Water world: From Manila to Maldives

The cabin erupted with gleeful cries as the plane prepared for its final approach. Passengers who were lucky enough to get window seats effortlessly stretched their necks to see the view thousands of feet below. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes in envy because from where I was sitting, the only view I had were the bobbing heads of two noisy ladies who sat beside me and blocked the small plexiglass frame. It wasn’t until the aircraft tilted a few degrees on its side that my eyes widened in awe after getting a glimpse of what caused all the excitement.


Maldives is an island nation comprised of 1,192 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, making it one of the world’s most dispersed countries.


Atolls are ring-shaped coral reefs that encircle a lagoon. In Maldives, some of these atolls consists of islands and sand bars rising from the depths of the Indian Ocean.


Hulhumalé is a reclaimed island located next to the International Airport and was created for housing and commercial development demands of Male.

We landed at Male International Airport half past noon and were instantly seared by the midday sun. Set on its own island, the airport is completely separated from the city capital whose high-rise buildings marqueed past our windows during the aircraft’s descent. Even though the airport interiors looked bland, once I found myself outside surrounded by an endless pool of aquamarine blue, happy expletives involuntarily escaped from my mouth. I have never said ‘putangina‘ with such a wide smile on my face.

For a moment, I forgot about how flamboyant people with invisible fairy wings like moi is considered illegal in this country for being… way too fabulous. But I was willing to put the flair in my fingers aside for five days in exchange of sun, sand, and sights of sexy European men in skimpy swim shorts.


I was stunned to see the pristine waters outside Malé International Airport. A view worth the 8 hours of travel time!


Since the airport is situated on a separate island, these water taxis will take you to the actual city of Male. Just be ready for a wet and bumpy ride!

When I read news about the Maldives slowly sinking into the Indian Ocean, I never imagined I could actually physically get there before the country’s expiration date. I had written it out of my bucket list because the place is just so fucking expensive for me. Even if it doesn’t go under the sea, I figured I still won’t be able to afford it in my lifetime. But there I was, standing on one of its 1,192 islands, sweat trickling down my face and building up under my armpits due to the insane heat, but ecstatic for the once in a lifetime experience. Just luck of the draw, I guess!

Pinto Art Museum

Finding it is quite a challenge. Our unfamiliarity with the highlands of Rizal and its narrow inner streets would’ve been frustrating if we were the ones in control of the vehicle. I have been on that side of the city before and relied on tricycle drivers to take us to our destination. Luckily, we had a ride this time and had Google Maps and my friend Leslie’s hawk eye for barely noticeable road signs to guide us to Silangan Gardens where my favorite museum is located.


An hour’s drive, a free afternoon, and P150 is all it takes to get to the museum which houses the personal collection of Dr. Joven Cuanang

Flashes of its architecture kept playing in my head since the morning we left our meeting place in Ortigas. I have been egging my friends at work to check out this Santorini-inspired art space in Antipolo, mainly because I wanted to go back (for photo-op reasons) and because it’s one of the few places near Manila which I can confidently take any of my good friends for a grand time without having to bust out too much physical energy and is easy on the wallet as well.

I was more anxious to see how they would react to the place after my raving reviews. It’s like that feeling you get when you show people your secret hideout in hopes of getting their approval as if it’s only natural that the people you like would fancy the same things you do. Certainly, you can’t go wrong with an afternoon filled with art appreciation. Right?


The museum used to be a storage warehouse for paintings until it was developed into an art gallery by designer Antonio Leano


The structures were built around the natural landscape, sloping downhill, which sets it apart from all other museums in the metro.


The centerpiece of what initially seemed to be a small chapel


A guided tour of the compound is available at certain time schedules, recommended to those who prefer hearing the background of the artists and their work

Well-known as home to the art capital of the Philippines, specifically Angono where two of our country’s National Artists were born, Rizal houses several galleries that showcases the artistic talents of its people. Pinto Art Museum, however, is home to works of artists from all over the archipelago inside its stark white walls and lush gardens filling the one-hectare land.

People can spend hours exploring the galleries, taking countless breaks for photo-ops or just to hang around and relax. There’s always something new to see in every visit which you may have missed before.


Created from wire and cast resin, there’s a bunch of similar sculptures by Stephanie Torres in the museum


An iconic sculpture in Pinto which you wont miss as you make your way to the first hall. Photo by Verna Cola.


From the bizarre, to the beautifully crafted.


Behind me is one of the most photographed pieces in the entire museum. Photo by Anna Matillano.


I have yet to find a personal favorite in the museum, but there’s definitely plenty to choose from.

Maybe next time I would go on a guided tour to learn more about the many exhibited paintings and sculptures, especially those that stood out for good and bad reasons.

See, I don’t get some contemporary art no matter how visually appealing or intriguing they may be. Despite not being an expert, I am too quick to judge a piece for being pretentious, letting out a slight groan and rolling my eyes to express my disinterest. “Masyadong pa-art” or “Maygad ang hipster“, I would add. Truth is hindi ko lang talaga ma-gets.

But there’s very few of that inside Pinto. Most are gorgeous and intricate. The ones people notice for being relatable and well-executed.


Staring at the pieces from what I’d like to call the Erotica section because of an erect penis in one of the paintings. Photo by Verna Cola.


As a whole, this is my favorite wing because of the paintings, the rocks, and the lighting.


These rocks were originally part of the landscape. They were kept as part of the interior probably for aesthetic value and to maintain that natural look.


In between the buildings, one would have to pass by gardens to get a breather. Photo by Verna Cola


The recently opened New Wing of Pinto that houses Neo-Contemporary pieces and is also my favorite wing in the entire compound.

What I really like about the place is the museum itself. White-washed walls, big open spaces, wild gardens, huge boulders that may look like installations but are actually part of the original landscape, and an amazing view of the city to boot, that it’s no wonder many couples choose this as a location for their prenup shoots. Located not too far from Manila but enough to know that those who make the effort to go the distance are there for the right reasons and are rewarded justly.

If I had another relaxed afternoon to spare, and someone with a car to accompany me, I’m definitely coming back. I’d recommend it to anyone in need of a visual treat as well. Pinto Art Museum is damn worth every peso.

Last Independence Day

Exactly a year ago from today, I stood at the terrace of Aguinaldo Shrine where the first president of the Philippines declared my country’s independence from Spain back in 1898 and in an attempt to do something significant found myself waving a tiny flag to re-enact what I thought happened 116 years ago in that very house. Pretentious much.


Flags of different sizes were being sold everywhere. In the original flag designed by Aguinaldo himself, the sun had a face. Would’ve been a meme in present times.

I joined a group of photographers on a photowalk in Kawit, Cavite to spare myself the dread of a lonely afternoon and to see if celebrations are being held there since it is the ancestral home of General Emilio Aguinaldo. Not a fan of the guy, because he turns out to be quite a jerk based on what I’ve heard, but it would’ve been interesting to see his crib. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to witness anything and, instead, saw the plaza filled with cheap food stalls and shops that turned the park into a bustling fair. Not what I had expected.


The Philippine flag was made in Hong Kong by Marcela Agoncillo, Lorenza Agoncillo, and Delfina Herboza


We started our photowalk by walking to St. Mary Magdalene Church, considered to be a Historical Structure of the Philippines.


The church was restored by the Kawiteños in 1990 after almost getting destryoed by a bomb during the Philippine-American War.


The church has a four-story bell tower where the belfry is capped by a metal dome and topped by a weather vane


St. Mary Magdalene became the patroness of the town to help solve the bad reputation of Kawit for being a “red light district”

I wasn’t 100% convinced that going to Kawit on Independence Day was a great idea but learning a little part of our history won’t really hurt. Fine, my History grades back in high school don’t really showcase my interest on the subject but I think that actual visits to heritage sites help in remembering facts and figures and getting the interest of young students. Except for the important dates. Fuck those.

After taking a few photos at St. Mary Magdalene Church, we headed back to the plaza to wait for the gates of Aguinaldo Shrine to open for the public. What’s interesting about this historical mansion is finding Aguinaldo’s tomb in the middle of the garden behind the house which, unless you are a prominent figure in Philippine History, is all sorts of creepy. Also, seeing the secret passages and hiding places for documents and weapons, including a slide leading to a secret indoor pool, was a treat!


Sedition Act of 1907 prohibited the display of the Philippine flag but was repealed in Otober 1919.


Aguinaldo renovated his mansion to include several secret passageways, including a master bedroom with a passage leading to a hidden indoor pool. What a pimp!


The dining room has a relief map of the Philippines on its ceiling. On the same floor: the Grand Hall and the Independence Balcony, which many assume to be the actual location of the Independence Proclamation


The house has seven floors. In his later years, Aguinaldo stayed in his room on the fifth level where a great view of Cavite to Manila can be seen from the terrace.



A narrow ladder takes one to the top of the tower which is said to be the favorite spot of Aguinaldo. Right above it is another window but the space is cramped.


Joanne, Carla, Christian, and myself, after exploring the Aguinaldo Shrine which has now been turned into a museum.


Across the house is a park where a bronze equestrian statue of Aguinaldo is set on a marble pedestal.

Even though our freedom was proclaimed more than a hundred years ago, I believe the Philippines is still far from being completely independent. As a third-world country, every time tragedy strikes we still rely on the outpouring support we usually receive worldwide. And it’s like we’re almost always looking to other countries for help because the amount we get from our own people is not enough.

And it makes me wonder if we’re ever going to celebrate Independence Day in its truest sense.

Breaking Batad: An overdose of the amphitheatre

While the rice terraces found in Banaue wins in popularity because of its inclusion in the Philippine banknotes, postcards, educational textbooks, and often self-praised as the “8th wonder of the world”, I find that its much underrated brother in Batad is the clear winner in terms of sheer beauty. Built painstakingly by hand over 2,000 years ago by the Ifugao, this man-made stairway to heaven and its lush green carpeted paddies surrounded us as we trekked to see the waterfall hidden on the other side of the mountain. But despite its soothing views, we soon learned it aint a walk in the park.


Navigating through the rice terraces require balancing across the narrow edges of each paddies, each rising a minimum of 10 feet from each other.


They only plant once in a year because the type of rice they use, called Tinawon, takes 6 months to grow and 2 months to harvest.


Because of modernization, the younger generation prefer studying in cities and getting easier jobs with higher pay rather than following the tradition of planting rice.


Our group visited in April, during the start of planting season, which is not the best time to see the terraces of Batad because the paddies are not at its greenest.


As you go further down the path, small pop-up stores will sell beverages at higher prices. So to avoid shelling out more cash, bring your own water bottle.


Unlike its counterpart in Banaue, the rice terraces in Batad IS a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And with good reason.


The best time to go to Batad is between August to September to see the terraces at its greenest, or October to November during harvest season when it’s gold.


According to the locals, more European backpackers visit this place every day than fellow Filipinos.


My impromptu travel buddies, Ayra and Elaine, who eagerly joined in on my spontaneity despite only a week’s notice.


Shirts with “I survived Batad” are sold at the village proper because the trek is not for the physically challenged and weak in spirit. Surviving it is commendable.


Parts of the terraces got destroyed by previous typhoons but are now being rebuilt with the help of volunteers and the local government.


These amazing rice paddies were designed and carved into the mountains with proper irrigation in mind. Hard proof of the Ifugao ingenuity.

It has been my third time to see the rice terraces of Batad and the amphitheatre has shown me different coats each time: during its greenest, during its barren state, and this time during planting season. And I don’t mind taking another dose of it if it means the paddies would show off its golden yellow fur in time for their harvest on my next visit. A pill I seem to keep popping into my system every now and then.

A spontaneous road trip up north

The soothing voice of Celine Dion sang on the bus radio when a faint light from the window forced my eyes to crack open. She started her greatest hits with ‘My Heart Will Go On’ when I brushed the curtains aside and realised we have arrived in Lagawe. It was 6:00 in the morning when ‘Immortality’ almost serenaded me back to sleep, but her powering through ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ made me watch the roadside view instead. By the time I was mouthing the words to ‘That’s The Way It Is’ we have already arrived in our destination up north: Banaue.


A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of my favorite places in Luzon.

A week before the trip, I suddenly had the itch to travel without any specific plans on where to go. With a limited budget and no time to work on an itinerary, I browsed for available group tours or hikes that I could join for the following weekend. I wasn’t keen on hiking any mountain but the desperation for a quick weekend getaway overtook. Luckily, Trail Adventours had an overnight trip to Batad and coincidentally, my friend Osep was guiding the tour. So after making sure that I had enough budget to pay for an impromptu trip, I confirmed my attendance and asked around social media if anyone else was interested to join me (Hello, Ayra!). Now, if only hooking up would be just as easier for me.


Hire porters at Saddle Point to help carry your baggage. Pictured above was our teen guide, named Machete, strumming the guitar.


Rita’s Inn is known for the collage of photos pasted on the eatery’s front. Rita said that some of the photos left years ago, including mine, were destroyed by a storm.

It was my third time at this small village in Ifugao. Back in college, I had no idea what was in store for me because I have not heard of the place and I was unprepared for the trek that took place to reach the village. Since then I vowed never to come back and relive the physical stress the place brought to me. But years later, I found myself trekking the same beaten path with a friend and several strangers. Still, I told myself that would be the last time I set foot in that community no matter how breathtaking the view is from the porch of Rita’s Inn. On my second round, I didn’t even bother hike down to the waterfalls because I knew how strenuous that was.


Even though some of the meals were provided for at the inn, we would still hike up to Rita’s Inn to get some grub. Their pizzas are a must-try!


Imagine waking up to this view every morning. Photos by Ayra Michelle Santiago


Accommodations are limited to lodges, inns, and native huts in Batad and rates can go from P200 to P300 for a basic room. No air-conditioning needed!

See, getting to Batad is not as easy as one would think. Even though it’s an hour away from Banaue by jeep, the road was not always as smoothly paved as it is now. On my first two trips, I had to rock and roll with the jeep as it awkwardly attempted to run across the numerous bumps on the dirt road. And it’s twice as uncomfortable when you’re toploading the vehicle, forced to endure the pain of steel bars rubbing against your bony ass.

Arriving at the Saddle Point means the actual hike on foot begins. Depending on the speed of your group, getting to the town proper of Batad can be as quick as 45 minutes to a grueling hour or more. But once you reach the place, the amphitheatre would warmly welcome you and your sweaty inner thighs, so take a moment, and let the cool mountain breeze blowdry your wet underarms while you silently admire the view.


Our group stayed at Simon’s Inn, arguably the largest ‘hostel’ in Batad. Their blankets are comfortable!


Stephanie, a foreign national who was in the Philippines for 3 months working with W.H.O. and saved all her weekends to tour around the country.


The locals believed that having photos taken of them would damage their souls so it is advised to always ask for permission before clicking that shutter.

The local government is currently building better roads leading to Batad, but that takes away from the experience of hiking the normal, much challenging route. Though I believe it is a much better reward to see the village’s view of the terraces after an hour of arduous hike, if this development would make things easier for the 1500 people living there, then it is a change that tourists must accept. I’m sure the lazier ones won’t mind an easier route anyway.

Accommodations provide the most basic of needs, the use of their electricity has corresponding charges, and the rates of beverages are unbelievably high (a can of Coke costs P60), but when you consider the time and effort it takes for them to bring these products up the mountain and down to their quaint village, the price hike becomes a tad understandable.


Osep, my colleague and lead guide of Trail Adventours during that hike.



The interior walls of Simon’s Inn were filled with memorabilias left by foreign and local travelers. All who fell in love with Batad.

Despite these factors, Batad was still as endearing as I remembered during my first date with her, especially with a view worth waking up to every morning. The people are friendly enough if the conversation is properly initiated. They don’t like it when tourists take photos of them without permission in belief that doing so will take away parts of their soul. But if you ask nicely, maybe they’ll let you take a snap or two.

With its rustic appeal, the lazy atmosphere, and the chill in my spine every time the rush of ice cold water touches my bare skin during morning showers, I have grown to love the place and have stopped making sweeping declarations on how I will never return to Batad. It’s only a matter of time before I let myself get dragged back to that familiar view.

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