Not only the proud birthplace of the Philippine National Hero, Laguna plays host to a wealth of natural wonders and cultural treasures from its hot springs, scenic jungle-clad canyons, picturesque waterfalls to its wonderful and sought-after craftsmanship of the finest embroidery, wood-carvings ,and footwear in the country.
Just 30 kilometers southeast of Manila, Laguna is a veritable treasure trove of cultural, historical and natural gems. It almost completely surrounds the Laguna de Bay (Laguna Lake), one of Southeast Asia’s largest lakes, thus, its name derived from the Spanish word “Lago” which meant Lake. It is also the first province south of the bustling National Capital Region with the Ninoy Aquino International Airport about 1-1 & 1/2 hours away from the industrial estates of Calamba.
Photo by d2digital
Like most of the rest of Luzon and the country – Laguna as well as its surrounding areas of Morong (Rizal), Tayabas (Quezon) and the Bicol Peninsula was Christianized as soon as the Spanish forces including the missionaries moved through the Philippines, evangelizing as early as 1578 when the first friars from the Franciscan orders arrived in Manila. In the succeeding years, the towns of Bay (the most populous and was the seat of the provincial government until it was moved to Pagsanjan), Caliraya, Nagcarlan, Liliw, Pila, Pagsanjan (the capital until it was finally moved to Santa Cruz), Santa Cruz (the current capital), Lumban, Siniloan, Majayjay, Pañgil, San Pablo.
Laguna was a hotbed of numerous historical events- it was the site of one of the most sanguine battle grounds and Filipino nationalist resistance so many times – the Chinese revolt in 1603, the British plundered its capital during the years of the British invasion from 1762 to 1764, the revolts against the Spanish cruelty, the defense against the onslaught of the American invaders, and guerrilla warfare waged against the Japanese. And why not? Laguna’s very own and much revered son, Jose Rizal, the Philippine National Hero – also a polymath, polyglot and leading reformist, came from one of its Ilustrado families of Calamba – was an immense inspiration not only to the nationalist movements in the Philippines but in the budding anti-colonial forces around the world as well.
The Rizal Shrine of Calamba (J.P. Rizal, Calamba City) – the ancestral home and birthplace of the Philippine National Hero (the house standing now was a replica of the original house that was burned down and rebuilt using funds contributed by Filipino schoolchildren around the country under the supervision of National Artist Juan Nakpil under the former President Elpidio Quirino’s Executive Order No. 145 in 1950. The house now is a repository of Rizal memorabilia with the rooms restored (one can spy a punkah, a wide and large Indian fan hanging above the dining table). The house was a typical bahay na bato, a stone house with Filipino, Spanish and Chinese influences with a large yard – typical of the more well-off Filipinos during those days. The house had been attacked by vandals but traces of that were nowhere to be found when we visited it in July of 2009. There is a small museum of Rizal memorabilia that houses contemporary Rizal-inspired art as well as other curious items like a skull as well as clothes worn by the National Hero himself including copies of his famous books, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. The last poem he wrote when he was still incarcerated in Fort Santiago in Intramuros prior to his execution in Luneta (now Rizal Park), Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) is on display with both Tagalog and English translations.
Unfortunately, the office that oversees the shrine – National Historical Institute- committed one horrible, horrible mistake tantamount to sacrilege – they repainted the façade of the house in vomit green. The people of Calamba, and admirers of Philippine History and the National Hero were rightfully outraged of having turned the shrine into what some of the locals call – a house of avocado. We were perplexed as well- this wasn’t the original color of the house and the lame reason that the National Historical Institute was giving (and this was evident in signs around the museum- a very stupid excuse that since Rizal came from the word “ricial” which meant green field ready for harvest from the list of Spanish surnames – Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos (following the 1849 decree by Spanish Governor General Claveria of handing out surnames to Filipinos for tax and census purposes – that is why although Filipinos have Spanish-sounding surnames – they don’t necessarily have European blood which only about a minute 2% of the population can lay claim to. If you are a Filipino and have a surname found in the catalogue of surnames- chances are you do not have any European blood at all.).
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
Going back to the Shrine, of course, this infamy has garnered widespread violent reactions and remonstrations by people who were appalled at this monumental faux pas. According to the NHI’s chief apologist, NHI head and allegedly the main culprit behind the disgusting decision- Ambeth Ocampo (I was a fan of Ocampo before) said in his column- “the green hues are meant to honor the memory of the Rizal family and their way of life.” So if Jose Rizal’s last name happened to be “Arco Iris” which is Spanish for rainbow- is the National Historical Institute going to paint the house into an icon for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) movement? Upon speaking to the curator, the NHI is now reconsidering to repaint the house to its original color. We will have to wait and see about that. As a tip, do not schedule your trips to the Rizal Shrine around December when preparations are rife for Rizal Day celebrations on 30 December as chances are the shrine would be closed off to visitors. The Shrine is open Tuesday to Saturday, 8:30 am to 12:00 nn and 1:00 pm to 4:30 pm. Entrance is Free. Cameras are allowed.
Continuing further southeast following the National Highway is the resort city of Los Baños- most notable for its various springs around the Pansol area – hot, cold and lukewarm water is the main tourist draw here and you will see heaps of resorts along the main drag between Calamba and Los Baños. Los Baños, which sits on the foothills of Mount Makiling in the south and Laguna de Bay in the north is also home to the Los Baños arm of the University of the Philippines and the International Rice Research Institute. UP Los Baños provides good access to some of Laguna’s natural sites. One can hire a jeepney (for PhP 500 – look for Romel- 09195747174; usually the trek up Mount Makiling is about PhP1,000- try to haggle) or you may take your four-wheel drive up one of Makiling’s slopes to head to the Makiling Rainforest Park (minimum entrance fees apply – visitors are discouraged to come up after 5PM) to its Mud Springs – a trek through the forest which is about 692 meters off the main road (which can be really rough going up). Although fenced off from the public, one can catch a good glimpse of the boiling and the steaming sulfuric mud – it is one of the few mud pots left on Mount Makiling – an inactive volcano. A mud pot is a type of hot spring that is formed when volcanic heat and sulfuric acids breaks down surrounding rocks into clay, the clay mixes with water that is very hot (about 80 degrees Celsius), very acidic and sulfurous with varying consistency and color. Camping is not allowed and people are advised to refrain from coming any closer to avoid incurring burn injuries.
Around the same area, the Flat Rocks waterfalls (374 Meters from the main road) on the same jungle trek) – a waterfall with giant rock boulders is quite a nice site to behold and with clean little pools to have your little private swim. However, make sure that you take a guide with you as the area is notorious for people losing their valuables to muggers. Makiling is a big mountain with few forest rangers going around. You may want to contact mountaineering groups in Manila or in UP Los Baños if you plan to head out and camp.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
Fancy an optical illusion? Head out to the Jamboree and observe what is called the Magnetic Hill which is actually just a short patch of road- you may try to put your car on this spot with the engine off and it would look like you are rolling up the road but actually you are going downhill. A lot of people actually come up to visit and stop by the place to witness this illusion and everyone in UP Los Baños seemed to know about it. Some try to pour water on this short road and watch water “magnetically” creep up the road.
Los Baños is also home to the Center for Philippine Raptors – a breeding center for Philippine Eagles- one of the world’s biggest, most beautiful and most endangered raptors, Hawks and other raptors, however, when we went there all the eagles had been released into the wild and plans are afoot of transferring the facility to Metro Manila.
One of the southern towns of Laguna, San Pablo City, one of the oldest in the country is known for its collection of 7 lakes- Lakes Malucan, Palakpakin/Palacpaquen, Yambo, Bunot, Pandin, Muhikap, Calibato, and Sampalok – the latter which is the biggest and the one closest to the city centre. There is a view deck near the city hall on the Dagatan Boulevard which affords a sweeping view of this serene, yet ordinary lake. Skip the overpriced lunches offered at the restaurants around the lake though. San Pablo City is also a jump-off point to treks to the nearby Mount Banahaw.
103 Kilometers southeast of Manila and about 30 minutes ride from San Pablo City is the town of Nagcarlan which is famous for its beautiful Spanish Underground Cemetery- the only one of its kind in the country. Built in 1851 by Fr. Vicente Velloc, a Franciscan missionary who became the town’s parish priest, the cemetery was a burial ground exclusively used for the Spanish friars as well as the town’s more esteemed citizens. The cemetery’s crypts were also used as a meeting place for Filipino revolutionaries and it was here that the Pact of Biak-na-Bato was first planned by Gen. Severino Taino (Maluningning Command) and Pedro Paterno in 1897. The cemetery is carefully being restored after decades and decades of vandalism (one can still see screaming remnants of names etched through its walls from as far back as the ‘70s. Much of the chapel’s wall paintings were almost gone and the remaining bits of the ceiling can still be seen in the original wood used. The Cemetery is considered a Philippine historical landmark and is open 8AM-4PM – Tuesday to Friday. Photography is allowed (without the use of flash) and must only be for personal use. Entrance is free.
Photo by Jem
Aside from the Spanish Underground Cemetery, another focal point of a visit to Nagcarlan is its Church built originally in 1583 out of light materials and then by brick and stone in 1752.
Moving further eastward from Nagcarlan is the pretty little town of Liliw with its romantic red-bricked church and the rows and rows of footwear shops that line its main street. Liliw is considered as the footwear capital of Laguna, where Imelda-clones, young and old alike can have their fill of beautiful, affordable and well-made footwear all made locally. We couldn’t help but get a pair of stylish abaca flip-flops at very cheap prices which would have been at least 5 times the price in Manila.
The nearby towns of Majayjay and Magdalena are hosts to beautiful, romantic churches – St. Gregory’s Church of Majayjay (you can check out a refreshing view of Laguna Lake from the belfy) and the St. Mary Magdalene Church of Magdalena (where the wounded body of Filipino revolutionary almost bled to death – you can check out the marker). Majayjay is also home to the Taytay Falls (also known as Imelda Falls) and a favored picnic grounds for the locals. For those who do not have the time to drive all the way to Vigan to see heritage houses, the town of Pila meanwhile has a respectable collection of Spanish colonial houses around its busy main town square. While it doesn’t evoke as much romantic vibe as its cousin in Ilocos Sur, Pila’s houses are quite charming on their own. While the town of Bacarra in Ilocos Norte’s town hall is the Blue House, Pila has the Red House.
For fans of finest embroidery, one should head out to Lumban for its many shops churning out exquisite artwork on clothing. This is a place where one can get the best priced, most beautifully made Barong Tagalogs (the Philippine National Costume) made out of pineapple silk sourced from Aklan and either embroidered or painted. We met the very friendly Ms. Ailyn Del Moral (No. 15 Brgy. Sto. Niño JP Rizal St., Lumban, Laguna/Landline- +63.49.8220334;Mobile- +63.917.8081762/ Email- firstname.lastname@example.org) who even let us try on one of their beautiful barongs. A ready-made Barong (pineapple/jusi, embroidered/painted) at her shop only costs about PhP1,500. Compared to the barong makers in Manila and elsewhere that we know of- that was just extremely cheap for the level of design and craftsmanship. The beauty of the Barong Tagalog is that everyone- Filipinos and Non-Filipinos can actually wear it and it look clean and neat and spiffy unlike the much more colorful and elaborate national costumes of other Asian countries- you can actually wear a Barong and still look even more handsome – even Hollywood Director Quentin Tarantino himself wore one! The Barong actually is very wearable, dignified and extremely elegant.
For fans of woodcarving and papier mache art, Paete is well-known all over for this craft and this pretty much evident everywhere you go in Paete. Religious icons are de rigueur and widespread. Paete’s woodcarvings are known all over the world and can be found in the statues, pulpits, murals, and bas reliefs in museums, churches and palaces like in the San Cayetano Church in Mexico, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, St. Joseph’s Shrine in Santa Cruz, California, the Mission Dolorosa in San Francisco as well as various churches in the Philippines as well as the Ayala Museum in Makati. Woodcarving is the lifeblood of the town, so much so that even the town’s name is derived from the word ‘Paet’ or chisel and the official town hero is the master artisan Mariano Madriñan whose masterpiece- the life-like Mater Dolorosa was honored by no less than the King of Spain with an award in Amsterdam in 1882. By March 15, 2005, the town was declared by Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the “Carving Capital of the Philippines.”
The town of Pakil , the next town after Paete further north is more noted with the musicality of its townsfolk, being the home of the first Music Academy in the Philippines around 1856 and earning the town as the Little Milan of the Philippines because of the many good musicians up until this day.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
A trip to Laguna would never be complete without the requisite trip down the rapids of Pagsanjan. Snaking through the gorgeous moss, fern and jungle clad canyons is the Pagsanjan River (Bumbung River). While it wasn’t as exhilarating as I thought it was going to be (I can be an adrenaline junkie sometimes so Class 1 rapids weren’t that exciting for me), although I had to keep balance all the time to make sure the camera was alright and so the long flat-bottomed fiber-glass boat wouldn’t tip over. During the rainy season, the waters turn muddy but nevertheless the views were just stunning, with dragonflies flitting around you felt ethereal while your boatmen (2 boatmen are required) navigate through the stillness of the canyons- no wonder, noted director Francis Ford Coppola filmed his final scenes for his Vietnam War-epic Apocalypse Now there. The set of course is no longer there, but one can’t help but imagine the scene of a carabao being slaughtered on the banks of the river. You start your trip at one of the boat stations in any of the resorts or hotels by the Balanac river and you will then turn right to the Bumbung River going through the different rapids and going upstream towards the direction of the thundering Magdapio Falls (or now known as Pagsanjan Falls). There will be at least 7 waterfalls (We found the First Falls amongst the most lovely) along the way and at one point, the boatmen will stop by a makeshift restaurant that sells grilled chicken and rice just before the First Falls – of course you are obligated by the people to feed the boatmen- that is on top of the PhP 1000 fee for the boat ride. Once you reach the Pagsanjan Falls, you can ride the bamboo raft to go under the thundering waterfalls and take a swim inside a cave called the Devil’s Cave. This is additional fee of course (about PhP 90 per person). While the ride was peaceful and the scenery was simply gorgeous – the main hassles of Pagsanjan start even before one enters the town. We got harassed by a tout on our bus and he was so persistent even after I told him that I was dropping by the city hall. He tried to take us to a different resort, but I insisted that I wanted to be taken to the City Hall first. Avoid these people at all costs. He insisted on even coming with us to the resort that we chose and did. I know that we were not supposed to pay for the resort entrance fee as this was supposed to be covered by the PhP 1000 fee, but yeah, we ended up shelling out an additional PhP 100 for entrance to a rather decrepit looking hotel which is fairly common all throughout Pagsanjan. Just before we got on the boat, the guy who accompanied us from the bus to the City Hall and then to the resort was asking for money – are you freaking kidding me? Just because I come to your town to go check out your waterfalls doesn’t mean I’ve got shitloads of money – and even if I did, why in my right mind am I ever going to give you money since you practically did nothing and just tagged along? The boatmen themselves are not exempt from these scandalous attempts of fleecing tourists going to Pagsanjan – after being fed up of being told by one of our boatmen that their job was extremely hard (it was) – I quipped “all kinds of work are hard- it’s not called work for nothing,” he quieted down. Dude, if you think you can’t hack it as a boatman, give it up! No one is forcing you to be one! In the end, he was trying to force me to cough up bigger tips. Wow! While Pagsanjan Falls is very beautiful and the trip to and from it is spectacular- encountering shady people in Pagsanjan just left a bitter taste in our mouths. So yeah, if ever you are going to Pagsanjan (and we still highly recommend it- visit it at least once) – better book it with a tour group. If you are going by yourselves, go straight to the City Hall and don’t talk to anyone except to people from the Municipal Hall) or arrange a contact in one of its hotels and resorts beforehand. If you are taking a private car, do not stop when someone tries to flag you down. When we say shooting the rapids in Pagsanjan is a once in a lifetime event, trust us, while it is exceptionally beautiful – the locals are quite very disappointing and leave us no choice but never to return in the future. Also please check with the city hall first if the Pagsanjan Falls (www.pagsanjan.gov.ph) are open when you go- during the rainy season, boat rides can only come up to the First Falls, since flashfloods are a real danger around this season.
Also found in Pagsanjan is the Puerta Real gate- a stone gate that recalls the miracle of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the town’s Patroness who apparently protected the town from bandits on December 8, 1877 when an apparition of a beautiful lady holding a shining sword stopped the rampaging bandits in their tracks. The people of Pagsanjan erected the stone gate in honor of their Patroness. Talking about being grateful- a giant Mexican church bell was given by the people of Mexico in 1773 and was hurled down in the Bumbungan River (the river that flows from Pagsanjan falls). The bell left Acapulco, Mexico on the San Carlos Galleon and sent by a big casco to Pagsanjan. The bell was installed at the belfry and whenever it rang, its booming echoes were heard in the nearby towns frightening local pregnant women and making many children cry. The giant bell was dismantled (probably fearing that it would result in untimely Church induced abortions every time it was rung) and thrown into the deep waters of Kawa-Kawa which was near the entrance of the gorge going to Pagsanjan Falls.
Other noteworthy places to check out in Laguna are the Buruwisan Falls in Siniloan and the Homma-Yamashita Shrine of Los Baños. Santa Rosa, meanwhile, has the country’s biggest theme park (Enchanted Kingdom) complete with a Ferris Wheel, a carousel, and even a 4D theater (sprays air and water as well as it is 3D) and feels reminiscent of the 1930’s theme parks of the United States. The man-made Caliraya (created in 1937 by US Army Engineer Major General Hugh J. Casey by flooding the Cavinti Valley of Southern Sierra Madre to generate hydroelectric power for Manila, but sabotaged by the Americans to prevent use by the advancing Japanese during the World War 2- rebuilt and then sabotaged by the Japanese and ‘rediscovered by tourists in the early ‘70s) as well continues to be a popular haunt for the well-heeled with several activities such as jet skiing, waterskiing, boating, golf, and large mouth bass fishing (the most popular spot for bass fishing in the Philippines).
Why Not Go
Laguna does not have beaches of its own, and the ones that closely resembles beaches are by the banks of the Laguna Lake- but we’d rather not swim there. The touts and the harassment we encountered in Pagsanjan were also quite a big frustration for us.
Due to its close proximity to Manila, Laguna is a great getaway- whether you are a history junkie, a nature-lover or even a traveling gourmand. We practically did day trips to Laguna and pretty much covered a very good part of it in three weekends.
Best Time to Visit
Best time to go to Laguna is preferably during the dry season although it doesn’t hurt to do a quick trip there even if the weather is unwilling to cooperate. With shooting the rapids in Pagsanjan – the main falls might be closed off if rain is continuous to protect any visitors from flashfloods. If the weather is clear, then a trip to Laguna is not all that bad.
There are heaps of accommodations in Laguna- especially in the Pansol area (for the hot springs) and the Pagsanjan area for the rapids and the waterfalls. We haven’t tried any of these places as we did Laguna as a series of day trips. You may want to check out – Hotel La Corona de Pagsanjan (www. lacorona.com) and Pagsanjan Rapids Hotel (+63.2.8340403/+63.2.8340404). If you really needed to stay in Pagsanjan for the night, you may contact the Pagsanjan Tourism Office (+63.920.9073480) or you may just want to arrange this in advance with a travel agency in Manila. For the hot springs in Pansol- check out http://www.laguna-hotspring.com/ for a listing of the hot springs. It should be said again that we haven’t tried any of these resorts so we cannot vouch for the quality of their services. If in doubt, always ask someone from the local tourism office.
Where & What to Eat
Kesong Puti (White Cheese) from carabao’s milk, and delectable coconut pies (Buko Pies) of Collette’s – you can never go wrong with Collette’s which are ubiquitous along the roadsides of Laguna and are one of the must-try Laguna delicacies. Majayjay is famed for its potent 90-proof lambanog (coconut vodka) as well and it can be found along the roadside stalls – cheap and incredibly strong. Kinulob na Itik, a savoury duck dish of Victoria town in Laguna should also be on your list.
Laguna is also part of a culinary tour that stretches up to Quezon Province and Batangas– Viajes del Sol (http://www.viajedelsol.org/) where some of its restaurants figure like Carlito’s, Casa San Pablo, Herbana Farms, Kusina Salud, Pillar Plants and Novelties, Sitio de Amor, and the Forest Club. This is a must try for those on the gastronomic mood.
Most of Laguna’s nightlife centers around the resorts in the bigger towns especially around UP Los Baños, otherwise, the nightlife here is nothing really to write about – that is unless camping in the forest of Makiling is your kind of a wild night out.
My to do List
1. Shoot the rapids at Pagsanjan Falls and swim in the Devil’s Cave.**
2. Shop for footwear in Liliw.*
3. Go church-hopping.*
4. Visit the Spanish Underground Cemetery in Nagcarlan.*
5. Hike Mt. Makiling and see Mud Springs and the Flat Rocks.*
6. Get your own Lumban-embroidered Barong Tagalog (Men) or Baro at Saya (Women).*
7. Check out Paete Woodcarvings.*
8. Take a soak at the springs of Pansol.**
9. Pay a visit to the Rizal Shrine in Calamba.**
10. Try the Kinulob na Itik of Victoria.**
11. Waterskiing at Lake Caliraya.**
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
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.
3. UV rays – Apply ample sun protection and sunglasses. Bring extra clothes and plastic bags for your valuables as well if you plan of doing the rapids in Pagsanjan.
4. Flaggers and Illegal Boatmen- report them immediately to the Tourist Police or the Mayor’s Office.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
If you are not coming with a tour group, there are many buses that ply to different points in Laguna. Jam, Tritran, Green Star buses traverse Calamba, Los Baños, Bay, Victoria, Pila, and Sta. Cruz. If you are bound to Pagsanjan – you get off the bus at Pagsawitan and then take a jeepney or a tricycle to Pagsanjan City Hall (ask to be dropped at the city hall – don’t allow people to take you straight to their resort.) If you want to go to the southern towns of San Pablo, Nagcarlan, Rizal, Liliw, Majayjay and Luisiana- take Jam Transit bound for Lucena in Quezon and get off at the San Pablo Colleges Medical Center and take a tricycle into town for the seven lakes or you may want to hop through the different towns via jeepney (no buses go through the southern towns- the primary means of transport is jeepney). Locals are generally helpful and jeepneys are available in the more remote towns up to 4 to 5PM only. Do not forget to take a road map of Laguna before embarking on a trip.
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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