Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What To Do Around Malate

Travelers to the Philippines invariably have to spend a night or two in Manila on their way to and from the outer islands, the tourist destinations and the eco-adventure destinations within the archipelago. Most globe trekkers and lonely planetoids spend this layover time in Malate.

Malate is a bayside district of Manila with a reputation of being a Bohemian enclave. In the 60’s at Los Indios Bravos, a café-cum-art gallery-cum-music venue, poets, painters, film people, musicians, writers and moonlight philosophers would gather regularly. Los Indios, located at the heart of Malate, was where the avant-garde set of Manila would hang out. Nearly half a century later, Malate is still the place where the fringe and artsy milieu like to congregate. One finds budget-friendly hostels and B&B’s in Malate; everything worth seeing or doing here is within walking distance from the accommodations.

The bayside promenade called Baywalk stretches from Rizal Park to the north all the way to the Cultural Center/Folk Arts Complex. This is a great spot to catch the world-famous Manila Bay sunset. Grabbing a bite to eat and/or a cold San Miguel beer is no problem in Malate-cruising along Adriatico, Nakpil, Mabini or Remedios Streets, one finds an array of bars, bistros, clubs, al fresco eateries & rectos. 

In the mood for Korean, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Continental, American, Filipino and, yes, even Cuban fare? You will find it within a 4-square block area within the heart of Malate at the streets mentioned above. Of note, on the corner of Remedios and Adriatico, is Café Havana, a cigar bar bistro with excellent Cuban fusion cuisine and live Latin music – oh, and a cigar bar with, yes, real Cohibas and other fine cigars from Cuba. And they serve the best mojitos in town.

Across the street is Bistro Adriatico, with its elegant 19th-century ambience and its fine Filipino/Spanish/European cuisine, and a creamy, thick old-style hot chocolate to die for. Around the corner on Mabini St., is the Hobbit House – a live music bar that has dwarfs for servers, a rather endearing touch. The Hobbit has live blues, rock or folk music, depending on the day of the week. Beware the karaoke bars and Top 40 clubs that have started to proliferate in Malate, unless of course you’re into that sort of thing.

A Malate institution is the Penguin Café and Gallery. Although it has changed its name a few times over the decades, people will always call it Penguin. On any given night, one may find an eclectic mix of Manila’s artists, intelligentsia, filmmakers, culture vultures, neo-tribal’s and whatnot hanging out and slamming down Penguin’s notorious lambanog(coconut liquor)/Red Horse(strong beer) concoction. There is always live music at least a few nights a week – jazz, world, blues, tribal, fusion etc. – and there are always interesting photographs or works of art on exhibit. While the ultra-cool Malate hangs of the 90’s – Blue Café, Iguana, Caribana, Insomnia et al – are now a fond hazy memory, Penguin continues to survive well into the new millennium against the odds.

It is a Malate tradition (on weekends anyway, but sometimes weekdays too) to party till the sun comes up. One can witness al fresco tables full of raucous revelers at 7 am, all ready for breakfast. And sometimes, some of them head half-a-block towards the sea, right to the 400-year-old church, Our Lady of Remedies, before plunging into bed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Somewhere in Northern Samar

Separated from Luzon Island by the San Bernardino Strait, Samar is way off the beaten path. While Palawan is touted as the ‘last frontier’ in Philippine tourism, Samar, especially Northern Samar, may very well be ‘beyond the last frontier’.

Travelers may fly to Northern Samar’s main town, Catarman, by jet from Manila – the flight takes approximately an hour. An overland trip by bus is possible (and much cheaper); however, the trip takes 12 to 14 hours and the last section is by ferry from the southern tip of Luzon in Bicol to Northern Samar. By whatever means travelers take to get here, they will be amply rewarded by some of the most picturesque and seldom seen places this side of Paradise.

Biri Island is a short boat ride away from Catarman. It is the site of awesome rock formations, huge honey-comb like steps and cavernous natural amphitheaters, arches and caves that have been carved into the rocks by unrelenting winds and pounding surf through the centuries. The Pacific Ocean’s natural tools have created an incredible array of giant sculptures along Biri’s northern shore in a spot called Magasang.

Nearby is Bel-ot, reputedly the best natural saltwater pool in the Philippines. Expectedly, Biri also has great surfing for those adventurous enough – there are no crowds here at all. When we visited, it was so quiet as we were all speaking in hushed voices, dumbstruck by the amazing rock formations. Only the sea birds were heard above the pounding surf.

Northern Samar is composed of small, quiet villages and full of pristine nature. Besides Biri, there are several offshore islands which merit exploration; most are a short banca (outrigger) ride away. One of these is Capul Island, a history-laden place with its own exotic language.

In the days of the Galleon crossings, Samar was the first landfall Spanish ships would encounter after the perilous months-long journey from their port in Acapulco, Mexico en route to Manila. The galleons would dock in Capul’s sheltered shores, bay and coves for repairs and respite from the mighty Pacific and then continue on northward to Manila. The island’s name itself is an abbreviation of ‘Acapulco’, supposedly derived from the natives’ inability to pronounce the full name of the Mexican port.

From the municipality of Las Navas, travelers can go upriver on the Catubig River and meander several kilometers along incredible tropical scenery, ending up at the gorgeous multi-layered cascades of Pinipisakan Falls. There is also a subterranean natural pool in the area along with the Ginagatusan Caves, definitely worth a look.

Another offshore island near Catarman is Dalupiri (sometimes called San Antonio) Island. There’s not much to do here except swim and snorkel in pristine waters off the nearly white-sand beaches and laze around underneath the coconut trees. One may also trek along the coastal trail for several kilometers along the shore of this very peaceful island.

The Haven of Fun Beach resort has beach cottages for around $10 a night or $20 with air-conditioning, but who wants noisy cold air when you’re on a beach with tropical breezes and lapping waves? At night, over bottles of San Miguel beer, we were regaled with wide-eyed stories of “kabogs” or flying foxes (fruit bats) and “sea monsters” (presumably whales).

Speaking of mysterious creatures, the locals of Northern Samar enchanted us with tale after tale of forest ‘entities’ who would spirit away children and deposit them back after a few hours or days dazed and confused, of a good-sized meteor that once fell into the earth behind the town of Victoria affecting the soil so that decomposition of matter (including buried corpses) was measurably delayed, of mysterious lights up in the hills that would disappear and re-appear even in the daytime, and so forth and so on.

But what really enchanted us, everywhere we visited in Northern Samar, was the rugged and savage beauty of this untrammeled corner of the archipelago.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Palawan, My Beautiful Palawan

The Last Frontier 

Within the Philippine archipelago is a group of islands collectively known as Palawan. This mini-archipelago is alternatively called the “Last Frontier” or the “Wild Country”. Northern Palawan’s main island is Busuanga where the intrepid traveler will find enough adventures in remote and wild locales.

Like white-laced emeralds shimmering in the deep blue sea, Busuanga’s offshore islands dot the horizon as far as the eye can see. One of these is the island of Calauit, where an exotic mélange of African and endemic animals in the wild can be found. Over thirty years ago, a wildlife sanctuary was created in Calauit that would be home to hundreds of imported African animals and rare, endangered Philippine species.

From the savannah grasslands to the gently rolling hills, from the mangrove swamps to the inland lagoons, the panorama is best viewed from Balatbat Hill, rising some 200 meters above sea level. From here, the neighboring Turtle Island also comes into view - a migratory breeding ground for endangered marine turtles.

Visitors can observe the very timid mouse deer, an endangered species. These frisky rodent-like animals eat the fruit of the ‘tibig’ or fig trees. The local porcupines here are even shyer than the mouse deer. Cute and cuddly, the Palawan bearcat is arguably the friendliest creature on the island. There are giraffes too, descendants of the originals from Kenya.

The graceful long-necked mammals have adapted well to their Calauit habitat. While the average lifespan of giraffes is 25 years, they have reached up to 29 years old on the island, which may say something about the lack of stress or poachers here. Also descended from the originals are dozens of zebras scampering about the island Spiral-horned eland can be seen bounding over the savannah, sometimes leaping over 10 feet in the air!

Calauit is also home to migratory bird species that lay their eggs here and then fly back to Indonesia. The indigenous Calamian deer are also faring quite well here, expanding their numbers from 30 to a thousand thereby taking them off the endangered species list. Impala, wild jungle fowl, monitor lizards and even squirrels, all are at home in Calauit, a little piece of Africa in the remote wilds of Northern Palawan.

Calauit is accessible by outrigger boat from Dimakya Island, home to the aptly named Club Paradise Resort. Picture a nearly kilometer-long white beach with soft powdery sand, turquoise waters with picnic-ready sandbars, an array of unique flora and fauna – in other words, tropical bliss ala Robinson Crusoe with creature comforts. Club Paradise is one of our favorites, a perfect hideaway for those weary city-bound souls.