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Travel and Tourism

There’s something about San Juan

Ivan Man Dy - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - As a certified urbanite, I find the need to escape the hectic life of the big city every now and then. There are a dozen or so beach towns within a three-hour drive from the city, and most offer similar resort clusters that entice city weekenders for a day of sun and sea.

The town of San Juan in Batangas is no different. With rows of resorts lining her famed Laiya coast, it’s easy to overlook the lure of the town. But things are changing and San Juan is leveling up its tourism stake by digging into her history. This we discovered one weekend when we joined Bolboc San Juan Heritage Tour organized by the Bolboc Heritage group, a foundation that promotes and creates awareness of the town’s eco-cultural heritage.

San Juan is a young town, having been established only in the mid 1800’s. Perennial flooding, however, forced the people to move in 1890 from Pinagbayanan, the site of the original town, to where San Juan sits today. It prospered well into the 20th century by the time the American Colonial era kicked in and saw a boom in development brought about by the production of lambanog (coconut wine) and copra from the neighboring coconut plantations. This, in turn, bought immense wealth to families whose legacy can be seen today in the town’s historic homes.

Our tour commenced at the Benito Marasigan house where we were welcomed by Zaldy Marasigan, the managing director of the foundation and a scion of one of San Juan’s prominent clans. Sadly, it burned down in 2009 but the ground floor ruins has been recently resurrected as the Bolboc Heritage group’s headquarters.

San Juan’s notable historic homes are concentrated within the vicinity of the town’s main plaza that is centered around the San Juan Nepomuceno Church, a 19th century church-convent complex made famous by the celebrity nuptials of Judy Ann Santos with Ryan Agoncillo in 2009. This area is a joy to explore on foot, its grid layout punctuated by mansions, both grand and modest and all interpreted in a bevy of architectural styles that range from traditional bahay-na-bato to eclectic European-inspired colonial and modernist 20th century Art-Deco designs. 

Outstanding ones include the family homes of the Triviño-Maralit, Aguedo-Mercado and Apolonio-Marasigan clans. Not to be missed is the pink-colored Casa Leon whose eye-candy façade, manicured gardens and all-wood interiors will definitely throw you back to the halcyon days of coconut hacienda living.      

We visited a lambanogan or coconut wine distillery where we learned the basics of coconut farming and the science behind this traditional Tagalog drink. Quite fitting as lambanog, after all, was source of this town’s wealth in the last century. It is still a thriving trade with ten barangays of the town still actively producing this liquor.

Over at Oligar’s, we visited this pottery factory which still churns out terracotta products more than a century after it was established. Among the traditional – and still popular – items churned out are paso (flower pots) and tukaan (chicken feed containers), all baked in their huge kilns.

Capping off our San Juan tour, we headed to Malaking Ilog (Big River) and the town’s mangrove reserve. If you’re a tired Manila urbanite weary of the city’s pollution and lack of green space, then this mini-cruise around this natural forest is a treat for the senses. 

For over an hour, our group drifted leisurely down the verdant estuary, our attention distracted every now and then by the fluttering of egrets, fishes and monkeys making their presence felt.

San Juan has close to 500 hectares of mangroves and swamp area, mostly located along the coasts of Imelda, Bataan, Nagsaulay and Subukin. It is a prime bird-watching area, especially during the migratory season, since mangroves provide refuge for specific plant and animal species. 

For us, however, it was a calming moment as we meandered through the still waters and watched the ecosystem’s inhabitants in their natural playful self. 

In the regular tourist circuit, San Juan may seem like your typical resort town, but linger on and you’ll discover that San Juan is surprisingly a small town with a big heritage.

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