Last weekend, I spent four memorable days in Negros Occidental to celebrate, with the company of good friends, the MassKara Fiesta. Held every third week of October, the MassKara Festival is held in Bacólod and was conceived after the sugar crisis of the 80s. To “mask” the real situation, the ladies of the city of Bacólod organized the fiesta to animate local industries, attract tourism and yes, find a reason to continue living “the sweet life”, which characterizes the land of sugar and sugar barons. I kept recalling scenes in the film “Oro, Plata, Mata”, which depicted the glorious as well as dark periods of the lives of haciendero families.
Known as the City of Smiles, Bacólod is the capital of the province of Negros Occidental. Located also within “Metro Bacólod” are the cities of Talisay and Silay, two charming characters known for their built cultural heritage.
My friends and I took a 9:15 AM Cebú Pacific flight to Iloilo for Bacolod. Going to Bacólod, we hired a van (originally priced at 500 Pesos per van, the driver gave us a discount and charged us only 375 Pesos) from the Iloilo Airport to the Muelle Loney (Iloilo Port). Unfortunately, we missed the 11:30 AM trip, and thus, we had to wait until 1:10 PM for the next trip. After one hour of an aircon-less ferry trip on Weesam Lines (we bought First Class, back-and-forth tickets for 650 Pesos), we finally arrived at the Bacólod’s Port. From the port, it was a fifteen-minute pedicab right to the edge of Calle Luzuriaga where our hotel was strategically located behind the Old City Hall of Bacólod. The hotel room was big, the amenities simple and bare but comfortable.
On that day, my first meal was at 7:30 AM in the airport in Manila. I just had a sandwich. The next meal I had was already at past 6:00 PM in the afternoon. But lo, it was surely well-compensated because our dinner wasn’t just any ordinary meal; it was a feast! We ate at Hyksos Tulahan at Bacólod’s Old Pala Pala and for only a total cost of 230 Pesos per person (we were six), we indulged on a kilo of prawns cooked ala sinigang (the broth was excellent!) , a kilo of chili crabs, a kilo of grilled pork belly (liempo), grilled eggplants, rice (12 cups! Oh my!), and sodas. Afterwards, we began our journey through Lacson’s Tourism Strip. We shoved, pushed and walked-by throngs of people, tourists and locals alike. Finally, upon seeing the famous Calea Bakeshop, I decided to invite the group for some dessert and tea.
For less than 300 Pesos, we partook of slices of moist chocolate cake, cheesecake and lone island. We also had tea to calm our stuffed tummies. The night progressed on as we drank with our other friends at Café Bob’s and partied the night away at L’Fisher Hotel’s exclusive white party. I got the impression that the majority of guests were from Manila and the local crème de la crème.
Even if we returned to our lodging at past three in the morning, we woke up early the following day as we had a morning trip to Carbin Reef in Sagay City, which is roughly two hours away from Bacólod. However, thirty minutes into the car ride, my contact from the Sagay City Tourism Council sent a text message informing us that all trips to the Reef were cancelled (she lied to me because we had friends who still got to go to the sand bar). Fortunately, we were in the city of Cadiz when we got the text. We then decided to go to Lakawon Island, which was located in Cadiz. After a rough fifteen minute boat ride, we arrived at Lakawon Island. The beach featured white sand and pristine waters. Unfortunately, it was drizzling for the most part of our stay on the private island. The boat ride going back was a memorable, if not, traumatic, experience we cannot forget. The waves were horrible!
On the way back to Bacólod, we stopped by the famous The Ruins. Built by Don Mariano Ledesma de Lacson, a sugar baron, for his Portuguese wife, María Braga, the palatial hacienda house featured neoclassical columns as well as gracious arched windows, manicured gardens and an exterior that changed colors depending on the time of day. On the day of our visit, sadly, it was raining cats and dogs. Although there was something haunting with The Ruins (the fact that we were just seeing the skeleton or frames of the original structure sent a chilling feeling), the over-all structure suggested the elegance, glory and plain good old days the Philippines witnessed before World War 2. The structure was intentionally burned by the guerrillas so that the marauding Japanese forces wouldn’t benefit from the huge structure. Today, it currently serves as an excellent example of adaptive reuse.
On that same evening, after resting in our hotel and taking hot showers, we then headed to Chicken House, upon the suggestion of a friend who hails from Bacólod (but who decided to stay in Manila!). Chicken House’s chicken inasal (grilled chicken soaked in a marinade of achuete, lime juice, garlic, and other ingredients) was a revelation! I had two sticks, one of pecho and another of paa. The chicken was cooked perfectly – the meat was tender and tasty, the skin crisp and savory. The garlic rice was equally flavorful and served perfectly piping hot. The night ended with us partying in Mushu to the awesome tunes of DJ GP Reyes from Manila and inebriated by the sweet drinks of Soberclub.
The following day, two friends of mine accompanied me to the laid-back city of Silay, the so-called “Paris of the Visayas”. In the heyday of the sugar industry, this became the hometown of artists, writers, musicians and of course, wealthy haciendero families. The city is currently famous for its heritage homes namely those of the Gaston, Hofileña and Jalandoni families. Before we had our culturati fix, we had a hearty brunch of pancit guisado, pancit malabon, guava tarts and coffee at El Ideal, a town bakeshop founded in the 1920s. We visited the San Diego de Álcala Pro-Cathedral, a Baroque church. We also visited the Balay Negrense or the Gaston House and the Hofileña Heritage House, which featured numerous priceless artworks of artists and heroes including José Rizal, Fernando Amorsolo and BenCab.
From Silay, we headed to a famous establishment known for Cansi or the Negrenses’ version of the bulalo – Sharyn’s Cansi House. For 230 Pesos a bowl, we had two bowls of deadly, fatty and bland Cansi. It wasn’t worth it.
Our next stop for that afternoon was Virgie’s which was known for local pasalubongs or souvenirs. Napoleones was on top of our list, but unfortunately, this delectable confection had to be refrigerated, and thus, we opted to buy other products (i.e. barquillos, muscovado sugar lumps, tarts, etc.) Finally, we rested for the duration of the hot afternoon in the comfortable, airconditioned confines of our hotel room watching the canonization of the Philippines’ second saint, San Pedro Calungsod. I then heard the 4:30 PM Mass, alone, at the San Sebastián Cathedral, which was jam-packed that humid afternoon. The Cathedral had poor ventilation and was a seeming oven that day.
At 6:00 PM, all fifteen of us again met up at Hyksos Tulahan for another round of chili crabs, prawns sinigang, grilled liempo and squid, and baked scallops. Ah yes, how we enjoyed the bounties of the sea! For only 250 Pesos per person, we had a lavish dampa-style dinner!
The next day, I hopped on, alone, the Weesam vessel bound for Iloilo. Upon arriving, I toured Jaro’s old town and marveled at the mansions of the Lópezes, Montelibanos, Jalandonis and Javellanas, among other notable families, and the city’s cathedral in honor of Our Lady of Candelaria. Another round of pasalubong shopping (Biscocho and Piyaya!) and I was off to the Iloilo Airport. Going to the airport, I just rode one of the PUVs from the SM City terminal which set me back for only 70 Pesos. The van brings passengers directly to the airport which was roughly twenty minutes away. And for the first time ever, my Cebú Pacific flight was not delayed!
What made my trip truly memorable and enjoyable were the beautiful sights, the organized street parties, the charming and helpful, not to mention, courteous locals and the over-all positive vibe the places gave-off. I want to return to Negros, the land of sugar and smiles!
This province of haciendas, hospitable folk and good food was surely hecho ayer.