“Go on, jump!” our official tour guide, Pilar Town’s tourism officer Joel Navora, egged me on. I was staring deep into the waters of Tunga-Tunga Reef in Pilar Town, not sure whether I should dive in or be a wimp and just stay on the floating raft. I decided to jump, braving the waters and the strong current. I was greeted by vibrant corals and marine life —red snappers, sweetlips, clownfish, groupers, emperor fish, and corals. Tunga-Tunga Reef is a marine sanctuary off Barangay Inapujan in Pilar, a sleepy coastal town that lies next to the famous whaleshark capital, Donsol, Sorsogon. It’s a must visit, if only to snorkel or dive. The waters here are much recovered, testament to what community spirit and political will could do. Dynamite fishing had been rampant in these areas, but four years ago the local government stepped in to put a stop to it.
Two floating native huts anchored on a bamboo raft now serve as outpost for the reef ’s patrol guards. It’s also a jump off point for tourists wanting to swim and dive in its waters.
Not that Pilar Town is anywhere near touristy. It still is a sleepy coastal town, which is how I like it. Its famous sister Donsol had been on the hot list of most travellers because of its whaleshark encounter tours. However, unknown to many, the province of Sorsogon, lying on the southernmost tip of Luzon, has 13 other towns, including Pilar, all lying along the coast, offering equally mesmerizing attractions, from pristine beaches, marine sanctuaries, hidden lakes for kayaking and paddling, and surf spots.
And best of all, there’s no traffic here. Getting around is easy, as the roads are well-paved, and you get a glimpse of scenic villages along the way. Here are five top things to do in Sorsogon not many people know.
1 Paddle Across Bulusan Lake
Bulusan Lake is part of the Bulusan Volcano National Park, which features Mt. Bulusan, considered the Philippines’ fourth most active volcano, rising some 5,135ft above sea level, dominating the town of Bulusan, and covering the northeast rim of Irosin Town. The park features two other mountains, Sharp Peak and Hormahan. Around the mountain are four craters and four hot springs. The Park is located at the South central part of Sorsogon. A major attraction here is paddling across the lake, a funnel-shaped body of water made of 100% trapped rainforest water, with a diameter of 2.7km. It’s covered by rainforest and dense vegetation. You can rent a paddleboat and cut across Bulusan Lake’s extremely placid moss green waters, hearing only cicadas and crickets.
The paddleboat ride takes only about 20 minutes — you can paddle for longer — giving you a chance to view the area’s rainforest, red lauan and molave trees, plant species including ground orchids, and various ferns. Wildlife seen here include the Philippine baboon, Philippine duck, Philippine hawk-eagle, flame-breasted fruit-dove, and Philippine eagle-owl. At one point, we stopped by a low lying branch full of santan flowers and plucked a few to taste their sweet nectar. The forest enveloping the lake is also home to wild boars and chickens, civet cats, various bird species, monkeys, and yes, snakes. You can kayak your way around or trek the lake’s perimeter, passing through the paved walkway. I’m told only locals are allowed to swim in the lake. Fishing nets are left underwater for local fishing folks to use to catch freshwater fish such as catfish and tilapia.
If you come late in the afternoon, you enjoy a cooler temperature even during summer, and as dusk sets in, the crickets and cicadas grow quiet, and fireflies slowly come to life.
Entrance fee at Bulusan Lake is P20 (about US 50 cents) per person with additional charge of P150 for group briefing. Kayaking or canoeing costs P100 per person for 30 minutes of paddling. Aqua cycling/rowboat is at P100 per person for 30 minutes’ use of equipment. Trekking guide for a group of maximum of 15 people costs P150.
2 Snorkel at Tunga-Tunga Reef
Tunga-Tunga Reef is a marine sanctuary off Barangay Inapujan in Pilar, a sleepy coastal town that lies next to whaleshark capital Donsol. Some four years ago, the reef ’s massive rehabilitation started, with the local government adamant on implementing town-wide marine rehabilitation. Fishing, for instance, has to be done using only sustainable methods, and is not allowed in certain areas that have been delegated sanctuaries like Tunga-Tunga. Apparently, a lot of areas in Pilar had been plagued by rampant dynamite fishing years ago. It’s a 20-minute boat ride from Pilar port to Tunga-Tunga Reef, a three-hectare protected area. Two native huts on bamboo rafts, both floating and therefore temporary structures attached to an anchor, are set up within the sanctuary so visitors can conveniently come, park their boats and snorkel to see the reef ’s wealth of underwater life.
If you don’t want to jump into the water for some reason, you can simply don a snorkel gear and lie prone on the raft and submerge your head into the water to observe the underwater marvel.
3 Seafood lunch by a sandbar
The Bicol Region is seafood country, so you can’t leave Sorsogon without stopping by Panumbagan Sandbar, a 5km stretch of a permanently exposed sandbar off Barangay Bantayan for a seafood meal. You can ask your tour guide in advance to request for lunch to be served in one of the several floating cottages flanking the mid part of the sandbar. If it’s your lucky day and the sky is clear, the area’s the only spot in the province where you can see Bicol’s three majestics — Mt. Mayon in Albay, Mt. Bulusan and the Pocdol volcanic range in Bacon all at once. You can eat seafood freshly caught from the waters such as suahe (shrimps), crabs, grilled fish and kinunot or shark or sting ray meat cooked in coconut milk with malunggay leaves, a local delicacy. Your guides can catch live uni or sea urchin, which they’ll crack open right in front of you, and sprinkle with a little calamansi (local lime) for you eat it at its freshest state. After the scrumptious meal, the relaxing seabreeze will surely entice you to take a nap. Panumbangan is some 20 minutes’ ride from Pilar pier.
4 Skin dive for seagrapes
For a unique adventure, go to Panlatoan Cove in Barangay Lungib and take the challenge to skin dive into the brackish waters to harvest your own seagrapes. Panlatoan, a 20-minute boat ride from Panumbagan, is an organic lato or seagrapes farm. Seagrapes are those green grape-like seaweeds rich in iodine, and make for a perfect salad.
Panlatoan has floating cottages from where you can dive some 12 feet into the waters to harvest your very own seagrapes. All you need is a snorkel. The guides will usually point you to the accurate direction of the seagrapes. The waters are brackish, and visibility is zero so you must rely on your hands to feel for the seagrapes and pluck them. Some of the local fishermen sometimes stop by to watch tourists try their hand at harvesting, cheering every successful attempt. The best part is the eating. Rinse the mud off the seagrapes with salt water, and sprinkle with minced onions mixed with vinegar and a little sugar. It’s a perfect salad and a healthy snack.
5 Watch hundreds of birds fly back to Bird's Wall
After a whole day touring Pilar, go to Bird’s Wall located in Barangay San Rafael, southwest of Pilar Town, to watch tiny birds called bee-eaters (kulaw-kulawan in local lingo) fly back to their nesting holes on the wall at sunset. There’s nothing to do but soak in the melodic chirping of some 400 kulaw-kulawans, the size of a maya bird with a red head, bluegreen body, and yellow beneath its wings. As the sun sets, its golden rays cover the wall, made more interesting by the countless bird holes. Hearing and seeing these beautiful bird species make for a perfect end to my tour.
Call Pilar tourism officer Joel Navora, tel+63926 670 8192 to book Pilar tours. A whole day tour with stops to four or five sites will cost you P20 (about US 50 cents) per site, P500 in tour guide fee for a full day, and P2,500 boat rental fee (maximum 10 people for whole day use). Snorkel can be rented at the tourism office. Guests can take their own packed lunch or can arrange for lunch at Panumbagan Sandbar. For P300, you can get grilled fish, choice of squid or shrimp, laing (gabi leaves cooked in coconut milk, a local dish) and rice. Best to call tourism officer Navora to confirm rates and ask for advice.
Book a stay at Siama Hotel, a modern garden resort set within a three-hectare landscaped grounds in Bibincahan, Sorsogon City. It’s a comfortable basecamp for travellers touring Sorsogon. Rooms here are designed stylishly, using modern and native materials. Meals are home cooked.
Room rates start from P6,585 for a superior room for two, and are subject to change during peak season and holidays. Siama Hotel also offers Sorsogon tours using its private airconditioned vans, tel +63998 982 8101 or +63917 881 6497, visit www.siamahotel.com. To get to Pilar, book a Cebu Pacific Air flight from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. From the airport, take a tricycle (motorcycle with sidecar, a local means of transportation) to Legazpi City Terminal from where you can hop on a UV Express van (P70 per person) for a leisurely 45-minute ride to Pilar Port. A van leaves for Pilar every 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can arrange resort pick up. For more information on Bulusan, contact tourism officer Debbie Eneria at +63919 257 7183, and for Pilar Town, tourism officer Joel Navora at +63926 670 8192.
Originally published in InFlight Traveller July to September 2014. Updated February 2016