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Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Date with Daet (Camarines Norte)


Camarines Norte is more than Calaguas and Bagabas. Here, places off the beaten track to explore:

If the map of the Philippines were a banquet table filled with a variety of cuisines, the Bicol region would be where the cheese section is. Always overlooked, but as every foodie agrees, one should never miss this part of the table. The same philosophy applies to this region situated at the tail end of the island of Luzon. An often unnoticed province belonging to this region, Camarines Norte lies quietly, waiting to be discovered—either by transient itinerants on their way to Mayon Volcano in Legazpi or the whale shark watchers en route to Donsol, Sorsogon. To the few who stop by, Camarines Norte’s tourism trail only consists of the surfing spot in Bagasbas and the Calaguas and Mercedes group of islands, disregarding the fact that hidden among its rustic towns are the many jump-offs to more pristine islands and adventure sites.

Approaching Calalanay Island
Just as the Beatles doesn’t only comprise of John and Paul, Camarines Norte dishes a bountiful list of options to travelers. A long weekend incursion to this window to the Pacific Ocean made it possible for me to discover alternative locations catering perfectly to the yearnings of wanderers in search of substitute destinations, in lieu of both Calaguas and Mercedes group of islands.

THE SANDBAR OF PADONIL ISLAND

As soon as we stepped out of the multi-cab at the municipality of Jose Panganiban, a jovial man named Kagawad Art Andaya animatedly welcomed our traveling party. After a hurried introduction, he pointed out toward the sea, particularly to a wide stretch of sand bar leading to a forested small island, our first destination.

“That is Padonil Island, at any given time of the day the sandbar can spread toward to its twin island on the far left,” he tells us enthusiastically. Hearing the engine of the motor boat rev up, I feel a jolt of anticipation shooting up through me. I was buoyed by the impending short sea voyage that would gift me with another new island to explore.


A few minutes later and we’re off, all huddled inside a small motor boat that cuts gently across the steady waters. A contrasting scene plays out as I look back at the mainland, seeing traces of mining on the distant hills, while ahead of me lies an unperturbed island safe from the grasp of profiteering mining companies. As if able to read my mind, Art shakes his head and informs me of their efforts in focusing on eco-tourism to erase the stigma of being associated with illegal mining. “Tourism has paved the way for many locals to become aware about the environment; later you will see a model community thriving under its own eco-tourism and livelihood programs,” he says. “Many have given up mining in favor of more sustainable livelihood.”

As the small town of Jose Panganiban gradually disappears from my sight, the island of Padonil slowly introduces itself to us. Like human arms outstretched in a welcome posture, the sandbar expands long and wide as our small boat becomes a tiny dot as it docks on the shallow water and sands of the island.

Due to the low tide our boat had to circle around and fetch us from the other side of the island, giving us ample time to explore the spread-out sand bar.

CALALANAY ISLAND

As the tranquil vibe prevailing in Padonil Island afforded me a quiet moment listening to my thoughts, I almost missed the call of our boatman to board. Time seemed to stand still, and before I knew it, we were off to another island, a smaller version of Calaguas and also perfect for a beach camping journey.


My travel all over the Philippines has taken me to numerous islands overflowing with entrancing visual features, but I still have enough wonder and awe to express whenever I visit a place such as Calalanay. Sightings such as this never get old for my wandering soul.


Below me, splashes from the clear blue waters sprinkles my face as the boat tapers of its engine as it approaches the white sands of Calalanay, which is shining so brightly. Setting romantic description aside, Calalanay provides a secluded departure from the many crowded beaches and islands. A landmark dotted by magnificent trees and verdant grass fringed by white sands, the island offers sufficient spots of shade and flat surfaces for anyone to pitch a tent. The only thing that holds it back from dishing a Cast Away-like setting is the surprisingly strong mobile phone signal. Which, I’m sure, will delight Millennial travelers. Off-the-grid setting—check. Instagram-friendly—check.

MANGROVE ECO-PARK AT ISLA NI CION

Our third island stop is where an actual community resides, the site of a thriving mangrove eco-park taken care of by the environmentally aware residents of Isla ni Cion. The locals of Baranggay Dayhagan may be separated by a short boat ride from the mainland of Camarines Norte, but they practice eco-friendly methods most of us living in the big cities choose to ignore. Art proudly tells us the mangrove forest blossomed under the community members’ initiative, and by the looks of the healthy twigs and branches of each mangrove trees that heavily adorn the surroundings of Isla ni Cion, I find it comparable to another mangrove reforestation project in Kalibo, the Bakhawan Eco-Park.


Half a dozen small nipa houses dot the trail leading to the mangrove from where we docked our boat. Along the way we encountered cheery kids peeking out the windows while their parents are seen either knitting a cloth by the door or fixing something on their boats under the scorching sun.


Typifying textbook island living brimming with simplicity set against an impressive set of nature’s gifts, the residents may be handed with a difficult life but theirs is balanced by a beautiful surrounding, with which they show appreciation by committing to pro-environment practices.


A community leader led us to the bamboo walkway passing through the mangroves, which afforded us to delve deeper into the forest, which eventually bridges to another community living on the opposite part of the island. Making the experience even better was the lunch buffet waiting for us, spread out on a large table set up under one of the mangrove trees. Fresh seafood consisting of grilled fish, oversized crabs, shrimps, posit, and mangrove shells cooked in local cuisine-style filled us to the brim.


Conversations with the local leaders and among our traveling group highlighted the sumptuous lunch we had. Just as we were about to leave, I saw some of the locals setting up a table under a shade over the bamboo pathway preparing to open a bottle of rum. Again, as much as I resisted jumping into the crystal clear waters of Padonil and Calalanay, I resisted the urge of joining them for a few shots of rum—which, incidentally, is my alcoholic drink of choice. Kayaking out of the mangroves into our waiting boat gave me yet another interesting vantage point of appreciating the thick mangroves as we slowly float out of the mouth of the forest and into the open sea.

ENTERING THE SMALL HOLES OF CADIG CAVE

Cadig Cave is located deep in the forests of Brgy. Bayabas in Labo, Camarines Norte. We reached the cave from the jump-off after an hour and a half of brisk hiking through rice paddies and small hills and crossing river streams.

I’m always game for some spelunking but each time I explore a cave, I find myself questioning “What am I doing here?” for the obvious reason that it is one exhausting activity. Surprisingly though, I enjoyed every bit of Cadig Cave since I felt like I was in a video game passing through challenges in the forms of tiny crevasses, and lumbering my body to enter shallow passageways.


Other than the centuries-old formations of stalactite and stalagmite rocks, the highlight was what seems like a screwdriver hole, because it looked like it was drilled to barely fit one tiny human body. As I hear the laughter from the guides who were pleased to see someone undertook what they have done numerous times in the past, I insert myself into the minuscule hole—just enough for my whole body to fit in. Pushing my right foot first, followed by my right arm, I found myself getting stuck for half a minute strategizing my next movements, before I let gravity suck me into the small hole.


Feeling like a contestant in Takeshi’s Castle, the challenge didn’t end after I went down the hole. The others and I had to crawl in duck-walk position under a ceiling of solid stone for a dozen meters before crawling on all fours over two inches of running water in a smaller passageway. After an hour of negotiating the steep challenges of Cadig Cave, I rejoice at the sight of sunlight. The outside world!

Beyond the mouth of the cave, a running stream of river water flows into numerous nature pools. I dipped my crampy body into one, and it felt like a therapeutic massage.


It took a full-packed long weekend to re-introduce me to the province of Camarines Norte. In the same manner I plan to return to Calaguas to soak up on its blinding white sand and clear waters, or to learn surfing at Bagasbas, the places we visited during this weekend definitely add to the reasons why I should schedule another date with Daet.



(This article appeared on the Lifestyle pages of the February 14, 2016 issue of Manila Bulletin)



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