Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Philippines by Bike, Boat and Boot

Greetings All,
We flew from Delhi, India to Manila, Philippines by way of Bangkok on Nov. 13 and checked into our hotel in Intramuros, the old walled quarter of Manila.  The following morning we met our KE Adventure Travel tour group and our local guide Bryan.  We set out to explore the old city in a most unusual way, by bamboo bike!  Yes, that's correct - we hired bikes with frames constructed of bamboo.

Peggy's Bambike

Besides being a novelty, there is a human interest story behind the bikes.  Bambike is a socio-ecological enterprise based in the Philippines that hand-makes bamboo bicycles with fair-trade labor and sustainable building practises. Their bamboo bike builders (aka Bambuilders) come from Gawad Kalinga, a Philippine based community development organization for the poor, working to bring an end to poverty.  To learn more about Bambike go to:

Our first stop was San Agustin Church first constructed in 1571 by the Spainards.  Made of bamboo and palm it only lasted 3 years before being destroyed by fire.  The church was rebuilt with wood but burned in 1583 when a candle set drapes ablaze during the funeral of a Spanish Governor.  The present church and attached monastery (now a museum) was built with Adobe stones and completed in 1607.  On August 18, 1898, the church was the site where Spanish Governor-General Fermin Jaudenes prepared the terms for the surrender of Manila to the United States following the Spanish-American War.

San Agustin Church

From the church we cycled to an outside gallery of former Philippine presidents.  We parked our bikes and climbed to the top of the stone wall surrounding Intramuros.  The moat on the other side of the wall was filled in by the Americans and now there is a 18-hole golf course in its place.  I almost got beaned on the head by a rogue golf ball!

Cannon on the Intramuros Wall

We stopped at a memorial to mariners that sailed in galleons from Acapulco, Mexico to Manila.  For 250 years from 1565 to 1815, this route was traveled by 108 Spanish galleons and took 3 months.  The return trip was more dangerous and took 6 months.  Today there is still a tight connection between Mexico and the Philippines, however the "Galleon Route" is no longer used.

Route Map

Our last stop was the Manila Cathedral originally built in 1581.  The cathedral was damaged and destroyed several times with the present-day structure being completed in 1958.  

Manila Cathedral

We returned our bikes and took a break for lunch before resuming our tour.  Next stop was the Chinese cemetery.  The Chinese built elaborate mausoleums to house their deceased.  Some even have bathrooms  (called comfort rooms or CR here), kitchens and air conditioning!

Chinese Cemetery

We visited Fort Santiago built by a Spanish conquistador to protect the newly established city of Manila.  Not much remains except for the reconstructed main gate.

Fort Santiago Gate

Most people come here to visit the Rizal Shrine Museum.  José Rizal, the Philippine national hero, was imprisoned here before his execution in 1896.  Rizal was a man of many talents: an ophthalmologist, a sculptor, painter and writer.   Some of his writings inspired an anti-colonial revolution.   Though Rizal did not take part in the revolution, he approved of its goals and was executed for rebellion by the Spanish colonial government.  The museum contains memorabilia of the hero but we weren't allowed to take photos inside. 

That evening we were able to see the "Super Moon" over Manila under somewhat clear skies from our hotel's rooftop restaurant.   The full moon was at its closest point to earth since 1948.   It won't be this close again until 2034.

"Super Moon" Over Manila

The following morning we drove south to Taal Volcano.  The weather didn't look promising but Bryan supplied thin rain jackets and we boarded a boat for the 45-minute trip to Taal Island.  

Wet Boat Trip on Lake Taal

The rain continued once we arrived and we decided to climb the volcano anyway.  It was a short but slick climb up a well-used track.  When we arrived on the crater rim we could see the lake below.  It was cool to be on a small volcano inside the caldera of a larger one.

Taal Crater View from Rim

On the way down we had to dodge the many Korean tourists coming up on horseback.  I'm not sure why they needed to ride up such a short climb.  Most looked like they were in better shape that the poor horses they were riding.  I guess it was the novelty of horseback riding.

Riding Horses Up to the Rim

We had lunch at a restaurant which under sunny conditions would have a great view over Taal Volcano and Lake.  We had to settle for a glimpse here and there when the sun broke through the clouds.

Taal Volcano and Lake

We left Manila at 3:30 the following morning and headed north toward Pinatubo Volcano, our next climbing objective.  I fell asleep in the van and when I awoke it was raining.  Bummer, it would be another wet hike.  When we arrived at Santa Juliana, the entrance to the area, we had to get our blood pressure checked.  Yes, you read correctly, since we were over 40 we had to get our blood pressure checked by an EMT.  We all passed and split into three 4x4's for the drive to the start of the hike.  We drove up a riverbed in Crow Valley, splashing through many crossings and passing through a military training zone.  There were a few soldiers and tanks about but they didn't appear to be firing weapons so we were able to pass.  Ahomar, our driver said that on the way back we could be held up as long as an hour if there were training exercises going on.

Jeep Crossing the River

We arrived at the start of the hike and piled out of the jeeps.  We put on our rain gear but keeping our feet dry was next to impossible.  We had to cross the river many times so we just waded with our boots.

Edgar helping Peggy Across the River

It took 2 hours to hike the 4 miles to the crater rim of Pinatubo.   It was a very gradual accent so we didn't feel we had climbed about 1100 feet.  The rain had stopped and we were able to enjoy views over the lake.  On June 15, 1991 the 2nd largest terrestrial eruption in the 20th century occurred here. The summit collapsed almost 1000 feet creating this caldera.  A typhoon hit on the same day causing massive lahars or mudslides.

Peggy at Mt Pinatubo Summit

A succession of earthquakes felt in March and smaller eruptions in April convinced tens of thousands of people to evacuate before the main eruption saving many lives.  On our hike back, the sun came out and we got better views of the ash cliffs lining the river.

Ash Cliffs Along the Trail

Today the indigenous Aetas people still live in the area.  Their forest home had been destroyed but they still raise livestock and sell drinks to tourists hiking to the volcano rim.

Aetas Children

After the hike we drove to Capas to clean up and have lunch before continuing to Baguio for the night.  The next morning we took in the city market before resuming our journey north.  

Baguio Public Market

Our destination was the charming hill station of Sagada.  This town is most famous for its extraordinary hanging coffins and burial caves.  We first visited Lumiang Cave where wooden coffins around 300 years old were piled near the entrance.

Lumiang Cave Coffins

We were surprised at how short the coffins were.  We asked our local guide, Mel, if only children were buried here and she explained that adults are buried in the fetal position in the belief that one should leave this world in the same position as they entered it.  One of the coffins had gecko carvings on top.  I've read that the person buried inside died at a very old age and that the gecko is a sign of long life.

Gecko Coffin

Our last stop for the day were the hanging coffins in Echo Valley.  It was ironic that we had to walk past a Catholic Church and cemetery to reach the edge of the valley.  We could see the coffins far below but wanted a closer look.  We carefully wound our way to the valley floor where about 20 coffins were hanging on the limestone wall of the valley.

Hanging Coffins in Echo Valley

Why go to the trouble of hoisting a coffin and hanging it high on a limestone wall?  Some believe that it gets the soul of the departed that much closer to heaven.  Others believe that it more for practical reasons like keeping the dead body away from wild animals or protecting them from natural disasters.  

One more thing Sagada is known for is Philippine Civet Coffee, also called coffee alamid.  It is touted as "the world's most expensive coffee due to exotic if not gross origins."  Making coffee alamid starts with a nocturnal animal called a Common Palm Civet.  These free-ranging wild animals feast on the red fleshy coffee cherries and once partially digested the coffee beans leave the civets as pooh.  The beans are gathered from the forest floor, picked from the pooh, washed and processed into the "caviar of coffee".  You got it, from gross to gourmet!  We purchased a half a pound so friends can try it when we get home.   

Excreted Civet Coffee Beans

Stay tuned to see what surprises are in store for us in the second half of our trip to the Philippines. 

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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