A two-hour drive takes me from the jam-packed streets of Metro Manila to the foot of Mount Cristobal, a dormant volcano that spans the provinces of Laguna and Quezon and is named after the patron saint of travelers. As I make my way through fallen coconut fruits, dried twigs and uneven earth, the land slopes down before gently rising to reveal a sculpture garden and a two-level brick house. It looks out of place in this rural setting, surrounded by fighting cocks and off-leash farm dogs.
Serving as my guide is Don Quibilan, who owns and runs two art galleries in Manila and is currently busy developing three hectares of this land into an artists’ colony. When it’s finished, it will be the latest in a string of studios, restaurants and artist-run accommodations in San Pablo City attracting city slickers seeking a balm for the soul.
It may seem like an unlikely location for an arts hub, but San Pablo City was once a thriving center of culture. At the turn of the century, copra and coconut oil were in worldwide demand, turning Laguna-based coconut farmers in the Philippines into veritable barons. This windfall meant that the area’s families easily fell into a life of luxury, complete with all the trappings of wealth – sending their children abroad to study, building grand mansions and hosting extravagant parties where private orchestras would entertain guests.
But this genteel lifestyle changed abruptly during World War II when the Japanese bombed and set fire to the city’s palatial houses, leaving estates razed to the ground and fields left to ruin. Soon after, large plantations moved to fertile but faraway Mindanao, palm oil became the next big thing and the heyday of the San Pablo City elite was over. Only one pre-war structure stands to this day – the Fule-Malvar mansion on Rizal Avenue, built in 1915 in the Romantic classic style by the first town mayor, Dr Potenciano Malvar.
I DROP BY CASA SAN PABLO, a bed and breakfast in a former coconut plantation, to speak with husband-and-wife owners Boots and An Mercado-Alcantara. Over a decade ago, they helped create the very first Viaje del Sol map – a loose itinerary of charming country inns, off-the-beaten-path cafés and inspiring artist’s studios that line the highway from San Pablo City in Laguna to Tiaong in Quezon.
Over a lunch of pipian (chicken in peanut sauce), pianete (toasted freshwater shrimp mashed and cooked in coconut milk) and kulawo (eggplant salad in a smoky coconut vinaigrette), An, who is also a writer and clay artist, tries to articulate what exactly it is about this area that spawns and attracts creative spirits.
We are at Casa San Pablo’s dining hall, a rustic, chic and airy space with vintage Filipino furniture, modern art on the walls and hanging shelves and tables that are packed with books, quirky accents and An’s own figurines. Various hammocks and mats decorated with oversized pillows line the outside area. Little notes written by An are posted under a painting or a memento, explaining the sentimental value of the items.
“Our dream is to be known as a creative city,” An explains. “There is an abundance of artistry in our hometown that needs to be recognized and celebrated, from visual arts and crafts to music and our cuisine. We’ve been waiting for this to happen for so long, and now, even without a master plan, this vision is coming together somehow, amazingly and organically. Right now, the time is ripe for creative adventures in San Pablo City.”
Our dream is to be known as a creative city. There is an abundance of artistry in our hometown that needs to be recognized and celebrated
After lunch, An and I make our way to Lake Sampaloc, one of the natural wonders of San Pablo City. With its 3.7km circumference, it’s the biggest of the seven crater lakes found here, but in 2014 it was declared threatened by a non-profit environmental foundation in Germany. Since then, residents have been organizing clean-ups of the area and the lake is now a popular attraction once more, with many visitors coming to enjoy the breathtaking views and fresh air.
The outlines of tilapia pens are visible in the placid water. Young couples sit on concrete benches, holding hands and giggling; kids run past us, darting around the trees and stopping every now and then to point and laugh at dogs out for an afternoon walk. Near the concrete tables, where a family of four has sat down for an early supper, an artist sets up his easel.
According to environmentalist Mandy Marino, who jumpstarted efforts to save Lake Sampaloc in 1998, there is still much to be done to preserve this lakeside scene for future generations. Proper trash cans still need to be installed, and the remnants of shanties – un-degraded bits of plastic and old rubble – can still be seen embedded in the lake’s edge. The native dalag (catfish) and hito (mudfish) must also be brought back, as their numbers were decimated by the invasive tilapia species.