By Juan Escandor Jr.
MASBATE CITY --- Sitting on the crossroad between Bicol peninsula and Visayan islands, unique spots and habitats waiting to be discovered make Masbate province a tourism frontier for now.
Still, what makes this boomerang-shaped island province unique is its location in the center of the Philippine archipelago where the habitats of manta rays and sea snakes can be explored for thrill.
The national government has officially recognized Masbate as the Rodeo Capital of the Philippines because of the biggest national rodeo events held here every year in April in celebration of its commercial cattle production.
Discovering the province’s nook and cranny for great adventure makes memorable moments when visiting this Bicol province with dialects belonging to the Visayan languages, rather than the Bikol tongue. But Tagalog language is understood and spoken anywhere, though.
Adventure starts when one hits the concrete highway and road network beyond city limits that cut across long stretches of ranches with grazing herds of cattle over undulating terrain that becomes hilly to mountainous on the far side of vast ranches.
This island province at the southwest of the Bicol region is called the Rodeo Capital of the Philippines for nothing. It boosts of local cowboys on horsebacks chasing herds of cattle in real ranches.
About 10 km from the city, visiting the Sese Brahmans Ranch in Mandaon town allows visitors to experience slices of ranch life with the assistance of cowboys. The ranch offers actual cattle branding, horseback riding, horseback pictorial, camping at the hilltop complete with tent, shower room, toilet and bath and videoke bar.
Another some 10 km from Sese Brahmans Ranch lies Palani Beach facing the western horizon in Balud town with a stunning sunset and wide and long fine white sand beach to enjoy.
Passing the old zigzag road going to Mandaon and Aroroy towns from the city leads to the Bat-ongan cave, considered a mystical hill by the locals who visit and converge there during the Holy Week.
Rising above rice fields, the cave is made up of limestone and sedimentary rock but without a hint of nearby water source which characterized location of caves, according to Carl Bungkaras, a mountaineer and guide of the provincial tourism office.
Bungkaras has explored Bat-ongan cave countless times and revealed it has three cavities the biggest of which looks like a cathedral dome while another one big enough where the locals use as cockpit arena. The last one resembles the inside of a house with unique chair-and-table-like limestone formations.
He said faith healers do pilgrimage to Bat-ongan cave with the belief it renews their healing powers on Good Friday, when Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.
Going farther to the west, the Fazenda da Esperaça (Farm of Hope) is another unique place in this province, where all kinds of addicts seek healing through self-determination, spiritual cultivation and work therapy. With the approval of facilitators, residents share their experience to visitors about their healing process. The farm sells organic vegetables, plain and flavored pasteurized milk and mozzarrela cheese.
In Masbate City, the city government offers a guided tour inside the city which starts with a visit to the centuries old cathedral of St. Anthony parish, an old house where Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon stayed and the Bontod mangrove park, according to Mayor Rowena Tuason.
Tuason said there are 28 accommodation facilities with a total of 485 rooms and room rates from P200 for single-room to P3,100 for a suite.
The common transportation facilities within the city is the tricycle with a standard fare of P8 per person. Outside of the city going to Masbate towns, a van rental could cost P5,000-3,500 from morning until late afternoon.
But a motorized boat with a capacity of 10 passengers for island-hopping activities along Masbate and Ticao islands cost from P6,500-8,000 for the whole day.
The information available at the Masbate Provincial Tourism Office listed 53 accommodation facilities with a total of 588 rooms available in 16 of the 20 towns of Masbate outside Masbate City.
Tuason said the following day after arrival and exploration of the city spots, the city tourism office recommends island-hopping that leaves at Masbate port going to Ticao Island.
The island-hopping going to Ticao Island showcases Masbate’s natural wonders including white beaches, unique habitats, rock formations and a waterfall that streams down directly to the blue sea.
From early morning to late afternoon, island-hopping can start at the Buntod sandbar and reef, a fish sanctuary with a facility to receive visitors, about 15 minutes from Masbate Port.
Felimon Abelita III, provincial tourism officer, identifies several spots that can be squeezed in a one-day island-hopping.
Starting with the Buntod sandbar and fish sanctuary, one can proceed to the Minalayo Islet or snake island, a part of Batuan town in Ticao Island, where non-aggressive sea snakes abound.
Abelita cautioned not to touch or step on the sea snakes because they are as venomous as other snakes found in the land.
He said a 30-minute ride from the snake island the Bongsanglay Mangrove Reserve or the Borobangcaso Rock Formation may be explored, then pass by the one-of-a-kind Catandayagan Falls the directly empties to the sea.
Then, one can proceed to the town of San Jacinto town where the Manta Ray Sanctuary is located.
Abelita said it would complete the thrill if one dives and watch the underwater sceneries of manta rays swimming gracefully.
Other spots that can be explored if time permits are San Miguel Coral Garden, Cagpating Reef Wall and Guinlatayan Peak Bird Sanctuary.
Going back to Masbate Island late in the afternoon, a visitor can wrap up his visit in this island province by exploring the market to hunt for good quality dried goods like tiny anchovies or squid.
For fine dining on Filipino cuisine with a twist and pastas served and overseen by a former chef in a hotel in Manila try Zero8 restaurant. Craving for seafoods, one can try SuTuKil, a restaurant that cooks different kinds of seafoods like scallops, blue marlin, tuna, mussels, etc. “Su” stands for sugba (grill), “Tu” for tuwa (stewed or cooked with broth) and “Kil” for kilaw (raw seafood in vinegar, ginger, onion, garlic, pepper with a pinch of sugar and salt to taste). There are other several restaurants serving Filipino cuisine along the Jesse Robredo Boulevard, the road facing the waters where the interior secretary died in a plane crash on Aug. 18, 2012.