For many travelers, the best part about a big, hectic, twelve-million-inhabitant Southeast Asian city like Manila is leaving it. But even for those with a taste for urban chaos, a day trip to the surrounding areas can provide a breathe of fresh air and a new dose of cultural perspective.
When I was picked up at my hotel for my Tagaytay Ridge Tour from Manila I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had the guide and driver all to myself. Having just arrived in the Philippines 48 hours before, I lapped up the historical sketches and enlightening anecdotes that the guide provided as we made our way out of Manila’s snarling traffic.
To break up the journey to our ultimate destinations of Tagaytay and Lake Taal, we made a few fun and kitschy stops along the way. The first was to San Jose Church, where devotees of both Christianity and bizarre instrumentals flock in order to hear the church’s infamous bamboo organ. Here, an employee of the church gave me a walk through of a small museum housed in a stone building that made me feel like I had been transported to old world Europe. The real highlight, however, was being brought out to see the 800-pipe organ itself, and being treated to a short private concert. I couldn’t decide what I found more impressive – the unique sound of such a familiar instrument or the fact that the organ has remained intact since its birth in 1816, surviving typhoons, earthquakes, and World Wars.
Next up was a taste of iconic Manila – a visit to a jeepney factory. A jeepney is the Philippines’ most ubiquitous form of transportation, and represents the country the way tuk tuks denote Thailand and yellow cabs bring to mind New York City. Jeepney factory is a bit of a misnomer actually, as new jeepneys are no longer being produced here. Jeepneys were originally made from US military Jeeps left over from World War II, and the ingenuity shown in restoring these extravagantly painted vehicles is inspiring. My favorite detail – apart from the colorful paintjobs that make the jeepney the subject of so many tourist photos – was seeing how new seats are made from vinyl stretched over shorn coconut husks. What a great example of using abundant local resources!
Luckily we were not in a crowded jeepney but an air-conditioned van for the remaining drive to The Palace in The Sky. This unique hilltop site is the former unfinished summer home of former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. The ruins feature a Greek-style amphitheater, a towering statue of Christ and panoramic views of Tagaytay Ridge and Taal Lake. Tagaytay is that breathe of fresh air you were looking for back in traffic-clogged Manila – cool breezes, rolling green hills and a much-needed dose of oxygen.
Back in the van, we wound closer to Taal Lake until we reached the perfect vantage point to eat lunch while gazing out to Taal Volcano, perched in the middle of the crater lake.
As if the views weren’t enough to satisfy, lunch was a fun sampling of Filipino specialties followed by my universal favorite course – dessert. While the bright, artificially flavored treats might not have called out to me had I been on my own, the encouragement of my guide and driver allowed me to identify some new favorite sweets! To top off the charming scene, a Filipino mariachi band serenaded each table individually.
The return to Manila flew by thanks to friendly banter, picturesque scenery and quick stops to see an orchid farm, a pineapple plantation and a coffee brewery. I was entertained to learn how beloved the Tagaytay area is by the Filipino people. While foreign tourists head to the beach, domestic ones head to the hills. And so after a day of vacationing like a Filipino, I found myself refreshed, recharged, and ready to take on Manila – one jeepney ride at a time.