A Journey of Firsts

Last June 6th, I received a pretty unusual email. I admit, I’m quite used to receiving unusual emails. But this one was a little different. The email said that I was invited to cover a big event. How big, exactly? Let’s just say the keywords Cebu Pacific and Department of Tourism are plastered all over it. That big.

So, wait a minute. I got an email from a company that was in partnership with the Department of Tourism and Cebu Pacific. Pretty unusual, right? I mean, being invited to a local event – that I can digest. But getting invited to an event happening outside Cebu – definitely sketchy. Especially since my blog is focused mainly on the local scene. But then again, I have Hanging Rice so maybe they took that into consideration. I’m not sure.

I only realized that this was indeed a serious offer when I finally received a copy of my ticket and the itinerary. So, three days and two nights in Caraga, food and accommodations covered, a DOT-guided tour of the region’s best spots, and a guaranteed seat on Cebu Pacific’s Tandag-Cebu maiden flight. I’ve never had a positive space ticket before! Ever! This right here is a full-scale press trip, yo! I can’t handle this!

From one paradise to another. I’m definitely not complaining.

So the first thing that I did when I finally received my ticket was to make a quick research. I saw seven other names and so far, only one sounded familiar. With the help of some friends and good ole Google, I found out that I will be traveling with 4 writers from Cebu’s top dailies, one other Cebu blogger, and two people from the marketing and promotions industry. This isn’t the type of group that I’d normally like to travel with. And I’m definitely awkward around new acquaintances. But since I’ve already said yes, I guess I’d have to deal with it. Hehe.

I met the whole group for the first time just three hours before the flight. Apparently, they all already knew each other and I’m basically the odd one out. Great! This is going to be really awkward.

At the check-in counter, I noticed that I had the biggest and probably the heaviest bag. Most of them had backpacks and carry-ons. I had a 10Kg stroller. Okay, to tell you guys the truth, I overpacked. I brought two pairs of shoes and three pairs of pants. Yep, three. I later found out that my roommate only had one pair. And it was what he was wearing. Tsk! I wanted to announce with a loudspeaker that it was my first time and that they shouldn’t judge me. Haha. I’m kidding.

But Satchmo isn’t.

When we got rid of our bags, our trip leader – the awesome Sir Charles – announced that we were eating lunch before going to the waiting area. I looked around hoping to find a carenderia-ish type of restaurant that could offer me good food for less than a hundred. But, hey! We were headed towards this really expensive-looking Italian restaurant. You know what they say about airport restaurants… I don’t even want to talk about it.

So, yeah, I was clutching my wallet and waiting for an opportune time to present a really weird reason to excuse myself for a few moments so I could go find a cheap little restaurant outside the airport. But, you know, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. The next thing I know I was offered a seat and a menu which made my head hurt. Immediately, the other guys scanned the menu and a few moments later,  they were ready with their order. And I couldn’t even read the name of that one pasta dish.  Tsk! Fortunately, Ms. Len, one of the awesome PR people I mentioned a while ago, said that we were getting pizza and pasta. Excellent! I’ll just have pizza! 🙂

You know what they say about food being a great equalizer. Well, I must say that it helped a lot. I mean, we basically come from different walks of life and here we are, sharing the same meal and digesting the same ingredients. Thanks to good food, people almost always become more friendly and more relaxed. And I must mention that one of the news guys, Mr. Orly, was  a total riot. He has this talent, you see. He could come up with the most hilarious yet most sensible one-liners in a jiffy. He’s that type of person. I mean, the most somber person would look amazingly fun next to him. He could do that.

Except for the salads that had this really nauseating smell, lunch was so good. Actually, it was excellent, especially after I learned that I didn’t have to pay for what I ate. Haha. Awesomesauce!

A few moments later, it was time to go. This is it! Goodbye my beloved Cebu!

The short flight to Butuan City was great. There was no turbulence or a pair of star-crossed lovers making out in the lavatory or anything. It was perfect. One hour later, we were already in Butuan City in Region XIII. Welcome to Caraga!

Our ride looking mighty fine. It was my first time to sit in the very first row. It was pretty cool, I must say!

While waiting for our bags, a team from the local tourism office arrived and gave us welcome necklaces. Wow! I’m really not used to this. The special attention actually made me more embarrassed than proud. Haha. But it was awesome!

From the airport, we went straight to our hotel. Our hotel was called Balanghai Hotel and Convention Center. It actually doubles as a museum. The hotel is pretty old but the treasures inside are coma-inducing. Seriously, heritage and history lovers will love this place.

After we were given room assignments, we were each given a press kit.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet my very first press kit!

Our room. Pretty decent and pretty cold. My usual roommie during the whole trip was Doyzkie of iLuvCebu. Awesome person. I heard he wasn’t able to sleep well during the first night. I hope it wasn’t because of my snoring. Haha. Don’t forget to check out his awesome site!

A few minutes later, we were told to come down for the start of the tour. We were introduced to Department of Tourism accredited tour guide Ms. Leah Medado. I later found out that she was my friend Gian’s batchmate back in college. Small world, indeed. Anyways, Ms. Leah has got to be one of the most amazing tour guides around. Seriously. She’s very well-versed, she knows everything about Butuan, and you can just feel how proud she is of Butuan and the whole Caraga Region. She’s award-winning, too! We were also accompanied by local tourism officer Ms Cecille who was also both friendly and accommodating.

The tour was exciting and enlightening. I actually started reading a book called Glimpses in History of Early Cebu before the trip and it was just amazing that the ‘facts’ presented in the book figured prominently in Ms. Medado’s discussions. Cebu and Butuan are indeed very closely connected. We’re basically brothers.

After the short hotel/museum tour, we went straight to the Butuan National Museum which was a good 2 minutes away. The compound is pretty impressive. And the main museum building looks very well-maintained. Excellent job, Butuan!

This body of water in front of the museum is common in Butuan City. In fact, with its numerous waterways and abundance of water, Butuan is actully pretty much like Venice.

Inside the museum, we were led by another amazing guide – Ms. Agustina Tamayo. She’s very soft-spoken, she’s patient, and most importantly, she knows what she’s talking about.

One of the most important items currently on display are the remnants of a wooden boat which were unearthed in Butuan in the 70s. Amazing stuff. For more photos of the Butuan National Museum, click HERE.

Before the tour ended, we were informed that we were actually pretty lucky. It turned out that Lolong – the largest crocodile in captivity (he died February last year) was actually still in Butuan City.

The severed head of Lolong was placed in a freezer. And his remains are set to be taken to Manila in the coming days.

Take a look at that! Lolong was HUGE!

After the museum tour, we went to the Balangay Shrine in Barangay Libertad.

The shrine is the actual site where a wooden boat, named Balanghai Boat No 1, made around 320 AD, was excavated in the 1970s. 320 AD. I know, right?

The shrine also houses numerous wooden coffins also unearthed in the same area.

Ms. Medado is shown here standing on the exact dig site where the balangay was found. Pretty amazing.

We were also allowed to see some recently-discovered pieces yet to be carbon-dated and processed. We were very lucky to see them first-hand!

Our last stop was the Bood Promontory and Eco-Park in Brgy. Pinamanculan. This was supposedly the site where the first mass in the Philippines was held. However, numerous claims have been made by people from other parts of the country. This topic, in fact, remains very hot til this day.

You know, I have to give it to Ms. Medado. She knows what she’s doing. She was able to keep our attention even when it was already completely dark. Real skills, right there!

It was already around 7 pm when the tour ended. Thankfully, when we returned to the hotel, a feast was waiting for us. Food was great, I must say. We had fried chicken, and crispy pata, and lots of veggies and seafood, and other delicious stuff. It was excellent!

After the meal, we gave Laksoy a try. According to Wikipedia, Laksoy is a “liquor distilled from the sap of a nipa palm.”  After the drink, it was time to go back to our rooms.

My original plan was to watch a movie at Robinson’s Butuan after dinner. I really wanted to watch Transformers and some friends told me that movies are way cheaper in Butuan. But when the other guys heard about it, they suggested that we go to this one bar, instead. Long story short, we ended up going to that bar. It was a quick stop, actually. But it turned out pretty great because it allowed us to open up a bit about each other’s lives and stuff. I learned a little more about Fiona, Carlo, and sir Noel. By the time we got back to our hotel, we’ve pretty much exchanged contact information and learned some basic facts about each other. Great start!

In the mean time, let’s call it a night. Call time was 5:00 am the next day. No, seriously.

We left our hotel at around 5:30 the following day. We had to leave really early because the city of Bislig was a good four hours away. So, with no time to waste, we had breakfast in the van.

Took this shot during one of our bathroom stops. I almost puked, by the way. Yeah.

I easily get sick in a van or bus so I was basically praying the whole time that my innards would cooperate.

Thankfully, I fell asleep the rest of the way. And the next thing I knew, we were already in Bislig City. Yahoo!

Before going to our main destination, we dropped by Paper Country Inn to grab some proper breakfast. Paper Country Inn is this nice little hotel with a home-y feel. They serve really good food, too!

After eating, it was time to go to, drumrolls, the famed Tinuy-an Falls!

The drive from the main road to the actual waterfall was long and bumpy. If I’m not mistaken, it was more than 10 kilometers minimum. But Carlo is a pretty good seatmate and we ended up talking about ghosts and monsters. Haha. So, that kinda took my mind off my nausea and impending puke-a-thon. Big thanks, bai!

Anyways, let’s talk about the amazingly gorgeous Tinuy-an Falls of Borboanan, Bislig City. Take a look at the first drop and tell me that isn’t awesome.

But wait till you see the second drop. You will wet yourself! Guaranteed!

As we were moving closer to the second drop, we noticed this kid playing with a few pieces of green fruit and some sticks. I wonder what he’s making.

Well, would you look at that? It’s a toy car! How unbelievably creative!

We decided to check out the third drop. To be able to do that, we climbed up a set of very slippery steps and across this iron walkway. Pretty intense.

The third drop was just wonderful, by the way! And the view from up there is something that you will never soon forget.

Tinuy-an is just so lush and full of life. For more photos of Tinuy-an, click HERE.

After taking a gazillion photos, it was time to proceed to our next destination. Our next stop was the town of Hinatuan. Hinatuan, one full hour away from Bislig, is where the awesome Enchanted River is located. I’ve seen a lot of photos and I’ve heard a lot of stories about Enchanted River. I can’t wait!

We reached the town of Hinatuan around noon. Instead of checking out Enchanted River, however, we all went straight to two waiting boats which would take us to a place called Sibadan. I can only guess what Sibadan is. I asked our driver about it and all he said was “Wait and see.” Hmm.

This boat is on its way to Sibadan, as well. Now i’m VERY intrigued.

Just five minutes later, my questions were answered. Sibadan turned out to be a restaurant which can only be accessed with the use of a boat. It’s actually sitting a few hundred meters off the coast of Hinatuan. Pretty interesting concept, yeah?

Welcome to Sibadan! This spot right here reminds me of one of Nora Aunor’s most recent films called Thy Womb. I think that film was also shot in Mindanao.

The main attraction of the restaurant, however, is not the food. It’s actually the gigantic fishcages which are stuffed with some of the most amazing species in the area. It was actually pretty neat. That huge fishcage below, for example, has a giant stingray, several baby sharks, and gigantic types of fish that you could actually order and eat. Or, you can always swim with them!

While enjoying the amazing view, you’ll be served with some great-tasting seafood dishes. I don’t normally eat fish but this tinowa was so fresh I wasn’t able to say no.

I was also able to see, for the first time, a kuracha. A kuracha is a type of crab with a slightly different shape. The meat tastes really sweet.

After a pretty heavy meal, it was finally time to check out the Enchanted River. Let’s see if it really lives up to everyone’s expectations.

But by all that’s holy it was unbelievable!

Just look at the water! You seriously wouldn’t want to leave!

The best and probably the creepiest part about the whole Enchanted River experience was when the management started playing this anti-littering jingle at three o’clock and all the huge fish just suddenly appeared out of nowhere and converged in the middle of the river. It was so mind-boggling it was almost fake.

Although we wanted to stay longer, our guide Ms. Cecille informed us that we had a schedule to follow. We had two more stops so we really had to get going.

By 4 pm we were on our way to our next destination which was the Britania Group of Islets in Britania, San Agustin.

For more pictures of Sibadan and the Enchanted River, click HERE.

We reached the town of San Agustin at around 5 in the afternoon. The beach was stuffed with people and we wondered if something terrible had happened. It turned out that they were celebrating their annual fiesta and that all those people were actually watching a boat race.

Our boat was waiting for us. Awesome!

The Britania Group of Islets is made up of about 24 islets in Britania, San Agustin. Docking is possible in only four of these islets.

This particular island has a small beach. A cross on top of a small grotto is also visible from the mainland.

Don’t these islets just look gorgeous?

Approaching Naked Island. Naked Island is popular among tourists due to it being devoid of any vegetation. Naked Island is basically a sandbar. It is said that hundreds of migratory birds frequent the island during winter months.

Just a few hundred meters away is a slightly bigger island called Hagonoy Island. The island has a small patch of coconut and hagonoy trees. If you have plans of being shipwrecked, this is the island for you. It’s like your very own CastAway movie set.

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and taking selfies and just being kids. The place is just marvelous. For more photos of the Britania Group of Islets, click HERE.

It was already pretty dark when we finally reached mainland San Agustin. Which I think is just perfect. Now all I have to do is doze off until we reach the City of Tandag which was still around one hour away.

We finally reached the city of Tandag at around seven in the evening. The name of our hotel was Villa Maria Luisa.  We were all starving so we all went straight to the dining hall as soon as we stepped out of the van. And thankfully, the hotel didn’t let us down. There were so many food I actually had a hard time deciding which ones to focus on first. And I must add that their food was just delicious!

Our hotel room in Tandag City. Looking nice.

After dinner, we all decided to go swimming. Fortunately, pools close at 10 so we had enough time to have fun. Excellent!

Villa Maria Luisa is actually pretty popular in Tandag. Their hotel rooms are great and they have numerous function rooms, two gigantic pools, and a lot of other amenities.

The pools look wonderful especially in the morning. They’re massive!

But what really took my breath away was the view behind the hotel. Look at that!

A.Ma.Zing.

The hotel lobby looks mighty fine, too. Reminds me of Waterfront Hotel in Lahug.

After our sumptuous breakfast, it was time for the last leg of our tour. Our first stop was the Linungao Twin Islands. The twin islands are actually two separate islands that form a cove. This cove houses a very colorful fishing community.

The first island is where the Tandag Wharf is located.

The second island as seen from the fishing village in the cove.

Some local kids posing for a quick shot. They were making a toy boat with actual battery-operated propellers. Impressive.

A grotto was built on top of the first island. To reach the top, one must climb 69 steps. Can you do it?

When you get to the top, however, you are rewarded with this amazing view.

The Linungao Walkway, which leads to the Danakit and Cathedral Caves,  gives visitors a wonderful view of the cove and the fishing village below.

The grotto of the Our Lady of Lourdes  is perfect for late afternoon prayers and reflections.

After the tour, we went straight to the Goldbar Restaurant for our snacks. The restaurant is pretty popular in Tandag not only because of their delicious food but also because of the restaurant’s architecture.

The interior was extraordinary.

For our snacks, we had Hawaiian burger.

And this delicious serving of halo-halo! Yum!

Afterwards, we dropped by their boulevard for a quick photo op. This boulevard is facing the great Pacific Ocean. That’s both freaky and awesome.

After the quick photo session, it was time to go to the Tandag Airport for the inauguration.

A short program was held at the waiting area of the airport. Tandag’s airport has been around for years. However, operations stopped a few years ago. This year, Cebu Pacific brings back to life the Cebu-Tandag route by offering flights between the two cities thrice each week. Not bad, right?

In the photo, Mr. Junard Cruz, CEB VP for Airport Services, delivers his welcome address.

 Ms. Leticia DC Tan, DOT Regional Director for CARAGA Region, talks about the importance of the new Cebu Pacific Cebu-Tandag route to the Caraga Region.

Hon Alexander Pimentel, City Administrator and Former Mayor of Tandag, talks about how Tandag worked hard to restore airport operations in the city.

Hon. Johnny Pimentel, Governor of Surigao del Sur, thanks Cebu Pacific for helping make Surigao del Sur more accessible to both local and international tourists.

BGen Rodante S. Joya, CAAP Chief Finance Officer, talks about the significance of the new route to the region.

The very first passenger to check in was given free round-trip tickets by Cebu Pacific. I was actually very glad that this guy won. He looks exactly like my granddad.

The ceremonial cutting of the ribbon.

And now, it’s time to fly home to Cebu! My first maiden flight ever!

The Philippines’ leading carrier, Cebu Pacific Air recently launched direct Cebu-Tandag flights last June 30, 2014. It’s a thrice weekly service, with the lowest year round fares starting at P588. For more information, visit www.cebupacificair.com or call the reservation hotlines (02)7020-888 or (032)230-8888. For the latest seat sales and promos, follow Cebu Pacific Air’s official Facebook (www.facebook.com/CebuPacificAir) and Twitter (@CebuPacificAir) pages.

Cebu, we’re coming back to you! 🙂

Goodbye Caraga. Thanks for the wonderful memories.

Snack time! Awesome!

We were about to land in Mactan when the pilot announced that we’d have to wait for the weather to clear before we could actually land. Apparently, it was zero visibility in Mactan and if things don’t look up, we might be diverted to some other nearby airports. Oh no!

I was actually THIS close to puking. We were basically flying over Mactan for more than an hour. I tried to get my mind off my possible puke-fest by closing my eyes and getting some sleep. But my seatmate, Sir Noel, would wake me up every now and then to let me look at the other airplanes which couldn’t land. Haha. Thanks a lot, sir!

Finally, after circling above Mactan, our plane was given permission to land. Thank god! Here’s a shot of Sitio Buaya in Lapu-Lapu looking pretty damp and dark.

Overall, it was a very awesome experience. I learned a whole lot and I gained a lot of new friends. By the time we got home I was already friends with most of them on Facebook.

It was indeed a journey of firsts. And I hope that it wouldn’t be the last. 🙂

Big, gigantic thanks to the people who made this assignment possible. I owe you guys, big time! 🙂

Thanks to the Department of Tourism, Cebu Pacific, Sir Charles and Ms. Len, Miss Belle, and everyone who joined the trip. It’s something that I’d never soon forget. Thank you for making my first time truly unforgettable. You guys are all sorts of awesome!

For more photos, visit http://thecebuano.wordpress.com

MCPB at CITE 2014
The Search for Lanipao

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