Immersing in the Bicolano - Tour CamSur

If there is one place in the Philippines where you can truly experience it all, Camarines Sur will not disappoint. Home to the world re-known CamSur Water Sports Complex, Camarines Sur is quickly becoming the new Borocay and the province has the statistics to prove it. It was ranked the number one tourist destination in the country by the department of tourism in the first half of 2009. Not only can you experience every water sport imaginable in one world class facility, but “CamSur” is also home to numerous eco-tourism adventures and the beauty and tranquility of the spectacular Caramoan Islands. The Caramoan Islands were made famous as the filming location of the hit reality television series, “Survivor.”

Survivor Philippines Caramoan Islands
The Caramoan Islands: Home to "Survivor"

Believe it or not, despite the CamSur tourist's typical affinity with water,  there is plenty to see in-land as well. The city of Naga plays host to numerous festivals, historic cathedrals and for a little retail therapy, SM City Naga. But perhaps Camarines Sur's best kept secret lies in a place where the unsuspecting tourist would least expect. Imagine a place where you can relax in the natural wonders of the country while immersing yourself in the spirit of the Bicolano people. Imagine a place where people bring to life century old traditions that will reconnect you with traditional Filipino culture. Imagine a place where you could come as a visitor but leave as family.

Gawad Kalinga Libmanan Camarines Sur Village
GK Libmanan Village: Gateway to a Country Escape
I let my imagination run wild and my dream became a reality when I discovered two Gawad Kalinga villages located in different areas of Camarines Sur. (Gawad Kalinga is a community development model and social movement founded in the Philippines.) One site was located right in the heart of the countryside of Libmanan while the other was located in Iriga boasting spectacular views of Mt. Iriga. Each village features a world-class bed and breakfast facility. These units serve as a means of livelihood for the community. What I love about this concept is that while touring for my own pleasure, I can contribute in a positive way to benefit the local community. Each location was an excellent base to enjoy the local and surrounding area. The Gawad Kalinga villages offer a unique opportunity for potential guests to have an intimate encounter with the locals and culture. At each village I was greeted with a warm smile and a welcome drink.

Holiday Philippines Bicol Camarines Sur
Affordable accommodation in your private Bed & Breakfast suite.

Fishing Tilapia Kids Philippines
Freshly caught tilapia from the village pond
Set deep in the Bicol countryside is the Gawad Kalinga Pona village in Libmanan. A 20 pesos van ride will have you there in only 45 minutes from Naga City.  As you live in community with the people of the village, you are exposed to daily life in a way that no hotel can offer. Numerous activities offer enough variety to suit any taste from learning how to cook traditional Bicolano dishes, to participating in traditional farming. Some visitors may simply enjoy interacting with the children. You might also enjoy learning how to make hand made flowers or hand bags out of recycled materials. My personal favourite was fishing in the village's tilapia pond where your catch will be cooked to your preference – grilled or fried. For those wishing total relaxation and pampering,  the locals in Libmanan are even trained to provide hair cuts, massages, or manicures. I enjoyed relaxing on my private deck breathing in the fresh country air – a stark contrast for those who live in metro Manila. Don't think for one second that when the lights go down that the action stops. That's when nature comes alive in the country and visitors to Libmanan are treated to the natural wonder of fireflies lighting up the night sky. If you have a spare day in the area, you could even consider island hopping from Libmanan. Once you've had your fill of country life, try a change of scenery in Iriga.

Flowers Bicol Philippines
Enjoy the gardens or make a bouquet
Sitting high atop a peak overlooking Mount Iriga, you will find the bed and breakfast suites at the Gawad Kalinga Character village. There is nothing more refreshing than waking up to an awe inspiring view as you sip your morning cup of coffee. All meals are special in this village not just because they come with a view but because they are prepared table side. Like Libmanan, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the Phillipines in a way that most traditional establishments cannot provide. The village is perched on a slope and beautifully landscaped offering one of a kind photo opportunities. You could try learning some of the local Bicolano dialect or just enjoying the view with the locals. The site is ideal for a mountain retreat getaway for couples or as a base to explore the surrounding area.  Camarines Sur offers numerous eco-tourism activities including bird watching, natural hot springs, waterfalls, and mountain trekking. On the other side of Mt. Iriga near the Gawad Kalinga village is Lake Buhi. The lake is home to the world's smallest edible fish, the sinarapan.  The village is a van ride away from Naga City and won't cost more than 60 pesos.

Iriga Bed and Breakfast
Breakfast with a view at GK Character Village in Mt. Iriga

What I loved about staying in these villages beyond the intimate encounters was the tremendous value offered. One night in your own private unit including breakfast in the morning starts at just 750 pesos for two people and many of the activities are included as well. It's almost like being at an all inclusive resort. The bonus is the people. Only in Gawad Kalinga villages can you expect to be randomly invited into people's homes. This is where the cultural exchange and story telling occurs. I was so touched and humbled when I was invited into a family's home for the first time. Although they had so little of their own, they insisted on offering me refreshments and treating me like a prince. That's an experience that even Shangri-la can't match!

Filipino Food
Meals prepared table side while you learn to cook the Bicolano way
Most vacations are full of transactional encounters, but this vacation transformed my life forever. Whether your interests are dolphin watching, historic cathedrals of Naga or wake boarding at the CamSur Watersports Complex, the Gawad Kalinga villages make an excellent home for your stay in Camarines Sur. Where else can you arrive as a visitor but leave as family? It's often said that people don't remember the places they visit, but they always remember the people they meet. I will always remember the people that I encountered at the Gawad Kalinga villages. At one site, the people of the village dropped what they were doing and walked me to the highway to join me as I waited for a van to Naga. As I looked back at their smiling faces waving to me as I departed, I realized that this is the true spirit of mabuhay and the Filipino culture at its best.

Would you like to visit the Bicol Region of the Philippines? Check out our Bicol hotel promos!

 *This article was originally published in the January 2010 edition of Zest Air in-flight magazine.


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