Northern Exposure | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

A CURSORY look at tourism posters of the Philippines immediately unlocks a slideshow of seemingly endless white sand beaches, the shimmering blue sea, swaying palm fronds and the occasional nipa-hut. These are iconic images of our tropical isles, but most of them are located in the southern part of our archipelago.

No wonder a lot of tourists immediately head off to Boracay for a holiday.

But of course there is more to our country than beaches. Spread across 7,107 islands and a geography as diverse as our languages (110 of them!), there’s bound to be something for everyone. And certain regions in the country are trying to increase their share of the tourist peso by coming up with new activities or reinventing old attractions.

This writer recently got invited to “Lakbay Norte 2,” the second-year run of a whirlwind tour to select provinces around Northern Luzon, organized by the North Philippines Visitors Bureau (NPVB), a network of ten local conventions and tourism bureaus composed of Baguio, Cagayan Norte, Greater Clark, Ilocos Norte, La Union, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Greater Subic, Tarlac and Bulacan. The NPVB aims to promote tourism in North Luzon through events, conventions and information dissemination.

On board our specially-chartered Victory Liner bus, we stopped for breakfast at the charming Soul Cafe in Rosario, La Union, where everyone had their first taste of Kapeng Alamid. A regional specialty, the brew is named after the local alamid (civet cat) which feeds on coffee beans and then naturally excretes the seeds. These are then harvested, washed, roasted by farmers and turned into one of the most coveted types of coffee among connoisseurs.

Not being one, my impression of this drink was that it had a strong, full-bodied taste and certainly didn’t have any hint of cat poop. It was a surefire way to keep our senses going as we drove uphill and enjoyed the scenic mountain road going up to Baguio.

So this was how our northern exposure played out:

Day 1: Breezing through Baguio. Upland weather and highland art. A quick stop at the City of Pines centered around this theme as we made our way to Tam-Awan Village. Taking inspiration from Baguio’s highland roots, Tam-Awan replicates a typical Cordilleran village and showcases the domestic architecture and lifestyle of the Ifugao and Kalinga ethnic groups. More than just a fascinating outdoor anthropological museum, Tam-Awan also functions as an art space for Baguio’s homegrown artists, complete with a gallery and a small cafe serving traditional highland fare (try their tasty pinikpikan tinola).

Still on the artist theme, we proceeded to Baguio’s latest star attraction – the BenCab Museum. We were welcomed by no less than founder and National Artist Ben Cabrera, who shared with us his artistic insights about this mountain city and the culture which has captivated and inspired him to create the masterpieces displayed in the museum’s minimalist galleries.

Even more fascinating is the Cordillera Gallery which holds Cabrera’s collection of highland material culture such as the iconic bulol (rice granary guardians) as well as everyday objects like baskets, spoons, furniture and the occasional head-hunting weapon. The museum sits on a promontory and offers a refreshing view of the terraced garden with a small mountain looming over the landscape.

Day 2: Plunging into Pugo. From Baguio, it’s a short drive down to Pugo in La Union. This small, sleepy town at the foot of Marcos Highway wasn’t really in the tourist radar, until somebody decided to build PUGAD. Pugo Adventure (or PUGAD) is the latest facility that’s making tourists stop, look and catch their breaths as they glide through what is possibly the longest zip line (at 400 meters) in the country! For P400, you can live out your Superman fantasies for a few seconds as you soar 250 feet above the ground and catch the thrill while enjoying verdant views of rivers, hills and rice terraces. PUGAD also offers several less jaw-dropping thrills such as wall climbing, rappelling and ATV rides.

Our introduction to La Union also included a visit to a traditional patupat-making factory to sample this sweetest of Ilokano delicacies— sticky rice cake cooked in sugar cane juice—a much-needed sugar rush after all that adrenaline-pumping adventure and definitely a unique pasalubong.

Finally, we had a quick stop at the town of Manaoag in Pangasinan to pay homage to the province’s most revered Marian icon, the miraculous four-century-old image of Our Lady of Manaoag. Then it was off to a well-deserved rest in Tarlac.

Day 3: Pinatubo Rising. It wasn’t the easiest time to get up. Our 4 a.m. wake up call was made all the more excruciating by our late bedtime and the comfortable chiropractic beds at the Microtel Hotel, but we eventually had to pry ourselves off the sheets and head to Brgy. San Juliana in the town of Capas. It was a big day after all—we were climbing Mount Pinatubo. By 7 a.m., we were on board our 4x4s driving through the desolately beautiful plains of Zambales. One hour, several stops and a lot of dust later, we reached the point where even our monster machines could take no more, and we had to conquer the terrain on foot.

Huffing and puffing through a verdant landscape of tropical foliage, boulders, small rivers and occasional sulphur beds, we made the final ascent through a well-paved tourist path and finally laid our eyes on the view.

Welcome to the crater lake of Mount Pinatubo! Yes, I have seen it countless times in numerous postcards but nothing ever comes close to actually experiencing this nature’s wonder and seeing the turquoise green lake in its most magical form.

Tourism has indeed arrived in Pinatubo. There are basic toilet stops as well as a view deck for that requisite photo op. You can also hire a banca (P1, 500 for up to 6 people) to paddle you through another side of the lake to admire another view, swim its warm waters or just to escape the tourist hordes at the view deck

Our feet and muscles worked out, we were pampered with a well-deserved sweat detox, volcanic burial treatment (now I know how a patupat feels), followed by a refreshing mud slather that stretched and cooled our skin. Finally, a much needed massage by the local ladies to ease those muscle pains. All these at the delightful Pinatubo Spa Town which is the main tourist facility where you register and book tours going up the volcano.

Day 4: Angeles Rediscovered. “Angeles is more than Field’s Avenue,” declared our host. And the warm welcome we got at the Museo ning Angeles certainly proved it. Housed in a period 1920’s bahay-na-bato (Antillian house) at the center of town, this charming museum showcases Kapampangan history, lifestyle, culture and food. Indeed, there is more to Angeles than the raunchy joints as Angelinos try to shed off their sin-city image and replace it with a more refined perception. Efforts include promoting the city’s culture and its collection of period homes through a walking historical-culinary tour organized by the Kuliat Foundation (email: [email protected] Also worth checking out are the nearby town of Bacolor with its half-buried church of San Gulliermo, and the baroque splendor of the Santiago Apostol church in the woodcarving town of Betis.

Day 5: From Subic to San Miguel. From Pampanga, it’s a smooth drive to Subic via the SCTEX highway where we were welcomed by our hosts at the luxurious Lighthouse Marina Resort. As the name implies, this 34-room boutique hotel is capped with a lighthouse where one is treated to a panoramic front-seat view of Subic bay while unwinding at the funky 720 degrees bar. Owing to its proximity to the water, the resort is also where one can easily enjoy water sports such as yachting, banana boat rides and kayaking.

The last leg of our journey took us to the quaint little town of San Miguel de Mayumo in Bulacan to visit the Biak-na-Bato National Park. This is the site of the historic caves where President Emilio Aguinaldo established the country’s first ever republic in 1897 while eluding the Spanish colonial army in pursuit. You can hike around the well-trodden trails or just enjoy a lovely picnic amidst lush scenery and interesting rock formations. Nearby, the town center is also worth checking out for its fine collection of period colonial homes. Definitely the perfect place to do a walking tour for the heritage groupie.

Certainly there is more to North Luzon than what we had covered for this trip. One just needs to go and rediscover the North. •

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