Thursday, May 24, 2018

Overwhelmed by Osmeña Peak in Cebu

Scale new heights, swim in turquoise waters and scamper to a new place I’ve never been were among the things I wanted to do as summer began. So far, I was able to push through with the last two summer goals last March and April, respectively, except for the first one. Some unfounded fear kept me from pursuing it. I haven’t scaled a peak the past three years, and that, I believe, has created a deep hole of doubt in me—so deep I dreamed about dying during a trek!

A glimpse Cebu's southwestern coastline and Badian Island from Osmeña Peak

The last one whose summit I reached was Mt. Calayo a.k.a. Musuan Peak in Bukidnon. It was one helluva difficult one for this world-weary adventure junkie who practically had no preparation whatsoever for the arduous trek. Good thing, I pulled it off successfully on my own, without any guide. For more about my climb there, click this link:

Can I do it again? Do I still have what it takes to make it to the top in one piece? I mused as the scorching summer days rolled by. Admittedly, age has caught up on my knees and legs; they’re no longer in tiptop shape like when I scaled Mt. Apo many years ago. Still, a part of me wanted to prove to myself that I can still do it.

Call it bravado but I was also out to prove to all and sundry that I still have what it takes to conquer mountains and volcanoes. As May crept in, however, the plan was starting to lose steam; I was close to giving up on the first goal. Perish the thought. You’re too old for that, a tiny voice at the back of my head kept cautioning me.

Just when I was about to abandon my plan, the chance to go climbing suddenly came my way—thanks to an unforeseen event held in Cebu that became my passport to another adventure in the uplands. Mind you, the island province has a number of interesting highland hideaways that are just waiting to be explored by adventure junkies.

Said to be one of the highest points in the whole island of Cebu, the stunning peak in the village of Mantalongon in the town of Dalaguete, overlooks the coastal towns of south Cebu and the nearby islands of Bohol, Negros and Siquijor at an elevation of 1,013 meters above sea level (roughly 3,325 feet). At the summit, climbers are rewarded with a spectacular vista of numerous jagged hills spread across limestone cliffs as well as the seascape of Cebu’s southwestern coast, including Badian a.k.a. Zaragoza Island.

Part of the Mantolongon mountain range

The peak, a part of the Mantalongon mountain range, is quite unlike other mountain ranges in the country given its numerous jagged hills neatly spread all over the place that provide a panoramic view of the southern part of Cebu Province. Osmeña Peak is the highest among these hills. At first glance, the conical hills resemble gigantic green Hershey Kisses! I was instantly smitten, nay, overwhelmed by the awesome beauty of this popular destination.

Chances are, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol would most likely cross your mind the moment you lay eyes on the Mantalongon mountain range. The hills in the latter, however, are thinner, sharper and craggier. Unlike the Chocolate Hills, the peaks of the Mantalongon range are assembled near each other. I surmised that they must have been huge corals that rose up so high from under the sea millions of years ago. 

Why do I like scaling peaks and mountains? Well, there’s something about them that’s worth all the effort. To borrow the words of John Muir, Scottish-American author and environmental philosopher: “Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” And climb Osmeña Peak I did “to wash my spirit clean”. I guess I needed some “washing” if only to scrub out self-doubt.

It was a hot Saturday when I finally embarked on my trek. Waking up early, I took a quick shower, skipped breakfast and messaged Grab for a cab. Around 7 AM, I was on my way to Cebu South Terminal. Arriving there, I was dismayed to see several long queues waiting for the buses that will take them to various destinations. On weekends, the terminal is usually packed with passengers going home to the southern towns of Cebu and even to those in nearby Negros Island.

It wasn’t until around 9:30 AM when I finally boarded an airconditioned Ceres bus bound for Bato and Oslob (passing through Dalaguete). Good thing, I was able to get a window seat that afforded me a spectacular view of Cebu’s breathtaking coast. Almost three hours down the road, I finally reached Dalaguete, the take-off point for my trek. There are other entry points to Osmeña Peak but I chose this route since I’m familiar, more or less, with the town having visited it a few years back.

Ignoring the grumblings of my tummy, I decided to head straight for my ultimate destination instead of having lunch first. I bought some stuff though from a 7-Eleven outlet at the town’s junction, intending to eat them later when I’m already at the mountain’s summit. To get to the peak, I hired a motorcycle taxi locally known as habal-habal, plying the route from downtown Dalaguete to the upland village of Mantalongon, the jump-off point for the peak.

From what I’ve gathered, Mantalongon, which is one of the 33 barangays (villages) that make up Dalaguete, boasts of cold temperatures ranging from 18 to 24 degrees Celsius, Known as Cebu’s “Little Baguio of the South”, it has also been recognized officially as the province’s “Summer Capital”. With its nippy climate, high-value veggies like carrots, cabbages, eggplants, lettuce, squash, among others, are grown extensively in different parts of the barangay, earning for it the monicker, “Vegetable Basket of Cebu”.

After getting what I wanted, I went out of the store and saw a squad of habal-habal drivers just across the street. After some negotiation with one of the fellows, I hired the services of Arnold who drove me all the way to the tourist center at the foot slopes of Mt. Labalasan. One way fare per person is pegged at Php100. As the motorcycle can accommodate two persons, I had to shell out Php200 for one way fare or a total of Php400, including the return trip.

Osmeña Peak Tourism Center

The smooth ride along the zigzagging but well-paved Dalaguete-Badian Road passing through Mantalongon treated me to a picturesque montage of the countryside—lush mountains, rolling hills, steep cliffs, green veggie patches, quaint little huts and charming rest houses and a whole lot more. About 45 minutes later, we reached the base or jump-off point where visitors—I was among the throngs who were mostly backpackers and hikers from Luzon—are made to sign at the Osmeña Peak Tourism Center. Entrance fee is Php30 per person.

The view down below

Local guides often approach visitors, offering to show you the way to the peak for a fee, of course. It wouldn’t hurt your pocket to give something to augment the income of the locals, most of whom seem to live below the poverty line. I got the services of an older guide named Boy. About Php150 would suffice as guide’s fee but I gave him Php200 because he also doubled as porter and photographer.

Mind you, Boy clicked like a pro, directing me how to position myself, fiddling with my smartphone’s camera with ease as if he owned it, and snapping most of my best shots!  I can’t thank the fellow enough for the guidance and the pics so I offered him free merienda after we descended from the summit.

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So far, the trail going up the peak is among the easier ones I’ve trekked in recent years. The less-than-a-kilometer hike from the tourist center all the way to the summit took me roughly 25 minutes to complete, including brief stopovers for catching my breath, quenching my thirst, and of course, having my photo ops. Fast climbers, however, did theirs between 15 to 20 minutes. Geez, my lungs could have burst had I followed their lead!

On our way to the top, Boy told me that the peak was discovered by no less than President Sergio Osmeña, Sr., the country's third president. Osmeña, a native of Cebu, often had his plane landed there. Boy also mentioned that the boulder where I posed for some pictures used to be a cornerstone bearing an inscription about the late president’s discovery of the peak. I'm not sure though how accurate his account was. Nonetheless, I enjoyed to the hilt that quick escape to one of Cebu's highest points.

If there’s one important thing I gained from my trek to Osmeña Peak, it is this: That somewhere between my soul and that highland hideaway, after all the starts and stops, the doubts and the drifts, the sunburn, the sweat and thirst, swollen feet, sore muscles and all, I’ve proven to myself that I still got what it takes to scale new heights (although not as high as the other ones I’ve trekked before) and stumbled upon a little bit of bliss up there where the sun kisses the jagged hills. John Muir was right. We all need some “washing of the spirit” if only to become bigger, better and bolder versions of our old selves. 🤣🤣🤣

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Vibrant in Vigan City

Culture, creed and cuisine—these are just three of the many reasons why Vigan is part of my list of must-see old cities in the country. Long before it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, stepping into the historic city was in the back of my mind mainly because of the things I've read about it—the significance of its history and culture, the strength of its spirituality and the sumptuousness of its culinary delights.

Vigan’s old-world charm and historical contributions have fueled my interest in the heritage city. Nearly five centuries old, the city is one of the few Hispanic towns left in the country whose structures have remained intact for hundreds of years. Ilocos Sur’s capital is well-known for its cobblestone streets and a unique architecture that’s a fusion of three architectural designs—Filipino, Oriental and European.

Plaza Salcedo's lagoon, obelisk and fountain

Calle Crisologo

Once called Bigan, the heritage city is believed to have been named after a lush green plant that belonged to the taro (or gabi) family known among Ilocanos as bigaa, which grew abundantly near the banks of Mestizo River. Said to have been founded by settlers coming from Fujian, a province in China, the flourishing trading post’s name meant “beautiful shore” in Chinese.

Before the Spanish conquerors came to town, Bigan was considered a vital trading hub where Chinese and other Asian traders bartered their ceramics, silk, and other goods with gold, animal skins, and beeswax brought by the Igorots and other indigenous tribes of the Cordillera. In time, some of these foreign traders settled in Bigan, intermarried with the locals and established enclaves that came to be known as pariancillo.

During his exploration of the northernmost part of Luzon, conquistador Don Juan de Salcedo came to Bigan in 1572, renaming the old settlement into Villa Fernandina de Bigan, in honor of King Philip II’s son, Prince Ferdinand, who died at the tender age of four. The settlement became Ciudad Fernandina and later on, Vigan, the third city founded by Spain after Manila and Cebu. Through the years, it went on to play an important role in the making of Ilocos Sur’s history.

In 2000, Republic Act 8988 became a law, paving the way for Vigan’s cityhood after its overwhelming ratification by the people the following year. The said law validated and recognized the creation of Vigan as a city (Ciudad Fernandina) by virtue of the issuance of a royal decree in 1757 by King Ferdinand VI of Spain.

Vigan, with its colorful past, achieved another recognition last May 2015 when it was officially recognized as one of the New Seven Wonder Cities of the modern world, together with Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), Durban (South Africa), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and La Paz (Bolivia). News about this accomplishment only whipped up my desire to see the place.
It wasn’t after three years though that the chance to step into Vigan finally came my way during a weekend wandering with friends in some of the tourist attractions found in the two Ilocos provinces. It was what I consider the crowning glory of my first-ever sojourn to the Ilocos Region. So, here are some of the interesting landmarks that I bet will make you love the city and feel vibrant when you’re in town:  

Calesas for hire near Plaza Burgos

Plaza Burgos. A must-see when you make it to Vigan, this plaza is the smaller of the two public squares in the city. While Plaza Salcedo (the larger one) was built to pay homage to Vigan’s founder, conquistador Juan de Salcedo, Plaza Burgos was constructed to commemorate the martyrdom of Father Dr. Jose P. Burgos, one of Vigan’s revered sons.

Plaza Burgos is the smaller of the two plazas in Vigan

When the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 broke out, Burgos, along with Father Mariano Gomez and Father Jacinto Zamora, were implicated and subsequently put to death by garrote on that same year in Bagumbayan (present-day Rizal Park) by Spanish colonial authorities on trumped up charges of subversion. The three martyrs went on to become Philippine history’s famous triumvirate of heroes, Gomburza, a portmanteau of their surnames.

In memory of one of its famous sons, Vigan has named this town square in honor of the martyred priest. Anyone who wants to know some more about Burgos should visit the plaza which has some information about the life of this hero, including a statue that bears a striking resemblance to him.

These days, Plaza Burgos is fast becoming identified with the empanadahan (the eatery where you can savor one of the Ilocanos’ mouth-watering delicacies popularly known as empanada, a Spanish stuffed pastry filled with chopped or ground meat, vegetables, spices, etc., that is either baked or fried. The row of empanadahan is situated on the eastern edge of the plaza.

Plaza Salcedo. The sprawling central park square, which is the larger of two plazas found in the city, showcases the typical Spanish urban design wherein the public square is in the middle of all the town’s important edifices. Surrounding the park are St. Paul Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, City Hall and the Provincial Capitol Building. 

Plaza Salcedo obelisk and lagoon

Plaza Salcedo was named in honor of the city’s founder, Don Juan de Salcedo, who subdued the natives, thus, paving the way for the creation of a Spanish enclave in Ilocos. At the center of the plaza stands an obelisk also named after him. A lagoon with a  fountain was later added in the 1970s. 

One of the main attractions of the park is the fountain at the back of Rizal’s monument. By day, it’s an engaging watering hole where people meet up, make small talk, play around, take selfies and groupfies and what have you. At night, it turns into an exciting carnival that attracts hundreds of people, locals and tourists alike, who come to witness the spectacle of its dancing fountain.

Lasting for 30 minutes, the fountain show starts at around 7 o’ clock every night, with a repeat performance an hour later. Too bad, we failed to witness the performance as we were having our dinner that night at Calle Crisologo. To my delight, I caught a glimpse of the extravaganza as our bus en route to Manila passed by the plaza.

Monument in honor of President Elpidio Quirino, one of Vigan's revered sons

What’s the historical significance of this plaza to Filipinos? Well, it was there where one of the greatest heroines in Philippine history met her untimely death. Gabriela Silang, the first Filipina to lead a revolutionary movement against Spain, was publicly hanged there on September 20, 1763. 

Another important landmark in the plaza is the life-size statue of the late President Elpidio Quirino, one of Vigan's revered sons, who served as the sixth president of the republic (1948-1953). The Quirino years are remembered by historians as the time when "notable postwar reconstruction, general economic gains, and increased economic aid from the United States” came about.  

Vigan Cathedral

St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site declaration for the historic town, St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral stands as Vigan’s most prominent religious landmark. Looking resplendent in off-white, the huge structure faces Plaza Salcedo where the dancing fountain is located. To its right stands the Archbishop's Palace while to its left lies Plaza Burgos

I've long been wanting to capture Vigan’s most photographed edifice on camera. So, when that chance finally came my way, I ignored all sorts of distractions, even the persistent growls of my hungry tummy and the peevish calls of my feet for a much-needed rest, as I took as many shots as I could of the awe-inspiring church.

Officially known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, the first structure of the present-day “neo-Gothic, pseudo-Romanesque and earthquake Baroque-styled” church was built in 1574. Made of wood and thatch, it was replaced by a stone church in 1641 that after it was destroyed by earthquakes in 1619 and 1627. The restored structure was also gutted by fire in 1739. The cathedral’s final form began to take shape in 1790 and saw completion ten years later. 

Its off-white façade may not be as impressive as that of the other old churches I’ve seen in other parts of the country but its simplicity is rather remarkable. Facing the cathedral, visitors are greeted by the statue of St. Paul sitting on top of a jumping horse at the center niche of the façade—a sculptural depiction of his conversion to Christianity.

Like many churches in the Ilocos Region, the belfry stands apart from the main body of the church. A large bronze weather vane featuring a white rooster (said to represent St. Peter) tops the three-storey bell tower.

Belfry of St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral

The cathedral's main altarpiece

Meanwhile, the cathedral’s grandiose interior is a stark contrast of its modest exterior. The ribbed ceiling, two huge pulpits, tiled flooring, three naves, twelve minor altars, brass communion handrails, choir loft, and a silver-paneled retablo mayor (main altarpiece) are among the outstanding elements that will readily catch the visitor’s attention. Ah, what a vision!

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Grandiose interior of the Vigan Cathedral 

Calle Crisologo. Probably the most popular thoroughfare in the city, Calle Crisologo, I believe, has helped Vigan become one of the country’s Museum Cities and UNESCO Heritage City. Everyone who’s been there would probably agree with me that it was this street that makes the heritage city such a standout among other Hispanic towns in the country.

It wasn't until our last night in the province that my friends and I dropped by Calle Crisologo. Many of us couldn’t help but stand in awe at the wonderful sight around us. It felt surreal being there that night and staring at all the structures that have stood the test of time—two-storey ancestral houses that used to be the homes of the rich and powerful.

Most of them share common features—steeply pitched tiled roofs, sliding capiz shell windows, huge wooden doors and massive walls. Many of the existing structures there are said to have been constructed during the mid-18th to late 19th centuries. Today, a number of these have been renovated and restored through adaptive re-use. 

Calle Crisologo at night

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To my chagrin, I forgot to bring my smartphone when we left our resort! Good thing, I managed to tuck in my old digital camera that still worked magic. It churned out several nice shots during my photowalk from one end to the other of Vigan’s popular street. The following day, we went back and had lunch there. As I already got my phone, more photowalks afterwards, of course.

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With its cobblestone streets, ancestral houses, horse-drawn carriages (calesas), native shops selling authentic Ilocano stuff like claypots (burnay), loom-woven blankets (abel) and other wares that give you a vicarious feeling of being transported back in the glory days of old Vigan, Calle Crisologo is one place you shouldn’t miss when you’re in town!

Casa Leona. For foodies like me, the Ilocano cuisine is definitely one big reason to feel vibrant when you’re in Vigan! And Casa Leona is one of the nicest places to savor the best local dishes. Located along Calle Crisologo, this resto has wide array of sumptuous treats to choose from—bagnet, pinakbet, dinengdeng, embutido, longganisa, morcon, and whole lot more! The price? Somewhat pricey but the food is awesome!

Pinakbet pizza

Diners can choose to eat either inside or outside the resto. There are a limited number of tables inside though. Good thing, the owners placed some tables and chairs right on the street for an exciting al fresco dining experience at night! I guess dinner is the best time to be there—right along the cobblestone street, with the dimly-lit old houses at the backdrop.

When our group got there, the place was packed with diners. We had to standby for several minutes to be seated inside. It was well worth the wait! The ambiance was light and easy, vicariously transporting people during the heydays of Ciudad Fernandina. As expected, the food was superb, especially the bagnet and longganisa.

Heard about pinakbet pizza? It’s definitely a must-try at Casa Leona! It feels strange hearing it at first but wait till you get to taste the dish yourself.  Here’s an authentic Ilocano fare that when used as a topping for a freshly-baked pie and spiced up with parmesan cheese and pepper could turn into one gastronomic delight that would delight your palate and dilate your pupils with glee!

The Cordillera Inn. Built in 1885, this hotel along Calle Crisologo lets its present-day guests connect with the past. Cordillera combines its original old-world charm and character with modern-day amenities, luxury and technology. If you want to be where the past meets the present, then this is the place for you.

Lobby of the Cordillera

Striking a balance between the old and the new, each of the 24 elegantly designed rooms and suites of the Cordillera feature comfortable single and double beds, customized Ilocano furniture, mattresses as well as amenities like flat screen TV, aircon, mini-ref, wi-fi connection, among others. Room rates are as follows: Php2,500 (standard); Php3,000 (superior); Php3,500 (de luxe);  Php4,500 (junior suite); Php5,000 (suite); Php4,500 (superior family); and Php5,000 (de luxe family). These could vary from time to time so better check with the hotel first before making any booking.

A wide array of authentic Ilocano dishes await diners who drop by the hotel’s resto located at the ground floor, next to the lobby. That's exactly what we did on our last day in Vigan—indulge ourselves to a casual yet exquisite lunch at the Cordillera after a tiring day of exploring the city's tourist come-ons.

Open to stay-in as well as walk-in guests, the resto makes diners feel they've been transported into a bygone era the moment they enter the dining area with its colonial architecture and charming ambiance. While waiting for our meals to be served, we spent idle time at the hotel lobby, reading newspapers, tinkering with our gadgets and taking occasional snaps here and there. I find that part of the Cordillera classic, cool and chic. Although it's small, the lobby’s  cleanliness, simplicity and old-world atmosphere are admirable. 

When food was ready, we headed back to the resto for our super late lunch. If there's one thing about the Cordillera that I really appreciated, that would be service. From the moment we entered the dining place until the time we left, the accommodating staff was almost always at our beck and call. Of course, the mouthwatering fare that we had for lunch topped it all—bagnet, warek-warek, poqui-poqui, dinengdeng and longganisa! Obviously, they’re made from the freshest and quality ingredients as evidenced by their delightful taste.


Undoubtedly, the city's vibrant atmosphere is so exhilarating. I can still feel the energetic vibes of Ilocos Sur's capital even up to now. It really seemed like my friends and I traveled back in time. Although weeks had passed since we went there, I still find myself so in love with Vigan, amazed by the warmth of its people, attracted by the peculiarity of its historical neighborhoods, and, of course, aroused by the taste of its homegrown delicacies.

So there you have it. I’ve fallen in love with another city at first sight. I thought I only had eyes for the old cities of Cebu, Bacolod, Silay and Iloilo but then again, Vigan is something else. And as I complete this post about the heritage city, I'm already looking forward to seeing it again! After all, I've only seen a part of what Vigan has to offer to weekend warriors so believe me when I say, I'm coming back—hopefully sooner rather than later.