Ode to the Boatman

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ONE OF THE COUNTRY’S first tourist attractions, the iconic Pagsanjan Falls, is one of the most memorable travel images of Philippine dating back to the 1970s.

Shooting the rapids — Michael Fernandez
Shooting the rapids — Michael Fernandez

“Shooting the rapids” on the way to the fabled waterfall — also known as Magdapio Falls — is among the must-do countryside day trips for foreign and local tourists.

This adrenaline-pumping activity, which has appeared on countless posters and postcards, remains on top of travelers’ bucket lists  for the last four decades.

This summer, the quaint town of Pagsanjan is welcoming summer with the Bangkero Festival, set on March 10 to 19, themed “Pagkakaisa at Saya Tungo sa Tagumpay” (Unity and Fun Towards Victory).

Now on its 18th year, the festival is a tribute to the bangkeros or the boatmen who skillfully maneuver the boats and “shoot the rapids” all the way to the picture-perfect falls.

Municipal Mayor Maita Javier-Ejercito said the festival showcases the town’s march to progress as a result of its tourism and investment promotional efforts. The Bangkero Festival has won a string of awards from tourism bodies, she said, most notably the Pearl Award of the Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines from 2012 to 2014.

Activities kick off on March 10, and a highlight is a fluvial parade on March 11 at the Bumbungan River, with gaily decorated floats made out of dug-out canoes, and the Ginoong Bangkero Male Pageant.

Spicing up the celebration are a sagwan (paddle) painting contest, local kakanin (rice snacks) cooking contest, entertainment, native games, Zumba sessions, brass band parades, a dragonboat race, and a pageant for boatmen.

Festivities will draw to a close on March 19 with a river regatta which will see the boatmen showcasing their paddling prowess, and the Lakan and Binibining Pagsanjan pageant coronation in the evening with celebrity guests led by Dawn Chang of Pinoy Big Brother fame.

Aside from its famous river and falls, Pagsanjan also takes pride in its Spanish-era Royal Arch which was built when it was made the provincial capital from 1878 to 1880. Other heritage spots in town include the Diocesan Shrine of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and the well-preserved ancestral mansion of Don Telesforo Ejercito.

The town also features colonial-era houses which have found a second life as restaurants and shops, the most notable of which is Calle Arco Restaurant.

Pagsanjan was declared by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan as the “Tourist Capital of Laguna” more than a decade ago because of the volume of visitors. In the past two years, some 140,000 tourists have done the Pagsanjan rapids tours.