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A Summer in Catanduanes

MANILA, January 1, 2003 By Ma. Carmina T. Mosura - (10th Prize Winner, Travel Now Essay Writing Contest co-sponsored by The Philippine STAR, Philippine Tourism Authority and Fuentes Publicity).

It is summer in Catanduanes and I am shocked.

The minute I step on the tarmac of the Virac Provincial Airport, I am immediately seized by the urge to mail a letter – a short one, really – to PAGASA. One that says, succinctly, "You are all liars."

The thing is, one automatically gets a mental image of a storm-bedraggled island at the first mention of Catanduanes. This may be based on years of weather reports that invariably situate every storm visiting the Philippines as being situated anywhere from a few miles to a hairsbreadth away from the island. It’s a sore spot among the friendly, peace-loving locals who never tire of pointing out that the storm warnings that reference the island come from the fact that a weather outpost is situated in Catanduanes itself, being the westernmost island in both Luzon and the Bicol Region. This makes it the best place to locate storms entering through the Pacific Ocean.

In truth, while the island does see its fair share of powerful storms – one of my most unforgettable sights was a school library with its roof ripped off, lying about 40 feet away from its former building – the sun is never so clear as it is here, without the soot and grime of Manila. Unlike the blood-red sunsets I have grown used to in the metropolis, the sun rises and sets in a near-lemony limpidness in Catanduanes. The frequent rainfall in the wet seasons also does its share in keeping Catanduanes as green on the ground as it is from the sky, from where the island shines, diva-like, like a teardrop-shaped emerald in the Pacific’s sapphire cloak. In the one-hour motorbus ride to my mother’s hometown of Viga, approximately 52 kilometers from the airport, I realize I had never seen so many shades of green in my life.

The uncommon beauty of Catanduanes seems to have a positive effect on its locals, known as the Catandunganons. The Catanduanes provincial government boasts on its website that the crime rate averages a miraculous 5.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Perhaps made unflappable by the storms that whip through the area during the rainy season, the Catandunganons are mostly friendly, generous and helpful to tourists. Thanks to the high degree of literacy in the area, most Catandunganons are conversant in both English and Filipino.

Catanduanes is not a large island. All in all it makes up little more than 1,500 square kilometers, an area spread out over the main island of Catanduanes as well as 23 other islets. The area is subdivided into 11 towns – Virac, the capital, then the towns of Bagamanoc, Baras, Báto, Caramoran, Gigmoto, Pandan, Payo, San Andres, San Miguel, and my mother’s hometown, Viga.

As befitting a province surrounded on all sides by water, its shores contain many of Catanduanes’ most beguiling spots. The beaches are noteworthy if only for their diversity – Catanduanes contains many different beaches in its 209.2 kilometers of shoreline, from sandy whites, to gray volcanic rock, to peach and gold-tinted banks colored by a blend of sand and coral naturally weathered and powdered by the seawater.

Best-known among these is Puraran Beach, the aforementioned uniquely peach-gold beach located in Baras. Internationally celebrated for its startling beauty, impressive tube waves and colorful underwater vistas, Puraran has apparently received the name "Majestic" from appreciative local and international tourists. Thankfully, Puraran has also received a welcome influx of infrastructure after a Japanese concern developed the area, building well-equipped cottages for tourists, as well as resources for diving and surfing fans.

Lesser known but no less beautiful are the beaches of Viga. Tambognon Beach is overlooked by several cliffs and coves, and is made up of fine volcanic black sand. Its waters directly feed into the Pacific Ocean, and as such, Tambognon Beach is also a well-known launching area for many of the eastern towns’ fishermen. It has convenient picnic areas, as well as several bamboo rafts available for rent. White sand, coral and colorful saltwater fish abound in the remote and photogenic Tinago Beach, completely unspoiled apart from houses built near the coast by Tinago expatriates.

Conveniently located in the capital town of Virac are Balite Beach, which comes equipped with its own picnic and recreational facilities and Borsdak Resort, a white beach with gentle tides perfect for family outings with children.

Over recent years, Catanduanes’ beaches have attracted aqua sport and diving enthusiasts from as far away as Japan, Germany, France and the United States, attracted by the dollar’s strong purchasing power, and the strong horseshoe-shaped waves that reach Catanduanes from the Pacific — challenging waves that are perfect for seasoned surfers. The wonderful biodiversity of its waters don’t hurt, either.

Eco-tourism is another growing attraction in Catanduanes. The town of San Andres has one of the country’s most highly-regarded conservation projects with the Agojo Marine Park and Sanctuary established in 1996 as a stopgap to the alarming erosion of San Andres’ marine resources. This began when desperate locals began chopping off mangrove trees for firewood, endangering the marine animals that use the mangrove swamps as breeding areas. Meanwhile, San Andres’ fishermen resorted to dynamite and cyanide fishing to meet the needs of consumers, killing off not only the fish they seek but also inadvertently poisoning other marine life. Designed to protect the area’s biodiversity, the Agojo Sanctuary oversees activity on the San Andres shoreline in order to protect, conserve and sustain the area’s mangroves, seaweed, marine life and coral reefs for future generations.

Waterfalls are also plentiful in this mostly-mountainous region. Bagamanoc has a notable namesake waterfall. Gigmoto hosts the pristine cascade of Nahulugan Falls, while Bato has developed a picnic site around its very own Maribina Falls.

There are many sights for the curious on dry land, as well. Bato Church, located in Báto township just a few miles outside of Virac, is the second-oldest church in the region. Built on the mouth of one of Báto’s most celebrated rivers, Báto Church is of interest not only as an example of mid-colonization Filipino-Spanish architecture, but as a historical landmark — it was built under the polo system of forced labor for a total of 53 years. Finished in 1883, Báto Church has withstood wars, calamities and the ravages of time to become the only remaining large building from the era on the entire island.

Báto hosts another important Catanduanes historical artifact — the Batalay shrine, the site of the first cross in Catanduanes. The Batalay shrine is believed to be built over the grave of Agustinian friar Diego de Herrera, who was shipwrecked on the island in 1576. The oldest structure on the island is a church, as well — the St. John the Baptist Church, erected as the first parish church of the eastern town of Caramoran. It is still in use to this day. Catanduanes is a province that wears its piety on its sleeve.— at Viga, for example, nearly every street has a small chapel maintained by the town’s womenfolk.

The hills of Catanduanes contain many sights for the naturally-inclined. Located 100 meters over sea level, the Solong Falls Nature Park in San Miguel preserves Catanduanes’ native flora for hikers and nature lovers alike. Buyo Cave in Virac has stalactites and stalagmites, as well as naturally-occurring flora. More challenging for spelunkers is Vargas Cave, also in Virac, which can only be accessed through a thick forest cover.

An accidental tourist can get to Catanduanes on his own steam with a choice of a 45-minute plane ride from Manila to Virac or a 7-hour bus ride or drive from Manila to the Tabaco, Albay pier, and from there a four-hour ferry from Tabaco to Virac. From there, the main intra-island transport is the motorbus, several of which ply several routes across the island. Puraran beach is accessible by taking a bus to Baras and Bato near the Virac central public market. In Virac, several "resthouses" rent out rooms of differing quality at very reasonable prices. If you are bringing a vehicle, remember that the only gasoline pump on the island is located at Virac. Elsewhere, fuel is available by liter from selected sari-sari stores.

Source: Philippine Headline News Online

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