Should you ever find yourself in Legazpi, Albay

When we went to Bicol last summer to go swim with the whale sharks in Donsol and visit my mom’s hometown of Ligao, we also spent a a couple of days in Legazpi, the capital of Albay province. A couple of aunts, uncles and cousins live there, most of whom I haven’t seen in years. There was a family reunion of sorts and like every Filipino reunion, it was marked with a lot of eating.

For one dinner, an aunt and uncle took us to Sibid-Sibid, a casual dining spot with interiors inspired by the traditional Filipino bahay kubo. It’s popular among the locals and it took us a few minutes to get seated. It’s known for its great seafood dishes that are mostly cooked in the Bicolano style (for me, that’s with lots of coconut milk!).

Take for example Bicol Express,  a spicy pork stew made with coconut milk, green chilies and shrimp paste; theirs is a seafood version, replacing the pork with chunks of delicious tuna. My mom who often makes Bicol Express, loved it that you could tell she was already thinking of how to recreate it back home.

We also had the Sizzling Mixed Seafood (which seems to be one of the most popular dishes since it was in almost every table), Sinigang na Hipon (shrimp and vegetables cooked in a sour broth, usually tamarind), some grilled fish, native chicken cooked in (what else?) coconut milk, and lots of rice. It was a very satisfying meal; one I would gladly have again should I find myself back in Legazpi. I particularly loved the fish Bicol Express and the simple grilled fish. Good value for money too.

Tuna Bicol Express

Sibid-Sibid specialty: Sizzling Mixed Seafood, which has crab, squid, fish, shrimp and a few veggies thrown in

The sour (and comforting) broth of  Sinigang na Hipon complemented the rich, salty and spicy flavors of the other dishes

Simple and lovely grilled fish

Another day, after getting treated to the popular buffet lunch beside the Legazpi Airport (cheap at around P199), my cousins took us to DJC Halo-Halo.  Many folks from Legazpi, including my cousins, used to go to the neighboring town of Tiwi just to have the halo-halo of DJC. Halo-halo is a popular Filipino dessert, typically made of crushed ice, milk, sweetened saba bananas, ube (purple yam), leche flan, macapuno (coconut variety) and other sweet bits. The version of DJC is topped with ube ice cream and cheese.

DJC Halo-Halo

DJC earned such a huge following that the local snack bar eventually opened branches in Legazpi at Pacific Mall and in Naga. Though the photo above might look like a big mountain of crushed ice, the fillings are substantial–generous helping of sweet, creamy leche flan, of sticky sweet purple yam, of sweet shreds of macapuno and the unexpected but welcome saltiness of grated cheese. It’s really good halo-halo. Better than the ones from the popular fast food and resto chains. No wonder it has many devotees. And you get a big bowl for P85 (Halo-Halo Supreme).

Sibid-Sibid Food Park, Peñaranda St., Bonot, Legazpi City

DJC Halo-Halo, Pacific Mall, Legazpi City


Market day in Ligao, Albay

Every Thursday and Sunday, numerous stalls set up temporary shops along the street in front of the Ligao City Public Market for market day. It’s a day when small farmers head to town with their produce, when the smell of dried fish assaults the packed street, when carts of bright red shallots get parked under an umbrella, when vacationers descend upon the tables filled with candied pili nuts for pasalubong, and women selling mounds of almost translucent alamang (shrimp paste) holler at the crowd. The street comes alive like a fiesta and my mom weaves through it like a local. After all, Ligao is where she was born and raised.

Ligao is a relatively young city (it became one just over a decade ago) and as such, it still has a small rural town vibe. It is one of the cities in Albay, a province in the Philippines largely known for its affinity towards fiery dishes soaked in coconut milk and the majestic (and very active) Mayon Volcano.

We spent Easter Sunday in Ligao and after we heard the 8 a.m. mass, walked to the market to find breakfast and pasalubong or gifts we could bring home. Our first order of business was to buy candied pili nuts to bring home to Manila. I never liked pili nut as a kid, but I grew to like it (the same way I didn’t like buro when I was younger, but grew to love that Kapampangan side dish of fermented rice, which needs an entire blog post to itself). Pili nut tastes quite oily, so I wasn’t surprised that it has one of the highest fat content among nuts.

Packs of candied pili nuts on this table get wiped out in a few minutes

Mom found a stall that sold crispy candied pili nuts. It wasn’t as expensive as the branded ones sold in pasalubong centers, but it was one of the better ones we’ve tried. And soon a crowd was in front of it and the table filled with packets and containers of pili nuts was almost wiped out. After buying all the candied pili nuts we ‘needed’, mom wanted to find raw pili nuts. She wanted to roast them herself, without any sugar, while I wondered if we could use them for pesto. Though pili is locally grown in the Bicol region, we only found one stall in the street market selling them. The stall also had a table filled with some candied versions, but in the corner there was a plastic bag of raw pili nuts. Score! Continue reading

What else can you do in Donsol: read a book in a day and watch fireflies

One of the good things about traveling with only one goal in mind (say, see the whale sharks), the rest of the trip is open to anything. Of course, you can also look at it from a glass-half-empty perspective and think, there’s nothing else to do. And in the town of Donsol, which is mostly known for whale shark interactions, it’s easy to go down this road.

In the queue at the tourist center I overheard two tourists asking what else there was to do in town after they were informed that they’d have to take the boat tomorrow morning as there were no longer any slots available that day.  The tourist center staff member mentioned the firefly watching river cruise at six in the evening. “Anything else before that?” You can also go island hopping, the staff member offered. “Anything else?” Pressed on the two girls. “Jetskis? Some other water sport?”  Sorry, none of that in Donsol. (And thank goodness for that!)

So after you spend three hours on the water searching for whale sharks, expect to pretty much have the rest of the day being left to your own devices. For me this meant getting a chance to do a few things I haven’t done in a long while.

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Searching for whale sharks

When the Butanding Interaction Officer tells you to jump off the boat, you jump.

P and I went to Donsol a few days ago to swim with the whale sharks. The butanding, as it is known locally, have put the sleepy town of Sorsogon  (about 500 km south of Manila) in the tourism map back in 1998 when a group of divers came into contact with these gentle giants that make their way to the plankton-rich waters off Donsol to feed from November to May.

slouching somewhere

With the push of environmental and conservation groups, the municipal government of Donsol passed into law the protection of the whale sharks (which used to be hunted and poached), turning the small town into a top ecotourism destination and the butanding as the main attraction. But so as not to impede the whale sharks in their natural habitat the local tourism office and World Wildlife Fund established very detailed whale shark interaction guidelines: you cannot touch the whale sharks; you cannot feed them; you have to keep a safe distance of 3 to 4 meters; there can only be six swimmers (or one boat) per shark, etc. Unfortunately, not all those rules get followed once there in the water.

Mid-February to mid-May is considered the best time to visit Donsol. March to May is the peak season and it’s also summer vacation time in the Philippines. We went to Donsol during Holy Week, probably the peak of peak season. (Relatives living in neighboring Albay inform me later on that February is the best time to go, less tourists and more chances of seeing the whale sharks.)

When we got to the Donsol Tourist Center at 7 am the day before Maundy Thursday (and the start of the long weekend), there was already a big crowd and no discernible line. I was suddenly relieved that we made reservations the day before as some people trying to get in the boats for the two trips that morning were already being told that they would have to take the afternoon trip (whale sharks typically feed during the morning) or the boats for the following day. Word of advice if you’re going during peak season, try to register at the tourist center the day before you want to go on your trip. (I heard from a tour driver that by Good Friday and Black Saturday, there was such an overflow of tourists, that they were already being told they would have to wait a few more days to get a slot in one of the boats. Some had to leave without even getting on a boat.)

slouching somewhere

How to swim with the whale sharks in Donsol: Register at the Donsol Tourist Center, pay P100 as registration fee and P3,500 for the boat (for 6 people), watch the video, get assigned your boat and BIO, get on the boat, listen to your BIO’s instructions, and go out to sea

During the peak season, two to three trips are made with a maximum of 30 outrigger boats in each trip going out to sea; each trip lasts for three hours. Since you’re out in the ocean and the whale sharks are not exactly trained to emerge whenever tourists come, there’s always a chance you won’t get to see them on that three-hour boat ride. Which was what we thought would happen to us.

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