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A taste of home: Biyaheng Nueva Ecija

When people ask me what to do in Nueva Ecija, I wouldn’t usually know what to tell them. I grew up in Cabanatuan City, the largest city in the province of Nueva Ecija with a population of 296,584, spending almost 13 years of my life there until I migrated to Manila for college. I would go home once or twice a year during holidays to spend time with my family. And since I grew up sheltered, mostly just home and school during my childhood, I have not had a chance to actually go around the province. Nowadays, what usually just reminds me of home is the home cooked food that my mom and my lolas would serve during meal times and celebrations. 

Every time my mom visited me in Manila, she would always bring a piece of my home town – the famous longganisa of Cabanatuan (skinless, garlic, or hamonado), buro or pink fermented rice, the sour oxtail soup papaetan, my lola’s home cooked dinuguan with loads of chopped sampaloc leaves, kapukan (a kind of sisig made up of boiled or fried pig ears mixed in mayonnaise and a lot of chili). But since I turned pescetarian almost a decade ago, my pasalubongs from my mom would be the famous cheese rolls and mamons from Cakeland, vegetables that I don’t usually find here like hagod (malunggay fruit) or katuray (an edible flower that is good as ensalada with chopped onions and tomatoes), and my usual request – minatamis na kalumpit (a kind of red sour berry which you can make into iced candy or fruit shake), or minatamis na kundol. Looking back, when I think of home, it always reminds me of food. 

Gen Antonio Luna Statue located at the Plaza Lucero in Cabanatuan City where he was assasinated
For the Holy Week, my friend asked me to bring her around Nueva Ecija and to visit some sites she’d see trending online. “Huh? ‘San ‘yon?” was all I could say when she called me for a road trip. “Akala ko ba taga dun ka?” my friend said, bewildered that I didn’t even know my own hometown. So, my Holy Week vacation turned into a series of road trip discoveries as I asked help from my childhood classmates, my cousins, and Nueva Ecija DOT to give me suggestions on where to tour my guest.   

If you take the Bulacan route during the Holy Week, you will pass by different churches and witness flagellants on the streets 
If you take the Bulacan route during the Holy Week, you will pass by different churches and witness flagellants on the streets
Nueva Ecija is the largest province in Central Luzon, dubbed as the “Rice Granary of the Philippines” since it produces the most volume of rice in the entire country. As of 2013, its registered population is 1,955,373. The province is divided into four congressional districts comprising 27 municipalities and five cities which makes it a province with the most number of cities in the Central Luzon region: Palayan City (capital), Gapan, Cabanatuan, Muñoz, and San Jose.

Historically, it was one of the eight provinces that rose against Spain during the 1896 Revolution, and the Novo Ecijanos’ bravery and heroism in the revolutionary movement are reflected as one of the eight rays of the sun in the Philippine flag. As made famous by the movie General Luna, one of the historical hotspots now is the Gen. Antonio Luna statue in Cabanatuan City that marks the location where the general was said to have been assassinated. The marker stands in Plaza Lucero and is located in front of St. Nicholas De Tolentino Cathedral. Thanks to the movie, the place is now frequented by tourists and if you visit now, the location is undergoing a facelift. According to the Cabanatuan Department of Toursim office, the rehabilitation is just on its first phase. 

Roadside Scenery

On a normal day without traffic you can reach Nueva Ecija from Manila in three hours, but during Holy Week – well, four to five would be good already. From NLEX, you can either take SCTEX then come out to TPLEX. Or if you want to have more sight seeing opportunities on the road, take the Bulacan exit. During my trip we wanted to visit as many churches on the road and get a view of penitents for Holy Week.  Bulacan was a good side route as you not only get to witness flagellants on the streets, you can at least pass by a few of the 25 Bulacan churches, old and new. On the side of the highway, you can buy street fare like chicharon, mais, and shellfish products like crabs, mussels, clams and suso from the stalls.

Captivating sunset at Minalungao National Park
After Bulacan, the first city that will greet you in NE is Gapan City. It’s famous for its Tsinelas Festival during August, where parades and dances are held on the streets together with a procession of floats decorated with slippers of all sizes. The place is also the site for the biggest and oldest church in Nueva Ecija – the Parish of the Three Kings which has been declared as the National Shrine of Virgen Divina Pastora. The miraculous shrine is heralded as the protector of the people of Gapan. From here, you can traverse the trail going to Minalungao National Park which will take you one and a half hour if there’s no traffic. But if you drive as slowly as I do, it will take one hour and 45 minutes to two hours. The park has been circulating in social media for quite some time as photos look amazing with its marvelous limestone formations amidst an emerald river. 

Minalungao National Park in General Tinio
 

Minalungao National Park is majestic, located at Brgy. Minalungao in the municipality of Gen. Tinio. The 2,018-hectare park boasts of 16-meters high limestone formations with calm water that runs from the Sierra Madre mountain range. I have been to so many parts of the Philippines and have seen protected areas and places where ecotourism is booming. I am saddened at what I saw in Minalungao National Park. The tour guides don’t know the significance of the place, the area is littered with plastic and debris that the guests left behind, the caves have been vandalized so much, and there is no briefing on what is allowed and not allowed when you enter the premises. People would even play music so loud you can hear Rihanna songs reverberating on the limestone while you trek towards the caves. I don’t think the bats need to hear “Work, work, work, work, work” in the background as for sure they are not aware how to twerk their butts. 

The influx of tourists in Minalungao National Park is getting higher every year
 

Visitor foot traffic last year reportedly reached up to a million. That’s a lot of tourism in the area, and THAT number deserves the attention of both DENR and DOT. This place should be tended to and kept pristine since it was established as a National Park in 1967. It is considered as one of the few natural gems of the North but cemented establishments built smack on top of the limestone mar the view, as well as the lack of discipline in keeping the area serene and peaceful. I can only hope that future generations could still witness its beauty. Sustainable development should be practiced here. 

Visitors can go up the caves to view the limestone formations in Minalungao National Park
In other parts of Nueva Ecija, other scenic attractions are hot springs, picnic groves, mountains perfect for hiking and waterfall on the mountainside. Before you leave the border of Nueva Ecija to reach the province of Aurora where Dingalan beaches are frequented, you may drop by in Gabaldon and experience dipping in the cold water coming from the mountainside. Gabaldon Falls is perfect for picnics with the 10-foot waterfall amid the green forest and rock formations. If you opt to stay overnight, head to Stone 8 Resort where you can rent rooms or an entire house cottage for a day or for a few days. The resort facilities boast of expansive swimming pools with slides and dinosaur sculptures perfect for families with kids. The water comes straight from the mountains so it is cold when you take a dip. During summer and Holy Week, the place tends to be so crowded so it’s best to book ahead. If you’re more into a day trip, you and your family can enjoy cottages at Dupinga River with its calm but heavy rapids of running water straight from the mountains of Sierra Madre. Here, you can rent hut cottages built by the indigenous Dumagats. 

Inside the caves, you will see a lot of vandals on the limestone formations
If you’re heading towards Baler, you will definitely pass by the impressive Pantabangan Dam, the second largest dam in Asia which generates 112 megawatts of hydroelectric power. The dam’s expansive lake is enveloped by the picturesque view of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Fishermen sail their boats to catch fresh water fish like tilapia, carp, and snakehead murrel, which they sell at a low price by the lakeside. Because of its thriving marine life, Pantabangan Lake is also home to sports fishing especially by visiting foreigners. 

Rice and Aldub nation

Another popular hotspot in NE is the now popular Aldub rice paddy formation. An hour and a half away from Cabanatuan City is The Science City of Muñoz, where the Philippine Rice Research Institute conducts research and development studies on the current situation of the rice farming sector. After FutureRice program leader and PhilRice deputy executive director for administrative services and finance Roger F. Barroga learned about the paddy art in Taiwan, he then had the idea of creating these artworks to get the younger groups’ attention and make them interested in agriculture and farming in this day and age. 

PhilRice's 'Aldub' rice paddy  art in The Science City of Muñoz gets the younger crowd's attention
Basically the idea is like transferring a photo in a cross-stitch canvas where a photo is enhanced on Photoshop and divided in parts to outline specific fields. It took a few teams of people one whole day to create the iconic Aldub image with two varieties of rice, one green and one purple. Last year, PhilRice started with the rice paddy art of Dr. Jose Rizal, but it didn’t get as much traction and media exposure as the Aldub rice. These rice paddy art projects are just one of the many projects from the “FutureRice Program” that aims to prepare farmers for the future scenarios of rice farming in the Philippines. The five-hectare facility of FutureRice is the first rice-based agritourism site which has rice paddy art, rice straw art, and kayaking facilities, and more will still be under development in the coming months. “All these projects are geared towards the vision of creating a place in which when people visit, especially farmers, they will see the wide array of rice farming innovations that they, too, can do in their own fields,” explains Jan Lois Zippora A. Libed, communication specialist from FutureRice Program. “At the same time, we also want the youth to be aware of the interesting opportunities in rice farming – a cause inspired by the fact that the average age of farmers is 57 and that less and less young people are into farming.” 

Two variety of rice is planted together to create the paddy art
The Aldub rice paddy art can be viewed until today, when they harvest the crop, it will look the same as any other rice but will be called #AldubRice. In the coming months PhilRice is still cooking up a new rice paddy art, so be sure to get updated by visiting them on Facebook at FutureRice.  

After checking out the paddy art you may drive further for more than 30 minutes down to the Philippine Carabao Center, the center for development on carabao livestock and animal technology. Within its compound is Milka Krem, an infrastructure supporting the local farmers for products sold in the commercial market. Here visitors can buy dairy products made from carabao’s milk available in pasteurized and homogenized milk bottles in different flavors, yoghurt and different kinds of cheeses. There is also a delicatessen that sells pastillas de leche, sylvannas, cakes and different pastries.    

Food Trip Stories

Cabanatuan City reminds me of food from my childhood, and coming home definitely meant gaining a few pounds (gulp!). With the influx of people going to Baler and Dingalan, Aurora during summer especially the surfing season, visitors can’t miss the allure of the city’s gustatory offering. 

Milka Krem facility where you can buy fresh Carabao's milk in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija
Products from Milka Krem
 Ihawan by the strip of Burgos in Cabanatuan City
 Crispy Liempo is sold in all the grillers in Burgos
Sheila Hilton, one of the oldest gotohan in Cabanatuan City serves Goto, Papaet, at Bulalo
Once you reach town, you’ll be surprised at the many tricycles on the road. Here, they are king as the place is still the undisputed Tricycle Capital of the Philippines. So many businesses have sprung in different parts of the city and the landscape is a mesh of old and new. I was shocked when my mom asked me to shop for grocery in Robinsons, Waltermart, and now the newly opened SM City. When I was growing up, it was just shopping in NE mall and its grocery stores. Along the strip of Plaza Lucero, you can still buy bibingka and puto bumbong everyday, 24/7, no need to wait for Christmas. In the streets of Burgos, grillers offer grilled hito, liempo or chicken and you may get them from Kalahi or Mayets which have been there since I was a kid. Along the side of Freedom Park in Del Pilar, comfort food like goto, papaetan, and bulalo can be bought day and night. Since 1995, Shiela Hilton gotohan has been there, starting out with a few tables but now boasting two restaurants in the area. For pasalubong, a hidden shop in Kapt. Pepe beside the Iglesia ni Cristo church is the busy pastry place called Cakeland. Here you can have the delectable boxes of cheese, mamon, yema and ube rolls, and so many other pastries.

Infront of Plaza Lucero, you can get Puto Bumbong and BIbingka everyday 
 Cakeland Ensaymada and Cheese Roll
 

Cakeland is usually crowded during the summer as visitors always drop by here to buy pasalubong 
One of the most famous establishments in Del Pilar is Vicentico’s, (now Hapag Vicentico’s), named after the family’s patriarch, Engr. Jose Vicente “Tico” Salazar Jr. The restaurant started as an abandoned old residence where the family just stored all their equipment from their old food restaurant. When they closed their old business, they would hold private lunches or dinner with just a few family friends. Word went around and people started to ask for their dishes. A decade after, the restaurant now has two other branches in SM MegaCenter and the newly opened SM City. It is run by Pia Salazar-Gutierrez, a third generation member of the family. The design of the place is a reminiscent of an old Filipino house with a lot of antique designs courtesy of the collection of Pia’s mother. The place is picturesque and people travel all the way to Cabanatuan to feature it as a background for pre-nup photo shoots especially if themed as Filipiniana. Framed on the walls are tear sheets of different features from newspapers and magazines in the country. The place became famous to travellers when Kris Aquino featured the restaurant on TV. Since then, different media outfits have been frequenting the place, even inviting Vicentico’s all the way in Gapan during the Tsinelas festival. 

Hapag Vicentico’s, ang hapag kainan ng bawat Novo Ecijano
Hapag Vicentico's Crispy Pata
 

Hapag Vicentico's Salted egg rice, Kilawing Puso ng Saging, Samu't Saring Ginataang Gulay, Adobong Pusit 
The menu is composed of many comfort food that Pia grew up with as a kid. Even the way the longganisa is served is how her lola would serve it to her – split open in two with slices of tomatoes on the side. Famous are their Crispy Pata, Chicharong Bulaklak, Kilawing Sugba (like fish and turf, it has fried meat on top of kilawing tanigue). My personal favorite was the Adobong Pusit with its sweet barbecue taste, Samo’t Saring Ginataang Gulay, and their Salted egg rice – an order serves three people and I think I ate half of it, burp. For panghimagas (dessert), interesting on the menu is the Caraleche flan (the carabao milk is supplied by local Milka Krem), halo-halo special and a childhood street food, karioka. The menu is composed of Novo Ecijano local dishes mixed with some Bisaya cooking influenced by Pia’s lola. If you’re travelling with a group of friends or visiting with your family, you may want to try any of the two packaged menus composed of all their award-winning dishes, and the other one with customers’ favorites which serves up to six people for only P1,500. The place is also a perfect venue for company gatherings, birthdays or special occasions. During our visit, so many buses were parked near the area. According to Pia, these are company tour groups visiting the restaurant. With the influx of Holy Week visitors, they served food in full seating even until 9:00 p.m.

My Holy week travel buddy Nj Torres, Pia Salazar-Gutierrez owner of Vicentico's, and your editor at Hapag Vicentico's in Nueva Ecija
I was only able to visit these sights and sites during my four-day road trip; it didn’t even cover the many festivities that happen in different districts. But, in my 34 years of existence, this has been the most memorable visit to my hometown. Not only did I get to see Nueva Ecija’s hidden treasures, now I can finally say, tara ililibot kita sa Nueva Ecija! 

For comments, and topic suggestions, you may email me at [email protected] For my crazy life’s adventures follow me at @tatumancheta on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.

Topics: Nueva Ecija , holyweek 2016 , vacation
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