Greenbelt Park in the heart of the business district.

Greenbelt Park

Living in Manila is famously relaxed and easy, compared to those hives of workaholics in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Where else can you see white-collar workers strolling Glorietta or the shops of Makati, self-styled “Wall Street of the Philippines”, still on extended “lunch break” at mid-afternoon every single weekday?

True, globalization and the great waves of outsourcing from America and Europe have instilled a sharper work ethic and made “24/7” accessibility a reality for many businesses. Still, expats and locals alike are obviously grateful to escape for a while from the gray concrete canyons of Makati and have a breather (or a tall cappuccino) in the pocket-size Greenbelt Park.

Greenbelt Park Makati

Long ago (from the 1950s to the 1970s), there really was a belt of green smack dab between the first few, dozen-storey-high office mid-rises along Ayala Avenue, the San Lorenzo gated community, and what was to have been a residential Legaspi Village.

Two city blocks long, the southern one already had a lagoon, surrounded by a garden and a little church looking for all the world like a fossilized octopus, if such a thing were possible. Around the periphery of this concession to the Filipino fondness for going to church and strolling in parks, were a supermarket, the first local Shakey’s Pizza, the Ayala Museum, and what passed for an English pub.

The much larger open space to the northwest was a cogon wasteland, much as the Ayala family had found it on acquiring the “hacienda” after World War II. Up to the mid-1970s, there was only a Shell gas station, mainly to service the trucks and other heavy equipment that used the whole block as an open-air garage.

Through successive boom-bust cycles, that eyesore was swept away by, first a modest-sized Greenbelt Mall, followed in the next three decades by a long wing-cum-parking building and a bus terminal surrounded by food stands.

By the late 1990s, all that had been renovated or bulldozed, yet again to give way to a sprawling Greenbelt Mall, a complex of upscale shops and food establishments to rival the spanking new Fort across EDSA.

What had once been a great deal of open space with trees and hedges in every bit of open ground had essentially vanished. The greenery that had attracted buyers to a slew of 30 and 40 floor residential condominiums around Greenbelt had become a series of pocket parks.

Greenbelt Park – A Pocket Park?

To be sure, more trees have been planted in traffic islands and in that little garden hemmed in for blocks around by high-rise residential condominiums and office buildings, by hotels and parking buildings.

But they fight for air with elevated walkways and the three-level mall. Still, Greenbelt Park is, hackneyed as it seems, testimony to the vision of a family that is so well-respected they might never have been criticized if the last stand of acacia trees in the park had fallen to the axeman.

Green is everywhere, long before it became fashionable. From 30 storeys up, one sees that trees outnumber buildings (but not cars) all around the Makati business district.

Greenbelt Park Today

Today, Greenbelt Park remains a pleasant oasis.

At eye level, one basks in the solace of the lagoon that winds its way here and there, with little waterfalls and fountains to break the monotony. Its sides are choked with bushes, orchids, stands of palms and other trees and a seemingly haphazard collection of brown rock.

Here and there are surprising corners of “Zen garden,” black and white gravel arranged to form the yin-yang symbol. And just to remind you where you are (as if the heat was not enough), there are touches of local whimsy like the stone buffalo that looks up from grazing, right beside the church.

The grass is not to be trampled on but a courtyard tucked near a lighted fountain has enough room to host open-air cocktails, promotional parties, concerts, Philharmonic performances and of all things, a special appearance by the “Queer Eye” cast.

Given the cosmopolitan culture of the people, it is not at all surprising to walk a few steps from raw, moss-covered rock to a Starbucks, Seattle's Best, Louis Vuitton, Escada, Bally, Hans Brumann, Marithe et Francois Girbaud, Gucci, Guess, Prada and the Ayala Museum, all tenants of the brand-new Greenbelt 4 Mall.

Yes, it is possible to do this in Maryland’s green belt, too and even in New York’s Fifth Avenue. Still, there is the church…

Greenbelt Park Chapel of Santo Nino de la Paz By now, the dome-shaped Chapel of Santo Niño de la Paz (Holy Infant of Peace), with its inevitable statue of the Virgin Mary, has beckoned to two generations of the working class faithful.

Noon and after-hours masses offer the true attraction of Greenbelt Park, solace to tired souls and worshipful penitents.

Is this so strange for a setting that worships luxury lifestyles and designer brands? Not at all.

Within a mile of the Santo Niño chapel are five more Catholic churches, two of them national shrines.

For all the urban sprawl and commerce that surrounds it, Greenbelt Park offers many a sight to give pause to both the harassed office worker and the shopper who has maxed out (again!) her husband’s platinum Amex.

It is an accessible showcase of the tremendous profusion of plant life in the country. Certainly, there is enough here, in a two-and-a-half acre setting, to make Singapore’s Botanical Gardens pale in comparison.

Once in Manila you have to decide where to stay. Have a look here for some of my reviews and recommendation on where to stay in Manila.

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