I fell in love with Calayan Island a year ago.
This was after chancing upon a few prenup photos of a young couple set on an idyllic hill so vast that everything else looks small, with pine trees that seemed to bend in one direction as if the wind is permanently blowing. In another website, I saw a photo of farm animals silently grazing the brownish-green grass covering the highlands. I held my breath and my heart stopped in that wonderful, expecting way.
For those of you who haven’t heard of this place, Calayan Island is the largest among the Babuyan group of islands in Cagayan, in the northernmost parts of the Philippines. Up until last year it was mostly unheard of, though as of this summer word about Calayan Island is starting to get around.
I had planned to go here with Hali in December last year but deferred when I learned from a good acquaintance that the waves going to Calayan Island are huge during ber-months, described as being “as big as a house.” Kuya Rolly, who’d been to this island a couple of times doing volunteer work for WWF (World Wildlife Fund – Philippines), told me that boat travel can go as long as 9 hours on a horrendous weather. Sometime ago a public boat sank, effectively killing about 50 passengers.
I’d re-scheduled our visit on the long weekends of February and March, but both did not push through due to various reasons. I guess the universe heard the tiny flutters of my wishes, because this May things gave way and we were finally able to visit this less-traveled island in the province of Cagayan.
From Manila to the North: Calayan Island
From the gritty, traffic-plagued capital Metro Manila, our group road a van for 12-13 hours to Appari, Cagayan Province. We arrived at the port in the morning, where a double-decked passenger boat was waiting in the distance. It was similar to the one we rode to Jomalig Island in Quezon Province but smaller and less comfortable.
Because there is only one scheduled trip a day, the boat is so jam-packed with passengers carrying bags and plastics of food and water bottles. The boat storage was filled with huge backpacks and various goods in boxes and wraps. The thoughts “Overcrowding” and “Are we off to a sea tragedy” immediately came to mind.
Hali and I found a spot on the upper deck, hugging our knees and squirming now and again to stretch our cramped legs. After the first hour or so, the whole deck was filled with a mangle of limbs, as people try to get comfortable by changing positions or lay down sleeping in what little space was available.
After about 6 hours of sea travel, we held sight of a wide stretch of clean beach — the port of Calayan Island.
Calayan Island: Landscapes, falls and secret beach coves
Day 1: Nagudungan Hills and Sibang Cove
We’d settled on a two-story resort house where we left some of our things and then trekked through a mountain side carrying tents and cooking utensils. A soft orange light was already bathing the whole land when we’d reach the spot overlooking the prairie (at least I think this is what our guide is trying to say). From there, we can already see the lighthouse atop the Nagudungan hill.
We made our way to the hill to witness the day’s sunset. Half-way up the trail, a stretch of flat, shallow shore was visible, Caniwara Cove, which then leads to the virgin beach of Sibang Cove.
Panting slightly, we reached the top of Nagudungan Hill. The hill is more vast than in pictures. The landscape is carpeted with slightly fluffy grass the color of light tan, which lends an exotic ambiance to the whole landscape.
I looked closely at the pine trees I’d seen so many times in pictures — the gnarled branches and windswept bodies. We looked at Sibang Cove from afar, at the huge waves below. We took a couple of shots, but only after a few minutes it started to get dark. We’d only reached the lighthouse. There was more to explore.
Afterward, we made our way to Sibang Cove and pitched our tents. We were tired and sleepy and had managed to barely finish our dinner. Hali made an excuse of getting water from our backpack and didn’t come back for the scheduled socials. I found him minutes later slumped inside the tent.
At about 3AM, he woke me up and pointed at the sky. Surrounded with the numerous stars is a stretch of brighter lights fused beautifully with what seemed like dark matter. The Milky Way, which I thought I could only see from atop Mount Pulag or some other difficult-to-reach terrain. It was mesmerizing beyond words. Around the bonfire nearby, the rest of our group was having a raucous party, drinking and telling stories.
I laid out my beach sarong on the sand and Hali and I laid down, side by side, watching the Milky Way and the occasional shooting stars until dawn.
Day 2: Lusuk Cave and Bataraw Falls
We woke up with the sun slightly toasting our skin. It was hot inside the tent. There was a clump of trees near our camp. Its ground was littered with a few litters, possibly from previous tourists. Other than that there was no sign that anybody had been in the beach cove. After a quick breakfast, Hali and I walked along the long shore of Sibang Cove. Beside us, the huge waves were threatening to swallow us up if only we’d move closer to the water.
It was mid-morning when two boats fetched us. The waves were strong that our boats were constantly swinging side by side. We struggled to get safely aboard. Our boatmen started the motor, and soon we were moving. After about an hour, we reached Lusuk Cave.
Lusuk Cave features two entrances submerged in deep water. The entrance of the right cave has colorful flower-like steps that descend shortly to the inside. Both caves eventually lead to dead-ends. We examined the cave structures, while some swam inside. One of our boatman started scraping the cave wall to remove some shells. We looked at them and found that a white-fleshed snail-like creature is found underneath each shell. Apparently locals consider these a delicious dish.
We then sailed back for a few minutes to Bataraw Falls.
Our boats docked on a boulder beach. We followed a 10-minute trail surrounded by forests, hopping through large boulders and fallen branches. There were cobwebs on some of the boulders that made me think visitors here must be few.
We came upon Bataraw Falls, small in height but with enough water rage to hurt the back when standing underneath the stream. I love it. I love the quiet, the untouched ambiance. I wish to have stayed there longer, just sitting and dipping my feet on the cool reddish-brown basin.
Day 3: Tapwakan rock formation, back at Nagudungan Hill
Our guide told us we’d go to see the Tapwakan rock formation, where there’s a cliff diving site and a beach. We set off armed with our usual daytour bundle — me with my tote bag that carries everything essential from emergency food, water, sunblock and change of clothes and Hali with his GoPro, DSLR and heavy tripod. We walked, waded through knee-length water. To reach the cliff, we had to clambered up impossible rocks that required a guide pulling and pushing us up. This Hali skipped, and instead he swam smoothly to the other end, where the cliff slopes downwards and it was easier to climb up.
We admired the black rocks forming the main structure of the cliff and watched locals kids diving and pushing each other into the sea, fearless. Our guide beckoned us forward and for a reason that he only would know, he forgot or simply did not bother to tell us that cliff diving is mandatory.
We all had to jump so we could proceed to the small beach cove, where we’d rest and have our home-cooked lunch delivered.
After 15 minutes of clinging on the lower steps of the cliff, with people cheering me on and someone chanting “Hulog-log-log-log-log,” I’d finally begged our guide to fetch me instead from cliff side facing the open sea, where the land is almost leveled with the water but faced with strong waves that threaten to sweep people away. Hali waited for me there, instructing me to hold onto a huge water jug as he guided us safely to shore.
Our bags and boxes that were not waterproofed were carried to the towering grassy hill beside the cliff and then dropped below, where our companions were holding a large tarpaulin for catching the items.
Hali and I talked. He’s gotten mad at me from earlier, when I wasted quite a while laughing, begging, saying I’m going to die — everything except doing the jump. He was tired from threading, waiting for me to jump, and initially didn’t want to risk the waves on the other end of the cliff. I cried and ignored him for a while. I swam on the shore, not bothering to slather on sunblock despite the hot afternoon sun.
After lunch under the shades of the cove, we separated from the rest of the group and walked our way back to Nagudungan Hill.
I was calm and exhilarated at the same time. We had hours to spare. We trekked up the hill and walked to every edge, looking down at the beaches visible from above and the nearby islets. There are two more coves hidden on the sides of Nagudungan Hill. I watched with interest as a group of men started to look for a way down the first cove and aghast when they scaled down the rocky sides of the hill, without any harness or safety tools.
Walking a little more, I ditched my sandals and ran barefoot in the grass, calling Hali every now and then to point to a particularly beautiful view — bent pine trees on a cliff, in juxtaposed with the clear sky and deep-blue sea, or interesting finds — small dried pine cones and goat poops littered all over the hill.
At the end of Nagudungan Hill, I saw a black goat peering at me before running away. We followed it and it turns out there’s a whole flock of them there — chewing grass, running, climbing on rocks or just standing surefooted on the edge of cliffs as if falling is beyond them. There was even a long-bearded goat unlike the rest. In our story, this goat is the leader of the flock and guides them away from curious humans. The small goats following the group looked like they were hopping instead of running.
Afterwards, we laid out my beach sarong underneath a pine tree, near the white light house. We ate snacks and what little water was left from our bottle. We agreed it’s nice to spend a whole afternoon here, having a little picnic, napping and drinking something cool while enjoying the view of the vast landscape.
Before going back to the resort, we held hands and said our apologies for our argument earlier.
I feel that Calayan Island is best for those who’re looking for a restful break, not a jam-packed itinerary that would require hopping from one place to the next.
Hali and I agreed that we haven’t seen much of Calayan Island. I do not mean the tourist spots, but the ordinary life of its residents. We were tied up with the group’s itinerary and whenever we had idle time, we spent it waiting for the go-signal that our boats for island hopping were safe to sail.
What I’m really looking for is a bit of immersion and perhaps to answer some lingering questions. How are the residents coping up with living on an island where fickle-minded sea conditions limit sea travel? What are the livelihoods of its locals, aside from fishing? Who owns the goats in Nagudungan Hill?
I guess these are questions reserved for another visit.
Okay, so here’s the part where I’m going to mention some people. I’d like to thank Kuya Jolo for warmly welcoming Hali and I to the group even though we only knew each other in Facebook — maybe not even. To my favorite person and travel buddy, Hali, who agreed to get time off from his busy work schedule to spend our first anniversary in Calayan Island.
Oh, and to God and the universe for the safe travel and granting us a good weather during our stay. 🙂
Here is our anniversary video featuring Calayan Island: