Thursday, September 30, 2010

Phuket: The Ultimate Asian Beach Destination

Let's get our of the country for a while, and visit one of the most desired Asian destinations. It is the largest island in Thailand, and an hour's plane ride south of Bangkok. Despite its reputation for being the most tourist infested beach capital of Asia, it still remains to be one elusive destination. Join me as we touch down in Phuket.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Callao Caves: Cagayan North Series

I almost forgot this part of the trip. Well, it's not already part of Sta. Ana. After that memorable trip to Palaui and its surrounding islands, we headed back the next day, refreshed and recharged to Tuguegarao for our flight back to Manila.

Most of us were able to visit the Callao Caves way back in 2008, but we decided to revisit the place, for the sake of those who haven't experienced it yet. Callao Caves is located around 30 minutes away from Tuguegarao, in the town of Penablanca.

There is an entrance fee to the caves, and the last time we visited, there was this boy wonder of a tour guide, who followed us through the caves with stories and descriptions of the rock formations. We were looking for boy wonder, who spoke fluent English, but he wasn't available.

You go up around 100 steps to reach the cave entrance. Then, in the second chamber, you will fall upon this magnificent chapel inside. You may have seen this photo in most magazines, but it's still different if you're already there. The chapel is not maintained though, and curses to all those who have vandalized the pews.

The last time we went here I think was at 3PM, so the sun wasn't shining high. Now, we arrived a the perfect time of noon, where the sun beams straight down its glorious rays through massive openings on the rocks.

There are 7 chambers in Callao Caves that are accessible by visitors. The rest are closed down. It's really not difficult to navigate your way, since the place is huge. It is best to wear rubber shoes though, as the ground can get slippery especially when wet.

The Callao Caves may not have the best rock formations, but it has the largest chambers. The grandness of the chambers makes up the enchanting appeal of the entire place, that should be visited by anyone who finds his way to Cagayan Valley.

Crocodile Island: Cagayan North Series

Crocodile Island was called as such because it did look like a crocodile with its head above the water. The long island revealed a wide beach as well because it was low tide.

Crocodile Island was actually a rock that formed the reptile's head. We climbed the rock and savored the spectacular view of Sta. Ana and Palaui Island.

The island as I've been told is a popular picnic ground, because of its proximity to San Vicente port. The island was free of litter though, and only shattered corals piled up on the beach.

The island also had a rough terrain on one side. The rock was kind of soft though, so one should be careful when climbing.

We did our mandatory group photo to capture the memory of this trip. The sun was beginning to retire, so after that, we headed back to the resort.

We were dropped off at a jetty away from the resort. We used a makeshift suspension bridge to cross to the resort.

As soon as I hit the beach of the resort, I rushed to capture these wonderful images of the sunset. The sea was like glass, that reflected the hills and sky that was drenched in golden splendor.

I think I took around 30 minutes just taking pictures while the others were already preparing for dinner. This was the best way to end one of the most adventurous days of my travel year.

This ends my series on Sta. Ana and Palaui Island. It's really more of a speed tour, since we had to digest everything in one day. We vowed to come back, and explore more of the enchanting Palaui Island. We were told of more beaches and islands that had more adventures in store. This unplanned and spontaneous trip was definitely satisfying, and it opened our eyes to the beauty of isolated Cagayan North.

Anguib Beach: Cagayan North Series

The waves grew rougher when we left Cape Engano, and the dark clouds started to roll in. Most of us dozed off in the boat, and after what seemed to be 40 minutes, I heard our boatman telling us that we were approaching Anguib Beach.

Back in Jotay's, we were told that Anguib Beach was closed, because they were "cleaning" it. So when we  saw people swimming in the wide beach from afar, we were pleased that we didn't listen to that warning.

Like most wide white beaches in the Philippines, Anguib Beach was touted as the Boracay of this side of the world. I've been hearing of testimonies of white sand and spectacular sceneries. Well, as soon as locals describe any beach as Boracay, I tend to ignore these descriptions. True enough, Anguib wasn't like Boracay. It was more like Pagudpud. However, they got the scenery right.

We told our boatman to drop us off at one portion of the beach that didn't have many vacationers, and that's to the east end of the beach. Anguib Beach was huge, long and surprisingly calm, probably because it was located within a cove. The hills behind it were lush with greens making the landscape very peaceful.

After buying some supplies of snacks and beer in the busy part of the beach, we settled in a secluded area. We had a quick dip, before deciding to explore the beach. The beach looked virginal. There were no resorts or establishments, except for the end of the beach where the road to Sta. Ana lies. I hope the beach remains this way.

We walked past the curve of the cove, and discovered another beach. It was low tide, so it was easy to explore the shore.

The water was clear and calm. The place was really spectacular, and very tranquil. It reminded me of Calaguas for a moment, because of its isolation.

We found more secluded coves, narrow beaches and rock formations on the sea that were perfect for capturing dramatic photos.

It was getting late already, so we headed back to our boat. We met up with the rest of the gang who were   still swimming. We had a few beers and snacks, before asking our boatman to take us to our next island.

The water was so clear when we left, that the corals were showing off their beauty. You didn't need to snorkel here anymore to see marine life. We just had to look at the natural aquarium below our boat.

It was already 5PM, and the sun was beginning to set. We could see rain from a distance. The result was a dramatic view of the sea, with rays of sunlight peeking through the dark clouds far away.

And because of the rain, nature had given us a treat. As we were approaching our next island, which was already near our resort, this view opened up on the horizon.

We were awestruck at the display of nature that afternoon. And we had one last island stop left - Crocodile Island - that amazingly was one end of the rainbow.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cape Engano Lighthouse, Palaui Island: Cagayan North Series

And so the adventure began. We escaped mainland Luzon and rode a boat to Palaui Island. The island is said to be rich in flora and fauna. The relatively large island had dramatic coastlines, with hills and cliffs jutting out into the open Pacific. Beaches line the shores, and there was green everywhere.

The waves got rougher as we moved further, and more smaller islands showed up. There were rock islands, that made you feel that you were invading Jurassic Park. There was no human life in sight, no boats, no tourists, no activity.

Suddenly, the view of a lighthouse came into sight. This was the famous Cape Engano Lighthouse, regarded as one of the most beautiful in the country. Built in 1888, the lighthouse served ships crossing the Babuyan Channel and the Pacific Ocean.  

We hit a coral sand beach that was the start of our shortcut trek to Cape Engano. Our boatman tells us that most hike from another entry point in Palaui Island for two to three hours to get to the lighthouse. We're glad we took the shortcut, since we didn't have much time.

We found a trail going up, but before that, we were treated to this wonderful meadow scene. It reminded me Caramoan at some point. I wouldn't know if Batanes looked the same, since I have never been there.

The trail going up was orchestrated, as there were even steps along the way. The local government may have set it up to promote tourism. We were the only souls in sight, so I guess, it is still a relatively unknown destination.

After a grueling climb due to the heat of the sun, we made it to the lighthouse. And what a sight it was!

I feel that we were transported back in time. The lighthouse at Cape Engano was beautiful indeed, andvery mysterious. The complex was relatively huge as well, compared to other lighthouses in the country. I don't know if it was still in operation, because there was no caretaker.

We took a while to take in the fresh sea breeze and enjoy the magnificent views. From the lighthouse, one could also see a better view of Dos Hermanos, two islands that we passed by on the way to the cape.

The lighthouse was a perfect place for a photo shoot, so we took as many pictures possible. It was also a great place to meditate, as you will feel you are really a million miles away from civilization.

The 360 degree view of Palaui Island was breathtaking as well. You could see the rugged beauty of the island.

We spent almost an hour on top, and decided to descend since we wanted to explore more islands. We had one last look at the mysterious lighthouse, that seemed to put us in a trance. We went down with high spirits, rejuvenated from a very satisfying excursion.

We took some time to swim at the coral beach. The water was clear and refreshing. It was perfect after an exhausting hike up ad down the lighthouse.

It was already 2:30PM and we still wanted to go to another beach, that was already being touted as the Boracay of this part of the Philippines. We left Palaui Island and Cape Engano with a promise of a return.

The Journey Up North: Cagayan North Series

It's difficult to find new places in the Philippines these days, as everything seems to have been discovered already. When I heard about Sta. Ana in Cagayan province in the Northeastern part of Luzon, I had to map out a plan to get there. After visiting Tuguegarao, I finally made my way to Sta. Ana, home to the Cagayan Special Economic Zone that aims to be the next Subic or Clark. Sadly, I was surprised that the Cagayan Special Economic Zone was far from being progressive. It was located in a town called Sta. Ana, around 3 hours drive via private van from Tuguegarao. I saw the vehicle imports from Japan and Korea in empty lots. But we were here not because of the cars, nor the casino. We were here for an adventure that was only lived out in my mind.

We found our way to Jotay's Resort, probably the most popular and the best resort in Sta. Ana. It was a small, well kept resort, that looked actually like a decent motel facing the sea. I liked the terraces where one could dine and do nothing. The beach is not worth mentioning anymore, since it's just gray sand meeting murky waters.

But we weren't here for Sta. Ana. Jotay was supposed to be our base as we explore Cagayan North. We found our way to San Vicente's port to hire a boat that would take us to destination number 1: the elusive Palaui Island.

We hired a boat for P2,000 that would take us island hopping the entire day. We were then brought first to another resort, near the port of San Vicente. I don't know if it was located on a separate island, but it looked that way.

Jerolyn Resort looked very inviting, that we were contemplating on whether to change resorts. If we stayed here, we would be closer to our destinations, and would have an island resort all to ourselves. If we stayed in Jotay's, we would be trapped in a typical resort building without any good scenery. The choice was clear, and the decision was made. We went back to Jotay and took our bags. We just told the resort that we had to go back to Tuguegarao.

Jerolyn's Resort was more basic and rustic though - meaning the rooms were very standard and to a point, uncomfortable. Nevertheless, we knew we had better ambience to drink and have fun in the night, and that we could manage our time easily here.

So we settled in Jerolyn's and hopped on our boat that would take us to Palaui Island and the other destinations we wanted. Sta. Ana was beautiful, and very peaceful, and reminded me of Busuanga's eastern coast (where Club Paradise and El Rio are situated). There were several other islands nearby, so we couldn't contain our excitement. We knew this was the start of a great weekend.

UP NEXT: Guess where?

My next series will be a contender for the BEST ISLAND ESCAPE this year, probably something that matches my Biri experience.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Basilan Operation

Still reeling from that unforgettable trip to Sulu and Tawi-Tawi last year, I already found myself onboard a fast craft ferry from Zamboanga to the one of the most feared towns in the Philippines - Isabela City, Basilan.

I was a bit more weary this time, since that Jolo experience. If Sulu is where the bad people live, the big bosses of the bad people reside in Basilan, and consider it their home base. My agitation got worse when I recently watched a documentary in Nat Geo on the Dos Palmas kidnappings. The hostages were taken to Basilan, where the war between the government and the Abu Sayyaf rebels was at its peak.

So when we arrived from a surprisingly comfortable ferry ride at 7AM in the morning, still a little bit dozed, we were unsurprisingly picked up by the military police. We rode the patrol car immediately and drove off to our hosts. 

I was shocked to see Isabela very neat and organized. There weren't many people, and the surroundings looked very peaceful. It didn't feel like the dirty and distressful Jolo, where everyone looked at us, strangers. There were several franchised establishments, like Jollibee, which says a lot about the progress of the town.

We were here because of a shoot, and we were met up with our gracious hosts from an NGO. We were told that our shoot will take place in Matarling, around 30 minutes away from the city. I was asking if the area was safe. The only answer I got was, "may kasama naman tayong militar". I guess, to them, nowhere is safe.

So we rode the patrol car and conveyed our way to smooth winding roads. The scenery was stark peaceful. There were several rubber tree plantations, as rubber is a main product of Basilan. I even heard Goodyear gets its rubber supply from here.

The eerie peacefulness was very disturbing, and images of ambushes grazed my mind. There were curves, some blind ones, and what if some rebels has set a trap for us. I took out my iPod and set my music in full blast. Finally, we arrived at a small village, in the town of Matarling.

I was glad that we arrived safe. I really think it was more dangerous riding a patrol car. Nevertheless, I got down in high spirits, and got to work. We were in the middle of nowhere, and we had to hike around 30 minutes more to nowhere.

We looked like a military operation. With our cameras, tripod, and military escorts, I really felt like I was part of a war movie, or a news team. We hiked our way through the coconut plantations, passing through a river.

Good thing it wasn't raining. I didn't know that we would be hiking, so I was in my white sneakers that turned into chocolate afterwards.

Finally, we arrived at a hillside, where our shoot location would be. Well, I'll skip the work part, but as you can see, again, the pictures showed that we looked like a military operation ready to go on assault.

After the shoot, that lasted 3 hours, we made our way back to Basilan, since our ferry leaves at 3PM. We  passed by another town, very clean and again, peaceful. It looked like any bustling town in the country, and I was happy to see smiling faces, both Christians and Muslims all learning to how to bake a cake.

We went back to Isabela and had lunch in where else but Jollibee. We ate breakfast in a small restaurant near the ferry, and Jollibee's the only other dining option. I wandered off as they entered the fast food joint, to take pictures of the town's plaza. Two military guys rushed to follow me, which made me panic a little. I thought there was something going on. They told me I should not just go off alone, since a lot of kidnappings happen in the plaza. 

After lunch, we had the opportunity to go around Isabela, and tour some sights. The center of Isabela looked developed, with small shops and establishments. There was only one hotel though, and it looked unmaintained. We were brought to this resort, somewhere by the mountainside, around 15 minutes outside of Isabela.

The Isawad Resort is a popular getaway for the locals of Basilan. The huge spring water pool was amazing, and the water looked so refreshing. The resort was playing party music so some of the guests were dancing by the pool - kind of like spring break, which was really weird to see at this part of the world. 

We were then brought to a waterfall that was visible from the road. By this time I was already at ease with Basilan. I was rushing to take pictures, stopping the patrol car to capture views of landscapes. We were told to go back to the pier as the last ferry was leaving. After circling the city hall and the rest of Isabela, we found ourselves back in the pier, boarding a ferry that was jam packed. 

Basilan was such an eye opener for me. It wasn't turbulent Jolo, nor relaxing Tawi-Tawi. I got an eerie feeling of fear amidst a backdrop of peacefulness. Basilan is beautiful and does not deserve the bad image it currently holds. But of course, we couldn't do anything about that. Till then, I just pray for peace and prosperity in Basilan. 


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