she never showed dismay or frustration but instead kept a positive attitude and encouraged me to hope for the best. Love her!

Anyway, it was my first time to take a long bus trip - 10 hours total including 2 30-minute stops. We took the Elite bus of Cagsawa Travel (P900 each). We boarded our bus on schedule at 6:30 pm, April 14th, 2008. Before leaving, Ariel bought sandwiches, chips and bottled water. We were famished, having spent a very busy day at work, rushing things so we could finish our job before we leave for our vacation. Our bus left promptly at 7pm. We were already warned that it will be very cold so we came prepared. However, it was still a bit uncomfortable in the bus. My seat was defective. I would recline it but after a few minutes, it would be upright again. Oh well. We had two stop overs. The first at around 11pm in Tiaong, Quezon, the second, well, I don't know what time it was but we were already in Pili, Bicol. In both instances, Ariel and I got off the bus to eat (other passengers just slept!). In Tiaong, I got myself a bowl of mami and a stick of bbq. Ariel opted for rice, eggplant omelette and bbq. In Pili, we shared a bowl of lugaw and Ariel got a stick of hotdog. Happy tummy!

April 15, Day 1.

Our first day officially started. I already shared that we weren't able to get off at Legaspi. So, we checked in at Vista Al Mayon around 7pm instead of 5:30am. We lost 1.5 hours of sleep!!! We just slept all morning. We got up at 11am as Diane and her hubby were picking us up at 11:30am.

We had lunch at Jun and Diane's place. They prepared a feast for us. Pork Adobo - the Bicolanos do it differently. Love it! Ariel loved it. Sarap!!! Bicol express. Diane's mom cooked it and that set the bar so high for our Bicol trip. We ordered Bicol Express about 2 or 3 times during our trip and they paled in comparison to Diane's mom's version. (We even had a big pack of take home!) Pangat (Taro leaves with coconut milk). They bought the pangat in two versions - spicy and non-spicy. I like the spicy one of course and even asked Diane to buy some for us to take home. Pork Sinigang (one of Ariel's fave dishes). We were so full!!! In fact, we enjoyed the food so much we forgot to take photos! Diane and Jun were so generous for sharing with us their time and their home!

Had the chance to see Diane's gorgeous layouts. By the way, I met Diane through our scrapbooking e-group. It was only my second time to see her face to face (the first one in last year's Scrapfest) but she treated us like long time friends! Thanks Diane and Jun!

After lunch, we visited some of the nearby tourist spots.

  • Mayon Resthouse - Beautiful spot overlooking the city. It was a bit cloudy and we were soon covered in thick fog but we were able to take nice shots.
  • Camalig Church - Diane showed us the church where she and Jun tied the knot.
  • Daraga Church - Picture perfect! Nice weathered architecture.
  • Cagsawa ruins - One of the major tourist spots in Legaspi, a bit crowded when we visited but beautiful nonetheless.
  • Gaisano Mall - I know, I know. This doesn't qualify as a tourist spot but it was here that I was able to get a shot of the near-perfect cone shaped Mayon volcano. Actually, Mayon is very visible from Diane's kitchen window. Beautiful. But scary considering it is an active volcano.
We had snacks at Bigg's while Jun ran off to attend to some errands. Bigg's is a local food chain similar to Jollibee. Diane and I ordered Goto and tokwa't baboy while Ariel had burger. While waiting for Jun, Ariel and I bought a few bottles of Powerade and Viva Mineral water for our Mayon trek the next day. We also bought some chips.

We had dinner at Alibar's - sisig and gambas for Ariel and me, mango shake and tuna sandwich for Diane, sizzling pork chop for Jun and cafe latter for me. Their cafe latte is maybe 95% milk and 5% coffee. Actually, it tasted like 100% milk and it was white. :D

Had to sleep early as we were supposed to start our Mayon trek at 6:30 am the next day.

Here are some fave photos for the day.

April 16, Day 2.

We woke up at 5:30 to get ready for our trek. Our guide, Mang Bem, arrived at 6:30am. We also met Rico from Donsol Ecotours who introduced us to Mang Bem and Mang Kano (short for Mariano), our driver. We went to Lidong, Sto. Domingo, Albay which is the drop off point for the trek. There we were joined by Arnold who guided us along with Mang Bem. We had with us 2 liters of Powerade and 1 Liter of Viva, 2 bananas, rekking poles lent to us by my friend Karen, a small hand towel, and a hat (baseball cap for Ariel). We thought it was going to be a "leisurely" trek. Oh, it was far from leisurely!

We started shortly after 7am. To a serious mountaineer, it may be easy, but we faced several challenges during our trek. First off, there was no clean trail. For the most part, we found ourselves walking through a thick growth of talahib. Worse, there were thorny bushes along the way. I was wearing cropped pants so the 4 inches of exposed legs were badly scratched. Mang Bem lent me a pair of arm protectors. They were quite smelly (think dried sweat, I doubt if they were ever washed!) but I am in no position to complain. They protected my arms from serious scratches, though I did get a few on my hands. Ariel suffered some cuts on his arms but they were nowhere near what I got on my legs.

Anyway, there were some stretches of steep "climb" but that wasn't the reason why this was a challenging trek. Our main challenge was the heat of the sun. Combine that with hours of walking through thick and tall grasses that cut through skin. At some point, it started drizzling and it felt really good to feel rain on my skin. Unfortunately, it was a short respite from the sun. We were probably the slowest couple that Mang Bem ever guided! We made frequent stops and in more than one occasion, I asked Ariel, Mang Bem and Arnold to just leave me there, go to Camp 1 and just come back for me. I was not walking another inch. Good thing they kept encouraging me until we finally made it to camp 1 after four and a half hours.

Alby: Iwan nyo na lang ako dito. Matutulog lang ako. Pagbalik nyo, nandito pa ako. (Just leave me here. I will just take a nap. When you get back, I'd still be here.)

Mang Bem: Mam, may ahas po dito. (Mam, there are snakes here.)

Alby: Wala akong pakialam. Ayoko na maglakad. Di ko na kaya. (I don't care. I dont' want to walk anymore. I can't do it anymore.)

Mang Bem: Kaya nyo yan mam. Malapit na lang. Mga 30 minutes na lang. (You can do it mam. We're very close. Another 30 minutes.)

That went on a couple of times as we take short breaks. Anyway, we made it and we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the towns below, and a closer view of Mayon's now imperfect cone tip.

We've already used up 1.5 liters of Powerade and about half a liter of Viva. Ariel got water from the spring (our guides said they were tested and found potable) just in case we ran out of drinks. We rested for about an hour before descending.

It was half past four when we got back to civilization. We were famished! We dropped by Jollibee before heading off to Donsol.

The trip to Donsol took about two hours via Mang Kano's Nissan Frontier pick up. We got there around 7pm and checked into our room at Amor Resort. The first thing I checked was whether there is hot water. Negative. Ariel's first comment was that there was no tv. I went out to check if there are rooms with better amenities. Apparently, we checked into the best room available. P1,500 a night. Not bad at all. There's a double bed, a table, a bench. Towels were provided for, as well as a small bar of soap. No closet for our clothes though. We just dumped our clothes on the bench.

We had dinner first. With lunch at Diane's still fresh in our minds, we ordered Bicol Express again, as well as chicken adobo. The food satisfied our hunger but it did not delight us. C'est la vie!

Exhausted from the day's activities, we retired early. Day 3 is whaleshark watching day.

Here are my fave photos for the day.

April 17, Day 3.

We woke up early in anticipation of today's activities. We were scheduled to have our first whaleshark interaction. We ordered breakfast - longsilog for me (pork sausage, fried rice and fried egg) and tocilog for Ariel (cured sweet pork, fried rice and fried egg). We had instant coffee with that. Not bad for P100 per meal, coffee included.

We were required to sign up at the Tourism center where all whaleshark interactions are regulated. There were rules that we have to follow. We watched a video about whaleshark conservation as well as the other eco-tourism activities in the Sorsogon area. We started at around 8:30am. We shared the boat with an Australian couple. As required by the local tourism office, each group was led by a BIO or a Butanding Interaction Officer. Each boat has a spotter - a person perched on top of the pole to watch out for whalesharks. Once a whaleshark is spotted, the BIO will signal the group and jump into the water. We were allowed to go no closer than 3 meters to the bidy of the whaleshark and 5 meters to the tail. There were a lot of boats already circling the area where Butandings were expected to show up. It was cloudy which is bad because spotters look for shadows in the water to determine the presence of the whalesharks. With an overcast sky, shadows are difficult to spot. The water was a bit rough too so I was a bit worried. I am not a strong swimmer and my endurance is worse when the waters are choppy. I opted not to wear a lifejacket for speed and maneuverability. It took us an hour before our spotter spotted a whaleshark. We struggled to catch up and in the end, I didn't see anything. Our Australian friends thought they saw a fin or something. We got into the boat again and waited. At some point it started raining. After several minutes, we jumped into the water again. I got so tired, and again I didn't see anything. This went on for a couple of hours until we decided to call it a day at around 12:30pm. Waaah!!! No whalesharks!!!

We were a bit down when we had lunch. Good thing the tinola and fried fish over veggies were good.

Took a nap as we were both tired from all the swimming. Or maybe, we were too disappointed that we didn't see what we came to Donsol for.

At 3pm, we went out to go kayaking by the river. It was a long way from were we were staying to the mouth of the river. Good thing there were sand bars along the way. We stopped to rest and explore the sand bar. The sand in Donsol is mostly black. It felt a bit strange, having been used to white sand beaches.

After 30 minutes of rowing (we were slow, and we rested frequently), we finally entered the river. Lots of boats lined up one side of the river and we came across some kids playing near their homes, by the riverbank. We took some photos using our point and shoot in its waterproof casing. We decided not to bring the DSLR for fear that we might drop it into the water. After a few minutes, the sky darkened and we decided to head back before it started raining.

After 1.5 hours of kayaking, we got really hungry and we ordered merienda - pancit guisado with toasted bread. Quite good actually.

At 6:30, we boarded a small outrigger for our firefly watching tour. We went to the river, much farther than where we ventured into earlier that afternoon. It was a sight to behold. Thousands, or millions, of fireflies illuminating the trees by the river. I haven't seen fireflies since I was a kid. Beautiful.

We were back by 8:30, ready to face food again. LOL! We had fried chicken and kununot. It's my second time to taste kinunot, the 1st one was in Bantayan Island in Cebu last year. Kinunot is a fish dish (wow, rhyming pa!), cut up in bite sized fishes and cooked in coconut milk and some veggie - int his case malunggay. Sarap! But I liked the Cebu version better.

Big day tomorrow. Our anniversary and whale shark watching take two. We just wouldn't give up that easily! We have to get what we came here (and paid) for?

Here are some fave pics.

April 18, Day 4.

Big day. Our 7th anniversary as husband and wife. Our second chance to swim with the butanding. Longsilog and tinapasilog for breakfast. Brewed coffee this time, with an additional P25.

What a wonderful anniversary gift. We had 9 encounters within the span of 1.5 hours. We were blessed with a great weather (clear skies, calm seas - perfect conditions for spotting a whaleshark), a great spotter (Andy) and a very friendly BIO, Henry. We shared the boat with an old Englishman (who had been staying at our resort for a couple of weeks!!!) and two international students based in Hongkong who were in Donsol for one day only just to see the Butandings (an American and a Norwegian - lucky girls!). Henry made sure that I was able to keep up. When I was too tired to swim, he would hold my hands and drag me so I could swim with the butandings! Ariel, on the other hand, was our designated photographer and videographer. He was able to capture great images!

For lunch, we had laing, pork chop, calamares, Coke zero and Mango shake. It felt like a feast having just experienced the adventure of a lifetime.

We took a nap for a little bit, just to recover from the strenuous swimming. At 4pm, we decided to venture out on the road and take some pictures. We walked to the Tourism office, which was empty that time of the day. We took some pictures before heading back. Lingered a bit by the beach and was able to capture the spectacular sunset.

For dinner, we headed off to Baracuda, a quaint bar owned by a well-traveled lady named Juliet. She is the owner, bar tender and waitress, very eloquent, very friendly, and a great cook, too! We hired a tricycle to take us to Baracuda and asked him to pick us up at 8pm. We agreed to pay P120 upon pick up - he was too shy to give us a price but did mention that 8pm is very late already. When we got there, only one other table was occupied (foreigners). We wanted to have dinner but Juliet suggested we have some drinks first and maybe she sensed we were hungry, so she offered her chilled squid salad as appetizer. We happily relented and were rewarded by the most delicious squid salad I've ever tasted. Ariel and I don't like raw onions and bellpeppers but her dressing was so good we ate everything on our plate - onions and bellpeppers and every little morsel of edible goodness. I had mango daiquiri while Ariel opted for San Mig Light to go with our salad. By the way, there were no menus there. The offering depended on what were the main catch for the day. Juliet came to us with a basin filled with an assortment of seafood. We opted for the Red Snapper and two big prawns. She said she'd grill the prawns and fry the snapper. I asked what we can pair with them and she offered rice, pasta, or potatoes. I picked pasta while Ariel decided to go for the potatoes. By this time, the sun had set and the sky was completely dark. The place glowed with the perfectly positioned string of light around the perimeter, and votive candles on the table. Soft music played on Juliet's Ipod, setting the mood for the night. We waited for about 30 minutes before the main course was served. It was well worth the wait. The pasta was so good - tomatoes, onions, rosemary. Very flavorful. The potatoes where delicious - sauteed in onions. The prawns were grilled to perfection, sprinkled with garlic and cracked pepper. The fried fish had crisp skin and tender meat. I had white wine while Ariel ordered a second bottle of beer. It was the perfect anniversary dinner. After dinner, I asked for a shot of Bailey's to satisfy my sweet craving. Upon learning that it was our anniversary, Juliet served us two shots of brandy, on the house. A perfect ending to our memorable day. I've never had too much alcohol in one day! We were afraid to get the bill since we had no idea how much the food and drinks cost. Care to take a guess? Total bill was P1,335. We felt like we had won the lottery.

I was already tipsy when we got into the tricycle. I was asleep in bed by 8:30pm!

Here are the choice shots for the day.

April 19, Day 5.

I woke up at around 3am with a terrible sore throat. I was also a bit feverish. I immediately took some medication and gargled with Bactidol. I wasn't ready to get sick as we had a full day planned. Fortunately, I woke up hours later feeling much better, though my tummy was acting up a bit - maybe from too much alcohol the previous night.

We started the day early, around 6am, and had breakfast (burgers - quite good!) on the boat, packed by Amor resort. After about an hour, we were greeted by white sand beaches along a group of small islands. Our boat couldn't get too close so we just kayaked our way to the shore. We enjoyed a few minutes of snorkeling on shallow waters and then the unthinkable happened. Won't elaborate here but it involved a big rock, a little digging and wet wipes (wink!).

Another hour or so, we reached Ticao Island in Masbate. We were amazed at the beautiful waterfalls that awaited us. Ariel and I were afraid to dive into the water at first (think Anaconda and Lochness monster!) but after one of our boat men dived in, we immediately followed suit. The water was cool but soothing. We even swam under the falls, though I didn't stay long as the water pressure was really strong. It was a very serene area, the only sound was that of the waterfalls. The weather was perfect - partly cloudy with just a bit of sun peeking out.

We had lunch in the boat, packed for us by Amor resort. We enjoyed fried chicken, fried fish and some veggies with rice. After lunch, we rested a few minutes and jumped into the water again for a final dip before heading back to Donsol.

On the way back, we spotted a group of dolphins swimming by. I got so excited I forgot to take pictures! It also rained a couple of times (not just drizzles, but downpour) though the sea remained calm. When we arrived at the resort, there was no electricity - maybe due to the strong rains. We just showered and packed our stuff and we're off to Legaspi on board Mang Kano's pick up.

I dozed off most of the trip and it was already dark when we checked into Vista Al Mayon again. We didn't have the energy to go out or roam around so we just had dinner at the hotel. We packed and then slept the night away.

Here are the day's snapshots:

April 20, Day 6.

Had a simple breakfast at the hotel (they had nothing fancy to offer).
Diane and Jun came over to drop by our pasalubong which they neatly packed in a box (thanks Jun and Diane!!!) with a bottle of Diane's mom's Bicol express! Yahoo!
Checked in early and had to wait a bit before our flight (yup no more long bus ride!) - very crowded airport. Bicol had indeed become a summer destination. I just hope that the conservation efforts in Donsol will be sustained. It was a bit crowded when we went. Several boats circling the Butanding area, not at all in line with the WWF guidelines I read about.

Before we knew it, our vacation was over.

But I have this blog and the pictures to remind me of this wonderful adventure. For the complete set of photos, head over to flickr and check my Bicol Album.

Oh, and before I end, here's the list of our contacts:

Jessica Noelle Wong
+63 917-5063554

Vista Al Mayon, Legaspi City
+63 52 4810308

Amor Farm Beach Resort
Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon
Mrs. Sylvia Amor
+63 910 4586140

Pacific Blue Dive Center
Amor Farm Beach Resort
Mr. Rodel Lita
+63 921 9293811

BARacuda Bar & Grill
Juliet dela Cruz
+63 926 6400863
+63 906 9016852

Rodel Lita

Thanks for reading!