Road Trip Eats: Cagayan Valley

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home,” James Michener

Cagayan Valley is composed of five (5) provinces namely: Batanes, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino.  It lies in a larger valley in northeastern Luzon, between the Cordilleras and the Sierra Mountain Ranges.

Abuan River in Ilagan, Isabela

I’ve traveled this road countless times and for good reasons.  Besides serving as a jump off point to activities such as whitewater rafting and kayaking, Cagayan Valley’s allure includes beautiful mountain ranges that never failed to blow me away, unspoiled caves (except for Callao, of course) that begs to be explored, breathtaking sceneries along pristine rivers, historical churches, and good friends forged through the years.  Another important reason why I keep coming back is the food and here’s why.

The rugged mountain ranges greet you once you hit Nueva Vizcaya, also called the gateway to Cagayan Valley.  I’ve always looked forward to this part of the drive precisely because of the stunning mountains ranges of the Sierra Madre, the Caraballo and the Cordilleras that surrounds this province.  Truth be told, given that there are a lot to explore, I’ve never really set foot here except to pick up some gorgeous citrus fruits along the highway at Busilac, Bayombong– whatever is the sweetest and in season.

Satsuma from Nueva Vizcaya

The province has become known for its citrus fruits and oranges, which is available all year round.  Open even at the wee hours of the evening for the night travelers, the row of fruits stand at Busilac sells different varieties of oranges, which includes Perante, Valencia, Clementine, Satsuma, Pongkan, Washington Navel.  Other citrus fruits like Pomelo are also available when in season.  A bit on the tart side and not as sweet as the Davao variety, this yellowish variety is refreshingly juicy and best with salads and made as juice.

As you journey on, stop at Ilagan, Isabela (about 120 km from Nueva Vizcaya) for some really good suman (rice cake) called Inatata.

Wrapped in banana leaves as most sumans are but distinctly bundled in 10s.  But what makes this adorable mini suman a cut above the rest lies not in the packaging but in the product itself.

Made of glutinous rice, sugar, butter and coconut milk, somewhat like Biko but smoother and creamier in texture.  I must warn you, these little babies are so good, it’s hard to stop.  A bundle goes so quickly and before you know it, you’re so stuffed.

Once you reach the town proper of Ilagan, you’ll find a nipa hut (or is it a bamboo?) stall somewhere around the rotunda that sells Inatata for P25 a bundle.  Get a few bundles and a few more for good measure, then go across to a Jollibee to get yourself some coffee to go with the it.  You’ll thank me for it.

Make sure to save some for the road or for dessert after a plate of Pancit Cabagan at Cabagan, Isabela.  They say Feli-Cita’s serves the best in Cabagan.  This pancit has become the benchmark of all pancits for me.  Nothing so far is better than Pancit Cabagan, a medley of stir-fried fresh noodles, julienned cabbage and carrots, boiled quail eggs, and a generous heap of lechon de carajay.  Eaten with fresh onions, local soy sauce and calamansi… heaven.  What makes this so heavenly are the fresh al dente noodles – an apparent secret that may be hard to replicate.

I always have mine not in Cabagan but in Natan’s.  A small outdoor restaurant just outside the Tuguegarao Airport.  This simple pleasure I can have without having to do a road trip actually.  I often look forward to trips to the airport (whether arriving or departing) for I can have my fix of Pancit Cabagan at Natan’s.  Pancit Cabagan and Coke… need I say more?

Speaking of Tuguegarao – my base when I’m in the region and the gateway to Peñablanca where the Pinacanauan River flows.

It is one of my favorite rivers where just hanging out along the riverbanks for a barbecue lunch and some kayaking is enough to make me happy. Kayaking aside, it is also home to the circadian flights of fruit bats – a must-see spectacle when in the area.

Longganisa served at Casa Carag

When in Tuguegarao, I make it a point to bring home packs of Tuguegarao Longganisa for my stash and to give as gifts.  I’ve never met anyone who’ve tried this garlicky sausage and not love it.

Native Chocolate at Casa Carag

Another must have when I’m in Tuguegarao is their Tsokolate.  Four tableas (tablets) to a cup makes a perfect native chocolate drink – just thick enough with the right amount of sweetness.  Tsokolate, longganisa, eggs and garlic fried rice = a power breakfast courtesy of Tuguegarao.

About 65km further north on your way to Sta. Ana perhaps, is the town of Lal-lo.  Although it is recognized in history as once being the seat of the Diocese until it was transferred to Vigan in Ilocos Sur a long time ago, I know it as a town that makes the best milk candy I have ever tasted.

Better than the more popular Alcala milk candy, I swear.  Both made of carabao’s milk but somehow, the one from Lal-lo is softer and creamier with seemingly more milk.  Both are not too sweet but the Lal-lo specialty wins hands down.  The thing is, you won’t find it at the Tuguegarao airport where the Alcala milk candy abound.

So if you find yourself in Lal-lo by any chance, look for this sign along the road.  I promise it is worth the stop.

Once you reach Sta. Ana, head straight to the market for some fat, sweet crabs, lobster and the freshest fish.

Known as a game fishing mecca, the rich fishing grounds yield lobsters, octopus, yellow fin tuna, blue marlin and many more.  Freshwater fish, crabs and shrimps likewise abound in inland fishing grounds.

Best is to buy them at the market and have it cooked in a restaurant nearby for a fee.  We had ours cooked by JnJ Seafood restaurant along the Highway.

Ok, enough…

I’ll leave you with this for now but let this be a Part 1 as I document more good eats from this region.  A region still underrated and unnoticed in the tourism realm.   Its people, its natural wonders and its food keeps me coming back for more.


Abuan Whitewater Adventure

Credits: Papers by CC oh joy yuletide, Chrysanthemum, Crystal Wilkerson Polka dot 08, EP Life is Good;  Border by LivE WWSH Page border; Tag by Crustal Wilkerson SVC tag

We were back at Abuan River the next day and were given the option to be on a raft or a kayak.

As we navigated upstream to where lunch was waiting,

Our lunch (left) and the kitchen crew with Anton and Herbert (right)

I took note of the big rapids to assess whether to go down river alone (on a kayak) or with company (on a raft).

There were easy rapids but there were rough ones as well.  Rough enough to make us get off our banca and walk while the boatmen and guides pushed and pulled.

Few days before the run, the river was high with some strong rapids, which would make for a fun ride on a raft.  On the day of our run, the water subsided quite a bit albeit still strong enough for a fun, challenging ride on a kayak but tamer on a raft hence the choice.

In truth, I am not fond of falling into icy water on a chilly, cloudy day and falling off a kayak is a high probability especially on that one rough rapid so I opted to start the trip downriver on a raft and switched to a kayak when the rapids became tamer.

In between rapids, the water is as gentle and calming as a river can be.  Quite a scenic river, it was easy to appreciate the beauty and serenity of the river and its surroundings.

Many of the locals enjoy the river as much too.

Though it couldn’t conceal the remnants of a recent major typhoon, a result of the abuse done to its forest.

Definitely a great introduction to whitewater rafting and likewise a fun challenge for kayakers with some experience.

Useful Info:

Adventures and Expeditions Philippines, Inc. (AEPI)
Contact Person:  Anton Carag Jr.
Mobile: (63)917-5327480

Exploring Abuan River

I am not one to pass up a chance to an adventure so one February evening, I found myself on a bus with 2 other friends, en route to Ilagan, Isabela.  We were to test run an eco-tour package intended to preserve the Sierra Madre forest and wildlife.

Abuan River is located at the Northern Sierra Madre National Park — the widest remaining tropical rainforest in the island of Luzon owing to its rich and diverse ecosystem spanning from coral reefs to beach forests.

For decades the river has been the route of “bugadors” (timber haulers) to transport illegally cut logs from the forest to Ilagan.  To give these timber haulers and their community an alternative livelihood, World Wildlife Fund-Philippines (WWF-Philippines) together with Coca Cola Philippines and the local government of Ilagan identified the river as the next ecotourism destination with rappelling, waterfalls trek, kayaking and even seasonal whitewater rafting as potential activities.

Skillfully navigating our boat through rocks and (sometimes) strong rapids.

Skilled in the river, the “bugadors” were our boatmen, river and trekking guides while their wives were tapped to prepare the food.

Ladies in charge of lunch.

Two hours navigating through the rapids and rocks and we arrived at the start of the trail to Sulimanan Falls.  Getting there was an easy 30 minutes trek that passes through rivers, hills and grasslands.

At the end of the trail lies a 3-tiered falls.

First falls

2nd falls

Pool from the 2nd tier falling to the 1st tier

3rd falls where we had lunch

Getting to the 2nd and 3rd tier required a bit of scaling and bouldering with the help of ropes provided by AEPI, the outfitter tapped to develop the tour.  Lunch was prepared on the 3rd tier beside the falls.

Simple but mouth-watering!

That’s what I call innovation.   🙂

After lunch, the next agenda was to rappel down to the 2nd tier.

Getting into position:  Argel and Herbert — our belayers.

Not exactly my thing, I was not happy to learn of this but with a little prodding, gamely went along with the agenda.

I know that I am gradually overcoming my fear of heights when it took me perhaps only 20 minutes to muster enough courage to just go for the 60 ft. descent with only some distress and perspiration while at it.

S and I rappelling down.

Either that or I am getting better at throwing caution to the wind.

After witnessing a few of my rappelling jitters in the past, A gave me a big hug and told me he was proud of me. Heck!  I am proud of me.   🙂

Palanan On My Mind


palanan-on-my-mindCredits:  Elements – scarlet hells media- JScollabed 2, Sclengeman- Carnival tag 2; Papers – hroselli carnival paper – turquoise, mlima – carnival paper, mmartin carnival paper

Travel doesn’t get much rugged than this. This remote province is only accessible by cargo ship, light aircraft or a trek of several days across the Sierra Madre mountain range. We opted to fly.  In June 2002, we found ourselves exploring Isabela’s best-kept secret, Palanan.   There were lagoons so blue, they called it Blue Lagoon (haha!), we likewise hiked to a really beautiful cascading waterfalls (name escapes me right now), and endless stretches of white sand beaches in the middle of nowhere with hardly anyone except for some occasional encounters with Dumagats fishing.


Declared a wilderness area in 1979, the Palanan Wilderness Area is home to several threatened bird species including the Philippine Eagle. Still inhabiting the Palanan coastline, the Dumagat’s lifestyle is relatively unchanged because of the area’s remoteness.

Its inaccessibility is both a hurdle and a lure to adventure-seekers.  Nestled in the farthest eastern corner of the province of Isabela, bounded by the Pacific Ocean.  Palanan is what I call P.A.R.A.D.I.S.E!


Not only is it paradise, it has its fair share of history as well.  It was in Palanan that the Philippine-American war ended in Mar 23, 1901 when Emilio Aguinaldo was captured by American forces who gained access to Aguinaldo’s camp by pretending to surrender to the Filipinos.

An off the beaten path worth exploring.

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