IF progress is measured by the number of large malls and fast-food joints, then the island of Catanduanes is charmingly behind the times.
Sitting at the easternmost fringe of Luzon on the Pacific coast, detached from the Bicol peninsula, the island remains off the tourist radar, making it a mecca for those looking for something out of the ordinary. Much of Catanduanes remains rural, rugged and laid-back. You won’t find any movie houses here, but waterfalls, beaches and tiny islets are ripe for the picking.
Here are a few highlights of our recent trip to this island hideaway.
1. A taste of surfing. As the first land kissed by the Pacific Ocean, Catanduanes is a surfer’s paradise.
Off the beach of the Puraran Bay in Baras, one can find the world-famous “Majestic Waves,” known for its breathtaking, long-barrel type surf. During our visit, I saw firsthand how temperamental the waves were and how fierce the terrain. Sharp coral rocks protruded from the ocean and the howling winds viciously pelted sand at us. On sunny days, however, the resort, which is framed by coconut trees and a powdery white sand beach, is a tranquil spot to just laze around.
For safety reasons, we weren’t allowed to try surfing in Puraran. The waves, we were cautioned, are best left to the pros. A white marker on the rocks serves as a memorial to one foreign surfer who died in the otherwise majestic waves. We were also dissuaded by stories of the rocky coast and undertows beneath the amazing waves.
We were instead brought to Tilod, an alternative surfing destination more suitable for beginners like us. There we joined a group of foreign tourists getting surfing lessons from the locals. After a couple of wipeouts, we were soon riding the waves, being cheered on by children and locals watching us from the bridge.
Surfing lessons are offered by volunteer instructors from the community, using surf boards provided by the local Department of Tourism (DOT) office.
2. Visit to Bato Church. Aside from its great surfing waves, Catanduanes also has the distinction of being the first line of defense against tropical cyclones. The island is battered by typhoons that roll in from July to November, which are in part responsible for the world-class waves.
Yet some buildings like the 17th century Bato Church made of mortar and coral stone, which stands on a small hill facing Bato River, have withstood the test of time.
Reveals parish priest Fr. Henry Vega: “Despite strong typhoons, like Sineng which hit in 1970 and Milenyo in 2006 which totally devastated other areas, there was no major damage to the Bato Church.” The church, he adds, “has not undergone any renovations to its exterior and has remained typhoon-proof.”
Historical accounts show that it took 53 years, from 1830 to 1883, and six different parish administrations to build the Bato Church. Pilgrims often visit the church to marvel at its unique architectural design as it is the only remaining structure of its kind in the entire island. The massive stone façade of the church is overgrown with tiny plants and vines clinging to statues, which add character to the place. The church bell, with its rounded ringing tone, is held up by a vine (the kind that Tarzan swings on, according to Fr. Vega). Like the church, the people of Catanduanes are just as resilient, rising up after every disaster.
3. Shopping for abaca handicrafts. Abaca fiber hanging out to dry is a common sight along the roadsides since Catanduanes is the top abaca-producing province in the country. This has led to small-scale enterprises making use of abaca in ingenious ways. At the production house of Billy Apanti in Baras, we got to see women manually weaving pinukpok (abaca silk) from fibers using handlooms. Some fibers are dyed synthetically to produce more colorful cloth, though natural dyes like ginger are also used. Because of its natural look, strength and pliancy, the fabric is transformed into classy shawls and throws, often worn by high society ladies and foreign dignitaries for formal events. The production house supplies material to famous fashion designer Dita Sandico-Ong, who transforms the fabric into amazing high-value designs.
At F. Teano Handicraft, we also witnessed how handmade abaca paper – the kind bouquets are usually wrapped in – is made. Nothing goes to waste, as the remaining abaca pulp is used to make natural-looking wrapping paper, paper bags and other products.
Native products like bags, slippers and wallets are also widely available at the souvenir shop Veerak Native Products and the Virac public market.
4. Scrumptious seafood. One would expect the island to have good seafood, and our meals did not disappoint. During lunch at Puraran Beach, we were served steamed lobsters, baby octopus, and Bicol’s signature vegetable dish laing (gabi/taro leaves cooked in coconut milk).
Small lobsters, which are considered not the ideal size to serve in major restaurants (but taste just as good) cost as little as P250-P300 a kilo. Some are even given away for free, according to the local tourism staff, which I found amazing given the hefty price of lobsters at seafood restaurants in Manila.
During our second day, we took a two-hour drive to the coastal municipality of Bagamanoc in the northeastern part of the province, where we were treated to a lunch of some of the largest crabs I have ever seen. “Just the claw is enough to fill you up,” remarked another writer in Filipino, and I have to agree. We also got to enjoy crabs during our last dinner at Twin Rock Beach Resort, this time cooked in coconut cream and malunggay, along with a sour broth of prawns, kilawin (ceviche) and sashimi made from yellowfin tuna.
During our brief visit to the Virac public market to buy take-home gifts, we came across GZ Lopez Food Enterprise, a small bakery selling bread shaped like crabs and an interesting find—chili cupcakes for only P4.00. One can see the red specks of chili in the chocolate batter and it had an interesting kick, though it wasn’t too spicy.
5. Falls, fiestas and more. There are lots of other points of interest to explore in Catanduanes. Maribina Falls in Bato is the most popular and accessible waterfall for weekend tourists. Local wags say that a visit to the phallic rock formation known as “Boto ni Kurakog” in the middle of the sea induces fertility among couples.
A boat ride to Minabalay Island takes you to a small Our Lady of Penafrancia grotto, an alternative destination for Bicolanos who can’t make it all the way to Naga’s Peñafrancia festival every September. From the shrine, one can get a great view of the colorful boats lining the island’s shore.
Catanduanes’ own major event, the Catandungan Festival, is held every October during surfing season. Aside from surfing events, colorful streetdancing and trade fairs, sporting events and pageants are held in the capital Virac.
According to tourism officer Carmel Garcia, Catanduanes is also poised to be a strategic jump-off point to Caramoan in Camarines Sur. From the port of San Andres, a 45-minute boat ride takes visitors to Gota Beach in Caramoan, a short ride compared to five hours of land and sea travel from Naga.
While the flights via turbo prop planes are cancelled with alarming regularity (as ours was), don’t fret. Make it a convenient excuse to kick back, soak in the scenery and enjoy a more relaxed pace of life in the midst of nature. •
For more information, contact Carmel Garcia, Provincial Tourism Office of Catanduanes at tourism_catanduanes@ yahoo.com or visit www.catanduanes.gov.ph.