With Chinese New Year (CNY) approaching I have been reminiscing about the CNY trip I took last year.
I went to Legazpi (also spelt Legaspi) City, Albay, Philippines. Unlike Boracay, Manila and Cebu – Legazpi is not on tourists’ radar which makes it an exceptional place to visit.
Legazpi became known to me because of the TV show ‘The Amazing Race’. Being my favourite show, I have an affiliation with visiting any locations that the shows contestants have raced through.
Legazpi is located a mere one hours flight away from Manila and is perilously close to an active volcano which makes this city one of the most photogenic places in the world. Occupy the window seat on the flight and gaze out at a mammoth volcano piercing its volcanic head through the clouds.
The plane wheels planted themselves on the tarmac and the seatbelt signs were switched off. In those few moments the weather instantly changed. The glorious sunshine switched to pounding rain. Umbrellas were handed to the passengers as we had to dash down the slippery aircraft staircase that was resembling a vertigo inducing waterslide and into the terminal building. I was wet but was swiftly distracted as a famous basketball player was actually on out flight.
By the time I arrived to the hotel, only 20 minutes away, the weather had reverted to heavenly sunshine.
Arriving in the morning, I had a full day of exploring to do; so I waived down a motorised tricycle (essentially a motorbike with a sidecar) and advanced towards ‘Ligñon Hill’.
The driver dropped me off at the bottom of the hill and I got the opportunity to stretch my legs from flying and hike up the hill in the searing heat.
It was an easy climb that offered spectacular views which progressively got more beautiful the further up you went. At the top I was left breathless – not because of the hike but because the view was sublime. Crystal clear seas, the coloured roof tops and dramatic runway blended harmoniously together and imprinted themselves onto my eyes canvas. Turning around a colossal volcano stood triumphant, albeit with cascading clouds.
At the peak of the hill is a zip-line company that operates on modest fees. I opted for a short zip-line that faced the volcano. You could choose to sit on the zip-line or lay down in superman position. Having done zip-lines before I was keen to embrace my alter-ego and fly across the Philippine (but heed the words of beloved Edna Mode “No capes!”). The line was short but whizzing down adjacent to a volcano was unforgettable. Included in the price was a free photo that is now a fond keepsake of my superhero days.
Albay Park and Wildlife
At the very bottom of the hill neighbouring the entrance is a zoo. Well honestly, I shall refrain from naming it as a zoo as the abysmal conditions and lack of happy animals was concerning. Fortunately, the park was small and the camels did have a large enclosure. The only fond memory of this place was watching a monkey snatching a girl’s phone out of her hands as she shrieked in horror at the prospect of a primate having unrestricted access to her Instagram followers. The zoo should definitely be skipped. It would only be worth a visit if Marty the Zebra was singing “Afro Polka Dot Circus”.
Legazpi is costal and is hugged by the ocean that has created a pleasant walk. I walked from the city centre, following the ocean around until I reached the big lettered sign ‘Legazpi’ Not as synonymous as the Hollywood sign but a local attraction anyhow. Walking here was the only time I encountered another white tourist. A group of 4 Dutch people who were bewildered by the lack of nightlife. They had clearly travelled to the wrong city as Legazpi is not a partying mecca and is, fortunately, not overrun with beer swirling foreigners. Legazpi is pure.
A new day and I would visit the place that had convinced me to go to Legazpi…Cagsawa Ruins.
The ruins are situated close to the town of Daraga. I wanted to experience true Filipino lives so I opted against a taxi (a rarity), tricycle and private tour. Instead I chose to lose my jeepney virginity. Jeepney’s are the public buses of the Philippines and are adorned with colourful murals. Jeepneys were conceived after WWII when the US Military left behind many of their jeeps.
It was a little nerve wracking waiting on the side of a road trying to scour oncoming jeepneys for a destination sign. The school kids opposite were shouting questions down at me from their classrooms such as “what’s your name?” and “where are you from?”. These inquisitive young minds were very friendly. I sought reassurance as which jeepney to take by asking the owner of a café shop. She was also friendly and assisted me by standing on the street with me.
A jeepney heading to Daraga stopped and the driver welcomed me to the front seat. I was sitting next to the driver and looked out the front window. I was shocked. Jeepneys have a very narrow windscreen where bending forward, hunched over, is the only way to see the road ahead. I recalled a BBC TV show ‘World’s Most Dangerous Place to be a Driver’. Filipino jeepney drivers were applauded in the show for their amazing driving skills, despite limited field of view.
I arrived at the ruins which are of an 18th Century church that was buried during an eruption of the omnipotent Mayon Volcano in 1814. A tall, stone tower stands strong to this day.
Cagsawa Ruins are small but the beauty and stunning surroundings catapult this to being a must see place. What makes the Ruins so interesting is its proximity to the volcano. The volcano has erupted numerous times and ATV (all-terrain vehicles) have popped up allowing you to drive all the way up the lava trail – something even Zac Efron has done.
I saw an ATV shop nearby and I decided to venture in an signed up for a tour of the lava field. Travelling alone meant that I was on my own private tour without any extra fees.
The company, Bicol Adventure ATV, was professional and supplied a helmet as well as a mandatory practise course. Passing the course is a must as the terrain is very tricky due to the journey to the lava fields mostly taking place upstream through a river. Having driven an ATV before in Cambodia I was fortunate enough to have no problems with the ATV.
The course was demanding yet so much fun. Driving through the river, past local fisherman and cows was exquisite. It was so peaceful and my guide, who was leading the way always came to my aid.
Driving up a perilously steep and metres long hill I emerged onto a road. I was driving past local houses and schools and it was a pleasure to see. Then we returned to harsher road conditions after cutting into the dense jungle. Eventually, we emerged at the eagerly awaited lava fields where I had to swap guide to a local groundsman.
The true nature of the lava fields was beyond anything I could have possibly apprehended. Gigantic boulders of lava as far as the eye could see. I had to scale a lava hill where a make shift helicopter pad was formed. This was my plateau to observe the dangerous surroundings.
This place was magical but my time was up and it was time to return. The weather switched yet again and I was driving my ATV through harsh conditions but now with the added issue of heavy rain. Being drenched on an ATV whilst in t-shirt and shorts was rather invigorating and freeing. I was living in the moment.
Returning to the river with the weather resumed to sunshine, a child approached me. It was a girl I had passed earlier and declined to offer her money. She was much angrier this time and decided to hurl rocks at me clearly in anger at not giving her money. The fact that she threw rocks at me made me glad I didn’t give her money as I wouldn’t want to give money to people so rude.
I assumed other ATV riders were giving money to the children and this is so wrong as it starts a terrible precedent. There are better ways to help the poor and throwing money at them on the street is not going to change anything for the better.
After the ATV ride and a quick refreshment I flagged down a jeepney and went to the town of Daraga. My reason for stopping here was to see Daraga church that has wonderful views of the volcano in the distance. Thanks to the helpful jeepney drivers I got close to the church and was saddened by the cloudy conditions but I still walked around the church before descending to the town. I decided not to hop straight onto the Jeepney back to Legazpi but instead I walked along the streets to soak up this town.
I somehow got enchanted with walking and ended up walking for 5km back to Legazpi! It was a pleasant walk with wide pavements and I enjoyed people watching.
So far in my time in Legazpi the clouds had never left the volcano so I could never see it in its true glory. However, on my last day the sky was blue and not a single cloud could be seen. It was the morning and I had to leave for my flight in one hour. I decided to rush my breakfast and dash out to the Embarcadero (the waterfront promenade area with a few shops) and I captured the most delightful picture. The volcano was glorious.
With that, my trip was over. I headed back to the tiny airport and returned to Hong Kong via Manila. The last moments of my trip were magical though. The airport is exposed and thus boarding the flight with a cloudless volcano solidified this airport as being the prettiest. On the flight the captain flew us around the top of the volcano. Never had a flight been more picturesque.
Filipino food is scrumptious! I never expected it but I was taken aback by how tasty the food was.
One of my favourite dishes I had in Legazpi was Bicol Express. It is essentially pork in coconut curry with a bit of spice added. It has a curry texture but is extremely flavoursome and I devoured it very quickly.
One restaurant that needs particular praise is 1st Colonial Grill. They have a wide variety of local dishes but their ice-cream is the real star of the show.
Sili ice-cream is the most famous flavour in the restaurant is an ice-cream that tastes hot due to the spice. It was pleasant and the uniqueness of it was fun to enjoy. Other exotic flavours include: salabat (ginger tea), malunggay (a herb from the drumstick tree), kalamansi (related to kumquat), taro, pili and tinutong. So much praise is deserved as all the flavours are amazing, and yes, I did eat all those flavours! I washed down the ice-cream with my Legazpi addiction of kalamansi juice (calamondin).
In a different restaurant I had goto, a rice based dish similar to congee. It was a yummy snack to tide over my hunger pains.
I stayed in the Hotel St. Ellis a four star hotel. Despite being a four star hotel the price was beyond reasonable.
I was picked up from the airport with no issues and they let me check in early. The staff were delightful and the breakfast buffet was small but covered everything you could need.
The room itself was gigantic. The bed was clearly made for a fairy-tale giant as it was humungous. The whole room was expansive and the bathroom shower felt like an entire room all on its own.
I would actively urge anyone going to Legazpi to stay in this hotel as it was excellent.
Legazpi surprised me with one thing. Despite all the basketball that is watched in the Philippines and close ties with the USA, a white person was treated as a novelty. This tainted my experience of Legazpi a little because everywhere I went numerous heads would turn and give me a double look. I have been to China where having my photo taken is normal due to my pale skin, but I just didn’t expect it in Legazpi.
Legazpi is not a nightlife hotspot. It is quiet at night-time. One time I wanted to have dinner at 7pm and I went into the restaurant only to be turned away due to them closing once the remaining diners had left. I was dumbfounded.
Be prepared for instantly changing weather. Luckily the rain won’t last long.
Legazpi is safe.
All pictures taken by myself. Follow me on Instagram: Arik_Dane
Stay tuned to TravelScar to read about my half-day trip to Santo Domingo from Legazpi.