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Bacolod Guide: What to see, eat and do in the City of Smiles

Never have I met a city so mindful of its history as Bacolod, or people so proud of their heritage as the Bacolodnons. On my first trip to the City of Smiles, I would encounter several locals who would take me back in time, as we explore ancestral homes and churches, drive through its famed sugarlands, and sample — a grave understatement — the homegrown cuisine. 

AirAsia, which now flies thrice daily to Bacolod, took us on a three-day tour around the city. Onboard the inaugural flight, we were served a pre-welcome meal of chicken inasal, a barbecue recipe that originated from Bacolod City. Touchdown was, as traditional maiden flights go, met with a water salute, just as we were when we arrived in the city. It rained on the final night of this year’s Masskara Festival, but the party continued both on along Lacson Street and indoors, in neighboring establishments such as Aida’s. Post-pechopak and post-rain, I explored the street briefly (okay, it was a convenience store run), and watched umbrella-toting festival-goers celebrate the last night of Masskara. Back in my room at Avenue Hotel, I was lulled to sleep by the muffled tug-tugs that seeped through the airtight windows. The next day, and the next few days after that, would be filled with tales of the good old days, preserved in centuries-old structures and through the gifted storytelling of Bacolodnons.

GRIN AND BEAR IT 

There is a bittersweet history behind Bacolod’s famous nickname. Unlike Thailand, which is sometimes called “Land of Smiles,” the origin of Bacolod’s monicker is not quite as straightforward. According to our tour guide, Raymond, it all started with a sinking ship — or rather, two. On April 22, 1980, tragedy struck when the MV Don Juan, a luxury liner, sank near Maestro de Campo, somewhere in Mindoro.  It collided with an oil tanker that left a massive hole on the front side of the vessel. Raymond tells us, it was 11:30 p.m. when the ship started sinking, while a combo played a disco song called “Born to be Alive” in the background. Hundreds of people died. On top of this, the sugar industry was on a decline, with importers buying cheaper alternatives elsewhere. Some lost their families, some lost their jobs, others, both. 

This was when the Negrenses decided to put on a happy face in the face of adversity, organizing the first festival of smiles, now popularly known as the Masskara Festival. Created on Oct. 19, 1980, it is now annually held every fourth Sunday of October and is hailed as one of the most colorful festivals in the world. 

According to the city’s famous mask maker, Jojo Vito, who owns what is known as Bacolod’s “House of Masks,” earlier masks were made of paper mache and did not fare so well against the elements. Now the face is made of plastic, a lighter base that allows for more ornaments. Today, there is also the Electric Masskara, a lights show and parade of floats that takes place during festival week.  

Time, it appears, has not diminished the original Masskara’s purpose. Seeing locals and tourists flock to the streets, it was clear that the Bacoldnons and the “maskara” have somehow become one, defiant in the face of roadblocks, whether it’s a little rain or an economy on decline. 

RUINS OF A LOST LOVE

Dubbed as the Taj Mahal of Negros, The Ruins in Bacolod was also born of a tale of loss. Built by Spanish-Filipino sugar baron Don Mariano Lacson on a 440-hectare sugar plantation in Talisay, The Ruins was once a 10-room mansion erected in remembrance of his wife, Maria Braganza, who had died suddenly after suffering the miscarriage of their 11th child. It was burnt down during World War II by guerillas, but its solid foundation of sand, cement and egg white, withstood the attack. 

Designed by an Italian architect, The Ruins features four neo-Romanesque columns, all of which are still intact. Engraved on each post are letter M’s, for Mariano and Maria. The fountain was built after the entire mansion was finished.

INSIDE THE HOME OF A PERSONAL HERO

Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, noted writer, cultural historian and food critic, was also my favorite college professor. She had an anthropological approach to writing that blew my mind, and her class, “Writing About Culture,” taught me the value of observing the world as a writer. Walking into her ancestral home in Silay, now geotagged Casa A. Gamboa, was almost like getting to know her.

The large kitchen was not a surprise — she had an understanding of food that went beyond ingredients and taste, but as something deeply tied to tradition and family. The ancestral house also now houses the Silay Export showroom, which is managed by the late professor’s niece, Reena Gamboa.

A MATRIARCH’S MANSION

The 18-room ancestral house of Efigenio Lizares and Enrica Alunan clan is a must-see in Bacolod. Built in 1872, it came fully equipped with the necessities of the times, particularly the late 19th century — peepholes, trapdoors, secret spare rooms and such. The classical bahay na bato has withstood foreign conquerors as well as everyday tribulations, like unwanted guests and jealous rival families. Now a museum called Balay ni Tana Dicang, it is one of the most preserved ancestral homes in Negros, with the original furniture and paraphernalia, from the bench where Tana Dicang sat with Manuel Quezon and Sergio Osmeña, to the matriarch’s hairbrushes and vanity mirrors. A tour around this magnificent home is like a journey back in time. 

THE 1950s ANGRY CHRIST

It’s a proper chapel with a catchy nickname, one which today might be considered, in Internet terms, “clickbait,” however the Chapel of Saint Joseph the Worker’s history makes it worth the trip. A private chapel located inside the Victorias Milling Company, one of the largest sugar refineries in Asia, the Church of the Angry Christ got its nickname after the image of Jesus Christ depicted on the front area of the chapel. The mural, painted in 1950 by Filipino “Monuments Man” Fredric Ossorio, son of Victorias Milling owner Alfonso Ossorio, shows an image of Christ unlike the usual, as well as Jewish touches such as the hidden Star of David, which can only be seeing from a certain vantage point inside the church. It is said that it was Alfonso’s sister-in-law who coined the nickname, once coming into the chapel while Fredric was painting, and noticing that Christ, indeed, looked angry. 

CANSI, CLEARLY

Our trip, an introduction to both the old and the new, included a lot of gallivanting from resto to resto. Visit the famous Aida’s, which also has a branch in Makati, for authentic Bacolod chicken inasal. For real Bacolod cansi, go to Eron’s Cansi House. Dine by the water at Melkens Floating Restaurant. Try squid fat at Aboy’s. Indulge your sweet tooth at Ann Co Cakes and order the Frozen Brazo. And finally, bring home a piece of Bacolod, or 12, from Bongbong’s, which makes piayas, napoleones, butterscotch bars, and more. 

ISLAND GETAWAY

With Lakawon Island so close to Bacolod, any visitor would find adding the day-trip to their itinerary worth the while. Going to Cadiz Port from Bacolod City takes about two hours, and the ferry ride to Lakawon takes about 15 minutes. Despite catching it during its period of renovation, with a few common areas being built to make guests more comfortable, there was nevertheless a whole lot of beach space for lounging. Home to the famous Tawhai Floating Bar, Lakawon is a 13-hectare private beach near the Guimaras Strait and Visayan Sea. Tawhai is a floating bar that guests can take a boat to from the island to party, hang out or bake under the sun in. There is a minimal entrance fee, and outside food and drinks are not allowed. 

* * *

AirAsia now flies from Manila to Bacolod daily. ”We are excited to celebrate this milestone and to paint the Negros Island skies red. AirAsia’s presence in the region will make air travel more affordable not just for Negrenses but for everyone who wants to explore this part of the country,” said AirAsia Philippines CEO Ricardo P. Isla. Below is the schedule for Bacolod flights. For information, follow AirAsia on Twitter (AirAsia), Facebook (AirAsia) and Instagram (@AirAsiaFilipino).

Route                   Flight No.      Depart        Arrive        Frequency

Manila – Bacolod        Z2 603            8:20                9:40                Daily

Bacolod – Manila        Z2 604            10:10             11:30              Daily

Manila – Bacolod        Z2 605            16:05              17:25              Daily

Bacolod – Manila        Z2 606            17:55              19:15              Daily

Manila – Bacolod        Z2 607            19:40              21:00              Daily

Bacolod – Manila        Z2 608            21:30              22:50              Daily

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