Majayjay Through the Eyes of 19th Century European Tourists

Majayjay, 1859 by Sir John Bowring

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to visit six towns in Laguna in one day. I was able to travel to Pila, Pagsanjan, Magdalena, Liliw, Nagcarlan, and Majayjay. On top of that, I started my trip from Manila. The main purpose of my expedition was to see the different heritage churches. I have to admit that it was a whirlwind tour.  

It wasn't an ideal excursion since I wasn't able to stay long enough to observe and experience the locales. Eventually, I did manage to write an article about the Franciscan churches located in those towns. My one regret was that I wasn't able to visit the Immaculate Conception Church in Santa Cruz even though I passed through the town several times that day. There wasn't just enough time.

If I took that same Laguna journey 140 years ago, it would have taken me days to traverse through the same route. It wouldn't even be a comfortable trip because of the horse or carriage rides, the muddy and unpaved roads, the heat, and the dust. Plus, I would have taken a steamboat from Manila to reach the ferry terminal of Santa Cruz in Laguna. 

Lately, I've been remembering that trip. It could be the effects of being confined at home for the past several months and having a lot of spare time. But I started digging through my books because I recalled that I had a copy of a 19th Century travelogue written by a Dutch Colonial administrator in the 1870s. 

Jacob Adolf Bruno Wiselius visited the Philippines in 1875. At that time, he was employed as Controller with the Dutch Colonial Administration in Java, Indonesia. His expedition took him to Manila and other nearby places particularly Laguna. He was on his way home to the Netherlands for furlough when he took the journey to Manila. He published his travelogue about Manila in 1876. 

J.A.B. Wiselius' "A Visit to Manila & Its Environs" was recently translated in English by Geert Van der Linden and published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2017. I bought the book out of curiosity. It was only now that I was able to focus on the details found in the book.

Reading Wiselius led me to "A Visit to the Philippines" by Sir John Bowring. It's a good thing that this 1859 travel journal is available via Project Gutenberg. It revealed a lot of gems in terms of source material for future articles. Bowring served as Governor of Hong Kong, Ambassador to China, and even became an honorary member of the Sociedad Economica De Las Filipinas. 

The perspectives of Wiselius and Bowring were often similar. It could be because both were government administrators albeit one was Dutch, the other was British. Their observations were not just limited to the scenery and their personal encounters. Most of the time, their accounts bordered on the comparison of how the Spanish Colonials run the country versus the British Colonials in Hong Kong and the Dutch over its dominions in the East Indies. 

Thinking about it, what really triggered me to write this article was a vintage illustration of the Puente del Capricho in Majayjay that I saw among my research materials. Upon seeing the picture, it propelled me to revisit my own trip to Laguna particularly to Majayjay. I wasn't able to see the bridge nor did I see a glimpse of the more than 200-year-old Ordoveza home, one of the oldest heritage houses in the Philippines. Architectural historians like Jaime Laya and Martin Tinio Jr. mentioned it in their book, Philippine Heritage Homes: A Guidebook

Puente del Capricho Majayjay, BPI Art Collection

Another distinction that the town of Majayjay is known for is its connection to Emilio Jacinto. The young revolutionary died of malaria in 1899 while hiding in the forests of Majayjay. There is a Jacinto marker located on the San Gregorio Magno Church grounds. It's near the side door of the church.

Majayjay was a popular stopover for weary travelers particularly the religious orders. The cold breeze from the mountains was ideal for convalescence. 

In 1571, Majajy became an encomienda. The Augustinians friars were the first to establish a church in Majayjay but when the Franciscans arrived, they took over in 1578. When Bishop Domingo Salazar arrived on the Bicol coast on board the San Martin Galleon from Mexico, he traveled on land from Bicol to Manila. He was joined by friars and priests from the Dominican and Jesuit Orders. Undoubtedly, they would have sought refuge with the Franciscan mission stationed in Majayjay. 

Speaking of Puente del Capricho, even Jose Rizal acknowledged the fact that there were too many cooks in the kitchen when it came to making decisions in the Philippines. By Rizal's time, the bridge was a controversial topic. He included a conversation in El Filibusterismo

'Have you any idea what technical experts are like, Ben Zayb?' asked the Franciscan in a hollow voice, scarcely moving in his chair and with the barest gesture of his withered hands. 'Look at the Bridge of Whims, built in the provinces by one of our brethren. It was never finished because your so-called technical experts, on the basis of their theories, criticized it as being flimsy and unsafe. Well, the bridge is still standing in spite of floods and earthquakes!" 

The Journey to Laguna

Sir John Bowring and his party were treated with pomp and circumstance everywhere he went in Laguna since he was a highly-regarded government administrator even though his trip was more personal rather than an official one.

Here is an entry in Bowring's book about his sojourn to Pagsanjan:

"Next morning the carriages of the Alcalde, drawn by the pretty little ponies of Luzon, conducted us to the casa real at Pagsanjan, the seat of the government, or Cabacera, of the province, where we met with the usual warm reception from our escort Señor Tafalla, the Alcalde. Pagsanjan has about 5,000 inhabitants, being less populous than Biñan and other pueblos in the province. Hospitality was here, as everywhere, the order of the day and of the night, all the more to be valued as there are no inns out of the capital, and no places of reception for travellers; but he who is recommended to the authorities and patronized by the friars will find nothing wanting for his accommodation and comfort, and will rather be surprised at the superfluities of good living than struck with the absence of anything necessary. I have been sometimes amazed when the stores of the convent furnished wines which had been kept from twenty to twenty-five years;and to say that the cigars and chocolate provided by the good friars would satisfy the most critical of critics, is only to do justice to the gifts and the givers."

Wiselius on the other hand was more of the do-it-yourself type of tourist. Whilst onboard a steamship that would take him to Santa Cruz, he described Laguna as the Switzerland of the Philippines, "with its lakes and rivers, mountain streams, volcanoes, forests, waterfalls, mountain ranges and valleys". 

He was a keen observer of his co-passengers: "There were very few Europeans or similar foreigners in the boat, but those who were there tried to find comfortable positions for themselves. Some friars, embarking on a tour of duty, were smoking and drinking chocolate; there were ladies, mestizas or creoles, who were telling each other the latest news from Manila, and in between, on the floor or on benches were gentlemen, ladies, and girls who tried to sleep to kill time."

Wiselius also noted that there was no distinct segregation between the Europeans, the mestizas, and the natives: "There was no shortage of natives, and they moved around in the aft and front salons, sitting among the Europeans, smoking and talking, and all treated each other like equals."

Bowring and Wiselius in Majayjay

Both Bowring and Wiselius included in their itineraries the elevated town of Majayjay. From Pagsanjan, it was a three to four-hour carriage ride over rough roads.

Wiselius met with Mr. T, a Swiss national, who settled in Majayjay. His business was in coffee and orchids. He was married to a mestiza and has been living in the country for 12 years during their meeting. Wiselius noted that there were about 9,000 inhabitants in 1875. 

Wiselius was rather disappointed with the accommodation that he had in Majayjay. 

"I had expected to find in Majayjay one of those pleasant, cheerful country houses that we have in such abundance on Java. However, the residence of Mr. T and other similar haciendas that I visited had little in common with those and were just very basic. There was no guest room so I settled down in the fonda. I learned later that this structure was the only fonda (furnished wooden pasanggrahan: Indonesian guest house) in the Philippine interior. I paid half a dollar for the room and the price of meals is also included.

Bowring's experience was quite the opposite: "After some hours’ journey we arrived at Majayjay, and between files of Indians, with their flags and music, were escorted to the convent, whence the good Franciscan friar Maximo Rico came to meet us, and led us up the wide staircase to the vast apartments above. The pueblo has about 8,500 inhabitants; the climate is humid, and its effects are seen in the magnificent vegetation which surrounds the place. The church and convent are by far the most remarkable of its edifices. Here we are surrounded by mountain scenery, and the forest trees present beautiful and various pictures. In addition to leaves, flowers and fruits of novel shapes and colours, the grotesque forms which the trunks and branches of tropical trees assume, as if encouraged to indulge in a thousand odd caprices, are among the characteristics of these regions."

Majayjay 1899 Photo: John Tewell

Botocan Falls 

Bowring writes, "We returned by a different road to Majayjay, for the purpose of visiting a splendid waterfall, where the descent of the river is reported to be 300 feet. We approached on a ledge of rock as near as we could to the cataract, the roar of which was awful; but the quantity of mist and steam, which soon soaked our garments, obscured the vision and made it impossible for us to form any estimate of the depth of the fall. It is surrounded by characteristic scenery—mountains and woods—which we had no time to explore, and of which the natives could give us only an imperfect account: they knew there were deer, wild boars, buffaloes, and other game, but none had penetrated the wilder regions. A traveller now and then had scrambled over the rocks from the foot to the top of the waterfall."

Before traveling to Lucban, Wiselius also trekked to Botocan Falls. Both tourists recounted their trip via 'hammock' or 'palanquin'. 

Bowring related his experience, "We were now about to ascend the mountains, and were obliged to abandon our carriages. Palanquins, in which we had to stretch ourselves at full length, borne each by eight bearers, and relays of an equal number, were provided for our accommodation."

Wiselius was more expressive in his narrative: "It wasn't an easy outing. I was lying in a hamac, in which one lies flat and is carried by coolies over narrow, steep mountain paths in the hot sun, and I was totally dependent on my carriers; this was not the most desirable situation to be in. But after two hours this ordeal was over and we were amply compensated by the beautiful nature that we saw.

An open space in the jungle enabled us to discover a small, foaming river that found its way among the rocks until it reached a ravine that caused the water to tumble down. The heavily forested ravine must be at least 300-400 feet deep, but the clouds of foam and mist made it impossible to look down more than 100 feet."

Botocan Falls 1859, Sir John Bowring

There are numerous historical documents that any budding historian or history-lover can still unearth or discover.

Aside from Wiselius and Bowring, there were other European (non-Spanish) and American narratives about the Philippines during the 19th Century. These intrepid Europeans wrote about their travel experiences and stories: Jean Mallat (1846), Paul De La Gironiere (1820-1839), and Robert MacMicking (1848-1850). These recorded sources are ready to be researched and brought to the consciousness of the 21st Century Filipinos. 


Wiselius, J.A.B. A Visit to Manila and Its Environs, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017.

Bowring, John. A Visit to the Philippine Islands, London, 1859.

Javellana S.J., Fr. Rene B. La Casa De Dios, Ortigas Foundation Inc., 2010.

Laya, Jaime C. Philippine Heritage Homes: A Guidebook, Anvil Publishing, 2014.

Rizal, Jose El Filibusterismo translated by Leon Ma. Guerrero, Guerrero Publishing, 2015. 

Majayjay Historical Marker

San Gregorio Magno Church historical marker

J.A.B. Wiselius A Visit to Manila and Its Environs

Sir John Bowring A Visit to the Philippine Islands

Majayjay Marker

San Gregorio Magno Marker

Suggested Readings on Philippine History: