Treasures near the Pearl of the Orient

Treasures near the Pearl of the Orient

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Kanto

The Philippines is a country blessed with nature, rich culture and arts, delicious cuisine and warmhearted people.

This country is a great combination of Western and Asian influences surrounded by natural beauty.    

Whenever I travel to this country with my wife and daughter it always welcomes us with beautiful views, old colonial townscapes, good food and the brilliant smiles of the local people.

Among countless attractions throughout the Philippines, I have three favorites which are ideal for families to visit on short day trips from Manila – Caliraya Lake, Villa Escudero and the artist village of Angono. They are all located around the Laguna de Bay, a few hours drive from the country’s captital.

In fact, the routes to the sites themselves are attractive. Mountainous terrain offers spectacular vistas of big Laguna de Bay Lake and the great scenic mountains of Banahaw, Cristobal and Makiling.

Villa Escudero
Villa Escudero may be the best place to go if you want to see the rural Philippines without traveling too far from Manila. Carabao-drawn carriages, a coconut plantation and native cottages with thatched roofs overlooking Labasin Lake, provide a great snapshot of rural Filipino life. In the village, you can experience the Philippines’ rich cultural heritage, history and cuisine in an ideal rural setting.

Villa Escudero is an old coconut plantation founded in the late 19th century.  Since it was opened to the public about 30 years ago, it has offered visitors the glimpses of plantation life. My family and I spent a day there walking around the Victorian-style garden and riding in a carabao-drawn carriage through coconut groves as local musicians serenaded us with folk songs.

We enjoyed traditional performances by dancers and singers in native attire. We also perused a trove of religious art, such as silver altars, gilded “carrozzas” (floats) and ivory-headed statues at the private museum of the Escudero family. 

One of our most fun experiences in the village was A native-style lunch near a sparkling waterfall. We sat at bamboo tables and chairs at the bottom of a waterfall soaking our feet as we enjoyed local cuisine served on banana leaves. The coconut-flavored chicken and fish were delicious and well-suited for our lunch at a coconut plantation. 

Caliraya Lake
You might be thinking the Philippines is hot and humid everywhere, but that is not true.  I was surprised to find cooler climate when my family and I visited the Caliraya Lake in East Laguna. When we were there last, it was nearly 50 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than Manila.

“That is because of strong mountain breeze blowing from Mount Banahaw and the Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges, besides its high altitude,” explained Danny Viceo, my brother in law and guide. “It is nearly 400 meters above sea level where cool wind blows all the time.”

We had stayed overnight to enjoy camping and jet-skiing in the cool mountain air. But beware: We didn’t imagine how much cooler it would be and didn’t bring jackets. At night, we found ourselves shivering half asleep under thin blankets.

With its submerged hills, gigantic volcanic rocks, red-clay shorelines and pebbled shores, Caliraya Lake looks like it is part of ancient kingdom ruins. The grey-green colored water adds to the air of mystique. Few would guess that the lake was artificially created as a reservoir for a hydroelectric power plant in the 1930s. 

“This lake is not only a good place for boating, wind surfing and water skiing,” a local told me. “But it also provides an ideal fishing spot, especially for black bass fishing.”  In fact, I saw a few visitors enjoy fishing on the lake. 

In all, Caliraya Lake’s heavenly atmosphere and cool climate offer an ideal rest, escape from hot and humid Manila.  
The artists Village of Angono in Rizal is unforgettable. The village is known as the art capital of the Philippines, where many gifted artists live and ply their crafts. It is the hometown of two great national artists, muralist Botong Francisco and composer Lucio San Pedro. Both have inspired generations of artists to create a variety of artworks.

Angono village
There are a number of art galleries and studios within the village, such as Blanco Family Museum, Nemiranda Arthouse & Gallery, Tiamson Art Gallery, Ang Nuno Artists Foundation Gallery, Village Artists Gallery and more. My family and I were able to visit some of them, including Blanco Family Museum, which exhibits paintings by Jose Blanco and his seven children, all of whom are still painting. 

Although unable to afford classical training in painting, they produced professional works of art so lifelike as to be compared to high-resolution photographs. Besides the richness in contrasts of light and shade, their works were so minute and accurate that I wondered if they really were paintings.

I was impressed with the fact that all the seven children used the same painting style of their father to depict their rural lives. Their artworks are full of affection and compassion toward the subjects, making them very attractive. You can see in the paintings how much the Blancos love each other, and how strong their bond is.

We also visited the studio of a finger painter, Rafael Pacheco, and participated in his workshop and lecture demonstration. To my surprise, Pacheco completed a minute painting full of religious sublimity by using his bare fingers, knuckles and palms within only 20 minutes. Like Blanco, Pacheco was also self-taught. The touch, colors and structure of his paintings were so unique – they were very romantic and sublime, yet very colorful and vivid. 

“I am concerned that rich tradition and customs of the Philippines might be exterminated in the near future as modernization progresses,” Pacheco said during a workshop. Maybe his concern is what drives him to create such unique masterpieces with traditional and ethnic themes. 

We were really impressed with all great artists we met during our visit to this village. 

These are just a few examples of the hundreds of places worth visiting in the Philippines. I encourage you to visit any one or all of them to experience some of the charm this country has to offer. It is sure to be an experience that you will not soon forget.

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