Bicol Express. Even before it became known as a Bicolano dish, it was known as the train that took passengers to the center of Bicolandia. To the city of Legazpi.
I have never taken the train to Bicol. But during one of my first visits to the region, I made sure that I visit the PNR station in Legazpi. When I stood in front of one of its ramps, I imagined those hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in Bicol through that station.
Legazpi has always been popular with visitors, perhaps because it is located between a majestic, perfect-shaped volcano and a lovely bay.
It was originally called Sawangan. When the Spaniards arrived in 1569, they found a thriving settlement of fisher folk and farmers on the swampy area that is now the port of Legazpi. The Spaniards hardly met any resistance from the locals and by 1587, a Franciscan-led mission was able to convert the area’s population to Christianity.
In 1814, Mount Mayon erupted and partially destroyed Sawangan and buried Cagsawa, Budjao and Camalig. After the eruption, the people of Sawangan moved to several safer sites: one near the old area and became known as Binanuahan, and the other in Taytay that grew larger and eventually became a township.
On July 17, 1856, a royal decree was signed creating the visita or chapel of Pueblo Viejo by combining Binanuahan and the villages of Lamba, Rawis and Bigaa. On October 22, 1856, Pueblo Viejo became Legazpi, named after Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, the Spanish Conquistador who officially annexed the Philippines to the Spanish Empire in 1565.
Legazpi was declared a city for the first time in 1892. When the Americans came in 1900, its city status was cancelled. On July 18, 1948, Legazpi became a city again when Daraga and Legazpi were combined. However, in 1954 when the two towns were recreated, the city was dissolved. On June 12, 1959, for the third and final time, Legazpi became a city under Republic Act No. 2234.
Today, Legazpi is the most populated city in the Bicol Region with almost 200,000 people. It is also the region’s administrative center and is one of its centers for commerce, education and tourism.
How to get there
While the Bicol Express that originally started in the 1930s has yet to resume operations in 2020 under the new Manila to Legazpi Railway Project, Legazpi may be reached either by air or by land.
By air, take the regular flights from Manila to Legazpi. The airport in Legazpi is within the city proper and is a short distance to most of the city’s attractions.
The distance between Manila to Legazpi by land is 486 kilometers. Drive south from Manila by entering the South Luzon Expressway and exiting at Santo Tomas, Batangas. From there, continue driving to Alaminos, and then San Pablo, both in Laguna, before finally entering the province of Quezon via Tiaong. The road continues to Candelaria, Sariaya, Lucena, Alaminos, Gumaca, Lopez and Calauag, before turning right to Andaya Highway via Tagkawayan. Drive the long stretch of highway that exits to Sipocot in Camarines Sur. The road continues to the towns and cities of Camarines Sur before finally entering Albay via the town of Libon. The drive continues to Polangui, Oas, Ligao, Guinobatan, Camalig and Daraga before finally entering Legazpi.
What to see, what to do
Most of Legazpi’s tourist activities revolve around Mount Mayon. This 2,462-meter perfect cone, active stratovolcano, although shared by eight cities and municipalities, is Legazpi’s most prominent attraction. There are many fun activities that one can do around Mayon.
Climbing the summit of Mount Mayon is still not allowed, but there are several groups in Legazpi that offer scaling the lower base of the volcano. This means rambling through unstable lava rocks to get a good view of the city from the slope of Mayon.
Another way to enjoy Mayon’s environs is to hire an ATV. For P600 for half an hour, one can get a guided tour through lava rocks and river beds. There are also 4×4 rides but it’s more expensive. Another alternative is to try the zip line at Lignon Hill.
But if it’s Mayon that the visitor wishes to see, there’s the viewpoint from Cagsawa Ruins. Entrance fee here is P20 per person. Another good place to see Mayon is Lignon Hill, where one can get a good view of the volcano plus a 360-degree view of Legazpi. Or, to catch the cloudless early morning view of the volcano, just visit Legazpi Boulevard.
Where to stay, what to eat
Legazpi is tourist-friendly, and there are over a hundred hotels and resorts around the city to suit all budgets. Those who wish to splurge can stay at Misibis Bay Resort in Bacacay or at The Oriental Legazpi in Taysan Hill.
However, those travelling with families can enjoy the comforts of mid-range hotels like Hotel St. Ellis, Alicia Hotel and La Piazza Hotel. But for those on a budget, affordable accommodations are available at Sampaguita’s, Legazpi Tourist Inn, Carlos Hometel, Hotel Rex and Mayon Backpackers Hostel.
For dining, Legazpi offers some exciting food adventures. The recent opening of Ayala Mall Legazpi makes it now more convenient for visitors to try several Bicolano restaurants under one roof. There’s Graceland and Bigg’s Diner that offer Bicol comfort food fast-food style. There’s also First Colonial with their offerings of pinangat, tinapa rice and bagoong rice. But the one thing that people line up for at First Colonial is their famous Sili ice cream.
The Legazpi market is another interesting place to visit. Once there, one can find fresh Bicoloano ingredients like laing, sili, pili nuts, coconut and dried fish. It is also a good place to buy souvenir items made from abaca and banig.
But there’s one dish that is not easy to find in Legazpi: it’s Bicol Express. It was actually invented in Malate Manila. Perhaps, once the Bicol Express train resumes its operations, this dish will take the fast train back to Legazpi.