Sugartown

I wasn’t sure if the sweet, crisp, sugary air upon alighting the Cebu Pac plane was an illusion or a fact. If it were the latter, then it would probably be logical to assume it was just my lungs finally — finally! — processing cleaner air, so unlike that of Manila. At the back of my mind though, I knew it just had to be the result of rows upon rows of sugar cane or tubo, which is what Bacolod and Negros Occidental are known for (apart from the Masskara Festival, which we missed by a week!). We did arrive during harvest season.

This was our first time in Bacolod. The new airport is in Silay City, which is one city north of Bacolod. ©S

The Players

We attended a Halloween party hosted by a relative of Sab’s family. Everyone was in high spirits (pun intended) that night! Food was delicious and the company was fun :) ©S

We were welcomed by our host tita Mel, Sab’s mom (Sab, Achi, Ian and Ina, if you read this, THANK YOU again!). Isay and I stayed with the family in Bacolod, so I can’t help so much with lodging info.

Three things struck us throughout our stay: the myriad cemeteries, the local penchant for chicken, and the wide w i d e WIDE roads (did I mention they were wide?). We passed a particular road with a cemetery in its center a few times. This same road led to an intersection with mausoleums on opposite sides of the crossing. We also visited one private cemetery on account of Isay. Saturday morning, we joined her on a quest to meet with relatives throughout the city. Funny story, though not mine to share here :)

At first, this trip was supposed to be just Bacolod. But we all know how plans eventually go… BTW, did you know Negros Occidental has 13 cities? Thir-friggin-teen cities! We only have one in Cagayan, and that one city is sorely begging for more road space!

Destinations

Saturday we went to the famous Silay City. Silay is known for its heritage houses: ancestral homes of the hacienderos and sugar barons of the past. The city also has a very rich history, best exemplified in the houses themselves. And man, they were magnificent! It’s a shame we only managed to visit two during our whole stay. Silay is accessible by jeepney (about Php14), bus, or taxi from Bacolod.

The lounge with the pillows is called a butterfly sofa. Both ends have high backs, forming wings. Pretty, huh? The house also boasts a central ironwood staircase, stained glass windows, and a proud collection of paintings by National Artists from all over the country. Entrance fee is Php25 and includes a guided tour, sometimes by current owner Ramon Hofileña himself.

Home of the Gastons, pioneers of the sugar industry in Negros. Inside, we saw a family “tree” (more like roots) tracing their lineage up to the 8th generation. The reception room spans the whole width of the house, with antechambers for offices. The house also has a basement, accessible from their garage. Yes, they have a garage for carriages, which is soooo cool! This room is flanked by two stairs leading to the upstairs living room. Bedrooms surround this living room, typical of Spanish colonial houses. At the opposite side of the dividing wall is their dining room and kitchen. The house has a sky garden, but this was inaccessible when we visited. The entrance fee is the same as the Hofileña House.

We spent Sunday noon in Mambucal, a natural hot spring resort in Murcia, southeast of Bacolod. Mambucal is known for its bats, hot springs, and the seven waterfalls fed via Mt. Kanlaon. The place is ideal for picnics, and they rent villas and tents for overnight visits.

Mambucal rates as of 2012 are (in Php):

Entrance (per head): 50 – adults; 20 – children. Parking for light vehicles: 15

Huts: 300 – small; 600 – big. Lodges: 600 / 750 / 1,000 accg to size. Cottage: 900 for 2 beds, +150 for addtl beds. Camping grounds: 30 per head;

Pools: same as entrance. Wall climbing: 25. Zip line: 100 for 2 trips.

They also rent conference halls and other amenities. For those who plan to commute to Mambucal, there are buses from Bacolod proper to Murcia. The approximately 45-minute trip begins at the Libertad terminal.

Natural hot springs mean the water is quite warm. Sulfur pools dot other parts of the resort.

Natural hot springs mean the water is quite warm. Sulfur pools dot other parts of the resort.

Once the family settled on a hut, Sab, Isay and I headed for the waterfalls trek. We didn’t have lunch yet, but we weren’t particularly hungry anyway. Unwise move, though. I should warn those who plan to visit Mambucal for the falls: the trek isn’t for the faint of heart.

This second waterfall is off limits. It can be viewed through a kind of deck that protrudes from the rocks.

This second waterfall is off limits. It can be viewed through a kind of deck that protrudes from the rocks.

Along the way, trekkers would see the canopy walk. As for us, we didn’t have time to dally, and we didn’t have cash to pay for that at that time. So…

The guides there are kids ranging from 8 upwards. They're really crazy fishes/amphibians/superhumans. They would dive from cliff edges 2 to three storeys high, and they never stopped! In a way, they help motivated those trekkers who had courage enough to dive too. The fifth falls onto a deep pool surrounded by cliffs that serve as jumping boards.

The fifth falls into a deep pool surrounded by cliffs that serve as jumping boards. The guides there are kids ranging from 8 upwards. They’re really crazy fishes/amphibians/superhumans. They would dive from cliff edges two to three stories high, and they never stopped! In a way, they help motivate those trekkers who had courage enough to dive, too.

I didn’t jump. Isay did though. But that was after minutes upon minutes of hesitation and flashbacks of her whole life behind her eyes. Guys from another group were joking at each other to jump, but it was the kids who really shamed us all. They didn’t spare a second for doubt to cloud their heads. After Isay jumped, she couldn’t get enough. I wish I had the courage too. Note to self: learn to swim!

We suspected they were related. I tried to talk to them, but they didn't understand Tagalog. Mga Tagalog nga naman, oo.

We suspected they were brothers. I tried to talk to them, but they didn’t understand Tagalog. Yep, mga Tagalog nga naman, oo. It seemed Tagalog was only used in the cities. Without a local guide who could speak Hiligaynon, Bisaya and related forms, meaning would be lost. But some sentiments are still understood even without the convenience of a common tongue. Requests made behind the lens of a camera, for example, still work :)

We didn’t reach the seventh — the guides told us it was dangerous and so closed off because of the rains. There are multiple ways to exit from the fifth/sixth falls. But I would bet that there isn’t a single easy path out of there. I remember that at that point I wished I knew what I got into before I said yes to the trek. Exiting was the beginning of the most difficult leg of the trek. We said our hellos to the grass, soil, rocks… that was how steep the climb out was. Fortunately, it was a rather short one, and at the top we were treated to a view:

The aftermath

The hardest part of the trek was the returning to the huts. Being crazy walkers, we asked the guide take us on the longer route, and enjoyed dodging near-death experiences along the way :) For those too exhausted to finish the trek on foot, habal-habal is an option.

The whole trek can be summed up in two words: buwis buhay. For us, this meant walking on wet, often muddy paths without rails. At some points the foliage hugged close to the trail, but gaps between the leaves and branches betrayed the steep gorge hugging the path. It was drizzling by the time we trekked home, and the route we took wasn’t paved, so some of us slid, more than once :)

We ate after the trek, then visited other spots. The trek took almost the whole morning and afternoon, so for visitors, an overnight stay would be practical if they want to enjoy the whole resort.

After that, we headed on to the Ruins in Talisay city. The Ruins is also known as the Taj Majal of the Philippines, following the sad story of the owner and his lover. Visitors can take a guided historical tour of the area. Don’t mind the words “historical tour,” the guides there are particularly funny and entertaining. There are shops and a cafe on the grounds, aside from that. Visitors can take pictures here there and everywhere. The Ruins is particularly beautiful in the sunset.

The cement foundation, the only thing left of the Lacson mansion. Sab remembers seeing the Ruins before the frames were polished clean and the area turned into a tourist spot.

The cement foundation, the only thing left of the Lacson mansion. Sab remembers seeing the Ruins before the frames were polished clean and the area turned into a tourist spot.

Monday was free excursion day. Or super explore day. We headed for Molocaboc, an island town off the coast of Sagay city. Our guides Sab and Krisna (who joined us only for a day; she stayed in La Carlota to the south the rest of the period) have never been there before, and found out about the island online. So…

We took a Ceres Liner bus for the two-hour ride to Sagay (Php70 or so), north of Bacolod. We got off the wrong stop (the terminal within the city proper), so we had to wait for another Ceres plying the highway. There’s an old train at the park there that was used to carry logs and sugarcane from the fields. We climbed on board and explored but for a few holes and rusty floors with questionable integrity. The second bus dropped us off a bus stop just outside of the marker to Escalante. We took a tricycle (Php5, one way) from there to the docks in Barangay Vito, a small small quiet town with a single church. We had to wait for the boat to Molocaboc to fill — the big boats only set out once a day. That was worth Php20.

Barangay Molocaboc was a picturesque island. The houses there were small and fragile-looking. I’d feel terribly nervous if I lived there and a storm came up. That day was reserved for our excursion though, bright and windless. Molocaboc is definitely not a tourist destination, as we stood out like nudists on a Philippine beach the moment we set our feet on its docks. The people were very warm, though. We didn’t bring lunch, so we had to grab whatever Manang Suzette sold us when we passed by her little eatery. She even let us borrow her utensils and plates!

This is how it is there: pick a spot and enjoy.

We did a gazillion jump shots there. The background was simply picturesque! No  people, no anything... just sand, sea and sky. Ok, not exactly sea because it was low tide then. But we had plenty of that to walk on to get as far out into the sea as possible!

We did a gazillion jump shots in lieu of swimming. The background was simply picturesque! No people, no anything… just sand, sea and sky. Ok, not exactly sea because it was low tide then. But we had plenty of that to walk on to get as far out into the water as possible.

More water. Too low to dip into by then, so we waded out as far as we could.

More water. Too low to dip into by then, so we waded out as far as we could.

An empty beach in Molocaboc. The tide receded by late afternoon, so we didn't get to swim.

Pasil was an empty beach by late afternoon.

We took a smaller boat on the way back to Vito, worth Php125. Compared to the bigger boat, the ride home was better, and Isay and Krisna got the chance to swim in deep waters. This option depends on the weather though, so visitors should time their visit right if they want to enjoy Molocaboc in all its simplicity.

Molocaboc is known for this 1.5 km-long walk that leads to the dock far off shore. The path was very slippery by the time we went home; it was beneath the water when we arrived.

Molocaboc is known for this 1.5 km-long walk that leads to the dock far off shore. The path was very slippery by the time we went home; it was beneath the water when we arrived.

Our ride back to Vito

Our ride back to Vito

Food

It ain’t a real Bacolod experience without chicken in the itinerary! While Bacolod is not a stranger to the invasion of Inasal-themed fast food restos, the residents still know where to go to feast on the real deal: fresh, tender chicken, doused to the bone with a marinate so tangy and true that the Inasal we’ve come to know of in Manila tastes like rubber in comparison! If I remember right, we had 2 chicken Inasal meals there (one supported by an equally unforgettable home-cooked adobong atay dish [pinapak ko, at di ako mahilig sa liver a!], a recipe so secret in its concoction and so heavenly in its taste that the Tans must guard forever!) — but 2 meals in a 3-day stay wasn’t enough to sate the tongue.

For seafood lovers, there’s also Barangay Balaring in Silay city to visit, a small area accessible to the patient and the adventurous. The signboard said it was the seafood capital of Silay. It didn’t raise my expectations of the place, but what changed my mind was the food itself.

Tama Plaza is just one of the many seaside "floating" restaurants in Brgy. Balaring, Silay. Brgy. Balaring is known as the Seafood Capital of Negros, which isn't an empty boast! Lunch consisted of kinilaw (our version of ceviche), sinigang na hipon (sour soup with shrimp), and talaba (oysters). It's difficult to choose which one was the best, they were ALL DELICIOUS OHMYGOSH YOU MUST TRY THEM ALL!

Tama Plaza is just one of the many seaside “floating” restaurants in Brgy. Balaring, Silay. Brgy. Balaring is known as the Seafood Capital of Negros, which isn’t an empty boast! Lunch consisted of kinilaw (our version of ceviche), sinigang na hipon (sour soup with shrimp), and talaba (oysters). It’s difficult to choose which one was the best, they were ALL DELICIOUS OHMYGOSH YOU MUST TRY THEM ALL!

View from the restaurants. While waiting for the masterpiece dishes, visitors can bask in the view

View from the restaurants. While waiting for the masterpiece dishes, visitors can bask in the view

Piaya, piaya… sure. I don’t have pictures of Quan’s Napoleones, but it’s one of the best pastries in Bacolod! If visitors plan to bring home pasalubong, a box of Napoleones is equivalent to bringing home the whole Bacolod experience in a sweet, tasty package.

Transportation

Getting around Bacolod proper and other cities wasn’t particularly difficult for us since Sab’s family had a car. But for true commuters-at-heart, there are plenty of jeeps, buses, and habal-habal/trics that ply the roads. I was even surprised to learn there were taxis in Bacolod!

This was taken on the wrong stop, en route to Molocaboc

This was taken at the wrong stop, en route to Molocaboc

Ceres Liner is the main bus company that operates there. Their buses are smaller than Manila city buses, but the rides are miles more comfortable and safer :) I can’t remember if I saw air conditioned buses there, but the air is fresh and cool enough even for commuters to the most distant stops. They make daily trips between cities.

A note on the habal-habal we took on our way to Brgy. Vito and within Molocaboc. The passenger side wheel had a seat for one (yes, wheel, it was outside of the covered side car!). I found that funny but very practical, so I just had to try that out. Isay and I also rode topload on our way back from Molocaboc, a first!

This was me inspecting my royal subjects on top of a moving tricycle.

This was me inspecting my royal subjects from the top of a moving tricycle. ©S

Some towns or cities seem to feel like home even if you’ve never been there before. For this city, I can’t tell if it was the food (though it definitely played a huge role!), the people, or just the feel of the place. Like Tacloban, I truly felt like I could thrive there. If I find myself mistaken, well there’s Ceres Liner and 12 more cities to try in Negros Occidental.

Will I return to Bacolod? You betcha.

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