I knew that in a battle between man vs beast, I – man – would lose.
I first set foot on Palaui Island in 1995 as the last leg of our Cagayan adventure. I was looking forward to a few days of rest and recreation on the island after spending several days doing medical mission on the village of Imugan in Sierra Madre. Our motley group of doctors, nurses and mountaineers were brought to Palaui Island by friends from Tuguegarao.
We were warmed by the locals about the wild carabaos. They were brought in into this remote island in the early 1900s by the lighthouse keepers to provide milk to the families staying at the lighthouse. However, after many years of undisturbed existence on the island, their number grew and they returned to being wild. They occupied the grassland below the lighthouse and made it their own territory.
As soon as we landed at Cape Engaño after a 30-minute boat ride from San Vicente, I was immediately fascinated by the island. It was my “Cape of Enchantment” with its beautiful cove and a century-old lighthouse perched on top of a cliff. We immediately set camp at the saddle beneath the lighthouse avoiding the flat land occupied by the wild carabaos.
As the sun started to set, we were greeted by the most dramatic sight I ever saw in my lifetime: the sun setting on the west and the moon rising on the east. For almost an hour till dusk, we watched in silence as we tried to absorb every detail of this enchanting moment.
We returned to our camp and we discovered that we had a problem: our water supply was only enough for cooking rice. My friend Lito and I were tasked to get water from the spring on the middle of the island. With flashlight and several empty water bottles on hand, we started our trek down. It was quite easy finding our way as the full moon lighted out path. We tried to walk in silence so as not to disturb the carabaos that might be resting beneath the bushes. In less than 30 minutes, we found the small river and we were told that we just have to walk upriver to reach the small falls. So as not to get lost, we decided to wade through knee-deep water and in less than 30 minutes we found the small waterfalls. We filled out our empty plastic bottles with water and started heading back to our campsite.
The scene that followed was straight out of an action-packed movie. As we were heading back to camp, we began to hear movements along the river banks. In an instant, we saw the dreaded black figures appearing one by one. And these black figures all had angry eyes looking straight at us. Apparently, they stay by the river at night and we disturbed their slumber. As they prepared to strike, we contemplated on our next step. We were still carrying several bottles of water and these carabaos were blocking our way. I was thinking of hitting them with the bottles. My friend shouted, “Put the bottles down and run as fast as you can!” Throwing away the bottles we started running. I heard the thundering footsteps of the angry carabaos as they ran after us. It took us less than five minutes to get out of the forest to the safety of the beach side, and continued running until we reached the campsite. That night, the whole group slept without drinking any water.
This island on the northern tip of Luzon gave me an adventure that I will never forget. It may have scared me at first, but its raw beauty helped me find my island of enchantment.
How to get there
San Vicente Port, the jump-off point to Palaui Island, in Santa Ana Cagayan is 642 kilometers from Manila.
To get there, drive north from Manila via NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, exit from Pura, and continue drive to Maharlika Highway via Munoz. From there, the road goes north to Cagayan Region via Dalton Pass, then passing the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela, then finally entering the Cagayan. Pass through the capital city of Tuguegarao and continue drive north. In Camalaniguan, turn right to Buguey, then Santa Teresita, before finally reaching the town of Santa Ana. Travel time from Manila takes between 12 to 14 hours.
To reach Palaui Island, hire a boat to take you directly to Cape Engano, where the lighthouse is located, or to Punta Verde, where most of the homestays are located.
What to see, what to do
Perhaps the best known sight in Palaui Island is its famed lighthouse, the Faro de Cabo Engaño or the Cape Engaño Lighthouse.
Built in 1887, the Faro de Cabo Engaño is one of the 27 lighthouses commissioned by the Spanish Government to be built around the Philippine Islands during the turn of the 19th century. From the landing spot, one has to walk through the white coral beach to reach the foot of the hill where the lighthouse is perched. From there are more than 200 concrete steps which one must climb to reach the lighthouse.
From the lighthouse, one can see the two beautiful islets called Dos Hermanas.
Inside the island are many trails leading to the beautiful waterfalls of Baratubot and the small falls where we used to fetch water. There’s also a trail leading to the hidden Siwangag Cove. It is now safe to trek around the island as the wild carabaos have all disappeared. The whole island was actually used during the shoot for the 2013 Survivor Palaui series.
Boats can also be rented to visit the deserted Crocodile Island, or go to the northeastern tip of mainland Luzon to visit the pink beach of Anguib.
Where to stay, what to eat
It is no longer allowed to camp near the lighthouse. So one can either stay in San Vicente where there are several resorts like Country Inn Hotel, Jotay Resort, Avalon Beach Hotel or Edens Lodging, or in Palaui Homestay or Nature Village in Punta Verde.
For dining, there several eateries available at Santa Ana centro, but the food choices are very limited. It is best to bring your own food.
What the island may have lack in tourist facilities, it compensates in many attractions guaranteed to give one hell of an exciting adventure, with or without the wild carabaos! And in this case, the adventurer wins.