By the time we reached the island, the taste of brine was thick on my lips, my eyes felt like they were on fire, and my clothes clung to my skin like wet rags. The two-hour trip aboard a fishing vessel from the port of Paracale in Camarines Norte to Mahabang Buhangin Beach in the Calaguas group of islands was a reminder that the sea demands respect.
Our boat was tossed along the lurching swells of unseasonably rough seas. Since I sat at the boat’s bow, I faced the full impact of the ocean’s wrath in the form of frothy cold saltwater sprays. I thanked the travel gods for the fair weather and imagined how fishermen braved the seas during inclement climate. “Wala ito,” said tourism officer Angel who was seated next to me. “May isang beses, 3 oras kami sa dagat kasi ang lakas talaga ng alon. Halos mangiyak-ngiyak na yung mga tao sa banka,” she said before she dozed off.
Once the island was in sight, I understood why people would brave hell or high water to get here. The island’s raw beauty is the stuff of dreams. It makes you wonder if you’ve drowned during the trip and are setting foot on paradise itself.
I was transported from a dismal, gray world into a super-saturated realm where everything came into sharp focus. The sand was blindingly white and powdery soft. The water shifted from the palest shade of baby blue to a rich aquamarine with glints of sunlight reflected on its surface. But the best part was the lack of people and establishments except for a few thatched nipa huts on the shoreline.
The morning was spent taking a dip, walking along the 1.2 kilometer long stretch of beach, lazing about, and chatting with companions. Later during the day, I spotted several local children playing on the shore. From afar the children seemed to be entangled in nets. Up close, I found out that they had covered themselves in vines from the plants growing near the mangroves. They laughed as they ran towards the water, resembling curious-looking grass creatures.
On the far side of the shoreline, I saw a boy gliding by near the coast aboard a makeshift skimboard, as agile as any skateboarder on our busy street back in Manila.
“May mga bisita naman pag weekends lalo na pag summer,” said island local Danilo, as he split open fresh coconuts for us to drink in the afternoon. “May iba tumatagal ng 2 – 3 araw.” But most of the weekdays, the beach remains empty and visitors who camp out have the place to themselves.
He informed me that there’s no electricity on the island. While there’s a village on the other side, about a 30-minute walk from where we were, the community relies on generators, which “aren’t exactly turned on everyday.” There’s no mobile phone signal either, save for a tiny patch of land on top of a hill called the “phone booth” which one must trek to if one needs to make a phone call. But why would you want do that when you can just swim in the crystal-clear waters or swing on a hammock while admiring the view?
Later in the afternoon, Art and I took a walk on the beach, leaving a trail of footprints behind in the fine sand. The soft turf gave way to kamote fields, muddy paths and waist-high cogon grass as we hiked up a steep hill to get a view of the two sides of the island. We met a farmer who told us that we’d have to navigate through a thick forest if we still wanted to reach the highest point of the hill. “Dapat kaninang hapon pa kayo umakyat, padilim na ” he said, as he headed down.
We met up with the rest of the group on their way to the community. Black crows flew overhead and roosted on the fishing boats docked on the shore as Danilo showed up with a huge tanigue just caught by one of the fishermen. It made up most of the feast later that night. Half the fish was grilled in thick slabs, while part of it including the head was stewed in gata grated from a coconut just picked from one of the trees.
Since there are no restaurants or resorts on the beach, all of the food, except the fish, was brought by our tour guides and cooked on the island. We feasted on fresh fish, inihaw na liempo, sinantolan, laing, sisig, and slices of pineapple with just the flickering bonfire and a few tiny flashlights propped up on the nipa hut roof of a wooden table on the camping grounds providing light.
That night, the sky was clearer than any night sky I’ve seen in a long time. The constellations shone like the fireflies glittering in the nearby trees. The sky and swaying fronds of the coconut trees were visible through the windows of the tent flaps which we left open to let the wind in. I fell asleep with the sound of the waves gently crashing to the shore and woke up to the same soothing sound.
I have to admit that I was hesitant to write about Calaguas for selfish reasons. Ever since this slice of paradise has been featured in blogs and media, it’s becoming increasingly popular and more and more tourists have been coming in, leaving their trash behind. Once perfect places like Boracay and Puerto Galera bear the ugly scars of over-development. Hopefully, travelers can do their part to minimize the impact of travel and keep all the beaches in the country as clean as possible. If you ever find yourself in Calaguas, please remember to leave nothing but footprints.