Bicol Backpacking Adventure: Day 1

by Japee Francisco

In keeping up with being a true travel bug, I decided to explore different parts of the Philippines to see what else she has to offer. I've been hearing a lot of buzz about the Bicol area, namely the Butanding or whale shark encounter in Donsol as well as the CWC Wakeboard Park in Cam Sur.

Seemingly fitting, my Bicol trip was going to consist of a few different destination stops so I boarded a plane for my first landing which was going to be in Legapsi, which was a very short 45-minute plane ride from Manila (the other major airport in Bicol is Naga, about a 2-hour drive north from Legazpi). As i stepped off the plane onto the runway ladder on the tarmac (smaller airports like this don't have a conventional jet way), I was greeted by a surreal and picturesque surprise that is still ingrained in my mind today:

Mt. Mayon, the most active volcano in the Philippines serves as the backdrop for not only Legazpi airport, but most of this Southern Bicol region. The natural swirl atop this volcano shows the natural ferocity of what Mt. Mayon is capable of. That day, however, I was fortunate to just see a beautiful sight. Daily horseback riding and hiking tours to the lava and ash fields are available for any tourist who is daring enough.

After a warm pickup by Mr. Richard Paraguya of Royal Guest Tours, we were on our way to Donsol, which was an hour ride from the airport; an eventful one to say the least. Much of the ride involved winding highways and turns but the outcome was well worth it once we arrived at the Butanding Welcome Center in Donsol. While on the way Richard our tour guide was very knowledgeable with facts about this tourism economy, namely the whale sharks (Butanding in Tagalog) and why Donsol is such a unique place to experience this. There are only 2 other locations in the world that can give you a better Butanding interaction aside from Donsol and these are Belize and Australia. However with these two other locations, the whale shark watching season only lasts 2 weeks where as in Donsol it lasts 3 months. After a quick briefing we jumped aboard the bangka to go and search for these gentle giants.

The giant whale sharks stay below in the deep waters but in the morning they skim the surface of the ocean to feed on plankton. The way the interaction works is there are 2 trackers on the bangka, one standing on top and another in front looking out for the huge shadows that the Butandings cast on the surface while feeding. All this is lead by the "BIO" or Butanding Interaction Officer who will let everyone on board know when to get ready and jump in the water on his command to swim with these magnificent creatures. As we approached our first whale shark, I would be lying if I said my heart was not beating at an elevated pace with excitement.

Pictured here is Jimmy Boy, our Butanding Interaction Officer along with one of the trackers as they search for the whale sharks in the reflection of the water. Unfortunately we could not bring the camera into the water but please be on the lookout for our underwater video that will be soon uploaded on this blog.

After 3 hours of our marine safari, we were fortunate to have encountered the Butandings on 9 separate occasions; a great day for whale shark watching indeed! Upon docking back to shore my sense of smell grew keen as I found out we had a seafood buffet waiting for us, which is a set lunch in the Donsol package offered by Richard and Royal Quest Tours.

On our drive back to Legazpi I found myself telling Richard of my backpacking escapades I had last November while in Costa Rica. Of all the stories I tell him he is very interested in the zip-lining that is so famous in Costa Rica. Not because he's never done it before but he is anxious to show me that we are not far away from adventures like this.

He then brings me to Lignon Hill, a famous jogging spot very near Legazpi which also houses the zip-lining adventure activity center. This comes as a surprise to me as I didn't know there was zip-lining in the Philippines let alone in Legazpi. I was excited as a little boy in a candy store but nervous as I saw the zip-lining cable stretch from mountain to mountain on the steep incline.

What was so great about the zip-lining at Mt. Lignon was it was as fun as it was safe. The cables are done professionally with a guide that fits you in the harness and shows you the proper way of zooming down the cable. It was an experience I'll never forget.

As if this wasn't enough, they also offered rappelling at Mt. Lignon. You can choose from a 45 and 70 degree angle at which to rappel, both of which go down the grassy mountain slope of Mt. Lignon. Since we were there at dusk, we opted to do the 45 degree rappel which was still very exciting and rigorous. The natural glow of the indigenous fire flies helped light my path down the mountain.

So after breathtaking views of the most active volcano in the Philippines, swimming with the huge whale sharks, mountain zip-lining and rappelling, day one was finished. Doing all these activities would take a few days at least in other countries but given the close proximity of all these locations in Legazpi, it is easily done in one day.

Next stop: Cam Sur Watersports Complex (or more popularly known as CWC) in Camarines Sur