The rainy days are back and it signals the end of happier days, much like an evil alarm clock forcing you to end your summer vacation dream in exchange for a long day at school or work. It’s quite a bummer and while it’s wise to veer away from thoughts of your next summer vacation, it still is worth a little of your time to make a note of places you might want to go to next. Besides, it’s never too late or too early to plan for summer. Maybe take a path less trodden… to a place that requires less expenses… probably a place like Camarines Norte.

Sure, the most logical summer destination in the Bicol region will be Camarines Sur, particularly because of the CamSur Watersports Complex (CWC). Hell, if you ask Google about the word “camarines”, it will butt in and suggest CWC right away. And with good reason. What can be more reassuring than their promise of providing your dose of adrenaline rush, “wind or no wind”. But setting your sights a little bit up north may have its perks, especially for the more adventurous ones.

Mercedes, Camarines Norte is a 9 to 11-hour drive from Manila. This municipality is composed of seven islands and the local government, seeing the enormous potential of each, could already be drooling at the thought of the myriads ways they can gear Mercedes up for tourism.

Nope, it’s not Lolong. It’s Crocodile Island.

Mercedes’ beach

Early mornings in Mercedes are always bustling with life with their traditional bulungan sa pandawan (literally whisperings or murmurings). This is when fishermen take their daily haul to the fishport, lay them on the ground and, sort of, auction them to local retailers or groups of tourists planning to have an epic ihaw-ihaw party, in a not-so coat-and-tie fashion.

Haggle all you want in Bulungan sa Pandawan. It’s legal.

We came in an hour late so maybe we missed the best parts. But here’s what we observed: people don’t actually speak in hushed tones during this morning routine, but neither do they speak like they’re in a game show: “PERA o BANYERA?” “BANYERA!!! BANYERA!!!”. Still, it’s an interesting sight to see, if only for the various, and often, unfamiliar sea creatures being sold here for human consumption: manta rays, eels, and swordfish,  most of them still alive and wriggling in their slimy splendor. Yum.

And city dwellers that we are, we can’t help but say “Wow…” at how low the prices can go if you play your cards right during the bargaining. To think that in our wet markets, freshness is directly proportional to the price per kilo.

Lots of choices here. All guaranteed fresh from the sea.

Sold!

Highlighting our stay in Mercedes is their Easter event called “Orogmahan sa Baybay” (merrymaking by the shore).  The whole-day festivities include an Easter Egg Hunt, water sport competitions like skimboarding and kayak surfing, and getting drunk senseless by the seashore.

Easter Sunday marks one of Mercedes’ summer highlights, Orogmahan sa Baybay.

A friendly reminder: Don’t drink and umm…surf. Seriously, don’t. Mercedes’ beach directly faces the Pacific Ocean, the mother of all our typhoons and tropical depressions. And while the waves can push you with significant force, they can pull you away from the shore just the same… even when you’re perfectly sober.

Locals dodge the waves by backflipping.

However, the white waves manifest just a few meters near the shore which makes Mercedes an excellent spot for skimboarding and kayak surfing. For skimboarding, most of the people here bring their own. Skimboards are available at P3000 – P20,000 depending on the quality. We’re not quite sure if there are skimboard rental shops in Mercedes but if you’re glib and charming enough, you can talk your way into a free skimboarding lesson from the friendly locals. We believe that the amusement of seeing tourists getting trampled by the waves will be just compensation for their trouble.

As for kayak surfing, equipment can be rented for P200 an hour which you can then split two-way since a kayak can seat two people. Included in the fee are the kayak, two life vests, two paddles, a crash course lesson about kayak surfing for beginners, and the assurance that you’re going to be fine and that someone out there will look out for you and whoever’s going to be your kayak surfing partner just in case something happens. The tourism office itself rents out the kayak equipment so don’t worry about getting ripped off. Just time your activity during high tide (around 8-10am and 4-6pm) and see if you can ride the wave pattern notorious for tipping most kayaks over colloquially known as a singko-siyete, wherein five small waves are followed by seven big ones.

Ride these waves. We dare you.

The locals yawn at these waves. They speak of bigger ones during the “-ber” months.

Fortune smiles at us: free kayak surfing clinic!

Locals show us how it’s done.

During our stay, the tourism office offered a free kayak surfing clinic to everyone who’s willing. Of course, we (or at least one of us) were more than willing because almost everything sounds better when there’s the word “free” attached to it.

That girl seated in front of the kayak got her wish.

So if you do plan to visit Mercedes, get ready to get your feet wet and everything else above them.

Before Eating, Say Grace-land

                Our dining experience in Mercedes was a bit uneventful. When we asked the tourism officials for the best place to eat, for some reason, they can’t name one at first breath. Maybe because it was Good Friday and they didn’t expect most of the restaurants to be open that day. They just told us to go to Cam Norte’s capital, Daet, and maybe we’d find what we were looking for. We took our chances, because really, just how empty will a trip be if one does not have a certain restaurant or food to remember it by?

Luckily for us, there was one. And its name can never have been more appropriate for the situation. Graceland.

And then the angels started to sing from nowhere.

In the more urbanized parts of Bicol, when you see a Jollibee branch, it’s almost always certain that a Graceland Baker’s Plaza branch is nearby. It’s quite popular here because it has successfully fused fastfood with Bicolano cuisine.

Pastries in a fastfood diner? Why not? It’s Graceland  Baker’s Plaza, after all.

Or maybe that’s just what we wanted to believe. Some say it’s because of the mascot courtesy of this blog.

They’ve got the regular chow you’d find in fastfood chains like burgers, fried chicken and spaghetti…

…as well as not so regular ones like Bicolandia’s laing…

… and we forgot what this one was called.

According to some of our Bicolano friends, Camarines Norte ain’t quite tourism-ready, yet. And from what we had seen in Mercedes, unfortunately, it’s true. We loved its waves but we didn’t quite dig the bushy growth and the poor waste management on the beach. Here, we didn’t get to taste the flavors of Bicol nor were we ecstatic about the comforts of our hotel room.

But you won’t really visit Mercedes or the other underdeveloped parts of CamNor for the food or the lodgings or the extra-wide smiles of the locals who will do so just because you are a tourist. Part of its charm comes from its people who are not yet accustomed to a tourism-driven economy. You will not find anyone with a placard who will annoyingly linger around you to get you to stay in their resort. When you walk the streets, the locals will look at you with polite curiosity because they can tell that you’re from somewhere else just by looking at your clothes, your complexion, or maybe simply because yours is an unfamiliar face. But they’ll easily get over it long before you feel uncomfortable, because when they look at you, they don’t see a golden egg-laying goose.

And then there’s the fact that we have only seen just about 10 percent of Mercedes when there are lots of attractions here we wish we had the time to explore. There’s the bat sanctuary in Canimog also known as the “crocodile island”, camping in the white sand beach of Apuao, watching the fireflies dance beneath the balite tree of Mambungalon, bathing in Colasi Falls and drinking from Lanot’s natural soda water spring.

Oh wait. Did we just say natural SODA water spring? Yes, we did.

So yes, we will absolutely recommend having an affair with Mercedes next summer or the one after that. As for us, we will definitely go back for the things we missed the first chance we get and not a day longer. And we hope we get to do so while Mercedes is still the way she is when we first met her. If you want to meet her, too, you can contact Ms. Colen Ibasco 09472060301.