The provincial capitol of Negros Occidental stands on the edge of a manmade lagoon in Bacolod.
The provincial capitol of Negros Occidental stands on the edge of a manmade lagoon in Bacolod.

THE SUN HESITANTLY shines through a thick blanket of clouds as acres and acres of sugarcane stand on both sides of the highway. It has been three hours of an uneventful bus ride in search of a nice vantage point for a shot of Mt. Kanlaon, and as unremarkable town structures gradually pave way for majestic views of fields and the mountain ranges at the horizon, there’s that sense that I’m heading deep into a rarely ventured territory.

The island of Negros has seen relatively fewer tourists than the Visayan heavyweights of Cebu and Panay. An imposing mountain range splits the island into two provinces, Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental, with the former receiving less visitors than the latter. This sense of isolation feels especially true when visiting the capital of Bacolod a few days after the Masskara Festival. There’s an overriding sense that you’re the only one in town who missed out on the party while everybody else has either returned home or is already busy curing his/her hangover.

But this is exactly what drives some to the place: that elusive sense of finding yourself without the external distractions. And it’s why I’m here.

The ride starts early enough – around 7am to be more precise – at the jeepney station at the Libertad Market in Bacolod. The jeepneys, which look more like relatively smaller ordinary buses, surprisingly fills up quickly. Not more than ten minutes later, I’m on my way to La Carlota, a town around an hour from the capital, and a gateway to Guintubdan, one of the entry points for a hike up the Kanlaon’s summit.

It’s nearly 8 am and aside from a couple of tricycle drivers trading stories in their Hiligaynon accent, La Carlota feels decidedly sleepy. Most of the stores are still closed, and because it’s the weekend, so is the tourist information. I decide to get further information from a man seating near the fountain at the plaza.

I ask him in Tagalog how do I get to Kanlaon and he keeps pointing to his left while trying to tell me something in his language. After a few tries, he finally gives up and calls a tricycle driver nearby. They talk and the only word I understand is “manaog,” which means “to get off.” Perhaps, he’s telling the driver where this idiot tourist is supposed to alight for the base to Mt. Kanlaon.

That place, it turns out, is the bus stop for trips to Canlaon, a city in Negros Oriental, and buses stop at Gunitubdan on the way. Falling in line with a mother of three and a couple with two large boxes, I work my way into a bus already full of passengers and have to stand at the aisle. The conductor helps me put my backpack on the overhead compartment.

By 10am, the disappointment is already creeping in. Lumbering clouds that billow above the horizon replace the majestic summit of Kanlaon and rainshowers are somehow imminent. Besides, Gunitubdan is situated at the base of Kanlaon in such a way that you can’t see the mountain from the town itself – you have to venture into the fields. Which is difficult if you’re an inexperienced trekker and, because the tourism office is closed on weekends, without a guide.

By noon, all hopes have emptied out of my resolve and I have already ventured much farther than I’ve planned. A postcard-worthy shot of Kanlaon isn’t possible today. Standing among vendor stalls in the Canlaon bus station I plot my return to Bacolod.

One of the falls inside the Mambukal Resort refreshes visitors.
One of the falls inside the Mambukal Resort refreshes visitors.

KANLAON IS AN active volcano and has erupted more than 25 times in the last 110 years. The last eruption was in 1996, claiming the lives of a British national and two Filipinos who were among dozens of people hiking to the summit that time. The mountain has been placed under permanent monitoring status since then.

Yet for locals, the volcano’s blessings far outweigh the potential threats. The fertile soil around the mountain provides nutrients for the vast swathes of sugarcane, of which more than half of the national total is grown in Negros Occidental.

The volcano is also responsible for the hot springs around the area. The most famous of these are clumped inside the Mambukal Resort (PHP 30 entry fee for adults) in Mabucal town, which can be reached from Bacolod via jeepneys also at the Libertad Market. In the afternoon, I make my way there.

The clouds have already given way to sunshine by 1 pm but Mt. Kanlaon is still tucked under its thick cumulus blanket. Yet that lingering disappointment is more than offset by undulating fields of sugarcane painted gold by the early afternoon sun.

Weekenders from Bacolod and other neighboring towns regularly troop to Mambukal Resort and at first glance the place itself doesn’t exactly seem like an idyllic getaway, with all the crowds you have to share the space with. But its humble atmosphere and the geniality of the staff make it a worthwhile day trip from Bacolod. For the frustrated Kanlaon base trekker, seven waterfalls are located inside the resort as well, with the first one a ten-minute hike from the entrance of the trek (no fee but you have to log in).

I go accompanied by two young guides as far as the third falls, from where the trail goes much steeper. A trip to the seventh falls and back, one of my guides say, takes about four hours. I check my cellphone’s watch: almost 3pm. The last jeep to Bacolod leaves at 6pm. “This is as far as I can go,” I tell them and go on to join a group of merrymakers bathing in the first fall. An hour later I’m at the entrance with a Chinese group waiting for the next jeep.

The return trip to the capital is even more spectacular. The late afternoon light casts a dramatic golden glow to the canes while producing a sharp blue tone for the sky – the kind of lighting rarely seen in Manila these months. Far afield, carabaos lazily graze with white slender birds perched on their backs. Trucks loaded with harvested canes roar past the narrow highway and the leaves of the sugar cane get too close for comfort.

By 5 pm, I’m back in Bacolod’s busiest thouroughfare, Lacson Street, though the bustle typical of Philippine cities is conspicuously absent. Crossing the street isn’t the suicide mission as it is in Manila and even at rush hour, it’s blessedly smooth. Bacolod is a small city and a taxi ride around town rarely goes over PHP 50.

I take my second meal of the day (the first being the breakfast at the hotel) at Sweet Greens, a homey organic restaurant in Lacson between 9th and 10th streets, before going to SM for additional toiletries.

I return to Hotel O in San Sebastian St., only to realize I had left my cellphone in the taxi. I ask the hotel receptionist to try calling my phone but after a few unanswered tries, the phone is already “out of reach.”

The living room of Victor Gaston's former house evokes nostalgia. Gaston is the son of a French expat considered to be the pioneer of the sugar industry in Negros.
The living room of the Balay Negrense, Victor Gaston’s former house, evokes nostalgia. Gaston is the son of a French expat considered to be the pioneer of the sugar industry in Negros.

A BUSY STRING of geological and historical activities have forged the dramatic topographical and cultural features of the Negros Island, which is believed to have once been a part of a larger land. Its earliest known inhabitants came from the same stock where the Aetas of Zambales descended. The ethnic group is notable for their dark skins, hence the name “Negros,” Spanish for black.

The Spaniards arrived in 1565 and quickly established settlements around the island. In the 18th century, the island was governed under the jurisdiction of Panay before being placed under the Himamaylan government. In 1849, Bacolod became the provincial capital. Forty-one years later, the island was split into two provinces and even became a state, albeit unrecognized, for a brief period – the Republic of Negros.

At the cusp of Spanish and American colonization periods, Negros rose to prominence mainly due to its sugarcane. Silay, a town 15km north of Bacolod, was the main benefactor of such celebrity status. With Europeans coming to the city in droves at the turn of the century and affluent families building elegant houses, Silay became the “Paris of Negros.”

The glory days of Silay, though, have long been gone and the city is but a shell of its former prestige. Yet the nostalgia lingers on and the town’s rustic charm and hospitable locals are instantly captivating. Several ancestral homes dot the city and two have been converted into adoringly curated museums: the Balay Negrense in the corners of the Zulueta and Cinco de Noviembre streets; and the Bernardino Jalandoni Ancestral House in Rizal Street near the public market. One house, the Hofileña Ancestral House, is still used but can be visited by appointment.

Masskara masks adorn the Balay Negrense Museum.
Masskara masks adorn the Balay Negrense Museum.

IT’S 4 pm and, it seems, I have a knack for getting the bad breaks. The 4:15 shuttle to the airport has already left, 20 minutes before schedule. Aling Alice, the woman holding the fort at the station is apologetic for the early departure because one passenger was in a hurry to catch his 5:10 flight. The next shuttle will arrive at 5:30. To make up, she calls another service to take me and another passenger, rushing for her 5:40 flight to Cebu, to the airport. We agree to share the fare.

“You’re from Manila?” Aling Alice asks while we are seated in the black Monobloc chairs, waiting for the shuttle.

“Yes,” I answer.

“So you’re here for the Masskara Festival,” she goes on.

“Actually, I missed the festival,” I say. “I arrived on Friday, three days after the festival ended.”

“That’s a pity. It was fun. So would you return next year?”

“Hopefully.”

The service finally arrives. I hop into the car with the other passenger. I’m savoring the final scenes of the trip: more sugarcanes lining the highway as the pleasant afternoon sun slowly gives way to the rapidly quieting evening. Without so much as a backward glance to the trip I’ve ventured in the past two days, I slump into the backseat and look out the car window. A day ago I was venturing into rugged terrains. A few hours and a flight later, I’ll be back in the urban jungle.

First published in TravelBlog on October 25, 2010.

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