Bicol Express - As much as we could in two days (part 2)

Our second day in Bicol dawned bright and early. Despite and action-packed first day, or perhaps because of it, we were raring to go. On the agenda was exploring Albay, another of the six provinces in the Bicol region.

We started off with a couple of “official” visits to the governor of Albay and the mayor of Legaspi City (the capital of Albay). I will not go into political discussion here as this blog is essentially where I relax. I will say though that these two fellows where brimming with plans, especially when it came to tourism and environment. They were more than accommodating and we even got some homemade pili treats from the mayor (a funny and laidback guy that one).

Driving away from the mayor’s house, we got a good view of the black sand beaches. The sand is made from the erosion of volcanic rock and is said to have healing qualities. True or not, I thought it was definitely a dramatic sight, although I know most of my peeps, being spoiled for choice with our gorgeous white sand beaches, would turn up their noses at black sand. Guys, don’t panic…it’s volcanic (not dirty)!

Next stop was Misibis, a new development on Cagraray Island just off the coast of Albay. Although it was an overcast day, we still enjoyed the windswept beaches and fantastic views of the Albay Gulf.

We headed back to Legaspi for lunch at the endearingly named Smalltalk Cafe. We installed ourselves in the cozy interior, ready to be fortified with a good meal…and more Bicol Express! Like the laing pizza at CWC, they also had their own contribution to fusion-y Bicolano dishes...laing pasta! I know, I know, but it was good! The laing was toned down a little so what you end up with is a lot creamier. The Bicol Express though was not as good as the one at Pepperland – but we still ate most of it, not wanting to let a Bicol Express moment pass us by.

After lunch we headed towards the Cagsawa Ruins, a famous Albay landmark from where you can get a picture perfect view of the ruined tower with Mayon Volcano in the background. We were unsure if we could make it because a super typhoon last December had devastated this area, dragging down volcanic rock and ashfall from the slopes of Mayon that pretty much buried and bulldozed everything in its path. A makeshift bridge has been set up over the rogue tributaries caused by the flood and landslides, but because it was raining when we went, we didn’t know if it would be passable. The destruction was heart-wrenching. But I couldn’t help but feel a poignant pride in my heart at the resiliency of the people as I saw, amid the black volcanic mess, a little girl renting out brightly colored umbrellas to tourists going to see the ruins. The stark contrast between the dark volcanic landscape and her cheery pink and blue umbrellas seemed a metaphor for so many things (both good and bad) in my country. Even as I type this I find myself a little bit weepy.

In any case, we were able to pass, and armed with that sweet little girl’s umbrellas we made our way across the bridge to Cagsawa Ruins. It’s always such a jolt when you see something for the first time before which you had only seen in pictures. And that’s how it was for me at Cagsawa. The familiar tower seemed to have been already recorded in my mind that upon seeing it I had the feeling of visiting and old friend. But wait, something was different. I squinted my eyes at the vista and finally realized what it was. Mayon Volcano wasn’t in the background.

Albay is home to many interesting sights, the pinnacle of which (no pun intended) is Mayon Volcano. An almost perfect cone, it is often (though not officially) referred to as a natural wonder of the world (also one of our most active volcanoes). I’m sure it would have been beyond impressive if only I had seen it! Mayon stayed under cloud cover our whole visit. They say that she never shows herself on your first visit – that was certainly the case for me. The most I got was a glimpse of a sliver of her perfect slope…sigh.

From Cagsawa Ruins we headed to Daraga, another municipality of Albay, to see Our Lady of the Gate Church with its gothic façade. The church at Daraga is the only one in the province built on a hill. To escape the wraths of the floods? Perhaps. Either way, sitting on a hill in its baroque splendor, it does make a pretty picture.

From here we went up Ligñon Hill where you can get gloriously sweeping views of Legaspi. You can also get a amazing view of Mayon Volcano…that is, if she isn’t shyly hiding behind her veil of clouds.

After this it was off to the market! And you can be sure I had been eagerly waiting for this stop. The Legaspi Satellite Market is chock-full of native finds…from all manners of pili products to fabulous bags that would retail for four times as much in a Manila mall…not to mention what it would go for overseas! We scoured the market and came away with a loads of things…not the least being the 2 kilos of fresh pili nuts (not processed) I have yet to experiment with! For processed pili nut goodies (very typical of the region and a must buy when you’re there) we went to Albay Central Pilinut Candy. We were told that this is where the best quality processed pili products were made. Not only were they delicious, they also offered a wide variety of pili preparations – from the regular caramelized pili, to chocolate covered ones and pili encased in yema and all sorts of things that would give any sweet tooth a field day. Plus they have great packaging (perfect for gifts)!

Loaded with all our purchases, legs aching (but a good kind of ache) from the walking about, we settled in for dinner at Mr. Crab, a relatively new restaurant in Legaspi City owned by the same people who own our hotel. The specialty here is obvious, but despite the huge bowl of delectable sweet chili crabs, we still went for the Bicol Express and laing. Like a worn out recording, we went on and on about our love for Bicol Express and laing, scraping the plate clean and badgering the waiters for extra rice.

With a full stomach we dragged ourselves off to bed to rest up for our early flight back to Manila the next morning. We had been on the go and on our feet for most of the weekend but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. K is the exact sort of person you want to be with on trips like this. Her love for travel and discovery, and willingness to go through discomfort for the sake of new experiences, plus her quick laugh and good humor, are everything you could want in a travel partner.

It may seem like we did a lot in Bicol but in truth this is the tip of the iceberg. There is still much in the region that we didn’t see – the beautiful beach at Caramoan, the beaches of Camarines Norte, the whale sharks in Donsol, the Masbate rodeos, surfing in Catanduanes and Daet, plus all the islands in between. AND, let’s not forget that we didn’t actually see Mayon Volcano in its entirety. Oh well, more reason to return :)