Sun

27

Sep

2015

Sorsogon - A Living, Breathing Fairytale

Sorsogon Blog Post - © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
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Sorsogon is the southernmost province of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. During my time exploring the country, my imagination always went wild when somebody mentioned Sorsogon...even the name conjures up images of sorcerers, dragons, and fairies - for me, anyway.

 

When I finally explored the region, I realized it was kind of true! There are no dragons like in Game Of Thrones, but you can swim with friendly whale sharks - some as big as school buses! You can also glide down a river in the moonlight, mesmerized by the glowing lights of millions of fireflies...then wake up and stroll along the banks of a cool, misty lake - at the foot of a restless volcano!

 

 

All these reasons are why I went with this "enchanting" blog theme. However, as you can see below, Sorsogon's beaches may also put a spell on you...


Glenn Belarmino climbing a coconut tree @ Juag Lagoon Marine Sanctuary - Matnog, Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis
My friend Glenn climbing a coconut tree

 

An expert in this region told me that locals are not so open to outsiders, and considering the Philippines' history with colonizers, I don't blame them. Anyway, I may have gotten a taste of this when I pointed out areas for tourism improvement - and a sensitive official threw himself (and Sorsogon) into the national news by declaring me "persona non grata".

 

Still, I came to promote the region....and I intend on doing just that. It is a beautiful place, and for what  it's worth, I found plenty of friendly people there as well.

 

Island-Hopping To Juag Lagoon, Matnog

(Click photos for more info)

 

I absolutely loved this place...you have to see it to believe it! Juag Lagoon is a marine sanctuary where you can snorkel and swim with hundreds of colorful fish - some quite large! The area is fenced off, and the fish are fed...but they are still very much in a natural environment.

 

 

I like this because it gives tourists one of the best snorkeling experiences of their lives - with minimal damage to the environment. You jump in the water from the floating cottage, so you always have something to hold on to if you need a rest. Also, since the water is deep, you never risk stepping on and damaging the coral. Note: Wearing sunblock can harm the fish, so they do not allow it.

 

The "Pink Sand" of Subic Beach, Matnog

Island Hopping - Matnog, Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

 

This beach quickly moved up my list of favorites anywhere in the Philippines! It's easy to see why, right? The sand is known for being pink...if you look closely, there are tiny bits of red coral mixed in with the white sand. However, it takes certain light to really notice it.


(Click photos for more info)

 

My guides Glenn, Jesz, and Mel were smart to buy fresh fish from the market in Matnog, and they also brought tents so we could try camping on the beach. I set my hammock up in the shade of the coconut trees...what a life! Subic Beach doesn't have any hotels or facilities that I know of...only nipa huts and the homes of the villagers.

 

Bangka (boat) on Subic Beach - Matnog, Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

 

Such a stunning place...I'll never forget taking a midnight swim here. The water was so clear that I could see the bottom - even just in the moonlight! One thing: Watch out for sand fleas. I got some bites near the water's edge early in the morning. Aside from that minor drawback, this beach is absolutely perfect.

 

Floating Cottages of Panumbagan Sandbar - Pilar

Floating Cottages of Panumbagan - Pilar, Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis


From the town of Pilar, my host BM and I took a 30 minute boat ride to these picturesque floating cottages. On the way, we stopped to snorkel and harvest some "lato", or sea grapes. It taste more like seaweed, and this was the best variety I've had in the Philippines so far. You can relax in the cottages and eat as much as lato as you would like!

 

 

Panumbagan Sandbar is a nice place to take photos nearby. Bicolanos may have seen the interview I did with ABS-CBN on this beach.


Parola Beach & Bulusan Bell Tower

From Magallanes, I was invited on a boat trip to Sta. Lourdes Grotto, then to see the Parola (Lighthouse) on Bagatao Beach. Both have beautiful views if you make the effort to climb up. Afterward, there was a "mud surfing" event nearby in Juban. Like me, you are probably wondering what mud surfing is...

 

Well, it turns out that this coastal community doesn't have normal sandy beaches...instead, they have shallow, muddy beaches that make trips to and from the fisherman's boats difficult. They started using planks of wood to "skim" over the mud and get back to shore. Now, the local kids have started using these "surfboards" to race. What a way to make lemonade with those lemons!

(Click photos for more info)

Later, Glenn toured me around Bulusan, and I had the chance to climb up the centuries-old bell tower. I believe this was built to watch out for moro pirates. This is a great place to take photos!

 

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Bulusan Volcano Natural Park

Finally, Sorsogon lives up to its enchanting name! Haha. Mt. Bulusan is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, and at its foot are the emerald green waters of Bulusan Lake. Hiking around this lake really is like strolling through a fairytale...


One of the best things about being here is how nice and cool it is! It's a great refuge from the heat of the lowlands. Actually, I noticed Sorsogon City seemed cooler than surrounding areas as well.

 

Gazebo by the lake - Bulsan, Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

 

 

(Click photos for more info)

 

I was surrounded by a lush, green canopy with butterflies, frogs, birds, and flowers everywhere I looked! I have never seen so much life in one place before. The stick insect (or walking stick) you see above was something I've only seen on TV! We arrived during late afternoon, and I loved seeing the locals fishing peacefully by the lake.

 

Swimming With The Whale Sharks in Donsol

Something I noticed about Donsol was that its wonders are not easily captured in pictures. Swimming (snorkeling) with the "gentle giants", the whale sharks, is an incredible feeling unlike anything I have ever experienced, and yet it was almost impossible to capture on camera. Perhaps the water was unusually cloudy that day. You really have to move to keep up with them, too!

 

There are other places to experience whale sharks, but Donsol provides the most environmentally-responsible option. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

(Click photos for more info)

Firefly Tours in Donsol

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this tour! We have fireflies back home, but I have never seen anything like I did along the banks of the river that night. It was as if the stars came down from the sky and blanketed the trees in a pulsating frenzy! Pure magic, and again, almost impossible to photograph. Ate Cel was our tour guide, and she was quite good.

 

Stay Honest, Stay in Business

 

It's definitely worth it, but I hope the local tour operators are honest about helping to fill the boats and keep the cost for tourists down. I mention this because my group was just 2, and we waited and waited for people to join. We were told there was nobody, and that we'd have to pay for the whole boat. Then during the tour, we noticed another boat with only 2 people in it.

 

 

They had arranged their tour long before ours, and we could have easily joined them and shared the costs. It could be that they wanted to be alone, but I did notice at least one review mentioning that the same thing might be happening with the whale shark interactions.

 

A tourist wrote that he had to pay a lot for his own boat, then noticed others in their own boats. On top of feeling like he was taken advantage of, he also worried that there might be too many boats on the water, potentially frightening the whale sharks. Happy tourists will bring more happy tourists, so I hope the officials will keep this in mind and do the right thing.

 

Discovering Barcelona's Snorkeling Treasure

Snorkeling in Barcelona, Sorsogon - Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

I heard rumors of some good "undiscovered" snorkeling in a town called Barcelona...you will have to ask the locals were the Mayor's house is, because I believe the snorkeling is near there. We asked a local fisherman to take us out about 100 meters into the water, where the reef was creating waves.

 

You must bring your own snorkeling gear, because there is hardly any tourism infrastructure in Barcelona yet. The snorkeling here is quite unique, because it's a reef in about 1-2 meters of water...but suddenly the reef wall drops down 20 or 30 meters! It feels like you are "flying" right off the edge of a cliff! Surreal.

 

I took the picture above with my Olympus TG-4 underwater camera. Please remember to not step on or touch any coral / sea life, because the ecosystem is fragile. You should exit the boat in deep water, and wear a life vest, because the current from the waves can be strong.

 

 

Snorkeling is not all Barcelona has to offer though, I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful old church, and this colorful town marker as well! Whoever had the idea to create this is a genius, because everybody will want to come take a selfie here!

 

There is something about this church that I love as well...there are beautiful paintings and stained glass on the walls, but there is also a sense of history here that overwhelmed and humbled me. I would like to thank Mayor "Wowo" for his hospitality during my visit.

Surfing in Gubat

Surfing in Gubat, Sorsogon - Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

 

Gubat has started becoming famous for surfing in recent years. I really hoped to finally learn to surf when I came here, but the timing wasn't quite right. I guess I will have to save it for Siargao! Pictured below is Lola Sayong Eco-Surf Camp, where you can stay and take surfing lessons.


Hotels in Sorsogon

Siama Hotel, Sorsogon City - Philippines © Nathan Allen via @idreamedofthis

Siama Hotel, Sorsogon City

 

After college, famous designer Milo Naval married a girl from Sorsogon...and eventually created what is probably my favorite hotel in the world (so far:)

 

Tucked away in the lush jungle, Siama Hotel is a MUST SEE - whether you stay as a guest or not. This place should make Filipinos very, very proud.  You can book a room HERE.

 

AGM Beachfront Resort, Donsol - Probably the best you're going to find in Donsol. Excellent service and hospitality. Try the pancakes! Book your stay HERE

 

Aguluz Homestay, Donsol - This is the highest-reviewed budget stay in Donsol. About $18USD for 2 people if you book online HERE

 

Lola Erna's Homestay is near the bridge and firefly-watching dock. Ask the locals about it. It's the cheapest I found! Lola Erna is very nice, and the price is just right if you're not too picky.

 

Lola Sayong Eco-Surf CAMP (Gubat) is recommended, but if you're on a tight budget, you might try the place next door on the beach. It was much cheaper. They seemed nice, but I didn't stay there, so you'll have to let me know how it is!

 

More options HERE

 

 

Getting To Sorsogon / General Info

You can reach Sorsogon by flying to Legazpi from Manila (1 hour trip, with stunning views of Mt. Mayon on the way), then taking a bus and/or jeepney for 1-3 hours, depending on where you need to go. Note, I believe you can also take an overnight bus direct to Donsol or Sorsogon City from Manila.

 

Whale shark season in Donsol is generally December to May...I went in April, and I saw quite a few. Please contact sir Milo Naval at Siama Hotel for information about Sorsogon tours. You can hire a boat to take you to Panumbagan Sandbar from the Pilar port, and one to take you to Subic Beach in the Matnog Tourism Office. Jeepneys to Gubat, Bulusan, and Barcelona can be taken from Sorsogon City.

 

Thanks so much to Glenn, Jesz, Jobeth, BM, Milo, and "Gov" for all the help exploring this fascinating region. I would love to come back someday, but since I am "officially unwelcome", "someday" could be a long, long time:)

 

 

- Nathan Allen



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Most recent blog:  Masbate: The Best Tourist-Free Beaches in the Philippines

 

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Nathan Allen has spent 3 years taking photos and documenting the Philippines.  A long-term traveler, he lives by the motto "spend less, see more".  Follow him HERE.

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