CALAGUAS Emerald Islands

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A view of Mahabang Buhangin where the sand is powdery white and as fine as Boracay’s.

A view of Mahabang Buhangin where the sand is powdery white and as fine as Boracay’s.

TOURISTS often skip Camarines Norte because it does not offer much attraction compared to Camarines Sur and Albay. The laid-back Bagasbas Beach in Daet is the only reason to drive through the winding roads in Sta. Elena and Labo instead of breezing through the shorter Andaya Highway that heads straight to Sipocot in Camarines Sur.  More than a decade ago, when the highway was completed, the province gave up its claim as the gateway to Bicolandia.

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But now, there is another reason to visit the province: Calaguas!  The blogosphere is abuzz with what many travelers call the “New Boracay.”  It has about a 2-kilometer long white-sand beach and the coolest, clearest water in this side of the Pacific.  There are still no permanent structures by the beach, and the local residents, mostly fishermen and their families, are simple folks who are more than happy to share their piece of paradise to visitors.

Several old Philippine maps identify the islands off the coast of Vinzons as Calagua Islands, but to most travelers, it is simply known now as Calaguas.  It is a group of over a dozen islands, with Tinaga and Guintinua being the two largest.  Mahabang Buhangin, where most of the travelers go, is located at Tinaga Island.

There is no information as to how Calaguas got its name.  My guess is Calaguas refers to the lime or green colored waters surrounding the islands, or “cal agua” or lime water in Spanish.

Mahabang Buhanging is located in the eastern side of Tinaga, facing the Pacific side.  In good weather, it is possible to dock at Mahabang Buhangin.  During typhoon months, it is best to go there via Barangay Mankawayan, and do the 20-minute island crossing on foot.

There are no accommodations on the island, so all visitors who wish to spend overnight should bring their own provisions.  “Maintenance fee” is collected from visitors, and ranges between P50 to P150 depending on which side of the beach.  Most backpackers tend to stay at the south-side near the house of a caretaker named Mang Ronald.    It has a working toilet and a pitcher pump for fresh water.  An open cottage can be rented at P200 per day.

The waters of Calaguas are crystal clear that swimmers can see the fish swimming around them.

The waters of Calaguas are crystal clear that swimmers can see the fish swimming around them.

How to get there
Boats going to Calaguas can be rented either at Vinzons or Paracale.  Mahabang Buhangin is two to 3 hours by boat from the mainland, and it is best to leave very early in the morning when the waters are calmer.

To reach these towns, drive south from Manila, take the South Luzon Expressway, exit to Santo Tomas, Batangas, and drive through Maharlika Highway, passing through San Pablo City before entering the province of Quezon.  It takes about 4 hours of driving through the many towns of Quezon to reach Calauag, where the road forks either straight to Santa Elena where the giant “Welcome to Bicolandia” arch is or left to Andaya Highway.  After the arch, the 77-kilometer road turns and bends until the town of Labo.  Most travelers head first to Daet for meals and supplies before back-tracking to Vinzons and Paracale.

The town of Paracale is known as gold country.  For centuries, its local goldsmiths have produced finely-crafted gold pieces known all over the country   simply as paracale. Paracale is also fast becoming as entry point for those who wish to make a do-it-yourself trip to Calaguas.  At the fish port, there are several fishing boats that can be rented to go the islands, with rates ranging from P2,500 to P5,000 depending on size.  It is also possible to hitch a ride on the many fishing boats returning to Barangay Mangkawayan for a cheaper fare of P50 per person.  However, expect no lifevests from the fishing boats and there is no fixed departure time.

Vinzons, on the other hand, where the Calagua Islands belong, is still by far the better and safer jump-off point to the islands.  Its first recorded name was Taboan, then changed to Indan. After World War 2 it changed to Vinzons, in honor of Wenceslao Vinzon, a local son, who became the youngest delegate to the 1935 Philippine Constitutional Convention and later governor of Camarines Norte.  The Minaogan Fish Port in Barangay Calangcawan is where the boats going to Calaguas are docked.  There are several big outriggers boats, with lifevests provided, that do regular trips to the islands.  Standard rate for the big boats that can accommodate as many as 30 to 40 people is around P9,000 for a round-trip.  The port has ample space for parking.

Diving has become a popular activity for people visiting Calaguas.

Diving has become a popular activity for people visiting Calaguas.

What to do, what to see
There are many reasons to get excited about Calaguas.

First, the sands of Mahabang Buhangin is indeed powdery white and as fine as Boracay’s. The beach is quite wide, and with very little visitors on any time of the year, you can pick your own spot anywhere without getting distracted by those nasty vendors usually found in the more popular beach destinations.  The waters are crystal clear, and even without using any snorkel, you can actually see colorful fishes swimming around you.

The waters around the islands are also fast becoming good spots for diving.  Diving boats dock regularly at the island and divers swear on the beauty of its less-explored coral gardens.

The islands are also a known sanctuary to many endemic and migratory birds, and can be promoted as an important bird-watching site.  Of course, there are the resident black crows that have learned to co-exist with the islands’ regular human visitors. Marine turtles also come regularly to Tinaga to lay their eggs.

There are several trails crisscrossing the island that lead either to the north or south side where one can climb the cliffs to get a good view of the island. Going back to the mainland, visitors can check the old churches of Daet and Vinzons, look for the oldest Rizal marker in the Philippines in Daet, try some surfing in Bagasbas Beach, or buy fresh seafood from Mercedes market.

Calaguas can be reached by riding a motorboat.

Calaguas can be reached by riding a motorboat.

Where to stay, what to eat
There are still no hotels or resorts in Calaguas, and most of visitors just bring their own tents.  There are also open cottages which can be rented for a day or two.  Recently, a few nipa huts with basic provisions are being offered at reasonable rates.

Food is usually “bring your own.”  However, fresh seafood can be bought from the other side of the island at Barangay Mancawayan.  The nearly 1,000 residents of this village are mostly into fishing and farming.  Their electricity is supplied from 6 pm to 10 pm, so the fishermen there prefer to sell their catch immediately before taking these to the mainland.

At Daet, a Jollibee outlet stands out, but why go for something that you can have in Manila?  Daet is still part of Bicol Region, and it is best enjoyed trying Bicolano fares like laing, pinangat, Bicol Express and ginataan.

Or better, yet head straight to Calaguas and try seafood fresh from the sea while enjoying the view of the sun as it disappears on the emerald sea.  Be warned though that cellphone signals are very limited on the island, so you may have to postpone posting a selfie showing you devouring that charcoal-broiled lapu-lapu. Just post your selfies from Calaguas when you return to the city.

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