Several issues can arise when you are a female traveling alone in an unfamiliar place. The probability of getting mugged or falling ill can spark the worst horror stories on the road. However, it only took me 24 hours in Albay and 2000 PHP (40 USD) to know that the most persistent issue when you are traveling alone in the Philippines is having to explain why you are alone.
“Where’s your boyfriend? Are you heartbroken? Why didn’t you bring any of your friends? Are you planning on meeting afams (see vocabulary)?” These are a few of the questions that my visit elicited. The questions were raised by the tricycle driver who took me to my hostel, by the Filipino guests staying there, and by the locals I met on the jeepney ride to Cagsawa Ruins. Must there be a valid reason why I woman would go on a solo travel?
“Because I am a strong, independent woman” was what was on my mind each time I was grilled with the questions but each time I responded with a more polite and safer answer—to seek adventure. To be honest, there is a rather shallow reason why I decided to travel to the Bicol region and why I opted to do so alone. A few months back, I encountered the hashtag #albaymyself and wanted to use it so badly. It’s true what they say. For every good Instagram post, there is a jealous follower. One airline seat sale later, I was ready to set out to Albay all by myself.
I have traveled alone on several occasions (mostly on work-related trips) but never to unfamiliar places. I didn’t speak their dialect, too, so that posed a challenge as well. My trip started late Saturday morning when I boarded a flight to Albay’s capital, Legazpi City. I asked for a window seat so I could have a good view of what every tourist goes to see in Albay—the Mayon Volcano. I heard the cue that we were touching down (after being told to keep the trays stowed and the window shades up) so I directed my gaze towards the window expecting to see the volcano’s perfect cone. Instead saw a sea of dark, angry clouds.
You see, the volcano and the cloud in these parts of the Philippines have a rather, for lack of better term, “juicy” relationship. Legend (aka Google) has it that there lived a beautiful maiden named Magayon, which happens to be the Bicolano word for beautiful. Legends can be literal, you know. Although she was already betrothed to another, she fell in love with a warrior named Panganoron (which of course literally means “clouds”). To make the long story short, the star-crossed lovers met their tragic fate and suffered presumably horrible deaths but even in death, the two were separated. Magayon’s spirit remained in the land where she was buried while that of Panganoron’s moved to the clouds. His tears became the rain that nourished the land. Over time, the ground rose into a perfect cone, inching slowly into the sky and becoming what we now know as Mayon Volcano. In other words, Magayon turned into a vindictive little bitch in the form of a raging volcano.
Some say that the heavens would sometimes allow the two lovers to share a kiss in moments where the clouds would touch the mountain. On the day of my visit, I chose Daraga Church as vantage point. I was told that one can make a wish when it’s their first time in a particular church. I could have wished for love (or afam or both) but instead, I wished for the clouds to vanish. They shrouded Mount Mayon in what seemed like forever. It was definitely more than a kiss!
Then for a brief moment, the veil of clouds was lifted and I was finally permitted to witness the beauty of his lover. It was a perfect cone indeed! I got a longer look later that afternoon while I was at Cagsawa Ruins. There was a lot of waiting but the sight was worth every minute of it. Heck, it was even worth all the nosy why-are-you-alone questions!
Pictures from the Daraga Church complex. The parish was moved to Daraga after an eruption destroyed Cagsawa Church.
Pictures from Cagsawa Ruins. After an eruption in 1814, only the belfry is left of the Cagsawa Church.
Here are a few Filipino and Bicolano terms that you may find helpful when traveling to this part of the Philippines:
AFAM n. Acronym for “a foreigner assigned in Manila”. However, it is now colloquially used to refer to all foreigners even those who are just visiting and even those who aren’t based in Manila. I live in Cebu. Can you imagine saying afac instead of afam?
PILI n. It is a nut that is widely cultivated in the area. It tastes a bit like almonds. 1st Colonial Grill serves pili ice cream and it is delicious. Most pasalubong centers sell pili brittle. It’s also worth trying.
PASALUBONG n. This is a souvenir item or a delicacy that you take home to family and friends. The Philippines’ pasalubong culture is such a bummer for budget travellers. If you are couch surfing or practicing any form of freeloading in a Filipino household, make sure you bring something for your host.
JEEPNEY n. This is the major mode of transportation in the Philippines. It’s a cross between a non-airconditioned minibus and a military jeep.
SILING LABUYO n. It is a very spicy type of chili pepper. Every Bicolano household grows them in their backyard.
PINANGAT n. A Bicolano dish with meat wrapped in taro leaves and stewed in coconut milk.
BICOL EXPRESS n. Another Bicolano dish. I’m having a hard time describing it. It’s spicy and has coconut milk.
LAING n. Yet another Bicolano dish. It is spicy and has coconut milk and dried taro leaves. So by now you’ve probably figured out that I’m terrible at describing food. Don’t worry, my palette is better than my writing. Bicolano cuisine is sumptuous (but may affect your bowel movement. Coconut milk isn’t lactose rich but it spoils easily)!
Best Time to Visit
People come to see Magayon but Panganoron is full of himself. It’s always cloudy and typhoons are frequent (Albay is located in the eastern part of the Philippines, near the Pacific Ocean). Do not visit during typhoon season. The best time would be summer. Other vantage points for the volcano include Lignon Hill, Kapuntukan Hill or the Sleeping Lion, and Sumlang lake in Camalig. All these are lovely during summer. Most importantly, the sunflowers of Ligao, Albay are in bloom. A view the volcano across a field of sun flowers is a sight you cannot miss.
Getting There and Going Around
Albay can be reached via bus or plane from Manila. There are also flights to and from Cebu. Hey, why not visit Cebu as well? Bring me pasalubong.
There are free tourist maps at the airport. Take one for a souvenir but I find making an offline map with Google Maps very useful. Public transport can get confusing with all the ambiguous signboards but the locals are very helpful with directions as to which jeepney to hail and where to wait for then. A jeepney ride to popular tourist spots costs 8 to 10 PHP. However, some of these sites may require two jeepney rides to get there.
When going to Cagsawa Ruins, the jeepney would drop you off along the high way with lots of tricycle waiting. Politely refuse them. The site can be reached by walking for 5 minutes.
Must-Try Bicolano Dishes
During typhoons, the first thing the locals save is their siling labuyo. Bicolano cuisine is spicy! Try pinangat, Bicol express, pili brittle, laing, and sili ice cream. 1st Colonial Grill serves sili ice cream in three variants (mild, hot, and very hot). I suggest a mixed double scoop of pili and sili. Most people aren’t likely to finish the sili. A glass of milk on the side could come in handy in case the sili challenges your tolerance. Local restaurants and popular Bicol-based food chains like Bigby’s and Graceland Foodshop serve traditional dishes in very affordable prices.
A must try! Pinangat and sili ice cream.
Where to Stay
Inns and small hotels are available within Legazpi City. For budget travelers and backpackers, hostels would be more advisable. A night at Mayon Backpackers’ Hostel would only set you back 350 PHP. Book online and your room will be guaranteed even upon late check in.
Feel free to ask for details in the comments section. Other than being a strong, independent woman *wink*, I am also a calculating woman. I have excel files and offline maps with each place meticulously labeled with directions and a brief history. Of course, I’m not like that all the time. It’s just that with the time given (I arrived Saturday noon and left Sunday noon), I couldn’t afford to get lost.
If you found this post helpful and you happen to be traveling there soon, let me know if the volcano and the cloud are making out again by hitting the comments section.