A string of four irregularly shaped peninsular provinces and two insular provinces plus numerous offshore islets comprise the region of Bicol. It is located on the southeastern extremity of Luzon, within 122 and 125 East longitude and 12 and 14 North latitude. The peninsular mainland looks like a huge flying bird and has a total landmass of about 5,400 sq. miles or 17,632 sq. kilometers. Catanduanes and Masbate are the two insular provinces on the east and south while the four peninsular provinces are Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Sorsogon. The Pacific Ocean bounds the region on the east while Ragay Gulf separates it from the eastern Cordillera and Bondoc Peninsula.
Among the dominant topographic features are numerous coastal embayments and volcanic cones, which dot its whole landscape. These provide the region with a uniquely varied relief consisting of steep slopes and rolling hills in the midst of plains and valleys. Of the volcanic cones, Mount Mayon is the most well known and active; it is also considered one of the most perfect cones in the world. The rest are Mounts Labo, Malinao, Isarog and Bulusan. The high degree of volcanism plus the lengthy coasts make the region’s lowlands fit for both fishing and farming activities.
Bicol’s geographic location predispose it to strong typhoons which usually occur during the months of September to November. The six provinces differ with respect to their exposure to typhoons.
Large arable tracks of land varied vegetation, extensive fishing grounds and rich mineral deposits make up the region’s natural wealth. Cultivated crops include rice, corn, coconut, abaca and fruit trees. Albay used to be top exporter of the world famous Manila hemp while still in copra production. The region used to occupy the sixth position among coconut producing regions in the country. Among the rich mineral deposits are gold (in Camarines Norte), uranium (in Sorsogon), copper, coal, manganese, and limestone (in Camarines Sur, Masbate, Albay and Catanduanes). Tiwi Hot Spring in Albay is a source of geothermal energy. The seas around the peninsula are among the riches fishing grounds in the country; these are in Burias Pass, Sibuyan Sea, Ticao Pass, Ragay Gulf and Lagonoy Gulf. Marine wealth is concentrated in the coastal Sorsogon towns of Bulan, Donsol, Gubat, Magallanes and Pilar.
The region’s six provinces have varying numbers of municipalities, cities and towns. Camarines Sur has the most numerous towns and barrios. There are three cities namely, Naga and Iriga (in Camarines Sur) and Legaspi (in Albay). Airplanes, trains and buses make transportation in the region easy. Albay’s strategic location makes it a gateway for the neighboring regions of Samar-Leyte and the Tagalog provinces. Naga City serves as the center of communication with several commercial radio receivers and government-owned and operated radio networks.
Regional public offices and private industrial institutions are found in both Naga City and Legaspi City. With the number of collegiate institutions available, educational opportunities in the area are good. Camarines Sur is the most populated province while the most dense is Bicol Plain. Other dense places are the lowlands in Legaspi-Tabacco in Albay and the coasts of San Bernardino Strait and southern Catanduanes.
The original settlers of Bicol were said to be hybridized by the Tagalog (who migrated to Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur) and the Visayans (who moved to Masbate and Sorsogon).
These migrations plus the isolation of certain areas led to the formation of diverse dialects. The Bicol dialect in Camarines Norte is interchangeably used with Tagalog, while the one used in Masbate and Sorsogon is mixed with northern Visayan language. On the other hand, the Catanduanes dialect had been influenced by Samar-Leyte language. In the so-called Rinconada towns (which includes Buhi, Bula, Baao, Iriga, Bato and Nabua), the dialects differ from the Naga language as well as from one another. Though this is so, the Bicolanos can communicate with one another with the "Bicol proper" language in Naga City and the lower Bicol valley.
According to a folk epic entitled Ibalong, the people of the region were formerly called Ibalong or Ibalnong, a name believed to have been derived from Gat Ibal who ruled Sawangan (now Legaspi) in ancient times. Ibalong used to mean the "people of Ibal;" eventually, this was shortened to Ibalon. The word Bikol which replaced Ibalon was originally bikod (meaning ‘meandering"), a word which supposedly described the principal river of that area.
Archeological diggings which date back to as early as the Neolithic and accidental findings resulting from the mining industry, road-building and railway projects in the region reveal that the Bicol mainland is a rich storehouse of ceramic artifacts. Burial cave finding also point to the prehispanic practice of using burial jars.
The Spanish influence in Bicol resulted mainly from the efforts of Augustinian and Franciscan Spanish missionaries. Through the Franciscans, the annual feast of the Virgin of Peñafrancia, the Patroness for Bicolandia, was started. Fr. Miguel Robles asked a local artist to carve a replica of the statue of the Virgin in Salamanca; now, the statue is celebrated through an annual fluvial parade in Naga City.
Bicolano actively participated in the national resistance to the American and Japanese colonization through two known leaders who rose up in arms namely Simeon Ola and Governor Wenceslao Q. Vinzons.
To suit the tropical climate, the Bicolanos use light material for their houses; others now have bungalows to withstand the impact of strong typhoons. Light, western styled clothes are predominantly used now.
The typical Bicolano wears light, western styled clothes similar to the Filipinos in urban centers. Seldom, if ever, are there Bicolanos weaving sinamy or piña for clothing as in the past; sinamy is reserved now for pillow cases, mosquito nets, fishing nets, bags and other decorative items.
Coconut and abaca are two dollar-earning products that are grown in the coastal valleys hillsides or slopes of several fertile volcanoes respectively. The Bicol River basin or rice granary provide the peasants rice, corn, and root crops for food and small cash surplus when crops evade the dreaded frequent typhoons. For land preparation, carabao-drawn plow and harrow are generally used; sickles are used for cutting rice stalks, threshing is done either by stepping on or beating the rice straws with basbas and cleaning is done with the use of the nigo (winnowing basket).
Meals are generally rich in carbohydrates and viands of vegetables, fish and meat are cooked in various ways. Bicolanos almost always cook their vegetables in coconut milk; for meat recipes such as pochero, adobo and tapa. A special meat dish is the dinuguan. Fish that serve as common viand are mackerel and anchovy; in Lake Buhi, the sinarapan or tabios (known as the smallest fish in the world) is common. Except for those living in Rinconada, Bicolanos are not extraordinarily fond of eating hot or peppery.
Copra processing and abaca stripping are generally done by hand. Fishing is also an important industry and fish supply is normally plentiful during the months of May through September. Organized or big-time fishing makes use of costly nets and motor-powered and electric-lighted boats or launches called palakaya or basnigan. Individual fishermen, on the other hand, commonly use two types of nets – the basnig and the pangki as well as the chinchoro, buliche and sarap.
In Buhi Lake, the sarap and sumbiling are used; the small fishes caught through the former is called sinarapan. The bunuan (corral) of the inangcla, sakag, sibi-sibid and sakag types are common. The banwit, two kinds of which are the og-og and kitang, are also used.
Mining and the manufacture of various items from abaca are important industries. The former started when the Spaniards discovered the Paracale mines in Camarines Norte.
Close family ties and religiosity are important traits for survival in the typhoon-prone physical environment. Some persisting traditional practices are the pamalay, pantomina and tigsikan. Beliefs on god, the soul and life after death are strongly held by the people. Related to these, there are annual rituals like the pabasa, tanggal, fiestas and flores de mayo. Side by side with these are held beliefs on spiritual beings as the tawo sa lipod, dwende, onglo, tambaluslos, kalag, katambay, aswang and mangkukulam.
On the whole, the value system of the Bicolanos shows the influence of Spanish religious doctrines and American materialism merged with the traditional animistic beliefs. It is thus, a multi-cultural system which evolved through the years to accommodate the realities of the erratic regional climatic conditions in a varihued geographical setting. Such traits can be gleaned from numerous folktales and folksongs that abound, the most known of which is the Sarong Bangui. The heroic stories reflect such traits as kindness, a determination to conquer evil forces, resourcefulness and courage. The folksong come in the form of awit, sinamlampati, panayokyok, panambitan, hatol, pag-omaw, rawit-dawit and children’s song and chants.