Siquijor: Rasta Tree!

100 year old tree in Siquijor

Ancient Balete Tree

On the way home from our Cambugahuy trip, we stopped at an amazing old tree by the side of the road. It been called the Century Old Tree, or “centuries old” I’m sure that no one really knows. But I could easily believe it was 400 years old. It had a massive girth, amazing hanging roots, and huge crawling roots that spiraled out from its base. It sits next to what must be a natural spring, and probably the reason for its longevity. Kids were jumping and playing in the water.

Amazing roots (dreadlocks) hanging down!

Amazing roots (dreadlocks) hanging down!


We walked around marveling at the thing, and circled around to the back of it. Latham climbed up the roots to get a closer look. Then I saw the tshirt he was wearing. Rasta guy in a rasta tree. Way, cool man!

100 yr old Balete Tree

Rasta in a Drealock Tree!

Siquijor: New Year’s Eve 2012

Lechon Celebration

Serving Lechon on New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve is often an anti-climax for us. After all the pre-Christmas activities, Christmas, and birthday and anniversary stuff…by New Years Eve we’re usually ready for bed at 9pm. However, this year we were in no place for an early night. Coco Grove had a big dinner buffet planned and a self-proclaimed show extravaganza. Who were we to say no?!

We got a great table near the front, ate a very decent buffet dinner and everything was so pretty with lantern, candles and flowers. It was, however, nearly impossible to get a drink. But that’s big party events for you. Almost no one does them right….! I waited 30 minutes for a bottle of oxidized white wine, sent it back and ordered red. Half an hour later, we got a bottle of chilled red wine….but I digress…let the show begin!


Traditional dance routine: wonderfuly colouful, deeply cheesy, and joyous all at the same time!


…and then some….(note:  click on the photo to get a close up.  It’s worth it!)


Plus a little bit of earth music made for a very entertaining show.

But what I liked the most were the wish lanterns. Its a Filipino tradition to light them and make a wish, and set them airbourne carrying your wish up into the sky. They are simple paper lanterns with a wire base that holds a wad of fuel-soaked cotton. It takes a little practice to make them take. They gave instruction, but most people needed more assistance and most lanterns crashed and burned after a few seconds. However three did take off and soar, floating and throwing their light like traveling stars until they were no longer visible.  Latham’s was one of them:

Wish Lanterns on Siquijor

Lighting wish lanterns


I loved the focus and lantern light as everyone tried to make it work



Latham’s lantern rising about the sea. Hope his wish comes true…

Siquijor: Tricycle Adventure to Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Day two of our Siquijor adventure was our 25th wedding anniversary. I had struggled to plan something special for the day from afar, but it was proving to be too difficult. I had tentatively reserved a private boat, but it quickly became clear that the considerable extra cost wouldn’t get us much value over taking the tour with everyone else. Some times you wish you had made a plan, other times an ad hoc approach is best.

It quickly became clear today was an ad hoc kinda day. Robert took the impulsive decision to rent a tricycle. Nikki and I immediately couldn’t see how the five of us could crowd on to the tiny bike. But we were wrong.  On we all crammed.  Destination was Cambugahay waterfalls, but just like life, I found the journey to be the interesting part.

Yep.  You can get five on a tricycle.  Easy peasy!

Yep. You can get five on a tricycle. Easy peasy!

Filipino Tricycle Ride

Watching the world fall behind us from a tricylce

The Falls were a fair drive away, about an hour I think. But the driver and the road surface were good, and it was reasonably comfortable. (At least for me.) Locals watched and waved, chickens crossed the street, other vehicles overtook our overloaded bik and we passed a few interesting spots to stop on the way back.

Lazi was an interesting town, and we stopped at the wonderful St Isidore Labradore church. It was huge and surrounded by ancient acacia trees.  We snuck inside and took a look inside. It was cavernous and seemed way too big to me for the location. It was build in the 1850’s and parts of it looked at least 150 years old, but other parts like the roof, altar and floor were well cared for. Other parts were crumbling. I loved the mix of old and new, it gave it a special kind of feeling. Like we were discovering something old and abandoned but secretly cared for.

Inside St. Isidore Labradore

Inside the Church. Beautiful wide wood floors, brand new pews and a well cared for altar. Huge!..

Convent next to  St. Isidore Labradore

Convent next to St. Isidore Labradore

 St. Isidore Labradore

Outside of St Isidore Labradore church

Font St. Isidore Labradore Church

Less fixed up in here…which looks like the font room

Convent next to  St. Isidore Labradore

Looking out through the old windows

After that energizing side trip, we traveled a little further along and finally made it to our Cambugahay Falls destination. Upon arrival, it was clear we were in a tourist location because the vendors descended. Paul and Nikki got their first taste of vendor chaos as several vendors approached at the same time, all selling the same drinks. We ended up in total confusion with multiple drinks purchased for the same person. It took 10 minutes to break away from them and start the descent down the stone steps to the falls.

It was midday and we were not alone.  There were some tourists from our resort and local kids  playing on the vines, diving into the water.  Not swamped with people, but a bit crowded for my liking.  Early morning would have been the best time to come.  Paul, Nikki and Latham followed our taxi driver to a spot higher up where no one else ventured and they had a waterfalls pool to swim in alone.  Much nicer!

Cambugahay Falls

Swimming in one of the lagoons

Cambugahay Falls

Cambugahay Falls

Caught mid swing!

Birthday Beach Party in Siquijor


Birthday dinner at our pimped-out tropical table.

No sooner had Nikki and Paul settled in to our home and grabbed their first night of real sleep, we were up at the butt crack of dawn and hustling to get on a flight to Dumaguete, on the island of Negros.  From there it was a one hour hydrofoil trip over to Siquijor island to stay at the wonderful Coco Grove Beach Resort. The trip wasn’t dreadful but less than smooth. It was just one of the travel days where the pieces don’t come together: the lines are too long, your tray table won’t stay up, the ferry is late, and the terminal had no electricity.  We were very glad to arrive at Coco Beach.   Fortunately, the resort was totally worth the wait.  Just beautiful!  And big!  On the first day it felt enormous and we wondered around among the pretty cottages, palm trees and powder white sands.

It was also Robert’s birthday and it took a little hustling to organize the evening birthday dinner.  Its hard picking the right location when you don’t understand the restaurant layouts or dining options.  But I found a nice spot down on the beach and they did a fantastic job of glamming it up for the celebration with palm fronds, candles and bunting.

Then came the fire dancers.  I wish I could take credit for organizing them, but it was the resort’s Saturday night entertainment which took place right on the beach under the stars.  Drummers drummed, and the firedancers danced.  It was pretty entertaining.


_COX4297_COX4298And, of course, no Birthday’s complete without a bit of cake. And these days one slice is just enough for both of us!  And this slice came with a singing troupe.  One of the more memorable birthdays, I think.


But will you go back?

IMGP4353We just did our first repeat visit to a resort here in the Philippines.  After almost exactly one year, we went back to Coco Beach resort in Mindoro last weekend, relatively close by road, with their own bus service from Manila, its then just a short boat ride to the resort.  I was looking to replicate our previous experience and enjoy a quick, relaxing trip out of the city during a 3-day weekend.  But, of course, things are never the same as last time.  Especially here.  Robert was sick at the last minute and couldn’t come.  The resort was quieter than before, and the trip down was a little easier.  We were also more experienced with life here and our perspectives had changed somewhat.  As I say, nothing is ever the same.

We had a good time, but I didn’t leave with the same warm feeling that I had the first time I visited.  Exactly why may be a combination of different factors, but the killer for me was the resort-provided boat we took on the first morning. We decided against a longer, all day trip, and instead took the shorter 2-hour free boat ride to a nearby beach that the resort offers daily.  We just wanted to snorkel a little as the resort beach front wasn’t so great for this. The boat took us to a small beach about 15 minutes away, and as we approached it was clearn this was going to be another one of those Filipino experiences.  As the 12 of us disembarked, a feeding frenzy ensued with boatman, pearl salesmen and a zillion vendors all trying to sell me something before both feet were even in the sand.

Overwhelmed, we headed for a shady spot to weigh up our options, and I glanced over at a Filipino family on the beach a few feet away.  They had the usual beach gear, towels and a cooler with food for the day, simply enjoying the beach, which is all we wanted, but this wasn’t an option for us on so many levels.  The vendors just kept coming and it was hard to even think straight.  Our options were few.  We couldn’t even really go swimming as previous experience taught me that someone was bound to take our stuff, even if it was just towels that we left behind, unless we went one at a time, which is no fun.  The shoreline was covered in little boats that formed a discouraging barrier between the beach and the sea, blocking the vista.  Then of course, there were the vendors.  We had no choice, our boat wasn’t leaving for two hours and we were now just bait stranded on the beach, so we reluctantly paid one of the boat guys to take us out snorkelling.   We headed out to a nearby spot where another 20 boats were just a few feet away doing exactly the same and it was too dangerous to swim, leaving us holding on to the boat boom and watching the fish swimming below.  (When I snorkel, I love to follow the fish, and swim along with them. Its a wonderful feeling of freedom and peace, I found it very frustrating to be stuck in one spot.)


The fish were beautiful

But I was most frustrated at myself for being a knucklehead and putting myself in this situation and frustrated that sometimes I feel I just can’t crack the Filipino tourist nut.  Why had I fallen for this?  I had presumed a free boat was provided by the resort as an add-on, improving their service at little cost to them.  But clearly there was a deal going on.  The resort or boatman was taking a fee to deliver guests to the beach.  The same boat could easily have stopped at the reef and we could have snorkeled or swum in a lot more peace directly from the banca that brought us there, instead we were delivered as shark bait.  I understand that these are poor people that are looking to make a living, and I really don’t begrudge paying for their services.  But not like that.

Last year we went on an amazing Kayaking trip from Coco Beach that was an unforgettable experience, unfortunately marred by a couple of significant negative experiences.  Not unlike the trip to Pinatubo — unmissable — but, boy, was the organization messed up.  But in this instance, it was more than inexperience or lack of equipment. I can forgive the lack of finesse but not the lack of respect.

I can look at these experiences as learning curves, I can recognize that the Philippines is still in the early days of learning about tourism, I can recognize that poverty can be a driving factor over all other considerations. But that still leaves me — the weekend tourist here wanting to experience the Philippines and spend my tourist dollars — frustrated in a way that threatens to cripple my enthusiasm for the place.

Hammock Potato

Oh yes, Hammock Life!  October was really busy and the thought of three days away on a short beach trip at the end of the month really kept me going.  We booked a stay at Kookoos nest in Dumaguete on the island of Negros, a short flight away from Manila. It was a very small resort, consisting of half a dozen native huts directly on the beach. Apart from snorkeling and diving, there’s little to do except to hang around and read.  Enforced relaxation.  Exactly what we all needed.

View from said hammock…..

It was the perfect place to stay for us.  No air conditioning (but fans in the room), a private bathroom (cold water only…which I can tolerate for a couple of days) and private balcony (with spectacular sunsets), and it was surprisingly mosquito free.  There were plenty of bugs, though, if you chose to be bothered by them. I wasn’t — mostly — they didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them.  Except for the spider.  First night I head outside down the steps to the bathroom.  On the pathway, trying to negotiate the next step, is a very large, very hairy, black spider.  Or let’s just say it… the “t” word……tarantula.  Well, maybe not a tarantula – who’s knows, I don’t know spiders – but darn close anyway.  He looked something like this:

He moved very slowly.  I did a triple take to try and comprehend what I was looking at, then fled back upstairs.  Maybe I didn’t need to go that bad!  You can be sure I took extra precautions every evening, watching where I stepped.  Never saw him again!  Never wanted to!

After that excitement, the rest of the stay was very relaxing and uneventful.  I turned into a true hammock potato, reading 1.5 books in two days, taking four mini-naps a day.  The food was good and we ate three meals a day at their little restaurant, helping ourselves to the cooler bar whenever we wanted a drink.  I would definitely go back, despite my encounter with “Bertie” as I dubbed him.  You take the rough (and hairy) with the smooth, right?!

Sign Language: Roadmap 2030

There aren’t many so many hilarious “Engrish” signs in the Philippines.  Filipinos usually have beautifully written English, correctly spelled with good grammar.  No struggling with “chicen” or “chikken” here.  Its always spelt “chicken”. Nor any not-so-delicious-sounding dishes such as “deep fried crap” on the menu.   But there’s plenty of other things that jump out for comment.  Here’s a large sign from Dumaguete airport from the local police force, outlining their vision and mission statement for their goals until 2030:

Its interesting how it seems both laudable (who wouldn’t want those goals), sincere, naive (given the many corruption struggles here) and a bit desperate (no-one in the west would write this, suggesting that things aren’t that way currently) – all at the same time.  And bringing the Almighty into a public service statement is just not done in the West.  Ultimately a more interesting sign than a badly spelled menu, I think.

Visit to the International Rice Research Institute

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is about a 1.5-2hr drive from Manila.  I took a group out there this weekend to explore their facilities and meet some of the staff.  It turned out to be a great day!

IRRI was founded in the early sixties to help increase rice yields and improve rice production worldwide.  Their facility is huge with funding and staff from all over the world.  The compound includes offices, laboratories, housing and recreational facilities as well as acres and acres of experimental rice plots that monitor the growth of different rice varieties grown to combat challenges such as drought, soil salinization, pests and diseases.

Acres and acres of experimental rice crops

It also has the world oldest continuous rice cropping experiment which has been running since 1963.  For almost 50 years, the paddy has produced 3 crops a year in an experiment designed to teach scientists the effects of intensive cropping on long term sustainability and soil quality. It was developed with grat foresight in an era where sustainability was not a common area of concern, and has been a useful tool in combating some of the negative effects of the 1960s rice revolution that dramatically increased rice production by introducing new, higher yielding, non-local rice varieties.

Continuous high yield paddy

The long-term high yield experimentation fields

As these new, “super” varieties were introduced, IRRI also started a program to collect samples of ALL rice varieties from all over the world in an effort to save them from extinction.  They realized that varieties long grown in a specific location may offer have developed resistances to local conditions that the new “super” varieties had not.  Local varieties were disappearing and along with them their local “knowledge”.

The IRRI Genebank now stores over 117,000 varieties of rice in specially designed cold storage rooms.  We visited the Genebank and stepped inside the 4 degree Celcius storage facility, which was like a library with rows and rows of silver pouches, each containing samples of a different variety of rice.  Interesting but too cold to hang out for long!

The last educational part of the day was a hands-on trip outside to learn about planting and cultivating rice.  Our group got to experience pulling a plough behind a carabao, as well as an power cultivator.  Others planted rice in the prepared mud.  Messy for sure, and a bit hazardous, as the carabao frequently stopped to “fertilize” the mud as he worked….but a lot of fun for those that didn’t mind getting muddy.

IRRI threw us a really nice lunch in their recreational area.  They were such great hosts and I know everyone really appreciated it.  The kids got to swim in the pool and cool off and around 2.30pm we sent off for the last part of the day – a short tour of the Makiling Botanical Gardens.

The tour lasted around an hour. The gardens were pretty, but more of a nature park than a botanical garden, in my view.  But certainly worth seeing and they made a pretty ending to a well-balanced day.  Great day out!

Trip to Eagle Point, Batangas

This is going to be a review of Eagle Point Resort in Batangas, a resort about a 2 hr drive from Manila. I don’t usually do reviews as such, but I thought it would be interesting to explore my very mixed feelings about the place.

Have you ever gone to a site like TripAdvisor and read a number of reviews about somewhere, and been in totally in awe of how one person can say “five stars, the food is fabulous” and another can say ” food was terrible. 1 star. yuk!”   Its unhelpful and confusing to read such conflicting opinions but not too hard to understand that we all have different expectations, experience levels and criteria when we visit somewhere.  In these situations what most of us do is just look at the general concensus: 100 people reviewed and it gets 3.8 stars. Must be an acceptable place.  However occasionally that logic doesn’t always work.  After all if 100 people reviewed and 50 people gave it 1 star and 50 people gave it 5 stars, you would end up a with a 3 star rating on a property that no one felt was average.

Eagle Point, for me, is kind of one of those places.  I’d heard drastically differing first-hand opinions on how wonderful/dreadful it was.  Could it really be so wonderful/dreadful as they say?

I visited over Labor Day weekend taking a tour group for work.  R and L couldn’t come.  Its primarily a diving resort.  So I’m a single, non-diver alone in the rainy season in a pretty remote place.  And, yes, it was raining.  Heavily.  So there’s my unique situation.  I’m sure I would be viewing it somewhat differently should just one of those pieces change, but I believe I’m also capable of applying objectivity filters.

It was neither wonderful or terrible.  They did a good job on the room.  It was clean, nicely laid out and modern with a large shower, large balcony and a fair amount of space to walk around.  Everything worked.  However, the sewage smell was strong and hit you in the face like a door when you entered.  The balcony’s solid high wall meant that you could only enjoy the beautiful sea view when you stood.  Reading a book and looking out to sea couldn’t be done simultaneously for very long.  A missed opportunity I thought.

The restaurant was attractive and the food was pretty good.  Not wonderful, but decent.  The tables had great views out to sea.  The swimming pool was clean and quite large.  The architect had created two levels and a connecting slide which would be fun for kids.  However, there was no lounging area by the pool to set up camp for a couple of hours to relax.  And no shade.  So unless you actually wanted to swim, there was no incentive to stay.

Reef Pool

They offered snorkeling for non-divers with a reef pool so you could view baby sharks up close.  But the shore was rough, shallow rock with murky water and no evidence of much sea life, again with no beach and no place to hang.  Getting into the water was only for the tough soled or reef-shoe clad.  The water in the reef pool was green enough that I had no interest in going in.  However, the resort offered short boat trips over to a nearby island for a picnic lunch.  There we found a reasonable beach, snorkelling and good beach facilities.  Hammocks hung from the walls, there was toilet paper in the clean facilities, the beach was raked and clean, and the freshly cooked bbq lunch was very good.  Now there was a good hang out spot!

My verdict?  3 stars.  (1 star and 5 star reviewers be damned.)

Volcano Hiking at Mount Pinatubo

A few weeks ago now, while Helen was visiting us in April, we went hiking at Mount Pinatubo.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long while, but it takes some organization and prior planning.  I had visited the area earlier, but we only viewed some of the devasation it caused to a local church.  This time we were going to get a close up look at the volcano itself.

It’s a pretty unique opportunity.  Mount Pinatubo is a volcano which erupted in 1991, causing the second largest volcanic explosionn of the 20th century.  Its eruption coincided with the heavy rainfall of Tropical Storm Yunya, which amplified the devastation significantly. The eruption lasted 9 hours, caused two earthquakes, and the erupting lava mixed with the excessive rain resulting in 10cm of ash covered an area of 2000 square kilometers, killing more than 800 people.  Half a billion dollars in property was destroyed and entire communities were wiped out.  The top of the volcano collapsed creating a massive caldera, which today is a large lake.

20 years later the cliffs formed by the volcanic explosion are starting to grow greenery

Today the journey from the outskirts of the devastation to the lake is across a lunar-like landscape, broken up by multiple riverlets running down from the caldera lake.  The first part is covered via jeep for about an hour, as it can only move at a very slow place across the rocky boulders and river beds.

The lunar landscape that is crossed by jeep

An hour out, the journey moves to foot.  Rattled from the jeep experience, and under the burning sun we walked for almost three hours to reach the lake.

The ascent is gradual, and the path is relatively straightforward. But that doesn’t make it easy. There’s lots of scree and its easy to slide on the loose gravel, and it was particularly hot that day. The sun came out and stayed out. I wore a hat but felt like my brains were being boiled! There was very little shade. It took almost three hours to reach the last part of the journey, up some steep steps to the plateau in front of the lake.

A victorious smile from Helen who was a trooper!

I was dismayed to see that there was little shade at the top, which was occupied by others, and it was another steep climb down to the actual lake shore, which meant another climb back up. We took a little rest and a food break and found the energy to go down to the shore.

Others paddling down by the lake’s edge

Some were in the water, but changing into swim wear was not an easy option, and the banks of the lake were really steep – it was caused by a volcanic explosion after all – so we stayed on the lake’s edges and paddled. A bit disappointing really, because the thought of plunging into cold water kept me going all the way there.

Taking a boat out on the lake and a close up of a landslide, which were all around

We had started the day at 2.45am, waited in our building lobby one hour for the driver who didn’t actually show up until 4.30am. That put us at basecamp one hour late, and  there were no more jeeps available to pick us up. We were 7 people, and the jeeps only hold 6 (so we were told) so we had to split be up into two parties when the first jeep was finally found, which probably meant we couldn’t all hike together. 45 minutes later, Helen, Latham and I were finally picked up by a driver who didn’t know where he was going. The back door was broken, the side doors opened by themselves. We stopped to help another jeep with a flat tyre that turned out to be our stranded friends. We all piled into our jeep, which now was magically holding 9: the driver, the 7 of us, their guide and our guide. That’s three in the front, four in the back, one guide on the bonnet and the other holding on to the back of the vehicle. Photos don’t begin to show the whole picture!

The guide sat on the bonnet the entire time (with the other hanging off the back). How they stayed on is a mystery to me!

Being packed like sardines had its advantages when we drove in and out of river beds or bounced across dried mud and tire tracks. It stopped us flying around the vehicle as we were all jammed so close together. There were no handrails. The key fell out of the broken ignition on particularly bumpy spots, stalling the vehicle. The insides of the doors were missing, revealing the inner workings of the window and door handles. It was the crappiest, most abused vehicle I have ever traveled in.

However, our experience wasn’t even close to one reported by others. Other friends, coincidentally, had decided to visit Pinatubo that day. However, they had gone with a large group of about 30. Instead of supplying 5 jeeps to hold six-a-piece, some genius sent everyone out on a not-quite-large-enough bus, so some of the group had to sit on the roof. Of course, a long vehicle can’t handle the steep up and downs on the rugged trail, and after 20 minutes it got stuck out in the muddy, middle of nowhere. They were stranded in the lava fields for over two hours in the burning sun. They arrived at the crater lake, looking mighty pissed off, just as we were leaving.

The day was long and tiring, filed with amazing vistas and memories of a unique experience, but marred by really terrible communication and horrible transportation. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this type of thing here. But for the uninitiated, the challenge is thus: Going in you know that the trip will probably encounter unexpected difficulties. What they will be, and how bad they will be, is unknown. Forewarned may be forearmed, but often there is nothing much you can do. Do you say no to the next one? Or do you make the best call you can and go for the experience?