What to do in Isabela, Philippines

Things are unspectacular in the country’s second-biggest province, but its sheer vastness will interest any traveler.

I was there for 3 days last week to cover politics and get some local color. The trip from Manila to Cauayan City, Isabela’s business district, takes 10 hours by bus.
I stayed at the Queen Jennifer Hotel Annex in Cauayan, which offers convenient access to public transport terminals going to other cities and towns. It’s also right next to a supermarket complex and Jollibee, so toiletries and food are just a second’s walk away.
It’s P900 plus per night in a standard airconditioned room, with a clean bathroom, a closet and TV. On my floor there’s even a KTV bar area, and a restaurant below.

The snooty reception desk staff also neglect to tell you there’s free breakfast when you check in. They only tell you about the freebie when you’re checking out.

Though it looks and feels like a motel, it’s pretty decent for my purposes–that is, to sleep or watch Sex and the City.
My room at the Queen Jennifer Hotel in Isabela

Commuting to places is no joke. Trips to neighboring towns by jeep, bus or public utility van can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

In some areas like San Mateo, PUVs stop plying their usual routes by 7 pm. If you’re stuck there at night, you need to look for a tricycle that will charge you P300 or above to get back to Cauayan City or Ilagan (the capital).

It’s mostly arid during the day so bring plenty of water. Though, I’m proud to say the dry spell was broken when I came. It rained for the first time in 6 months. I felt like a rain goddess.

High-end restaurants are few and far between. Canteens or food kiosks abound, the most famous of which are Ocho Rios and Felicidades. Be sure to try their pancit cabangan.
Fast food is limited to Jollibee, owned by the Albanos (a mini-political dynasty) and in some areas, Greenwich, owned by one of the Dys (the most powerful of the political clans there) and Chowking.

Meals like this for breakfast and late dinner. Haha!
Since I was on duty most of the time, I only got to see few sights while on coverage. You’ll mostly see agricultural lands while traveling as usual.
Sixty percent of Isabela’s population are farmers so it’s a common sight to see them winnowing rice beside the road. But times are very tough this year, as you can see by the almost dried up irrigation canals.
Don’t expect to see major tourist spots like malls or shopping centers, because these are few. But construction on the Northstar Mall, owned by the Puas, is ongoing en route to Ilagan. Otherwise, just enjoy the long commutes.

But I did get to see a few treats on the way, like Governor Grace Padaca’s palatial office in Ilagan. She shares it with a myriad of staff. Things are quiet there now, because everyone else is busy with the elections. You should see all the beautiful wood furnishings. It’s lovely.

And I was also invited to look around the guesthouse, built by the dynasty she defeated in 2004, right at the back of the provincial capitol.
It’s a bit rundown and minimally furnished, though it has a charming indoor garden. I was told Gov. Padaca’s staff were able to convince her to allow the place to be spruced up a bit for guests. This is where I got to interview her later in the evening.

Indoor garden of the provincial “guesthouse”

Me – melting in the heat, with Gov. Padaca
Also got to see the lovely mansion of the DYnasty, who are running against Padaca this year.
They’re okay as a bunch, just touchy about media seeing them hand out favors to people who come to their home and ask for assistance. They say it might be “misinterpreted” by other camps.
I also got a guided tour, courtesy of my uncle, of the tobacco buying and curing facilities of one multinational company based there. Here’s a picture of me with bundles of future cigars.

Here’s what they serve for dessert at the Reina Mercedes plant’s managers’ buffet:

Chocolate gelatin boobies with cherries on top!

I left after 3 days, and was pretty satisfied with the feedback that I got for my story. Isabela isn’t your run-of-the-mill tourist hotspot because the usual recreation expected by visitors aren’t there yet.

But maybe, give it time, when the local government amps up its efforts to make the province an eco-tourism destination, perhaps it would be nice to visit then.

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