(By AILEEN LAINEZ of the Manila Bulletin)

     SORSOGON, for January 18, 2000 - Sorsogon used to be a little-known destination located at the southernmost tip of Bicol. But in early 1998, events took a detour and gave the province instant popularity, especially among nature-lovers and adventure-seekers. A scuba diver showed to news media his personal underwater video of the biggest fish in the world, the whale sharks, swimming gently in the nearby seas of Donsol town.

     Since then, curious travelers have found their way to this little quiet town, either by enduring a 12-hour bus ride or flying comfortably to Legaspi City and taking another one-hour ride to Sorsogon. To accommodate the tourist influx, the local tourism council has set up whale shark interaction tours, which includes swimming with the butanding, local name of whale sharks.

     Donsol accepts the most number of tourists in between the months of January and June, the time when the spotted giants usually appear.

     Spotting them is not always easy. The whale sharks swim in their natural habitat and therefore, their swimming area is a wide expanse of sea. Whale shark spotters, fishermen who have this uncanny ability of seeing where the fish are, can be hired. However, spotters are still no guarantee, a risk butanding visitors have to take. Many are unperturbed and continue to seek the elusive gentle giants.

Land-based attractions

     Unknown to many, when whale sharks are nowhere in sight, there are land-based attractions in the province that they can visit allyear round. The Sorsogon Tourism Council is now working to promote the province's other beautiful sights and sounds. Eco-tourism is the buzzword nowadays, and this is what the council aims to achieve. From the paved roads of Sorsogon, one can get a view of the almost perfect cone of Mt. Mayon in the nearby Albay province. Mt. Bulusan is Sorsogon's very own, which may not have a cone as picturesque as Mayon's but certainly as scenic. The active volcano is located within the vicinity of the Bulusan National Park, a natural wonder that only few visitors have seen. At the bosom of the national park are lush rainforest and stunning turquoisecolored lake.

     Over the centuries, the place has maintained an aura, which can only be described as enchanting. Nature-lovers find it spectacular and overwhelming as foreigners call it the "Switzerland of the Orient."

     The park stands 2,000 feet above sea level and covers a land area of 16 ½-hectares, teeming with diversity as variant as any rainforest in the world. Rare plants and endangered animal species abound here. The park is believed to be 3,074 geological years old.

     Visitors can picnic, fish, swim, relax and enjoy the scenery. A concrete pathway around the lake was built for people who want to trek and look for best picture-taking vantagepoints. The verdant forest has kept the atmosphere cool and refreshing, even at the time of the day when the temperature is at its highest.

     The tourism council is still in the process of exploring opportunities in the national park, advocating only the activities that do not have any destructive impact on the environment. They will allow only kayaking, fishing and trekking. Hotels, resorts or other structures that entail heavy construction will not be allowed. After all, the best way to have a perfect commune with nature is by blending with it.

     Ten minutes from the national park is another favorite nature hop of Sorsogeños. Palogtoc Falls is modest in size, but it flows all the way to a natural pool that has become a favorite swimming hole among the locals especially on hot summer days.

     Rizal Beach in the town of Gubat is considered the Boracay of the Bicol region because of its long stretch of white beach in a perfectly symmetrical cove. The water is crystal clear, calm and cool for swimming. It has lately become quite a favorite vacation spot because there are a couple of inexpensive resorts in the area. 


     During the whale sharks season, visitors can also stop by the town of Bulan on the last weekend of May and join in the celebration of the colorful Bandalaan sa Bulan Festival. Bandalaan comes from the word bandala, the Bicolano term of the abaca fiber. Abaca fiber is the basic ingredient in making the Manila hemp or rope, a local product whose uses were sought after all over the world for many centuries in the past. A simple commodity it is but certainly placed the Philippines in the world map.

     The highlight of the festival is a dance parade participated by high school students. The male dancers wear costumes composed of sinamay shorts and an armor made out of pili fruits. Their bodies are covered with bright techni-colored paint with moon designs. The female dancers, on the other hand, wear bizarre and eye-catching outfits made out of sinamay cloth, appearing like grown insect queens. Their dance depicts a farmer ritual of thanking nature for a bountiful harvest. The last weekend of May 1999 was the first time they performed before their townsmates, although they were frequently invited before to perform in other parts of Bicol.

     Bandalaan organizer, Nonong Guyala, hopes that this won't be the last. He says that the festival aims to promote the little town of Bulan as a tourist destination. Since the whale sharks are rare in their side of the province, they believe they can realize their aim through showcasing

     Bicol's own pintados culture and homegrown industries like the abaca and pili products. He believes that if the local abaca industry will come back to life, it will definitely help Bulan, Bicol and the whole of the Philippines.

     The festivals do not only happen during the month of May. In October, many towns of Sorsogon are lively with festivities as the local residents celebrate the Pantomina sa Tinampo, or Pantomine in the Streets. Teachers, students and government employees put on their best Filipino outfits and dance their own depiction of a dove dance. 

Historical Towns

     Quaint towns are another attraction that truly makes Sorsogon one-of-a-kind. They provide visitors a glimpse of its rich illustrious history. Barcelona town, for example, houses Bicol's oldest church, St. Joseph's Church built in 1874 by a Spanish friar from the Franciscan order. It was built huge, the usual Baroque-style dome-like structure, to accommodate the large number of parishioners. Aside from its age, its foundation makes the church all the more interesting. It is made of coral stones fastened by eggs.

     The Spanish influence is very evident in the church's interior. The windows were built high and wide for the purpose of giving light and ventilation to the parishioners. Just as fascinating are the hand paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross inspired by the art paintings made by a Spanish painter hanging in a Naga seminary.

     Fronting the church is the ruins of an old American military headquarters completed during the war. Strong typhoons destroyed the building in 1947 leaving a small portion of its foundation. Only big adobe boulders are left. From the ruins is a good view of the San Bernardino Strait, where the Spaniards often passed by during the time of the galleon trade. The town reminded them so much of the Barcelona back home, they named the town after their city.

Souvenirs, etc.

     Barcelona is also known for the best souvenir hunts. Many women of this town are very skillful weavers of hats, colorful baskets and native bags in different shapes and sizes using only local materials like buri palm fiber. They organized themselves 10 years ago and formed a cooperative of weavers to ensure equal division of labor and profit. Each member worked hard in providing quality products that the group eventually tapped the export market.

     Since then, they have successfully expanded, clinching contracts with permanent buyers from all over the country and abroad. More job opportunities were given to many families who find this their main source of livelihood. This job has helped them put food on the table and brought children to school. The cooperative's shop in Barcelona is open to all pasalubong buyers during the daytime. The capital town is the namesake of the province. Sorsogon, the capital, is where most of the economic activities happen and important building structures are found such as the provincial government, hotels and pensions, and business establishments, as well as the pier, public market and the gothic-inspired church.

     Sorsogon is a major bus route from Manila all the way to Mindanao, so it is no surprise that the biggest bus companies have terminals here. Its 85,000 inhabitants are mainly engaged in fishing, farming, and cottage industries. Great cooks are what they are also famous for. All-year round, visitors can find here a variety of sumptuous Bicolano delicacies, like the famous tasty-spicy-hot Bicol express, laing, pili nuts and fresh seafoods like crabs and prawns.

     The people of Sorsogon are grateful to what the whale sharks have introduced them to, a flourishing tourism industry. However, it is up to them how they can sustain the industry, and one of their best bets is through caring for and preserving their natural environment. Risking its health means jeopardizing their main source of wealth.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi 
© Copyright, 2000  by PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS ONLINE All rights reserved 

For more information about whale sharks: Whale Shark Research Group

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