Ang laki pala ng Samar, I thought to myself as I drove along the highway on my way from Catbalogan City to Lavezares in Northern Samar. When I ride a van or a bus, I usually just sleep and wake up near my destination, so I don’t really feel how far I’ve gone. I get an inkling of distances when I plan my route on Googlemaps, but the kilometers on Samar island just felt longer than usual.
It’s one thing to visualize a place on a map and it’s a completely different experience driving around there yourself. I’ve driven around smaller islands like Batanes, Siargao, Siquijor and Biliran and easily looped those in a day. Getting from one point to the next in Samar, the third largest island in the Philippines, felt endless.
I booked a last-minute trip to Samar via Tacloban to join a two-day waterfall and caving expedition with outdoor company Trexplore, but decided to stay longer to explore on my own to visit Northern and Eastern Samar, two provinces I had never been to. And the best way, I thought, of doing my real-life adventure quest was to go on a solo motorcycle ride.
Joni Bonifacio of Trexplore found me a suitable bike to rent for the journey – a Honda XRM 125, a semi-automatic underbone motorcycle. It’s light, very easy to maneuver and drive, and the seat height was just right. The bike is a spare owned by a mechanic, who assured me it’s well-maintained and agreed to rent it out to me for P300 a day after I did a test drive. One-way vans to cities already cost P130-150, so it was a good deal for me.
All I knew was I wanted to go to Biri Island, the jump-off point of which is roughly 157 kilometers or 3 plus hours from Catbalogan City according to my phone’s GPS. After that, I had no plan.
It had been a while since I went on a trip with no real plan or purpose. This wasn’t part of a media tour where I had to stick to a certain schedule. I had no itinerary to follow– just a random ticket to a destination where I could make things up as I go along.
I always find these trips where I’m riding solo the scariest, yet the most fulfilling.
It was a pleasant drive. The weather was mostly fair and I stopped a few times to admire the view of the coastal road. As I drove, I checked my progress on my phone, to see where I was on the map. The blue dot still looked so far off from Lavezares. After reaching Calbayog, I kicked into a higher gear and told myself I wouldn’t stop for photo ops anymore to make better time.
ROUTE: Catbalogan City – Gandara – Sta. Margarita – Calbayog – Allen – Lavezares (157 km on Coastal Road) + Boat from Lavezares to Biri Island
The road went on and on. Maybe it was the fact that I was driving alone in unfamiliar territory. Or maybe it was because most stretches of the highway just seemed so empty.
I remembered hearing that boats only departed for Biri Island at 7 am and 1 pm, so I sped up further. It was a relief to see a sign saying Allen was just 17 km away.
Driving further on though it seemed like it was a really long 17 km before I got there. “And I’m planning to circle the whole island? Seriously?” I asked myself. This was just Day 1.
Finally, I ended up at a gas station near the port of Allen where I’m told that Lavezares is still about 30 mins away. The winding mountain road leads me to another small town where tricycles choke the main streets. I park and lock my ride at a police station near the port, leave my helmet and word with the police officer on duty that I’m going to Biri Island for the night, and walk to the market area.
The boat was about to leave as I reached the port. If you miss it, you need to wait for more passengers to fill it up or if you’re in a hurry, pay for all the seats (pakyaw system) which costs at least P50 pesos each for 14 passengers. It could take hours before the next boat gets filled up which could have a domino effect on your other plans. If you’re the type who likes to stick to a strict itinerary and schedule, Biri Island may not be the best destination for you.
It was a slow, leisurely boat ride. I enjoyed the view while wolfing down a few snacks. It’s hard to eat while on the road when you’re in a hurry, so I just bought some water and bread from a bakery in the market right before boarding the boat.
We passed a white statue of a Virgin Mary on the water reaching out as if to save a seaman from a sunken ship. The Nuestra Senora de Salvacion was installed 3 kilometers from the shoreline, meant to guide travelers across the choppy waves. The sky was overcast, but I was hoping it would get better in the afternoon.
When I arrived at the port, there was a bunch of habal-habal (passenger motorcycle) drivers at a waiting shed and one of them, Nino, immediately approached me. I found out that guides are now mandatory after an incident where a tourist died climbing rocks without a guide last year. Rates are also now standardized at P195 per habal-habal plus a P300 tour guide fee (good for 3 pax). Like in many small islands and towns around the country, locals have customized their motorcycles to their needs. Here they’re outfitted with an extension at the back so each bike can carry more passengers comfortably.
After dropping by the Tourism Center, I left my stuff and change at Gloria Vista Lodge, a homestay in town Nino recommends which offers P300/night for a fan room. The island has electricity only from 12 pm to 12 am though. After that, I was on my way to see the famous Rock Formations firsthand.
The Biri Rock Formations are composed of seven gigantic limestone rocks spread apart the island. There are six main rocks which tourists can visit on the Eastern Pacific coast of the island, namely: Magasang, Magsapad, Macadlaw, Puhunan, Bel-at, Caranas and Pinanahawan.
Exploring the rocky landscapes felt like stepping foot on a lost planet. The perfectly carved rocks scattered about the coast resembled alien landscapes. Carved by nature, the wind and crashing waves from the mighty Pacific Ocean over millions of years, these rock formations are just awe-inspiring. The rock formations are easy to access and view, but are best visited during low tide, since you have to wade though ankle-deep waters to get to them.
We climbed Magasang, which had the natural contours of stairs and the texture of a honeycomb. It looked like a gigantic beehive leading up to a wave of rock. From there, I got an amazing view of Magsapad, which looked like a sunken ship from afar.
I spent the afternoon wading through tide pools and crossing a couple of wooden walkways and rich mangrove forests to get to each rock formation. Each offers a spectacular view where you’ll just want to sit and think dramatic thoughts all day. I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places around the country, but I found the landscape here just amazing. What was even more amazing was that I was the only tourist there on a Sunday afternoon. I had the whole place to myself!
At Bel-at, there’s a beautiful tide pool where you can take a dip. Normally during summer months, the place can get crowded, but it was a picture of serenity during my visit.
While going around, Nino mentions a seafood restaurant called Lawud Park Restaurant, where I might want to have dinner. The main dining space is an open-air native-style hut under a grove of coconut trees. The grounds are decorated with island details, seashells, lobster figurines and a surfboard. I immediately loved the vibe of the place and wanted to stay the night there. I found out that they offer tents for rent (cheaper than the homestay lodging house), so I decide to transfer here after the tour.
I hung some of my wet clothes to dry and started writing up notes from the previous day’s trip by the light of my headlamp in one of the outdoor picnic cottages under the trees. One of the resort’s caretakers brought me a comforter and blanket for the tent and it was pretty cozy.
My dinner consisted of a bowl of ginataang saang (the meat of conch shells cooked in gata), rice and beer. The texture of the saang is somewhat similar to other shellfish like mussels and scallops, but tougher like shitake mushrooms. The dish swims in a spicy mix of creamy coconut milk. One dish is supposed to be good for 2-3 people, but I finished it with no problem. Biri nice indeed!
It was a pretty good start, I said to myself, for the first day of riding. I had finally visited Northern Samar’s famous rock formations. I had great meal, and I was staying on the beach under the trees. What more could I ask for? I wondered: what does tomorrow’s ride have in store for me.
As I retired to my tent, a barkada of tourists arrived aboard a couple of motorcycles for dinner and drinks. Apparently the restaurant becomes a videoke house at night. So much for peace and quiet. I tried to sleep while other guests duked it out on the microphone. Well, it was their vacation too. I would have probably done the same if I was traveling with friends. Some of the tunes they picked were actually kind of soothing.
I woke up at around 3 am to the sound of rain and howling wind outside the tent. The tent’s window was dripping raindrops. The clothes I hung up to dry outside and my shoes were probably soaked again. Hmm. This was going to be an interesting ride.
NOTE: This is Part 1 of my Solo Motorcycle Ride around Samar Island series. For those looking for just basic information to plan their own trips including how to get there, where to stay and cost breakdowns, check out: Travel Guide: Biri Island