It is hard to believe that the Chinese had already been doing trade with the Philippines 600 years before Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1521. Does this mean that the Chinese discovered the Philippines first?
Historical records show that as early as 972 AD, during the Sung Dynasty, Chinese merchants were already coming to this island called Ma-i located north of Borneo. This Ma-i is said to be the island of Mindoro. “Beeswax, cotton, true pearls and tortoise shells” were some of the products that the locals traded with the Chinese.
The Spaniards “rediscovered” the island in the 1570s. The colonizers thought the island was rich in gold so they called the island Mina de Oro or “mine of gold.” The name was later shortened to Mindoro. What the Spaniards found on the island were settlements of Pintados in the coastal areas, and the tribes of Mangyans in the highlands. But the island proved to be rich in natural resources.
For 300 years, the island was under the authority of the province of Balayan (now Batangas). The Christianization of the island converted the Pintados, but failed to reach the Mangyans who opted to stay in the highlands. Migrations also started: the Tagalogs occupying the north and the Ilonggos the south.
In 1921, Mindoro became a full province only to be divided in 1950 under a referendum: The west became Mindoro Occidental, and the east Mindoro Oriental. The mountain range of Iglit-Bago at the center became the natural boundary between the two new provinces.
For over a thousand years, the only way to cross from east to west, or vice versa, was on foot. But recently, the road connecting the two was finally completed, opening the possibility of driving the island on a loop.
How to get there
The gateway to Mindoro is the port of Batangas. To go to Batangas Port, drive south via SLEX and continue to STAR Tollway. Along the two tollways are plenty of fuel stations with fast-food restaurants. The Petron station in Malvar is my favorite because it has very clean restrooms, and it sells hot pandesal 24/7.
Keep driving to the bypass road, and then to the road going to the port. At the port’s first entrance, inform the guard that you are going to go to Mindoro via RoRo. Proceed to the second entrance to pay terminal and other miscellaneous fees. Proceed next to the third entrance where you will be asked to fall in line depending on your destination: Calapan, Puerto Galera or Abra de Ilog.
RoRo fees for cars or SUVs range from P1,500 to P2,000 one-way (drivers are free on board). About P200 is the fee per passenger. Driving onto and parking inside the ferry is a challenge as space between vehicles is kept to a minimum.
Crossing the Verde Passage takes about two hours. Upon arrival in Mindoro, you will be asked to show receipts before being allowed to exit from the port.
The complete loop takes around 400km: 250km from Puerto Galera to San Jose, and 150km from San Jose. The roads are all well-paved except for a few patches of road under construction between Rizal and Sablayan.
What to see, what to do
The nice thing about Mindoro is that except for Puerto Galera, it does not get that much tourists. Driving around the island on a loop allows visitors to discover many of its hidden wonders.
Those who wish to start in Puerto Galera will find a good place to chill for a few days, enjoying its white sands, rich marine life, and affordable prices.
The next place to visit is Calapan, where Mount Halcon is located. At the foot of Mount Halcon live the many tribes of Mangyans. The Mangyans make baskets and bags made from the local grass called “nito.”
The road continues to Pola, Pinamalayan and Gloria, where there are plenty of hidden waterfalls to explore. In Pinamalayan during Holy Week, the Moriones Festival is now celebrated, where the Roman centurions are now garbed in feathers and glitters.
From Pinamalayan, the road goes down to Roxas, which is now an entry point for those crossing to Romblon and Panay, and continues to Mansalay, where there are hidden beaches, and to Bulalacao.
Bulalacao is rustic town with many secret islands. Renting a boat for a day will take visitors to three or four of these islands. Be sure to visit the beautiful but ravaged Target Island: It is said to be used by the Americans for test-bombing (hence, the name). The beautiful lake in the middle of the island was formed by bombing.
The road then ascends to the mountain dividing the two provinces. Only vehicles with higher engine torque can continue the ascent. The climb peaks at the boundary before finally descending to Magsaysay.
From Magsaysay, the landscape is filled with rice fields toward San Jose all the way to Sablayan. This area in the south is where most Mindoro rice comes from. San Jose is also a good place to load on seafood as the city is the gateway to Palawan.
In Sablayan, one can rent a boat to Apo Reef Marine Park or to Pandan Island, where the resident turtles welcome visitors. The Sablayan Penal Colony is a good place to meet the inmates from minimum security, or visit the beautiful Libuao Lake.
The road then leads to Mamburao, where one can buy fresh tuna, and finally ends in Abra de Ilog. For those who wish to complete the loop, motorcycles can be rented to cross the rocky edge to Puerto Galera.
Where to stay
Those who wish to stay on the beach will find plenty of resorts and cottages in Puerto Galera. In Apo Reef and the islands of Bulalacao, the only way to go is to camp on the beach. Pandan Island has several native cottages for rent.
There are hotels in Calapan, Pinamalayan, Roxas (at the port), San Jose, Sablayan and Mamburao. Just don’t expect first-class accommodations.
Food is a bit expensive in Puerto Galera, but there are lots of good restaurants serving seafood in Pinamalayan, San Jose City and Sablayan. For those who want to bring home fresh seafood, load on supplies in Roxas, San Jose and Mamburao.
Mindoro is a haven for intrepid travelers. Exploring the island is indeed like finding a mine of gold.