Legazpi City: On Another Level

With the whale sharks now visiting its nearby waters, Legazpi City has begun seeing a rise in tourist arrivals—a new opportunity it plans to meet with vigorous yet conscientious development.

I couldn’t see anything in the murk. I couldn’t even see my hand right in front of me, much less a gigantic fish swimming towards me. I knew that there were two of them just roaming around not far from where I was, but I was completely blind in the water. Only when my head broke the surface did I see a huge gaping mouth coming straight towards my face. I made a quick move and managed to dodge my assailant, only to get whacked broadly by its massive tail as it nonchalantly passed me by. For around half an hour, I was busy trying to get up close and personal with a pair of docile giants.

During the van ride from the airport to the downtown port area of Legazpi City, the capital of Albay province, our driver told us that whale shark sightings along the city’s coastal waters had increased during the past several weeks. It has been a rather surprising tourism phenomenon for this queen city of the Bicol region, as the seaside Legazpi Boulevard at Puro District has seen a surge of people coming down to get glimpses of the elusive marine animals foraging for plankton just several hundred meters away from the shoreline.

Jessica Wong, manager of Donsol Eco-Tours and one of my city hosts, explained to me how whale sharks, locally referred to as butanding, have recently been turning up more in Legazpi City rather than in Donsol, a distant town in the neighboring province of Sorsogon which, for quite some time, has been a far more popular whale shark watching destination. Jessica posited that the butandings, just like any foraging animal, would naturally go to where food sources are more plentiful.

Bicol’s shining gateway

With its inland littered with mountains, volcanoes, and natural parks; its seaboards lined with brilliant beaches, enthralling coves, spectacular dive sites, and thrilling surf spots; and its cuisine spiced with as much chili as it is with flavor and variety, the Philippines’ Bicol region holds much promise for adventure seekers. Jessica enthused over the various tours and activities that visitors can avail during their stay in Legazpi, and I thus saw a reason why the city, being the administrative capital of the region, touts itself as the country’s “City of Fun and Adventure.” So far, my stay hasn’t been disappointing to make me think otherwise.

From Legazpi Boulevard, I proceeded to nearby Embarcadero de Legazpi, a waterfront complex of shopping arcades, restaurants, entertainment centers, recreational amenities, business offices, a convention plaza, and a hotel. An urban mall meant to be Bicol’s premier lifestyle and commercial hub, it stands as Legazpi’s bold bid to gain recognition as one of the Philippines’ first-rate cities. There I met up with Joan Encinares-Jamisal, the jovial officer at the city’s tourism office, who, over a hearty repast of grilled pork and fresh seafood served at Gilian’s diner, further gave me a backgrounder of Legazpi. Our discussion drifted around the city’s tourism draws and initiatives: the annual Ibalong Festival and the spirit behind it, traditional Bicolano cuisine and the promotion of its evolution through innovative interpretations, the scenic beauty of iconic Mayon Volcano, and its value as a backdrop for the emergence of Legazpi as a burgeoning tourism capital. Our conversation easily impressed upon me the image of a development-confident city that was soulfully in touch with its tradition, conscientious of its natural resources, and steely in its focus towards sustainable progress.

Checking out the local thrills

After lunch, Joan left us in the care of Antonio Reyes (or Jun as he is more familiarly called), a fellow tourism officer, who took us by van to the usual attractions in and around Legazpi. We went to the neighboring municipality of Daraga, where our first and foremost stop was the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Franciscan church which now serves in many postcard images as a staple foreground to the Mayon Volcano panorama. It was in 1814 that the most devastating recorded eruption of Mayon occurred, and during then, some 1,200 people who sought refuge and sanctuary in the church ironically all perished when the lava and pyroclastic material spewed from the volcano engulfed the church, leaving only the unburied belfry as a stolid epitaph and mute reminder of how, despite her beauty and splendor, Mayon is still a threatening force of nature. The ruins are currently protected in a park overseen by the Daraga municipal government and by the National Museum of the Philippines.

Throughout the park grounds, tourists loitered and took stock of the landscape, rummaging through t-shirts, trinkets and quick snacks peddled in various food and souvenir stalls. Nearby, a small museum narrated the story of Mayon and Cagasawa through its displays of old photos, paintings and relics.

We drove henceforth just a few kilometers away to a discreet hill, on top of which was the centuries-old Church of Nuestra Señora de la Porteria (“Our Lady of the Gate”), a delicate piece of indigenous baroque architecture crafted mostly from volcanic stones. Its elevated location has seen the church safely through Mayon’s wrath, yet this religious centerpiece of Daraga is not exonerated from the ravages of time as the rich and intricate architectural details strewn all over the church façade have already been made worn and faded by the past two centuries. Declared as a Natural Cultural Treasure by the National Museum, the Daraga church has only in recent years undergone restoration.

Back in Legazpi, we stopped over at 1st Colonial Grill, which I reckon to be a must-go-to gastronomic institution and where I had my first encounter with chili ice cream. I must say that the concept struck me as rather bizarre, and the prospect of eating hot chili churned into a frozen dessert was a bit hard to swallow. But it wasn’t that bad. The sweet treat didn’t burn a hole through my tongue as I had thought it would, but only left a mint-like sensation streaming down my throat. Jun mentioned to me how, in Bicol, they classify the spiciness of their cuisine according to five levels, and that the provincial governor of Albay is giving incentive to any visiting tourist who can endure and finish a Level 5 dish. Curious as I was about the mentioned incentive, I was however disinclined at that time to take on the dare. Aside from chili, Jun also made us try tinutong-flavored ice cream (made with burnt rice and having a rather coffee-like taste), which I liked better than the chili one, and pili bread (made with pili nuts).

I was supposed to try out the ATV (all terrain vehicle) tour going up the foot slopes of Mayon Volcano, but Jun determined it would be better for me to go early the next morning since we were already quite late into the afternoon. We thus continued instead to Ligñon Hill, a nature park from which, at the top, one can appreciate a 360-degree view of the entire Legazpi City. Once used as an arms cache by the Japanese forces during World War II, and eventually as an observation station by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to monitor the activities of nearby Mayon, Ligñon Hill has now been developed into a leisure ground equipped with ziplines, adventure trails, food stalls, and an activity center which hosts art exhibits and performances.

The next morning, I was up early to go to Camalig, another neighboring municipality just less than an hour drive from Legazpi, where I was to start my ATV tour. My guide for the day readied the vehicles and orientated me to its basic operation. The tour took me from the town church, through forested settlements and farm lots, and into open grass fields leading to the base of Mayon Volcano.

The ATV was loud and clunky and bucked like a skittish bronco over the really rough patches of trail. After nearly an hour ride, we parked our vehicles at some clearing and continued for some ten minutes by foot to the lava front, a wall of dark igneous rock demarcating the boundaries that Mayon’s lava flows have reached. Upon clambering up the rock faces, I was met by a more up-close and unimpeded perspective of the volcano.

Local folklore tells the tragedy of Daragang Magayon (literally meaning “beautiful maiden” in the local dialect), whose love for a man outside of her tribe led to her death at the hands of a rival suitor. It was from her grave that the volcano came into being, seemingly reaching up to meet the sky where her lover resides. From where I stood, I was able to more keenly admire the beauty that was Mayon and trace her finery…the clear lines of her ridges, the scoop of her valleys and gullies, the curve and lushness of her slopes. Down below, the vast green plains of the surrounding countryside stretched out immensely.

A bold future

Legazpi City’s mayor, Noel Rosal, was a noteworthy man. Articulate and assertive, yet warm and pleasant, he struck me as a diligent civil servant. We were cordially received in his office amidst a bustle of official duties and paper signing. He opened our conversation by querying how our stay in Legazpi had so far been. Needless to say, I told him that our visit to his hometown had been nothing short of excellent.

I probed for his opinions on how Legazpi City fared as a tourism destination and prodded him for his vision and goals for the city’s growth and development. From what I have gathered during our conversation, Mayor Rosal came across as an involved and hands-on manager who kept a studious watch on the pulse of his city and its goings-on and fostered an earnest and assiduous focus on its progress.

“The iconic Mayon is still our main attraction,” he answered, sharing his outlook on Legazpi’s tourism industry. ”But we were able to discover that we have a lot of things that we can offer – from the products, to the culture, to the tradition, and of course to the new man-made infrastructures.” He added about the construction of a new international airport and of more world class hotels and convention centers to usher in and accommodate more foreign visitors.

“A lot of people are now seeing Legazpi as the next major tourist destination,” he said. “The people are confident that it can be done, as long as we have the proper motivation.”

I asked him how he kept his visions of development in check within the crucial bounds of sustainability, to which he gave mention the local policies that the city employs with regard to land use. “But what you really need to have in terms of checking sustainability,” he averred, ” is that you have to be consistent with the regulations. The leadership has to be just.”

“For me, the best is yet to come for Legazpi. What is important right now is to put up the proper regulations and the proper investments,” Mayor Rosal mentioned in closing. “This is our direction: We want to develop Legazpi as a tourist destination without destroying the environment and by making the people a partner of the government.”

I mused over the insights that I have gleaned from my dialogue with the mayor, as well as from my other experiences during my brief stay in Legazpi, and I am left with the impression of a well-tempered city that rides the motions and cycles of life with grace, grit and optimism, a city that takes the good times and the bad times in equal stride and measure.

The Bicolano word uragon refers to someone with impressive courage, creativity, or skill, a positive moniker for anyone who is great at what he does and who knows how to take on life by the horns and ride it to his advantage.

Perhaps no other word can better describe Legazpi.