I wake early to the sounds of waves slamming the shores of Claveria, the northernmost town in mainland Luzon. Trudging across the sandy shore, a cup of coffee in hand, I watch as a group of fisherfolk struggle to haul in a net. As I am taking a last sip of my morning fix, my companion calls. Let’s go! The coastguard’s letting us sail today!”
An hour later we are aboard a lampitaw, a smallish, motorized outrigger boat filled more with supplies than with passengers. After two days waiting for calmer seas – big waves are the norm here – we are finally beginning the six-hour crossing to Calayan Island, a speck of land in the sometimes treacherous Luzon Strait.
Calayan is the largest island in the Babuyanes group of islands, north of mainland Luzon and south of Batanes. It’s a sleepy place of about 6,000 souls, and as far from Manila – in distance and sensations – as you can imagine.
There are no cars, locals speak their own language (similar to Tagalog, but with many differences) and you won’t get much in the way of high-speed internet. But that’s not why people come. This is the Philippines’ remote and wild north, an area very few tourists get anywhere near. There are six islands in this isolated archipelago with nine islets, some not much bigger than rock formations. There’s a volcano here that erupted in 1923 and the seas are home to wintering humpback whales. Don’t expect luxury. This is the Philippines unplugged.
We are staying at one of three simple lodging houses in town. Tourism hasn’t reached Calayan and there are no hotels, but we have clean rooms and clean sheets. Connie, our lovely host, apologises for producing only a humble welcome meal of string beans and squash from her back yard, but when I take a sneak look at the pot, it is also brimming with small lobsters and curachas (spanner crab).
We rise early and a boat is arranged so we can see what this tiny and almost off-the-map island has to offer.
“To a waterfall,” is the boatman’s response when I ask him where we’re going. We anchor on a deserted, boulder-strewn beach about an hour from town, and before we walk the trail to the falls are urged to swim. This is not known throughout the Philippines as a snorkeling or diving site – visitors are few and far between – but the marine life is eye-popping, and almost unafraid of us. There are coral gardens that are better than any I’ve seen before.
The trail to Bataraw Falls is not especially challenging, and as bucolic as any trail could be – carabaos in a mud pond, a wooden bridge crossing a shallow brook, cute little pigs roaming around. It’s all straight from the central image bank of tropical rural scenes. A few minutes later we hear the boom of gushing water.
The falls are in a clearing in the forest, lit from above by the sun like some natural but unknown outdoor amphitheater. The cool, clear pool at the bottom of the falls is too much to resist. Further up, there’s another cascade with its own pool. Picnic sports don’t get any better than this.
Another trail led leads us to Caanawan Falls, although in reality, it’s not much of a trail. We wade along a slippery, rock-filled brook, an overflow of the falls we are about to visit. Caanawan Falls are not easy to reach, but the effort has its rewards. If anything these falls are more beautiful than the others. We swim again.
Last night was magical. From town, we took supplies, food and tents under a full moon by boat to Sibang Cove. After tents were pitched and dinner was served, we roamed across the vast beach, with moonlight and stars providing the only light. The evening was spent trading stories.
I wake and take a swim. Then we walk for almost half an hour across the cream-colored sand – not a soul in sight – to the natural steps that lead to the top of Nagudungan Hill. From here there are dizzying views down to a hidden beach below, and the maw of an immense cave in Calayan’s teetering limestone cliffs.
We eat huge portions of lobster before taking a boat to Malansing Cave. There’s nowhere to dock, but that’s not a problem. We don our snorkeling masks and swim. This is a spectacular place. The cave is almost two caves, split in half by a vast cleft, from which a freshwater waterfall plunges.
The best time to visit is from March to May, when the Babuyan Channel is at its calmest.
How to get there
It’s not easy but worth the effort. From Manila, you can hop on a Florida bus, in Sampaloc terminal near the University of Santo Tomas, bound for Claveria in Cagayan. It’s a 14-hour ride. In Claveria, catch a local boat at Tagat Lagoon. Boat schedules are erratic as they’re dictated by the area’s weather conditions. If you miss your boat or somehow get stuck for a ride, there are a few local inns available near the beach, priced from P400 per person. Rooms with ensuite toilet and bath are from P1,200 per night.
Bus fare from Manila to Claveria is about P700 (US$17). Boat fare from Claveria or Aparri to Calayan costs about P500.
To cut travel time to Calayan, book a flight on Philippine Airlines from Manila to Tuguegarao. From Tuguegarao airport, ride a tricycle going to the Tuguegarao central bus terminal. From there you can get a bus or van for the three-hour ride to Claveria. And from Claveria, it's the usual six-hour boat ride to Calayan.
Where to stay
There are three homestays on the island. San. Jose Inn & Mini Grocery Homestay (Tel +63921 534 9231) has spacious family and private rooms with electric fans, running water, shower and flushing toilet. It’s cheap at P250 per person. The other homestays are Calayan Travellers Inn and TPS Homestay, owned by the same owner (Tel +63920 837 5737 or +63929 837 5737). There are no hotels and few restaurants in the area, so you’ll mostly be eating home-cooked meals, mostly seafood, with your host.
Your host will able to provide guides and local transport. Boat hire costs P3,000 for a two-day tour. To get to Sibang Cove, go by motorbike. A bike hire costs about P200 roundtrip.
For more of Christian Sangoyo, visit LAKAD Pilipinas
Published July 2015