Saturday, May 28, 2016

Charmed by Camotes Islands (Part 1)

Short but sweet. Two adjectives describing my first sojourn to Camotes Islands, one of the two island groups I’ve visited (the other being Bantayan in 2006) that belong to the island province of Cebu. Camotes counts among the most charming small land masses I’ve ever seen so far. And with beauty like that, who wouldn’t succumb to a sweet surrender?

Santiago Bay as seen from my hotel's veranda

Sweet potatoes. That’s where this island group found in the vastness of the Visayan waters supposedly got its name from. Made up of three charming islands (Pacijan, Ponson and Poro) and one islet (Tulang), Camotes is said to have been named after the lowly but nutritious root crop that’s a staple in many Pinoy households.

One folk tale has it that when the Spanish colonizers went there, they chanced upon some islanders who were harvesting sweet potatoes and asked for the name of the place. Thinking the strangers were referring to what they were gathering, the locals replied, “kamote”. The name stuck and the lovely islands off the coast of Cebu have been called as such since then. 

Camotes has four towns distributed in its three major islands: the lake town of San Francisco or San Franz (in Pacijan); the port town of Poro and the municipality of Tudela (in Poro) and the town of Pilar (in Ponson). It also as an islet, Tulang, which is part of San Franz.

The islands have three major ports: Poro, where fast ferries (e.g. Ocean Jet) from Cebu City dock; Consuelo, where ro-ro vessels (e.g. Jomalia) from Danao City drop anchor; and Pilar, where boats ply the route to and from Ormoc City.

At this time of the year when most people run away to frequently visited destinations for one last summer hurrah, I opted to gravitate towards a least known yet most unspoilt hideaway in Cebu, that’s Camotes, of course. For me, the remote islands in Central Visayas are the picture-perfect locales for a sweet summer escape. 

A typical white-sand beach in Camotes

Going over my choices for possible destinations late last year, I chose Camotes over Malapascua (another island in Cebu Province) because of their relative nearness to Cebu City. True enough, I reached the islands in a day’s time after traveling by air, land, and sea—a trip lasting for about four hours combined, including brief stopovers, if I’m not mistaken.

Arriving at the international airport in Mactan, I hailed a cab and instructed the driver to take me to Cebu City’s Pier 1 where fast ferries (i.e. Ocean Jet) bound for the islands are docked. Having bought my ticket online, I breezed through the inspection and security checks, just in time to catch the 10:00 AM trip to the islands. 

To cut travel time, I opted to take the fast craft bound for Poro, more expensive at Php550 compared to the express boats (Php200-220) or ro-ro vessels (Php180-200) bound for the port of Consuelo since I didn’t want to travel for another hour to Danao City via any of those buses (for Php40) at Cebu’s North Bus Terminal or vans (for Php50) at SM City Cebu. 

Sailing on a rainy day, the Ocean Jet I boarded relentlessly cut its way through the rough Visayan waters, passing through the narrow Opon Channel a.k.a. Mactan Channel and the vast Camotes Sea, reaching the port of Poro around lunch time. I didn’t make any prior arrangements for my ride to Santiago Bay Garden and Resort (in San Francisco) where I had earlier booked myself for two nights.

With my wheeled duffel bag in tow, I negotiated with one of the tricycle drivers I saw  at the port’s exit, a local guy named Eric, for a reasonable fare to the resort. The  pakyaw trip was Php150. Whoa, it was way below what I had expected! No further questions asked, I quickly gathered my stuff and hopped into his tricycle. 

After a brief stop for lunch in one of the carenderias at the poblacion of Poro, I went back to the tricycle and headed for San Franz. En route to the resort, the vehicle passed through a concrete but cracked stretch that had seen better days. Lush mangrove trees bordered each side of the road. So this must be the mangrove-lined causeway that links the islands of Poro and Pacijan, I thought.    

The drive to the resort offered me quick glimpses of life in Camotes: plain, bucolic, languid, my kind of environment when I want to escape the din and drudgery of the urban jungle. Nearly an hour later, I reached my home away from home for the next few days. Tired, I got my keys and headed for my room, hitting the sack for the next hour or two. 

Neatly tucked between Cebu and Leyte, Camotes is billed as the “Lost Horizon of the South”. And rightly so. Pristine beaches, emerald waters, nice folks, fresh seafood—the islands have all the simple things I love! That’s why I was instantly charmed the moment my beach-hungry feet touched those white, powdery sands. 

So what made this trip one of the sweetest ones I’ve ever had? Well, there’s Santiago Bay Garden and Resort, Santiago Beach, Paraiso Cave, Mangodlong Paradise Resort and, of course, the pristine Lake Danao—all of which happen to be among the attractions found in San Franz, the so-called “Town by the Lake”.  

The fabulous white-sand beach at Santiago Bay

Santiago Bay Garden and Resort. Sitting on top of a rocky hill that provides a spectacular view of the blue ocean, the resort is definitely a must-see for visitors. Sprawled over a 2.5 hectare expanse, Santiago Bay Garden and Resort, was my home away from home. I instantly liked the place the moment I saw it. Tall coconut trees, flowers and other foliage lend an idyllic air to the resort.  

It also boasts of several accommodations that vacationers can choose from depending on their budget. Rates vary depending on the type of rooms, ranging from 1,000 (non-aircon room) to Php6,000 (for villas that can accommodate families). It also boasts of two infinity swimming pools, both of which offer a breathtaking vista of the bay.
Santiago Bay on a late afternoon

Overlooking the vastness of Santiago Bay, the resto is probably one of the best places to enjoy one’s brekkies in the resort The fare is quite simple, mostly typical but delectable Pinoy food, but so reasonably-priced. Aside from  this, it was the ambiance that really took my breath away. Imagine sipping your ice-cold beer while watching the summer sun go down the horizon. Ah, so simple yet so surreal pleasure!

Turquoise waters of Santiago Bay

 Panoramic view of Santiago Bay

The bay also has a lovely beach that’s just a walking distance from the resort, with a white-sand stretch that’s probably more than a hundred meters away from the shoreline. 

The waters in that part of Pacijan are quite still, smooth and shallow even at high tide. Open to the public, the pristine beach attracts throngs of visitors who go there to bask in the beauty of Camotes’s sun, sea, and sand.

Mangodlong's white-sand stretch provide the perfect contrast to the turquoise waters

Dotting the perimeter of the beach are a number of affordable restaurants and small resorts which would surely appeal to those taking a vacay on a shoe-string budget.

Mangodlong Rock Resort. Found in a fishing village named Mangodlong, the resort is another venue that offers a spectacular view of the turquoise waters surrounding Camotes. Its powdery white-sand shoreline is about 200 meters long. Water in those  parts is crystal clear, perfect for swimming.  

Sprawling within a cove with a white-sand stretch, the resort boasts of several rock formations prominently floating above the water just a few meters away from the beach.  On top of these rocks are tropical huts from where guests can catch the awesome ocean view 360 degrees.

I didn’t stick around for long in Mangodlong. I just explored the place, albeit briefly, and gulped a couple of my fave light brew. Secluded and serene, I found the resort the ideal nook for bumming along the beach, reading a paperback under swaying trees, playing beach volleyball, or just feasting on a platter of tuna ceviche (that's kinilaw for you!).  

The beach at Mangodlong Rock

Tropical huts at the rock formations

Undoubtedly, it would be a waste of time if one doesn’t indulge in activities like snorkeling, swimming, surfing, sailing, scuba diving and what have you. They’re a must especially for those staying there. The rates? Depends on the room but these range between Php2,200 to Php4,000.

Huts on rocks

Paraiso Cave. Spelunking, whenever possible, is part and parcel of my itinerary when I’m in an island. I’d like to think I’m claustrophobic but there’s something about caves that takes away my fear for dark chambers. Must be those unique rock formations, I guess. I wanted to go cave-hopping in Camotes but I didn’t have enough time to spare given their distances from each other. So, I just settled for Paraiso Cave. 

Inside Paraiso Cave

Seeing the cave for the first time, I was instantly reminded of another popular attraction in another fascinating locale—Panglao Island’s Hinagdanan Cave. Like the one found in Bohol, Paraiso also boasts of an underground stream. To get inside the cave, I paid a token of an entrance fee (Php20). A guide named Bobby led me around the not-so-huge dugout. I gave him Php100 for his services. 

I thought it was pitch dark down there but to my surprise, lights were strategically placed in different parts of the cave. And man-made stairs, too. These, I guess, somewhat diminished the natural state of Paraiso. Well, I just contented myself with what’s right in front of me because it was my decision to explore it in the first place. 

A few more steps and I finally saw what I came for—the underground stream. I didn’t have plans of taking a dip though. I just wanted to see it up close and personal. A couple of Korean tourists were swimming down there so I didn’t linger. After taking some pics, I called on my guide and we went back into the light.

Paraiso Cave's underground stream

Lake Danao Park. Said to be the perfect spot for lovers, Lake Danao, a 680-hectare body of water, is one of the most awesome sights that never fails to draw people who visit Camotes. Found at the northern part of Pacijan Island, the guitar-shaped lake had me at hello. I was instantly swept away the moment I stepped out and saw its vast expanse for the first time. 

Boating is a favorite pastime in Lake Danao

Undoubtedly the main attraction of Lake Danao Park, the lake is less than 30 minutes away by car from Santiago Bay Garden and Resort. Motorcycles ply the route from San Francisco to the lake resort, with fare ranging from Php50-100 depending on one’s location in Pacijan. 

Serenity at its best in Lake Danao

Said to be managed by Santiago Bay Garden and Resort, the lake and its surroundings  provide a relaxing ambiance that visitors, especially friends and families, will find the perfect venue for group activities. Around the lake are some amenities that tourists expect to see in a resort—a snack bar, a swimming pool, picnic areas, a camping site, to name some. 

Home to fresh tilapia, lush greens and distinctive ducks, it provides the perfect venue for a variety of individual as well as group activities—fishing, boating, picnicking, snoozing under the shades and what-have-you. 

One last shot of Camotes aboard Ocean Jet

All things, however, come to an end. Just like my sweet escape to Camotes. The 48 hours that I was there ticked rather so fast. So fast, it seemed faster than the speed of light! Sweetness eventually turned to sorrow as I went through the motions of wrapping up my last summer hurrah. Time to face the realities of the urban jungle once again.

The baywalk in San Franz

So it was with a heavy heart that I bade goodbye to one of my dream destinations, uncertain about my return. One thing is certain though: I’ll be back! It’s just a question of when. This early, I’m training my sights towards the towns of Poro and Pilar (in Ponson). 

Camotes, no doubt, charmed me at first sight and all throughout the brief time I was there. And if I were to rate them, I’d definitely give the picturesque islands seven stars for making my last summer hurrah so amazingly sweet! 

So, that’s Camotes for you. Simple. Serene. Sensual. And just as sweet as one of my favorite stuff for brekkie. For now, the islands may just be one of those tiny ones found along the seas less sailed but I’m positive that in the not-so-distant future many weekend warriors will be sweetly surrendering to their unspoilt beauty. Why not be among the first to do so?