From the deeply religious Bicol region, Camarines Sur is the Philippines’ newest and fast rising tourism star with coasts and islands that greet the traveler with gorgeous limestone formations, secluded white sand beaches as well as a throbbing adventure sports scene that makes the rest of Asia stand up and take notice.
About 10-12 hours bus ride (or a 45 minute plane ride) away from Manila is the province of Camarines Sur, formerly known as Tierra de Camarines – a Spanish-founded settlement. The name was derived from camaronchones or camarines, Spanish for a warehouse/barn which referred to the small nipa/bamboo huts used by the locals of the area. Spanish Governor General Guideo de Lavezares called Camarines Sur as Los Camarines after finding a great number of camarins or rice granaries all over the area.
Photo from Flickr
The Bicol region was subjugated by the Spaniards into two portions – the southern portion (Partido de Ibalon) comprises everything south of the town of Camalig (in Albay), Catanduanes, Sorsogon, Masbate and present-day Partido (an area around the Caramoan Peninsula) and the northern portion (Partido de Camarines) includes Camalig town and the rest of the towns of Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte. In 1829, Partido de Camarines was divided into Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur (and like a lot of the provinces and regions in the Philippines underwent annexations, more partitions, fusions and re-partitions until the two Camarines provinces (then called Ambos Camarines)) had their present boundaries finally outlined in March 19, 1919 by a decree of the First Philippine legislature.
As with the rest of the country – it experienced several upheavals and figured in several prominent national and international conflicts – the Philippine revolution, the American invasion, and the Japanese occupation during the last World War.
While Pili has been the provincial capital since June 6, 1955 – the city of Naga is more known. Naga was the former capital of the province and was founded in 1573. It was then called Nueva Caceres- named after one of the provinces of Spain and Naga was considered as one of the five royal cities of the colony.
Before the recent frenzy of tourism in the province – Naga was known as the seat of Bicol’s most famous, revered and supposedly miraculous religious icon – Our Lady of Peñafrancia. As the story goes, a lot of miracles were received by Father Miguel de Cobarrubias (originally from San Martin de Castañar in Spain) who strived to bring this faith to the people. As the image was sculpted and finished – blood was used to color the statue (as was the customs of that time) and also served as a preservative – a dog was caught, killed and blood was used as paint- and the dog’s body was thrown into a river nearby. Seeing this, Father Cobarrubias apparently remarked that the Virgin would work her first miracle in Nueva Caceres, and instantly the dog was said to have started swimming and upon reaching the river banks ran fast to the house of its owner. News of the miracle spread like wildfire and instantly the patroness was famous.
The image was no less than controversial in recent times – because of its age and story – it was deemed so highly valuable that on August 15, 1981 it was stolen from the Peñafrancia Church. A massive search ensured and finally the image was rightfully returned to its rightful place a little over a year later. The image can now be found at the Basilica Minore at Calle Balatas in Naga City and remains to be the regions Ina (Mother).
Photo by Dave Ryan
Whilst Camarines Sur was traditionally known for the Our Lady of Peñafrancia (celebrated every third Sunday of September) – it is also known for other religious devotions – in Barangay Sta. Salud in Calabanga town – thousands of pilgrims do the “pagsongko” or a promise of walking a twelve-kilometer road (if the devotee is from Naga) during late night Maundy Thursday or the early morning of Good Friday to visit another miraculous image of Jesus in repose in his tomb known as Amang Hinulid.
Buhi town (which is also famous for having the smallest fish in the world called sinarapan) is also known for its Passion Plays that date back as early as 1866 where the life, passion and death of Christ are either recited or chanted during Lenten season. Meanwhile during the month of May, the Aurora is also practiced where a small procession of about 20-30 people (including children) sing the songs of prayer and penance (alabasyon) dedicated to the Virgin Mary whilst holding lit candles and torches. A small andas or altar with the statue of Virgin Mary is bedecked with crepe paper flowers and carried along with the procession.
Another distinct cultural practice in the province is the Pantomina which is an artistic courtship dance. While a newlywed dances the Pantomina, the padrinos (godfathers), the taglalaki, the tagbabaye and other relatives throw money on the floor in front of the dancing couple. This practice of throwing money is called the bitor. A more modern version of the dance makes do without the bitor, instead money is pinned to the clothes of the married couples and in some cases, the newlyweds give their relatives and other guests wine to drink and are given gifts or money in return. This is called the tagay.
Aside from the deep religiosity and fervor of the people of Camarines Sur, the province has successfully established itself as one of the major centres of adventure sports, not only in the Philippines but within the Asia-Pacific region, with the opening of the largest wakeboarding centre in Asia – the CamSur Watersports Complex (Please check their website for rates and accommodations – http://www.camsurwatersportscomplex.com/) This sprawling wakeboarding facility is located within the Provincial Capitol Complex in Cadlan, Pili, Camarines Sur. CWC as it more known, also has waterskiing and wakeskating facilities and has recently hosted Ironman 70.3 – the first time the Philippines has ever hosted such an internationally recognized triathlon event.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Like many parts of the Philippines, Camarines Sur also boasts of stretches of beautiful and largely unexplored coastlines which mean miles and miles of beaches, coves and staggering rock formations, the most famous of which is the Caramoan Peninsula National Park. Caramoan Peninsula captured international attention when several editions of the reality series Survivor were filmed in the area- Survivor France, Bulgaria, Israel and Serbia filmed in the islands of Caramoan Peninsula. The peninsula is famous for its dramatic limestone karst formations, white sand beaches, coves, as well as sandbars which is pretty reminiscent of Coron in the Calamianes Islands in Northern Palawan – heavily promoted by the local government – Caramoan is still to recover from the initial shock of the growing influx of tourists in the past two years when the peninsula was suddenly plucked out of relative obscurity and thrust into the Philippine tourism limelight. Kayaking around the islets is a favorite pastime amongst visitors as well as the requisite island hop and while most islands are open, some of these are closed off to the public once there is an ongoing filming of Survivor. The local government apparently franchised the area for Survivor filming for 4 years. The more popular islands are Lahuy, Matukad, Cotivas, Lajos and Sabitang Laiya, the last one famous for its triangular shape whose two sides offer a long stretch of cream-colored sandy beach and relatively shallow waters. In Paniman, the two coves Little Gota and Big Gota are some of the main attractions, as well as the limestone islands of the Malarad Island Group.
Besides Caramoan Peninsula National Park, other attractive beaches and coastal sceneries in Camarines Sur include Animasola Island in Balatan with its funky rock formations, Atulayan Island in Sangay made famous by its rare shells and ivory-colored beach (this was also the setting of the French-Italian movie “Mutiny in the South Seas”), Daruanak Island off the coast of Poñgol and Balogo beaches in Pasacao which are home to starfishes, sea urchins, sea anemones and other marine life and Aguirangan Island in Presentacion with scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities in its waters – gorgeous coral formations that stretch over a kilometer on its eastern side.
For those who love mountains and forests, one can check out the imposing Mount Isarog (Bicol’s second highest volcano at 1966 metres)– but currently inactive) whose two big waterfalls, Tuaguiti and Bulalacao and the smaller Kawa-kawa in Tigaon make the hike more than worth it. Make sure you also check out Nabuntulan Falls and Malabsay Falls. Contact a mountaineering outfit before you embark on a hike, permits can be collected at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources at Panganiban Drive in Naga (near the City Hall Complex). Mount Isarog at Panicuason, has natural springs as well – two hot and three cold. Other waterfalls include – Nalalata Falls (Bula), Bolanogan Falls (Lagonoy), and Itbog Twin Falls (Buhi).
For the avid spelunker, one should not miss the Kalupnitan Caves in Ilibmanan with their numerous stalactite and stalagmite formations. The Kalupnitan Caves are also home to thousands of bats. In San Jose, a series of caverns and a 300 meter canopy that goes all the way into the Calinigan Mountains is Adiangan Caves’ attraction. The caves also have stalactites, stalagmites and huge pillars and a ceiling with dripstone that looked like suspended waterfalls. If you wanna be close to nature but do not have time to leave Naga, you may visit the Naga City Ecology Park (http://nagaecopark.com), a 4.4 hectare park which features several theme gardens and a maze.
Curious stuff to check out is the Boa-boahan Festival in Nabua every May 2 where a reenactment of the 13th century pagan ritual of offering chains of coconut embryos called boa to deities to ensure a prosperous year ahead. If Pisa has a leaning tower so does the town of Bombon. On the other hand, Lake Buhi churns out the sinarapan- the world’s smallest fish which are about 3-4 millimeters long. 1 spoonful of these minute fish contains literally a thousand of them- so much that a famous dish called Thousand Fish Omelet was made of these tiny fish.
Why Not Go
With the recent boom in local tourism, Camarines Sur is grappling with an overwhelming number of tourists, more than what its existing infrastructure can handle. This is now being addressed slowly by the local stakeholders as more roads are being built or rehabilitated and proper facilities are being built to address this huge influx of tourists and travelers coming to the province.
Photo by lizza22
For the avid aquatic sportsman, the beach bum, the travelling gourmand or the pilgrim, Camarines Sur is a tightly packed travel destination with exciting opportunities and a largely unexplored province.
Best Time to Visit
Skip the CWC and even Caramoan Peninsula or even most areas during long weekends. The hordes of eager wakeboard enthusiasts means that there is a long waitlist before you can get in the water. The more popular islands also get a lot of visitors during long weekends in the Caramoan Peninsula. Best time to go is when you take time off from work and visit the parks during the week or on weekends that don’t have any holidays nearby. While the summer months of March-May are the best time to go, this is also the worst time to visit with so many people going to Camarines Sur.
Where & What to Eat
Bicol fare is characterized by a heavy use of coconut cream and a copious amount of chilies – a culinary tradition that sets the region apart from the rest of the country but has a strangely similar affinity with the Malay culinary traditions. Try Langkang Palusag which is made of langka (breadfruit), bangut, garlic and onions in coconut milk, boiled, and simmered. Or the ever popular, Bicol Express named after the Philippine National Railway that goes through the Bicol heartland. Bicol Express is made of balaw (small shrimps) with a bit of ground pork and the notoriously spicy – siling labuyo- probably the spiciest chillies in the world. Diced lobster meat mixed with young coconut meat, taro leaves, lemongrass, ground garlic and diced onions in coconut milk makes the dish called Pinangat. Ginuygoy, meanwhile, is made of taro leaves, flavored with dinaelan and seasoned with lemon juice. If you are in the area, also try Inon-on – saltwater fish cooked in vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, onions and oil; Ginaring – roast skewered fish called talusog; and of course Gulay na Natong or commonly called Laing- taro leaves with chillies, and sometimes ground pork.
The problem with finding authentic Bicolano fare in Camarines Sur, and specifically in Naga- is that you really have to look hard for it. Most restaurants in Camarines Sur serve mainstream Filipino dishes which can be a bit disappointing. Your best bet is to find a local, unassuming eatery to find a more authentic version of these dishes. In the more touristy areas, a more watered down version of course is available. If in doubt, ask a local or your hotel concierge to point you in the direction of the best restaurant to eat traditional Bicolano dishes. We tried to do that in Naga and we just failed to find a good place to eat these dishes.
Should we forget Pili Nuts? Of course not. It is a sacrilege to skip out these deliciously addicting nuts that Camarines Sur is known for.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Our culinary adventures of course were not altogether a total failure. We had the chance to try Bicol’s take on the common Pizza at CWC- it was named, well, Bicolano Pizza (about PhP250 if we can remember it correctly). It is a thin crust pizza topped with Bicol Express, and Laing. I was very apprehensive at first, but it was love at first bite. The taste was just right, quirky yet familiar, with the flavors of Bicol effectively captured in that warm plate of ultimate yummy goodness. This is definitely a must-try for anyone visiting Camarines Sur.
The province’s epicenter, when it comes to local nightlife, is the city of Naga with its different cafes and bars spread throughout the city. Getting around is a problem, however, if you do not own a car. The city is too spread out and lacks an obvious city centre and mostly tricycles ply the routes. Alternatively, most visitors will probably congregate at the CWC – whose restaurant and bar are fairly well-stocked and capable of handling a significant amount of guests.
My to do List
1. Wakeboard at CamSur Watersports Complex.**
2. Try the Bicolano Pizza.*
3. Munch on a bag of candied Pili Nuts.*
4. Island Hop in the Caramoan Peninsula.**
5. Feel the Bicolano religiosity at the Our Lady of Peñafrancia Shrine. **
6. Get lost in the maze at the Naga Ecology Park.*
7. Soak in the hot-springs on Mount Isarog.*
8. Feel the island vibe at Pasacao, Camarines Sur’s answer to Brazil’s Copacabana.**
9. Marvel at the numerous stalagmites and stalactites in Kalupnitan and Adiangan Caves.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Photo by Dave Ryan
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Drowning, wear your life-vests at all times during island hopping.
3. Rip tides.
4. UV Rays, wear proper sun protection to avoid UV rays.
If you are not coming with a tour group, Camarines Sur (through the Naga Airport in Pili) can be accessed via plane (45 minutes ride). Zest Air, Philippine Airlnes and Cebu Pacific from Manila and vice-versa. Buses also ply the Manila-Naga route – Isarog, Peñafrancia, RSL, ECSI and Philtranco buses serve this route. There are also mini-vans and buses servicing Naga to other points of Bicol though it’s Central Bus Terminal. A more comfy ride through the Philippine National Railways is set to commence at the end of 2009 as well (+63.2.2549772) but can be a very, very slow way to reach Camarines Sur. If you are driving, make sure that you pick up a map and follow the scenic but sometimes hair-raising Pan-Philippine Highway.
Photo by Dave Ryan