Paradise in Caramoan (Almost!)

I work in a company where we are given an early week long vacation during the lenten season. Starting Holy Monday, we can already go out and enjoy the holiday. For this year my wife and I decided that we want to go to Bicol and see the famous and newly discovered beauty of the Caramoan Islands. Originally we wanted to have a joy ride from Manila to Naga City but my friend from Naga insist that we commute by either train or bus. Luckily with my wife’s mastery of all things travel, she booked us a flight to Naga City at a very affordable rate.

We started the journey on a Monday late morning flight to Naga. The plane was small and turbulence was present while on air. I am not afraid of flying but when you’re constantly shaken at around 55,000 ft or so, you will definitely start to think that something bad might happen. Maybe its just me and my defeatist mind.

We arrived early afternoon and was fetched by my good friend Don. We bought snack/lunch at Bigg’s Burger – a local Burger chain in Bicol, the taste is not at all special and it is expensive for a burger and chicken meal that doesn’t have much to be proud of, plus it took them almost 30 minutes to serve two burgers and one chicken meal. It was not a good welcome experience. Not good at all.

We went straight to a hot spring resort just under the foot of a mountain in the far edge of Naga city. It was a long drive though and a treacherous one at that with sudden climbs and steep descents plus the paved road can only accommodate one way at a time. It was a simple resort divided into different pools, some hot some cold. You can see and feel the running water from the mountain down to the different pools. You also get a rainforest scenery and feel to the resort and there are bamboo cottages and room for overnight stay. I love the nature, virgin forest feel to it but my wife hated the “nocnoc” bites.

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The next day, we woke up very early in the morning to drive for one hour and a half to Sabang port. It’s not as easy as it sounds because to my surprise thick fog covered the road and made it very difficult for me to drive because 1) I am not familiar with the road (plus they have no lines!) and 2) the windshield of the car I’m using is filled with scratches. I felt that I won’t be able to reach the port in time because of this thick fog. Fortunately, my friend who is the lead car assisted me by slowing down and after a few more minutes, the road began to clear and driving from then on was easy.

We reached the port and talked to my friend’s contact. We parked and began the tricky part of boarding the ferry. There was no paved and steady platform that will comfortably lead you inside the ferry, instead, you get to ride a floating “bridge” manually steered by the local porters from the beach front into the ferry. Scary situation number it was!

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The ferry was packed like sardines. The seating arrangement is literally a pain in the ass. Our group sat in the part of the ferry where the leg room is virtually zero and back support is just a small plywood pushing your lower back forward. Imagine all of these punishment constantly pressing against your body for a good hour and a half. There even came a time when I can’t feel my back, my butt and my legs!

We arrived at the Caramoan port and rode a tricycle to our lodging area at the main barangay. Two things caught my attention. The first was a large printed tarpaulin announcement saying that several islands are unavailable from feb 2012 until August 2012. As it turned out, Survivor USA is renting the said islands for their upcoming season. These islands according to the locals are the best islands of Caramoan! Poor Filipino tourists. The other attention grabber was the infrastructure in Caramoan. It is poorly maintained! To think that this municipality has been visited my so many tourists and rented by so many Survivor franchises from different countries (France, Israel, Turkey, Thailand, just to name a few) and see such slow advances in port building and road maintenance truly is a surprise.

We checked in at a house with two rooms. My wife and I stayed on the room at the ground floor. We were immediately served with an early lunch of crabs, laing, bicol express and veggies in coconut milk.

Laing

bicol express

crabs

Ginataang Gulay

We left the house for the port to begin our island hopping. It was around 12 noon and the sun was striking us so hot. I can’t quite remember how long the travel was from the port to the first island. Along the way, you can see the varied islands and rock formations. Some are small, and some are huge. Some have white sand beaches in it while some have no visible swimming area, just grooves and holes that were created by the unending crash of waves. The islands are also replete with trees and vegetation. I think that’s a good sign on the health of this booming tourist attraction.

We stopped at four islands and took some pictures. I can honestly say that the first day island hop was not spectacular since my expectation for this place is very high. The islands and the surrounding waters for swimming is normally beautiful and pristine at the the most. We had late lunch at one of the island and even got to sleep for half an hour at an island where 4  bamboo shanties were built.

We started sailing home at around 430 in the afternoon, we arrived at the port an hour after that. We freshen up and ate dinner but before that, my wife and I had a taste of their local isaw and chicken chops just at the end of our street. We rested because tomorrow will be the real start of the revelation on the true beauty the islands of Caramoan has to offer.

We got up early and left for the second port of Caramoan. It’s low tide so we can see the mangrove roots surrounding the port. Our tour guide Mang Jerry (?) informed us on the next islands we are about to visit. An hour later, we were on our first island. The island’s sand bar is exposed and the water was very shallow that almost a kilometer from the shore, you can still walk and explore the outskirt of the island through the exposed sand. A helicopter appeared and hovered above us. It was the Survivor crew having an ocular  since some of the best islands were near our island. Pictures, buko juice and shells after, we proceeded to our next island, and I’m telling you, this island alone can truly represent the beauty and majesty of Caramoan.

We approached this next island which our tour guide told us is under the ownership of Mr Freddie Garcia – former president of ABS CBN. The island is now valued at least 25 million pesos. It was bought way way back for an undisclosed amount.  We talked to the former owner and local senior guide and now acting as the caretaker of the island and he shared some anecdotes on the sale between him and Mr FMG. The island was breathtaking! Fine white sand, clear blue water and at the edge was a winding sand path overlooking two islands. One adjacent and one to the left. We kept on saying WOW and GOD, because truly the island is spectacular. the whole island is covered with trees from the inside. This is the spot for picture taking – and lots of it! We ate lunch and my friends enjoyed the water for swimming much as I enjoyed the island for sight seeing and picture taking. The crowd began to swell after almost two hours of stay and we said that that’s our cue to leave for the next island.

The next two islands were beautiful. The first has a making for a commercialized resort. It has a big project plan displayed for a full size resort complete with a swimming pool, but for now it is still an island half touched by civilization.

My friends and tour guide were keen in getting us to a forbidden island (islands occupied by  the Survivor crew). Mang Jerry the great guide that he is, was able to sneak us in an island that has the finest sand ever (that’s what we think anyway)! I began to take pictures of my wife and the island guard told us that picture taking is prohibited in that island. It’s sad I know but I managed to steal some snapshots. The island was actually off limits and so was the mystic lagoon where according to local folklore, two Bangus were found to be swimming and living in it (you can;t find any Bangus off the waters of Caramoan and its nearby islands) and are said to be enchanted. One tourist went to the lagoon and caught one Bangus and ate it. It is said that because of that act of disrespect, he paid with his life. Now, only a single Bangus is left swimming in the lagoon and nobody dares touch that Milkfish or a curse or worse death will come your way. We stayed for a quick 5 minutes and left. The next boat of tourists were strictly not allowed to alight from their boats. We were lucky I guess.

The travel back, we saw breathtaking rock formations and had a glimpse of the islands occupied by the Survivor crew. We saw the Gota village where an overnight stay would cost 10,000 big ones. From afar I can say that it will be worth it. We went home at around 530 in the afternoon. On a tricycle ride home we passed by a parade of people and statues since its Maundy Thursday and the culmination of the Holy Week is just unraveling. It was a good second day trip. It was hot and tiring but it was oh so fulfilling.

The next morning we had breakfast, settled the bill and left for the port to Sabang Island. But before that, we visited Saint Michael Parish. An old Spanish Colonial Church with beautiful and genuine brick work from the 16th century. We left around 10 am and this time the ferry was half full so the sardine like ride that I dreaded the first day was not a problem this time. it was a good hour and a half travel. We saw Dina Bonnevie’s island just 15 minutes from the Sabang port. It stands alone in the middle of the sea and it is surrounded with swimmable white sand beach. Arriving at the port we were again greeted by the swimming porters and the single floatation bridge that will transport us from the ferry to the beach. We can see throngs of new tourists on their way to Caramoan. It’s a relief that we are done with the well deserved vacation without the usual volume of people and inconvenient situations associated with long holidays and summer vacations. My wife and I will definitely return to the islands since a lot of the really beautiful islands were off limits.

Caramoan is a true example of how beautiful, virginal and undiscovered the islands of our blessed country is. Its just sad that  due to politics and profiteering of a few, Caramoan still has a long long way to go for it to really realize and live up to its potential both in the infrastructure and tourism. I keep on telling the locals that they have a beautiful place there and that they should take care of it and always be vigilant because sooner or later the Blessing that is Caramoan can just vanish and be destroyed not just by the people that I mentioned earlier but by the tourists and most importantly by the locals themselves unaware that their island is already driven to abuse and exhaustion. Surely it still is more fun in the Philippines and may I add, more Beautiful.

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