Masbate City: Before the Cowboys Come

The cowboys are not here – at least not yet. I have arrived a week early in Masbate City for the annual rodeo festival, which was moved to give way to the Holy Week, so instead, the spacious arena beside the airport is ghostly quiet, with only the occasional tricycles and motorbikes passing through the dirt track encircling the grass field. It’s a double-edged sword, though. The lack of crowds means I have all of Masbate province virtually to myself, and without the rodeo, I can focus on enjoying the province’s spoils; but it also means most of the establishments are closed, which can be doubly problematic, as Masbate isn’t that well part of the travel circuit yet to have an established tourism infrastructure.

Masbate is an island province separated from the southeastern tip of Luzon by a piece of the ocean that’s known to host a spectacular array of marine biodiversity. And while it’s administratively part of the Bicol region (Luzon’s southernmost region), most of its residents are perhaps more Visayans than Bicolano. The people speak Minasbate, a language that’s closely tied with Bisaya, and life here moves at an island life’s pace – in tune with the archipelagic nature of Visayas.

Most of the bustle occurs in the capital, where I first find myself after a flight that took me over the azure waters of Ticao Strait off the province’s coast. The airport is right beside the highway, which makes it easy to just exit and walk to Balay Valencia, where I’ll be basing myself in the next couple of days. It’s a scorching late morning, but it’s just a 15-minute walk and with the Holy Week stillness permeating on the streets, I decide to go on foot.

Tricycles ply a main thoroughfare in Masbate City, the eponymous province’s capital.
Bar fences silently await the crowds for the upcoming rodeo festival.
Cowboy decorations (left) hang on the gate of the local tourism department; a statue depicting a cowboy (right) stands in the middle of a roundabout.
Some familiar fares are served in Ham’s Cup, Masbate’s first cafe.
The sprawling field beside the Rodeo Masbateño Grand Arena is set to hold a host of activities in relation to the festival.

After having my lunch at Ham’s Cup, a cafe beside Balay Valencia serving affordable food and coffee – a meal of burger, pasta and a large cup of lemonade costs just over PHP 100 – I ride a tricycle to Rendezvous Resort in the northeastern part of Masbate City. Here, I wait for a boat to take me to seven kilometers off the coast.

The destination is the Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary, Masbate City’s first marine sanctuary and a 20-hectare area of coral reefs. In the middle of it is a shoal – or sandbar – where a group of cottages and mangroves share space. There’s a sizeable Holy Week crowd on site, and everyone’s doing their thing – swimming, snorkeling, jetskiing, burying oneself in the sand, or just watching time pass by, wondering why can’t life just be always like this.

By 3 p.m., the tides have receded and a larger part of the shoal has exposed itself, allowing me to approach the mangroves. I take my time taking pictures before finally deciding to head back to the city proper.

Boys (left) enjoy leaping into the turquoise waters surrounding Masbate City; local tourists (right) ham it up on the sands of Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary.
The Buntod Marine Reef Sanctuary is an accessible snorkeling and swimming destination, being a mere 15-minute boat ride from Masbate City
The low tide reveals a ridge of sand, allowing people to walk the length of the shoal.
Mangroves line the Buntod Reef’s sandbar.

An hour later and I’m back in the arena. The golden hour casts a romantic glow to the site. Without the main event, there’s not much to see here yet, so I then head to the perya beside it. People are just preparing for the approaching evening. Game stalls are being set up, and rickety-looking rides are awaiting the queues of passengers. At the far end, there’s a haunted house attraction with crude illustrations of aswangs  painted on the ticket booth in front. At another corner, there’s a makeshift ball pit, with underwear hanging on the cage.

There’s a quaint vibe to this all. It feels like a scene from an old Western movie, what with all the emptiness and the little flags fluttering in the wind. I can only imagine what change of pace this city might see once the cowboys arrive.

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