Scuba divers enjoy the waters off Cape Engaño on Palaui Island in Santa Ana town in northern Cagayan province. The place was ranked by CNN 10th among the Top 100 beaches in the world in 2013. It highlights a well-preserved beach and a Spanish lighthouse on top of a hill. Chen Reyes-Mencias/Contributor
For the adventurous who are willing to endure the more than 12-hour, 600-kilometer road trip from Metro Manila to Palaui Island, a piece of paradise awaits you in the Babuyan Channel in northeastern Luzon. Slideshow by INQUIRER.net
(Editor’s Note: As summer officially begins later this month, the Inquirer is running a series of articles on the country’s tourism crown jewels— somehow uncut but equally sparkling and surprising as the usual vacation haunts. They are meant to be must-reach destinations this season for the intrepid travelers, be they family, friends, couples or simply backpackers. The articles will appear three times a week, starting today. Please send us your own hot go-to discoveries to summer by.)
SANTA ANA, Cagayan—For the adventurous who are willing to endure the more than 12-hour, 600-kilometer road trip from Metro Manila to Palaui Island, a piece of paradise awaits you in the Babuyan Channel in northeastern Luzon.
The 2,439-hectare Palaui Island offers a virtually untouched landscape of grass meadows, rice fields and thick tropical forests, enclosed by a 10-km shoreline with stretches of white sand and coral beaches, mangroves and jagged rock formations.
Last year, its beaches were ranked by the US-based media company CNN 10th best in the world for their “raw beauty.”
“[It is where] glorious white sands meet volcanic rocks and blue-green waters topside, while coral gardens and a rich marine reserve meet divers under the surface,” CNN said on its website.
When 65-year-old basket weaver Catalina Baloloy, her husband, Sixto, and their four children moved out of Camiguin Island in the Babuyan Channel in 1986, all they hoped for was to find a better life in one of the towns of Cagayan province.
As their boat reached Port San Vicente in Santa Ana town on a clear Sunday noon, they were captivated by the beauty of Palaui Island.
“As we approached the port, our attention was glued to the beautiful island to our left, captivated by the view of the mountains and the thick forest that covered them. In an instant, we decided we wanted to live here,” Catalina said.
Palaui Island has since become the Baloloys’ home.
The same attractions lured other villagers here who have chosen to settle in Palaui, joining a small Agta community decades ago.
They are the residents of Punta Verde, a sub-village of about 100 households and the only inhabited portion on the southwest edge of the island that has been declared a marine reserve.
But it seems nature has a grand design to put Palaui Island in a remote location because this deters a possible tourist invasion, something that officials of the local government and the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority (Ceza) are wary about.
“Much as we would like to promote it, we are also aware of any possible abuse due to the anticipated heavy volume of visitors. Besides, we need to provide more amenities so that tourists who have high expectations from all the publicity will not be disappointed once they get here,” said Santa Ana Mayor Darwin Tobias.
Grace Berbano-Ruiz, who heads the Ceza tourism promotions department, said they deliberately made the prices of tour packages a bit steep in order to regulate the arrival of visitors and stop the exploitation of the island’s tourism potentials.
“We had to consider the high value of the [tourism] product that we are offering here, so the prices are also higher than usual,” she said.
The island can accommodate 175 people on a single day, so she said they had to limit the number of visitors.
To reach Palaui Island, visitors may also take commercial flights to the Cagayan capital of Tuguegarao City and a three-hour drive to Santa Ana. The road reaches a dead end at the San Vicente fish port, the jump-off point to the island.
From the fish port, visitors can drop by the tourist information center where they can be briefed on what the island has to offer before they take a 30-minute boat ride to Palaui.
The island’s main attraction is Cape Engaño, located on the northern tip of the island, which boasts of a white coral beach laid out on a cove and an 18th-century lighthouse on top of a hill overlooking the northeastern edges of the island.
Health buffs can have an exciting and refreshing workout by taking the climb to the top of the hill for a closer look at the lighthouse, named Faro Cabo de Engaño, which was declared an “important cultural property” by the National Museum in 2010.
Once at the top, one can gaze at the surrounding scenery, including a bird’s-eye view of nearby Dos Hermanas islets.
The cape has become a favorite picnic ground of visitors while the surrounding waters and coral formations are perfect venues for snorkeling.
The white sand beaches of Siwangag Cove, one of the filming locations for the international reality television show “Survivor,” and Punta Verde are ideal for swimming and snorkeling.
But a visit to the island will not be complete without visitors going on a trekking adventure, with the locals as guides. Visitors are required to engage the services of a tour guide for a fee of P300 for a group of four.
Diomeden Gagote, 37, a local guide, said guests could choose between two trails, which start from Punta Verde and end at Cape Engaño.
Recommended for beginners is the Lagunzad trail, a two- to three-hour trek through the forest and seaside. The more difficult Leonardo trail, which cuts through the island’s thick forests and steep climbs, is intended for more experienced backpackers.
On both trails, trekkers can make a side trip to the island’s “hidden” secret, the three-tiered Baratubot Falls, one of several on the island.
“One thing that’s always disappointing is when guests try to throw their trash anywhere during the trek. We never allow them to do that, so we ask them to dispose off their garbage properly,” Gagote said.
The tour offers instant lessons, courtesy of the tour guide, on the endemic flora and fauna on the island. A group of about 40 villagers, which has since been organized into a cooperative, is brushing up on birdwatching skills to enrich the visitors’ experiences in future engagements.
The island offers modest accommodations, which may be a boon or bane, depending on the visitors’ preference.
Those looking for decent and deluxe amenities for an overnight stay on the island may be in for disappointment because these can be found only in downtown Santa Ana.
But Palaui is perfect for those wanting a peaceful, relaxing sleep, without the amenities of modern living, like electricity, cable TV or Internet access.
Overnight accommodations are offered only at Nature Village, a 2,100-square-meter open space in Punta Verde, with four cottages that were donated to the islanders by the producers of “Survivor.” The crew stayed six months on the island for two seasons of the show.
Guests may also opt to pitch a tent and camp overnight at the grassy open space, surrounded by coconut trees.
“One thing we have always been proud of here is the peacefulness of the place. Visitors need not worry about their security while they are here because locals will not do anything to drive them away,” said Charlie Acebedo, 49, the Nature Village caretaker.
While in the village, visitors may also try the native cuisine through services provided by the Palaui Island Women’s Catering Association.
Guests who are tired from the long travel or from the day’s trekking or snorkeling may opt to enjoy a relaxing massage, also courtesy of the village women.
“We want to have more training programs so that we can perform other forms of massage,” said Elyn Gagote, president of the Island Spa, the locals’ name for their massage services.
Added learning adventures for visitors include catching a glimpse of the Palaui way of life, such as the making of the indigenous Dorsata honey of Agta natives and the pandan-weaving by the women of the community who turn out colorful baskets, bags and other handicraft items for sale.
“The weaving sessions have become bonding moments for our members while sharing jokes or listening to music from members with cell phones that have music players,” said Felisa Dollente, 52, president of the Pandan Weavers’ Association of Palaui.