The very first postcard I bought was that of Pagsanjan Falls.
We were required at school to bring a photo of a tourist attraction in the Philippines. When I went to a bookstore’s postcard section, I saw this colorful image of a beautiful waterfalls and its emerald green river.
It took me over a decade after getting my postcard of this waterfalls to finally try “shooting the rapids” to see the famous Pagsanjan Falls. My first experience was disappointing. The “shooting-the-rapids” part and seeing the waterfalls were all great but we felt that the boatmen ripped us off by demanding a lot of additional charges. It was during this time when Pagsanjan became notorious for taking advantage of tourists.
Depending on tourist money did not sit well with Pagsanjan’s illustrious past. Under the Spaniards, the town was the center of trade and culture of the province. It was also its capital for 170 years, from 1688 to 1858.
Pagsanjan’s location was strategic at the time of the flourishing trade during the Spanish colonial period. It was located at a delta facing the Laguna de Bay where goods were shipped by boats to Manila. The two rivers – Balanac and Bumbungan – meet at the juncture that became the trading settlement, originally called “Pinagsangahan” or “junction,” and later shortened to Pagsanjan. Betel nuts, pineapple fiber, copra and rice brought wealth to the ilustrados who settled in the town.
Pagsanjan’s prosperity continued during the American occupation of the Philippines. This, however, was cut short during the Second World War when the town was heavily bombed, destroying almost everything including the beautiful colonial houses, the municipal hall and the church. The destruction was further complicated by the threat of the Huk movement that sowed fear in Laguna. And so most of the rich people moved out of Pagsanjan, leaving their war-damaged homes to decay.
During post-war reconstruction, the people who were left in Pagsanjan thought of ways to survive. The river was the answer: Tourists can be carried on a canoe and paddled upstream to see the beautiful waterfalls.
As early as the 1950s, Pagsanjan had become Laguna’s most popular tourism destination. But it was a slow process to perfect the tourist experience. A few years ago, boat rates were standardized and unscrupulous boatmen who preyed on innocent tourists were removed.
These changes brought tourists back to Pagsanjan, as well as the ilustrados who used to frown at tourism. Slowly, but surely, Pagsanjan is gaining back its lost glory.
How to get there
Pagsanjan is about 100 kilometers from Manila and can be reached in around 2 hours.
From Manila, drive south through South Luzon Expressway or SLEX, and then exit at Calamba City. From the Calamba exit, turn left to Calamba, then to Crossing and turn right to the old National Highway. The stretch from Crossing to Bucal is always heavy with traffic, so it is best to try the alternative route. So, from the Calamba exit, turn right to Turbina and continue to drive up to Nation Gas Station, where a junction to the left leads to Bucal Bypass Road. Take the Bypass Road and drive up to the Bucal exit at the old National Highway.
Continue driving to the national road passing thru Pansol, Los Banos, Bay, Pila, Victoria, Santa Cruz and finally Pagsanjan.
What to see, what to do
Welcoming visitors to Pagsanjan is the historic stone gate with three Roman arches (now called Arco Real) built in 1878-1880 during the administration of Don Manuel de Yriarte. On top of the gate are the two lions guarding the royal escutcheon of Spain.
Another important attraction is the Catholic Church, which was originally built using bamboo and nipa in 1688. A stone church replaced the original structure in 1690. In 1847, Fray Joaquin Coria built a belfry of Mexican style, but all these, including the church, were all destroyed during the Second World War. Today’s church was built over the ruins of the old church.
Fronting the church is the Municipal Hall Building, which was a Spanish tribunal court in the 1850s. Through the years, it became the site of Local Government for Natives, the first Laguna public high school and, finally, the home of the local government.
Lining up the main street (now called Rizal Street) and the side streets of Mabini, F. San Juan and Crisostomo are many ancestral houses restored to their original grandeur. Some of them have been converted into restaurants, shops and beds and breakfast. On F. San Juan Street, a series of winding steps climb up to Francisco Benitez Elementary School where an American-era school building and a playground are well-preserved.
Pagsanjan’s main tourist attraction is “shooting the rapids” at Pagsanjan Falls. The standard rate is P1,375 per person and this covers boat ride, life vest, helmet and raft that will take visitors to the waterfalls. Skilled boatmen take guests on a scenic boat ride to Magdapio River to reach the main falls. Upon reaching the main falls, guests transfer to a bamboo raft where they are brought beneath the falls to experience the 100-meter water-drop “massage” before getting inside the Devil’s Cave.
Where to stay, where to eat
Most of the local visitors go to Pagsanjan on a day trip but for those who wish to enjoy more what this town can offer, it would be good to spend a night there. Resort hotels like La Corona, Dragon Hotel, Pagsanjan Falls Lodge, 818 Resort and Pagsanjan Rapids Hotel offer comfortable family accommodations.
For dining, there’s Calle Arco for delectable Spanish and Filipino dishes served in colonial setting. But for affordable and tasty meals, try Emin and Mila’s canteen. Their PansitUlam with steamed rice is among the favorites of travelers who are into heavy carbo-loading.
But there’s one favorite dessert that tourists always come back to whenever they pass by Pagsanjan–Taleng’s Halo-Halo, which boasts of the same ingredients used since the concoction was first sold in 1933. Simply the best refreshment after shooting the rapids of Pagsanjan.