Bakhawan Ecopark: Aklan’s prime ecotourism destination

Jawili Falls

IF there is one thing that Aklan province can be proud of and can contribute to the rest of the Philippines—besides the huge economic gains brought by the island of Boracay, of course—it’s its highly successful ecotourism project.

Saint John Nepomocene Church
Saint John Nepomucene Church

As huge bodies of water surround the country’s 7,107 islands and leave coastal settlements vulnerable during natural calamities, a group of Kalibonhons in the capital town of Kalibo has found a solution that could withstand the destructive forces of nature: it has converted a mudflat into a beautiful mangrove forest, one that serves as the town’s first line of defense against storm surges. This “solution” has become a tourist attraction known as Bakhawan Ecopark and Research Center. The word bakhawan means “mangrove” in the local language.

Wide mudflats used to sprawl on the coast of Kalibo’s Barangay New Buswang, which made the village prone to floods and storm surges during weather disturbances. The local government; the Department of Environment and Natural Resources; and non-governmental organizations, including the United Services and Welfare Assistance Group and the Kalibo Save the Mangroves Association (Kasama), addressed the problem in 1990 by turning the muddy shoreline into a mangrove reforestation site. They started with 50 hectares, which later grew to more than four times that size as the project progressed.

The community-based project did not only address the barangay’s flood problems, but also gave its participants a source of livelihood. Kasama members/families were assigned areas for them to maintain and manage. In return, they receive salaries and are allowed to harvest mud crabs and shellfish in the areas given to them. The mangrove-reforestation project has served local communities in two ways: it provided a sustainable solution against flooding and a means to generate income.

 

Kalibo’s prime ecotourism attraction

TODAY Bakhawan Ecopark stretches into a 220-hectare mangrove forest and serves as one of Kalibo’s prime tourist attractions. During the recent Manila Media Familiarization Tour hosted by the Department of Tourism, media representatives enjoyed the ecopark’s relaxing ambiance and fresh air while strolling on the 1.3-kilometer bamboo and wooden trail that runs deep into the forest—which is teeming with different species of mangroves and wildlife—and ends with a scenic view of the beach. Indeed, a perfect hideaway where one could  commune with Mother Nature.

The ecopark also serves as a sanctuary for different types of birds and marine creatures. Other features of the ecopark include a watchtower, souvenir shop, canteen, massage area, charcoal briquetting, picnic huts and a Center for International Mangrove Studies.

The media representatives also had the chance to witness how a tamilok, or wood worm, are gathered from the bakawan trees and eaten straight from the tree’s bark. According to locals, tamilok—which tasted like an oyster—is an aphrodisiac, and gathering them has become a major activity for visitors.

Dubbed the Philippines’s most successful mangrove reforestation project, the Bakhawan Ecopark has set a benchmark for a greener Philippines, earning local and foreign recognition. For one, the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization hailed it as one of the exemplary forests managed in the entire Asia-Pacific region. It has also been awarded as the Golden Eagle award for excellence in environmental preservation.

On January 22 the Provincial Capitol of Aklan, headed by its Economic Enterprise Development Department, had 8,000 new mangrove propagules planted on a two-hectare area of the ecopark. The activity was aimed at minimizing climate change and to replace the mangrove trees that were destroyed by Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) last November.

 

Other sights to see

ASIDE from Boracay, Aklan is famous for its Ati-Atihan Festival. One of the oldest and grandest festivals in the Philippines, the Ati-Atihan traces its roots to as far as 1212 AD. Every January Kalibo comes alive as dancers

wearing feathered headdresses and covered in soot to portray dark-skinned Atis, dominate the streets and shout “Viva Señor Santo Niño! [Long live the Holy Child!]” and “Hala bira! [Go for it!]”

Experience what Aklan has to offer and enjoy its laidback charms through its interesting destinations and activities:

  1. Take a dip in the crystal-clear waters of Jawili Falls. Jawili Falls are made up of seven waterfalls and emerald green basins. It may not look impressive at first, but there’s no denying its uniqueness. The waters in Jawili’s dark natural pools cascade like gigantic steps carved from a mountainside. Water pours from each basin, creating numerous waterfalls in the process.

Foreign tourists vacationing in Boracay usually drop by the falls via the arranged tours offered in the famed island-resort. The falls are also a good spot for picnicking with family or  friends. The place has been developed for the convenience of tourists; cottages and shower rooms are available, and a modest restaurant is open.

  1. Visit Aklan’s oldest church. At more than 110 years old, Saint John Nepomucene Church in Tanglan town is considered as Aklan’s oldest church. Its limestones are said to be quite similar with those used on the Saint Thomas of Villanova Church in Miag-ao, Iloilo province.

Historical records say the people of this municipality built this church—named in honor of the patron saint of the Tangalanons—during the Spanish colonial era. They also say men, women and children were forced to carry on their heads, from Barangay Afga to Poblacion, the limestone bricks that were used in the construction of the church, which lasted for almost 28 years. These people were not compensated for their efforts; the only consolation they got was regarding these efforts as an offering to God.

During our visit, we found the church in a dismal state, which was in stark contrast to the newly built municipal hall adjacent to it.

We wondered: How was the municipal government able to construct a new building while it left a historic house of worship in disrepair.

  1. Experience Christmas all year round at Jojo’s Christmas Cottage. Found at the heart of Sampaguita Gardens, Jojo’s Christmas Cottage is a three-story Victorian mansion that celebrates Christmas all year round. Inside are various Christmas dolls, figurines, trees and decorations, as well as a Precious Moments collection, a lifestyle brand created by American artist Samuel J. Butcher, who has spent most of his life in the Philippines.

Owned by Butcher himself, he named his property Sampaguita because of his fondness for little kids selling sampaguita. Jojo’s Christmas Cottage was named after a member of Butcher’s loyal staff.

The sprawling 2.6-hectare property also feature 48 guestrooms and suites; three restaurants; convention facilities; a business center; a spa and fitness center; two swimming pools; circus rides; a 43-foot aquarium; an Oriental garden, the Precious Moments gallery; and the Samuel J. Butcher Mansion, which has a vast antique collection and stunning pieces of bric-a-bracs and other Oriental items.

  1. Watch native pineapple leaves transform into intricately woven pińa cloth. Aklan’s top local product, pińa jusi, or Philippine silk, comes from the red pineapple variety. This fabric is regarded as the most exquisite of all fabrics because of its sheen and softness. Primarily used to make the barong Tagalog and terno, modern designers now use it for gowns and haute-couture dresses, which have been showcased in international fashion shows.

We visited the La Herminia Heritage Arts and Crafts, where we saw how pińa was made: the leaves are scraped; the fibers are tied one by one; and then woven together. This process lasts almost an entire month.

According to Bog Tambong of La Herminia, a pińa gown made of the linawan (pure fiber) and has hand-made embroidery costs between P10,000 and P12,000. No wonder La Herminia’s clients include popular Manila-based designers Rajo Laurel and Paul Cabral.

  1. Enjoy the Lagatik River Cruise. Ten minutes away from Kalibo is the historic municipality of New Washington, named after US President George Washington and best known as the hometown of the late Archibishop Jaime Cardinal Sin of Manila. Exploring this coastal town is more fun by taking a cruise of the Lagatik River.

River-cruising, as a unique tourism experience in Aklan, has been developed by the Dumaguit-Batan Ferries Corp. The home port of the cruise ship is Sitio Malogo in Barangay Polo. This is the barangay next to and east of Poblacion in New Washington. The place is now called The Yard, because this is where ships are built.

It also has a waiting area for clients with a restaurant-bar and souvenir shop. Lagatik River, which is the river south of the Poblacion, connects the port of New Washington to the Sibuyan Sea and the high seas. It stretches along some of the municipality’s barangays at a length of 9.6 kilometers.

Enjoy the beauty of nature and breathe fresh air along the way from the mangroves found in the waters of New Washington to Tinagong Dagat (Hidden Sea in English) of Batan town.

Tinagong Dagat is approximately 8 km long and 4 km wide. It is between Altavas town and Batan, and also partly hidden from Batan Bay by two islands that are fringed with mangroves, thick undergrowth and rocky beaches.

Cruises last for three hours and are available three times a day (7 to 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.). Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, with these meals accompanied by live music onboard.

Possible short stopovers during the cruise are the Capis-pisan islet, fish-fattening farms and fish/oyster farms. At the islet, a resthouse was constructed by the College of Fisheries and Marine Sciences of Aklan State University (formerly Aklan National College of Fisheries).

The dinner cruise is now popular among families and school groups, as well as professionals, and local and foreign tourists.

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