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Published: March 10th 2013
We were down to our final few weeks in the Philippines and after reading about a certain area during our travels, Dale was very keen to go and explore. It was a little out of our way to get to and would involve a long journey, it was also a bit of a gamble as information is fairly limited but we decided to wager all our remaining time that it would be worth it so set about working out the best way to travel halfway across the country to get there.
The area we are talking about is the Caramoan Peninsula found in Southeast Luzon in the Bicol area. It’s not really an undiscovered area as it’s already been picked up by a the Survivor TV series with countless countries having gone there to film in the past few years, the US being the most famous but Israel, Bulgaria, France are also notable. We’d already seen one area (Bacuit Archipeligo) where one series had been filmed so had high hopes of deserted beaches, natural landscapes and countless boat rides to explore them all but first we had to get there.
The camera was finally ready for collection so this
was job No 1 on our 4th
return to Dumaguete. We ended up staying 2 nights here as we’d much rather be in a small city like Dumaguete than a huge one like Cebu which was the other option. With the camera fully updated and in hand we were finally ready to leave and venture a little further afield than a couple of boat rides away! As we said, the journey to Caramoan was going to be a long one. We had thought about doing it in one or two full days but from experience it not only burns you out to travel so far in a short space of time but you really don’t enjoy the time so we decided to make a couple of pit stops along the way to refuel. To make it easier to follow the blog the rough journey we made is below, we have added more details including prices and transport modes on the map for those that are interested.
Dumaguete – Sibulan – Lilo-an – Cebu – Masbate – Pilar – Donsol – Legazepi – Naga – Sebang – Guijalo –- Paniman
Getting to Cebu was painless and from there we’d
already selected the company we wanted to use to travel onwards towards Luzon. The overnight Trans Asia ferries only travelled to Masbate twice a week so we tried to time it so we spent as little time as we could in Cebu, hence the second day in Dumaguete. To be fair we haven’t ever really spent any time in Cebu but we had the opinion it would be much like Manila and therefore we didn’t fancy experiencing anything it had to offer. We arrived at the Cebu bus terminal just after lunch and headed straight to the ticket office to purchase our tickets for the 5.30pm ferry that evening.
Having looked online we’d made a decision to go for the second tier Tourist Class ticket at P870 (£14.10) each. We’ve caught a few overnight boats around the Philippines and we know that the economy can be a gamble, sometimes it’s great in the open air and sometimes it’s not so great down in the depths of the ship. We also know that the photos they have in the offices don’t always relate to what you actually get when you find your bunk! On this occasion the economy would have
been perfectly fine, the only downside was that you were in the fresh humid air and could get the diesel fumes if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. We were in the tourist class area though, the beds were the same, great little bunks which were very private and had their own power socket and light, the only real difference was that we had air con and were provided with sheets. The air con was of course set to artic and the sheets were not warm enough so all in all we’d recommend the economy if you travel on this route! The boat was great and before bedding down for the night we enjoyed a simple meal from the small canteen washed down with a beer and enjoyed the views of Cebu by night as we sailed out the port.
The crossing was 12 hours so at 6am we were woken up and had arrived in Masbate after a very good night sleep. This was undoubtedly the best boat ride we have taken. We’d investigated staying in Masbate for a few days but didn’t read of anything to really capture our attention and this was confirmed when
we stepped off the boat to a town which looked like it had seen better days.. it was raining too which didn’t help! We booked the next boat over to Pilar (Luzon) which was just over an hour later and passed the time drinking coffee and watching a group of locals singing to karaoke surrounded by countless bottles of beer, we wondered if they had just started or were still up from the previous night! After another calm crossing we were in Pilar by 10.30am wondering what to do next…
We had a couple of options open to us.. keep going and try to reach either Legazepi or Naga which would be a further 2 – 4 hours of travelling or stay around here for a day. We were both getting a little tetchy by this point so made the decision to take a jeepney to Donsol and stay there a night to refresh ourselves. It was only 20 minutes away and we found a lovely seaview room in Amor Farm Beach Resort (P800). For those who haven’t heard of it, Donsol is a prime tourist spot for swimming with Whale Sharks and this is pretty much what everyone
comes here to do. We’d swam with the sharks just a few weeks back so didn’t intend to do it again so some people struggled to understand why we’d even come here!
We ended up staying in Donsol for 2 nights, on the second day we were fooled into thinking it could be a nice day to sit on the beach after we woke up to bright sunshine. We took a walk to the visitors centre which is the hub for the Whale Shark boats, mainly so we felt like we’d done something in our time here. We did enquire about how many sharks were around but after they said only one had been seen that day (at a distance) it confirmed that we wouldn’t be spending our money on another trip. We continued our walk to a sleepy local fishing village about 2 miles from the resort and it started to bucket it down so we made a hasty retreat back to our room and spent the remainder of the day playing cards and watching movies hoping that good weather would be just around the corner for our final week. We left Donsol the following day and made
our way to Naga where we stayed for one night ready to make the final journey to the Peninsula early the following morning.
They says half the adventure of getting to the Caramoan Peninsula is the travel there, this might put some older people off but we found it very easy and seamless going from Naga to Sebang and then catching the 11.30am ‘Harry’ boat over to Guijalo. The only tricky part of the journey is getting on the actual boat! It was quite choppy that morning and we watched boats arrive and people get off via a very precarious bridge arrangement. The people had to walk down a steep narrow gangway to the first floating bridge (a load of oil drums with planks over the top with flimsy rails at the side), this was held steady by a group of porters which was ok, but when big waves came along they crashed all over the walkway soaking all the people and almost the whole thing tipping over! The porters then pushed the walkway over to another bridge which led to the sand.. it was all quite amusing and we did wonder how many people
must have fallen in over the years. Due to the instability we decided that for once we’d get the porters to take our bags to the boat which they did balanced on top of their heads jumping each time a wave came along.
At this point we will say that if you do go to this area do not rely on the guide book at all (it’s next to useless)… just put it down and listen to the local guides & tricycle drivers who meet you at the port. As with most of these arrangements you will get accosted as soon as you step foot on terra firma but they really will give you the best advice here on where to stay and in which area. As you leave the port the first village you will come to is Salvation where we decided to spend one night to get our bearings, about 2.5km past this is Caramoan Town and then about another 6km beyond this is Paniman & Bikal which are the gateways to the islands. Paniman being the better choice for accommodation and also has a beautiful brown sand sweeping beach directly in front of most rooms.
Despite the Survivor series making this area somewhat famous, it’s still relatively unknown by most Western visitors to the Philippines and therefore as white people you are an attraction more here than in most other areas. Locals are uber friendly as always but are a little shyer than we have experienced elsewhere and after saying hello to you a fit of giggles will almost always follow. We got the feeling that the locals are kept very much in the dark about the filming around here which we thought was a bit of a shame. We always got a slightly different story from people on which countries had been here, when they came and for how long. One day we did visit a bar right at the end of Paniman beach who’s owner seemed to be a fountain of information as it was the base for the workshop for the US series. He told us that the islands are fiercely guarded during filming and locals are not even allowed in the area, we can only hope then that they are suitably compensated for their fishing areas being made smaller but we seriously doubt it. He also told us that of the
400+ people needed for the filming, half were locals.. we couldn’t work out how come in our week there we didn’t meet one person who’d had any involvement in the 6 months they were there? A case of talking the talk but not walking the walk we think!?
Aside from the Survivor series the biggest draw to come here are the stunningly beautiful islands. There is a small influx of Western tourists but nothing like you see elsewhere, we only saw a tiny handful in our week there with the majority of visitors being Filipinos from Manila and the surrounding areas. Whilst the people from the village are benefiting from this increase in tourism they are very resolved to keep the area the same as it is now.. that means no bars, Western restaurants or big hotels. One Western owned place has crept in though, it’s owned by a German and Filipino couple aned we couldn’t help feel that their place was a little out of synch with the rest of the area, the Euro Techno music didn’t really help! When we spoke to them they said that they had wanted a place in Boracay but it was too
expensive so they settled on here, bit of a dramatic difference and we can see why they struggled for months to get the go ahead. The people living there are primarily fishermen and this is very evident as you walk along the beach with most houses hanging big nets outside. Some boost their income with boat trips and aside from a couple of places who have set packages for the island tours it’s a case of finding a fisherman and negotiating a price for the day.
Back to our time there… our first night in Salvation was a great find as it was a homestay with the lovely Edgar greeting you and giving you invaluable information on the area. As far as homestays go this could not be more homely and we had a lovely evening there, Edgar has set up harddrives in each room and we got to watch some episodes of the US Survivor series to whet our appetite on what lay in store for the week ahead. The other rooms were being occupied by a Filipino family so not wanting to intrude on their eveing meal we walked to Caramoan Town to try and find something
The main town is a dusty one road place, very small really but not without it’s characters. Wherever Dale goes if there is a ladyboy they will spot Dale coming from a mile away… Sophie walked ahead that little bit faster when a Filinino Bruno ran up to Dale complete with black hotpants, Camoflague t-shirt and lace up gladiator sandals eager to talk to him! It really was hilarious, this guy was so drunk and was asking Dale about Queen Elizabeth and all sorts, we only managed to lose him when we ducked into a place to eat and the owner told him to move on! This wasn’t our only excitement of the evening, as we were waiting for our food to be cooked Dale spotted a huge mass of black objects coming across the pink dusky sky. We looked a bit closer and there were literally thousands of bats covering every bit of the sky we could see. It was spectacular and they flew over for a full 10 minutes, we were later told by Edgar that this is a regular occurrence as there are many caves in the area. We’d really hoped we might be
able to find a cave to see them coming out one evening but they were deep inside the national park so it wasn’t to be.
We set off for Paniman the following morning keen to be staying as close to the beach as we could. We’d read there are islands to discover and people compare it to Palawan, after having such a brilliant time there a few years back we weren’t sure it could beat that but could only hope that we would have some equally as good memories to take away from there. We caught a lift to Paniman with Rene who turned out to be a mini Caramoan entrepreneur with his hands in many pies! He seemed to be the source of all knowledge about the area and had family scattered throughout the whole peninsula. He dropped us at La Playa where we got a basic room for P700 for the 5 nights we’d planned to stay. Generally we found rooms in this area quite expensive, there are some homestays but prices aren’t much more competitive. La Playa is also a campground and the shared toilet facilities are very reminiscent of those you’d find in campsites back
at home. Sophie had a particularly unpleasant experience one day involving a toilet and a huge spider only seeing it climb out the bowl after she’d used it.. it almost put her off using the toilet again and had to do a very thorough check every time she used it from that point on!
Our first morning in Paniman involved an early 5.30am start but it was made very bearable because we’d woken up to pure sunshine which would be a familiar sight for the remainder of the week. Whilst we always try to make the best of a situation we are not ashamed to say that we would always prefer to do it in the sunshine, this is especially true of the weeks activities which involved sailing, secret lagoons, beaches, swimming and more beaches… these things go hand in hand with the sun!
We shared our first day with Thijs from Holland and it was nice to have the company along with Rene who was be acting as our guide, his uncle the boatman and a friend the other boat hand. You can pretty much tailor your own trips and after reading a great locally published Caramoan
book on the first night we’d noted Pitogo Bay as a beautiful place to visit,. The Bay is about 1 hour from Paniman and we arranged to include it as part of the visit to the small islands which lay about 20 minutes from Paniman. Pitogo Bay lived up to all our expectations and was well worth the 6am start to get there! We sailed around the beautiful bay to take in all it’s glory and landed on Pitogo Beach for a snack stop. We all sat silent just staring up in awe of the limestone cliffs that surrounded us. There is also a hidden lagoon behind the cliffs guarded by a fishing couple but we were going to visit a lagoon further round so decided to give this one a miss. It’s rumoured that there is hidden Japanese treasure in this bay and you can imagine pirates hiding out here but it’s quite large and with no indication of where it might be we decided against starting a 3 man hunt for it! Quite honestly if the fishermen in this area haven’t found it yet chances are very slim for us! We enjoyed a little swim and Rene went
to great pains to collect up some seashells from the water to cook up for us to eat. The insides of the shells were met with a very mixed reaction.. Sophie declined them full stop, Dale tried one which was actually ok (we think it was a type of clam) but Thijs drew the very short straw and was presented with an open shell full of black goo! Rene encouraged him to eat it saying it was lovely but after making a brave attempt he threw it in the bushes!
Next stop was Tayak Beach just round the corner from Pitogo going back towards Paniman, much like Pitogo Bay we were very lucky that we were the only people here and it felt very much like we were the first people to discover these places, we weren’t of course but as you have to request to come here most people haven’t read about them so are none the wiser to their existence! Tayak Beach is a beautiful white sand beach enclosed on both sides by towering limestone cliffs, it also houses a hidden saltwater lake behind. Because we’d left Paniman so early we were surprised to see it was
still only 10am when we’d arrived but this meant we could stay a good few hours while the tide receded to it’s lowest levels. Rene had prepared lunch for us so we fitted this in between our exploring of the cliffs, the water and the emerald lake behind. It was such a treat to have it all to ourselves and we never fail to appreciate how stunningly beautiful these places are, especially when we learnt that the beach and surrounding area is up for sale and will no doubt be snapped up by someone to build a resort as the area becomes more popular.
On our way back to Paniman we visited the smaller islands stopping at 3 of them to enjoy the beaches. The most interesting was Malarad Island which has a gorgeous blinding white sand beach and another hidden lagoon. You have to climb the sharp rocks to get to this one though, something that Dale finds very amusing as Sophie struggles to prove she can do it! Once at the top you can look down into the lagoon which houses one very solitary but huge fish, Rene said no one knows how it got in there
so either a fisherman is playing a trick or the fish took a wrong turn at an underground cavern and has no way to return. The whole day exploring the area to the South of Paniman was one to remember but we had been advised to do this side first because the larger islands to the North and East are even more stunning so we booked in for another trip the following day!
Thijs was on his final day the previous day so we were back to the two of us plus Rene and the 2 boatmen for our trip to the big islands, people weren’t lying when they said this area was even better! Our first stop was the town of Tabgon, home of the huge Statue of Mary of Peace, reminiscent of Christ the Redeemer sat up high on a cliff looking down over the bay. It’s steep 500+ step climb to the top but the the mini workout is so worth the effort as from the top you get panoramic views out across all the islands. We were glad we’d got there by 9am as it would be totally exhausting trying to do it later in
the day. We’d also planned on visiting a local cave but after we were told we had to be accompanied by a local guide, plus we’d need a lantern (each), plus a tricyle fee the sum started stacking up to more than we were willing to pay to see what would probably not be a life changing cave so we gave it a miss in favour of getting back to the water!
The boat ride over to the far islands was again something we won’t forget. The water is very shallow for most of the area and the day we went it was so still you got a glass effect and could see down to the bottom for most of the hour we were going along. It went across corals, sand, grasses and we could only imagine what we would find if we stopped to snorkel there, strangely snorkelling and diving isn’t promoted in this area at all but maybe that will change as it gets more popular. At one point we passed a coral snake casually gliding along the top of the mirrored water. Sadly later on that day we found one of his friends floating in the
seaweed who we assume had been caught in a propeller at some point and had met his fate.
A pure white sand bar was our next stop, at low tide the sand is exposed while at high tide it’s completely covered in waist high water. We visited at both points first for photos and then later on for a swim in the lovely warm water. This place really is the thing we dream about when we are back at home and we had to be dragged away to our lunch stop which was Gogon Beach. The beach here was beautiful but there was a lot of seaweed which stopped us swimming in it especially after finding the dead snake! We did enjoy the scenery and Rene had brought a whole heap of fish to accompany the rice so we could enjoy one of our favourite meals. He accessorised the meal by collecting yet more shells for us to sample, these were cooked on the BBQ then broken open to reveal quite a large piece of meat which Dale really enjoyed (Sophie passed again!).
Our last stop on this day was to what would become our favourite beach(es). Long
Beach is on the island of Bagient which is an island with 2 beaches sitting back to back, we favoured Long Beach which is reminiscent of Boracay beach with soft white sand and turquoise sand bottomed water. The other side (we didn’t catch the name of this beach) is also beautiful and backed with mangroves with a rocky outcrop at the end which forms lovely pools at high tide. We enjoyed this island so much we chose to spend an entire day on it for our last day getting dropped off at 9am and getting picked up at 4pm! On this day we had the island to ourselves along with Rene who purchased just caught parrot fish for us to cook on the BBQ for lunch.. it doesn’t get more natural and fresh than that!
We did have one day when we needed a rest from the sunshine which was starting to leave it’s (red!) mark on us. We’d seen some of the locals wearing survivor t-shirts and decided that we’d like some too so went on the hunt to Caramoan Town escorted by Rene in his tricycle. It really isn’t hard to find the t-shirts in one of
These were the nicest ones Rene got for us (Dale!) to try
the 2 souvenir shops in town (a sign of how popular this area is slowly becoming). We selected identical t-shirts to wear together Korean style for some photos! While we were in town Rene asked if we’d like to visit his house to meet his wife and children. Not ones to pass up on a kind offer like this we said we’d love to and travelled back to Salvation where his house was.
We weren’t really sure what to expect but were a little taken aback to see how this outgoing man who seemed to be doing so well for himself lived. Of course bamboo huts are the mainstream house choice here in the Philippines but we felt totally humbled at this man’s hospitality when he took us to his tiny one room hut in which lived him, his wife (Christy) and their two children (Charmaine 3 & Christian 5 months). He was making progress extending the house but still it yet again made us think really how lucky we are in the UK living in the relative luxury that we do. His wife cooked up a feast of local Bicol delicacies which makes this area so famous. We
ate Pork Adobo, Kininut (mashed fish & clams in vinegar & coconut milk), Adobado, Natong (green spinach like vegetables) and have to say that this was some of the best food we have eaten not only in this area but the whole of the Philippines, it really was delicious. Rene’s children were gorgeous and we were entertained by his Charmaine and the other little girls who lived next door to Rene. We were both happy to find a whole host of animals in and around the home too.. chickens, a pig, a dog and pigeons all made their home here and after the food Rene got to show off some of his prize winning cocks by doing a little display on how he trains them ready for the fights. It was a shame we were leaving on Saturday morning as his 3 times winning champion was fighting that afternoon and we would have enjoyed going to cheer it along!
All too soon Saturday came around and we have to say we were very sad and reluctant to leave this incredible place. Sure, we often say we loved a place and would like to come back but this area really
is one of those places not to miss and that will always act as a benchmark for the future. People here are genuinely happy to see the start of Western tourists to the area but whether they would be prepared if the numbers raised dramatically is doubtful the way things stand at the moment. That’s not to say that things aren’t going up a notch as we witnessed a number of low key construction projects going on. We can never criticize a place for wanting to take advantage of it’s beauty and the fame that comes with being on a series like Survivor, but we are always glad to catch it before it becomes a tourist mecca such as El Nido and aren’t ashamed to say that we hope it will stay that way…. It’s not every day you get to have whole paradise beaches and islands to yourself so you have to make the most of it while you can!
It’s also worth nothing that normally we should shun the assistance of a guide to take you around places but, in the case of Rene we were touched by how genuine he was and how much he wanted
to show you the area he lived in as well as learning all about his life and his hopes for the future. If anyone does come to this area we would not hesitate in recommending him to help you arrange tours, accommodation or just give you a tricycle ride to your accommodation.
We are well aware that we have included many photos on this (lengthy) blog, too many probably but as many people can relate to, when you visit a place that is truly jawdroppingly stunning you can’t help but take countless photos. It’s then very difficult when you come to sort them and try to select your favourites when every single one is a favourite! We can describe the beauty of this place all we want but truly the photos will never do it justice, it really is something very special with clear turquoise waters surrounding the whole place, jungle limestone cliffs acting as the perfect backdrop and white beaches to laze around on. We couldn’t get enough of it. Paradise found!
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