ISLANDS OFF MINDANAO
Adventures in the deep South of the Philippines
> More than 1 month in Surigao Archipelago, Sohoton Lagoon,
Guyam, Daku, Bucas Grande islands, and Cameguin island in the Philippines <
Oohhh, the Philippines… or 'Philip-nesia' as it maybe should have been named... So many islands, so many dreams of going with rusty ferries or wooden Bangka boats to reach a faraway port. A visit to this great country always involves the difficult choice of selecting where to go. If one goes to the Philippines and spend a single day on each of its islands, one would have to spend more than 19 years to visit them all. So what did we do then, when only having a few weeks, but wished for an island-adventure and something a bit more special?
We did some homework and screened books, magazines, and the internet for more unique landscapes and islands in the Philippine archipelago. Palawan was an obvious choice but we had already been there, but then there was the islands off the coasts of Mindanao. One option in this part of the Philippines was a small cluster of islands named the Siargao Archipelago, known for big waves, small idyllic isles, and a beautiful karst seascape. Another option was the volcanic island of Cameguin with steep green mountains, small fishermen’s towns, black beaches, and many waterfalls. We ended up visiting both places and were not disappointed. Both places are quite different from the many “traditional” beach resorts around the Central Visayas, Cebu Island, and Boracay. On top of this, the human culture seemed more preserved and both destinations offered both personal and truly authentic experiences.
Mindanao is the big island in the very South of the Philippines, and the entry point to the smaller islands of Cameguin and Siargao. Mindanao, mainly populated by Muslims, has often been associated with religious conflicts, separatist groups, and kidnappings. Nowadays there seems to be much rest in the region and traveling around should be easier - and less risky - than ever.
Mindanao is located in the extreme south of the Philippines, reaching towards Borneo in southwest, Sulawesi in south, Maluku in southeast, and Palau and Micronesia in east.
Remote, beautiful, and unheard-off. An archipelago hidden in the Philippino archipelago. Located 800km south of capital-city Manila it seems like another country. Jakob is looking towards Guyam Island on one of the many island hopping tours that we did. The easisted way to arrange this is simply to show up in Dapa, the largest village in the archipelago, and arrange a boat trip with a fisherman.
One one of our trips we made a stop on Daku Island. White-sand beaches, coconut-palm gardens, friendly islanders and crystal-clear, azure-blue waters. Wow! This island had some of the best beaches we would see around here.
We strolled around in the small island’s village on Daku and played beach volley with the local boys. This was the kind of place where hours would become days, and days would become weeks.
The bridge in front of cloud 9 resort, leading to the surf break, where we stayed for a week. This place is commonly known as the surf capital of the Philippines with is thick, hollow tubes. Its waves combine the best features of top-rated waves of Hawaii's fabled "pipeline" and the top-billed waves of Indonesia. The huge and powerful "pacific rollers" in Cloud 9 have been ranked among the top five breaks in the world.
Each morning in the Siargao archipleago we did the same thing: went up, had an easy breakfast and ran down to the beach to look for "our" outrigger. Our fisherman friend was waiting for us each morning, and each day we would do a full day trip and explore new islands and lagoons. We brought lunch with us from our small resort, typically rice, chicken and beers.
The Bucas Grandes Islands is a tough 3-hour ride from Cloud Nr. 9, but the scenery along the way was unforgettable. The Bucas Grandes Islands is a mosaic of islands in the southern parts of the Siargao archipelago, facing the Philippine deep trench. They have hilly topography with a lime stone karst landscape near the coast. We would spend a full day here exploring the islands.
In the Bucas Grandes Islands we wantet to visit the Sohoton caves and lagoon. The lagoon is overhung by jungle cliffs and half-submerged in water most of the time. It is accessible only during low tide. As such, it can be entered only during midday when the tide is low.
In the picture we are passing through the cave entrance, a natural cave tunnel, hanging with stalactites and with strong currents.
Once inside the lagoon, we swam into caves with bats, strange fishes, stalactites, rock oysters, weird corals, pitcher plants, cycads and wild orchids. We passed through rock islands and pearl farms and jumped of high cliffs into the clear waters.
The archipelago’s reefs facing the Pacific are situated on the edge of the Philippine Trench. Thus, the extremely deep offshore waters assure the ocean swells have undiluted power when they encounter the many coral and rock reefs. We were there in August, which is the low season for travelling in the Philippines and the very beginning of the surfing season. We were some of the only visitors and we killed the nights drinking beers and playing pool at our small beach resort.
Another trip went to Casulian Island with its wonderful beaches. T
he 300+ islanders are very friendly and are proud that they have protected their exquisite coral reefs full of all types of sea life. We did picnic on the beach and a casual hike to the top of the island’s mountain where we had a spectacular 360° view overlooking the archipelago.
As there was not much to do in Surigao City and as we had to spend a night there we did a trip to a small, distant village – Barangay Silop. Our tuk-tuk parked in front of the Barangay Hall, that is the town hall, and we were immediately approached by some 15-20 villagers. Later on, we were welcomed cordially by the Barangay Captain and were requested to write our names in the Barangay visitor-book. We found us a local guide af off we went for the Silop Caves after a 2-3 hour hike in the jungle.
Silop Caves is a spelunking destination. It has different cave entrances leading to four big chambers with impressive limestone formations, stalagmites and stalactites - some of them creating magnificent columns. The limestone karst bedrock of some areas in Surigao features dozens of caves, but none of these are regular destinations for recreational cavers. The Banbow and Tatol caves in Mindanao have recently been declared by Japanese cave explorers, and further expeditions are expected.
The first cave was inhabited by flocks of fruit bats and preceded to the second one. It really was a vast bat room – a dome-shaped hollow chamber with a cylindrical ceiling with fruit bats hanging on it and tons of guano filling the ground. The downside way into the second cave was quite steep, and especially the second cave retained its raw features with a chain of columns. Add to it impressive limestone formations and naturally carved stalagmites and stalactites.
Scattered around off the north coast of Mindanao lie a range of smaller islands such as the Siargao Archipelago, Dinangat Island and Camiguin Island. Amongst these, Camiguin is probably the most diverse as it offers trekking on active volcanoes, bike rides in lush and hilly landscapes, clear and remote waterfalls in jungle settings, hot and cold springs, and both black and white sand beaches.
As we slowly approahed, from the ferry we had an amazing view towards Camiguin Island and Mt. Timpoong in the foreground. To us, Camiguin Island beautifully exemplifies how the Philippines really is a hidden paradise in the SEA region, quite unknown to the common backpacker and way off the tourist track. We felt as if we had the whole island almost entirely for ourselves.
We stayed in a simple place owned by a single mother (and her two sons). The grandma cooked good, authentic Pilipino dishes. The chicken adoba was amazing. They offered two rooms, a pool table, cold beers and a hammock right on a beautiful stretch of beach.
We did several hikes among these to the Katibawasan Falls and the Tuwasan Falls. Katibawasan Falls offered a very clear stream of water dropping about 70m to a plunge azure-blue pool. It was refreshing with a dip and to get beaten up by throwing oneself under the water stream. It hurts!
Tuwasan Falls was more unspoiled and remote. We had to follow a small dirt-road from Cartarman village and hike for 1 hour., crossing the Dinangasan River. Next, we hiked north for another hour, sort of following the river. We got a bit lost, but a local – supposedly living in a bamboo shelter in the jungle and completely unable to speak anything at all – helped us navigate to the spot. The falls thunder into a plunge pool, which is swimmable, as well.
We were glad to do some trekking up Hibok-Hibok (1332m) in Camiguin Island. This is an active stratovolcano, and it has a symmetric dome complex. A friend of our hostess arranged the trek, which was great, because normally you have to obtain a permit from the DENR office in Mambajao. We started the trek at 6 a.m. to avoid the hot midday sun. The path was quite over-grown with forest and fringed with rushes, and the last 500-600m was somewhat steep. Atop we had great views of Camuguin.
Off the northern coast of Camuguin is the tiny "White Island" as it is called. It displayed a pure, white-sand bar.
We brought snorkeling gear, but there was nothing to see at all. There is nothing to the island, really, except from clear turquoise waters and magnificent views towards Camiguin and the on-shore volcanoes. Additionally, it was nice with a white-sand beach as opposed to Camiguin’s black sand beaches.
Following the paved road around the island, we took plenty of random turnoffs, some of them leading to hidden beaches and coral reefs, and others directing us to stilt villages with friendly talkative locals.
We did a random turnoff and found magical Cataan Beach offering coral reefs in good shape. Happily, we had remembered to bring our own snorkeling gear. This is essential in such remote locations.
Between the hillsides of the Old Camiguin Volcano and Bon-bon village an enormous white cross has been planted on a pontoon in the ocean. This marks the spot of an old cemetery which slipped into the sea following the earthquake of 1871. Same year as Hibok-Hibok erupted. We snorkeled the sunken cemetery and was abundant fish. It gave an adrenaline rush to swim to the pontoon, go into the cross through the small gate and crawl up the rusty ladder towards the top of the cross.