“Ma’am there is a storm surge. We are evacuating. Please stay in Virac.
The text message was sent twice and its urgency was felt all the way to the abovementioned town where I was comfortably seated in a van, eager to get to the surf town of Puraran in Baras—not that I surf. I was thankful the SMS was sent in the nick of time, as the van was one passenger away to leaving. So I gathered my backpack and got off the vehicle. Expectedly the driver gave me a look—a mashup of to being pissed and confusion. I told him the reason I had to go and in an irked chorus with his conductor, he says, “Anong storm surge? Wala po yun.”
Of course, they could be right. They live in the island after all. But instinct says I should start looking for a place to stay the night.
Welcome to Catanduanes, an island in the Bicol region that owes its beauty and unpredictable beastly nature to the rough, wide and open Philippine Seas. On the days I visited, there was a storm battering Cagayan, which was located way up north. I checked the map a day before I left and made a sigh of relief upon knowing Catanduanes was on the opposite end—the extreme south of Luzon. Since the entire southern and northern stretch face just one raging Philippine sea, what happens on one side can ripple to the other.
As I learned, it’s not so much the rain that affects the island, it’s the unrelenting wind—the kind that leaves a buzz on your ear because of its consistent, all-day howling. During typhoon season, this same wind is able to knock down houses and create storm surges as high as buildings.
On the brighter side, Catanduanes is one beautiful island sculpted by the wrath of nature. It’s true you will find “Batanes in Catanduanes” because both provinces share a similar topography—one blessed with acres of what looks like intentionally manicured grass spread on cliffs that overlook three to six-meter waves incessantly whipping against jagged rocks. Where Batanes is rich and unique culturally, Catanduanes is blessed with swimmable and almost isolated beaches and lagoons as well as trails that lead to picture-perfect ocean vistas.
It is ideal to visit the island from March to August when the winds are tamer and the sun is always out. July to October, on the other hand, would be best for surfing. A motorbike would be the preferred mode of transport—for a more flexible adventure that allows you to navigate narrow trails leading to beautiful views, although the local government has been wary of having to deal with accidents that involve guests with nothing but helmets to guard their heads.
What is encouraged are tricycles, considered safer and can run a slow pace if your destination is three hours away. There are also rental vans that are more practical for bigger groups.
Three days or more would be an ideal time to allot if you want to explore some 400 km of coastline and roughly 1,400 sq. km of aggregate land. The ‘tamer’ side of Catanduanes consists of municipalities facing Camarines Sur on the western side, and through which the Lagonoy Gulf slices. These are Virac, Caramoran, San Andres, Pandan and the destination’s best kept secret, the Palumbanes islands which are a 45-minute boat ride away on calm seas.
The rougher side would be municipalities directly facing the Philippine sea on the east such as Bato, San Miguel, the surf town of Baras, and Bagamanoc. On both sides, you are assured of beautiful spots almost empty of people if you come just a little after the summer season from June to October.
Here are some highly recommended adventures, starting from Virac, moving clockwise until you make a full circle.
1. EAT YOUR WAY AROUND VIRAC.
If you find yourself in the city, check out Sea Breeze located near the pier. There will always be fresh, still-swimming-in-an-aquarium lobsters waiting for you as well as the meat- and fat- packed mud crabs the province is famous for. It will be cooked the way you want—unless you want something that involves molecular gastronomy then you shouldn’t be here in the first place. Sea Breeze is the kind of restaurant with a hundred dishes on its menu and any of your orders can be a hit or miss. Their dried Binagoongan was a hit. A fresh lobster hereabouts shouldn’t be a miss but it turned out a bit chewy.
If you want a sure hit, go to Twin Rock resort, one of, if not the most, famous resort in Catanduanes. It’s a little off the city grid but the trip won’t disappoint. Their Laing and Bicol Express were excellent, melt-in-your-mouth and creamy, every bite soaked in quality coconut milk. I was literally bowled over by my bowl, I requested if I could watch the cook cook our Bicol Express (the kitchen was off limits). If you want to take home some, just order in advance and they will seal it tight for you in a bottle. In and around the city, you will find numerous restaurant and cafes serving more local and western dishes like pizzas and nachos.
2. HIRE A BOAT TO PALUMBANES.
Catanduanes in the summer is the time when the winds are manageable. This is also the perfect time to go to Palumbanes island where the beaches are still bare and beautiful. The locals can’t recommend them enough. Just 45 minutes by boat from San Andres or Caramoran, Palumbanes features shores with fine sands that range from creamy to white. Bitaog Beach is its most popular destination with three small islands to choose from but there’s more to discover beyond Bitaog. There’s also a lighthouse that requires a bit of a trek. Snorkeling, as well as surfing, are highly recommended activities on the island.
3. FUN IS NEVER DONE IN PANDAN.
By now you already know I like my puns. You know what else I like? An empty beach. If you had to choose just one place to visit in Catanduanes, then make it Pandan which is located in the northernmost tip of the island. Check in at Carangyan Resort where you can swim all day on calm waters with inlets protecting the shores from rough waves. When the sun starts to set in the afternoon, the sand here turns terra cota. You’ll want to sit and stare till the sun sets but most likely you’ll find it hard to resist taking IG-worthy pictures of views bathed in orange hues.
Carangyan Resort is isolated so food has to be ordered here. They can whip up a memorable mud crab cooked in gata as well as laing to go with that staple inihaw. They can pack your lunch as well if you decide to explore the island. Highly recommended would be a trek up Cagnipa Hills carpeted with low grass, overlooking the wild sea. A short hike from Cagnipa brings you to Tuwad-tuwadan Blue Lagoon, a calm slice of fresh water trapped among rocks and surrounded with amazing cliffs.
4. FIND HUMOR IN BAGAMANOC AND SURF WAVES IN PURARAN.
From Pandan, you can head to to Bagamanoc where the famous “Boto ni Kurarog” rock formation stands proud in the middle of the sea. This phallic-shaped rock (Boto is penis in Bicol dialect) is revered for remaining sturdy and strong despite the many typhoons that batter it each year. Paday falls is also found here along with interesting trek trails that lead to quiet pockets of shores.
Four municipalities away is Puraran, a surf town in Baras. The beaches, to say the least, are stunning. The waters here are turquoise compared to the deeper blues of Pandan. Rock formations jutting in the middle of the sea make the place all the more stunning…and, yes, dangerous especially when the winds are strong. One local narrates how a Japanese surfer who was trying to rescue a drowning surfer died when the waves pushed him repeatedly against the rocks. A marker looking out the sea was installed in his memory. Advanced surfers can visit Puraran from July to October for great barrel waves that match those in Siargao. If you don’t surf, the shores are perfectly safe and swimmable.
5. A FEEL OF BATANES IN BINURONG POINT.
You will find and feel Batanes on this spot in Baras for sure, what with its rolling hills seemingly gilded with the finest green grass like that of picturesque Batanes. Getting to Binurong requires a 30-minute walk on a rough trail where you will find yourself swerving among low lying plants. It’s a relatively easy walk that becomes even more rewarding once you reach that point where the cliffs meet the sea.
There are four points of interest that allow you to appreciate the place from different angles but I found the first point, as perhaps most tourists have, to be the most scenic. It’s the highest point on the hill and stretches out to a narrow ridge where you can see wild waves splashing against huge rocks. Tempting as it is to walk that narrow ridge to its tip where you get a 180 view of the sea, it is forbidden on very windy days as there is nothing to catch you if you fall. A picnic on calm days would be the most apt activity on this site.
On your way back to Virac, you can make a quick stop in the Municipality of Bato to check out another magnificent sea view from the Doppler Radar Station that sits atop a mountain as well as the St. John the Baptist heritage church for a taste of history of this beautiful island that might as well be the country’s new “last frontier.”
Never travel around Catanduanes without a guide as some destinations can be quite tricky to explore especially during the Habagat season. Most resorts can contact guides for you but it’s best to inquire directly from the local Tourism Office at 09199990872.
For complete information on the island, you may also download the Catanduanes Travel Guide App in Google Play that features not only places to stay and visit but the local dialect as well. Learn more about the app at http://gocatanduanes.com/
All photographs by the author.