Some people go to the spa for a day of relaxation and pampering. I went to a healing hut in Siquijor where, in a ritual, a healer walked around me blowing bubbles into a jar of water with a black stone. The water turned cloudy, full of the toxins that were supposedly removed from my body.
I must admit that I did feel a sense of healing and catharsis after that treatment. An entire year of the pandemic has taken its toll on our bodies, and whether or not we feel physically sick, I know that the fear, anxiety and stress of living with COVID-19 are lodged deep inside us.
That is why it was no surprise that when the results of the Department of Tourism’s recent travel survey came out, the No. 1 reason people gave for traveling domestically, even during the midst of the pandemic, was for their sanity. Call it mental health, therapy or self-care—traveling is widely seen as a panacea for the troubles of the mind and soul.
Siquijor will reopen to tourism this month in time for its annual Healing Festival, which happens during Holy Week both for practical and magical reasons. Even if potions are not your cup of tea, the island has a lot of natural ways to put you under its spell. There are also several other cultural spots around the Philippines that are now open, quick getaways where you can shake off the cobwebs of the quarantine and experience something wonderful and new.
Dumaguete to Bacolod
Siquijor is also just a ferry ride from Dumaguete, where I indulged in the culinary scene of Negros Oriental’s capital, starting with a breakfast of budbud and sikwate at the painitan of the public market. I also checked out “Atoa,” an exhibit of local artists at the Dakong Balay, a restored heritage house-turned-art gallery.
Dumaguete happens to be a cycling haven, and those who dive will be thrilled to hear that the dive sites around Dauin have also been reopened. It was a weekend of healing on all fronts, and I will never underestimate how a simple dish of sticky rice dipped in chocolate and paired with mangoes can be so soothing.
In January, I went to Bacolod to assess the readiness of Negros Occidental in opening its tourism destinations. It was my first official trip to the province since I became tourism secretary, so you can imagine how excited I was to sample its heritage cuisine and explore the province’s many heritage structures that take you back in time.
I was stunned speechless by the Ruins, whose romantic and tragic backstory will move you to tears. I was also impressed by the restoration of the Balay ni Tana Dicang, an original and intact bahay na bato dating to 1883, owned by the sugar baroness Enrica Alunan Lizares, Negros’ original boss kween.
Bacolod is also a cultural hive of modern art and design, and I spent hours soaking in the creativity of the Art District dedicated to homegrown contemporary art.
Charlie Co’s Orange Project, the first professional gallery in the province, continues to be influential in developing the Negros art scene. Among the many galleries, artist-run shops, cafés and tattoo parlors in one spacious compound, you could spend a whole day finding inspiration and feeling invigorated by the display of Filipino creativity.
If heritage architecture is your fancy, then a trip to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan should be moved to the top of your domestic bucket list. A resort like no other, the meticulously restored and ornately decorated mansions also function as hotels you can stay in to experience that colonial-luxe life of a reimagined Old Manila.
Each casa, which owner Jerry Acuzar acquired from various locations around the country, is a witness to history and has its own rich tale of intrigue. Visitors can take a guided cultural day tour, which includes—check this out—a Venetian gondola-inspired balsa ride through its waterways.
Lastly, I am inviting everyone to visit or revisit Intramuros, which was opened to the public on Feb. 17. There I discovered a new hobby, or shall I say rediscovered an old one, when I went on a guided Bambike tour of the Walled City.
Intramuros, which won Asia’s Leading Tourist Attraction at the World Travel Awards 2020, is more than a heritage site and historical attraction to Filipinos, but the soul of Manila and a living place which we should all make part of our lives.
One of Intramuros’ reopened attractions is the Casa Manila Museum. The temporary closure allowed for the redesigning and transformation by architect J. Anton Mendoza, who lent his skills and talents for free. Decluttered and rearranged, the once dark and dreary Casa Manila is now bright and elegant.
All these places I mentioned are open to tourists in compliance with health and safety protocols. While we encourage people to travel locally to help revive the tourism industry—and maintain their sanity—this will only work if everyone commits to wearing their masks and shields, maintaining proper hygiene, reducing contact by using contactless apps, and keeping their distance.
So, go out there and try something new, like riding a bike, or learn something old in our heritage sites, and you’ll discover the many different ways we can heal ourselves through this pandemic. —CONTRIBUTED INQ