I’m a contributing writer for lifestyle and travel website When In Manila and I wrote this piece on a remote, undeveloped beach in a province in the Philippines. Sharing this with my readers (all three of them)— despite the “third-worldliness” of this country, I love living in the Philippines and places like Calaguas being within reach is just one of the reasons why.
When in Manila, ask any urban-dweller about the best beach in the country and you are guaranteed a popular answer: Boracay. And why not? Boracay’s blindingly white powder-fine sand and its clear, azure waters have spoilt us Filipinos. The Philippines’ top tourist destination has set the bar for beach-goers who cannot help but compare other beaches they visit with that of Boracay’s sand quality and the clarity of the water.
However, Boracay’s popularity comes at a price. With throngs of tourists flocking to the beach, it has been called “Manila with sand,” capturing the essence of what Boracay is like during peak seasons where the beach is so crowded that running into someone you know from Manila is a regular occurrence. With the influx of more and more foreign tourists due to the Kalibo airport now an international gateway, and the degradation of the beach due to unsustainable tourism practices, people have started looking for alternatives. Fortunately, with over 7,000 islands to choose from in the Philippines, there are plenty, and you don’t even have to fly from Manila to get to some of them.
These are the easy and obvious choices: drive down south of Manila for the beaches in Batangas, a destination known for scuba-diving. A little further south of Batangas and a boat ride away is White Beach in Puerto Galera, Mindoro. Go north of Manila and there’s Anawangin Cove in Zambales, where you can camp on a beach fringed with pine trees.
But if you’re willing to go further and off the beaten path, away from the crowds, lying off the coast of the province of Camarines Norte is a group of pristine, virgin islands called Calaguas, a reward for those who make the time and the effort to journey into the typhoon-battered region of Bicol.
Calaguas is a collective group of islands and islets, one of which is Tinaga Island where there’s a cove of clear, turquoise waters and an approximately 1-kilometer stretch of white sand called Mahabang Buhangin (long beach). In recent years, it has gained a bit of a cult following among beach aficionados, thanks to travel blogs and the adventurous ones who seek out the island and write about it, but mention Calaguas to just about any other person and 3 out of 5 times, you will be asked, “Where’s that?”
We set off for Camarines Norte from Manila at 10 PM, arriving in the gold-mining town of Paracale at 7 AM the next day after a few gas and restroom breaks along the way. From the port of Paracale, Calaguas is an often rough and choppy 1 1/2-hour boat ride into open seas, which can be dangerous when there’s a low-pressure area or approaching storm (of which the region encounters a lot due to its location as a battering ram for typhoons coming in from the Pacific). There was a low-pressure area that had just barely left the day we sailed off to Calaguas, and we felt its effect on our boat’s outriggers, its tips and ends dipping alternately into the sea, rocking our boat back and forth, splashing salt water on our faces.
Near the island of Tinaga, on which Mahabang Buhangin lies, are a handful of other islands with lush vegetation, fringed with beautiful beaches and rock formations, all looking perfect and surreal as if they were manicured and groomed on purpose to convey the idea of paradise to approaching visitors. And paradise it is. We landed on Mahabang Buhangin, its warm waters as clear as gin, our feet sinking into silky, soft sand.
For a beach that’s so unimaginatively-named, Mahabang Buhangin (quite a mouthful to say, so people have resorted to simply calling it as Calaguas) is an unspoiled and undeveloped destination that awaits the traveler who dares make the long and uncomfortable journey. That particular beach is often thought of as the Boracay of several decades ago, before Boracay became what it is now. With white sand just as fine as Boracay’s and water that’s as clear and as blue, it’s easy to see why. But the comparison stops there.
There are no old white men burning to a crisp while wearing skimpy trunks, no touts who have learned a bit of French, German, Korean, and Japanese (just enough to appeal to foreign tourists) offering to take you helmet diving or parasailing. There are no intricate sand castles built by local kids who stand nearby waiting for a customary tip after you take a photo with the tourist traps they created. There are no crowds, no promoters handing out sample sachets of a celebrity cosmetologist’s sunblock, no silly literal walking advertisements wearing body-sized billboards slung over their torsos. There are no bars, and most especially, no tugs-tugs music reverberating from oversized speakers at 3 am, shaking the walls of the resort you’re staying in. Actually, there are no resorts of any kind in Calaguas. There’s neither electricity nor running water.
But the absence of all these is exactly what makes Calaguas so inviting. There’s “nothing” to do in Calaguas which is, quite frankly, its appeal and what some urban-weary beach-goers look for in a beach destination. There’s a lazy, tranquil, and laid-back vibe to the place, as a proper beach should.
Time stops in Calaguas. There’s no cell signal so you don’t see people looking down on their phones and scrolling though inane Facebook updates and photos of food on Instagram. Instead you will see people playing volleyball or throwing a Frisbee around, sleeping on their sarongs under the shade of the trees, or swimming with the fish in the turquoise waters and taking in the scenery. When the sky changes from blues to pinks and purples at sunset, people stop and watch. At night, the beach is illuminated by nothing but the moon, and stars pepper the sky, easily visible due to the absence of smog and light pollution.
There are no big commercial establishments in Calaguas. None yet, at least. A cousin of mine who visited the island in 2008 recalled that their “toilet” at that time was a hole in the ground they themselves had to dig and cover up afterwards. When it rained, they gathered under trees and took shelter under the meager cover they provided. Now, five years later, there are just a few handfuls of simple nipa huts with picnic tables and benches on the island that you can rent and a couple of toilets housed in simple straw-and-bamboo structures. You can set up a tent and camp right there on the beach. There’s still no running water but you can get fresh water from a pump or pay P10 for a local to pump water in a pail for you.
This is just the start of the commercialization of Calaguas, but the beach is still very much untouched. With Calaguas’ location and the time and effort it takes to get there, it’s not on everyone’s list of ideal beach destinations. Further commercialization and developments will come in the near future, evidenced by the ongoing construction of more nipa huts at the time we were there. Already there is a streamer on the beach advertising organized group tours to the island, and at least one enterprising local has set up a small shack selling snacks and chips and souvenir Calaguas t-shirts.
For developers, Calaguas is a gold mine of potential. For nostalgic beach-goers, they hold on to the hope that Calaguas will stay undeveloped, even for just a few more years, away from the direction in which Boracay is headed.
It will probably take a few more years before anything more than nipa huts is constructed on Mahabang Buhangin. If you’re looking to head to the beach, relax, leave all worries behind, and take the time to do nothing, Calaguas is the place to go. And the best time to go is now, while the island is in between the anchors of the past, and the promise of the future.
Calaguas travel tips
- The entire trip to the island coming from Manila takes approximately ten hours– 7-8 hours by bus, and 1 1/2 to 2 hours by boat.
- The boat to Calaguas is a potentially choppy and wet ride. Waterproof your things by securing them inside large trash bags.
- If you want to stay overnight on the island, bring your own tent, camping equipment, and food. There’s a camping fee of P150 per person.
- Bring your own source of potable drinking water, enough to last you until the entire duration of your stay on the island.
- Bring a flashlight or a headlamp as there are no lights on the island at night.
- The waves on the beach can be quite strong at times, and the seabed goes from a shallow depth to deep within a few steps. Exercise caution when swimming.
- The best time to visit Calaguas is during the dry, summer months of April and May. It is not advisable to visit during the rainy/typhoon season, especially during the -ber months. The waves can be rough, and the boatmen periodically cancel trips to and from the island when the swells get too big.
- To help preserve the unspoilt nature of the island and to lessen the impact of one’s visit to the place, visitors are highly encouraged to follow the Leave No Trace policy. Its simplest and most fundamental rule is: pack it in, pack it out. Whatever you bring to the place, you take with you when you leave, including your trash. In short, “Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.”
Getting to Calaguas
There are a lot of travel guides on the Internet all about how to get to Calaguas, but the most straightforward way, if you’re going the DIY route, is to ride a Philtranco or Superlines bus from Cubao or Pasay to Paracale, Camarines Norte. Upon reaching the town of Paracale, take a tricycle to the fishing port. Ask around for a fishing boat to take you to Mahabang Buhangin (which the locals refer to as Halabang Baybay). Ideally, use Paracale Port as your jump off point to Calaguas instead of Vinzons port, the other alternative– the waters off Vinzons is rougher than Paracale’s. Vinzons is also farther away from Calaguas than Paracale is.
Another option is to join hassle-free organized group tours to Calaguas. One provider of Calaguas tours is Travel Factor, offering trips to the island inclusive of tents, transportation, and meals.
So when in Manila and looking to unplug from the stress of city living, consider escaping away to Calaguas, a place that has not yet caught up with time. Go there soon, and get there first, before the developers do.
See the mirror article published on When In Manila: http://www.wheninmanila.com/calaguas-an-unspoiled-beach-destination-for-the-boracay-weary/