Legazpi, Albay: Legazpi, and loving it!

Writers always look for that “aaah” moment. That one, magical, unforgettable moment you will forever associate with a particular event or place. On my trip to Legazpi City (the capital of Albay province in the Bicol Region, the southeastern peninsula of Luzon, Philippines), I had far more than that. I had an “AAAAAAAAAAH!” moment. As I sped across a 375-meter zipline, 160 meters in the air, between the Ligñon Hills and overlooking the majestic Mt. Mayon Volcano, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I knew that this would be one trip I would not soon forget.

Leisurely, Lovely, Lively Legazpi

Founded by Spaniard Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565, what once was a small settlement of fishermen and farmers, dwelling primarily in huts made of nipa and rattan, has evolved into a bustling, cosmopolitan city center. Buildings, hotels, malls, and business establishments have sprouted over the years, transforming the cityscape into a hub of lively activity. Yet much remains unchanged. The city-weary traveler can still call Legazpi a retreat from the rat race, and enjoy the lovely scenery, and leisurely, laid-back pace of daily life.

Majestic, Mysterious Mt. Mayon

Undoubtedly, Albay’s biggest claim to fame is the Mayon Volcano. Towering majestically over the city of Legazpi, this “Beautiful Lady” (as her name translates in Tagalog), is the focal point of the town and its people. And I do mean that figuratively and literally. It seems that everywhere you go within Legazpi, you have Mayon in the vista. Much like a painting whose eyes “follow” you, Mayon stands watch over her citizens, her beauty and power shrouded in mystery. Mt. Mayon is often veiled in clouds and mist, and we mortals must be both persistent and patient to gaze upon the full perfection of this volcanic goddess. Local legend has it that this pristine creature only shows herself to the “pure of heart.” Our first few encounters with her proved to be rather frustrating, but we were determined to be deemed worthy of her beauty. Two days after we arrived, a 5 a.m. wake up-call and a bit of a drive later, it fi nally happened. At the undeveloped Legazpi Imperial Golf Course, a little past the 15th hole, we beheld her in full majesty. And it was well worth the wait. Mt. Mayon is splendid, her perfect cone rising into the air with smoke gently billowing from her crater. Deep trails, eked out and blackened by lava, stand in contrast to her symmetrical, verdant slopes. On clear nights, you can see the red glow of her lava-rimmed crater. As I stood there, transfixed, I wondered what it might be like to wake up to this view everyday, as do the townsfolk. I wondered how this beautiful, powerful woman affected their collective psyche. It is diffi cult to experience her and remain unaffected.

Thrills of the Hill

The Ligñon Hill Nature Park, which boasts a 360-degree view of the Albay province, is definitely a must-visit place for the best view of Mt. Mayon and the city. It is also an adventurer’s haven, and the thrill-seeking traveler will not leave disappointed. I can still feel the adrenaline rush, as I zipped down the line, and I look forward to being able to do it again someday. Although the entire experience took only two minutes, those proved to be among the most exciting minutes of my life. For those with a bit of time to spare, there is the 1 hour and 30 minute trek via all-terrain vehicles (ATV’s) up the lava trails of Mt. Mayon. This trek provides a closer view of the volcano, its lava trails, and giant lava rocks. Many adventure and sports shows have featured the thrills of Ligñon Hill, although nothing beats feeling the rush for yourself. Aside from the view deck, the zip line, and the ATV trek, Ligñon Hill is also home to a series of underground tunnels used by the Japanese soldiers in World War II. Although quite spacious, the tunnels are dark and damp, and may not be the best idea for the claustrophobic. Barring this, however, a trip into the tunnels is an exciting experience. Almost like going down a time wormhole into the war-torn past.

Curiouser and Curiouser at Cagsawa Ruins

A central part of the whole Legazpi experience is a trip to the ruins of the Cagsawa Church. Located at the foot of Mt. Mayon, the church (built from stone, sand and egg whites) and its surrounding town were destroyed in Mayon’s most violent eruption in 1814. Only the church tower, and the foundations of the convent remain to this day. The Cagsawa ruins, set amidst rolling terrain, with Mt. Mayon in the background, is certainly one of the city’s most popular photo spots, and definitely says “I’ve been to Legazpi City” more than any souvenir shirt. There are, however, photos of a more curious nature which are a must to take as well. Cagsawa has become the spot for wacky “trick” shots, employing the ruins, stones, perspective and a bit of acting. There are several eager young guides on hand who can show you exactly where to stand, how to pose, and what to do so you look like you’re “leaning” on the church tower, lighting a cigarette from Mayon’s crater, struggling to carry a “huge” lava rock, pretending to be a marauding “giant” or a hapless “dwarf,” the list is as endless as the humor is catching. Never mind that you feel and look silly while acting these poses out. You’re guaranteed funny, zany, memorable photos worthy of becoming your next Facebook profile picture. Our guide was Joshua, a courteous and friendly 18-year old. He not only directed and took the shots for us, he also regaled us with stories of the ruins, proving steeped in the history of the place. Having been a guide since 8 years of age, he took us around the area, narrating interesting facts along the way. From him, we heard of “Enteng Bato,” a local artist who turns lava rocks into all sorts of sculptures, chiseling away at his raw material with nothing but a large nail. Joshua took us to see some of his works of art and to hopefully meet the man, who at the time of our visit, was out gathering more rocks at the foot of the volcano. Maybe next time we’ll be lucky.

Churches, Black Beaches, and Chili Ice Cream

What do churches, black beaches, and chili ice cream have in common? I’m not quite sure, apart from the fact that they should be on your “things to do in Legazpi” list. The province of Albay, like many other historical places around the Philippines, boasts of several gorgeous old churches. The Daraga Church is definitely worth a visit. Built by the Franciscan priests in 1773, parishioners flocked here after Cagsawa was ruined in 1814. This Baroquestyle stone church was also used as a shelter during the war. Daraga Church also provides a good view of the city, and, you guessed it, of Mt. Mayon.

A short drive away is the resort town of Sto. Domingo, home to the picturesque Sto. Domingo church (which yet again has Mt. Mayon in the background), and the black sand beaches of Calayucay. Several resorts have sprouted around these beaches, whose volcanic sulfur-rich black sand is fast gaining popularity for its therapeutic and medicinal properties. Travelers come from far and wide to enjoy spa-like treatment with black sand.

After a day on the road, a stop to the Colonial Grill in Daraga was a welcome treat. The Grill is known for an ice cream so unique, we just had to try it. Indeed, their Sili ice cream is delicious and refreshing, and most certainly as boggling to the mind as it is to the mouth. At first bite, this creamy dessert, made with the juices squeezed from fresh red hot labuyo sili (local chili peppers which are a trademark of Bicol cuisine), is at once cold and very spicy. Beware the faint-hearted, for this innocent-looking scoop of baby pink colored goodness packs a punch! A very hot punch. Luckily for me, I love hot and spicy foods and desserts, so I relished every spoonful. While at the Grill, put your diets on hold and indulge in the heavenly Pili Nut (another specialty of the region) ice cream, and the Tinutong (burnt rice with a distinct smoky fl avor) ice cream as well.

Exciting Embarcadero

When in Legazpi City, make sure to include a trip to the Embarcadero de Legazpi. This new mall serves not only as the city’s entertainment hub, it stands out as an example of the region’s growing adventure / eco-tourism. Retail shops with prestigious names offer world-class shopping. There are restaurants aplenty which serve delicious Bicolano dishes. Coffee shops, diners, and bars are there for your pleasure and enjoyment from the breakfast hours all the way to the wee hours of the morning. What sets this mall apart, however, is all the adventure that is to be had. The Embarcadero is the only waterfront mall in Bicol, and the Sunwest Group of Companies has done an excellent job developing the area. A 350 meter zipline above the water provides you a clear view of the Sleeping Lion Hill, and the picturesque port surroundings. Not to mention, the incredible feeling of zipping across the Albay Gulf, while suspended a couple of hundred meters in the air. Outdoor go-carting by the port dock is a fun way to spend the afternoon with friends and family. For the young and the young at heart, Embarcadero offers the largest play area in the region; Play Land is filled with arcade and video games, as well as a spacious rumpus area. At the center of the mall, there is a large venue for concerts, fashion shows, retail bazaars, and the like. We were just in time for Embarcadero’s very own Fashion Week, which culminated in a fashion show featuring Legazpi’s best models and designers. An activity I particularly enjoyed was my short stint on the Segway, a two-wheeled scooter type machine, which runs on electricity and moves with your body. After finding my center of balance, I was happy to go around the mall in motorized fashion. These units are available for rent, and are by far the most fun way to get around the Embarcadero.

We sat down for some delicious Bicol dishes at CISYD, a play on the word seaside. Our gracious hosts for the day were Sunwest executives Ephraim Aguilar, Emmabet Cabria, and Francisco de Guzman, Jr. When we had more than our fill of Laing (a popular Bicolano dish made with taro leaves, simmered in coconut milk and chili peppers – two favorite ingredients in Bicol cuisine – topped with diced pork), Grilled Squid stuffed with Laing, Tinutungan na Manok (chicken in smoked coconut milk), Pork Sinigang (mixed veggies and pork simmered in a tamarind-based soup, made special with shredded coconut meat), it was time to tour the rest of Embarcadero and its surrounding land. The tour was conducted on board one of several “E-Jeeps” which serve as Embarcadero’s free shuttle service to and from the mall. These electronic trams are eco-friendly, in line with the Sunwest Group’s efforts toward ecopreservation. Having seen the lay of the land, we ended our visit with a cup of rich and delicious Pili Nut Cappuccino at La Mia Tazza, Albay’s first local coffee shop.

After a day loaded with activity, we decided to freshen up at the hotel and head back to the Embarcadero for a view of the port’s night lights. A few drinks at the Howling Moon bar, in the middle of open mic karaoke night, proved to be a great way to cap the day off.

From Bicol, With Love

No travel away from home is complete without a trip to a souvenir shop or two. The Albay province is known for its flourishing handicraft industry, with items ranging from bags and accessories made of abaca fiber, to mats made of sea grass, personalized chili pepper trinkets, and small sculptures from lava rocks. Possibly one of the most convenient places to buy a souvenir or two is the Legazpi Grand City Terminal, which has a large range of items for men and women of all ages.

A visit to JM Handicraft in Daraga, on the other hand, provides one with an interesting peek into the local abaca and handicraft industry. Bags, crates, home accents, and the like are made from scratch at the factory, and visitors are afforded a glimpse into the step-by-step process if it all. Bales of raw abaca, sea grass, rattan, and the like are pounded, dried and woven into items of worldclass quality, most of which are for export to Japan.

The sweet-toothed traveler, on the other hand, will be happy to visit the Albay Pili Nut Candy shop. Founded in 1939, this family-owned business has been passed down through the generations by Sr Don Antonio M. Regidor II, a Spaniard who moved to Bicol to pioneer the pili nut industry. There are several delicious variants of pili nut creations to choose from, such as the Pili nut Marzipan, Brittle, Yema, Butternut, Roasted, Sesame, Sugar Free, and Crunch, to name just a few. Free samples are on hand to help you in what could potentially be a very tough but yummy decision to make.

Farewell, For Now

After four days of fun, food, and frolic, balanced with rest and relaxation, it was time to bid Legazpi goodbye. I am certain, though, that one day soon I shall visit again. So perhaps hasta luego, “see you later”, would be more appropriate.