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Hi! I'm Gretchen, a travel writer based in the Philippines. I created Filipina Explorer in 2009 to document my journeys through places, parenthood, and word weaving. This blog is a collection of those stories and everything in between. (Photo by Martin San Diego)
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Hotels Worth Checking Out in Nueva Ecija

Staying the night in Nueva Ecija? Relax after a day of tours with these top lodging options in Cabanatuan, Bongabon, and Pantabangan. 


Address: Purok 1, West Poblacion, Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija
Contact number: 0917-1498272/ 0917-5020315
Email: highlandbaliresort@yahoo.com

The newest and only upmarket resort in Pantabangan, Highland Bali Villas boasts elegant Balinese-inspired architecture crafted by artisans from Betis, Pampanga - a town that's world-renowned for its woodwork.

Highland Bali's main villas surround two outdoor pools with lounge chairs. Each villa is spacious and masterfully designed, complete with soft mattresses, LED TV, roomy bathroom, and a sizable desk for working away from home.

In your spare time, try the resort's spa services while overlooking the scenic Pantabangan Dam. Guests enjoy convenient access to the dam from a private path on site, where they can jet ski or go on a cruise aboard a bamboo raft.

Perched on a hill, the wind can get chilly here, especially in the evening. Be sure to pack a jacket!

The resort is currently on soft launch and is set to officially open on September 2018.


Address: PCG Building, KM 112, Maharlika Highway, Brgy. H. Concepcion, Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija
Contact number: (044) 940 8080/ +63-977-827-3572
Email address: reservations.topstar@yahoo.com
Rates: A room for two averages at P2,000.

Photo from Top Star Hotel's Facebook page

Located along Maharlika Highway, Top Star Hotel conveniently rests near SM City Cabanatuan, Robinson’s Mall and Pacific Mall and beside a bank and ATM machine. Opened in 2016, it is one of the newest boutique hotels in Cabanatuan - and the rooms are a testament to this. Patrons like its comfortable beds and clean and swanky interiors. All rooms afford an expansive view of the city some equipped with private balconies. A reservation also comes with complimentary slippers, bottled water, WiFi access, and toiletries. Be sure to check out the on-site restaurant, Star Cafe, which serves local and international fare.

Address: 1179 Del Pilar Street, Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija
Contact numbers: (044) 950 8888/ +63917 539 6125
Website: www.theharvesthotel.com
Rates: Rooms range from P2,300 to P5,000+.

If you don’t mind spending a little more, book a room at Harvest  Hotel. The only 4-star hotel in the province, you can expect a  luxurious stay, unparalleled service and choice rooms that are bigger than any other in the city. Rooms and suites are furnished with flat-screen TV with cable, clothes rack and hair dryer, mini bar, fridge, marble bathroom and toilet, and designer toiletries.

Though Harvest Hotel is a favorite among corporate guests, it also has a large following among leisure travelers because of its amenities: swimming pool, banquet facilities, gym, and a restaurant serving international fare both indoors and al-fresco. The buffet breakfast is specially notable, consisting of diverse items like bototay and Western dishes.

READ ALSO: 8 Out-of-the-ordinary eats in Nueva Ecija

Address: Sta. Arcadia, Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija
Contact number: +63 (44) 958 7777/ +63 (927) 804 2929/ 63 (02) 899 7171 (Manila sales office)
Email: sales@microtel.ph | reservations@microtel.ph
Website: www.microtel-cabanatuan.com
Rates: Rooms range from P2,000 to P3,500.

Photo from Microtel by Wyndham website

Part of the renowned Microtel Group budget hotel chains, you can expect that signature Microtel service at Microtel by Wyndham – Cabanatuan. The hotel rests in a quiet community, making it perfect for unwinding after a day of tours. Like its sister branches, it tends to attract young professionals and business travelers with its clean, contemporary and savvy design. Rooms provide adequate space and amenities for working away from home, such as high-speed internet access and a work desk. Or just simply relax and sink down to a queen-size, chiropractor-approved mattress while enjoying premium cable channels in your room. Free-flowing coffee and newspaper are available in the lobby.


Address: Maharlika Highway, Santa Rosa, Nueva Ecija
Contact number: (044) 4560394
Rates: You can get decent rooms that start under P1,000.

Built along Maharlika Highway, a stay at Hotel Consuelo makes sidetrips to nearby malls, dining outfits and attractions easy. This three-storey hotel offers spacious rooms with toiletries, towels, private bathroom, air conditioning with hot and cold shower, and complimentary breakfast. Some also have private balconies and a guest area in the common hall.


Address: Bongabon- Dingalan Road, Barangay Curva, Bongabon , Nueva Ecija
Contact number: 09237365143/ 09174141649
Rates: P2,500/ night for a room for 2, and includes breakfast and a tour of Giron Botanic Gardens

Looking for a tranquil accommodations close to Bongabon's natural attractions? The Stone House fits the bill. Designed by Armando Giron (fondly called "Mama" by locals), the owner of Giron Botanic - one of Bongabon's prime tourist attractions - this modest B&B rests along the highway going to Dingalan, offering a sweeping view of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range and rice paddies.

The stone-hewned rooms are outfitted with air conditioning and basic amenities, including hot and cold shower, work desk, and comfortable bed. Guests also get a complimentary tour of Giron Botanic and breakfast in the garden. Mama cooks the best tinumis in town. Request it whenever you're staying!

Tours to neighboring attractions such as Mt. Dilalam can be arranged, too.

This article first appeared in Northbound Magazine's Issue 20. Highland Bali and The Stone House have been added thereafter. 



We once roamed places that are now nameless, back in the days when we scrimped on pictures because we only had a roll of film or two. Every time we went to camera centers to have them developed, we'd secretly pray, "Please don't let the photos come out ruined." Now I have more than enough for this lifetime.

I got to know Pagudpud, Bauang, Iba, Baguio, Laguna, and Santo Domingo because your dreams brought me there. Because you were there first and they made your heart captive, like vines clinging to dear life. It was through your eyes that I first witnessed the world's magic. In those dawns when you'd wake us up to pack our bags without the slightest hint as to where, I learned the beauty of the arbitrary.

Those places carried light. Mile by mile they  changed us.

Last weekend, Lia, MJ, and I went to Subic for work. Just a little ways down the expressway was where we last saw you. At dinner, our photographer, Martin, asked who angkong was. "Lolo (grandfather)," we answered in unison.

"Tatay-tatayan ko (My stepfather)," I added. It tasted bad in my mouth. There shouldn't be a prefix or a suffix. You are my father.

"Patay na 'yong angkong ko, eh (My grandfather is dead)," Lia said matter-of-factly. You two would have gotten along very well, with your collective bluntness.

"Yeah, he is," I muttered.

Yet somehow, today, as I re-member the memories, it feels like you aren't. Because your dreams are alive. In me. In us.

I am at a point where something darker, more adult in nature, is replacing the magic. Where I have to question the why of reaching places. Sometimes I wonder if it's because you are no longer here to lend the magic; to make me see. But I know if you were, you'd say, "No, it stays as long as you allow it to."

On November, I will turn 35. Two weeks after, you too shall turn a year older where you are. But age wasn't something you bothered with. You lived on your own terms. You dove into unchartered seas and braved places most wouldn't in your time. You knew territories and names before they were even coined. To you, the where didn't matter as much as the how afterwards - how full, how alive, how happy.

On my 35th, I hope to do just that. I hope not to care where just like you did. I hope to be reminded - always - of why you opened the world to us; to regain the lessons I once knew, standing on nameless places in the universe, with my small feet and wild dreams. I hope to live my years the way you used to live yours: with zest, curiosity, a sense of adventure, and faith in magic until the last breath.

To the hope of getting there,
Your dramatic daughter

Pinoy Travelers Share Easy Ways To Travel Responsibly

Tourism, particularly air travel, contributes eight percent to the world's greenhouse emissions, a 2018 study by the Nature Climate Change reports. Too, the Philippines' is the third largest contributor of plastic wastes in the ocean.

As the effects of global warming become more evident, it also becomes increasingly necessary for travelers to practice eco-friendliness.

Help reduce the impact of global warming and pollution. Travel responsibly with these useful and simple tips from Filipino travel bloggers.

  • Pack light. 

Bringing bare essentials doesn't only prevent unnecessary baggage fees at the airport, but it also reduces emissions,  Lai Reyes Samangka of The Little Lai tells.

"The lighter your baggage is, the lesser the fuel used in trains, planes, and other automobiles, (so) the lesser greenhouse gases (there are) in the atmosphere."

READ ALSO: Travel Bloggers Share Tips on Packing Light

  • Travel to lesser-known destinations.

As one of the Philippines' youngest provinces, Dinagat Islands in Mindanao is still a relatively untapped destination.

Celine Murillo of Celineism advocates traveling to "lesser-known places to spread the impact" and lessen carbon footprint in famous destinations.

READ ALSO: Let's Stop the "touristy places cannot offer an authentic experience" Mentality

  • Bring your own water bottle or cup.
Reusable water cup from Ecoheroes

Christine Fernandez of Jovial Wanderer proposes bringing a reusable water container to minimize plastic waste. "If traveling via plane, just fill it up with water when you get to to the hotel or buy from a local refilling station (applicable when traveling around the Philippines). If hiking or traveling in remote areas, bring your own garbage bag, so you can dispose your waste properly."

  • Avoid using wet wipes.

"Wet wipes are nonbiodegradable," says Missy Penaverde-Ilarde of Love Eat Wander.  Lloyd Salac of The Lost Boy Lloyd agrees. "They block waterways," he says.

Use good ol' toilet paper instead. It's biodegradable and a lot cheaper too!

  • Cook your own meals. 

Cooking your own meals helps reduce plastic waste (and also helps if you're on a tight budget). Gian Carlo Jubela of Adrenaline Romance says, "If our accommodation allows it, we cook our own meals. We don't order take-out food. Preparing our own meals and dining in eliminates the need to have our food packed in plastic bags or styrofoam trays, which are harmful to the environment."

  • Opt for eco-friendly hotels and resorts.

Hotel Kimberly in Tagaytay markets itself as an eco-friendly hotel.

As environmental awareness increases among travelers, more and more hotels are engaging in green initiatives. Mervz Marasigan of Pinoy Adventurista suggests "staying in an eco-friendly hotel" that place a premium on sustainability. He personally recommends Hive and Cocoon Boutique Hotel in Manila.

  • Avoid single-use plastics.
Metal straws from  Ecoheroes

Single-use plastics like straws and plastic utensils are the biggest waste products in the ocean today. Not only do plastics entangle marine creatures, but after prolonged sun exposure, they also release harmful chemicals that lead to the destruction of reef systems. "Bring your own pair of utensils and forego plastic straws," Celine shares.

Some eco-friendly alternatives that Marky Ramone Go of Nomadic Experiences swear by are Ecoheroes' reusable cups and metal straws and Bamboo Lao's bamboo straw.

  • Always carry an ecobag.

Ferna Mae Fernandez of Everywhere with Ferna believes eco bags are "a must for every traveler".

"It can help save the environment. I always bring mine wherever I am. Bought it at a reasonable price and (it) has been with me for a long time now."

READ ALSO: 13 Pinay Travel Blogging Moms Who are Rockin' It on the Road

  • Bring refillable containers for toiletries.

Ruby Batallones of Travel and Perspectives also recommends bringing travel-sized toiletries that you can refill at home or on the road. Her commitment: "No to sachets."

It also helps to "leave a suggestion note in the accommodation to use shampoo/body wash dispenser instead of sachet toiletries," remarks Sarah Berthe of Travelosio.

  • Minimize vehicle use.

In terms of size and passenger capacity, studies found that airplanes and small non-hybrid cars (those that can carry four passengers or less) contribute significant greenhouse gases.

"Vehicles produce too much carbon emissions," Grasya Bangoy of This Grasya cites. Her advice is to minimize the use of vehicles while traveling, especially if it's just for short distances.

Choose walking or biking instead. Not only is it more eco-friendly, it's good for your heart too!

  • Use reef-friendly sunscreen.

"I don't use sunblock ever. Eventually, I found out it's for the better, since sunblock's chemical ingredients can kill corals," Marky adds.

Most sunscreen brands on the market contain a harmful chemical filler called oxybenzone (or benzonephenone-3), which causes coral bleaching and coral death. 

Luckily, reef-safe sunblock brands, such as Magwai and Human Nature, are now available in the Philippines.

  • Support local vendors and avoid haggling.

Anna Varona encourages travelers to "buy from local food providers instead of McDonalds and Jollibee".

"Find a local  to cook local produce/ food for you. Usually, sa mga sari-sari store, they're willing."

The reason? "Your patronage may be the only thing keeping them from unsustainable practices such as kaingin and poaching," Celine opines.

  • Minimize noise. 

Anna adds that tourists should make a conscious effort to "keep the volume down, unless it's okay" where you are visiting. She relates, "Noise is also a form of pollution. It bothers plant life and animals. Birds get scared sometimes."

  • Reuse towels. 

Did you know that laundry ranks second in terms of water consumption in the hotel industry? Mark-Anthony Villaflor of 365 Travel Dates prefers not to ask for daily replenishment of towels, unless needed. Such practice saves water and electricity.

  • Observe energy-efficient measures. 

Another way to save energy, Mark-Anthony notes, is to "turn off the lights and electronics when not in use." 

  • Help educate local guides.

You'd be surprised to know that in some attractions, local guides are not well-learned about responsible tourism. We've gone on hikes wherein I noticed local guides throwing wrappers and cigarette butts along the trail. 

It pays to have a discourse with guides. Gian intimates: "Before parting ways with our guide, driver, or service provider, we always tell them to take care of their tourist spots and natural treasures. Often, we suggest tips based on what we experienced during the trip or adventure. Educating locals on environmental preservation is probably the best long-term solution. By leaving snippets of knowledge, we are doing our part in preserving the environment."

How about you? What sustainable practices do you adhere to when traveling? 

Rediscovering Awe in Pagbilao

In this visually saturated world, there's a word that often gets washed away at the redundant sight of must-sees and must-visits that buffet our Instagram and Facebook: awe.

Curiosity whittles down because every destination is only a click of a mouse. There is constant exposure to visual awesomeness. Yet for all that daily desensitization, I remember clearly how awestruck I was one quiet afternoon in Pagbilao.

After recording voice-over for a Biyaheroes Mother's Day ad, along with a pack of eight awesome people, we were ferried away from the modest port of Pagbilao to its tropical secrets. As guests, we didn't know we were headed exactly. We left it all up to Biyaheroes to do the surprising. 

At first, the port's mucky waters did not seem too inviting. But once the mangroves became fewer and the water gave way to bluer seas, doubt turned to promise. The boat navigated its way through islets and woods jutting out of the cyan sea. On the distant summer horizon, Pagbilao's coal plant commanded adventure. And we answered, "Aye!".

The boatman treaded lightly as we approached a chalky strip in the middle of the sea. "Bilaran Sandbar," Biyaheroes cofounder Mirra said. As the boat buoyed nearer, the glassy water sparkled against the sun, forming tiny constellations. We rushed down the boat as it halted, all giddy like children.

I combed my fingers against the soft sand, watching the ebb flow to the coal plant from afar. With crystal clear waters and disappearing beach strip, the islet is the epitome of tropical paradise. If this was our destination, I would have been beyond grateful, but as it turns out, this was only a pleasant stop. With high spirits, we boarded the vessel and our way to what they call "Puting Buhangin".

We stepped foot on the beach 20 minutes after. On weekends, locals say the horizon here looks like a sea of tents and tourists. On that weekday, free from the usual crowds, we saw it for what it was: a secluded hideaway for geckos and tourists seeking shade from the blistering sun. It was so peaceful that the rustling of trees at times beat human conversations.

I shut my eyes and listened. My heart was full: with peace, with wonder. With gratitude.

There is no other way to explain it, except that on that day, I rediscovered awe in that little isle and it stayed well until the days that followed.

When you travel for work, things can get ordinary pretty fast. It takes more to satisfy you. Soon, a beach is just a beach, and a waterfall is just another cascade you've already seen before. Rarely does an image of a "must-see" destination excite anymore.

But I guess, awe is something you don't see on your usual web surfing. It's not the things we see in brochures or a image-heavy listicle of "10 Reasons Why You Should Visit This or That". Sometimes, real magic comes in the form of surprises; those in-betweens that happen before you check a bucket list item." Awe lives in the unknown, in the unannounced - like the ones we saw in Pagbilao.

*Photos and article from a 2015 trip 

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