“Avatar’s Pandora is real and it’s here in Philippines!”

This is the thought that crossed my mind and dimly cheered it as we were silently sailing in darkness, suspended between two equally magnificent worlds: a starry sky above and a glittering sea below us.

Bio-luminescent plankton left a faint trail in the wake of the boat, while thousands of fireflies were blinking in unison in the mangrove trees around us. It was quite wondrous to feel this natural pulse of life, like a planetary heartbeat.[/one_half][one_half_last]If not for the approaching storm, we would have stood there in awe, slowly taking it in while remembering to breathe again. Muffled thunders occasionally shattering the silence and the dimming of stars were a good addition to this dreamy landscape, snapping us back to reality. Our time there was limited and we wanted to capture a few mementos before being chased away by a capricious nature.

But I digress from the story’s objective. By now you’re probably wondering where on Earth this place is and how can you get there to experience it yourself. The magic takes place in Donsol village, located at the southern tip of Luzon island. The plankton-rich waters in the area attract hundreds of whale sharks which congregate there between February and May. Locals call these gentle giants “Butadings” and they have an obvious respect towards the animal that helped transform their modest fishing village in one of Philippines’s top attractions.

And rightfully so, Donsol, famous for the whale shark interaction found its way into our two weeks itinerary through Philippines. Back then, Andra and I couldn’t have known that the whale sharks will elude us, but it was ok since we were treated with a different yet similarly stunning experience.

 

Just as the saying goes:

“it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, our adventure started a few days before the time described in the entry paragraph.

After a multiflight trip from Chengdu, the first leg of the journey got us to Manila. It is here where we got a first taste of the Philippines culture. Many folks would argue that Manila is one of the worst traveling places in Southeast Asia, but I will politely challenge that assertion. Granted, it’s a bustling city, overcrowded, cars are breezing through red lights, there’s plenty of pollution and overflowing trash. But, Manila has its own charm; and if you know where to look, there are hidden gems waiting to be uncovered. For once, people are relaxed, polite and overly-friendly (to the point of becoming annoying if you mistake friendliness with hassling). It probably takes a day or two to fully adapt to the city’s rhythm – and then the fun starts. If I were to choose just three attractions for a brief stay, they will be as follows:

1. The Manila Bay with its spectacular view: a blend between the city skyline and boats on blue water, under a blue sky.

2.The rainbow colored and excessively decorated jeepneys, which are the back bone of the transportation system. They’re a great way to explore the city’s attractions or do mall-hopping.

3. The food, especially anything that has “adobo” in its name. And since we’re talking about food, if you feel particularly adventurous, you should try the balut egg. It’s a hard boiled duck egg containing a partially developed embryo. The description may not sound particularly inviting, but it does taste surprisingly good. Understandably, Andra decided to stay away from it, but I can vouch for the taste

By the time we finally reached Donsol it took us 12h and required changing three buses. Everything hurt, but we got there right in time to catch the sunset – and the view alone was damn worth the effort.

As hinted in the beginning, the sharks were very few and hard to spot at that time of the year (late February). Two days after our arrival we went in search of butadings and spent four hours chasing them to no avail.

Upon returning to our lodging, slightly disappointed as one can expect, a newly made friend suggested the firefly tour. So we teamed up with a few other people and.. you know the rest.

We found out this way that Donsol has plenty more to offer besides whale sharks, and in the right conditions the firefly tour is an outstanding experience transcending expectations.

I remember that on the way back the rain caught up with us and – as we huddled in the small fishing boat under a tarp – you could see everyone’s faces brightened up by smiles. It was pitch black, we could only glimpse each other when lightning flashed across the sky or when passing near buoy lights, and we were a bit afraid because waves were getting stronger. Still, the fear couldn’t wash away the mix of positive feelings brought by nature’s almost surreal spectacle.

A wider selection of photos from this trip is available on Razvan’s site here.

 

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