The Escape from Manila

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The anxious anticipation for the arrival of my parents from Canada finally ended this month.  Their twelve day visit was the perfect excuse to expose them to the insanity that is Manila,  journey into the mountains to explore and enjoy some of the stunning natural beauty and then drop their poor exhausted bodies on a picturesque beach in Boracay to mend their wounds with a few well deserved massages and margaritas.

Even after my parents’ attempt to shake off the jetlag and to reacquaint themselves with the concept of severely reduced personal space via a three day stop in Hong Kong, I think the initial shock of being in the city of Manila was more than they ever imagined.  I’ve said it a few times, it’s definitely a city best experienced firsthand.  There’s a chaos and vibrancy that you just can’t understand until you’re here.

After a couple days of trial by fire with them tearing through the side streets in tricycles at insane speeds and enduring the mind-boggling crowds and endless traffic, I think they’re as ready for a little peace and quiet as we are.

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Enjoying a speedy tricycle ride in Manila

CORDILLERA ADVENTURES

I’ve had the pleasure of making the journey from Manila to Baguio several times and there’s always the same feeling of relief or escape from the daunting size and exhausting pace of a massive city as the bus races down the superhighway out of town.   The route slicing through the sprawling sugarcane fields, past the communities surrounded by the scenery of the rice terraces and wood sculptures before finally climbing into the mountains is becoming familiar.  It’s still a route that I enjoy travelling and this time I’m doing it with my girlfriend and my parents as we begin our journey to explore the Cordillera region of Luzon.

Despite my numerous previous visits to our first stop in Baguio, we’re planning a few sights that are completely new to me.  With only two days to soak up the atmosphere in Baguio before travelling further north to Mountain Province, it’s a whirlwind tour.  Luckily for us we’re equipped with our secret weapon: Chaya’s tita Luchie.  She’s a fountain of knowledge for both local history and current events around the area, not to mention one of the few drivers we’ve travelled with here that doesn’t have my parents holding each other and sobbing from sheer terror.

GOOD SHEPHERD

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Good Shepherd Convent

Our Baguio tour begins with one of the more famous attractions in the area, Good Shepherd Convent.  Along with its reputation for having some of the best preserves and peanut brittle in the Philippines, the money generated from their sales goes to various charities and to maintain the convent.

A 2010 Presidential Award winner for their organic gardens means everything here is made or grown with great care.  The proof is in the taste of their wares and their popularity with locals and tourists.

Along with the shelves stocked with organic jams, jellies and delicious treats, the deck offers panoramic views of the landscape easily as spectacular as the painfully touristy Mine’s View Park.

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There’s a great shady garden area with a gazebo to sit and relax with some of our tasty goods before heading back on the road and continuing the tour.

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CAMP JOHN HAY

There’s lots to see and little time to see it, but no day soaking up Philippine culture could be complete without sampling some of the local cuisine.  Our next stop is as much about giving my parents their first taste of Filipino food as it is about visiting one of the best urban green spaces in the country.

A quick stop to refuel at Dencio’s Restaurant to give everyone a rest and, more importantly, to give Chaya’s cousin Lira the sisig fix she needs to get through the day, and we’re off to continue our tour of the park.

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Camp John Hay, once a rest and recreation facility for American armed forces actually predates the city of Baguio itself.

PhotobucketNow in the hands of a private developer, the former favourite spot for family picnics and a place that held so many fond memories shared by those driving through the park with us, sports a massive golf course, private residences and remains under continuous construction….or destruction.  Depending on whether you value the park for it’s picturesque beauty and serene escape from the city or, like Fil-Estate Management and CHJ Development, seek to destroy the environment and natural setting families have enjoyed for decades for mere profit, there’s something for everyone.

It’s even rumoured that general Yamashito may have buried and hidden gold and other treasures towards the end of his hold on the country when the park was still used as a concentration camp for American and British soldiers during Japanese occupation in WWII.  No time for treasure hunting as we head to our next destination.

BENCAB MUSEUM

PhotobucketAlong with the other amazing places we had the privilege of visiting during our guided tour of the sights of Baguio, BenCab Museum was one of my favourites and a huge surprise.  I was at first taken aback by the ultra modern building that housed the museum itself and artists home next door, considering the location and its surroundings.

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Walking into the museum reveals a staggering amount of art ranging from traditional indigenous to the incredibly bizarre,  surely a reminder that art truly is subjective.

The displays are separated into relevant sections and climbing each new level offers another beautifully arranged display.  Along with the original artwork of the founder Benedicto Cabrera are numerous artifacts, sculptures and beautiful photos paying tribute to the rich cultural history of the Cordillera people of this region.

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The casual stroll through the countless displays lead us up to one of the upper levels and out onto a balcony that looks over an equally spectacular site.  The beautifully landscaped gardens where the other vision of BenCab is coming to fruition are worth the trip alone.

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A dazzling use of the natural landscape, complete with serene river cascading into small waterfalls and traditional native huts, make up one of the more breathtaking organic gardens I’ve ever seen.

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Every inch of the space is thoughtfully planned out from the drainage for the rice terraces to the crop choices and livestock area.  The produce grown here makes it’s way onto the seasonal cafe menu and will surely be worth a return visit when harvesting time comes.

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The first half of our day in Baguio has already been packed with new sights and excitement.  I was so thankful for all our wonderful tour guides giving my parents the opportunity to experience an area of the Philippines that is quickly becoming one of my favourite spots, as well as help to erase the initial impressions of the dirty, congested and often terrifying metropolis of Manila.

It’s a whirlwind adventure and there’s a ton more to blog about.  The second half of our Baguio tour along with lots of great shots and hilarious tales from our time in Banaue, Bontoc and Sagada are all coming soon, so stay tuned!!

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Chinese New Year in Manila

PhotobucketAfter finally winding down a bit from the festivities of the holiday season in Baguio, and fully recovering from the sensational year-end parties in Manila, there’s another celebration I’ve been looking forward to experiencing here in the Philippines, Chinese New Year!!

Chinese New Year is the most important traditional Chinese holiday. It begins on the first day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, usually on the second new moon after the winter solstice, and ends with the Lantern Festival.  This marks the first time that the City of Manila, the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the Philippines, and the Department of Tourism-National Park Development Committee are joining hands with Chinoy organizations to celebrate the occasion.

Our trip begins with a return visit to Rizal Park in the afternoon to check out the preparations for the events taking place later on in the evening .  The parade, which is set to begin in Binondo, will weave its way through Chinatown and back towards the Quirino Grandstand.  Located just in front of Manila Ocean Park, the grounds will host the spectacular midnight fireworks display that will cap the countdown to the year of the rabbit . We’re a little early, but still get a chance to watch some of the dancers and performers rehearsing their routines before the big show.  It’s strange to hear the director’s voice booming over the PA system in a mixture of Chinese-Tagalog and English, but it’s a symbolic representation of the Chinese and Filipino cultures that have meshed in the region for generations.

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Horse-drawn carriage to Chinatown

Traffic is already starting to slow to a crawl along Roxas Blvd. as the crowds are filing into the grounds around the grandstand, and chances of hailing a cab are slim.  We decide to hop on a horse-drawn carriage instead to take us along the border of Intramuros and into Binondo.

Riding along in the carriage and enjoying the historic architecture in this area is like taking a step back in time, although the constant horns blaring from the angry commuters behind us make it difficult to maintain the nostalgic feel for long.

We arrive at Binondo Church, built in 1596 and one of the oldest places of Christian worship in the country.  Located right in the heart of the Chinese New Year festivities, it’s a great spot to start exploring the Binondo area.

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Binondo Church

Binondo is located across the Pasig River from Intramuros and the home of Chinatown in Manila.  The area is primarily populated by Chinese immigrants living in the Philippines and is the center of commerce and trade for all types of businesses run by Chinese merchants.  Established in 1594, it is the oldest Chinese community in the world.  With its bazaars, quaint shops, great food spots and temples, it represents an authentic taste of Chinese culture.

Part of that authentic taste and flavour is tikoy or nián gāo, a rice cake made from glutinous rice flour and a treat that has stores overflowing and people lining the sidewalks along some of the narrow streets and alleys.

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Lining the streets for tikoy

Our adventure through Chinatown continues by exploring the selection of restaurants and small food shops spotted throughout the area.  Despite having lived in Vancouver, where there’s a massive Chinese population and collection of restaurants to match, I’m ashamed to say I’ve never experienced the joys of dim  sum.  A quick stop into Golden Fortune Seafood, known for the best siomai and dim sum in the area, did not disappoint and I can’t believe it took me this long to try this delicious dish!

Golden Fortune dim sum

The daylight has faded and signals the beginning of the celebrations.  The streets are now packed with people jostling for a good vantage point to watch the parade along Ongpin Street in the heat of Chinatown.  We follow the traditional drummers leading the brightly coloured dragons back towards Binondo Church where there’s a stage showcasing the dancers along with some live pinoy rock .

Although we didn’t make it back to the park for the midnight countdown and fireworks, in true Filipino fashion there are several smaller fireworks displays being shot off in the streets all around us.

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Chinese New Year Parade

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Chinese New Year Parade

The Chinese New Year celebrations were a great way to ring in the year of the rabbit and experience the vibrant Chinese food and culture that have been an influential force here in the Philippines for centuries.  Kung Hei Fat Choi!!!

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Boracay

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With Christmas rapidly approaching, the festivities of the holiday season and the spirit of celebration around the city of Manila are impressive for someone who has never experienced them before.  For someone like me, who spent well over two decades celebrating this time of year in ungodly temperatures and surviving blizzards that could often engulf cars and bury our house to the roofline, the fantastic displays of decorated trees and beautifully lit streets are a little bizarre against the backdrops of palm trees and people in t-shirts and shorts.

In a country with an overwhelming 90% Christianity rate, the religious significance of this holiday only adds to the importance and passion of those celebrating it.  The towering statues of religious icons can be seen looming over the swarms of people out celebrating what seems to be the other almost universal religion of Filipinos; shopping.  The staggering crowds that can emerge at this time of year and traffic they bring with them are the perfect excuses to escape to a tropical paradise known the world over….Boracay!!

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GETTING THERE

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Arriving in Boracay from Manila

It only takes a short one hour flight from Manila in a plane that has me saying a few silent prayers before takeoff.  Not a big fan of small planes.  After landing on the narrow runway, we get ushered to one of the bangka pump boats that ferries us from the mainland Caticlan airport to the island itself.  It’s a quick ride over the choppy water and we’re promptly met by a shuttle that takes us to the hotel.

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Bangka Pump Boat

THE ISLAND

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Boracay is separated into three districts; Yapak in the North, Manoc-Manoc in the South and Balabag in the center.  The island is shaped like a dog bone that measures only seven kilometres across its narrowest point.  There are two main tourist beaches; Bulabog, which runs along the eastern shore and is world-renowned for the strong winds which make it a favourite for para-sailors, kite and windsurfers, and White Beach that offers most of the 5 star hotels, resorts, shopping districts and restaurants in the area.

Eating in the trendier restaurant district here is one option but there’s also D’Talipapa, a great wet market, which has more restaurants.  You can just select the seafood you want to eat from the market and have it cooked in one of the restaurants for a small fee.  Bulabog is supposed to offer a much quieter and serene getaway for those not wanting to brave the densely populated White Beach but I want to be where the action is and I hear we’re headed to just the place.

The driver takes us through Manoc-Manoc and looking out the windows on the drive along the narrow and winding streets offers a view of the contrasts that seem to define this island.  Small shacks and food stands line the road while tourist resorts and multi-million dollar hotels glow in the background along the beach.

D’MALL AREA

We get dropped at the entrance to a district called D’Mall where a waiting hotel employee ushers us off the road towards the hotel.  Within a few feet of being off the busy street we’re on a sandy path that runs between the rows of shops, eateries and clubs.  There’s a little of everything here with trendy board shops, high fashion stores and phenomenal restaurants, even a climbing wall and small ferris wheel in the centre courtyard.

D'Mall

It’s a Friday night and the crowds are thirsty and hungry as they make they way in and out of the bars and restaurants in bunches.  It’s a business trip for my girlfriend and we’re anxious to check into the hotel, grab a bite to eat and dip our toes in the water before getting some solid rest for what will no doubt be a long day tomorrow…..at least that was the plan.

THE HOTEL

PhotobucketThe Tides is perfectly located right in the middle of the D’Mall area and surrounded by some of the best food and shopping spots.  Along with the prime location, the hotel boasts a swanky rooftop pool, restaurant and lounge complete with a spectacular view of the ocean.  The modern room, with its cool floating tub and rainfall shower head, almost convinces me to call it a night but I’m starving!

FRIDAY NIGHT IN BORACAY

Fifteen steps from the hotel entrance are a handful of restaurants including a great seafood restaurant that had some amazing garlic prawns.  There’s blues floating out from strange little place outside the hotel entrance called D’Hobbit House, which serves a ton international beers and is staffed entirely by little people.

PhotobucketThe quick walk to the beach after dinner doesn’t offer any spectacular views, but it’s a great opportunity to scout some potential hangouts and finally plunge my feet into the fine white powdery sand that makes this island the most popular beach destination in the Philippines and one of the best in the world.  It lives up to its reputation.

There are some amazing sand sculptures up and down the white beach as we casually stroll along with the live music of the endless beach-front bars and restaurants.  It’s not hard to imagine spending a few weeks here rather than a few days.  I’m already anxious to take this all in again in the sunlight but can’t resist checking out the scene after dark.

EATING AND DRINKING

The selection of restaurants and bars up and down the beach is pretty unbelievable.  The appeal of this tropical paradise has lured so many foreigners into calling it their home that there are tons of eateries offering authentic cuisine for every palate and budget.  Like so many other amazing destinations that begin as well-kept secrets, inevitably its explosive popularity brings destructive consequences, with over-development a huge concern.  I try to ignore the annoying fact that, despite so many great spots offering local food, coffee and delicious tropical drinks, Starbucks remains one of the busiest spots on the beach.

PhotobucketMy girlfriend and I are waiting for her aunt to come join us and stop in front of Pat’s Creek Bar.  Comfy benches and candlelit tables are laid out right on the beach surrounding the stage that sits in front of the water.

The band is already starting their first set and I was surprised at the mixed crowd.  The soft reggae has heads bobbing, both balding and deadlocked.

PhotobucketAlong with the tropical drinks and sizzling platters of stellar bar food making their way to the tables, hookahs are available by request and the smell of sweet sheesha fills the air as we take a seat to order appies and drinks.

I love it here and we sat and enjoyed our drinks listening to some of the music before reuniting with Chaya’s aunt.

We’re all together again and leave the chill vibe of Pat’s and travel north up White Beach.  There are tourists from all over the globe here enjoying the bar scene that ranges from sleek and sexy nightclubs, to simple huts serving ice-cold beer and everything in between.

There are many great live shows along the beaches of Boracay, but the fire dancers are supposed to be one of the best.  These….errr…..ladies and gentlemen were really entertaining and we had a blast watching them perform.  There’s no entrance fee, only a commitment to a minimum bar tab while inside.  This proved not to be an issue for us and I’m feeling a little giddy as we ponder our next stop.

My girlfriend makes friends easy and by the time the show ended we we’re off to a bar called Guilly’s Island with two Swedish girls, a guy from Singapore, two other Filipinas and, of course, four of the fire dancers.  We took the short walk and enjoyed the music and packed dance floor until it was time for a late night wobbly ride back to the hotel with the two of us on the back of a motorbike.  Sleep is needed…….

SECOND DAY

Despite the unmistakable dryness and taste of sand in my mouth, I’m up and out the door early.  I want to see more of Boracay and desperately need something to hydrate my poor, battered body.  I take a walk up the beach to check out a place I heard has the best shakes on the island.  After only seeing the beach late last night, the view that greets me puts a smile on my face that hangs there for the thirty minute walk to Jonah’s Shakes.

PhotobucketWith a white sandy beach stretching as far as the eye can see and sailboats and windsurfers enjoying the turquoise water, it’s a perfect morning.

The walk on my way to grab some fresh papaya and mango shakes takes me along the strip of cafes and restaurants that sit right off the beach and where early risers and all-nighters alike are filling up on much-needed coffee.

A guy on the beach stops me and tries to sell me on a day trip to go island-hopping or parasailing.  All I can think about is breakfast, but the papaya shake has cured my morning nausea enough that I’m sold on the idea of getting out on the water today one way or another.  I pitch the idea of an island-hopping trip to my girlfriend and her tita Lai over breakfast and they’re both interested in some time on the water after they do a little work.  Not surprisingly, when I mentioned the deal I got offered, Chaya just grinned at her aunt, who already had a bit of a smirk on her face.

We’re back on the beach after breakfast and find some guys from the same company selling the tours.  This lady is like the black widow of bargaining and these poor guys never stood a chance.  Less than 2 minutes is all it takes for a 70% discount on the tour.  Moments later Chaya and I are sporting some imitation Oakley and Ray-Ban sunglasses for less than half the asking price.  The extra cash will be better spent on Pina Coladas and cold beer later anyways.

ISLAND HOPPING

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Following the Boracay Shoreline

We’re off on an island adventure to explore the sights around Boracay and visit the island that houses the Crystal Caves.  We journey out onto the waters around Boracay in a Paraw, a simple sailboat that takes us along the shoreline and we pass several secluded beaches tucked into small coves.  The cliffs along the water are home to both resorts and spectacular beach houses with million dollar views of the ocean.

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Island in the Sun

There are tiny mounds of rock covered in greenery, barely large enough to be called islands, that sprout up from the water as our bangka casually putters closer to our target.

The wind starts to pick up and the waves grow in size as we hit the open water and sail past the true to its name Crocodile Island on our journey to Crystal Cove.

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Crocodile Island

CRYSTAL COVE ISLAND

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Crystal Cove is an island that is undoubtedly one of the highlights of this island-hopping trip.  We admire the crystal clear water as we sail up onto the finely ground puka shells that make up the shore of this 6 acre chunk of land.

There are only a couple other boats here and it feels like we have the island to ourselves as we talk a walk along the beach and soak up some of the warm sun.  It’s a great opportunity to take a closer look at the shells, once a favourite of tourists to take as keepsakes, now protected to maintain the beaches for future generations.

There are huge flocks of birds flying in unison overhead and then finding their perch on rooftops and trees as we start to explore the island.

Tropical gardens surrounding small ponds are spread out around the entrances to the two caves.  Despite the warning signs, the floating tropical lilies are so dense on the water it looks like you could walk out and hover on top of them.

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Tropical oasis on Crystal Cove Island

The small 200 peso entry fee is definitely worth what this weird tropical wonderland has to offer.  Looking out from one of the many structures, the landscape is bizarre and beautiful.

Along with the driftwood and stone built structures, there are lots intricately decorated stone pathways and hand crafted furniture and sculptures.

PhotobucketA winding staircase takes us underground to the first cave where the waves are crashing hard into the rocks.  On calmer days you can swim out here and check out the windsurfers at the other end of the island.

The second cave requires a quick dip into waist-high water before crawling through the narrow tunnel that opens into an amazing little grotto.

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Crystal Caves

We have time to grab a snack and enjoy the views before heading back along the path leading to the boat.  The water along the beach here is so clear, it’s not hard to imagine how the island got its name.  I took lots of pictures here and put them all into an album for you to enjoy.

SNORKELING

It’s been a while since I’ve been swimming in the ocean anywhere tropical and I was pumped to do some snorkeling along the reefs.  The boat drops anchor in twenty-foot water and I’ve already got my mask and snorkel on.

The water is teaming with brightly coloured schools of tropical fish weaving through the coral and rocks.  I get tossed a few pieces of bread and they all swarm and circle me before disappearing an instant later.  I have a few minutes to just float and enjoy the underwater world then hop back into the boat and finish the tour by heading North past Shangri-la and Manny Paquio’s resort.

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Island Tour

We anchor again on a quiet beach with a hut serving up cold drinks and some tasty grub.  I wander the deserted beach to take a few photos and then enjoy the calm and quiet ride back with the sun starting to set over the horizon.

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I had a fantastic time exploring Boracay and the surrounding islands.  Here’s some of the video footage I shot on the tour.

The ladies pass the gazebos offering massages right on the beach and stop in for some well-deserved pampering.  A trip back to the hotel to get cleaned up and a Mexican feast while overlooking the ocean cap a really memorable day.  I’m too exhausted to do anything but crash.

Boracay is an amazing tropical getaway.  Everything from sinfully luxurious hotels to nipa beach huts and a reputation for some of the country’s best restaurants catering to all tastes and budgets.  It’s worth the trip to experience the vibrant nightlife or get out and enjoy the activities like diving, windsurfing and kiteboarding.  Too much for one short trip but I’m already planning my second visit in February.

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Mine’s View Park – Baguio

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Mines View Park is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Baguio.  The route to this panoramic lookout takes us past the massive gate marking the summer getaway home of the President and up the tree-lined road into the park.

There’s a small row of storefronts selling handmade goods and cheap souvenirs.  The amazing wood carvings we saw on the windy drive up the mountains from Manila are represented here among the rows of vendors in the market selling everything from organic preserves and peanut brittle to brooms and swords.  Knowing this is a tourist area means the prices are set accordingly, but cutthroat bargaining tactics can still net you a good deal, if you’re willing to spar with these pros.

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The indigenous people of this Cordillera region, sometimes referred to as Igorot, are a collection of the six ethnic groups: the Bontoc, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Isneg (or Apayao), Kalinga, and the Kankana-ey.  Their remaining presence here is represented by some of the quality weaving they are famous for and, of course, the obligatory tourist photo op.

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The real draw for the park is the stunning view of the old Benguet copper and gold mines scattered among the lush green mountains.  The observation deck is fitted with wooden benches and seats so you can sit back and enjoy the sights.

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Here’s a few more photos from my trip to Mines View Park.

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Baguio Botanical Garden

I really enjoyed my time at the Baguio Botanical Garden. The combination of authentic Igorot culture and beautiful foliage makes a great place to relax and unwind from the commotion of the city centre.  I took some pictures and put them into an album for all to enjoy.  Here’s a great write up I found that describes it perfectly:

Baguio Botanical Garden

The city of Baguio in the Republic of the Philippines is the Summer Capital of Philippines.  It has more to offer to the tourists than the mere landscaped parks.  You’ll find this beautiful garden in the downtown area of Baguio.

The Baguio Botanical Garden is also known as the Igorot Village.  Inside the garden you will find the typical native huts of the Igorots who live in the Cordilleras.  This man-made village is said to capture the ethnic spirit and cultural legacy of the Igorots and being tranquil and quiet, it is a nice place to just sit back and relax, and you can take a leisurely stroll along its narrow and winding pathways enjoying the landscape decorated with numerous variety of trees and plants.  A few years ago, in an improvised outdoor stage, Igorot dances and rituals were held which acted as a source of great joy and entertainment. You can even buy from among the various plants which are there for sale.

The Baguio Botanical Garden is very popular among the locals and as well as the tourists. It’s even very popular among the students who go to the Botanical Garden for a day of retreat or just enjoy the outdoor environment. If you are interested in taking pictures with the native Igorots then you will find them in the main entrance, who will readily pose with you for a souvenir picture…of course, for a fee.

-Asia Rooms

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Cafe by the Ruins – Baguio

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Cafe by the Ruins in Baguio is a very well known spot to sample some of the freshest seasonal and local ingredients prepared in one of the most unique atmospheres in the city. Owned and operated by local artists and art lovers, the concept is simple: showcase local art alongside the local flavours of the Cordillera region that make this part Philippines a culinary capital.  Rotating their menu seasonly ensures delicious dishes made from ingredients in peak season.  This place is a quiet oasis and a welcome refuge from the city centre.  It is built around the remains of a stone garden theatre and was originally named because of the fantastic view of the nearby ruins, enjoyed by locals and throngs of tourists for over 20 years, until the new Eurotel building was built right next to the cafe.  Thankfully the food is worth the trip on its own and the local carvings and art help to distract from the gaudy hotel.

The fresh yogurt in their lassi comes from carabao, a kind of water buffalo, and is blended with fresh fruit and made with your choice of honey or salt and pepper.  This was my first time tasting carabao yogurt and it was really delicious.  There’s a real richness and bitterness that was excellent with the sweet fruit and honey.

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For lunch Chaya chose to take advantage of the great vegetarian options on the menu and ordered the zucchini patties.  These light and flavourful “veggie pancakes” are made using carabao cheese and served with a naturally coloured and local red mountain rice.

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I chose the embutido sandwich which came on a fresh-baked bun with another first for me, cassava fries .  Embutido is kind of like a Filipino meatloaf and the small rounds, sitting on crisp cucumbers and lettuce, were moist and flavourful.  I also really enjoyed the cassava fries and might consider replacing yam fries as my favourite fried starch.  My only complaint was that there weren’t enough.

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Cafe by the Ruins offers an amazing assortment of dishes (see a great list with pics here) that transform to match the changing seasons and the dessert selection and fresh baked goods are equally delicious looking.

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Cafe by the Ruins definitely taps into the best part of the vibe in the city that surrounds it.  Its success represents a genuine interest in both the local ingredients and art that are highlighted here.  Can’t wait to go again when I’m back in Baguio.

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Driving to Baguio

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After years of hearing so much about Baguio City and the natural beauty and hospitality found in the Cordillera region, I’m finally making the trip.  The initial excitement at exploring the vast and unknown urban sprawl of Manila has given way to the desire to be closer to nature and a search for solace from the unforgiving heat, humidity and pollution of the big city.  Baguio is considered the summer getaway of choice for many during the sweltering heat that can hit the southern provinces in the summer.  Even the president keeps his summer mansion here.  It also has a reputation for being the most bargain friendly city in the Philippines.  Massive “ukay ukay” markets fill the streets with quality designer and second-hand goods sold for dirt cheap.

The route from Manila to Baguio begins slowly, taking endless turns and exits and passing through multiple tollbooths before hitting a couple major accidents that grind traffic to a halt.  This is why so many people drive trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles here.  Our driver seems to take an unusual amount of pleasure making the sharp swerve into the “Filipino express lane” and doesn’t hesitate to pass cars on the shoulder to keep us moving.

Our trip takes us through several very interesting and distinct areas.  We fly through the seemingly endless sugarcane fields heading towards the town of Tarlac before the superhighway fades to roads leading through countless small towns and communities.  It’s a constant battle trying to keep highway speeds with so many tricycles and jeepneys slowly rolling their way through the towns.  Limited passing options often forces us into games of chicken with oncoming tour buses.

The fields taper off as mountain ranges become visible and we pass mango groves, old Spanish style houses and churches along with the occasional carabao.  Farmers are raking their wet rice onto the hot roads to dry it and the smaller rice terraces can be seen carved into the mountainsides in the distance.  As we start our climb up the mountain and hit the winding switchbacks taking us into Baguio, there are several woodcarving shops dotted along the side of the road.  This area is famous for its carvings and the pieces on display are evidence of that reputation.  If I could only figure out how to bring a 200 pound solid wood bench back to Canada….

Here’s some of the video I shot along the first part of the drive to Baguio.

It’s worth mentioning that the amazing view while climbing the mountains to Baguio are notoriously foggy and overcast, but as we finished the final hour at high altitude there was a spectacular sunset on display.  We can see the fiery orange sky casting a warm glow onto the layers of cloud both above and below our high vantage point and I catch a glimpse of the South China Sea on the horizon.  One of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.

Here’s some short clips of the show mother nature put on for us.

Here’s some more pictures from the whole journey driving from Manila to Baguio.  I was a long drive, but well worth it for all the scenery and funky little towns along the way.  The cool mountain breeze here means no noisy aircon unit tonight and I can’t wait to see what else this city has to offer.

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Rizal Park

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My rather hasty preparation didn’t include many purchases for my voyage, but I did make sure to hunt down a Lonely Planet guide to the Philippines and have consulted its infinite wisdom often.  One of its top recommendations, like several of the websites I scoured for lists of Manila attractions, is the universally known and often frequented Rizal Park.

After a quiet week, mostly due to the intense morning heat and humidity giving way to earth-shaking thunderstorms and a few torrential downpours, we’re taking the guide’s advice and heading to soak up the rich history and natural beauty of Manila’s Luneta Park, then catching one of the famed sunsets over Manila Bay that can be seen up and down Roxas Blvd.  With the winter sun dropping out of sight early, we decide to hit the park in the afternoon to leave us time to catch the sunset.  We jump on the MRT after lunch and it takes us as far west as you can go through Makati City and into Pasay, a city that borders the waters of Manila Bay.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and we can tell the traffic is going to be slow heading up Roxas Blvd., but decide to take a cab anyway instead of braving the crowds hopping onto the connecting LRT transit line heading north.  Coming down and out of the station puts us on sidewalks packed with people and vendors lining the roads and alleys all around us.

We’re immediately marked by a couple of youngsters that insist on helping us find a taxi. Chaya and I exchange anxious glances, but one look at the mayhem in the street in front of us and we decide they’ll probably be a lot more successful at finding a cab than us.  This is not a community service, but I’m happy to hand them 20 pesos after my initial amazement at watching them brave the traffic to escort a taxi to the curb and hold it for us.  The sight of me handing out a few coins incites a feeding frenzy of young teens around the car and arms and hands are thrust into the open passenger front door while others pull on the rear door handle that Chaya wisely locked as soon as we got in.  It costs us another 10 or 20 pesos of handouts before the driver can get the door closed and get us on our way.

Our drive north up the heavily expat-populated Roxas Boulevard unveils a number of ritzy hotels and restaurants and the view is obviously the main attraction here for locals and visitors. The boulevard runs parallel to Manila Bay and the view out the window reminds me of parts of the seawall in Vancouver that snake their way through Stanley Park and the downtown area with joggers pounding the pavement and couples strolling along the water.

We catch a glimpse of the gargantuan SM Mall of Asia down the street.  Even from a distance the 42 million square feet of retail contained in the 3rd largest mall in Asia is intimidating.  This close to the holiday season the 200,000 shoppers that frequent it everyday can double, and the traffic lined as far as the eye can see in both directions confirms it.  Some of the more well-known sights in this area also include The Manila Yacht Club, Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the monstrous and somewhat ostentatious U.S. Embassy.

Luneta Park, as it’s more commonly known by locals and named because of its crescent or moon (lunette) shape, has a huge array of attractions, statues, gardens and also holds tremendous historical significance for the Philippines and it’s people:

The execution of José Rizal on December 30, 1896…made him a hero of the Philippine Revolution; the Declaration of Philippine Independence from American rule on July 4, 1946; the political rallies of Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino in 1986; the venue of the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2005 Southeast Asian Games; the 11-hour hostage crisis on August 23, 2010; and the 0 km marker…also serves as the point of origin or Kilometre Zero to all other cities in the Philippines.
Wikipedia

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Luneta's green space

There are several beautifully lush green and grassy areas, something I realize I took for granted back home and a fairly rare site in my current neighbourhood.  Like the previously mentioned Stanley Park in Vancouver, stepping into the massive urban park washes away much of the relentless commotion and surrounding noise that can begin to wear on you.  For the first time in a long time, I take a long, deep breath and can’t taste the diesel in the air.

Rizal Park

Carriage tours for Luneta and Intramuros

We get a few offers to hop on a horse- drawn carriage tour of the park and bordering Intramuros area.  He likes me he says, and will offer me a discount from the insane 1800 pesos rate he pencilled on the brochure in his hand. Intramuros is another area I want to reserve a whole day for and I’ve had several recommendations that there is only one person you want to take the tour with; Carlos Celdran.  More to come on that tour very soon….

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Rizal Monument

THE RIZAL MONUMENT

Chaya and I follow the park east towards the monument that holds the remains of José Rizal himself. Made of bronze and granite, this mausoleum and monument is constantly manned by ceremonial soldiers, the Kabalyeros de Rizal (Knights of Rizal).

The area around the towering tribute is chained-off to keep people at a respectful distance, but it’s still a pretty impressive structure and definitely worth a few pictures.

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A serene escape

JAPANESE GARDEN

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Japanese Garden

From the Rizal Monument we head towards the small and well landscaped Japanese Garden located inside the park.  Along with the nearby Chinese Garden, it was built as a way to promote tolerance and friendship between the two countries. The entrance fee is only a few pesos and well worth it to see some authentic Japanese architecture and landscaping.

There is a simplicity of this style of garden that I’ve always appreciated.  Having a serene escape that so closely borders a busy street is a testament to the calming nature of the park and Japanese gardens in general.  As the clouds begin to roll in and shroud the park in a grey and gloomy overcast sky, the bright and vibrant colours of the grounds that surround the peaceful pools of water are a welcome treat.

 

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Rizal murals outside the entrance

RIZAL EXECUTION GROUNDS

We finished the walk around the tranquil garden and it’s on to the grounds depicting the final standoff where the national hero José Rizal was executed in 1896 by a Spanish firing squad.  The entrance to this area offers a glimpse into what to expect with some very interesting three-dimensional murals at the entrance wall.  Also located just outside the entrance is the famous poem written by Rizal on the eve of his execution and inscribed on the wall entitled “Mi último adiós” (my last farewell).

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Mural

Passing the murals at the entrance and entering the grounds offers a pretty surreal scene of ten foot tall statues depicting Rizal’s execution and people who were important throughout his life portrayed in various smaller scenes surrounding the main grounds.

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Execution of Jose Rizal

LAPU-LAPU

Leaving the execution grounds and heading west takes you to the towering monument of Lapu-Lapu, a hero famed for leading Mactan warriors in the resistance against the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.  Against more advanced and deadly weaponry Lapu-Lapu and his troops killed many of the invading forces including Magellan himself. His story is commemorated with a massive 40 foot statue (another was erected in his birth province of Cebu) and was undeniably the most popular attraction in the park when we visited.

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Lapu-Lapu standing tall at Rizal Park

Our day ended with a drive back down Roxas Blvd. as the sunlight faded in the distance. The overcast skies unfortunately didn’t offer much of a sunset, but the lights up and down this stretch were still worth taking in after nightfall.

Here’s a short slideshow of pictures taken from my visit to Rizal Park.

Enjoy!

Rizal Park, posted with vodpod
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Filipinio Hospitality 101

It’s my girlfriend’s lolo’s birthday and the whole family is gathering for an epic family feast….and I’m invited!!!  If you’ve never had the privilege of being a part of a Filipino family gathering, you’re missing out.  The moment I step into the house I’m greeted with friendly smiles and the smells of all the early morning hard work coming from the kitchen.  Some of the titas are still in their PJs and have formed an assembly line pumping out delicious goodies I can’t wait to devour.

Here, like any good Filipino house I’m told, the kitchen and dining areas are the centres of activity where everyone gathers.

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The crowd gathers

Along with all the aunts, uncles and new friends is the newest addition to the family, baby Alab who is one month old today as I write this.

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Alab and his tita

Everyone is starting to lick their lips and hover around the table, but in typical Filipino courteous fashion, won’t sit down to say grace until I’m seated first.

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Should have worn my stretchy pants

The spread is so colossal that the dining table can’t accommodate it and two smaller tables in the corners are used as additional buffet space.   With lots of new faces and names to remember, my palms are starting to get sweaty.  It’s always a little nerve-wracking meeting your in-laws for the first time.  Luckily for me  this is not a formal or uptight gathering.  I’m immediately put at ease when we sit down to eat and the noise level goes way up with the laughter filling the room as everyone teases and jokes with each other.

The young man across from me is getting light-heartedly pummelled by his girlfriend’s mom as he tries to earn his stripes and maybe win her favour a little.   I’m just happy to have another target taking the focus off me.  I had nightmares the night before about an intense round-table interview process that ended with me sobbing and hiding in the bathroom.  Thankfully, not unlike my house, a good sense of humour and ability to speak up are the keys to survival at this table.  Also working in my favour is the fact that I happen to possess a bottomless stomach, which gains me immediate acceptance, or at least a few approving nods, as I get up to load and polish off my third heaping plate.  I literally can’t eat another bite until the fresh lumpia tray passes me again.

“Maybe one more,” I say as I grab another three and round off my total to an even dozen.

Ok, now I’m too stuffed to breath.  Nothing a cup of coffee won’t fix as they pull out the desserts.   Sweets are my kryptonite and the grin on the face of Chaya’s tita Ellen reveals that she may know this.  I just can’t resist trying a piece……..of all three.

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The only one with more chocolate on their face than me

What started as lunch has stretched into mid-afternoon and even with the fans blasting, the heat of the sun is permeating into the house.  It’s a race for comfortable seats as belts get unbuckled and eyelids start to sag.

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Not everyone was excited to see me...

I sneak into the kitchen to wash my plate but get chased out immediately, so I head outside to grab a little fresh air.  I can hear the soothing sounds of Jack Johnson playing somewhere.  I round the corner and find one of Chaya’s uncles nestled comfortably in a hammock.  This spot, with the palm trees shading the softly swaying hammock and surrounded by a lush garden with the music serenading him to sleep, is picture perfect and I’m tempted to ask if there’s room for two.  Filipinos have this down to a sweet science.  Eat until you want to explode, then find solace from the heat with a peaceful afternoon siesta.  I feel like I could sleep for days so we say our goodbyes and head home after a wonderful day.

Filipino hospitality is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it.  You’re treated as a special guest, although they would never embarrass you by saying so.  It’s not something specific that is said or done, but a warmth and generosity that is inherent and absolutely genuine.  When you’re thousands of miles from home and surrounded by people you’ve never met, but still feel like you’re with family…nothing beats that.

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Proud New Parents

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The Sidcor Sunday Market

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My brief time in Manila so far has been pretty squarely focused on food.  No surprise there!  There’s an amazing variety of restaurants and eateries catering to all tastes and budgets here, many of those options cheap enough to reconsider any half-hearted thoughts of meal preparation at home.  My appetite for new and exciting flavours often leads me out in search of local delicacies and dishes to sample the way they were intended, rather than firing up a hot stove and trying to recreate them in my stuffy kitchen.  After a week of Filipino family feasts and the endless supply of great food spots my girlfriend and her cousin seem to know, the stove remains merely for show.   A glance into my fridge brings back memories of my first bachelor apartment.  Should I have stale beer or mayonnaise for dinner?  Time to go shopping.

The selection at the massive supermarkets in the mall and hotel near my apartment (SM Mega and Shangri-la) is decent.  There is an abundant supply of fresh seafood, something sorely lacking in many areas of Vancouver despite it’s oceanfront location.  Vancouver groceries do however offer something these stores seem to lack…..affordable organic produce!  The selection for the most part is either really limited or ridiculously expensive.  The heartbreaking news that mangoes and papayas are out of season doesn’t offer any consolation. Endless rows of cookies, snacks and even a whole section dedicated to MSG but not a single organic avocado for miles.  The meat selection on the other hand is excellent, as are the prices, with the exception of some organic New Zealand lamb that rivals the price of a new motorcycle and makes my jaw drop.  Luckily Chaya knows a farmers market that runs the next day so I decide to wait until tomorrow and see what it has to offer…..

It’s a warm and sunny Sunday morning and we hop on a waiting tricycle for a speedy ride to the MRT station near our condo.  The rapid transit system that ushers thousands through Manila every day, normally packed airtight with commuters at all hours, is deserted.  Our view from the MRT zooming down EDSA, a major roadway, reveals that there are no bustling street corners, no crowded storefronts and, for the first time, I have an unimpeded view from very back of the train all the way to the front.  It’s eerily quiet.  Today Manny Pacquiao is fighting for the title and I’m told it’s as close to a national holiday as I’ll see before Christmas and maybe even more celebrated.  We’re en route to Quezon City to visit the weekly Sidcor Sunday market.

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Flanked by sizzling deliciousness on all sides

The market itself I found to be a wonderful combination of flea and farmer’s market.  It’s quite large and filled with a fantastic selection of everything from fresh fish, fruits and veggies to plants, clothes, home decor and even pets for sale.  The centre of the market is dominated by several rows of vendors offering cooked food items and the smell of meat simmering over the open grills is intoxicating.

 

I smile at Chaya to let her know my delayed appreciation for not letting me eat breakfast this morning.   I’m staring at her with wide-eyed anticipation, as if waiting for some sort of signal that it’s OK to go and start enjoying the food.  She wishes, I’m sure, that she had some form of tether or leash to control me as I’m bouncing up and down like an overly excited kid in a candy store. Luckily for her a good part of the market area is protected from the glaring sun with low strung tarps and ropes and  I nearly decapitate myself not paying close enough attention.

A strange sight catches my eye and I’m drawn to a nearby empanada stand offering my favourite treat wrapped with an unusual orange dough.  This I must try!! I was not disappointed with the sampling of another first for me, Vigan empanadas.  These heavenly creations, named after the area of the Philippines they’re native to, contain shredded fruit (papaya in this case) and chopped longganisa sausage topped with egg, then fried in oil.  Wow!  It’s so good that I burn my tongue on the first bite, but take another anyways knowing the fresh buko juice, a delicious drink make from young coconut, being offered in the stand behind me will ease my pain.

Chaya and I continue to wonder the aisles of vendors as I take in the sights, sounds and smells that make markets like this one worth visiting, when I come across a stand offering fresh goat products including cheese, milk and sausage.  I stop to chat with the vendors for Alamino’s Goat Farm who are passionate and proud of their products, especially the fact that they were the first to get fresh pasteurized goat’s milk into Manila supermarkets.  I love goat cheese and I’m very tempted to pick some up, but knowing our trip home is long and hot enough to end up with a puddle of goat’s cheese in my bag, I grab a bar of quality goat’s milk soap as a gift for someone on my Christmas list instead.  It’s now sitting in the soap tray in my shower and it’s soothing lather washes away all the guilt of claiming it for myself.   Sorry Mom.

We meet Chaya’s cousins and aunt who, just as quickly as they appear, vanish in opposite directions and return with armfuls of food to sample.  Too many to mention, but the spicy kambing (goat) dish that comes back with Chaya’s tita Luchie is a hands down favourite.  The beating sun is far too hot for Alab, the almost one month old addition to the family from Chaya’s cousin Dudz, and they head out leaving us to finish our shopping.  It’s time to hit the produce!

For the most part fruit and vegetable vendors are separated into two different areas. There is no shortage of either and the first two stands we see are a goldmine of fresh organic veggies. The motherload!

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The search for affordable organic produce ends here

Finally the selection and prices I’d been looking for.  We load up with a weeks worth of goodies that include monster carrots along with beautiful garlic and eggplant, then finish the tour of the market admiring the quality and variety of plants and flowers available on the way out.

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Pink Beauty

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Mickey Mouse Plant

I had to stop and ask the vendor about this strange and quirky plant I’ve never seen before.  She identified it as a “Mickey Mouse” plant, I’m guessing because of the cartoony hand shapes on the branches.  I thought it was really fun and different looking.

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Roaming the endless rows of greenery

This place is apparently one of the top spots in Manila to find quality plants and flowers and obviously no secret to the locals.  Wheelbarrows overflowing with plants of all kinds are whizzing out to waiting vehicles and returning to fill up again nonstop.

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Purple Orchids

The beautiful, vibrant colours of the flower shops surround us as we walk towards the exit.  The air feels noticeably cooler in this section and the wide array of sweet and fragrant smells fill my nose.  I find some really interesting plants and turn around to ask Chaya about one when I notice she’s disappeared.  I panic momentarily until I hear the unmistakable sound of…..dogs barking?  I know instantly I’m in trouble and confirm that suspicion as I approach the pet section to see her befriending a small puppy.  It takes all my negotiating skills and a reminder of the no pets policy in our building to escape the pet area empty-handed.  However, if you are in the market for a new family pet or maybe a new friend, there are lots of birds, dogs and even fish to chose from.

A great first visit with everything from the everyday to the exotic offered at the Sidcor Sunday market and I will definitely be back for more.

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Everything is better with a buddy

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