Despite the rise of towering BPO and IT buildings and construction of highways, most places of Bacolod City in Negros Occidental are still planted with sugarcane. Even its name is derived from its terrain. Bakolod is an Old Hiligaynon/Ilonggo word for "hill, mound, rise, hillock, down, any small eminence or elevation." The sugarcane industry in Negros boomed in the 1950s but the Philippines' history with said trade started way before that.
The bittersweet sugarcane industry
It is believed that Arab traders brought cuttings of sugarcane from the Celebes and planted them in Mindanao. From these, sprouts were transported to the Visayas and Luzon, which later gave birth to sugarcane plantations in every Philippine region in the mid-17th century. By then, enough sugar was being produced that exportation has become an option. During the period between 1775 and 1779, the Philippines was the largest exporter of sugar in all Asia.
In 1856, the sugarcane industry in Iloilo, Bacolod's neighboring island, was solidified through the initiative of one Nicolas Loney, the Britanic Majesty's vice consul. His firm, Loney and Kee Co., supplied most of the capital for sugarcane growing through crop loans via the American house of Russell and Skurgis. A year later, Loney started to develop the Negros Islands' own industry through the same terms as with Ilonggo landowners and planters. Foreseeing the possible rise in economy and the less expensive land values in the virgin lands of Bacolod, prominent families and land owners exited Iloilo. Thus, the start of Bacolod's rise in the sugar market and its boom in the 1950s.
A festival born from a crisis
Three decades later, Bacolod was in the grip of crisis. The price of sugar plummeted and this gravely affected the province of Negros Occidental, then one of the biggest suppliers of sugar. As if to make things worse, a number of Negrense lives were lost when a passenger vessel collided with another inter-island ship on April 22 of the same year.
Instead of going through a period of mourning and depression, the shattered city decided to unveil a festival of smiles to lift their spirits, raise their morale, promote their tourism, and, hopefully, reclaim their lost economy.
Thus the Masskara Festival—portmanteau of mass (English for “a multitude of people”) and cara (Spanish for “face”), as well as a play on maskara (Filipino for “mask”)—was born, and it has remained popular with tourists from all over the archipelago. For a few days, smiles and laughter would be plastered permanently on the faces of the Negrenses through gaudy masks. This was the response of the "City of Smiles" and the Masskara Festival was a declaration that no adversity could quash their happiness.
The culminating events of the Masskara Festival are held on the third weekend of October nearest October 19, which is Bacolod’s city charterhood anniversary.
Since then, locals and tourists alike visit the City of Bacolod for a whiff of its sugar-laced lands, infectious smiles, and days of merrymaking.
Aside from the colorful MassKara Festival, the provincial capitol and its nearby places have a lot more to offer—from stunning and historic destinations, to Sugarland's mouthwatering sweets, and to family-friendly vacation spots.
READ MORE: The Happiest Festival: MassKara Designs Through The Years
Where to Go
1. The Ruins
Often dubbed as the "Taj Mahal of Negros," the Ruins is what is left of the grand mansion owned by a Negrense sugar baron, Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson (1865-1948). The 903-square meter structure was built for his Portuguese wife Maria Braga whom he met in Macau.
The mansion was the largest residential structure ever built at that time and had the finest furniture, chinaware, and decorative items. It also once featured a beautiful garden of lilies and a 4-tiered fountain brought in from overseas.
Unfortunately, the mansion was burned down by guerilla fighters in the early years of World War II to prevent Japanese forces from sequestering it. The house that stood tall in the middle of a sugar plantation took days of inferno just to bring down the roof and wooden floors.
It is now one of the favorite destinations for photo shoots and special events. A small building, which houses a small cafe and a gift shop, has been added on the east side.
The Ruins is located at Hacienda Sta. Maria in Talisay City, 10-15 minutes north of Bacolod City. It is open from 8:30 am to 8:00 pm daily. Entrance fee is P50.
READ MORE: Why Any Ordinary Day Gets Extra Special at These Ruins
2. Pope John Paul II Tower
The seven-storey edifice commemorates the late Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to Bacolod last February 20, 1981. The tower was built in the area where he delivered one of his most powerful messages on behalf of the poor. The 706 square-meter lot was donated by Mr. Simplicio Palanca, the president of the Bacolod Real Estate Development Corporation (Bredco). It was put together in 2008 through the vision of Fr. Felix Pasquin.
The Pope John Paul II Tower houses a number of memorabilia like commemorative coins, the Papal Chair, his vestment, table wares, and photos of him contributed by supporters.
The uppermost portion of the tower gives a closer look of the 12-foot stainless steel cross that lights up at night and has a deck with a view of the Bacolod cityscape. It also hosted a viewing of the beatification of Pope John Paul II in Rome last May 1, 2011.
The Pope John Paul II Tower is located along Rizal Street near SM Bacolod. It is open from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm daily. Entrance fee is P20.
3. Church of the Angry Christ
Officially the St. Joseph the Worker Church, it is more known as the Church of the Angry Christ because of its famous mural. The chapel was a forerunner of liturgical reform prior to Vatican II. Completed in 1950, it incorporates modern design, both in the structure and the liturgical symbols.
Filipino, Mexican, American, and Spanish ethnic symbols can be seen in the mural, sculptures, and mosaic of the church as vehicles for worship. Another important feature is that the planks and bars on the ceiling can freely move back and forth through holes, which makes the structure earthquake-proof.
The Church of the Angry Christ can be found in the Victorias Milling Company Compound inVictorias City, further north of Bacolod City.
READ MORE: 3 Must-Visit Artistic Churches in Negros Occidental
4. Giant Carabao Sundial
Right outside the Church of the Angry Christ is a unique carabao statue that can actually tell time. The carabao sundial started out as school project: a structure that can be both functional (and has a purpose to the community) and beautiful (and serve as an art piece). A group of 12 seniors students of Don Bosco Technical Institute-Victorias from Shalom IV Class '76 accepted the challenge in 1975.
Through the assistance of the Victorias Milling Company, Inc. Management and with only an P11,000 budget, the seniors finished the 15-feet varnished copper a year later on March 20, 1976.
The Giant Carabao Sundial can be found in the Victorias Milling Company Compound in Victorias City.
5. Ancestral Houses
Silay City, the first city north of Bacolod, boasts more than 20 well-preserved ancestral houses and antique buildings. Most of these dates back in the early 1900s when the sugar industry in Negros flourished.
The houses once belonged to the sugar barons and prominent matriarchs of Negros Occidental, including Victor Fernandez Gaston, Digna Locsin Consing, Teodoro Morada, Jose "Pitong" Ledesma, Jose Corteza Locsin, and many more.
What to Eat
One of Bacolod's finest dessert is the napoleones, which is said to have originated from France where it is known as mille-feuill. The layered puff pastry has a filling of sweet custard cream. The top part has a thin layer of white sugar glaze, which is of course abundant in sugarland.
RECIPE: How to Make Napoleones
The people of Bacolod has perfected the art of making charcoal-grilled chicken. Nothing is thrown away as one can choose from the standard pecho (breast), pa-a (thigh), pak-pak (wings), atay (liver), baticolon (gizzard), isol (chicken rear end), tina-e (intestines), and adidas (chicken feet). From street stalls to restaurants, every dining place has their own "secret" recipe for the special chicken inasal.
RECIPE: Manokan Country's Chicken Inasal
3. Sweets from Calea
Being the sugar capital, Bacolod takes pride in their bakeshops and pastry stores. One of the most talked about and frequented spot is Calea Cakes and Pastries along Lacson Street.
Baklava has roots from the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire and the imperial kitchen of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The layered phyllo pastry with chopped nuts and syrup made its way to sugarlandia and it has now become a Negrense delicacy.
Variations have been made, such as the use of pili nut instead of walnut and almond, muscovado instead of refined sugar, and coconut oil instead of olive oil.
Baklava is being served at the Museum Café of Negros Museum, which is along Gatuslao Street in Bacolod City.
READ MORE: The Negros Museum: A Quick Way to Get to Know the Island of Negros
Where to Stay
1. Go Hotels Bacolod
Go Hotels is located at Lacson St, Mandalagan, Bacolod City. For inquiries or reservations, contact (034) 441-0774.
2) L'Fisher Hotel
L’Fisher Hotel is located at 14th Lacson St., Bacolod City. The L’Fisher Ecotel room rate ranges from P1,250 to P1,750. For inquiries or reservations, contact (034) 433-3731 to 39.
3) MO2 Westown Hotel
MO2 Westown Hotel Bacolod-Mandalagan is located at Lacson Street, Mandalagan, Bacolod City. Room rate ranges from P1,800 to P4,200. For inquiries or reservations, contact (034) 441-1481 or 709-6800.
How to Get There
From Manila, you can fly to Bacolod (P2,500++, roundtrip, 45 minutes). From Bacolod-Silay Airport, you can take a shuttle (P75-100 per head), or a cab (minimum of P400) and ask to be dropped off at your destination.
Now, you are definitely ready for your Bacolod trip! What are you waiting for?
This article was originally published on the Choose Philippines website.