Baguio in bloom

The flowers and festivities may be in bloom, but is the Panagbenga enough to save the once premiere tourist city?

Before there was a Boracay, a Palawan, or even a Tagaytay, there was only one summer destination in the country: Baguio. Back then, going to the mountain city seemed like a rite of passage—it was Baguio or bust.

Everyone wanted to go there and experience the cool, crisp, feel of “American” weather, take walks around Burnham Park, and marvel at the 360-degree panoramic views.

I even recall stories of my uncles who went on a Baguio adventure during their teenage years bringing only a few hundred pesos—just enough for bus fare and food. They would proudly boast of how they survived two days on the meager budget, strolling around to check out the scenic attractions for the entire day, and spend the night at Burnham Park.

The last time I set foot in Baguio was more than two decades ago. At that time, aside from the gigantic lion’s head, you knew you were there because of the pine trees and the misty fog that enveloped the city, as if concealing a welcoming surprise. And while we didn’t sleep at Burnham Park, the stories of my uncles did prove true—Baguio was not only a cool place both figuratively and literally – it was also safe and very tourist-friendly with a lot of nice places to see.

Fast forward to 2011. After almost an hour of traversing curved roads, I knew we were getting close. Strangely though, instead of rows of pine trees and lush green scenery, I was greeted by a lot of roadside commercial establishments, houses and a flyover! It was only when we reached The Manor at Camp John Hay, did I see all the missing pine trees. We were in Baguio all right, but it wasn’t the old Baguio I once knew.

Baguio’s beloved Panagbenga

From a quiet highland retreat, Baguio has morphed into a highly-populated and bustling metropolis. If it wasn’t for the moderately cold weather, you wouldn’t realize that you’ve left Manila at all. I was with a group of media representatives who were invited to witness the Panagbenga Festival, an annual event that seeks to put the city on the center stage and showcase what that the region has to offer.

The Panagbenga started way back in 1995 and was the brainchild of Atty. Damaso E. Bangaoet, Jr. He proposed the idea of organizing a flower festival to reflect the rich cultural heritage of Baguio City and the Cordillera region. He was also the one who suggested that the annual event be held every February due to the perfect weather and to give folks a reason to visit the city between Christmas and Holy Week.

Sixteen years have passed and the Panagbenga has become one of the most colorful festivals in the country and has been compared to the famous Pasadena Rose Parade. This year, an estimated 1.5 million people filled the streets to witness the culminating weekend that featured a street dancing competition and the grand float parade.

For this year, the organizing committee came up with the theme “Environment and Community in Harmony,” and in an effort to return the event back to its Cordillera roots, the organizers requested all participants to wear only costumes that reflect the culture of the region.

“We wanted to make sure that when you see a picture of our street dancer, you’d immediately know that it was taken at the Panagbenga Festival in Baguio,” says Freddie Alquiros, Co-chairman of Panagbenga 2011.

Flower spectacle

More than 20 floats participated in this year’s grand parade. Each one creatively designed using various flowers such as roses, anthuriums, chrysanthemums, everlasting, sunflowers, and other colorful blooms, emblazoned with the name of the sponsoring company. There were huge rabbits, moving forests, giant donuts, strawberries made of roses and red-winged angels. There was even an Avatar movie-inspired float complete with the alien beasts, a helicopter and in a rather bizarre twist a Sto. Nino.

TV celebrities Enchong Dee, AJ Perez, Sam Milby, Andi Manzano, and JC De Vera, among others, rode the floats to the delight of the crowd who began to fill up the streets from as early as 4 a.m.

According to Alquiros, companies usually spend around a quarter of a million pesos to create such amazing floats. And despite the fact that the previous prizes were just a fraction of the cost, many continue to join the parade for the promotion and prestige of being seen at the Panagbenga.

In the end, SM City Baguio and Samsung were tied for first place; the Department of Tourism float came in second; while the SMB- Red Horse float placed third. With the victory, SM City Baguio has formally qualified to be inducted to the hall of fame.

Flowery facade

All the flowers and the spectacle of the Panagbenga, however, could not hide the fact that Baguio has incurred the nuances of becoming an overly urbanized city. Problems with traffic and urban planning have emerged and the growing population due to in-migration has likewise reared its ugly head.

Baguio has also lost several of its original tourist destinations.  Burnham Park and Mines View Park, for example, have already been removed from the list of must-see places in the city. In their place, according to Alquiros, tour operators now suggest seeing the BenCab museum and, believe it or not, SM Baguio.

“While we have nothing against SM as they’ve done a commendable job in the architecture and design of the mall to complement the city, it’s just unfortunate that instead of preserving our tourist destinations we are losing them,” he lamented.

As for the once beautiful Crystal Caves? It too has been removed from the list, having been edged out by informal settlers.

I have experienced the Baguio hospitality before, and its hostility on this most recent trip. At a time when the entire city is being seen showcased and written about supposedly at its best, our group was subjected to a lot of comments raging from the unruly “Hoy! Alis diyan and tabi!”  (Hey get down! Move!)  to the sometimes embarrassing “Bakit pinapaboran ninyo yang mga taga-Manila na yan? Dapat yung mga taga rito asikasuhin ninyo!” (Why are you favoring those from Manila when you should be taking care of the residents here!). Maybe they’ve mistaken us for hobbyists (who in fact, greatly exceeded our numbers and were more disorganized). The people who filled the sidewalks wouldn’t even budge even if you pleaded with them as if they owned that space and you were trespassing on their property. If the city was really trying to attract more tourists, then residents must have forgotten their “welcome” signs at home.

At a press conference after the float parade, Baguio City Mayor Mauricio Domogan outlined his strategy for addressing these problems. Alquiros then added that Department of Tourism secretary Alberto Lim has allotted P20 million in support of the rehabilitation of Burnham Park and its Rose Garden.

However, unless the residents truly understand and appreciate the value of having more tourists not just during Panagbenga, but rather whole year round, all the efforts of the city government to help Baguio live up to its title of “Summer Capital of the Philippines,” will be in vain.

Hopefully, as the Ayala group comes in to the city to put up a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) hub, the people there would learn the value of customer service.

Last bastion of “old” Baguio

As Session Road was always teeming with people, the trip back to The Manor at Camp John Hay was really something to look forward to.

It was back to old Baguio again, the smell of the surrounding pine-trees and the ever smiling faces of the hotel staff.

Situated 5,000 feet above sea level and nestled within 246 hectares of prime land, The Manor remains a splendid presentation of Baguio’s natural beauty and bounty. The four-storey structure built with stone exterior finish, shingled roofing and tinted glass windows was designed to blend seamlessly with towering pine trees, while the majestic Cordillera mountain range provided a magnificent view.

Inside, the paneled walls and wooden furniture evoked a Filipino-colonial feel and emulated the atmosphere, history and the fond memories of the Baguio of old. All of the hotel’s 177 rooms are equipped with modern amenities and is a veritable home-away-from-home.

To satisfy all your gustatory cravings, renowned chef Billy King is always preparing something creatively delicious at Le Chef restaurant. Long considered to be one of the most prestigious places to meet and dine in the city, Le Chef offers a wide range of local and international dishes and fine wines. A quick look at the menu showcases the freshness of Baguio’s produce from the crispy greens to the newly picked fruits and herbs.

The Manor at Camp John Hay is managed by Heiner L. Maulbecker, a resident of the city for more than 20 years, and one of the staunchest advocates of promoting Baguio and the Panagbenga Festival.

For more information, call (074) 4240931 or (02) 8450892, 8450911 or email [email protected]. You could also check out their website at


Joseph the Artist Wins Talentadong Pinoy