With my 1-year Balikbayan visa in hand, I decided to make my second home in Metro Manila my “home base” as I continue my travels by doing a weeklong excursion or so once a month. For the month of January, I decided to check out Legazpi City, Bicol, located on the southeastern tip of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
This city is home to the iconic Mayon Volcano, which many consider the world’s most perfectly-shaped volcano and the main draw for much of the area’s tourism (one of the sights I wanted to check out as well). Since my house is in Manila, also in Luzon, I could’ve taken the bus, but considering a one-way trip takes upwards of 10 hours, I opted for speed and convenience and found a good deal on a return ticket for around 4000 Php (~$85 USD after bank fees as of January 2017) from Saturday the 21st to Saturday the 28th.
After zero success with Couchsurfing in Hawaii, I was adamant about giving it a shot again for this excursion just so I could finally get a sense of the experience. This time, I got a response from one of the hosts I contacted!
Me and my Couchsurfing host, Ian.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect with this being my first time, but I had an enjoyable experience. For those unaware, Couchsurfing is where hosts open up a spare room or bed (or couch, if you will) to travelers visiting the area. Couchsurfing is technically “free,” as there’s no price tag attached, but being that the concept behind it is a hospitality exchange, it’s greatly appreciated (but not expected) to return the favor somehow.
Couchsurfing is a bit of a leap of faith, but the adventures you’ll have with your host are priceless. If you’re on the fence about it: do your research and use your common sense, of course, but beyond that, once you’ve messaged a host you think you’ll gel with, open yourself up to whatever adventures lay ahead. And please pay it back or forward in some way, nobody likes a mooch.
I left NAIA at around 10:30 am Saturday and landed in Legazpi a bit before noon. After breezing past baggage pickup (try traveling carry-on only – it’s way less hassle) and stepping outside, I texted Ian. After finally meeting in person, we walked to grab a bite to eat and took a jeepney to his grandparents’ house. I got to know them as well as Ian’s other housemates. I dropped off my big bag at his place and we set out again to check out the city. We walked around the main downtown area, and I got to experience a ride on a taxicle, a clever hybrid of a taxi and a tricycle; I’d never seen anything like that in Manila or Caloocan. We had dinner, a couple drinks, and called it a night.
Our Sunday adventures started with a ferry to Batan Island, a somewhat remote territory accessible only by boat. The tickets ended up being only 20 Php each (about 40 cents), so that price seemed like a fantastic deal, but I soon found out why.
It was raining steadily that morning, so the wooden slats on the ferry that were usually kept down on sunny days were understandably closed so rain wouldn’t get in. Wish it helped, but the roof started to leak and there were holes in other places where water came through and splashed me several times whenever the ferry hit a strong wave. Everything was closed, so it was dark inside and warming up when the crew fired up a second engine inside the boat, probably for extra power. It started smelling like exhaust and it lingered for a long time. Finally, the seats weren’t cushioned and were just made of wood, which hurt my back and ass after a while. That was probably the crappiest couple hours I’ve had on a trip, but what’s life without a little adventure, right? And I came away from it with a nice little travel story.
We disembarked at Batan Island and things got better. We took a smaller boat to the actual pier since the ferry couldn’t stop too close, and from there Ian and I rode a couple of motorbikes to the village where his family lived, taking twists and turns and being spoiled with beautiful scenic island and mountain views the whole way. After a good 20 minutes on the bike and a good amount of curious stares from the locals we passed by, we finally arrived at Ian’s family’s home. We had dinner, and I managed to step out of my comfort zone with some karaoke! A little liquid courage certainly helped things. I actually had a really good time, pardon my expression:
We spent the next couple days checking out the surrounding village, finding a nice little beach at the end of a muddy walk, and exploring a cave. Well, we didn’t really explore it – we heard a noise coming from inside, in the dark, and walked out feeling a little less brave. But it was still neat to check out.
TMI alert: I unfortunately got the Philippines equivalent of Montezuma’s Revenge so I spent some of my time on the island recovering from that, but the good times more than made up for it. Ian’s family was also wonderful in taking care of me during that time (thanks again guys!).
We ended up getting stuck on the island for a day longer than anticipated due to inclement weather and the ferries not being able to make it out to the island. When the skies finally cleared up on Thursday, we took the ferry back to Legazpi.
On Friday, my last full day in Bicol, I experienced the highlight of my trip. Ian and I took a jeepney to the city of Daraga, home to the iconic Cagsawa ruins and the jumping-off point for many Mayon Volcano-related excursions. We started with checking out the Cagsawa ruins. Too touristy for me, but it was still cool to see some historical Philippine architecture.
From there, we stumbled across a tour company that did guided ATV rides around the outskirts of the Mayon Volcano. My host Ian wasn’t feeling too well so he said he wasn’t interested in doing it, but the tour guide offered me a discounted price, 1500 Php (~$30), which I think is a steal by Western standards. So I went ahead and did it!
The entire tour was about 3 hours: an hour to get to this one park area, an hour spent at the park, and an hour getting back. At the park area, there was another guide who I followed to climb up to this helipad that overlooked Legazpi City and had a nice view of Mt. Mayon in the background. Instead of coming down the old-fashioned way, I decided to ride the zipline that they also had up there for 300 Php ($6). Good times. Since we didn’t start until around 3pm, we floored it on the way back so it wouldn’t be too dark, returning to the pavilion just as the sun was going down. What a way to wrap up my time here!
I had a great time, and while I can always recommend taking advantage of free activities when you’re budget traveling, it’s always a good idea to spend some money for a special adventure every once in a while. Don’t skimp on unique or memorable experiences just for the sake of saving a few dollars. I think one of the things that makes traveling so wonderful is that you’re able to do things that you wouldn’t be able to do back home. Don’t deprive yourself of that.
All in all, despite the rain and feeling under the weather for a couple days during my travels, I had a great week in Bicol. There’s a lot to do here, from Mt. Mayon adventures to swimming with whale sharks in Donsol (something I wanted to do but unfortunately didn’t have the time). If the Philippines is on your itinerary, make sure not to overlook Bicol.