Huddled at the roof of our ‘lampitaw’ with other passengers, I sensed my leg muscles cramping a little bit. We’re not yet at the first hour of our six-hour sea journey to Calayan Island and I’m already uneasy with my chosen seating position, numbing my butt over a protruding piece of wood. A few minutes later, we started encountering the unstable waters of the South China Sea. For a moment I dread my recollection of tales of waves as big as a two-story house from happening, but as I stare out to the sea, I notice the steady condition stretched out as far as my eyes can see. Feigning the worse, I regaled at the sight of the Volkswagen-sized breakers battering our lampitaw. “These waves can’t possibly topple our durable boat” I told myself with a swagger and a brief recitation of prayer.
While the car-sized waves were not enough of an obstacle to our lampitaw, we were still left at the mercy of the splashing sea waters as most of us seated at the roof of the captain’s quarters were wildly drenched. Dripping wet throughout the trip I stood out to dry at the narrow walkway dividing the engine room and the outrigger to stretch my feet.
Gazing to the endless water a unique movement emanating from the water arrested my attention; there it was a hundred feet away from us, half a dozen humpback whales flipping in and out of the waters. Echoes of cheers reverberate in our lampitaw waking sleeping passengers and suddenly, our collective weariness disappeared.
The long sea journey to Calayan has started to become like a unique travel experience. I felt a familiar feeling I always had when I’m on the road. Exhilaration at what’s in store ahead.
Buoyed with a Mission
With Calayan Island still nowhere in view, we sailed past between Dalupiri and Fuga Island, both stunningly surrounded by jagged cliffs and powdery white sand coasts. Calayan Island, along with Fuga, Dalupiri, Camiguin and Babuyan Island are all part of the Babuyanes Group of Islands dotted in the Luzon Straight divided from Luzon by the Babuyan Channel, and from the province of Batanes up north by the Balintang Channel.
I’ve always wanted to visit the islands of Babuyanes for the longest time. That’s why when an opportunity to join an Outreach Tour happened, I immediately signed up along my girlfriend Monnette. Organized by Roderick Ramos, a librarian by occupation, the Aklat Tawid Dagat is an endeavor that his group of fellow educators has been doing annually since 2012. They help build a library collection by blending “fun travel & book donations”. Days before the trip I started receiving text messages from Mr. Ramos that says “get ready to be captivated”, “prepare to be enchanted”. Messages I simply dismissed as a form of pep-talk to excite us, but when we first met him at Florida Bus station at Sampaloc, his enthusiastic demeanor in describing Calayan Island remained the same.
I found out he was telling the truth right after we docked at the small port of the island six hours later. Inhabited by less than 20,000 people, the island encircles an area of 494.53 square kilometers – even bigger than Siquijor Island. Immediately, we were showered with greetings of Naimbag a bigat (Good Afternoon) by the locals. I surveyed around me and saw the long stretch of fine white sands and lush forestry giving justice to Mr. Ramos’ trip countdown messages.
Feeling a bit fatigued from our long journey, we were quickly ushered into a “Kuliglig” – a motorized trailer vehicle pulled by a two-wheel tractor that can sit up to 10 passengers, to the homestay where we will be staying. Traveling at a snail pace, the repeated eruptions of the Kuliglig’s muffler triggered surprised laughter from all of us.
After our hurried lunch and a brief rest at the homestay owned by Ate Connie, we again boarded our Kuliglig transport and rode to a hill-top where we got off and trekked to Cibang Cove. As we enter a tunnel path made of swaying tree branches, I started feeling the softness of the ground below my feet. As the sound of crashing waves becomes louder so is my growing excitement at seeing what beckons ahead.
The long stretch of Cibang Cove appeared breathtakingly before my eyes. Without any people in sight other than us, it felt like it hid us instantly from the world. We had the whole stretch of beach to ourselves the rest of mid-afternoon until the Golden Hour when we made a short hike atop Nagudungan hill overlooking the whole Babuyan Chanel.
We spent at least a couple hours running our bare feet and laying our backs over its fine white sands. As I dart through the water I discovered how it suddenly inches deeper after only a few meters and the strong undercurrent of the waves, forcing me to swim closer to the shore. Everyone agreed we should swim with extra precaution not to wade farther. Thus more time for group selfies.
Before sunset, I find myself with my girlfriend laying our backs over the grassy hill of Nagudingan hill, unmindful of cow and goat dungs we stared at the blue ceiling of the world strewn with cirrus clouds and allowed the hymn of the wind and the sounds of the ocean breakers lull us to a short nap.
Afterward, we walked towards the newly built lighthouse and enjoyed the view of Kababaan beach and Kanirawa beach both sandwiching Cibang cove. A wall consisting of stunning rock formations leading to a large cave entrance are visible from the cliff where we stand.
Facing the other direction we caught a glance of the fiery golden sun about to lapse into the horizon. The remaining sunlight glows beautifully into the flattened grass and glittering rocks below. Coupled with the cool breeze coming from the open seas, I dare not wish to be somewhere else.
It was starting to darken when we started our short hike back to Ate Connie’s homestay where a feast of lobster awaited us. We hit the sack like dominoes that night, both tired and satisfied at our first day at the Island.
Another Secluded Beach Found Again
The next day couldn’t be any better as we hop around the island packed like sardines aboard a small fishing boat. The uncomfortable seating arrangement was a small price to labor in exchange of the places we have explored that day. We docked at Kababaan beach which is located next to Cibang cove and separated by towering boulder formation.
The waters were equally pristine, the shoreline barely touched with only rows of coconut trees lining up to the edge of the rocky hill. The sands pure and blinding, we again found ourselves a secluded beach. Wasting no time, we all wade to the water until I took a break and just sat staring at the blue waters while downing the juice of the coconut I’m holding in one hand.
Our next stop was the Malansing Cave and waterfall where the fresh and sea water meets. We devoted a couple of hours here by practicing our diving skills and just chilling at the cold and therapeutic water. I personally took advantage of the chance to improve my trifling skill at swimming. We spent the rest of the day circling the island, pit stopping at another magnificent cave pool and trekking to Bataraw Falls. Our guide told us a number of waterfalls can be reached within another 3-4 hours, but we don’t have any time for that.
Near the waterfalls situates a small community, where I saw bare naked kids playing by the river. Indifferent of the island’s visitors they exhibited innocence and playfulness in their paradise-like environment. Fortunate in that regard, a yearning formed in my head that they all grow up having the opportunity to study and embark on a career of their choice other than fishing and farming. As we walked by they paused playing. Finally noticing us, the kids flashed their widest smiles and waved us goodbye.
The day was full of exploration but with lack of time I really weren’t able to fully grasp the island’s character - because in all its beauty and grandeur, admittedly we barely scratched the surface of discovery.
While life at the island revolves around simplicity, of farming, fishing, camaraderie in the community and the daily midnight brown-outs, there is still much to do and ask the province of Cagayan, the LGU, and us travelers to lend a hand and help the community.
Ate Connie’s smile can’t be measured when she received the box full of books we came to bring. She tells us how the kids will certainly appreciate it. I realize it was really us who should value the experience more. Capping our second night with another feast – this time consisting of Curacha crabs, I understood the need to return soon and spend more time; biking, hiking, swimming and mostly, more than the sightseeing activities, do something more within the scope of responsible traveling, conservation and volunteerism.
a version of this article appeared on the August issue of Cruising: Going Places travel Magazine.