Category: Beach

Sweet Escape To Siargao

(Published in Manila Bullettin on July 10, 2016 http://www.mb.com.ph/on-cloud-9/ )

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

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Sugba Lagoon

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Guyam Island

As I clamber over the jagged cliff, my legs shake uncontrollably. The Magpupungko tide pool’s depth and clarity are far from scary, but the thought of a potential injury makes my heart thump like a trapped wild animal, desperate to escape. What if I miscalculate my jump and slam my head on the steep rock wall before plummeting into the water? I watch children before me leap off the rocks effortlessly and splash into the lucent water below. Children! I am in fear of a disaster that has never occurred beyond the realm of my annoyingly creative imagination. “Go on, jump!” a boy with sun-bleached hair prods, trying to stifle his laughter at my awkward position. Don’t you dare be a wimp and embarrass yourself in front of the children, my subconscious berates me. The cool summer breeze feels like needles upon my bare skin. I shut my eyes, gather my breath to murmur a pathetic prayer and plunge into the pool.

Magpupungko Tide Pool

Magpupungko Tide Pool

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tide Pools

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Magpupungko Tida Flats

Kissed by the sun and sculpted by the massive barreling waves of the Pacific Ocean, the small, teardrop-shaped island of Siargao stands brave-faced just off the coast of Surigao Del Norte, a province in the northernmost part of Mindanao. Siargao is considered the surfing Mecca of the country, with waves averaging 7 feet during the last quarter of the year, attracting surfers from all over the world. But there’s more to the island than adrenalin-inducing waves. It is also blessed with postcard-perfect beaches, enchanting lagoons, caves, lush coral reefs, bizarre rock formations and expansive mangrove reserves.

Towards the end of the two-hour boat ride from the town of General Luna, we catch sight of broccoli-shaped limestone hills and gray bluffs sprouting with lush plant life. They sit mirrored amid the stillness of the clear emerald waters. We are at Sugba Lagoon in the town of Del Carmen on the western part of Siargao. I ask the boatman why the place is called Sugba, which means “to barbeque” in Visayan. “This used to be a hideaway of fisher folks. Here, they’d gather to grill their catch and have a few drinks,” he says. Our chatter is interrupted by a startling cry above the forest canopy on the opposite bank. “That’s the resident White-Breasted Eagle!” the boatman blurts out excitedly. The majestic bird circles against the clear blue skies with measured wing flaps before landing on a high branch and, as we watch, it dawns on us that it is building a nest.

A two-story wooden house, which was built by the local government to cater to visitors, rises up from the placid waters. Besides the lady caretaker, whom we ask to grill the meat and fish we bought at the public market earlier, there is no one at the house when we arrive. My friends and I rush to the second floor veranda to admire the gorgeous vista of the lagoon from a higher vantage point. “Can we spend the rest of the day here?” someone in the group asks, completely enamored with the scenery. Without thinking twice, we cancel our plan to visit other islands in the afternoon. I check out the empty hall behind the glass sliding doors. Here, guests can spend the night if they wish to. The hall has large glass windows that extend to the floor, flaunting a view of the lagoon on both sides.

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Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

stingless jellyfish in Sugba Lagoon

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lunch in Sugba Lagoon

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snorkeling in Sugba Lagoon

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We snorkel to our hearts’ content and swim with the stingless Spotted Jelly, which can only be seen during the summer months. Before sunset, we head back to General Luna, where we rent a motorbike to explore the island’s nightlife. Our grumbling tummies lead us to Mama’s Grill, a rustic and unassuming open-air eatery, which according to locals and tourists has the best barbeque in the island. After an hour of waiting in a long line, we find out what the fuss is about. The impeccable balance of the succulent, melt-in-your-mouth grilled meat and its sweet, spicy sauce is indeed to-die-for. We could’ve driven past the restaurant, but the horde of customers outside, mostly foreign tourists, is impossible to miss.

Mama's Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted :)

Mama’s Grill has the best barbecues i have ever tasted 🙂

Siargao Island’s motto is pretty simple and straightforward: Eat, Surf, Sleep, Repeat. Travelers from all over the world come here to surf, only to be smitten with the island’s charm. Many have decided to stay indefinitely when they discovered that there’s more to Siargao than enormous waves. Among them is Pal Martenson, a Swedish man who owns Villa Solaria, the lovely 2000 sq. meter resort where we are staying. Pal recalls how he fell in love with the island and its people when he visited two and a half years ago. “The people here are friendly and beautiful and they take care of each other,” he says fondly. When the property was offered to him two years ago, he knew he’d regret for the rest of his life if he passed it up.

Welcoming guests in a lush garden setting, Villa Solaria is a three-minute motorcycle ride to Cloud 9, the island’s primary surfing spot. It is perfect for solo backpackers, couples and big groups. Here, Php 300 a night can get you a cozy bunk bed and vibrant, sun-worshipping globetrotters for neighbors. Those who come in large groups can choose among the six two-story thatched bungalows that could fit up to 5 people, the most expensive priced at only Php 2,000 per night. Not bad at all! To keep his guests entertained, Pal regularly organizes island hopping, diving, running and fishing activities. He also offers all-inclusive surf packages for both amateurs and professionals.

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bunk beds in Villa Solaria

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Villa Solaria cottages

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Pal Martenson, owner of Villa Solaria

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Lit by the orange glow of sunrise, a gorgeous speck of land in the middle of the sea catches our attention. We are standing against the bobbing of the boat as we approach Naked Island. Fittingly, the islet is devoid of any structures or trees, save for a few patches of grass that have pretty purple flowers. We have the islet to ourselves when we arrive, and the rare solitude and freedom in a popular destination bring out the audacious adventurer in us. “Let’s go skinny dipping!” somebody in the group suggests. “Seriously?” another asks. “Yes!” I have always wondered how it felt to swim au naturel. I think this would make a hilarious Instagram post- Naked in Naked Island! Kicking cool sand along the way, we run to the other side of the islet where we are partially concealed by an elevated mound of sand, pull off our clothes and dive into the clear turquoise water.

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

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Naked Island

Naked Island

Naked Island

As the sun drags itself above the horizon, we move to the nearby Guyam Island, a privately owned shape-shifting islet that is less than a hundred meters in length. Aptly, guyam means “small” in Visayan. It is quite stunning from afar: gorgeous white sand, sparkling waters, swaying coconut and Talisay trees, a handful of wooden cottages and razor-sharp rock formations on one side. Quiet and uninhabited, Guyam Island seems like the perfect place to pitch a tent and sleep under the stars.

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

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Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

yoga in Guyam Island

There is sand all over our hair and the skin on our back have grown red and taut. We are catching our breath in heavy sighs after several failed attempts to do acroyoga in thesweltering heat. I may have mastered the art of blissfully contorting and doing #YogaEveryDamnDay poses against stunning beaches and sunsets, but the simplest acroyoga pose is not as easy as it looks. Daku Island would’ve made a perfect backdrop for one, making our Instagram friends drool with envy. The largest among the three islands, Daku Island is home to a small fishing community living contentedly in the absence of materialistic distractions and pollutants. Nestled under sweeping coconut trees, a cluster of wooden cottages invites us to bask in the gorgeous view of the sea and the nearby islands. We decide to drop our ambitious acroyoga “photo shoot” and soon, we are gulping down ice-cold soda and brushing Cheetos dust from our fingers. Our next challenge is to stay awake. It is difficult to when all we hear are the soothing cadence of the crashing waves, the rustling of the palms and the birdsong.

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

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Daku Island

It is noon and a slow hour at Cloud 9 when we arrive. A few surfers walk lazily along the shore. The waves are small and the tide is low, treacherously exposing razor-sharp corals and sunbaked rocks on the seabed. Feeling lethargic after finishing a pan of three-layer pizza at Aventino’s, we decide to languish by the viewing deck at the end of the long wooden ramp. Cloud 9 is the most popular break in the island, and this is where the action usually happens. Several international surfing competitions are held here during the months of August until November, attracting surfers all the way from the United States, Europe, Australia and Indonesia.

Aventino's three-layer pizza

Aventino’s three-layer pizza

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Cloud 9

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Surfing in Cloud 9

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The waves haven’t picked up and after a long lull, our surfing coach takes us to the nearby Rock Island, named after a massive outcrop of rock rising up from the swirling waters. It is the surfers’ playground at low tide. After a quick lesson on standing up and balancing on the surfboard, we paddle into the current. Soon, our coach signals us to pop up and ride the incoming wave. Keep your weight centered on the board, my coach’s instruction reverberates in my head. In one quick motion I jump up in a crouch, arms stretched and feet wide, only to be tipped over as the wave’s peak begins to crash. The waves knock me over countless times. God! Surfing is not as easy as it looks. Standing centered on the board was so much easier on the sand earlier. My friends, on the other hand, are doing much better. They appear effortless as they glide along the crest of the wave. On my final attempt, I manage to stay upright on the board until the wave dissipates. I scream and wave my arms up and down excitedly as if I have just won the Surfing Cup. This must be how it feels to be “stoked”.

surfing in Rock Island

surfing in Rock Island

Surfer or not, anyone who visits Siargao won’t run out of things to relish. Inarguably, the friendly faces everywhere and the charming, relaxed atmosphere of surf living and beach bumming have made this tiny and sun-drenched island irresistible for so long.

 

Getting There:

1.)  By Plane– Cebu Pacific flies directly to Siargao (Sayak Airport) from Cebu.

2.)   By Ferry- Go to the main pier of Surigao City and ride a Roll-on-Roll-off vessel to Dapa Port in Siargao Island. The earliest boat departs at 6 am and the latest at 12 noon. Travel time is 3.5 hours

 

Where To Stay:

Villa Solaria

Tuazon Point, Brgy. Catangnan,

8419 General Luna, Siargao Island

Surigao Del Norte

http://www.villasolaria.surf/

Email: villa_solaria@yahoo.com

09204077730

 

A Travel Guide to 4 of Caraga’s Most Stunning Secrets

The Enchanted River

The Enchanted River

Tinuy-an Falls

Tinuy-an Falls

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Bucas Grande Island

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Located in the northeast section of Mindanao, the Caraga Region is an 18,847-km2 stretch of lush evergreen forests, rugged coastline lapped by sparkling waters, towering waterfalls, limestone karst bedrocks that house many spectacular caves and soil endowed with rich mineral resources. The region is composed of five provinces: Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur and Dinagat Islands.

A few days ago, my travel buddy Aimee and I braved the stressful bus commute and the seemingly endless habal-habal ride on a dirt road to see four of the region’s most beautiful destinations.

1.) Bucas Grande in Socorro, Surigao del Norte

Our chatter is interspersed with silence as soon as our flat-bottomed boat sails toward Sohoton Cove in Bucas Grande Island. Small jungle-covered hills sprouting out of the placid and clear emerald waters greet us from the half-submerged entrance. I have not seen this much green in my life. As we marvel at the carnivorous and brightly colored Pitcher plants dangling over the water, our silence is punctuated by the cooing of the birds among the Magcono trees (Philippine Ironwood), which is said to yield the hardest timber.

There are many caves among the seven broccoli-shaped islets inside Sohoton Cove, most of them unexplored. After the nerve-racking skin dive at the beautiful Hagukan Sea-cave, our guide Zeewar takes us to Magkukuob Cave. Kuob means to bow. “Be careful, you might injure your head,” he warns. Indeed, one has to bow his head to avoid the pointed stalactites at the cavern’s low ceiling. A short climb through a dark passage, whose adjoining walls exhibit many jaw dropping rock formations, takes us to a wooden platform on a cliff. According to our guide, the easiest way out of the cave is to jump off twenty feet into the clear turquoise water below. Exciting indeed!

Besides the enchanting Sohoton Cove, Bucas Grande is also a home to the stingless jellyfish, many small white-sand beaches, and inland lakes clad in dense wilderness.

How to Get There:

From the Surigao City airport in Surigao del Norte, ride a tricycle to Pier Uno (15 minutes), where you would find a boat going to Socorro town in Bucas Grande Island (3 hours). Make sure to arrive before noon because there is only one trip everyday. In Socorro, hire a bangka (outrigger boat) to Sohoton National Park.

Where To Stay:

Villa Harkrisha Resort

Brgy. Taruc, Socorro, Surigao Del Norte

09102924264

My Expenses (excluding airfare):

Tricycle from the airport to Pier Uno- Php 150

Boat to Socorro- Php 200

Hotel (Php800/night for 2)- Php 400 each

Food- Php 500

Boat Rental to Bucas Grande (Php 2,000 for 2)- Php 1,000 each

Sohoton Cave Tour (Php 1,410 for 2)- Php 705 each

Total- Php 2,955

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the half-submerged entrance to Sohoton Cove

the half-submerged entrance to Sohoton Cove

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a beautiful white-sand beach at the Bucas Grande Island

a beautiful white-sand beach at the Bucas Grande Island

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playtime :)

playtime 🙂

the stingless jellyfish at the Bucas Grande Island

the stingless jellyfish at the Bucas Grande Island

selfie with a stunning background

selfie with a stunning background

2.) Tinuy-an Falls in Bislig City, Surigao Del Sur

Tinuy-an means an intentional act to achieve something. Indeed, one has to deviate from the well-paved main road and endure a bumpy and dusty habal-habal ride to see this four-tiered waterfalls in Burboanan village. Nestled in a rainforest with lofty century-old trees and rich biodiversity, Tinuy-an Falls is said to be the widest in the country. The largest tier has a breathtaking width of 95 meters and its cool clear waters plunge 55 meters into a rocky pool that shelters many freshwater fishes.

Crossing the river on a bamboo raft, we are drawn to the beautiful stair-like rock walls behind the thundering waters. “Beautiful. They look like they’ve been carved by human hands,” says Aimee, her eyes fixed on the flat boulders at the bottom of the waterfalls.

According to Kuya Marco, our driver, Tinuy-an Falls has only been opened to tourists in the late 2000, after the shutdown of a large paper company that operated within the area.

How to Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus bound for Bislig (4-5 hours). Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to Tinuy-an Falls. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you are coming from Surigao del Norte, go to the bus terminal and ride a van to Butuan (2 hours). At the Butuan Bus Terminal, ride a van/bus bound for Mangagoy in Bislig City (4 hours). From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle) to Tinuy-an Falls.

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Casa De Babano

Bislig City, Surigao del Sur

+63 86 853 1297

My Expenses:

Van fare from Surigao City to Bislig City via Butuan (3 rides)- Php 400

Hotel (1 night)– Php 1,000

Food- Php 500

Habal-habal to both Enchanted and Tinuy-an- Php 1,500

Souvenir-Php 100

Total-Php 3,500

Tinuy-an Falls

Tinuy-an Falls

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3.) Enchanted River in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur

“It looks even more beautiful than in photographs.” I overhear a tourist who is eagerly fumbling for the camera in her duffel bag. I easily agree with her. I have never seen a river as clear and blue as the one before my eyes.

Hidden among the towering rocky mountains, the Enchanted River is clad in mystery because its exact source has never been determined. Palm trees and indigenous ferns surround its sparkling waters, which is a home to some fishes like the Maya-maya, Katambak, Danggit and Kitong.

A glance at the river takes me back to my childhood when my nanny would tell me stories about the engkantos and their beautiful abode. According to some residents, they grew up listening to stories about fairies and mermaids who guard the river and give it its strange bluish color.

The river glints silver under the afternoon sun, as if enticing us to explore its unfathomable depth. Our guide says the a group of divers once attempted to explore its abysses but were only able to reach 150 feet after consuming several tanks of oxygen. The current underneath is also said to be very strong, making it impossible to dive deeper, thus making some people believe that the river is indeed enchanted.

How to Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus to the town of Hinatuan. Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to the Enchanted River. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Casa De Babano

Bislig City, Surigao del Sur

+63 86 853 1297

My Expenses:

Please see #2 (under Tinuy-an Falls)

The Enchanted River

The Enchanted River

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4.) The Britania Group of Islands in San Agustin, Surigao del Sur

“Only six among the 25 Britania Islands are open for tourists, but it doesn’t mean you’d go home feeling shortchanged,” says Manong Isko, our friendly boatman. I understand what he means when we reach Hagonoy Island, our first stop. As we sink our feet into the soft sugar-colored sand, we are greeted by the breathtaking view of the forest-covered islets rising up from the sea. We find it difficult to resist the clear turquoise water crashing gently on the shore, so despite the intense midday heat, we frolic in the shallows with abandon.

Still devoid of massive tourism, the Britania islands are the perfect conclusion to an exhausting Caraga adventure.

How To Get There:

From Tandag City in Surigao del Sur, where the airport is, ride a bus to San Agustin. Tell the driver you will be alighting at the road going to the Britania Group of Islands. From there, ride a habal-habal (motorcycle).

If you want a hassle-free trip to Tinuy-an Falls, Enchanted River and Britannia Group of Islands, call Kuya Mark Linag at 09489750475. He has affordable packages that include the tours, food, accommodation and entrance fees.

Where to Stay:

Mac Arthur’s Place

Britania, San Agustin, Surigao del Sur

09999910845, 09399163745, 09328823460, 09258221481, 09165850171

Expenses:

Habal-habal ride from Bislig to San Agustin (Php 1,000 for 2)- Php 500 each (this is not the recommended mode of transportation because both towns are far from each other, but since the regular commute takes a longer time, we rode a habal-habal instead)

Food- Php 500

Hotel(Php 1,000 per night)- Php 500 each

Island Hopping (Php 1,200/2 persons) – Php 600 each

Fare from the highway to the port and back- Php 100

Total php 2,200

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Our 5D4N Surigao del Norte/Surigao del Sur Itinerary

Day 1

9:30am- ETA from Cebu to Surigao City Airport via Cebu Pac

10am- depart to Pier Uno, early lunch etc.

12nn- boat departs from Surigao City to Soccoro town

3pm onwards- boat arrives in Socorro, hotel check-in, explore the town, dinner

Day 2

6am to 11am- hotel check-out, start of island hopping to Bucas Grande, quick lunch

12 nn- arrive at Hayanggabon Port via same boat for island hopping, depart to the   town of Badas where we’d find vans for Butuan

1pm- ride a Butuan-bound van at the Badas Terminal

3pm- arrive in Butuan Terminal, ride a bus bound for Mangagoy, Bislig

8pm- arrive in Bislig, hotel check-in, dinner, rest

Day 3

8am to 4pm – explore Tinuy-an Falls and Enchanted River

Day 4

5am- hotel check-out, depart to San Agustin for the Britania island hopping

8am- arrive in Britania port

8:30 am- start the tour to the Britania Group of Islands

12nn- end of tour, lunch

1pm– ride a van to Tandag City***

2pm- arrive in Tandag, ride a bus bound for Surigao City

8pm- arrive in Surigao City, hotel check-in, rest

Day 5

7am- explore Surigao City (public market, museums, churches etc.)

1pm- flight back to Cebu via Cebu Pac

 

*** Tandag City in Surigao del Sur has an airport but there are no flights on weekends so we decided to just go back to our starting point, which, by the way, is very exhausting. If you want to explore these 4 destinations in 5 days, make sure you arrive at the Surigao del Norte airport and depart at the Surigao del Sur airport to avoid the long travel time.

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

Villa Harkrisha Resort in Socorro, Bucas Grande

10 Reasons Why I’m Madly In Love With Batanes

My swelling excitement burst like a bubble when I felt something squishy under my shoe. “Holy shit!” I looked around, acting normally like a tourist who hadn’t clumsily stepped on a bun of fresh cow dung. The rest of the group was too mesmerized by the breathtaking sight to notice. Thank God! After discreetly rubbing off the feces on the pupusud grass, I ran towards a steep slope overlooking the endless waves of rolling hills. The bright skies highlighted the vast greenery.

“Wow! Aaaang ganda!” I gasped in awe, like a child in his favorite toy store. “I’ll charge you a peso everytime you say that.” Jay Ann, our amiable guide, jested. She said she hears the same reaction many times everyday from tourists. The unassuming grandeur before my eyes transcended my expectations.

I gambled on a Batanes trip in July, the start of the stormy season. After booking the cheapest flight I could afford, I called TRavelYoung (09174106099/09153030595) for my tour arrangement. I was given four tour options: North Batan, Sabtang Island, South Batan and Itbayat Island. The last however requires at least an overnight stay in the island and since I only had three whole days, I chose the first three.

After a week of anxiety due to vicious rains and typhoons, I arrived at the diminutive Basco airport to a surprisingly sunny weather. Trekking up the nearest hill to Marfel’s, my lodge, I was greeted by the stunning view of the Basco lighthouse, standing like a dauntless soldier on the lush greens of Naidi Hills. Below it, the water of Baluarte Bay would swell up in foamy rolls before crashing against the ragged cliffs, breaking up into large sprays. That marked the beginning of my love affair with Batanes. Little had I known that the typhoon-battered province would amaze me in more ways than I can imagine.

DSC03615   1.) Tinyan Viewpoint/ Chamantad Cove

Any distress caused by the ferocious waves en route to Sabtang Island is guaranteed to dissipate once you reach the Tinyan Viewpoint/Chamantad Cove. If I’d be asked for only one reason to love with Batanes, this is it. Art, our guide for that day, agrees with me. The grass-covered gentle slopes of Tinyan serves as a communal pastureland for cattle. Alighting from our cogon-roofed tricycle, Art classified the vast land into three areas: nice, beautiful and mind-blowing. Indeed, the farthest slope, which offered a view of Chamantad Cove, is mind-blowing. The wind whistled and the waves from the Pacific Ocean crashed onto the rocks below. Euphoric, I was almost in tears while admiring the breathtaking panorama. Tinyan Viewpoint/Chamantad Cove is part of the Sabtang Island Tour. Sabtang Island can be reached through a 45-minute faluwa ride from the Ivana port. Faluwa is a flat-bottomed motorized boat with no outriggers, designed to withstand the rough waves on the area where the Pacific Ocean merges with the South China Sea.

A view of the Chamantad Cove

A view of the Chamantad Cove

Breathtaking, isn't it?

Breathtaking, isn’t it?

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Meet Joyce, a friend i found at the hilltop :)

Meet Joyce, a friend i found at the hilltop 🙂

DSC04208   2.) Vayang Rolling Hills

Sitting meditatively on a steep slope, I was hypnotized by the panorama from my vantage point. The seeming infinity of the grass-laden crumpled terrain is backdropped by Mt. Iraya, whose summit was surrounded with white puffy clouds that afternoon. The strong winds howled as they swept through tall hedgerows of grass and reeds, drowning the sound of the waves from the South China Sea once in a while. The goats and cattle, looking like ants from afar, grazed obliviously along the steep slopes. Everything was just so magical and movingly beautiful The Vayang Rolling Hills, also a communal pastureland, is the highlight of the North Batan Tour.

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The overwhelming grandeur of Vayang Rolling Hills

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Jumpshot, with 505 chance of rolling down the hill :)

Jumpshot, with 505 chance of rolling down the hill 🙂

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Who doesn’t want a selfie with a stunning background? Not me!

3.) Racuh a Payaman or Marlboro Hills

A traveler friend once said that a Batanes trip is incomplete if you don’t experience a storm. On my last day in the province, all tours were canceled because of Typhoon Henry. Hell-bent, I coerced Art, the tour guide, to take me to South Batan. Waterproofed with helmets and thick raincoats, we braved the piercing rain and the slippery roads on a motorcycle. The Marlboro Hills was worth the risk. Originally called Racuh a Payaman, it was nicknamed “Marlboro Country” by some foreign tourists because the vastitude of the green rolling hills reminded them of the Marlboro Cigarette advertisement. It looks much like Vayang, but has wider and gentler slopes. Mt. Iraya, which stood from afar, hid bashfully behind the dark thick clouds. According to the old Ivatans, whenever clouds circle its apex, somebody in the province is dying. Only one thing proved to be true that moment: Racuh a Payaman is beautiful despite the melancholic skies.

Beautiful despite the gloomy skies

Beautiful despite the gloomy skies

DSC04461   4.) Unique Beaches

Valugan Boulder Beach

When Mt. Iraya erupted in 1454, it spewed out boulders onto the shore. These volcanic rocks were eventually smoothened by the angry waves of the Pacific Ocean. Valugan Boulder Beach is part of the North Batan Tour.

DSC03789  Morong Beach/ Nakabuang Cave/ Mayahaw Arc

The beautiful Morong Beach, which has a long stretch of white grainy sand, is located in Brgy. Malakdang in Sabtang Island. It is adorned with a huge natural arc formation called Mayahaw Arc. Beside it is the small Nakabuang Cave.

DSC04346DSC04365DSC04337White Beach

This roadside beach with white grainy sand is surrounded with towering rock cliffs. White Beach is included in the South Batan Tour.

DSC04592   5.) Old Stone Houses

Chavayan and Savidug Villages

Walking along the drowsy streets of Chavayan Village was like entering a time warp. Backdropped by towering rock cliffs, the centuries-old stone houses line up like weary veterans who survived countless wars. “These walls are made of limestones, dead corals, boulders and firewood. It takes a long time to build one,” Art explained as I ran my fingers through the rough thick walls. The houses are roofed with several layers of Cogon and Vuchid grass, about 1/3 of a meter thick. The Spaniards introduced the limestone technology when they claimed Batanes in 1783. The stone houses were obviously designed to withstand the extreme weather conditions in the islands. The Villages of Chavayan and Savidug in Sabtang Island still abound with these old-fashioned houses.

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Wala kayo sa lolo ko!!!!

DSC04316DSC04312DSC04298 DSC04065 DSC04322 DSC04294   House of Dakay

The House of Dakay is the oldest and most beautifully preserved stone house in Batan Island. It was constructed in 1887 and had survived the magnitude 8.3 earthquake in September 1918. The House of Dakay is part of the South Batan Tour.

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There House of Dakay

DSC04553DSC04568   6.) Beautiful Churches

Tukon Church or Mt. Carmel Church

Imagine your wedding on a small stone house-inspired hilltop church overlooking the seemingly infinite waves of rolling hills and the stunning view of the Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea on both sides. Breathtaking, isn’t it? As if the scenery outside wasn’t enough, the ceiling of the church has beautiful paintings of saints made by the scholars of the late Pacita Abad, an internationally-acclaimed artist. Woodcarvings of the Stations of the Cross, shipped from Paete Laguna, decorate the white walls. Mt. Carmel Church is part of the North Batan Tour.

The hilltop Tukon Church is in between Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea

The hilltop Tukon Church is in between Pacific Ocean and West Philippine Sea

DSC03644 DSC03658   Sto. Domingo Church

The church was built in 1783 in honor of Sto. Domingo De Guzman. It burned down in 1860 and was rebuilt in 1863. It survived the Filipino-American War in the late 1800’s and World War II in the 1940s. A large part of it crumbled during the earthquake in 2000 and was restored in 2002. Sto. Domingo Church is included in the North Batan Tour.

Sto.Domingo Church

Sto.Domingo Church

Chavayan Chapel or Sta. Rosa De Lima Chapel

The chapel stands among the ancient and weary stone houses in Chavayan Village in Sabtang Island. This is the only remaining church with a cog on roofing.

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Chavayan Chapel

Church of Ivana

This church was built in 1795 and also crumbled during the earthquake in 2000. It was restored in 2001. The Church of Ivana is usually part of the South Batan Tour.

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The Church of Ivana

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel in Imnajbu

The chapel is young, built only in 2000. The site, however, was where the first mass and the first baptism in the Batanes soil were administered. This is included in the South Batan Tour

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel

San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel

7.) Charming Lighthouses

Basco Lighthouse, Naidi Hills

Like a soldier who had just won a battle, the Basco Lighthouse stands boldly on the lush greens of Naidi Hills, facing the crumpled terrain of Batan Island, the billowing waves of the Pacific Ocean and the boulder-fringed Baluarte Bay. In the 1920s during the American regime, the telegraph facilities were installed on this site. The lighthouse during sunset is a sight to behold. Basco Lighthouse is included in the North Batan Tour. DSC03946DSC03951DSC03969 DSC03940   Malakdang Lighthouse

The lighthouse calls for attention once you reach Sabtang Island. It stands on a rocky cliff on the left of the port, facing the treacherous waves of the sea.

Malakdang Lighthouse

Malakdang Lighthouse

8.) Stunning Rock Formations and Roadside Views

Alapad Hill and Rock Formations

Art, i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako!”                                                                                              I was on the brink of asking Art, my guide, to recreate with me the famous scene of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta in the movie “Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit”. But then he would find it weird, so I just silently admired the stunning rock formations surrounding Alapad Hill, the exact location of the scene. Below, the waves broke up into foamy sprays as they crashed against the craggy rocks. The Alapad Hill and Rock Formations are included in the South Batan tour. DSC04504

the "i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako" location

the “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” location

the "i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako" location

the “i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako” location

Basco Idjang

The Basco Idjang was the first settlement of the Ivatan people before they lived in tribes. It also served as their fortress.

The first settlement area of the Ivatans

The first settlement area of the Ivatans

Stunning Roadside Scenery

“We haven’t reached our destination yet pero busog na ang mga mata ko.” I found myself saying this over and over as we passed by the roadside cliffs going to South Batan, the breathtakingly creepy seascape in Sabtang Island and the waves of rolling hills in North Batan. Previous visitors weren’t exaggerating when they said that Batanes is beautiful in every angle. DSC04500DSC04487 DSC04040DSC03700 DSC04595   9.) The Ivatans’ Integrity

The Honesty Coffee Shop

There’s nothing atypical about this store, until you realize that nobody is manning it. You get what you need, write the item and its corresponding amount on the logbook and leave the payment in the milk can. This tiny store in Ivana, which thrives on faith, says something big about the Ivatans’ integrity and attitude towards others. I remember a scenario when I visited the stone houses in Brgy. Savidug. While the villagers were probably tending their cattle or crops in the mountains, their houses were either open or unlocked. “Why are the Ivatans too trusting?” I asked Art. “Because everyone here is trustworthy,” He quickly replied. In a country governed by thieves, it is amazing to find a population who seems incapable of ill thoughts and distrust.

The famous Honesty Store

The famous Honesty Store

10.) The Ivatans’ Simplicity and Charm

One afternoon, I asked our genial innkeeper if she secretly wished for big commercial establishments in Batanes. Unblinkingly, she answered, “No, we value our heritage and modernization would change that.” Looking around, I was convinced of her assertion. Tarpaulins condemning the selling of Ivatan lands to outside investors hung on fences of homes and restaurants. The Ivatans seem happy and content with the humble things they have. Strolling around Basco, I was greeted by elderly men on their bicycles, nodding at me as if we were acquainted. The aged women, sitting idly on wooden benches outside their homes, were always ready with their warm smiles and good mornings. “Wala ka bang payong? Mainit eh.” One asked upon noticing the beads of sweat trickling down my face. Smiling back, I shook my head. “I have one here. Sira nga lang. Pero pwede mo nang pagtiyagaan.” She offered. The umbrella was quickly dismantled by the strong wind when I trekked up the hill, and so was my apprehension for traveling alone. That night, I slept soundly as if I was in my room back home. Batanes felt like home.

An interesting man i met on the waiting shed. At 59, just biked 18 km to attend the sunday service.

An interesting man i met on the waiting shed. At 59, he just biked 18 km to attend the sunday service.

************ HOW TO GET THERE

Philippine Airlines and SkyJet have flights to Basco, Batanes from Manila.

WHERE TO STAY

Budget-conscious travelers, like me, should stay at Marfel’s. I felt like I never left home. Guests can watch TV in the living room and cook their meals in the kitchen. They also have a sari-sari store, which operates Honesty Store-style. I paid a measly Php 350 per night for my cozy fan-room. For reservations, call Ate Fe 09178833249/ 09209764966

EXPENSES for my 4D/3N Batanes Getaway

Airfare (Philippine Airlines)RT   Php 7,100

3-day tour through TRavelYoung (lunch included)    Php 4,800

Food Php 2,000

Pasalubong Php 2,000

3-day accommodation (Marfel’s)  Php 1,050

Total   Php  16,950

 

TOUR ITINERARY

Ryan Cordona and TRavelYoung took care of my tours. They have the most affordable rates so far. You may reach them at 09174106099/09153030595. Below is the typical itinerary.

A.) North Batan Tour Mt. Carmel Chapel, Pag-asa Radar Station, Fundacion Pacita Nature Lodge, Basco Idjang Viewing, WWII Japanese Hideout/Tunnel, Boulder Beach in Valugan, Sto.Domingo Cathedra,l Vayang Rolling Hills, Basco Lighthouse in Naidi Hills

B.) Sabtang Island Tour San Vicenter Ferrer Church, Malakdang Lighthouse, Savidug Village Stone houses, Sto. Tomas Chapel, Savidug Idjang Viewing, Chamantad-Tinyan Viewpoint, Chavayan Village Stone Houses, Sabtang Weavers Association, Nakabuang Cave/Morong Beach/Mayahaw Arc

C.) South Batan Tour Paderes Point and Cliff Road Chawa Viewing Deck, Mahatao Boat Shelter Port, Mahatao Town Tour, San Carlos Borromeo Church, Mahatao Spanish Lighthouse, Mahatao Sumbao Windmill, Mahatao Tayid Lighthouse, Marlboro Hills Alapad Hills and Rock Formation, Lo-Ran Old Naval Base, San Lorenzo Ruiz Chapel, Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Chapel, Song-song Ruins, San Antonio De Florencia Church, Honesty Store, House of Dakay and Old Spanish Bridge, Malapad Rock Formation White Beach and Hohmoron Lagoon

Song-Song Ruins

Song-Song Ruins

the cogon-roofed tricycle

the cogon-roofed tricycle

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The Japanese Tunnel

The Japanese Tunnel

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a breathtaking sight for breakfast. anyone?

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Octagon RestoBar

Octagon RestoBar

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The beautiful woodcarvings in Octagon RestoBar

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I Followed The Sun To Caramoan

Manlawi Sandbar

Manlawi Sandbar

Matukad Island

Matukad Island

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Day 1: Climbing Cliffs

I pressed my body against the rock; its sharp edges pinched my skin. The cliff ascended steeply above me. My cold clammy hand fumbled for a handhold as my foot struggled to reach the trunk of a small tree amid the cliff. Fel, who was ahead of me, suddenly slid backward as her foothold crumbled. I watched, paralyzed, until she assured me she was fine. “Careful. You daughter is still a baby.” I laughed nervously. Inching shakily to the top, I could see in the corner of my eye the white sand of Matukad Beach. Terrified of heights, I screamed. “Thank God, I’m alive!”

“Wow, look at that!” Fel’s eyes were glued on the pristine shore below us. The clear jade-green water glinted under the sun. Giant limestone karst formations stood like stalwart soldiers from the sea. Fel and I were silenced by the breathtaking panorama. “Sir, ayan na po yung bangus.” Kuya Rico, our dusky mild-mannered tour guide, pointed at a huge milkfish swimming in the small lagoon on the other side of the cliff. “It’s huge. Why is it alone?” I asked. “Sabi sa kwento, dalawa daw yan dati. A fisherman caught one for his family’s dinner. Poisoned, he and his family died the next day. Simula noon, wala ng gumalaw sa isa pang bangus” Kuya Rico replied.

Fel and I, and the hidden lagoon in the background

Fel and I, and the hidden lagoon in the background

Matukad Beach- a view from the top

Matukad Beach- a view from the top

Matukad Beach

Matukad Beach

The stunning view from the top of the cliff

The stunning view from the top of the cliff

Sweat trickled from my brows to my mouth as I descended. Still trembling, I turned to Mike excitedly. “I just climbed a cliff, and I didn’t die.” He laughed as he handed us some fresh buko from a vendor nearby.                                                                               “You’re lucky to be able to visit Matukad. This beach was off-limits to tourists when Survivor Israel was filming not too long ago.” Kuya Rico said.

The afternoon breeze rustled the leaves of the trees on the cliff, quietly ruffling the glassy shallow water. Some visitors were starting to climb back to their boats.

Hindi ba delikado yan?” Fel blurted upon seeing Balat, Kuya Rico’s child, playing with a pile of jellyfish he collected from the shore. “That’s the harmless kind. We call that law-ang law-ang here.” Kuya Rico reassured.

Fel, looking gorgeous during the death-defying climb

Fel, looking gorgeous during the death-defying climb

The rock formations in Matukad Beach

The rock formations in Matukad Beach

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rock formations in Matukad Beach

The rock formations in Matukad Beach

Fel and Balat, playing with a jellyfish

Fel and Balat, playing with a jellyfish

“Is that flying fish?” Mike turned to Joe, the boatman. A school of fish jumped out of the clear water and glided through the air as our boat traversed the passageway to Tinago Beach. Their tiny bodies glinted silver, like needles. “Hindi po, dilis lang po yan.” he replied.  “Tinago means hidden, which describes this secluded place.” Kuya Rico briefly explained. “This place looks eerie.” I said as I buried my feet on the golden sand. The towering jungle-covered limestone cliffs guarding the small beach stared down at us, as if we were unwanted guests. Birds and crickets chirped simultaneously. The water remained treacherously quiet.                                                                                                       “Let’s get out of here. There are plenty of jellyfish.” Kuya Rico warned.

Tinago Beach

Tinago Beach

Kunan ko kayo ng jump shots dito.” Kuya Rico volunteered as we walked towards the sloping white sandbar connecting two massive limestone clusters. “This looks charming.” Fel said, glancing at the children running across to the other shore. I knew she was missed her baby back home. “I think I know why this is called Lahos Beach. In my province Leyte, lahos means to pass through. Here, you can easily pass from one side of the beach to the other. Is that right?” I asked. Kuya Rico nodded. “Also, during high tide, that sand bar disappears and the water goes to the other side.”

A few more outriggers parked on the shore, spilling large groups of rowdy tourists.     “Let’s take a quick dip, tapos alis na tayo. It’s getting crowded.” Mike suggested. We all agreed.

Lahos Beach

Lahos Beach

yogibears in Lahos Beach

yogibears in Lahos Beach

a beach trip without jump shots is incomplete

A beach trip without a jumpshot is incomplete

“Are you sure you still want to do this?” Mike asked, wiping his drenched face as the waves broke into a spray. His voice sounded serious.                                                     “Yes of course!” I quickly replied. My heart started to race. The waves slapped the sides of the boat. Can I actually do this? I started to doubt myself.                                                Dark clouds loomed overhead, shrouding the afternoon sun. The rain started pouring from afar. Our boat’s reverberant engine slowly died down as we neared a giant cliff rising from the sea. “This is it!” I said under my breath.                                                                   “Kaya mo yan, Togs! Wohoo!” Fel cheered. I struggled to keep my balance as our boat bounced on the rough sea. Kuya Rico held my hand tightly as I stretched my leg to reach the boulder at the bottom of the cliff. I clung to the stairs of rope and bamboo and carefully inched my way to the cold wooden platform around 30 feet from the sea. Gazing down into the dark gaping sea, I could feel my knees shaking uncontrollably. The piercing screams of Mike and Fel sounded gibberish. The cold breeze and the drizzle felt like thousands of needles on my bare skin.                                                                       Trembling, I shut my eyes, inhaled deeply, screamed and ran into the air.

I suddenly remembered a friend who jumped off a building many years ago. This is how he must have felt like. I imagined how helpless he was in the air, uncertain where his head and bones will smash against.

Splash! Then a few seconds of darkness. I quickly rose to the surface. Grasping for breath, I screamed, “I did it!”  Kuya Rico, who jumped off the cliff too, grabbed my back. “Okay lang po kayo, sir?” He pulled me against the current, towards the boat. I nodded, unable to believe what just happened. Fel and Mike were giggling over the video they took of my jump when I climbed back to the boat.

The skies cleared up during the night, exposing the big yellow moon above the flat sea. Fel, Mike and I lounged at the beachfront restobar of our hotel in Paniman Beach. “This day is amazing, I conquered some of my fears.” I smiled as I poured cheap wine into our glasses.

Day 2: Sandbars, Jellyfish…

“575 po.” Kuya Alan, a dark lanky man wearing a fisherman’s hat, said. He was referring to the number of steps to reach the grotto of Our Lady of Peace in Mt. Caglago in Barangay Tabgon. “Let’s take our photo up there. Para na rin tayong nag Rio De Janeiro para sa World Cup.” Fel said, clutching a few bottles of water. We could see the open arms of the image from afar, resembling the statue of Jesus in Brazil.

A group of fair-skinned tourists walked past us, their faces glistening with sweat. The morning sun hammered down its heat towards us.

“C’mon, this is a good workout for your legs.” I turned to Mike, who stopped when he reached the halfway point, ready to quit. Fel, after running her fingers on the brightly-colored flowers lining the stairs, continued her hike.

Tiny birds circled above the Talisay trees when we reached the last step, as if welcoming us. A 26-foot statue of Our Lady of Peace stood on top of the mountain, facing the sea. We rested at the foot of the edifice. Across us was a panoramic view of the sea dotted with limestone cliffs and islands. “Breathtaking!” Fel sighed.                                                 “It must have been hard constructing this statue.” Mike turned to Kuya Alan.                 “That’s right. When the construction began in 1989, people had to carry the materials up here.” Kuya Alan said. “Actually, hindi na po ito ang original. The first statue was struck by a lightning in 1999.”                                                                                                            A small shrine stood just below the statue. According to the caretaker, mass is usually celebrated here every first Sunday of the month. “Buti nalang hindi dito ang Simbang Gabi tuwing Disyembre,” quipped Kuya Rico. Our group burst into laughter.

Our Lady Of Peace at the top of Mt. Caglago

Our Lady Of Peace on top of Mt. Caglago

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a view of the Caramoan Islands from the mountain top

A view of the Caramoan Islands from the mountain top

It was past 10 when our boat carefully glided into the shallow sparkling water of Manlawi Sandbar. “Saglit lang po tayo dito. The boat will have difficulty getting out during low tide.” Kuya Rico warned.                                                                                                    “Ang ganda.” I said. Like children in a toy store, Fel and I ran towards the wide and long stretch of off-white sandbar. It looked like a large glass extending beyond the horizon. Giggling, Fel did cartwheels midway. The small and empty floating cottages, arranged like a crescent moon, sat comfortably on the sand as the water subsided. A few fishing boats lounged on the shore, some hummed from afar. Fel lay flat on her stomach, eyes closed, face turned towards the gentle breeze.

According to Kuya Rico, a cottage could be rented for 200 pesos. “However, if we stay here for lunch, we could get stuck for a long time. We still have many islands to visit,” he added.

i spotted a supermodel at the Malawi Sandbar haha

i spotted a supermodel at the Malawi Sandbar haha

Fel was amazed she couldn't help but do cartwheels.

Fel was amazed she couldn’t help but do cartwheels.

Manlawi Sandbar

Manlawi Sandbar

“Oh my God, this is the best laing I’ve ever tasted.” Mike said with his mouth full, sending bits of rice flying back to his plate. Fel and I agreed.                                                       “How come our version of this in Leyte is soggy?” I asked Kuya Rico.                                 “I thought my lola’s version was the best, but this is tastier. Don’t tell her I said that.” Fel laughed.                                                                                                                         “The secret is in the leaves. The gabi leaves have to be dried out first,” he replied.             He happily shared his Laing recipe with us and it sounded easy:

First you need to sauté the ginger, garlic, onion, chili and pork. Add the coconut milk and gabi leaves. Then simmer until the sauce has been reduced. Finally, pour in the coconut cream and cook until the oil comes out.

“I’ll definitely cook this at home.” I said.                                                                           The dried nipa roof of the cottage rustled in the wind as we ate hungrily. Across us was a stunning view of Cotivas Island, it pinkish gold sand glowed under the sun.

The pinkish golden sand of Cotivas Island glowed under the sun.

The pinkish golden sand of Cotivas Island glowed under the sun.

Cotivas Island :)

selfie in Cotivas Island 🙂

Sipping fresh buko juice, we lounged by the shore while waiting for the tide to rise.

Cotivas Island during low-tide

Cotivas Island during low-tide

After paying a hundred for the cottage an hour later, we trod back to our boat, which was moored far from the shore. The bright skies unveiled plenty of colorful starfish under the sparkling water as we moved away from the island.

I flinched after descending into the shallow turquoise water suckling on the long golden shore of Sabitang Laya.“Ang init ng tubing!”                                                             According to Kuya Rico, Sabitang Laya has the longest shore among the Caramoan Islands and it extends up to 2 kilometers when combined with the shoreline from the other side. The grasses thriving on the sandy bottom tickled my feet as I walked towards the jagged fortress-like limestone clusters at the tip of the island.                                              A group of children were frolicking below a huge rock, which stood majestically offshore.   “This is also a favorite spot for the Survivor series,” boasted Kuya Rico.                            “It’s a no-brainer. This place is one of the most stunning in Caramoan,” Fel said.           Holding a camera in one hand, I struggled to climb the smallest boulder to get a good view of the surroundings.

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Sabitang Laya

Boisterous laughter broke out from Bag-ing Beach, the other side of Sabitang Laya.  “Those are the sets of Survivor.” Kuya Rico pointed at the wooden structures on the shore where a group of tourist was posing quirkily.                                                                        It was our last stop.                                                                                                        The late afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves of the Talisay tree behind me. Scattered in the shade were several other tourists, chattering. Weary, I sat on the shore and watched the waves wash off the golden sand clinging to my toes. Everything was peaceful until a frantic scream caught everyone’s attention.                                       “Jellyfish! Jellyfish! Ouch!”                                                                                                    It was Mike. He was stung on his leg.                                                                              Kuya Rico immediately ran to him and pulled him towards the shore. Some women, who were splashing in the shallows, quickly walked out of the water.                                 “Pakiabot ng suka!” Kuya Rico, who prepared our lunch earlier, fortunately brought with him some condiments. He poured vinegar on Mike’s affected areas, which extended from the upper front of his legs down to his toes. Both Fel and I stared helplessly as he carefully peeled off the jellyfish’s tentacles from Mike’s leg, which turned pink with rashes. “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” He gave us a reassuring smile.                                                          “So no need to amputate?” I jested, trying to lighten up the mood.                                “Hayop ka!Ikaw talaga!” Mike reacted, raising his fist to my face jokingly.

Bag-ing Beach

Bag-ing Beach

My zen moment on the Survivor set

My zen moment on the Survivor set

As we sailed past the islands with small champagne-colored beaches, jagged terrains and towering cliffs on our way back to the hotel, I told myself that patience and sacrifice really pay off. Thirteen hours of journey to get to the Caramoan Islands in Camarines Sur was distressful but all our discomfort plummeted into the dark abyss of the sea when our boat cruised towards Matukad Beach.                                                                                          I conquered my fear of heights. Trembling with anxiety, I climbed a steep sharp-edged cliff because I knew that an amazing view awaited at the top. Jumping off a cliff into the gaping sea taught me that falling isn’t the end of everything. Yes, I almost fainted but it didn’t kill me. Doing what I thought was impossible felt amazing. I realized that I waste so much of my life fearing and worrying about the unknown. Indeed, this journey was more than just basking under the scorching June sun and lounging on the golden shore.

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As we left Guinjalo Port the following day, all I could think of was the Laing recipe Kuya Rico taught us. I’m sure everyone at home will love it.

Matukad Beach

Matukad Beach

Manlawi Sandbar

Manlawi Sandbar

The Sea Goddess

The Sea Goddess

Tips:

1.)  To save time and energy, have your tour and accommodation arranged before you visit Caramoan. Kuya Rico gave us a personalized package. He was our guide, cook, photographer and lifeguard. Reach him at 09126871930

2.)  Make sure you book your bus seats in advance. Getting a bus from Naga to Manila can be quite difficult. When we arrived at the terminal, most of the seats were already taken. We had to wait for 7 hours for the next trip.

How To Get There:

1.)  From Manila, take a bus or plane to Naga City. Travel time by bus is approx. 9 hrs.

Plane- Cebu Pacific and PAL

Bus- Penafrancia, Isarog, RSL, Raymond, Cagsawa, Philtranco, DLTB and Amihan

Bus terminals can be found in Araneta Center, Cubao and Taft near the    MRT

2.)  From Naga City, take a van bound for Sabang Port. The van terminal is in   front of SM City Naga. Travel time is 1 hour.

3.)  From Sabang Port, ride the MB Harry boat bound for Guinjalo Port in Caramoan. Travel time is 2 hours.

Expenses

Exclusive 3d/2n Tour Package (full board meals, island hopping, van ride, accommodation) Php 5200. It is way cheaper if you come in large groups
Bus (Manila-Naga-Manila) Php 1650
Boat (Sabang-Guinjalo-Sabang) Php 240
Cottage Rental in Cotivas Beach Php 100
Environmental Fee Php 30
TOTAL Php 7220

 

3d/2n Sample Itinerary

         Day 0
8pm Bus leaves from Manila to Naga City
         Day 1
5am Bus arrives in Naga City
5-6am Breakfast
6-7am Naga City to Sabang Port
8-10am Sabang Port to Guinjalo Port
10-12nn Hotel check-in
12nn-1pm Lunch
1pm-5pm Island hopping
6pm Dinner
             Day 2  
6am Breakfast
7am-5pm Island Hopping with lunch in one of the islands
6pm Dinner
             Day 3
6am Breakfast
6:30am Depart to Guinjalo Port
7-9am Guinjalo Port to Sabang Port
9-10am Sabang Port to Naga Bus Terminal
11am Lunch
12nn Bus departs from Naga City to Manila
9pm Arrival in Manila

One Fine Day in Puka Beach

 

Fel, Cian and Baby Noah

Fel, Cian and Baby Noah

the glorious Puka Beach

the glorious Puka Beach

“Hey look!” Cian exclaimed, interrupting our jump shots against the pristine shore. His eyes were fixed on a colony of fruit bats scattered above a craggy cliff. “They’re huge! I thought they were eagles.” Cathy grabbed my camera excitedly, but the bats quickly disappeared into the dense forest fringing Puka Beach. “There are plenty of those here. Malapit lang kasi ang Bat Cave. I can take you there if you want.” Manong ice cream vendor, one of the few who patrols regularly on the beach, offered. “Sayang, we don’t have much time.” Mike refused.

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Like a shattered glass under the bright skies, the sea sparkled with different hues of blue and green. “Wow. I can look at this all day.” I mumbled under my breath. Tiny puka shells pinched my feet softly as I walked towards the beckoning water. I lay down on the warm white grainy sand, facing the sun. The sea’s frothy ends gently massaged my back. Like birds’ wings, the colorful sails of the boats parked on the shore flapped in the wind, drowning the boisterous laughter of the girls nearby. Mitzi, lulled by the gentle waves washing ashore, fell asleep under the wavery shade cast by the thick shrubs sprouting from the ragged cliff.

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me and my favorite girls

me and my favorite girls

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“Togs, teach us some yoga poses.” Fel, her tanned body submersed in the glassy water, waved at me. “Sure.” I nodded.

“I’ll join! Mitzi should not miss this. I’ll go wake her up.” Cathy, splashing in the shallows, said excitedly.

Small chalk-like corals and bright seashells nibbled my elbows as I struggled to stand on my head on the loose sand.

“Teach us something easier.” Fel complained.

“Okay, no headstands. Let’s do the pigeon pose instead.” I laughed.

Manong Eddie, our boatman, gladly offered to take photos of our yoga poses against the stunning backdrop.

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One by one, the boats on the shore sailed towards the wind. We had Puka Beach all to ourselves.

Fel strewed a tub of toys on the sand as baby Noah watched, her face glowing. Cian nestled his face affectionately on his daughter’s velvety head. For the rest of the morning we swam, laughed and floated on our back. Our skin drank in the sunlight until they were red and drunk.

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“Watch out!” Mitzi blurted, pointing at a tiny sea snake gliding towards us. Its striped body glistened on the water.

“I’ll toss it far away from here.” Mike said as he grabbed a small pail from the boat.

“No, don’t touch it. It can be deadly.” The boatman warned.

A few seconds later, small foamy waves rolled towards the shore. As the waves slid back, the sea creature was flung into the depth.

“Thank God it’s gone.” Fel sighed. Baby Noah curled up into the safety of her mother’s neck.

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Tara na guys. We’re hungry.” Cian called out.

“Me too! Let’s go feast on some fresh lobster and shrimps at D’Talipapa.” Mike concurred.

The coarse sand clung to my hair and skin, so I ran to the sea once more to wash them off.

As we sailed away, the clear water glinted silver in the noon sun, as if dazzling me to come back. “Yes definitely, next year.” I thought.

Fel, Cathy and I

Fel, Cathy and I

 

Trivia:

In 2013, Puka Beach has been recognized by CNN as among the 100 best beaches in the world. Also included on the list are Palaui Island in Cagayan and El Nido in Palawan.

How To Get There:

1.)  Puka Beach is usually included in the island hopping tours in Boracay, but boatmen would skip it if the water is rough. Island hopping starts at Php 1500 for a small boat as of this writing.

2.)  You may also visit Puka Beach via tricycle. Fare is Php 30 per person. Travel time is approximately 15 minutes.

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My Weekend in Camiguin

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White Beach

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Wh.ite Beach, with Mt. Hibok-Hibok on the background

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DAY 1

Sitting at the edge of the sandbar, I looked across the sea towards Mt. Hibok-Hibok.  White puffy clouds adorned its apex, like a crown. “She’s the queen.” I turned to Mike. “She’s the only active volcano out of the seven here in Camiguin.” The sighs of the sea breeze drowned my voice. Like a shattered glass, the water glimmered under the sun, mirroring the clear blue skies.

Dali!! Give me your camera!” Mike blurted, his eyes fixed on the flock of sea gulls perched on the other end of the blindingly white sandbar. “There are plenty of those here in White Island.” A man carrying a basket of sea urchins chuckled at our vain efforts to photograph the birds, which dissipated as an outrigger neared the shore. “This island is so beautiful.” I said as I sampled the sea urchins. “I just can’t stay here all day.” The morning sun began to hammer its heat towards the bright bald island. “You can rent a beach umbrella. Php 150 lang buong araw. Gusto nyo?” Elmer, the vendor, offered. “One fifty? No thanks, I’m on a budget.” I laughed.

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Yours truly, having a taste of the sea urchin.

I closed my eyes as I floated on my back. The cool sparkling water suckling on my ears engulfed the laughter of the children nearby. “Ahhhh..This is my happy place…”

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Yours truly, beach bumming.

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White Beach

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This is how I strike a pose!

IMG_5853We left the pristine waters of White Island at around 10. “Where do we go next?” I asked Frank, our multi-cab driver. “Katibawasan Falls, sir! Punta tayo dun bago mag-lunch.” He eagerly replied, stepping on his cigarette butt.

“Would you look at that? Wow!” I fumbled for the camera in my bag. The majestic falls was conspicuous amid the lush greens a few steps away from the entrance. Its water crashed into a rock pool, breaking up into a large spray, drowning the boisterous laughter of the tourists carelessly doing jump shots. “That is the highest waterfall in the island, around 75 meters.” The attendant at the gate boasted. “Tara, ligo tayo dun.” I nudged Mike, his eyes squinting as we neared the falls. I struggled to keep upright on the slippery rocks. “Oh God! The water is so cold!” I froze when the water was knee-deep. A foreign couple swam across in their little swimsuits, unmindful of the punishing cold.

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Katibawasan Falls, the highest falls in Camiguin

Frank brought us to 4R’s Foodhaus for lunch. “One twenty five pesos lang for a lunch buffet? Not bad.” Famished, Mike loaded his plate with rice, pork adobo, squid adobo and fried chicken. “No rice for me, just veggies.” I scooped chopsuey and sautéed bittergourd into my plate. While Mike was getting us water, I secretly nibbled on the pork adobo on his plate. Its sauce was sweet and salty. “Ang saraaap…” My second plate brimmed with warm fluffy rice, topped with the flavorful adobo.

Surfeited, we traversed the national highway towards the Walkway to the Old Volcano, where the 14 Stations of the Cross are located. “During Holy Week since the 1980’s, many devotees come here for penitence.” Frank said as he pulled over. “Akyat kayo, Sir! Maganda yung view sa taas!” “Of course, I need to burn those calories!” I winked.

The smell of burnt dried leaves wafted through the air. The trees and shrubs, which nestled some chirping birds, rustled faintly as I walked up the trail alone. The sun pounded its heat on my head. Sweat was dripping from the sides of my face when I reached the 10th Station, which offered a magnificent view of the Tangub Bay. I raised my camera bag, covering my face in vain, as I headed down.

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The Walkway to the Old Vulcan and the Stations of the Cross

Hay salamat! Fresh buko juice on a sweltering afternoon is just perfect.“ I walked towards the buko stall near the entrance of the Sunken Cemetery as I wiped the beads of sweat from my forehead. Mike fumbled in his pocket for a few coins. I glanced at a huge concrete cross not far from the shore. “When did this cemetery submerge?” I asked Jason, the vendor. “May 13, 1871 sir. When Mt. Vulcan erupted, the Spanish cemetery disappeared into the sea.” He answered in Filipino, his voice vibrant. “In fairness, alam mo ha.” I smiled as I scraped the thin white flesh off the coconut shell. “You can hire our banca to go there if you want. 100 pesos lang.” He offered. “We’ll join you guys so we can split the fee.” Another tourist, Dan, chimed in. The lucent waters surrounding the large cross exposed a few gravestones beneath. Across the monument was a breathtaking view of Mt. Vulcan and Mt. Hibok-Hibok.

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Yogapose again at the Sunken Cemetery. What’s new!

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The Sunken Cemetery

“Are these corals?” I ran my fingers on the remains of the stalwart bell tower. Mike nodded, showing me his macro shots of the corals cemented on the walls. Across us were the ruins of the 16th Century Spanish Church known as the Old Catarman Church, which crumbled during the 1871 eruption. Most of its walls were covered with moss. “Did you know that egg shells and egg whites were used to build those walls?” Edna, the caretaker, eagerly shared. “I see, parang yung mga baroque churches sa Bohol.” I said.

“That one is a hundred years old.” Edna pointed at the enormous tree nearby. Its branches swayed in the breeze, shrugging off a few dead leaves. A modern white lighthouse soldiered at the back, facing the sea.

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The Old Church ruins and the hundred year old tree

In the foothills of Mt. Hibok-Hibok is the Bura Soda Water Park. “Tikman niyo ang tubig dun, sir. Therapeutic daw.” Frank suggested as we alighted from the multi-cab. “That’s natural soda water sprouting from the ground.” He pointed at the two large pools surrounded by luxuriant vegetation. According to the signage near the entrance, drinking soda water reduces chances of osteoporosis, lowers blood pressure and decreases cardiovascular disease risk. “Frank may be right.” Mike smiled. We headed towards the sink where visitors can taste the soda water. “It’s almost four and we still have two springs to check out.” I said, switching off my camera. “That’s right, let’s just take a dip at the cold spring.” Mike agreed. A man was singing out loud at the videoke bar across the gate when we left.

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Bura Soda Water Park

“I like the ambiance here better, and there are no annoying videoke bars nearby.” I said, tossing my shirt on a bench. “Christ! The water is so cold!” Mike called out right after he plunged into a large pool of clear water that mirrored the lush shades of green around the Sto. Nino Cold Spring. I cautiously trod on the sandy bottom of the pool, my eyes glued on several tiny white fish swimming around the ferns. ”It’s like swimming in an aquarium.” I said. “Those fish were placed there to avoid mosquitoes from laying eggs.” A lady smiled as she laid our fresh buko on the table at the cottage.

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Sto. Nino Cold Spring

“Can we go to the Sunken Cemetery again, please? Saglit lang.” I asked Frank en route to the Ardent Hibok-Hibok Spring. I groped for the camera in my bag. The huge cross on the sea strikingly silhouetted against the orange skies. By the time we reached the placid Tangub Bay, the sun was halfway below the horizon.

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Sunset at the Sunken Cemetery

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Sunset at Tangub Bay

“This feels good.” I said as I leaned on the rocky walls of the Ardent Hibok-Hibok Spring. The warm water from a small elevated pool crashed gently on my shoulders, like a massage. “The heat of the water here is more comfortable than the one in Coron.” I turned to Wendy, another friendly tourist. “Actually, there are six pools here with different temperatures. The hottest can go up to 39 degrees Celsius.” She replied. I closed my eyes, lulled by the sound of the water cascading from one pool to another. Tall luxuriant trees stared down at us, oftentimes rustling their leaves. Children giggled from the cottages above. “This is the best way to end a perfect day.” I took a deep breath and plunged into the deeper part of the mineral pool.

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Ardent Hibok-hibok Hot Spring

DAY 2

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Mantigue Island

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Mantigue Island

The birds whistled among the Mukabak and Ipilipil trees thriving around Mantigue Island, as if enticing the sea gulls sitting on the pristine white sand to join them. “Look, they’ve been there since yesterday.” I stared at the cottony clouds hovering around Mt. Hibok-Hibok. “Oo nga no? It looks dramatic.” Mike, sitting on the wavy shade cast by the Talisay tree, raised the camera to his eye. The sea sparkled under the sun, like a bed of crystals. Its frothy ends nibbled on my feet as I continued to walk the length of the shore. Burdened with tanks strapped on their back, a group of divers dropped into the deep blue water nearby. Their small motorboat bobbed quietly on the surface, as if relieved.

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Later on, my eyes were glued on a timid clown fish tucked among the graceful stalks of a sea anemone. I swam further, past the luxuriant sea grass. Brightly colored fishes frolicked around the spiny protrusions of branching corals, bumping into each other. “This is amazing.” I thought, mesmerized by the colorful underwater life.

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Ang ganda sa ilalim. And I’m amazed to find a forest here.” I called out to Mang Kiko, one of the caretakers in the island. I glanced across our table towards the trail leading to the deeper part of the forest. A young lady was sweeping dead leaves under the Pandan tree. “Of course, Mantigue has 7 hectares of marine protected area, that’s why the government prohibits anyone from residing here.” He boasted, pointing at the island’s map under the Itum-itum tree. “Why don’t you guys check out the forest after you eat?” “Definitely.” I said. The smell of grilled pork wafted through the air. Soon, our lunch of grilled pork and fresh seaweeds with vinaigrette, chopped onions and tomatoes were laid on the table. “Thank God you serve lunch and beer here.” Mike smiled at the waitress.

We left at noon, when the sun stung the skin on my back.

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The trail to the forest

 

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Pandan fruit

“Can we have some of those grilled?” Mike asked Donna, the attendant, after she lectured us about clams at the Kibila Giant Clam Sanctuary. “Of course you can’t.” I interrupted.

“They are endangered. We haven’t harvested for decades.” She smiled, and then pointed at a huge clam inside a nursery. “That one is fourteen years old.”

“I’m older by a few years.” Mike replied. We laughed.

“This facility is a community-based project. Right now, we are protecting over 2000 giant clams at the sea. You may rent snorkels so you can look at them.” Donna continued. She sounded lively.

“No I’m fine.” Still exhausted from swimming with the vibrant creatures at the Mantigue Island earlier, I sat under the Talisay tree, facing the sea. Warm streaks of sunlight filtered through the leaves as they rustled. Nearby, an American couple basked in the sun. Their pale skin, sprayed with sunblock, glistened. A few tagbis chirped from the palm trees up the hill. Crested with froth, the waves crashed gently on the pebbly white shore. I fell into deep slumber.

“I haven’t seen an ostrich yet.” I said excitedly as our multi-cab headed to the next destination, the Provincial Breeding Centre and Ostrich Farm.

Mike fumbled with the camera settings as I posed next to a fence soldiered by an eight-foot ostrich. “Faster, it’s going to eat me.” I laughed anxiously. Its long thin neck bent forward, outside the fence, as if about to peck a hole in my head. Its large glassy eyes stared at me warily.

“Can they fly?” I asked the attendant, feigning ignorance, just to jumpstart a conversation. My eyes ran from the thick black feathers on its body down to its large muscular legs and two-toed feet. “No they can’t. But they can run really fast and kick hard when provoked.” He answered.

Aside from the ostrich, the facility also breeds goats, chicken, hogs, ducks, turkeys and cattle.

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“Let’s just skip the zipline. My cravings for Vjandep’s pastel can’t wait.” Mike told Frank, our driver. I agreed.

We alighted in front of an old dinky bakery near the public market. “This is it?” I asked, expecting a big store with glossy walls and glass doors. “Yes, we’re here.” Frank pointed at the boxes of the famous pastel on display.

“Oh God, this is so good.” I blurted after sinking my teeth into a soft bun filled with yema. “How much is a box of this again?” Mike asked the lady behind the counter. “160 for a box of 12.” She replied. “Wow, this costs around 300 in SM in Manila.” Mike said.

“Everyone at home is going to love these.” I clutched a large paper bag containing a few boxes of the goodies, with a big smile on my face.

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How To Go To Camiguin:

Fastest way is by plane. Cebu Pacific flies to Camiguin via Cebu. Regular rates can go as low as 588, excluding taxes.

 

When in Camiguin:

1.)  Don’t waste time getting lost and wondering where to go next. Call Ted Pabualan at 09175219391/09392440521. Let him arrange the tour for you at a reasonable price. For details, visit his site www.camiguintransport.blogspot.com

2.)  DON’T EVER miss my favorite spots in the island: White Beach, Mantigue Island and Ardent Hibok-Hibok Spring.

3.)  Take home Vjandep’s Pastel as pasalubong to your loved ones.

 

Where to stay:

Pabualan Cottage (09392440521)

Rates: Php 850/night (3 persons maximum capacity)

Php 1000/night (6 persons maximum capacity

 

Expenses:

Below are MY 2D/2N expenses, just to give you an idea.

Tip: Tours and accommodation are cheaper when you are with a big group. Invite your happy friends to explore “The Island Born Of Fire”.

Airfare: Php 2100 via Cebu Pacific

Tours: (2-day multi-cab rental, fuel, driver/tour guide, airport transfers,    environmental  fees, entrance fees, boat rental)  Php 2425

Food, Drinks: Php 1000

Pasalubong: Php 500

Accommodation: Php 850

TOTAL: Php 6875

Crazy In Love With Coron

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Ate, sige na, we’ll take it if you bring it down to Php 4,000.” Aimee smiled pleadingly as she unburdened her tanned shoulders of a huge backpack. Dark thick clouds shrouded the Palawan skies. We had just disembarked from a tiny Cebu Pacific aircraft, which arrived an hour late due to heavy rainshowers.

Discounted na po yan ma’am. Actually the package costs Php 5,000.” asserted Cherry, who was perched on her desk inside the Be Cool Travel and Tours kiosk near the exit of the Francisco Reyes Airport in Busuanga.

“I think it’s a good deal.” I whispered. “Php 4,500 would cover our meals, airport transfers, two-day island tours and a three-night stay in Darayonan Lodge.” Exhausted, Mau concurred.

Covering their heads, Mau and Aimee ran into the van. Raindrops trickled into my eyes, blurring my vision.

Shadows fell on the gleaming wet roads as we headed towards the town of Coron. Outside, the neon streetlights lit the puddles that splashed as our van zipped through them. The hotel was 40 minutes away from the airport.

Darayonan’s amakan interiors and bamboo furniture reminded me of the houses in my hometown in Leyte. After checking out the swimming pool, we were ushered to our cozy room, which had four single beds, a private toilet, air-conditioning and a television. That night, the raindrops drummed heavily against the windowpane.

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Darayonan Lodge

 

Day 1

“We should have canceled this trip.” I grumbled. The rain, like a torrent of bullets unleashed by the angry skies, continued to pierce the foggy sea.

“Remember, it’s not always about the destination but the experience. Everything will be fine.” Aimee tried to cheer me up. Mau found us a carenderia a few meters away from the pier, where we watched the NBA Finals with rowdy boatmen while waiting for the weather to improve.

We hopped into our boat as soon as the skies hushed. As we headed towards Malcapuya Island, we passed by a black limestone island with a long stretch of towering cliffs. “Wow, that is beautiful!” exclaimed a lady from another group as she fumbled for a camera in her duffel bag.

We docked at the Malcapuya shore after an hour and a half. The clear turquoise waters gleamed despite the gloomy skies. The fine white sand beckoned. I threw my slippers back to the boat and let the soles of my feet sink into the wet sand. It felt good.

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Malcapuya Beach

 

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My “low-mai”/ low maintenance travel buddies, Mau and Aimee

“Sir, Maganda ang view dito sa taas. Piktyuran ko po kayo dito.” Dudong, our bangkero, called out from a small cliff on one end of the shore. We followed him. A gentle breeze blew across my face, leaving trails of its salty smell. Small waves crashed against the rocks below. “A breathtaking spot, indeed!” I uttered, my eyes glued to the tiny bird floating motionlessly above us, like a kite. “This is a perfect spot for yoga poses. Why don’t we have Dudong take our photos?” I suggested. When I turned around, Aimee was already perched on a bamboo mat, in an impeccable crow pose, while Dudong lunged to take a good shot.

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Aimee, perched like a crow, doing a…well… crow pose.

 

There is a concrete white house at a base of a hill. “The entire house if for rent for Php 10,000 a night.” Dudong said. “You can also bring your tents. Camping fee is Php 300, I think.” There are no other houses, just cottages and a store that sold young coconuts, where we had some after a few minutes of volleyball.

Lunch was hefty. Our boatmen prepared two grilled large fish, grilled pork, adobong pusit, crabs, ensalada and seaweeds. “Hala! We were craving for all these last night! Amazing ka talaga, Dudong.” Aimee exclaimed.

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After lunch, we hopped back to our boat. “That’s the Banana Island, our next stop.” Dudong pointed at the foggy outline of an island nearby.

Banana Island is a small banana-shaped white-sand island 20-minutes away from Malcapuya. “This could have looked better in photos if the skies were clearer.” I muttered as I adjusted my camera settings. The water glimmered as it crashed against the white shore, inviting me to take a dip. Surprisingly, the water was warm and comforting despite the drizzle and the cold breeze.

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Banana Island

Our last destination for the day was Isla Bulog, another small white-sand island. Aimee and Mau did some awesome yoga poses on top of some rocks that scattered throughout the island while I trekked up a hill for a breathtaking view of the shallow transparent water. “Can we check out that place?” Aimee pointed at the resort on the adjacent island. “Naku ma’am, its no longer open to the public. Private na po yan. I think a cottage per night would costs around Php 35,000.” Dudong explained. “Unless I win the lottery, I won’t be able to afford that.” We laughed.

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The weather was better when we arrived in Isla Bulog.

 

Day 2

“Good news, typhoon Emong has left. Bad news, typhoon Fabian is in Mindoro which is near us.” Mau announced as he switched off the television. We saved the tour around Coron Island for the second day when Mike, one of our friends from Manila, joined us. We were also hoping for a better weather but with the new typhoon nearby, we anticipated a heavy downpour.

Naku Sir! Twin Lagoon is temporarily closed due to a dispute between the Tagbanua tribe and the local government.” Cherry said.

“Oh no! Of all the destinations I was most excited about the Twin Lagoon.” Mau murmured, disappointed.

We are going to Barracuda Lake instead. Maganda din dun.” Cherry reassured as she handed us our goggles.

The lucent water at the entrance of the Kayangan Island mirrored the lush greens stemming out of the giant limestones. I was ready to jump off the boat when Mike pointed at a long-tailed jellyfish. “That is deadly!” warned Jun-Jun, our boatman that day.

Halfway to Kayangan Lake

Halfway to Kayangan Lake

 

We trekked up a slippery hill, approximately a 150 steps, to have a good view of the most popular karst of Coron Island. “Wow!” Our jaws dropped in unison, as our eyes feasted on the jungle-covered limestone cliffs scattered on the clear turquoise waters.

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The most popular karst formation in Coron

 

Aimee shrieked with excitement as we descended to the other side of the hill. Halfway, the crystalline Kayangan Lake gleamed conspicuously amid shrubs and tree branches. “Do you know that Kayangan Lake has been dubbed as the cleanest lake in the country?” Jun-Jun boasted. “This is so beautiful I want to cry.” I blurted. The glass-clear water, which is cloistered by huge jagged black limestones, flaunts stunning sharp-edged stalagmite formations underneath. “Amazing! The limestone walls below look like a castle from The Little Mermaid.” Aimee exclaimed as we swam with a school of tiny stick fishes under the rain.

The majestic Kayangan Lake, "the cleanest lake in the country"

The majestic Kayangan Lake, “the cleanest lake in the country”

The downpour continued when we jumped off the boat in Twin Peak Reef. Mau and I tussled with the current as we took photos of the brightly colored fishes swarming the luxuriant coral reefs on the floor. “Hey, you should check this out.” I called out to Mike who was chatting with a nice couple Red and Ced. “Everything below is brimming with color.” Engrossed, Aimee and I were dragged by the current away from the boat.

A few minutes after we left Twin Peak Reef, we were again greeted by giant black limestone cliffs, which nestled a small pristine beach. “This is Banol Beach. We will have lunch here.” Jun-Jun said as he hauled the boat up onto the shore. After a hefty lunch of grilled fish and pork belly, we did jump shots and yoga poses against a backdrop of ferocious-looking rock formations. We couldn’t resist the crystal clear water and the very fine white sand so we took a dip before we left.

The small but pristine Banol Beach

The small  and pristine Banol Beach

Aimee and I in a yoga showdown!

Aimee and I in a yoga showdown!

 

We were supposed to visit CYC Beach, but the waves were getting rough. Instead, we proceeded to the nearby Barracuda Lake.

Barracuda Lake

Barracuda Lake

 

The rain pierced our skin like needles as we carefully trod the wooden steps meandering through a craggy cliff, leading to Barracuda Lake. “Wow! This looks quite like Kayangan Lake, only eerier.” Mike said as we cuddled ourselves. According to Jun-Jun, the lake was named after its elusive resident barracuda. Colossal and forested limestone cliffs cascading down to a clear emerald lake, approximately 40 meters deep, surrounded us. “Talon kayo dito para hindi kayo lamigin!” Jun-Jun invited us to join him. Armed with our life vests and snorkeling masks, we plunged into the brackish water, a combination of fresh and saltwater. “Mainit nga yung tubig, sarap!” I blurted as we swam back and forth, enjoying its warmth. Barracuda Lake is known for its thermocline, a transition layer between the warm saltwater and cold freshwater.

“Actually there are thirteen lakes in Coron but only two are open to the public now.” Jun-Jun said. “The indigenous Tagbanuas are very cautious and considers the island sacred, kaya marami pang mas maganda kaysa dito ang hindi nyo makikita.

“Aside from fishing, the Tagbanuas also gather balinsasayaw’s nests, made of the bird’s saliva, from cliffside caves then sell it to restaurants which serves the expensive bird’s nest soup.” He continued.

While everyone was huddled around Jun-Jun, Aimee and I marveled at the stunning limestone walls and mammoth rock formations at the bottom of the lake, many of them obscured by the blue haze. Creepy, I thought.

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underwater selfie, at the Barracuda Lake

 

On our way back to the town, Ced suggested that we visit Maquinit Hot Spring after. “Yes, I think it’s a good idea to go there after an exhausting day of swimming and island hopping”. Mike agreed.

Ced helped us find the freshest catch at the Coron Public Market. A wide variety of fish glistened on the tiles. “Magkano po ito?’ I pointed at a plump Unicorn Fish, which we had for lunch the other day. “Sixty pesos lang po ang kilo.” replied the attendant. “Sixty pesos lang?” I echoed in disbelief as I fumbled in my pocket for a few bills. We also bought shrimps and a large squid and had them cooked at a nearby restaurant for a minimal amount.

After negotiating with Daniel, the tricycle driver, we headed to the Maquinit Hot Spring with our freshly cooked dinner. Maquinit Hot Spring is 20 minutes away from Coron Town and the round-trip tricycle fare is between Php 300-400. We paid an entrance fee of Php 150 per person.

“This is one heartwarming experience, literally.” Aimee quipped as she lowered herself into a large pool that is warmed by a geothermal spring nearby. I flinched. The salty water was playing within 39 to 40 degrees Celsius, almost unbearable at first. “Baka maging tinola tayo nito!” Mike laughed. After a few seconds, my wearied body was leaning comfortably against the pool wall. The warm water contrasted the chilly night breeze.

Day 3

“Let’s checkout the shipwrecks, please.” I begged my friends, who were unsettled about the idea. Typhoon Fabian hadn’t left yet. “The shipwrecks are far from here. It’s not advisable to go there now, sir.” Cherry discouraged.

Since the package we availed from Be Cool Travel and Tours only covered a two-day island hopping, we decided to rent a boat so we could visit the other sites nearby. A boat that could fit 8 passengers can be rented for Php 2,000. We had to bring our own food and a few hundreds for the entrance fees. “We can cook the food for you, bili nalang po kayo sa palengke.” Brandon, our boatman, volunteered. We, together with our newfound friends Red, Ced, Marvic and Shayne, picked up a large squid, lapu-lapu, chicken and everything else we needed for our little picnic at the public market.

A faint sunshine gleamed overhead when we reached Siete Picados. “This is one of the best snorkeling sites here in Coron. Mamaya mag fish-feeding kayo.” Brandon said. Around were seven rocky hills standing stalwartly amid clear sparkling waters. Myth says that seven children drowned in that area while looking for their parents. The seven islands sprouted after they died. “Grabe, para akong nasa aquarium.” Aimee said excitedly. A school of frisky striped fish swarmed us when Marvic released a handful of rice. We watched in awe as colorful fishes frolicked above a bed of flourishing corals.

Fish feeding in Siete Picados

Fish feeding in Siete Picados

Dito nagshooting yung Dyesebel. Nagpunta dito si Dingdong at Cristine Reyes.” Brandon said while removing the innards of the large Lapu-Lapu we asked him to grill. “Diba si Marian yun?” Aimee retorted. “Ay oo nga pala.”Brandon laughed.

We then headed to the Hidden Lagoon, which is surrounded with giant densely forested limestones. The limpid water, which reflected the lush greens above it, was very still. “It’s eerily silent in here.” Mike said as he took our photos. Only the sound of crickets and the chirping of birds can be heard from afar. “It’s not safe to swim here now. Look at those large jellyfish.” Brandon warned.

my Coron besties at the Hidden Lagoon

my Coron besties at the Hidden Lagoon

 

We had lunch at a small white-sand beach called Atuayan, named after the Tuway (a variety of shell) thriving in the area. “Mas maganda yung Banol Beach. The sand there is finer.” I couldn’t help but compare. According to Brandon, there is a good snorkeling site nearby but the sudden outburst of rain prevented us from going.

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Atuayan Beach

 

Punta nalang ulit tayo sa Barracuda Lake.” Ced suggested. We all agreed. We couldn’t seem to get enough of the mysteriously stunning lake. “I can stay here all day, the warm water is comforting.” Aimee said, floating on her back. “Akin na po camera ninyo, sir. Kunan ko po kayo ng underwater shots.” Brandon volunteered. Surprisingly, most of the boatmen in Coron can effortlessly handle a DSLR. “How come your underwater shots are better than mine?” I turned to him as I reviewed the photos. “Dapat kasi sir, palitan nyo ang setting sa Sports para kahit magalaw malinaw pa rin.” Brandon replied. We laughed. After giving tips on free diving, he skillfully took our photos as we attempted to reach the deep recesses of the lake.

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underwater honeymooners

Aimee, braving the depth of the Barracuda Lake

Aimee, braving the depth of the Barracuda Lake

 

Red's underwater selfie

Red’s underwater selfie

Ced looking for the elusive barracuda

Ced looking for the elusive barracuda :)))

According to my friends, Coron is one of those places tourists can visit repeatedly and still get the same sense of amazement. “It’s quite unfortunate that we came here during the rainy season. We missed so many sites.” I said as our van pulled over at the Busuanga airport the following day. “Well, at least we have a good reason to come back soon, di ba?” Mike lugged his bag out of the backseat.  “Coron is still in my bucket list, I just can’t cross it out yet until I’ve seen the Twin Lagoon and the shipwrecks!” I replied.

There are so many enchanting sites in Coron. Aside from the mystical lakes and lagoons, bleach white beaches, gargantuan limestone cliffs and lush coral reefs, there are twelve well-preserved World War II Japanese shipwrecks, which make the Coron waters one of the best dive sites in the world.

“Let’s make sure we come back here during the summer, okay?” I insisted. “Sige ba! Basta text nyo ako pag may piso fare ha! I’m excited!” Aimee smiled as we walked towards the Cebu Pacific check-in counter.

How To Go To Coron:

1.) Book a flight to Busuanga through Cebupacificair.com or flypalexpress.com

2.) From the Nicanor Reyes Airport in Busuanga, ride a van going to Coron town. Travel time is around 45 minutes.

3.) For a hassle free vacation in Coron, contact Cherry of Be Cool Travel and Tours at (0929) 795 9819. She has a kiosk at the Nicanor Reyes Airport.

 

It’s So Cool To Be In Bicol

 

DSC_0839 The gray skies growled. Huge drops of rain splattered on my pale shoulders as a strong gust of wind blew my frail umbrella inside-out.We had just disembarked from the freezing-cold Philtranco bus, our butts numb from the 9-hour ride from Manila to Daet, Camarines Norte. Our enthusiasm slowly turned into disheartenment. Mau, Aimee and I had been looking forward to our Calaguas trip all summer, and our arrival in the Bicol region seemed to be the beginning of the rainy season.

Our tricycle traversed the slick roads towards Bagasbas Beach, where we decided to spend our day. Dinky restaurants and B&B hotels line up sluggishly along the boardwalk. A few surfers were walking barefoot on the vast gray shore, waiting for the waves to pick up.

After making arrangements for our surfing lessons at Surfer’s Dine-Inn, where we also checked in, we decided to explore Daet. The rain had stopped but the skies remained melancholic. Daet is a surpisingly busy municipality. Tricycles and jeepneys crowded the bustling streets. We allowed ourselves to get lost in the jungle of hardwares, bakeries, eateries, fruit stands and numerous other shops. We picked up a few keychains and refrigerator magnets in the souvenir shops before heading to a cozy-looking restaurant called Ksarap. Rummaging Daet had us absolutely feeling famished that we ordered Sinigang, Kare-Kare, and Pork Barbeque, oblivious that each dish is hefty enough to serve 3-4 persons.

Aimee was quite excited to ride the waves of Bagasbas. Mau, on the other hand, found the waves too small and unchallenging; he just decided to take photos as I strenuously tried to keep my balance on the board. Surfing lessons in Bagasbas costs Php 400/hour (with a personal instructor).

At around 4, faint gleams of sunshine scattered from the gray skies. We could only hope for a better weather the following day.

Aimee showing the kiddo how to ride the waves!!

Aimee showing the kiddo how to ride the waves!!

5am. The rain drummed heavily on the roof of our diminutive hotel. Our hearts sank. An hour later, the rain had slowed into a drizzle. I opened the door and was surprised to see the clear blue skies. Aimee shrieked with delight. We grabbed our bags, paid Php 1200 for our room then hopped on a tricycle to Jollibee, where the Calaguas tour organizers would pick us up.

A few years ago, going to Calaguas can be quite an adventure. Unlike the famous and hedonistic White Beach in Boracay, there are no resorts, bars, phone signal and electricity (although there is a generator from 6pm until 10pm) in Calaguas. Experiencing its powdery white sand and crystalline water means bringing your own food, tent and other necessities. The transportation can also be a challenge as there are no regular boats that would take you to the Calaguas Islands. But now there are tour organizers that would take care of your food, tent, water, transportation and even ice-cold cocktails.

At around 9 we sailed off from Port Logpond in Vinzons, a town near Daet, with our bags waterproofed in huge plastic bags. The boatmen said that the trip would take approximately 2 hours. I was nervously silent, expecting six-foot waves and ferocious winds based on testimonies of friends who had been to Calaguas. But despite the dismal weather forecast in the PAGASA website, the sea was tame and serene.

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The Calaguas Group of Islands, composed of 17 islands/islet, is located 19.2 nautical miles from Vinzons and about 26 kilometers off the eastern coast of Camarines Norte. One of the two major islands in the group, Tinaga, has a long stretch of unspoiled beach with very fine white sand and crystalline turquoise waters called Mahabang Buhangin.

As we neared Mahabang Buhangin, our jaws dropped in unison. The gloriousness of the pristine white sand was magnified by the bright cloudless skies, which made the water shimmer. The cool water would turn milky white as soon as our feet dipped into it. There were no resorts, just tents and cottages. There was no loud music, just the faint sighs of the sea breeze. I removed my slippers. The sand felt good under my feet.

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Aimee and Mau getting ready to parade their beach bods.

Aimee and Mau getting ready to parade their beach bods.

After having a scrumptious lunch, Mau, Aimee and I just lay under a tree with our books and iPods. Other than swimming, there isn’t much to do in the island but eat, sunbathe, play frisbee and drink (yes, there is a store which sells beach necessities like toiletries and beer).I drifted into a deep slumber. The sun sauntered slowly across the sky. Mau and Aimee did some yoga routines against a backdrop of a colorful sunset.

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That night after dinner, we lay under the stars while other campers boisterously had Red Horse. We saw a couple of shooting stars, and a few fireflies. We exchanged silly conversations like high school crushes, and laughed heedlessly until we fell asleep. The cold night air seeping into our skin woke us up, so we headed back to the tent.

Part of the second day’s itinerary was to visit the neighboring islands, but we decided not to join. The weather was flawless. We just lounged all day in the cottage and on the shore with our books and some bossa nova from my iPod, took photographs of the breathtaking scenery and hiked up the hill at the end of the island so we could enjoy a good view of the beach from a higher vantage point.

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Aimee and Yours Truly, enjoying Mahabang Buhangin's Topview

Aimee and Yours Truly, enjoying Mahabang Buhangin’s Topview

That night, the tour organizers brought a mobile bar, and treated the campers to a drink-till-you-drop party.

The Philippines is blessed with countless majestic beaches and glimmering waters. One can always go to Palawan or Boracay for a paradise experience, but this year our free spirits led us to Calaguas’s fine shores. Disconnected from the world, we found inner tranquility just by looking at the bare white sand and the turquoise waters for two days.

Melvic, the tour organizer, told us that development is worming its way in. Plans to build resorts are underway. My friends and I feel lucky to have experienced this untouched paradise, and to have taken breathtaking photographs of its naked beauty. Personally, it is still best to experience Calaguas in its original form: remote, quiet and isolated.

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HOW TO GET THERE
1.) There are many tour organizers that would conveniently take you to Calaguas from Manila and back for a reasonable amount.I’d strongly recommend Hullabaloo, my friends and I found their services very satisfactory. You may contact them at 09065144444.
Included in their package are the food, water, land and sea transportation, entrance fee, tent and overflowing cocktails.

2.) For a “do-it-yourself” trip to Calaguas, take a Philtranco or Superlines bus from Metro Manila to Daet. Fare is Php 580 (as of this writing) for a comfortable airconditioned bus.
Cebu Pacific and PAL Express fly to Naga in Camarines Sur. From Naga, take a bus or van to Daet. Travel time is approximately 2 hours.

From Daet, you head to either of two coastal towns, which serve as your jump-off point to Calaguas.
a.) Vinzons- Take a tricycle/jeepney from Daet to the Vinzons fish port, then find a fishing boat that would take you to MahabangBuhangin in Calaguas. A boat that could fit 5 people would cost around Php 3000.
b.) Paracale- Go to the town’s fish port and find a fishing boat that would take you to MahabangBuhangin. A small boat that could fit up to six people would cost around Php 2000. Paracale is nearer to Calaguas than Vinzons.

 

 

 

 

 

I hated the beach. I despised the sun, the rosy tan that would later turn into dirty brown, the icky feeling of the saltwater on my skin and the viscid sunblock on my face.
All these changed in 2008, when I first set foot in Boracay. It was love at first sight. I couldn’t take my eyes off the kaleidoscopic sunset, which enveloped the colorful sailboats on the tranquil sea. Cathartic. My feet found home in the soft and very fine white sand. That moment I vowed to come back every year. And I make sure I do, no matter what.

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The majestic Boracay Island is located in Aklan, Western Visayas. White Beach, the main tourism beach in the island, is about four kilometers long and has many resorts, bars, restaurants, and shops. One can easily enjoy the best things in life: good food, beer or some cocktails after taking a dip in the clear turquoise water. Any vacationer can’t help but fall madly in love with the breezy lifestyle.
www.togiexplorer.com

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In July 2012, Travel+Leisure has named Boracay as The Best Overall Island during its 17th World’s Best Awards. Tripadvisor, on the other hand, ranked it the second best beach in the world.

Things To Do in Boracay:

1.) Nothing
When I’m in Boracay, I could just sit all day and admire the breathtaking panorama from the beach lounge. I can let hours pass by, and not fret about it.

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With no care in the world, I’d forget about my daily stressors and come to this paradise once or twice each year so I could lie on the white and oh so powdery sand, bask under the sun, read a good book, laugh with my friends about the most senseless things, take a dip on the crystalline waters and watch the breathtaking sunset with a happy hour cocktail or an ice-cold San Mig Light in hand.

www.togiexplorer.com

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2.) Eat

One might easily think that Boracay has ultraexpensive food and accommodation since the island is a top tourist destination in the country, but you’d be surprised to know that there are plenty of affordable resorts and restaurants.

And please! For goodness sake, drop the diet and enjoy a gastronomic vacation. You stressed yourself for months to have those chiseled abs. Now its time to relax and taste the delectable food the island has to offer. Many travelers from all over the world have come to Boracay, were mesmerized by the island’s beauty, settled and opened resorts and restaurants featuring their respective cuisines. This explains the wide range of flavors that would please any discriminating palate.

I’d always look forward to the nightly beachfront buffets, oblivious of my calorie-intake which I am always wary about prior to a trip. After a long day of swimming, snorkeling and island hopping, who wouldn’t want to dine like an aristocrat? Most resorts offer reasonably priced buffets for as low as Php 250 and have plenty of freshly-cooked dishes to choose from.

One good buffet I had was in La Carmela de Boracay. The mouthwatering menu includes grilled seafoods, chicken and pork barbeque, beef dishes, desserts and a Mongolian section, for only Php 270++, inclusive of the refillable iced tea. The candlelit setup by the beach is perfect for the sumptuous meal. The food attendants are also pleasant. Satisfactory.
If you don’t mind spending a few extra hundreds for a more upscale buffet experience, you may want to try Astoria. The items on the table include a wide variety of salads, pasta, bread and pastries, kebabs, pork and chicken barbeque, grilled seafoods and refillable drinks. I particularly loved the barbeque. It is grilled right before your eyes so you can sink your teeth on a smoking piece of flavorful meat. Whether devouring the scrumptious meal or chilling over a few bottles of beer, diners can always enjoy the live band and the astounding firedance performances. The meal is around Php500++, not bad considering the better ambience and wider selection of food.

If you’ve had enough of the nightly buffets, try heading to D’Talipapa. “Talipapa” means small wet market. There, you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, seafoods and meat and have the restaurants in the marketplace cook them for you at a minimal charge.

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If you are carnivorous like me, then you’ll be delighted at the beer-and-ribs-all-you-can every Friday at Nigi Nigi Noo Noo for only Php 680. Not bad! A slab of ribs ala carte would cost the same in other restaurants, or even more. The ice-cold beer is just perfect to wash down the tender, fall-off-the-bone baby back ribs, which are basted with sweet barbeque sauce. The distinctive aroma of these ribs is enough to make you go ravenous, so wear something dark, because it can get messy.

The fresh and wood fire brick-oven pizza in Don Vito Ristorante Italiano would make a superb lunch. Unlike the popular fastfood pizzas, theirs has a subtle taste, has evidently high quality ingredients, is less oily and yummy. The pastas are comforting and friendly to a Filipino tongue. On a hot day, their gelato would make a grand finale to a hearty meal. So if you’re up for some carbo-loading, you now know where to go.

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Many vacationers say that you haven’t truly experienced Boracay unless you have tried Jonah’s Fruitshakes, the best shakes in the island. Their bestseller and my favorite is the Choco-Banana-Peanut Shake. It is thick, rich and creamy. It’s just so good you’ll come back for more. No wonder the place is always packed.

3.) Party All Night

Gastronomy and revelry in paradise. Seriously, what else is better than this? At night, the tranquil beach metamorphoses into one big party. Colorful. Vibrant. Everything just lights up with amazing vibes. The good thing about this, you can dance all night barefoot and half-naked, with no care in the world.

Boracay has plenty of bars, pubs and dance clubs that would suit your partying mood. The parties can start as early as 5 in the afternoon, when you can enjoy happy hour cocktails in the beach lounges and pool bars. After sunset, prepare to be enthralled by the firedancer’s performances.
Reggae is synonymous with the beach, and you can enjoy some at the Bom Bom and Pat’s Creek over a few bottles of beer. What a perfect way to chillax. Ahhh, life! And if you’re in the mood for Rn’B and electronic music, some serious dancing and hobnobbing, then Juice Bar is your place. For me, they serve the perfect frozen margaritas. Sweet, innocent but can be quite deadly after a few glasses. If you’re up for some sophisticated unwinding, you can sip wine at Cork. I love the cozy ambience of this place, a perfect hangout for friends who take pleasure in a bottle or two of good wine and meaningful conversations.

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You can also enjoy vibrant live music on the beach and on special occasions, fireworks. No matter what kind of music or unwinding you prefer, there’s always a great place for you to chill out.

On the 19th of May 2012, my friends and I experienced the best party of our lives. It was Blue Leaf Events Pavilion’s 4th anniversary sunset party dubbed as SOAKED. Not one of the hundreds of party animals left dry. True to its theme, everyone was showered, sprinkled and drenched with beer and champagne. Drinks were lavish and people were insanely dancing. Wet, wild and crazy, exactly my definition of a party. The party gods must have led us there since we were already heading back to our hotel when we passed by the shindig, so we decided to crash. Now, my friends and I are always looking forward to this hopefully annual event.

photo by Ike Gube

photo by Ike Gube

And did you know that Boracay has just eclipsed Ibiza in Spain and South Beach in Miami, Florida in a list of top party beaches? That’s right, it just did, according to the travel website Cheapflights.com and this was published on Huffington Post in August.

4.) Paraw Sail. Parasail. Go Island Hopping. Snorkle.

Sail on a Paraw or the native outrigger sailboat and enjoy the tranquility of the sea under the breathtaking sunset. Catharsis. It is poetry brought to life. A very special experience. I tell you, your Boracay vacation wouldn’t be complete without this.

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If you don’t mind spending a few thousands for the cruise packages, then go ahead. Just imagine having the best view of the splendid sunset on a cruise ship while enjoying some wine and tapas or refillable beer. The experience is priceless.

Boracay is more than just a beach destination. There’s so much more around the island for your eyes and soul to feast on. Your resort can arrange a scenic and relaxing tour for you to discover some secluded beaches, coves and snorkel sites where you can go fish feeding. There are 12 beaches in Boracay. I haven’t been to all of them yet, but one that marked a spot in my soul is the Puka Shell Beach. This is an undeveloped, serene and beautiful white-sand beach in the northern part of White Beach. Just you, the sun, the azure water, the sound of the gentle waves and the puka shells on the sand. You won’t find resorts and establishments here. No water sports as well. Simplicity, peace and exquisite bliss.

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Another activity that I have tried as well is the parasailing. If your knees easily tremble when you’re on top of a tall building, then this is a good challenge for you. I did this back in 2009. First I was harnessed to a parachute, then lifted to the air while being pulled by a speedboat. The first few seconds were just terrifying I almost peed in my pants, but once I was above the deep blue sea, I felt good, liberated, detached from all the worries in the world.  Like what a friend always tells me, “Life is short, conquer your fears“.

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5.) Shop

Have you forgotten your thong at home? Did you not bring an extra swimwear so you’d have a variety of swimming attire in your hundreds of photos? Worry not, my camwhore friend! You’d find everything in D’Mall, a one-stop shopping place for anything you need. Clothes, vacation essentials, fastfood, travel agencies, optical and dental clinic, ATM, spa…everything.

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When you are in Boracay, don’t forget to shop for souvenirs for your family and friends back home. There are plenty of vendors peddling pearls, miniature boats and sculptures. Some items are unbelievably cheap, especially if you shop at D’Talipapa. You can buy Boracay shirts on a buy one take one bargain. Refrigerator magnets and keychains can go as low as php 100 for 7 pieces. There are plenty of souvenir items to choose from, just go around and you’d find something nice to take home.

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6.) Get a massage by the beach

What better way to conclude your grand vacation than a soothing beachside massage, while listening to the gentle waves slapping the white sandy shore. There are many licensed masseuses who would offer their services right on the sand for as low as Php 300. You’ll see plenty of massage tables lining the beach under the coconut trees so it is not hard to find these ladies. Make sure to approach only those who have their official badges.

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7.) Respect this masterpiece of nature

Shame on you if you kill and bury your cigarette butts in the fine white sand, you do not have a place in this tropical paradise. Shame on you if you cant walk to the nearest trash bin, which can be located practically everywhere, to dispose your food wrappers. It is very frustrating to sometimes step on a soda can, a plastic bag or even a beer bottle in the crystalline waters. Good thing the local government has now a strict campaign that prohibits littering and smoking on the beaches of the island. There are still plenty of offenders though, especially when the authorities aren’t watching.

Sadly, Boracay has been experiencing few other environmental problems as well, like the fast deterioration of the coral reefs. I witnessed this when I had my fun dive in 2010. There were plenty of dull and lifeless corals on the seabed. Recently, the government has come up with a Php 60million artificial reef project to rehabilitate the island’s reefs.

According to locals, Boracay now is just half the beauty it was years ago, no thanks to the blatant extraction of the white sand in the island. The local government has implemented an ordinance, which bans visitors from collecting white sand, corals and pebbles from the island’s beaches. They have now imposed stricter penalties: Php 2500 or imprisonment for three months, or both for first time offenders, and three to six months of imprisonment for second-time offenders. Violators would also have to return the sand and pebbles to the beaches where they were taken.

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The first time I saw it in photos, El Nido was like a sorceress enticing me with a red shiny apple so I’d get lost in her magical world. You must have heard how magnificent this part of Palawan is. So if you want to be charmed yourself, do a little research first. Don’t just pack some clothes and board on a plane. Ten months after my trip and I’m still kicking myself for not bringing a water-resistant camera. YOU MUST BRING A WATERPROOF CAMERA! I was unable to capture photos of the breathtaking hidden beaches, the secret lagoons and other inconspicuous sites that required a little swim to see. You see, El Nido is not one of those easiest places to visit. It would require you at least 7 tedious hours of air and land travel, if you choose not to spend a ridiculous amount for the airfare of the jet that would take you directly there. You’d understand how frustrating it is for me to have missed some photo session with these masterpieces of nature. DSC00153

Initially, I planned on a 3-day 2-night stay. But when I discovered that there is so much to explore, I didn’t mind shelling out a few thousands for the rebooking of my plane ticket. A 5-day 4-night vacation would suffice, if you want to see more than half of what your eyes expect to feast on.

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As aforementioned, the land travel going to El Nido from the Puerto Princesa airport, and vice versa, would eat up your time. The flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa takes approximately an hour. From the airport, you can find shuttles going to the town of El Nido. Travel time is wearisome, 6 hours. Back and forth including the flight, that’s more or less 14 hours already consumed. We left Manila at 8 in the morning; it was almost sunset when we arrived in El Nido. Planning your itinerary ahead is therefore necessary so you won’t waste your time.

I always had an impression that an El Nido vacation would cost me more than my monthly earnings. Well, it could if you decide to be extravagant and choose to stay at the exclusive and luxurious resorts, like the Miniloc Island Resort and the Lagen Resort. But if you are the type who watches every penny like me, then great news, there are many small and inexpensive beachfront hotels in the town of El Nido. Sour-graping aside, you don’t need a high-end hotel since you’d be on a boat all day to visit the skyscraping limestone cliffs, the secluded and untouched beaches and lagoons, the lush forests and other breathtaking islands.

The beachfront of El Nido town proper

The beachfront of El Nido town proper

We checked in at the Chislyk Cottages. The room we had was basic. It only had electricity (which is only from 2pm-6am daily in El Nido), water and well, airconditioning. There was no television but a small veranda overlooking the beach, where we whiled some nights away over beer. Since most of my Day 1 was already spent for the travel, my friends and I just decided to explore El Nido’s town proper. There is a limited variety of restaurants here. Most of them are a quite pricey and easily gets packed at night. I remember one night when my friends and I couldn’t find a place to dine because all restaurants were full to the brim.

The quiet but friendly town of El Nido

The quiet but friendly town of El Nido

 

Whenever I go to a new place, I’d always look forward to something new for my palate. But El Nido isn’t one of those destinations where you could embark on a gastronomic adventure. I couldn’t find a distinctive flavor here. But hey, the food wasn’t the main reason why I just endured a 7-hour trip. It was a different kind of banquet that I was looking for- a visual banquet.
Many establishments in its town proper arrange island tours and most of them offer four similar tour packages. Since we had 3 whole days to island hop, we chose one tour for each day. Each package includes lunch in one of the island destinations.

Day 2. The skies looked furious and it was raining profusely. It was disheartening since our tour package (also called Tour A) for the day was one of the bestsellers and was highly recommended. The itinerary for Tour A includes some of the best sites in El Nido: the Small Lagoon, the Big Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon, Simizu Island and Seven Commandos. The boatman said it had been raining hard since the beginning of the February. The waters were rough and the wind was a bit unfriendly to us. Determined, we went on with the tour.

After a few minutes in the waters, the boatman cautiously navigated towards the entrance of the Small Lagoon of Miniloc Island, which is menacingly rocky and shallow. The waters bordered by towering limestones are turquoise and very clear you could see colorful fishes and corals underneath. In order to get inside the Small Lagoon, you have to take a little swim towards a small arch-like entrance. I could tell that the placid water inside is dangerously deep, due to its darker hue, so I anxiously made sure that my life vest was clasped to my body. As I swam, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the sight. Surreal. Even the obnoxious rainclouds could not hide the Small Lagoon’s magnificence. I took time to marvel at the lush greens stemming out of the majestic gray limestones, which complement the bluish-green water. Everything inside is brimming with life and color. There is a tiny cave at the end of the lagoon, but the depth of the water made me uncomfortable, so I just decided to admire it from afar. This was one of the few times I wanted to bang my head on one of the rocks for not bringing a water-resistant camera. Since i do not have a photo of the Small Lagoon, i borrowed one from ASPAC.

photo by Mon Corpuz

photo by Mon Corpuz

After we snorkled to our heart’s content, we headed to the Big Lagoon, also of Miniloc Island. The rain was erratic, and we were pale and trembling in our swimwear, though we seemed oblivious about it. We were ready to brave the waters to see another masterpiece of nature. We slowly traversed the strait leading to the Big Lagoon. None of us said a word. We were dumbfounded by the gorgeous line of limestone cliffs on the opposite sides of the deep blue passageway. The sun could have magnified the beauty of this already postcard-perfect view. We no longer jumped off our boats for a snorkel and a swim since the skies were getting delirious again.

The Small and the Big Lagoon are my favorite sites in El Nido. I swear to God I’d come back one summer to take photos of these picturesque views.

Before we had our lunch, our guide led us to a small white sand beach scattered with ferocious-looking rocks. Beside the beach are giant limestones and one of them has a small hole, which serves as the entrance to the Secret Lagoon. We wanted to see what was inside so inspite of the harsh waters, we got off the boat and trekked carefully towards the rocky entrance. I had to put my non water-resistant camera in a zip-lock bag because the small but treacherous waves were crashing against us. One by one, we curled ourselves in the tiny hole and landed on a pool of azure water circled by beautiful giant limestones. We stood in awe of this small secret paradise. We spent some time here; we swam and took some devastatingly blurry photos due to my moist camera lens.

Our tummies were already growling so we headed to Simizu Island to have our lunch. Simizu Island is another limestone island with a coral white sand beach. From the boat, you’d see an aquarium of beautiful corals swarmed by colorful fishes, which makes the island a perfect snorkeling site. According to the boatman, the island was named after two Japanese brothers who died while scuba diving. Since it was raining hard again, we took refuge in one of the giant limestones, where our boatman grilled some fish and chicken. He took out some melons, pineapples and tomatoes from his large basket and called everyone on the tour for a hearty lunch. After a satiating meal, we waited for the rain to stop before heading to the next island, but it didn’t. The skies roared and startled us with a series of lightnings. We were stuck for an hour.

When the skies calmed down, we hopped on to our boats and moved to Seven Commandos. According to stories, there were seven commandos lost in the island during the war, hence the name. Our eyes feasted on another stunning white sand beach we couldn’t help but sigh with disappointment. We thought we could’ve enjoyed it here if not for the fugitive sun. We noticed a small store a few meters away from the shore so we went there and just enjoyed some coconuts, chips and beer since it was too cold to swim.
Day 3. The night before, I ardently beseeched God for a sunny weather during the rest of my stay since according to the news, there was a tropical depression affecting a huge part of Palawan. I sprang out from my bed when I saw the orange skies the following morning. At last we’d see El Nido in its naked glory, I thought.

That day, we signed up for Tour C, another bestseller. We were excited. Some foreign tourists told us how magnificent the destinations are. Tour C’s itinerary includes the Hidden Beach, the Secret Beach, Talisay Island, Matinloc Shrine and Helicopter Island.

The sun was gloriously perched on the thin clouds. However, the water wasn’t very smooth. We headed to Matinloc Shrine first, instead of the Hidden Beach. According to the boatman, it is difficult to go to the Hidden Beach of Matinloc Island during low tide in the morning because the area is rocky and could damage the boat. Also, a swim, which is required to see this paradise, could be arduous during low tide because of the sharp rocks and corals that could scrape your skin.

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine

The entrance to the Matinloc Shrine is a small white sand beach guarded by an army of stalwart limestones on both sides. One of the limestones has a tiny cave-like formation at the bottom, which shelters the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and another has a Cross on its peak. There are several palm trees and ornamental plants adorning the path leading to an open-air shrine that has bigger statue of the Blessed Mother. At the ceiling is a mosaic-like picture of Jesus Christ holding a sheep, another obvious reminder that this is a sacred place so we kept our voices down as we took some photos of ourselves. We then saw some Korean tourists crowding the steep concrete stairs to the top of a limestone cliff so we followed. The top of the cliff offered us a buffet of breathtaking sights. The clear skies highlighted the pristine white sand beach across, the massive rock formations and the deep blue waters. The wind blew gently against us and we could hear the waves slapping the rocks beneath. It was bliss. A haiku moment. After this pleasant assault to our senses, we headed to an abandoned port not far from the shrine to take more photos. On the sides of the port, you’d see limestones which look like giant mushrooms with sharp spines. We were captivated everywhere we looked. There’s just so much to see. Our boatman then guided us to a building across the port. “A vacation house?” I asked the boatman. He said it was supposed to be. Rumor has it that the building was just a mask to the gold-mining activities in the island years ago. And when the owners completed their agenda, they abandoned the place. Another story says that the owners went bankrupt that’s why they abandoned the house. It could have been a perfect retreat house and you could see a gorgeous vista of the verdant mountains from the second floor terrace. Inside the house is empty. The doors and windows are broken. Thin sheets of wood are peeling off the ceiling. There used to be few sets of furniture inside according to the boatman, but they were stolen. We didn’t stay long inside. There were plenty of mosquitoes buzzing our ears.

The Matinloc Shrine

The Matinloc Shrine

The abandoned building in Matinloc Shrine

The abandoned building in Matinloc Shrine

A panoramic view of the Matinloc Shrine from the port

A panoramic view of the Matinloc Shrine from the port

 

Before heading to Talisay Island for lunch, the boatman brought us to a nearby island called, if my memory serves me right, Tapuitan Island. From afar, our eyes feasted on the insanely gorgeous and ferocious rock formations regally sitting on the crystal clear waters and the blindingly white sand. The peak of the limestones looked like giant needles as we drew closer. It was almost noon, the sweltering sun further bared the unspoilt beauty of the scenery. This wasn’t part of the itinerary and we felt very fortunate that our guide decided to go an extra mile to boast this site. As we walked on a path leading to the other side of the island, we passed by a skeleton of an old house. It actually blended very well with its abandoned surroundings. The beach on the other side looked very inviting I just disappeared into its cool and very clear waters. I enjoyed my swim here because the sand is very smooth and the view of the nearby mountains is spectacular.

Yours truly, at the Tapuitan Island

Yours truly, at the Tapuitan Island

 

 

The unique and majestic rock formations at the Tapuitan Island

The unique and majestic rock formations at the Tapuitan Island

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The two photos above are of the fine white-sand beach at the Tapuitan Island.

The two photos above are of the fine white-sand beach at the Tapuitan Island.

 

We had lunch at the Talisay Island. While the boatman grilled some fish and chicken, we snorkeled. I brought some crackers underwater, and as they crumbled and dispersed from my hands, I was swarmed with a school of colorful fish. Besides the fishes, there is nothing much going on underneath. There are lifeless corals on the seabed. Our lunch was the same from the previous tour-grilled fish and chicken, pineapples and watermelons but we enjoyed every bite. The beautiful view of the beach made this simple meal very appetizing.

After a satiating lunch, we headed to the Secret Beach of Matinloc Island. In order to see this intriguingly secret beach, we had to swim against the slightly strong current. Sharp corals surrounded the spot where we were dropped off. We had to keep a cautious eye so that we wouldn’t scrape our skin as we kicked against the current, which was pushing us towards the corals. We clung to our life raft as our guide pulled it towards the shallow part of the sea. As we trekked, we could see small fishes on the very clear water leading to the Secret Beach. I stood in astonishment when I saw the Secret Beach, a small and secluded white-sand beach surrounded by steep limestone cliffs. The giant rocks cloistering the tiny beach give the place an enchanting and mysterious vibes. You couldn’t really swim here because of the shallow waters. To say that the place is breathtaking is an understatement. This was another moment when I wanted to crack my head open for not bringing a waterproof camera.
After we marveled at the lovely Secret Beach, we knew that The Hidden Beach, our next destination, had something special for us. Unfortunately due to rough waters, we just passed by the site. We saw a tiny hole at the bottom of a huge limestone. According to our boatman, the hole is the entrance to the Hidden Beach and you have to swim to get inside.

We were quite exhausted so I was glad that our last stop was the Helicopter Island. We were curious how the island got its name and according to the boatman, it came from its shape from afar. The breathtaking white-sand beach, the clear waters and the picturesque view of the nearby mountains were just perfect for a laidback finale of this tour. According to the other tourists, the island is abundant with corals and colorful fishes but most of us just laid on the sand under the afternoon sun, enjoyed the gentle breeze and the smell of saltwater.

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The fine white-sand beach of Helicopter Island

The fine white-sand beach of Helicopter Island

Day 4. We were blessed with a great weather on our last full day in El Nido. And since we still couldn’t get enough of the marvelous sights in the nearby islands, we signed up for Tour B. The destinations for this tour are Snake Island, Pangalusian Island, Pinagbuyutan Island and Codognon Cave.

To warm us up for the breathtaking sights lined up for the day, our boatman first dropped us off in the waters of Pangalusian Island. We weren’t exactly in the island but several meters away from its wide stretch of white-sand shore. The boatman said that foreign businessmen recently bought the island and public docking is no longer allowed. From afar, we could see the skeleton of an exclusive resort being built. Armed with our snorkeling equipment, we just contented ourselves with the lush underwater life. I was so engrossed with the stunning coral formations and sea creatures when my friend scattered some crackers and bread in my direction. All of a sudden plenty of colorful fishes were breezing around me, catching every single crumb. I would’ve wanted to capture that moment, but then again, I was so stupid for not bringing a waterproof camera.

Our next stop was the Snake Island.

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We thought the island was an abode to giant anacondas, hence the name, but when we saw it from afar we knew we were wrong. There is a long gorgeous sandbar snaking between two lands, inviting us to dock on its blindingly white and powdery sand. We were fortunate that the tide wasn’t high otherwise it wouldn’t be visible. The waters on both sides of the sandbar are very clear and shallow you could see a myriad of small rocks, shells and even small fishes. On one end of the sandbar you’d see hills and a lush mangrove forest while the other end is a land where the boats dock and tourists have lunch. There is also a small hill on this side, not far from the shore. While our boatman prepared our lunch, which consisted of grilled fish and chicken, again, we scurried off to the hill. The hilltop offered us a breathtaking view of the gorgeous white sandbar, the luxuriantly verdant hills, and the crystal clear turquoise waters that expose the corals underneath. It is quite a soothing and dreamy view I could stay there all day. It is so quiet up there you could only hear the trees rustling in the wind. After a while, we could hear our tummies grumble so we headed down. The sun was scorching so we sought refuge under the mangroves, where we all ate our humble meal. Before we hopped on to our boats for our next destination, we took a quick dip in the cool waters of the island.

A hilltop view of the Snake Island

A hilltop view of the Snake Island

The boatman preparing our lunch, and a hungry kid


The boatman preparing our lunch, and a hungry kid

Codognon Cave was next on our list. It is located in the western part of the Lagen Island. The cave is believed to be a burial site during the ancient times. To get inside the cave, we had to curl up sideways so we’d fit in the tiny hole that serves as the entrance. As soon as we all slipped in, we found ourselves in awe of the towering walls and the elevated ceilings of the cave. Sunlight was streaming in through the small holes at the ceiling so we could see its shapeless and rough but glossy walls. We took time to marvel at the fascinating cathedral-like cave and had a brief photo session inside.

The Codognon Cave

The Codognon Cave

Outside, not far from the cave is another small beach. It is one of the best beaches I’ve seen in El Nido. The sand is powdery white and as fine as that in Boracay and there is a diverse marine life thriving in its waters. While my friends sipped some ice-cold beer from a stall under the coconut tree, I just sat on the shore and admired the breathtaking and unhampered view of the sea and the landscape on its borders.

The dazzling small beach beside the Codognon Cave

The dazzling small beach beside the Codognon Cave

The luxurious Lagen Resort

The luxurious Lagen Resort

Our final stop in El Nido was the Pinagbuyutan Island.  The island looks distinctive from afar. It has massive and full-bodied rock formations regally throned on a podium of white sand. The coconut trees lining up one side of the shore look like a squad of robust soldiers. Sharp corals and rocks are visible from the clear waters. Unlike the other islands, Pinagbuyutan has plenty of seashells. The deeper part of the sea is a good snorkeling site, and since it was my last day in El Nido, I spent some time watching the brightly colored fishes frolicking among the corals. Before we left, we enjoyed some refreshing coconut water, thanks to our boatman who volunteered to climb one of the trees.

Pinagbuyutan Island

Pinagbuyutan Island

I spent three full days in El Nido but I haven’t been to all of its majestic sites. I am definitely going back one summer. I would’ve wanted to dive since I’ve heard that El Nido has excellent diving spots, but time didn’t permit. And I may have tried my best to describe the magnificent islands, lagoons and beaches but trust me, you haven’t fully lived your life until you have seen this part of the world. I was exhausted from the three-day island hopping but I went home very happy and gratified.

Below are Fort Wally’s Island Hopping rates as of 2012:
Tour A (Php 700 per person): Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Simizu Island, Seven Commandos
Tour B (Php 800 per person): Snake Island, Pangalusian Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Codognon Cave
Tour C (Php 900 per person): Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Talisay Island, Matinlog Shrine, Helicopter Island
Tour D : Natnat Beach, Cadlao Island, Bucal Beach, Paradise Beach (I didn’t sign up for this tour so I cant remember the cost).

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