Klara Iskra Añonuevo embarks on five-day road trip to the provinces of Nueva Ecija and Cagayan, and embraces their simple provincial life, complex histories, delicious cuisines, and, of course, breathtaking natural wonders.
“4 AM?” I read aloud, as I saw the email that informed me that our call time at the bus station was moved from 7 AM, to—ugh—4 AM. After travel and food, sleep is my third love, and this order of priority is also why I decided to forego slumber the night before my trip to Nueva Ecija and Cagayan, two provinces I had yet to explore—I wasn’t about to give up the chance to see more of my country in exchange for a full night of rest. Sleep could wait. At least until I had hauled myself into the bus that would bring me to Nueva Ecija.
Reconnecting with Nature
Our first day in Nueva Ecija focused on the natural wonders of the province, as we spent it in Minalungao National Park and PMP Paradise Farm. I remember hearing about the park in General Tinio a couple of years back, but what I didn’t expect was the vastness of it—the pictures just don’t give justice to its size. The most stunning of the park’s over 2000 hectares of land is the karst formations on both sides of the Peñaranda River—the view just begs to be photographed.
After taking in the view (and lunch!), we went on our way to see the man-made cross in the park. The catch? It’s located at one of the highest points in the park, and in order to get there, you had to climb over a thousand steps. While the path was paved, it still took a lot to get to the summit, and I have to admit that I underestimated the trek. Once we reached the cross though, we were rewarded by the view of the cross and the surrounding areas below us, as well as a cool breeze. Other activities that can be enjoyed at Minalungao National Park are swimming, cliff-diving, and bamboo-rafting along the river, spelunking, and ziplining.
PMP Paradise Farm is an underrated gem located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. We were welcomed into the 250-hectare farm by the owner Major Pablo Pagtalunan, whose earnestness and enthusiasm for the farm is only rivaled by the surprisingly enjoyable activities one can find here. Here we made our own palitaw and nilupak (local delicacies made from rice and cassava), and tried our hand at fishing while on a floating bahay kubo. But by far the activity our group enjoyed the most was “herding” the farm’s dozens of sheep. I write that with quotation marks as it felt like we were just playing with them the whole time. Shallow as it may seem, there’s just this pure joy coming from just running around a vast field with sheep surrounding you.
Having our fill
Our next and last day in Nueva Ecija was mostly spent eating or learning about food. At the NFA Grains Industry Museum (entrance is free!), we saw on display old farming tools that were used by Filipino farmers, as well as dioramas showing how rice and other grains were processed for consumption throughout history. In Central Luzon State University’s Science and Technology Centrum, we further learned about agricultural technologies developed by the University, to help make farming a sustainable enterprise. It was also here where we were introduced to Tilapia Ice Cream, a unique and intriguing dessert made from fresh carabao milk, walnuts, cheese, and of course, tilapia flakes. I was especially awed by our visit to the Philippine Rice Research Institute or PhilRice, as not only does it have a rice museum of its own (which features art about farmers and rice farming), but it also offers tours (on bleachers pulled by a tractor!) where you can see for yourself the technologies involved with rice cultivation.
By far, my favorite stop for the day was our trip to the Puno Ice Cream Plant in Cabanatuan City. I had been hearing about this homegrown brand prior to this trip, and after our visit, I was able to see why people couldn’t stop raving about their flavors! Their Cheese Cashew Macapuno Ice Cream was so creamy and flavorful, while the Buko Sherbet with Lychees was just so light and refreshing. Visitors can find Puno Ice Cream from vendors all over the province.
After two packed days in Nueva Ecija, we hit the road again to make our way to Cagayan—which meant spending the night on a bus for the 10-hour trip. Thankfully, not only do I love sleeping, but I consider myself a master of doing it on moving vehicles.
Although they already have branches in Metro Manila, Caffé La Tea originated in Cabanatuan City. Inspired by their travels all over the world, the owners opened their first branch in 2012, and has, since then, built a name as the coffee pride of the city. If you need your caffeine fix (they also serve filling dishes too!) in Nueva Ecija, look for their branches in Cabanatuan City and Gapan.
Bangus on spaghetti or on nachos? Why not! You can try it at Chanos Chanos (which is actually the scientific name for milkfish) stalls in Nueva Ecija. Founded just two years ago, the store aims to encourage kids (and kids-at-heart!) to eat milkfish, as it is a good source of Omega 3.
Where to Stay
Microtel by Wyndham – Cabanatuan
Sta. Arcadia, Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija
(+63 02) 899 7171, (+63 44) 958 7777, (+63 917) 888 1800
Like the rest of Microtel properties, this one in Cabanatuan focuses on bringing guests the necessities at an affordable price. The 50 rooms provide comfy beds, clean bathrooms, and free WiFi. Of course, you can never go wrong with their free coffee, available 24 hours in the common area.
117 Del Pilar Street, Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija
(+63 44) 950 8888, (+63 917) 539 6125
If luxe travel is what you’re after, Harvest Hotel is the perfect place for you, as it is the first and only four-star hotel in Cabanatuan City. Their breakfast buffet spread is also worth waking up early for, as it includes heart garlic longganisa and a DIY taho station.
Crystal Waves Hotel and Resort
Maharlika Hi-way, Barangay Dinarayat, Talavera, Nueva Ecija
(+63 44) 411 0834, (+63 923) 719 4074
Adrenaline junkies will enjoy the facilities at Crystal Waves Resort, as not only does it have a wave pool, but it also has waterslides and ziplines! It’s also family friendly as it has a kiddie pool, as well as the option for meals to be served in a boodle fight manner.
Living the Simple Life
After the 10-hour trip whizzed by, I woke up to find that we were in Cagayan State University. We were served a hearty breakfast, and immediately afterwards explored the farm of the campus. Much like in Nueva Ecija, we had fun feeding the goats here, as well as interacting with the cows, some of which were actually shipped from New Zealand.
But I actually found Cagayan to be more laid-back and simple than Nueva Ecija, and this was more evident when we continued our trip to the town of Iguig. Barangay Atulu in particular is famous for its brick and pottery making, which we saw and experienced firsthand during our visit. We were informed that the soil in Atulu is unique, making it ideal for creating clay. The barangay has been creating these handmade crafts pre-war, and after persisting through World War II, Atulu and its artisans have continued producing bricks, pottery, and other clay items that are sold all over the province.
Learning a bit of History
We also had time to visit the Cagayan Museum, a small museum near Tuguegarao that hosts the artifacts discovered in the province. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the display on the Callao Man, which includes a replica of the fossilized metatarsal found in Callao Cave in Peñablanca in 2007. There’s also the exhibit on the caves of Cagayan (including Callao Cave), where one has to enter a special room that has been turned into a cave, to give the visitors a preview of what they might actually experience when they see visit these caves themselves.
Basking in the Sun and Sea
We definitely saved the best for our last day, which was spent venturing on the waters to enjoy Anguib Beach and Palaui Island. To get to both places, we had to ride a small boat which left from San Vicent Port in Santa Ana (bring your dry bag, as the rough sea will definitely get you wet on your way). Anguib Beach provides what the Philippines has been famous world over for: white powdery sand and clear turquoise waters—but sans the crowd that some popular beaches attract. Apart from providing us with gorgeous views and the chance to take a pause and relax (you can just laze in one of the colorful hammocks), we also had our fill of delicious food here, as it can be enjoyed in one of their open huts.
Although the weather had been so dreary for most of our trip, the skies cleared up as we approached Palaui Island’s Cape Engaño—it felt like the Universe was giving us a grand welcome into the island. While the views it gives are already beautiful from the beach, it only gets stunning the higher you go, and it reaches the pinnacle of views once you reach the Cape Engaño Lighthouse. It’s a short trek to get there, and we were accompanied by a guide (each guide’s fee is only P300, and one guide can be shared by four people), as well as very friendly and energetic island dog named Balbon. The lighthouse itself if a sight to behold, as its old walls are slowly being engulfed by flora. It was built in 1892 and remains one of the few lighthouses left from the Spanish era. Exploring the surrounding areas of the lighthouse gave the best views of Cape Engaño, the rest of the island, as well as neighboring Dos Hermanas Islands.
After freshening up, we headed back to Manila—which meant another night of sleeping on the bus. I guess in the end, I got all my three loves in this trip: restful slumber, filling and delicious food, and an adventure that’s filled with learning experiences, simple joys, and spectacular sights.
Soul Searching in Cagayan
For the religious, a tour of the churches in Cagayan may prove to be a spiritual and enriching experience, as not only do these churches give visitors the chance to pray and reflect, but also to marvel at the different architectural beauty, as well as to learn from their individual histories.
Basilica Minore de Nuestra Señora de Piat
The basilica is home to the Black Virgin Mary, also known as Our Lady of Piat. This image dates back to 1604, when it was brought from Macau to the Philippines by Dominican friars. It is a pilgrimage site for the faithful, and attracts thousands of devotees during the Sambali Festival which begins in late June.
Saint Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral
Also known as Tuguegarao Church, the cathedral was built by the Spanish during the 1760s, and remains to be the one of the biggest churches in Cagayan from that era. It is also the seat of the Archdiocese of Tuguegarao City.
San Antonio De Galicia Church and Calvary Hills
Famous for its hills that have massive 14 stations of the cross, San Antonio De Galicia gets packed with both the religious and the curious during holy week. It’s best to visit this church in Iguig during off-peak moths, so you can take in the view (and hopefully the good weather) of the Calvary Hills sans the crowds.
Saint Philomene Church
This church in Alcala is said to be the widest in the province, and a view of its façade will prove so. Upon closer inspection, visitors will appreciate the walls made of red bricks, as well as its doors which are intricately designed with golden details.
Santo Domingo De Guzman Church
In Lal-Lo stands this beautiful and massive red-brick church, which was recently featured in commemorative stamp for the 435th foundation anniversary of the municipality. Right across the street from it is the Evangelization Cross, which was planted hundreds of years ago by missionaries. Today the cross is encased in glass to preserve and protect it from damage.
San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila Church
Located in the Lyceum of Aparri, the church serves as the heart of the university. On the second floor of the church is the Ecclesiastical Museum, where religious artifacts from the history of Cagayanos are on display.
If you’re a fan of chicharon, you won’t be able to get enough of Chicharabao, a crunchy snack made from carabao hide. It takes about three days to create them, from the shearing of the hide to the boiling, deep-frying, and flavoring (variations are Garlic, Hot and Spicy, and Onion and Vinegar) and up to the final packaging stage. This addicting nibbles are made by Lighthouse Cooperative in Tuguegarao, where travelers can also purchase other local products and souvenirs.
You’ve probably heard of or even tasted Pansit Batil Patong, and most everyone you know who hail from the north likely has an opinion of where to get the best serving. It gets its name from the egg drop soup it is served with (batil), and the poached egg placed on top of the finished pansit (patong). Tuguegarao has so many pansiterias, from the roadside ones to the fancier diners, that it’s a mistake to leave the city without eating it for a meal, especially since it is not only delicious, but very filling as well, even if you just get the smallest serving.
Reminiscent of other famous suspension bridges in the world, the Magapit Suspension Bridge is as picturesque as it is functional. The 449-meter bridge also offers beautiful views of the Cagayan River, making it a favorite photo stop for many.
Where to Stay
1250 Dunkin Drive, Caggay, Tuguegarao City, Cagayan
(+63 78) 377 0032
If you want a quiet retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the city, consider staying at Balai Carmela. The secluded location, along with the relaxing ambiance, gives guests the chance to unwind after a long day of touring. They even have their own pool where you can take a quick dip in.