THE Bicol Region has very unique characters and traits. For one, its cuisine is quite distinctive because of the generous use of siling labuyo and coconut milk. And people in the region are the most hardworking and religious in the country and put a high value on education. And the Bicolanas are known to be dutiful wives and will always balance career to help their husband build a family (think Lenie Robredo).
Those who are interested to know more about the region and its people can have a taste of what it can offer by simply visiting Naga City. The city is called the “Heart of Bicol,” not only because of its geographical location – it is now the center for commerce, trade, tourism, religion and education for the whole region. With the opening of the Andaya Highway two decades ago, Naga became the new gateway to Bicolandia.
Naga’s new role, however, did not come easy. The city was once a small village along the banks of the Naga River before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. The name Naga is said to be derived from the Bornean word that stands for “serpent/dragon.”
In 1573, the expedition headed by Juan de Salcedo landed in the village the natives called “Naga.” In 1575, Captain Pedro de Chavez, the commander of the garrison left behind by Salcedo, built a new settlement and called it La Ciudad de Nueva Caceres after the town of Caceres in Spain. It became known commonly as Nueva Caceres and the most important seat for spreading the Catholic faith in the south of Luzon Island.
For several centuries, Nueva Caceres not only became the religious and commercial capital of the south, but it was actually the official capital of the whole Ambos Camarines province.
With the opening of the national road via Daet and the growing trading centers in Legaspi and Tabaco, the city of Naga was reduced to a municipality during the American period, lost its Spanish name and became officially known as Naga. It acquired its present city charter in 1948 by virtue of Republic Act 305.
The present Naga City and the expanded Metropolitan Naga that is composed of the city and the 14 municipalities of Camarines Sur, is also now considered the gateway to the tourist destinations of the region. It is a convenient disembarkation for visiting the sites of Caramoan and the CamSur Watersports Complex, and further to scaling Mayon Volcano, and swimming with the white sharks of Donsol or exploring the off-the-beaten trails of Isarog and Ray Gulf.
How to get there
The shortest way of going to Naga is to take the 45-minute flight via Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific to the nearby airport in the town of Pili. From the airport, there are plenty of taxis that can take visitors to the city proper.
But the most preferred mode of transportation to Naga is by bus. The eight-hour trip usually starts at the central bus terminal in Cubao and costs between P750 to P1,200 (for the 10:00 pm Isarog Sleeper Bus).
PNR’s Bicol Express is still under maintenance. Once it resumes operations, the train will run daily trips departing from the Tutuban station at 6:30 pm and arriving in Naga the following day at 4:30 am.
Those with private vehicles will now find driving to Naga even more convenient with the Andaya Highway by-pass. It is now down to 377 kilometers to Naga, shorter by about 75 kilometers compared to using the old highway passing thru Daet. So depending on driving speed and the number of stopovers, Naga can be reached in eight hours or less.
What to see, what to do
Naga’s biggest attraction is probably the image of Our Lady of Penafrancia. Every September, tens of thousands of pilgrims, devotees and tourists come to the city to participate in the nine-day festivities that is highlighted by a novena mass and a fluvial procession along the Naga River.
The image was originally housed at the Our Lady of Penafrancia Shrine since 1750 before it was transferred to the present Penafrancia Basilica Minore. The visit to these two shrines gives visitors a glimpse of the deep religiosity of the people of Naga. Also worth visiting is the massive Naga Metropolitan Church, together with its attractive stained-glass gazebo, the adjoining Holy Rosary Seminary and its museum and the Porta Mariae gate. Another place worth visiting is the San Francisco Church and its bell tower located near the business center.
The city also has several public parks such as the Plaza Quince Martires in honor of the 15 Bicolano martyrs executed five days after Jose Rizal was executed in Bagumbayan in Manila. This monument was built in 1928. There is also the nearby Plaza Rizal and the adjacent Plaza Quezon that both serve as the center for sports and leisure activities. The Plaza Nuava Caceres near the Naga River was constructed to commemorate the coming of the Spanish conquistadores and the conversion of the natives to Catholic religion. The Plaza Barlin in front of Metropolitan Church is a popular venue for religious gatherings.
For adventure seekers, the city is the jump-off point to explore the peak of Mount Isarog and the many hidden waterfalls and hot springs located along its slopes. The nearby CamSur Watersports Complex provides exciting water activities.
But the best part of going to Naga is pasalubong shopping. It is the best and the cheapest place to get native Bicol products. There are bags and shopping baskets made from abaca, slippers, pandan mats, pili nuts, decors, key chains and many other products which visitors can buy at pasalubong stalls located at the People’s Mall. Visitors can also load up on dried fish, local noodles called Pansit Bato, fresh chilies and other vegetables also at the People’s Mall.
Where to stay, what to eat
Naga offers a wide range of accommodations for all budget types.
Backpackers and students can get a room at the Sampaguita Tourist Inn, Sunny View Hotel and Aristocrat Hotel for less than P500 per night.
Those with bigger budgets can enjoy the luxurious amenities of the Avenue Plaza Hotel, Star View Plaza, Nueva Caceres Hotel and Naga Land Hotel. There are plenty of choices when it comes to Naga’s local cuisine that is relatively inexpensive, including the spicy local dishes. There are plenty of good carinderias around the People’s Mall to sample local foods like Bicol Express, ginataang langka or pinangat. Bigg’s Diner, DJC and Graceland are local fast-food establishments that also serve Bicolano dishes in addition to the usual halo-halo, hamburgers and fries.
With the opening of SM Naga and the growing upscale market in Magsaysay Avenue, visitors can now find international franchise stores like Starbucks and Yellow Cab. However, if one wishes to try the local flavors, visit the street food stalls at the Plaza Rizal night market. The offerings may mostly be the same as the ones in Manila like fried peanuts, kwek kwek, siomai and isaw but everything comes with liberal amount of chili.
They say that food tastes a lot sweeter in Bicol despite the spicy siling labuyo being used widely. It may be because in everything that they do, they put a generous amount of love into it.