The #Panagbenga2015 Experience

By Gillian Gacuma | Photo by Philippine STAR’s Andy Zapata Jr.

Baguio City, Philippines– Two decades of blossoming together, the city welcomed a large number of tourists from all over the country to celebrate the annual flower festival that is Panagbenga last February this year.

While most of us are aware that it’s a display of creativity of the locals, it actually started in 1995 as an initiative by Damaso Bangoet Jr. of John Hay Poro Point Development Corporation (JPDC) and Victor Lim of the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) to create a festival that the locals could own. It’s also envisioned to bring back the tourism growth in the city after the devastating 1990 Luzon earthquake.

One of the flower floats in Panagbenga 2015.

From then the festival grew to what it is today, a colorful display of resiliency and celebration of new life – like the flowers blossoming in full glory on the grand floats.

Aside from the much awaited grand float parade on Sunday and street dance competition the day before, I’ve listed awesome activities that I loved in Baguio during the festivities.

Doing the rodeo, yeehaw!

Few of us know that Baguio City was once a vast plateau of rancherias used by horse-riding Ibalois for pasturing their cattle.

Long before the Americans established the American Hill Station now called Baguio City, it was known as Kafagway where early settlers like the Ibalois used horses to trade livestock in the Old Stone Market and traverse the narrow mountain trails adorned with grassy plains and towering pine trees. The Ibalois are good horsemen,and with the arrival of the Americans the colonizers further enhanced this tradition.

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Pony boys rush to the finish line during the Pony Boys Day at the Athletic bowl in Baguio City.

The scenic trails were replaced by concrete roads and walks, and many years have passed but a group of horse riders known as the Wright Park Pony Boys’ Association continues to keep alive the tradition of horse racing and other western-style activities. So who says we need to travel all the way to Texas to see real life cowboys?

To those who missed this year’s festivities, Pony Boys’ Day will be held again at next year’s festivities. So ready your leather jackets and boots, dust off that cowboy hat and get ready to show some horsemanship and hop in line and dance to good old country music.

If you’ve not done something like this before, don’t worry – the pony boys will gladly guide every tourist through these activities.

Shopping like a local

You don’t really know Baguio if you haven’t discovered that the city is a haven for bargain shoppers. From clothes to fresh goods that are usually priced like gold here in the lowlands, Baguio thrives with thrift shops and trade centers. Indeed, the locals are lucky to have these blessings all within reach.

For us tourists, learning how to bargain for the best price is a must, as prices are usually high during these “cake times” in the city. Using some Ilocano terms helped us get the good deal, so awan tawad nan? No seller can ignore a persistent shopper, right?

Almost all the clothing brands in ukay-ukay centers are sold at very low prices. But keep in mind that most of these clothes and shoes are second-hand imports from our neighbors in Southeast Asia.

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Handmade warmers at Baguio City public market.

According to a study published by Ma. Rina Locsin of University of the Philippines Baguio, the term ukay-ukay was derived from the Filipino word hukay which means “to dig up.” Other terms also include wag-wag or “airing out” and “dusting off” a piece of clothing.

Night market scene during the festival.

Digging into shelves upon shelves of clothes and scrambling your way to different stalls with the thick crowd is one of the challenging yet fun part of ukay-ukay shopping, and finding a great designer piece for less than Php50 or a dollar is even more rewarding.

The most famous of all ukay-ukay centers is the one set up along Harrison Road from nine in the evening till midnight. If you aren’t feeling that adventurous, there are a number of thrift shops in Teacher’s Camp and Mines View Park that are open during day time.

The Camp John Hay Commissary has authorized retail stores of apparel and sports wear brands to sell discounted and sometimes ‘factory priced’ items.

For locally made pasalubongs, Mountain Maid Training Center or Good Shepherd is the right spot for the justifiably famous ube halaya and strawberry jams. The products are slightly pricey as their income will be used to fund the needs of their scholars.

Fresh goods at the Baguio City public market.

Located at the lower end of Session Road, the city’s public market is a hub for fresh produce of the Mountain Province and the center for souvenirs typical in Baguio. While making your way to the vegetable shops in the north wing of the market, one can easily get waylaid by the aromas of coffee and spices that waft from a shop that sells locally grown coffee beans and an adjacent store of various dried spices. This alley will surely awaken your senses. Come in the morning to pick up the best produce at the best prices. Oh – and bring your largest shopping bag and enjoy!

Because Eat’s More Fun in BAGUIO

One of the perks of discovering the city by foot is to go on a food trip, since the cool climate makes the appetite heartier and the eating more delightful.

My morning started with a cup of hot Rizal’s tsokolate-eh with brioche cinnamon toast along with other freshly baked bread at Cafe by the Ruins, which is known for tasty comfort food made from locally sourced ingredients. Highly popular, they just opened their first branch, Cafe by the Ruins Dua in Upper Session Road.

Located along Upper Session Road, Mario’s Restaurant’s pasta and pizza is something to look forward to during day time. While their caesar salad is famous, their pasta carbonara is divine, its creamy white sauce a well-balanced treatment of taste. Its old western house inspired interiors will make you feel like coming to grandma’s house.

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A street bazaar of food, flower and clothes during Session Road in Bloom, part of the month long celebration of the flower festival.

March 1 to 8 sees Session Road in bloom, when Baguio’s busiest road were closed for a week and stalls are put up for food, plants, art items, concert stages and everything in between. It’s the mother of all food and souvenir expos. I had a warm lhaksa with friend, freshly cooked chili cheese sticks and popular shawarma while roaming around looking for our next food target. Always be reminded that the crowd swells from the afternoon ‘til night, and be extra careful with your belongings as thieves see this as a buffet of opportunity.

We wrapped up our day-long tour around the city with a tasteful Chicken Salad and a glass of wine at Te Quiero Tapas Bar and Restaurant. Live acoustic bands add character to the Spanish inspired interiors and decor, making it an ideal place for romantic dates and family gatherings. The restaurant is located at Microtel Inn and Suites by Wyndham Baguio and adjacent to the Victory Liner bus terminal. Their

Go beyond the city center

Take Ben Palispis Highway and turn left to Santo Tomas Road, the scenic drive will take you to Mt. Sto. Tomas Ranger Station where you can view the entire Baguio City from literally above the clouds. Go very early in the morning so you’ll also witness the sunrise amidst the sea of clouds.

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Local highland farmers backdropped by Mt. Sto Tomas Radar station.

An hour-and-a-half drive from the city you will find the Halsema Highway to Atok, where the highest national highway can be found. Truckloads of fresh vegetables pass through this road, and you can actually negotiate with the farmers for some of their goods before they reach the city market.

Sun sets over the famed La Presa site in Mt. Sto. Tomas.

On your way back to Baguio you’ll pass Kabayan, Benguet where mummified early settlers inside caves can be visited. A local tour guide will take you on a picturesque 20-minute trek to the caves. In respect for the dead, I encourage you to keep your cameras away when they open the log coffins.

Those bringing their cars need not to worry about an empty tank as they roam around the city. Fuel stations are readily available around the city so you won’t miss an event. But I still advise that you leave your cars in the lowlands as traffic becomes really heavy to stand still during the big event.

No matter how you will spend Panagbenga next year, always be reminded that like any other tourist destination, Baguio is striving hard to make our time fun and memorable. Be responsible, bring out what trash you brought in, and treat the city as your second home.


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