Just 2-3 hours south of the megacity of Manila is Batangas, an unassuming province rich with a lively past, history, folklore, nature and stretches of excellent beaches and the most accessible dive sites teeming with marine life.
While Taal Lake and Volcano are most commonly associated with the city of Tagaytay in the province of Cavite, it is actually named after one of the towns of Batangas –Taal (*Thanks to Ipat Luna for point this out). Taal Volcano is one of the world’s smallest, most active and deadliest volcanoes – please check with the local Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) if treks to the volcano are safe. Vulcano Island in the Crater Lake of Taal Volcano is considered as the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island. Confusing hey? Taal Lake Yacht Club has a good range of water sports equipment that one can rent for the day.
Taal Volcano – Laments of an Old Crater by storm-crypt
Batangas got its name from the word batangan, a raft that early residents used so that they could fish from Taal Lake and possibly one of the heaps of logs (named batang) found in Calumpang River, a river that runs through Batangas City.
Pre-Hispanic Batangueños were already trading with the Chinese, Indians and the Japanese, as dig sites in the town of Calatagan show. A Buddhist image (Buddha Amithaba in the tribhanga pose inside an oval nimbus with a Mahayanic orientation as Boddhisattva Avalokitesvara was also depicted) was reproduced in mould on a clay medallion in bas-relief from the town and experts say that the image in the pot strongly resembles the iconographic portrayal of Buddha in Siam, India and Nepal. Potteries from China (possibly Yuan Dynasty until the first phase of Ming Dynasty) reflect a high degree of civilization with a significant amount of international trade already flourishing in Batangas, and as Chinese historians pointed out that Batangas was the centre of civilization for the Tagalogs.
For most travelers, Batangas serves as a mere jump-off point to the beaches of Puerto Galera, which is a great disservice to this charming place. Beginner divers from Manila, frequent the resorts of Anilao (right photo) to enroll in open water certification dives because of the stunning clarity of its turquoise waters, the abundant marine life, its close proximity to Manila, the sweeping view of Batangas Bay and also because Anilao offers one of the cheapest certification dives in the Philippines.
From Anilao, one can jump to the islands scattered along the bay – Maricaban Island, Sombrero Island (so named because the island looked like a big hat sticking out of the water- photo below), Bonito Island, and Verde Island.
Batangas Sunset by xave
Verde Island Passage, one of the busiest sea lanes in the Philippines. Not only is it the busiest sea lane of the country, it is also one of the busiest underwater sea lanes in the world. In 2006, the Philippines was declared as the Center of Marine Biodiversity in the world (think of the underwater equivalent of the entire Amazon) and Verde Island Passage was declared as the Center of the Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity. Threatened species include hawksbill, green and olive ridleys turtles; humped wrasses, giant groupers, giant clams and over 300 species of corals, considered as one of the largest concentration of corals in the entire world. Although coral health is generally good, these are all threatened by climate change and the fact that it sits very close to the Batangas Bay which is fast becoming a major refining petrochemical center in the Philippines, concerns were raised because there is no proper infrastructure to contain a major oil or chemical spill that could wreck havoc on the fragile ecosystem in the area.
6.5 miles off the west coast of Batangas (near the town of Nasugbu) is Fortune Island, with the name derived from the fortunes pirates had hidden in its many caves. A fully laden Spanish Galleon/warship San Diego was located northeast of the island in 1994 with numerous Ming vases, gold coins and many other artifacts (34,407 pieces in total) were surrendered to the Underwater Archeology Section of the National Museum in Manila. It was sunk by a marauding Dutch naval fleet. Other notable dive sites include Hamilo Cove Wreck (Japanese freighter wreck), Limbones Island, Lo-oc Bay, Fuego Point, Twin Islands, Shark Cave (Mapating Rock), and Ligpo Island and many more.
Nasugbu (left photo) itself has some nice small stretches of white sand beaches especially in Natipuan and Munting Buhangin.
Aside from the dive sites, Batangas also boasts beautiful centuries old churches as well as Spanish colonial houses as best exemplified when you take a stroll in the town of Taal, some of the best preserved in the Philippines aside from Vigan. Taal is also known for its delicate embroideries, butterfly knives (balisong) and sausages. The massive Basilica of St. Martin de Tours built in 1849-1865 dominates the town’s Taal Park at its base.
About 6 Kilometers south of Matabungkay town proper is a sprawling resort complex called Lago de Oro which is most popular with water-skiers.
Amongst the festivals in Batangas, the Parada ng mga Lechon (Roasted Pigs Parade) is the most popular and observed by the townsfolk of Balayan every 24th of June that coincides with the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Expect roasted pigs in costumes that range from the snarky political to the most Mardi-Gras frivolous depending on the theme of the fiesta while everyone engages in water-dousing. Think of it as the appetizing version of the Songkran Festival of Thailand.
Why Not Go
For people expecting superfine white sand beaches like Boracay, there is none of that in Batangas, however, the stretches of other white sand beaches on some of the islands and in the towns of Laiya and Nasugbu are good enough.
If you are travelling to Manila with only a weekend to spare, Batangas is one of the perfect getaways. Some resorts in Anilao-Mabini offer relatively cheap crash courses on open water certification dives that can be taken for 2-3 days.
Best Time to Visit
Unless there is a typhoon, Batangas is an excellent destination year-round. Even during the Easter Weekend, we found Sombrero and Maricaban Islands largely devoid of throngs of tourists.
For those staying in Anilao-Mabini, Crystal Blue Resort (left photo) at Brgy, Bagalangit is of the best value. Tastefully designed cottages hugging the cliff and commanding a view of the Rock Marine Sanctuary with the islands of Sombrero and Maricaban in the distance, the resort is one of those tiny surprises in Anilao. You can arrange to rent a boat here to go island hopping for about PhP 2200 (boat is not owned by the resort- whole day- cheapest one we could find), PhP 100 per pax for life vest rentals (from the resort) and PhP 100 per person entrance fee to the Sombrero island and PhP 300 per boat for Maricaban Island. Once in Sombrero island, look for a shaded area in the beach instead of renting the makeshift cottages for PhP 800 (highway robbery, I say). Bring your own trash bags. Check their website at (www.crystalblueresort.com.ph) for updated accommodation rates. Ask for Nonoy Sevillano (+63.921.2999155) for assistance with boat hires.
The Farm at San Benito in Lipa City meanwhile has been named as one of the best health and wellness destinations in Asia since 2006. It sits on a 48 hectare resort that offers holistic wellness programs that are available for 3 days, 5 days, 7 days, 10 days and 14 days. Recovery Programs, Prevention Programs, other treatments and therapies are also available. The Farm also offers day tours of its facilities which include a gourmet organic set menu and fitness and spiritual development sessions (yoga, rotational meridian exercises, pilates, tai chi, etc.). Please check their website (www.thefarm.com.ph/index.shtml) for the updated rates.
Other places worth checking are the Dos Palmas Verde Island Resort, Dive Solana, and Matabungkay Beach Resort and Hotel.
Where & What to Eat
One should not miss fried tawilis harvested from Taal Lake as well as sip a warm cup of Kapeng Barako, a coffee that belongs to the Liberica variety which is said to be more superior to the Robusta variety. One can get bags of these beans in the local wet market in most if not all Batangas towns. In Manila, Barako is served in Figaro Coffee Shops which supports the revival of the farming of this coffee. Lomi, a noodle soup, is popular in small eateries, especially in Lipa City.
Once in Balayan town for its town fiesta, partake in the scrumptious Lechon Balayan (roasted pig), and dip it in a tasty liver sauce and don’t forget to take home a small bottle of Bagoong Balayan (Anchovy sauce).
Nightlife in Batangas is normally confined to the dive resorts that dot the area but these are usually low-key places that prize a more laidback experience rather than the hardcore beach partying that one can expect from neighboring Puerto Galera and Boracay. For a drinking spree with literally a local flavor, one must try the lambanog, also known as coconut wine/coconut vodka- a drink distilled from the sap of the unopened coconut flower. In most parts of the country now, the local drink has taken on a more fanciful makeover- it is now being marketed in several flavors like blueberry, cinnamon, mango and bubblegum.
My to do List
1. Take open water certification dives in Anilao-Mabini. **
2. Get drenched during the Parada ng Mga Lechon. **
3. Waterski in Lago de Oro.
4. Walk through the streets of Taal and marvel at the colonial houses.
5. Explore the Maricaban, Sombrero (left photo) and Verde islands.**
6. Hire a boat and trek at Taal Volcano.*
7. Buy your own balisong. (Please check the customs laws of your home country or further destinations if you do, as the balisong is considered as a weapon, you may have some issues taking it home.)
8. Check out the archeological digs of Calatagan.
9. Have a taste of the local lambanog.**
10. For advanced divers, take on the Verde Island dive with its huge concentration of pelagics.*
11. Sail in a hobie-cat in Taal Lake.*
12. Detoxify at the Farm at San Benito.
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Dust Mites. – bring Lysol with you, if you think the hotel room is oldish and not cleaned properly. (If you are bringing pets, it goes without saying that pets can die from Lysol.)
There are buses plying to the different parts of Batangas daily from Manila, and these usually leave on an hourly basis. Buses like ALPS and Jam Transit have buses leaving every 15-30 minutes from its stations in Cubao, Buendia, Lawton and EDSA-Pasay City Stations. For Nasugbu-bound buses, take the Erjohn & Almark or Crow Transit for buses to Nasugbu from Pasay City bus terminal. Alternatively, one can hire a car or a van (with or without a driver) from any of the car rental companies in Manila (Avis is the most reliable but also a bit costlier option.)
Motorbikes with sidecars (tricycles) are the primary mode of transportation in Lipa and Batangas Cities as well as jeepneys. If you plan to commute, it is best to get a road map of the province from National Bookstore.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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