Sunday, June 18, 2017

Humbled by the Hundred Islands of Pangasinan

Many legends have been woven around the origin of Pangasinan’s most popular tourist destination—the Hundred Islands National Park (HINP) in Alaminos City. One of them has it that the amazing islands and islets numbering 124 (during low tide) were created by Bathala to immortalize the intrepid warriors of an ancient kingdom in the form of unique land masses scattered all over the vastness of Lingayen Gulf so they could keep watch of their territory against all invading forces till the end of time.

The breathtaking seascape as seen from Marcos Island

Indulge me, please? I’m fond of legendary stuff so I’ve included this legend in my blogpost on the amazing islands and islets. Coming across such legend from my grade school textbooks a long time ago, I grew up fascinated with the idea of setting foot there one day. When that chance finally came my way this year, I knew I had to post something about it, legends, leisure and all. 

A glimpse of the Hundred Islands from Lucap Wharf

Seen from afar, the unique formations will strike visitors as a group of oversized turtles. Truth is, they’re rich ecosystems replete with white sands, coral caves, shallow waters, colorful fishes, and rare flora. Science has it that the islands, estimated to be over two million years old, are ancient corals in an area that were part of the seabed of a prehistoric sea.

Actually, HINP was just a hair’s breadth, so to speak, from where I was last Holy Week—in nearby Bolinao, which I explored to the hilt after so many failed attempts in the past. I would have wanted to include a tour around the Hundred Islands in my itinerary where it not for time and resource constraints. But I knew deep in my heart I’d definitely make it there though I wasn’t sure about the date. And step I did into HINP this year—whatta thrill of a lifetime! 

At a time when people were scampering to their chosen destinations for one last summer hurrah, I found the perfect opportunity to gravitate up north and finally tour around the Hundred Islands. This is it! I joyfully told myself. At long last, I’d get to see them (or some of them) for the first time. For me, they’re the picture-perfect locales for my last summer hurrah—also my first out-of-town sojourn during the rainy season this year!

First, a little back story. Weeks ago, my friends (some of whom are based in Metro Manila) and I talked about exploring the islands. That time, most of us were noncommittal due to conflicting schedules. Besides, who would want to go for one last summer hurrah when the rainy season has already set in? (LOL!) As days passed, however, four wonderful people decided to give it a go—Juju, Baby, Letty (who brought along her daughter, Abbi) and me!

So off we went to the northwestern part of the province one Saturday midnight. Mind you, going to HINP these days is fast, light and easy—if you’re onboard those Alaminos-bound aircon buses, a number of which are outfitted with wifi connection and built-in toilets.  Our group boarded one huge bus from the Five Star Company’s fleet at its Cubao terminal. Travel time was roughly five hours, including stopovers.

Some of the islands are connected to each other by man-made bridges

Island hopping is such an adrenaline-pumping experience

Island hopping is a must if you want to fully appreciate the veritable beauty of HINP—it was on top of our itinerary, of course. Arriving in Alaminos in the wee hours of the morning, we first hunted for a transient house where we could get some rest and freshen up before going to the islands. Unfortunately, we didn’t make any prior arrangements. A bad decision as many hotels, inns and transient houses were fully booked that time because it was a long weekend! 

Fortunately, the two tricycle drivers we hired knew of some cheap accommodation (Php3,500 for all six of us!) in the village of Lucap, just a few kilometers away from the HINP. After billeting ourselves for an overnight stay in the transient house, we then spent the next few hours dozing off in preparation for our adventure to the islands.
By 6:30 in the morning, we were on our way to Lucap Wharf, the jump-off point for hopping around the Hundred Islands. Motorized boats for rent are docked there. Arriving at the wharf, we could already see some of the small islands albeit from a distance.

We didn’t want to go island hopping on an empty stomach so we first scouted for a place to eat. To our delight, there’s a food court near the wharf where we had a hearty brekkie at one of the stalls there. We settled for Helen’s Eatery, which happens to be managed by the owner of the transient house where we were billeted! 

Travelers fond of selfies, duofies and groupfies will have a blast shooting themselves to the max at the welcome signage.  Of course, we didn’t pass up on the chance to have our photo ops, too! A friendly advice though before embarking on your sojourn: Get your smartphones and gadgets some waterproof cover to protect them from the splashes as you go about hopping from one island to another.

From what I’ve gathered, only a few of the Hundred Islands have been developed for tourism, including Governor Island, Quezon Island, Marcos Island, Children's Island, and Pilgrimage Island (formerly Martha Island), to name some. A number of them have cottages and various facilities for those who want to stay overnight.

The islands and islets as seen from Governor Island

Statue of Christ the Savior at Pilgrimage Island

Among the popular islands, there was one which caught our fancy—Pilgrimage Island. Standing on top of it is the 56-foot statue of Christ the Savior, the newest attraction awaiting pilgrims who want to observe various religious festivities all year round, most especially the Holy Week, in that part of Pangasinan. The pilgrimage site offers a breathtaking panorama of the 1,884-hectare national park.

We opted for a tour that only had two stopovers, one in Governor Island and another at Marcos Island.  Governor Island boasts of a 200-step staircase offering a good vantage point of some of the islands while Marcos Island has a 20-foot lagoon inside a cave where intrepid tourists can dive into.

Wanna dive?

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Even though we lingered in these two popular destinations, we were able to see a number of other less popular islands and islets bearing such esoteric names as Cuenco, Clave, Quirino, Lopez, Milagrosa, Monkey, Old Scout, Paniki, Romulo, Scout, Cathedral, among others, on our way back to the mainland.

Going around the fascinating islands and islets took us roughly three hours. Whew, it was one helluva joyride that really had our adrenalines rushing! We would have wanted to explore some more but the huge waves that we encountered earlier made us wary. So, before noon time, we were already ashore where we did some shopping for shirts and other souvenirs at the row of stalls near the wharf.

We also took the chance for some selfies before a small lighthouse which stands prominently at the wharf, probably one of the smallest I’ve seen so far. Unlike other lighthouses, the one at Lucap Whart has no enclosure, top room or view deck. It seemed enough as the wharf only caters to small vessels. We didn’t attempt to climb up the lighthouse as its small gate was locked up.

Tupig is a popular delicacy in Pangasinan

You’d never fully understand a place unless you’ve tasted its homegrown treats. That’s why we also tried some delicacies Alaminos is known for—tupig (sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal); binungoy/binungey (sticky rice cake cooked inside bamboo tubes); puto Calasiao (steamed rice cake from the town of Calasiao); and the popular boneless bangus (milkfish) and the eponymous longganisa (local sausage).

By the way, when you’re in Alaminos, there are at least two names worth remembering for the best dining experience: Maxine by the Sea and Eliana’s. If you want to enjoy a sumptuous meal near the sea, then Maxine is the perfect place to be. Eliana’s, on the other hand, is worth visiting if you want to listen to a live band while dining or drinking. 

Short as the sojourn was, I’m so awed by the raw beauty of the Hundred Islands of Pangasinan. Humbled, I should say. Here’s a veritable place where you can really experience for your yourself the magnificence of God’s creativity—or Bathala if you wish to call him. And even if the origin of those islands and islets was just the stuff of legends, I still felt humbled and honored to have been given the rare chance to “meet and greet” a few of the legendary fierce warriors of yore, even in their non-human form! 😃