The areas of Laguna, Quezon and Batangas are ideal for quick day or weekend trips from Manila. I usually like taking solo motorcycle rides to the Sierra Madre area (passing through the Marikina-Rizal highway) for some fresh air during the weekend. But for those who drive cars, most of the destinations are quicker via SLEX. In fact, the famed Viaje del Sol route lists many charming and unique places that celebrate Filipino culture, that you can visit on your road trip.
The people behind Viaje del Sol establishments (bed & breakfast places, restaurants, hotels, museums, farms, art galleries and cafes) make it a point to often highlight excellent Filipino hospitality, cuisine, crafts, visual and performing arts, traditions and rituals. Of the 20 establishments currently in the Viaje del Sol route, I’ve only previously been to four – Casa San Pablo, Patis Tito Garden Cafe (when it was still Kusina Salud), Villa Socorro Agri-Eco Village and Farm Resort in Pagsanjan and Kape Kesada Art Gallery in Paete.
Last weekend, I got to visit Cafe Lago, a garden restaurant beside a scenic lake in San Pablo City and a few of the city’s other lakes, during a nature road trip in Laguna to test-drive the upgraded Ford Explorer. SUVs are not generally known as ecofriendly vehicles. But the Ford says that the Explorer’s 2.0L EcoBoost engine offers up to 20 percent gain in fuel efficiency and a 15% reduction in C02 emissions compared to the larger displacement engines they replace. Fuel-efficient cars are of course, a bonus for frequent travelers who like to go on road trips or drive out of town for the weekend.
This was actually my first time to drive an SUV and I really felt the difference in terms of the car’s responsiveness and its high-tech features. Since I’m more used to driving a bicycle, motorcycle or a regular-sized sedan, being behind the wheel of the Ford Explorer made me feel like Ellen Ripley inside a very high-tech mech suit in Aliens.
The vehicle has a remote keyless entry and push button start engine, so there’s no need to insert a key into the ignition, which I found pretty cool. I was a bit nervous departing from the Ford Showroom in Makati and worried about the tight streets as we headed to load gas. The brakes were really responsive and I kept stepping too hard causing the vehicle to stop abruptly. It took a few minutes to get used to. But once we got to the Skyway, the drive was smoother.
The SUV also comes with a touch screen system that allows drivers to control the entertainment and climate system with button clicks, voice command or touch screen tap. You can even pair your SmartPhone to the system via BlueTooth so that you have music while driving through those provincial roads where radio signals don’t get picked up.
After a leisurely drive on the Skyway through SLEX and the Calamba exit, we arrived at our first stop. Cafe Lago in the city of San Pablo is roughly 1.5-2 hours drive away from Manila. The place is open during weekends from 7am-10pm and weekdays from 10am-9pm, so it’s a good choice for heavy brunch or lunch during your road trip.
Cafe Lago is owned by environmentalist Mandy Marino, a San Pablo local, who transformed his childhood home into the charming garden restaurant. The restaurant is located along the shores of Sampaloc Lake, the largest of San Pablo’s Seven Lakes, with a view of Mt. Cristobal on the horizon. Guests can enjoy meals under a shroud of vines and lovely hanging lanterns in the courtyard surrounded by trees and lush foliage. A few wooden lounge chairs with colorful pillows and hammocks make you want to take a nap on the premises. For a more scenic view, the staff can even bring the tables out for a lakeside lunch or snack.
If you have more time, you could do a tour of the seven crater lakes scattered around the city of San Pablo including Lake Bunot, Lake Calibato, Lake Palakpakin, Lake Mohicap and the twin lakes of Yambo and Pandin. Laguna’s Historic Churches are worth a visit as well.
After chatting with Mandy about the different places to visit around Viaje del Sol (he highly recommended Hidden Valley Springs and the Nagcarlan Underground Cemetery which I mean to check out on my own soon), our lunch was served.
Cafe Lago serves a variety of home cooked Filipino favorites. Dishes are reasonably priced at P150-200 per dish and the servings are generous. Expect to spend about P500 or more for 2 people depending on the number of dishes you order.
We started with Ensaladang Pako, fern salad topped with fresh tomatoes, onions and salted eggs drizzled with vinegar, which was both refreshing and delicious. The main greens they use is fiddle-head fern, which is plentiful in Laguna.
One of my favorite dishes was the Binagoongan Baboy, a pork dish simmered in shrimp paste. The way it was prepared was just perfect. The meat was tender and the flavor not too salty or overpowering.
The Buttered Chicken is one of their bestsellers and came highly recommended. The sweet and savory sauce drizzled over the chicken went well with the crispy texture and tender meat. Next up was Cream Dory in Oyster Sauce, which had a soft and delicate texture. The restaurant also serves Cream Dory with mustasa and gata, which also sounds pretty interesting.
By the time Kalderetang Baka came, I was really full, but I still tasted a bit of it. It was really melt-in-your mouth tender meat with a delectable sauce. It made me wish I hadn’t eaten so much of the other dishes. Cafe Lago also serves fresh drinks and desserts like hot chocolate, Suman sa Lihia with Coco Jam and they sell sampaloc products as souvenirs. I saw something called Fried Halo-Halo on their menu, which sounded intriguing and which I would have liked to try if I wasn’t so stuffed.
The sky was a bit overcast as we made our way to Lake Pandin from Cafe Lago. From there it was another 15-20 minute drive to the jump-off point to Lake Pandin, then another 10-15 minute hike along a winding footpath to get to the serene lake.
At the shore of the lake was a row of floating huts aboard makeshift bamboo rafts, managed by local women and fishermen’s wives living in the area. Each raft can accommodate up to 20 people. They offer rides on the bamboo raft (P180/pax) and can prepare simple yet heartwarming meals like shrimps cooked in coconut milk, grilled tilapia, fern salad and bananas for guests to enjoy (raft tour + lunch costs P360). Since we had eaten already, we just had fresh buko juice during the ride.
Lake Pandin is said to be the most pristine of San Pablo City’s seven lakes. The water here is 70-150 feet deep but you can really see how clean it is. The locals make sure to keep it that way since the rafting tours have given them a source of additional income from tourism. Life vests are provided and some guests opt to swim in the lake. But even if you don’t come prepared with swimming gear, you can still enjoy a leisurely and relaxing ride around the lake.
Usually, the oarswomen paddle the raft, but since it was very windy, they had to pull the raft using a system of ropes. We made our way across to a quieter side of the lake where more rafts were docked. Manang Lina, who was managing our raft pointed out a tree where some visitors liked to hang from and jump into the water for a refreshing splash.
Pandin and Yambo are twin crater lakes separated by a narrow strip of land, and our guides suggested we take a quick hike up to see Yambo Lake. The path going up is steep, but manageable. From the top you can get a view of the Yambo lake, where rafting is also offered. However, the hike going to the rafting area takes longer, which makes Pandin Lake more popular with visitors.
Another point of interest on the lake is a small grotto that stands above a mountain spring, which is the source of drinking water of the village. All in all, the visit to Cafe Lago and rafting in Lake Pandin was a pretty relaxing road trip that let us commune with nature and enjoy the slow-paced provincial life.
If you’re looking for an eco-friendly place to take the family for a weekend to get them away from computers and malls or if you want to tour balikbayan or foreigner guests looking for something simple and different relatively near Manila, this is a good option.