The longest Christmas

Christmas Light & Sound show at Ayala Gardens, Makati

 

“Where would you find the most Christmas spirit in the world? It’s hard to say for certain, but if a global competition were to be held, the Philippines would have an excellent shot at winning.

“The southeast Asian island nation has the world’s longest festive season — and pulls no punches in its celebratory zeal for the period, with lavish light displays, masses, and festivals held throughout the country from September until January.

“One of the most populous nations in Asia, the Philippines is an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Approximately 90% of Filipinos are Christian and 80% of those are Catholic, an influence gleaned from the country’s period as a Spanish colony from the sixteenth century until the end of the nineteenth.”

On CNN: The Philippines shows the world how to celebrate Christmas

Baguio, Revisited

It had been over a decade since my last trip to Baguio, so I thought a bit of catching up with the city of pines would be a good idea to spend a long weekend.

Getting there

Eight days prior to taking the trip, I booked a ticket for one of Victory Liner’s deluxe buses. A seat costs P715 plus P100 service and delivery charges; I received the tickets just two days after my confirmed booking.

The bus left the Pasay at exactly 1:15 AM and reached the Baguio terminal 10 minutes before 6:00. Paying twice as much as I would have if I had taken the usual aircon buses was well worth it for the speed and convenience of getting there.

Accommodations

After spending hours on Agoda and reading a number of reviews and blogs on the best places to stay in the city, I was left with two options: Casa Vallejo and new-ish The Chalet. For its old-world charms and proximity to the city center  I decided on booking a room at Casa Vallejo.

Located on Upper Session Road, the hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating back to 1925, and has survived even the Japanese onslaught during WWII.  And similar to most old structures found anywhere in the Philippines, an urban legend has been passed on from one generation to the next concerning so-called ghostly apparitions within its halls. But ghostly apparitions or not, I thought that with the promise of having a very accessible book shop, a charming restaurant, and a mini theatre, Casa would be a great alternative to the usual hotel.

I booked a Single Standard room, which cost me roughly P2,400+ a night. Perhaps like most hotels in Baguio too, the room I was booked in had no aircon because the weather was cool anyway, especially in this time of the year. Although the room featured some basic necessities, I still wished there were at least a mini-bar and a hair dryer.

I reached Baguio too early, slightly hung-over, and too tired to wait for mid-day check-in.  I thought I would be charged extra for showing up too soon, but maybe the hotel had more rooms available for that day and could accommodate me immediately. That, or the hotel staff are just too nice–which they are.

I wasn’t too happy with the room that they provided, though: it just smelled of mold and mildew, so I asked that they move me to a cleaner one.

Casa Vallejo

Similar to other offers from nearby hotels, booking at Casa Vallejo includes free breakfast. However, I’m glad that breakfast was served by its in-house restaurant, which is frequented by locals, particularly it seemed by university types–professors, students, the “artsy” crowd. Hill Station serves a mix of Filipino, Asian, and basic Continental fares.

Casa Vallejo Hill Station Restaurant Baguio City
Hill Station interiors
Did someone say refillable brewed coffee?
First breakfast: fried mountain brown rice, eggs, and Baguio longganisa (sausage)
Guests’ meal stubs included desserts and drinks. I recommend their NY cheesecake.
Yep, they serve cocktails in the morning, as well.

 A quirky bookshop and a mini-theatre

Mt Cloud Bookshop reminds me of those independent book stores found around university/school districts. The shop sells anything from select textbooks to local anthologies; books on anthropological studies, travel, business, and non-fiction. If one’s lucky, they could also land second-hand titles at much lower prices. For light reading, I decided on Jessica Zafra’s Twisted Travels, which was just right for the occasion.

Mt. Cloud Bookshop Casa Vallejo Baguio City
Customers can pull any open copy from the shelves and read it at any of the shop’s reading nooks.

On my first night at the hotel, I was lucky to catch a poetry reading about HIV/AIDS  to commemorate World AIDS Day:  Those who wanted to read or have their works read at the event could pay P100 to participate. 

The week of my stay in Baguio, Instituto Cervantes was also sponsoring a Spanish Film Festival, which luckily was held at Casa Vallejo’s mini theatre. After a few attempts to show up before screenings began, I just realised I wasn’t that keen on watching a movie when the city and I had so much to catch up on.

Where else to eat:

I decided to skip some of the touristy places that I’d seen nearly half a dozen times during my previous visits and instead tried to discover some of the things I might have missed. For one: there are more restaurants than I can remember, and while these establishments do not necessarily offer anything unique (I’m not a fan of pinikpikan, so to heck with uniqueness), it was still worthwhile to try them out or at least to compare them with what I was used to in Manila. Verdict: Baguio’s restaurants did not disappoint, except for one.

I love the Thai/Vietnamese fares at Ocha Asian Cuisine on Session Road, where I ordered spring rolls that bested the ones served at the more popular Vietnamese restaurants in Manila and a Thai soup that unfortunately I didn’t realise was good for 4-5 people. Imagine my surprise when the food attendant set a humongous bowl on my table.

For cakes and coffee, it’s best to visit the local joints, and one of the best is by a viewing deck of SM City. A house blend and cake set costs only P155 at Syblings’ Nook located at the mall’s third level.

syblings nook

For dinner, I chose to stay in, as I didn’t want to venture out in the cold or go out by myself in a still unfamiliar territory. Hill Station serves tapas, pasta, and pizza, as well as cocktails and wines.

Looking for a quiet, relaxing dinner? Hill Station is a good bet.
Hill Station - Chorizo
Their chorizo is a must.
Bolognese and Tequila Sunrise, oh yes!

A friend suggested the now famous Cafe by the Ruins, just a couple of blocks from Session/Burnham Park. I guess the best thing about Cafe by the Ruins is its interior design. But as far as food went, I wouldn’t have missed much if I had skipped the cafe altogether.

While the open-air design of the place is quite something for its furniture and quirky layout, what ruins the ambiance is the fact that people are lighting up just about anywhere in this city, and Ruins is one of those anywheres. If you’re going to the city dreaming of clean air, think again: Baguio has no ordinance against smoking in public, you might as well walk around wearing a facial mask.

Not the best ensaymada I’ve tried.

Baguio still has the charms that pilgrims often look for–the cool weather, the hundreds of pine trees that lined its winding roads, fantastic vistas, its courteous people. However, the city has seemed to develop beyond its capacity through the years, marked by the traffic that now clogs some of its main roads and the apparent sprawl beyond its edges.

My biggest disappointment is the air quality, which has remarkably suffered from too many diesel cars, jeepneys, and taxis on its roads and the lack of ordinance needed to manage smoking in public areas. Any place that is not within the confines of an air-conditioned building is fare game for smokers, the rest of us be damned.

Session Road, Baguio City
Session Road
Session Road, Baguio City

Although there are a lot of pedestrians and cars on its main roads and especially within the centre, what’s good about the city is that nobody (or very few, if ever) jaywalks; drivers stop or slow down for crossing pedestrians; and traffic lights are there to really control the flow of traffic. Its people are also among the nicest and most courteous one can have the pleasure of meeting anywhere in the Philippines. I guess it’s just how Ilocanos are, but then again I am biased. From its taxi drivers to food attendants and hotel staff, none of the people I met treated me rudely which is something especially in a highly urbanised area. 

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
A view of Baguio from the SM City’s upper deck. The cluster of buildings on the right is the city centre.
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
University of Cordillera’s track and field area. These are facilities that many an overpriced universities in
Manila  cannot even match.

Places to visit

Tam-Awan Village showcases the culture of Baguio’s indigenous peoples. Mind, however, that the place is not for those who have neither patience nor strength to deal with the countless steps that brought visitors from one level of the village to the next. Going around the village is another version of a cardio exercise, and its best visited wearing very comfortable shoes.

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio
Tam Awan Village, Baguio City

Tam-Awan Village

Camp John Hay is perfect for group/family picnics and retail therapy. However, as someone who’s a regular at Landmark, Greenhills, and Surplus Shop, I could tell that CJH’s bargains are still way too expensive for the casual shopper. Thrift shopping is best done somewhere else, including the famous Ukay-ukay.

Camp John Hay shopping, Baguio City
What I enjoyed most, however, was walking along its tree-lined roads. At least John Hay is not yet suffering from the presence of too many diesel engine cars, and there are areas where visitors can have a good time away from the noise of motor traffic.

Camp John Hay, Baguio

 The road back to Manila

This was the first time that I actually saw Marcos Highway, or at least the section on the upper Cordilleras. The grandeur of the mountain range, as well as its deep ravines that go hundreds of meters are something to behold, and one just had to be there to really appreciate the effort (and surely, the public budget) put into place to make the road safe for motorists. 
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway
Baguio City has now expanded towards the outer reaches of the mountains

I should have bought return tickets prior to my trip and spared myself the agony of spending eight butt-numbing hours on the road while crossing my fingers, hoping to make it in time for a Saturday night out with friends. Deluxe buses take roughly five hours to reach Manila, while ordinary aircon buses take their merry time jetting passengers back to the capital.

All in all, it was still a fun and much-needed trip away from the craziness of Metro Manila and some of its bothersome people, among other things. If either money or time is not an issue, I would choose a quiet weekend in Baguio over the hustle and bustle of  NCR.

Weekend at Nagsasa Cove, Zambales

I live (and work) for weekends like this. As much as I love going out to party with friends; hanging out at a bookstore, a resto, or a cafe; or shopping, there is nothing like relaxing by the beach, as far as I’m concerned. I was never keen on beach camping until my previous trip to Anawangin, which I enjoyed so much. 
Like most people, I do look for certain creature comforts before I can say that I enjoy any particular activity.  However, due perhaps to the craziness that life has thrown my way in recent months, any travel outside Manila which allowed me the opportunity to unplug–from the web, from social media, from email or texting—has been more than welcome. And still more, doing so in some far-flung pocket of the country with just me and nature (okay, amongst friends and on good weather) is something I will always look forward to.
I joined a group of friends and colleagues over the weekend for an overnight camping trip at Nagsasa Cove in Zambales. Nagsasa is a massive cove some 1.5 hours away by boat from the nearest take-off point in Pundaquit Village in sleepy San Antonio town. However, despite the extra one-hour boat ride, I would always choose it over Anawangin, as it is about three times bigger and the water is definitely cleaner/clearer. You could also be some 50 meters out on the shore and the water would only still be chest-deep, or shallow, whichever you prefer. Ergo, if you are not the best swimmer in town, there is less danger of accidentally getting into sudden drop or getting oneself dragged by waves.
Pundaquit, Zambales, Nagsasa
We reached Pundaquit a little before 8:00 AM and immediately prepared for camping. Mind, going to the cove is not really for the faint of heart, particularly because only small pump boats or bancas took campers to the site. 

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
A small vessel could load up up to 10 people, plus camping gears, food chests, luggage, and whatnot. Because the cove is quite far, you may ask your camping guides to stop off at nearby coves for rest and picture-taking. 

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
Island-hopping is also included in the camping package, which depending on the number of people in your group costs anywhere from P1,000 to P2,000, and it includes tent rental, boat ride, 3 to 4 camping guides/helpers, wood for bonfire, food, and a quick snorkeling stop.

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
Our group was lucky enough to get an early start when the waters were still calm. 
Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
Me and my home girls
Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines, Bacardi Apple

Picnic huts are provided for campers for resting while the sun is at its merciless. The best time to hit the water is around 4 PM when one has finally rested or taken siesta.

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
Because it faces the west, Nagsasa Cove showcases fantastic views of the sunset.
Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
In the evenings, bonfire parties with good old-fashioned drinking, roasting marshmallows, and music are a  must. Don’t forget to bring extra batteries for your mp3 players and speakers. On the other hand, it’s best to bring a guitar if you are so inclined to play some familiar tunes, so everyone else can join in the merrymaking. 
Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
We were blessed with fantastic weather during the trip, and this picture does not even begin to give justice to just how  beautiful the place is.
Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines

Nagsasa Cove, Zambales, Philippines
On the way back to Pundaquit, a short snorkeling stint near Anawangin proved to be a great treat.