People around the world brave the 10 to 12-hour bus ride from Manila just to get a glimpse of the world’s largest fish in Donsol. That’s not counting the number of hours one has to spend in terminals and on airplane rides when one travels from Sweden with his snorkeling gears that only see light when he’s in the Pacific. The easier way, albeit the more expensive option if one doesn’t have luck scoring seat sales, is to enjoy an hour plane ride from Manila to Legazpi. From there, one endures another hour and a half jeepney or van ride before he finally rests his eyes on the open sea where whale sharks of different sizes, some of which as large as a public bus, converge.
The tiring trip is too little a sacrifice if the reward is to glide along the gentle giants of the deep. The experience is humbling and liberating at the same time. This is why I consider myself very lucky that I do not have to travel halfway around the world just to experience what the travel guidebook Lonely Planet refers to as the “quintessential Philippine adventure.”
I was born and raised in Donsol. I know it like the back of my hand. Even when college education and professional work got the better of me, I made it a point to come home to Donsol regularly. It’s my playground, my happy pill. I have seen how the rustic, sleepy fishing village of 1998 was transformed into the Whale Shark Capital of the World that it is now. From hosting very unorganized and chaotic whale shark tours in 1998, Donsol is now a strong community that promotes ecotourism in order to save the whale sharks.
Even with the success of its whale shark tours today, Donsol is actually very rural, very provincial. Save for some structures which tell you you are in one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the town really just come alive between December and May. This is when whale sharks, locally known as butandings, go to Donsol to feed on planktons which are abundant in the area. Donsol is still rustic and somehow I like it for that.
While it is undeniable that Donsol’s gem are the butandings, some little treasures are actually found in the area as well. There is an abundance of God’s beauty and wealth in this town that makes it a very relaxing place to go to, even when swimming with the whale sharks requires you to be at your most adventurous self. I say this not because I am from Donsol. But when you go to Donsol and you just take time to relax and marvel at the scenery, you’ll get what I mean.
How about a view of the grand Mayon Volcano as you go on a whale shark tour? On a clear day and depending on which part of the Donsol water your motorized banca is positioned, you get a peek at Mayon’s near-perfect beauty. Although very small in sight, you don’t say no to this kind of bonus, right? When Mayon would “subtly” erupt (and she likes doing that every two years, I guess), you’re treated to a different show. Mayon Volcano erupting from a distance while you get to the banca after swimming with the whale shark? That doesn’t happen everyday.
You can also enjoy Mayon late in the afternoon as you wait for the sunset in Punta. Try going around town first when you’re done with the whale shark tour and buy some baduya or sinapot (friend cardava banana, says Google Translate ) from the market and pair it with a glass of halo-halo from a stall near the only prominent basketball court in town. That would be your merienda. When you’re not full on these yet, try to have some isaw and barbecue from the market (their sauce is the best!) as you make your way to Punta, which serves as the town’s mini-port. There, you get a view of little Mayon.
Of course, not to be missed is the firefly tour that takes you on a river cruise for almost two hours. If you haven’t seen fireflies, and I mean hundreds of them, decorating a tree, by no means, go on this tour. One traveler from Austria could not help but exclaim, “The best Christmas tree in the world is in Donsol,” upon seeing two narra trees bedecked with fireflies that dance rhythmically. For hopeless romantic travelers, prepare your what-can-I-say-for-you-to-have-dinner-with-me-tonight line. They might just come handy when everyone gasps and says “awww,” then falls into a momentary silence as everybody looks at the pulsating tree from afar.
Then, there’s the Bicolano food, which is just unlike any other. Spicy and rich in coconut milk, prepare to eat more than your usual serving. Bicol Express, kinunot, laing – your choice of Bicolano food is endless. Try to ask for linatik if Bicol Express bores you, and let me know about your hot, smoldering choice.
Donsol being rural, you get a lot of green sceneries in the area. My favorite are the rice fields by the road as you make your way to the Donsol Municipal Tourism Office in Dancalan. There’s actually one right outside our resort. Just make sure that you visit Donsol from January to March to enjoy this view. A trip in other months leaves you with no choice but to marvel at an empty rice field.
But of all the natural beauty that surrounds Donsol, the one that I adore the most is its sunsets. I have been to so many places already and have witnessed innumerable changing of hues as the sun sets in different environment, but Donsol’s sunsets are just unparalleled. I am obviously speaking as a fan, so forgive me as my jaw drops. When I spent my entire summer in Donsol last year, I punctuated my day by rushing to the beach just to appreciate the sunset. Donsol never fails.
I can go on and on about Donsol’s natural gifts but I will stop here lest I sound like a PR guru. I invite you to come to Donsol to finally experience that which gives me this kind of peace and love. Come as you are but it wouldn’t hurt if you also bring with you your more environmentally-aware self, that is more appreciated here.
Let me know when you are in Donsol. If this town’s natural wonders disappoint you, beer’s on me. By the beach. As the sun rests.
Love and light, everyone. Go, juanderlust!
- All photos, except that of the whale sharks, taken with Canon 550d. Featured image courtesy of D. Whitehead. Whale shark photos taken with Sony T90. Butandings; Mayon Volcano from Punta; kinunot at Kawnkita Restaurant, Amor Farm Beach Resort; rice fields outside Amor Farm Beach Resort; sunsets taken from Amor Farm Beach Resort; my pamangkins, Amor Farm Beach Resort.
- For Nonon – classmate, seatmate, schoolmate, roommate, childhood friend, son of Donsol – may you rest in peace. You will be remembered, dearly.