Northern Exposure


E2---Camiguin-420151006As a traveler, I enjoy going to places where only few people has ever been. Places that are far away from the usual tourist trails.  Places where I enjoy sleeping under a million stars better than the five-star accommodations I get from hotels.

Among the remotest places in the Philippines are the islands of Babuyanes in the north.

Compared to Batanes, where there are regular flights to Basco, the only way to reach the five islands of the Babuyanes is by boat crossing the treacherous Babuyan Channel.

The islands of Camiguin, Calayan, Babuyan and Dalapiri belong to the municipality of Calayan, while the island of Fuga belongs to Claveria, all under the province of Cagayan.

Camiguin Norte (not to be confused with the island province of Camiguin in Northern Mindanao) is a volcanic island, and its Mount Camiguin de Babuyanes is an active strato-volcano.  Its last recorded eruption was in 1857.

The island has a population of about 5,000 people with three barangays, namely Balatubat, Naguilan and Minabel.  Except for a narrow five-kilometer gravel road between Balatubat and Naguilan, the rest of the island is connected by foot trails.

Among the island’s hidden beauty are forests with lots of coconut trees.

Among the island’s hidden beauty are forests with lots of coconut trees.

The people of the islands are mostly Ilocanos, and they live by fishing and farming.  The island is often cut from the rest of Luzon during the typhoon months of July to September and during the windy habagat (monsoon) months of October to January.  Even during the calm months in between, the swell and the winds can be hostile and unpredictable.  There is this specific portion within the channel where the waters of the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea meet – where huge waves occur regularly. The people of the island call this isonada.

Isonada can generate huge waves anytime of the year.  But it is particularly dangerous during the habagat season.  In December 2008, the M/B Mae Jan was hit by huge waves while crossing the channel.  The tragedy claimed the lives of more than 40 people, mostly residents of Calayan.

But the locals have learned to accept the remoteness of their island.  They have learned to wait until the sea is calm before making a crossing.   They build up their inventories of basic goods like cooking oil, soap, toothpaste, etc. so they will have stocks for a few months when they are cut off from the rest of Luzon.

Electricity is powered by generators and is available only from 6 pm to 11 pm.  There is no public transportation, no public markets and no hotels (only homestays).

Life in the island remains rustic and slow-paced, which is a welcome respite for tired urbanites.

Life in the island remains rustic and slow-paced, which is a welcome respite for tired urbanites.

How to get there
The only way to reach Camiguin is to take a bus from Manila.  It takes between 12 to 14 hours to reach Aparri.  Those with private vehicles can drive north via NLEX, SCTeX and TPLEX, exit at Pura, then continue driving the northern highway from San Jose all the way to Aparri via Dalton Pass and Tuguegarao.  Aparri is 555 kilometers away from Manila.

Alternately, there are regular flights between Manila and Tuguegarao.  From the Tuguegarao airport, Aparri is around 105 kilometers or two hours by bus or by UV express van.

The port for boats going to the islands of Babuyanes is located near the mouth of the Cagayan River.  While there are passenger boats going to Camiguin regularly, their schedules are not fixed and highly dependent on sea condition.  An alternative is to hitch a ride with the supply boats that regularly traverses Aparri and Babuyanes.  It is advisable to arrive a day before your planned trip to check around if any of the boats is going to the island the next day.

The Babuyan Channel crossing can take between four to seven hours.

The best dish to try in Camiguin are freshly-caught lobsters.

The best dish to try in Camiguin are freshly-caught lobsters.

What to see, what to do
Taking the boat to Camiguin is already an adventure in itself. Even during summer months, when the sea is supposed to be calmer, strong winds can drive the water to swell forcing boats to rock against huge waves.  So be prepared for a roller-coaster-like ride and to get wet.

The approach to island is also magical.  As the outline of Camiguin Island gets bigger, the few who are brave enough to visit the island are bound to get the feeling of excitement of finally conquering one of the country’s remotest destinations.

At the landing point in Balatubat, a lonely boulder beach awaits visitors.  It is also the best place to watch the sun set.

Inside the island of Camiguin are many foot trails leading to its volcano, the 712-meter Camiguin de Babuyanes whose last eruption was in 1857.  One need not get a guide in Camiguin as the foot trails are bound to lead visitors to many pleasant surprises:  completely deserted beaches; secret waterfalls; hidden coves; and many more.

Visitors who are brave enough to come to the island at the end of winter season (around February) will be rewarded with the sightings of humpback whales as they stay for a few days around the waters surrounding Camiguin before they head north.

Where to stay, what to eat
There is only one option for staying in Camiguin, its homestay.  The most popular among travelers is Ate Awit’s Homestay located at Balatubat.  She has dormitory type lodging by the beach (choose the open cottage type) available at P200 per person per night.  It comes with a bed, a pillow, a blanket and a mosquito net.  Sleeping at the open cottage by the beach allows visitors to listen to the sound of the waves.

There are also other homestays in other barangays.  Just ask around and you will be lead to possible places to stay for the night.

There are very limited choices for food to eat in Camiguin.  If you are looking for meat, the only choice is to open a can of corned beef.  But if you prefer seafood, there are plenty.  Freshly catch fish are available everywhere.  Just ask the locals to cook them for you.

But the best dish to try in Camiguin are their freshly-caught lobsters before they are taken to many of the high-end restaurants in Manila.  The people of Camiguin have this unique way of boiling lobster: with fresh pineapple and sweet potatoes.  It is sweet and sour lobster, au naturel.

These are just some of the surprises waiting for the visitors to this remote island.  And there are many more.  But they only come to those who are daring and brave.


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