We have been roughing it up on the Mayon lava trail riding the all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for about an hour when my sister-in-law noticed an unusual gush of smoke from the volcano’s peak.
She asked our ATV tour guide if such a smoke was normal, but he did not seem bothered. Instead, he was preoccupied with taking our photos and videos, giving hand signals as we approach different types of terrain, reminding us to keep a single line so he can easily see us and bring us safely to the lava wall and back to the base camp.
Half an hour after, we reached the lava wall, the sight of the 2006 eruption. Here, we had to climb to get to the helipad with a mesmerizing view of Mayon’s perfect cone which is about six kilometers away from where we were standing.
It was sunny that day and Mayon revealed herself. So we took as many selfies and group photos we wanted with a full view of the volcano in the background.
Starting a tour with at a grumbling Mayon
To get down from the lava wall, you scramble down the rocky path or take the zipline. To our surprise, my 72-year old mother was the first to take the zipline which inspired the rest of us to do the same.
After another hour of adrenaline pumping rides through steep slopes, rocky paths, river crossings, muddy flats and pine-lined trails capped with a sensational zipline down the lava wall, we were back at the base camp.
It was only then and after we started posting our photos on social media that we found out that Mayon was acting up — or, as we say in Tagalog, “nag-aalburuto.”
What my sister-in-law saw along the trail was indeed one of Mayon’s steam-blast eruptions that morning. It dawned on us that if Mayon spewed lava instead of steam, we would have been in the danger zone while having the time of our lives. We were relieved to know that Phivolcs issued only an alert level one warning.
That’s how our family’s adventure-packed Bicol tour and New Year started.
From the time we left Manila for the long drive to Legazpi at 5:30 in the morning day after Christmas, we were primed to explore this region.
Leisurely drive to Legazpi
It took us 15 hours to reach Legazpi mainly because we would stop to buy something we see along the road — be it fruits, vegetables or native stuff. Our leisurely cruising along the countryside also made our driving time longer than the usual.
Driving back to Manila on New Year’s Day after spending a week in Bicol took another 14 hours because of detours as there are parts of Albay and Camarines Sur that were not passable due to flood brought by Tropical Depression Usman.
In one of the detours, we were directed to Sagrada, a barangay in Iriga with scenic views along mountain valleys. It was a good 45-minute drive on well-paved roads where for the most part our cars were the only ones on the road.
I was glad to see that 90 percent of the roads going to Bicol had been paved and widened. There is also a newly opened diversion road going to Naga which offers a shorter route to Legazpi.
A sense of freedom and excitement
My family’s penchant for Christmas and New Year road trips started last year when my family and I took a 16-hour drive to Adams, Ilocos Norte, where we spent New Year in the cool uplands of this mountain village.
We feel a sense of freedom and excitement driving through the countryside and discovering places we have never been.
Bicol was our unanimous choice this year since most of us have never seen Mayon. I have been to Bicol a number of times for work reasons but not as a proper tourist. So I was really happy to share this experience with my family.
Although Mayon acted up and Tropical Depression Usman’s torrential rains kept us indoors for a couple of days, we were able to drive around the surrounding towns of Albay on days the rain eased a bit and the sun peeked through the dark skies.
We discovered that Bicol had a lot to offer not just in terms of sights but also gustatory delights. There’s the signature Bicol Express which comes in several varieties, pinangat, chicken binakol, and of course, the must-try sili ice cream.
Choose your adventure
Depending on the kind of adventure that you want, you can do the Mayon ATV tour which is highly recommended, hike to Mount Mayon or book a city or provincial tour, which is a more family friendly and comfortable way of exploring the countryside with the benefit of a local driver who also serves as your tour guide.
Because my parents could not do a hike, I decided to book a provincial tour with Your Brother Travel and Tours, the same tour company where we booked our Mayon ATV tour to take us to the key attractions in Albay.
We were first taken to the Mayon Skyline and Mayon Planetarium and Science Park in Buang, Tabaco — a halfway point in the mountain with a panoramic view of Legazpi City and a close-up view of Mayon’s peak.
Unfortunately, we saw neither because fog engulfed the view as winds blew and rains fell like a scene from a horror movie. But thrill seekers that we were, we all had a fun time driving through the volcano’s zigzags amidst fog and rain.
We proceeded to Cagsawa Ruins, another popular Instagammable spot where a local who offered to take our photos for a fee showed us a lot of trick shots. Another local offered to put the invisible Mayon in the background.
As we were Mayon-chasing that day, we felt that we would have an opportunity to see Mayon when we got to the other sights. So we declined the offer.
At Sumlang Lake, another postcard perfect spot and a favorite pre-nup location, we took a 20-minute ride on a raft around the lake and took lots of photos — but still, no Mayon.
We then drove to Daraga Church — also known as the Lady of the Gate or the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Porteria — a beautiful baroque style church built by the Franciscans in the 17th century and which served as a temporary shelter when Cagsawa was buried by debris from the 1814 eruption.
This church is located on top of a hill and offers another great vantage point to view Mayon.
We chanced upon brief moments of sun and immediately snapped photos of Mayon even if still partly covered with clouds.
We also stopped for lunch at Red Labuyo restaurant right next to the church and tried its version of Bicol Express and chicken binakol.
After lunch, our driver took us to Legazpi Highlands for a view of Legazpi Bay then to Lignon Hill, to bask in the city sights and view Mayon from another part of the city.
Heading back home
Lignon Hill also has a zipline and a “pasalubong” center. We bought some pasalubong but did not take the zipline anymore because we were running out of time and we still had a few more sights to go to.
We learned that Lignon Hill is a favorite spot not only for sunset watchers but also among photo journalists who cover Mayon’s eruptions.
From Lignon Hill, we drove to Legazpi Boulevard to enjoy the breeze and have our final photo op. On a clear day, Mayon would appear in the background, but it would disappear again towards late afternoon.
A tour is not complete without buying pasalubong so for our last destination, our driver brought us to the Pasalubong Center located next to SM Legazpi where we spent a good half an hour buying presents for family and friends back home.
To say that it rained on our trip is an understatement. But the fact that we saw Mayon in full view without clouds when we did the ATV tour, had some periods of sunny skies as we were touring Albay and shared the experience together as a family is the best new year’s gift and a great way to welcome the new year.
Rain or shine, there was a promise of good things to come. The many rainbows that we saw on our long drive home were a great assurance. /atm
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Imee C. Alcantara is vice president and chief strategy officer at the Inquirer Group of Companies, Philippine Daily Inquirer.