Potipot Island (Candelaria, Zambales)

Potipot Island (Isla de Potipot))

After a lengthy 7.5-hour drive (we left Manila at 3:30 AM and made stopovers at Jollibee Subic or breakfast, and at the Cathedral of St. Augustine of Hippo in Iba), we arrived at Brgy. Uacon at the town of Candelaria and parked my Toyota Revo at the residence of Mr. Joel Gonzales (mobile numbers 0977-2044869 and 0947-3218687), a friend of Bryan.

 Check out “Cathedral of St. Augustine of Hippo

Car parking at Uacon

As it was already lunchtime, Bryan prepared a lunch of pork tocino, hot dogs and fried fish with steamed rice.  This done with, Joel loaded our gear on his tricycle, with Cheska and Kyle on board, for the short drive to the beach where our motorized outrigger boat to Potipot Island (or Isla de Potipot) awaited us.  Jandy, Bryan and I just walked the short distance.

Overcast skies at Uacon Beach

Boardng our 6-pax motorized outrigger boat along Uacon Beach

The closest island from mainland Zambales (about a kilometer away), we can actually see how near Potipot Island is from the beach of Uacon. The boat trip (PhP400/two-way) getting to the eastern side of the island (with its huge and colorful “Isla de Potipot” sign) just took a little over 10 minutes.

On our way to Potipot Island

It was already overcast when we arrived at the island. From the shore, it was just a short walk to the reception center. Visitors to the 7.5-hectare, privately owned Potipot Island are charged PhP100 per head for a day trip and PhP300 for overnight.

The huge and colorful Isla de Potipot sign along the beach

Boat docking area

There are no hotels or inns available on Potipot Island. As it was a long weekend (August 19-21), the island was brimming with tourists (it easily gets fully booked during weekends), many camped in tents near where the boats dock.  Tent rentals are also available but it is not a regular service on the island. 

Reception pavilion

Campers can eat their meals at a pavilion with tables, without having to pay an additional fee.

Picnic tables

There is also a grilling area where they can grill their own food but they’ll have to bring everything, including the charcoal.

A 10-20-pax nipa cottage

An array of nipa and bamboo cottages

Others stayed in nipa cottages (PhP1,500, for 10-20-pax, and PhP2,000 for 5-10-pax) and more modern cottages on stilts (PhP2,500, 5-8-pax).

Tent city

Cheska and Bryan start setting up the tent with Kyle looking on

We opted to stay in the latter with our tent set up beside it for Kyle to experience his first camping. Jandy and I stayed at the very spartan, treetop height cottage on stilts which had a double bed with mosquito net.  We also had a table with 4 chairs (all are available for free around the island on a first come, first serve basis).

A modern, tree-height cottage on concrete stilts

The cottage interior

For cooking, we brought our own butane gas stove (we have to be careful not to burn any tree as we could be fined). Nearby is a citadel-like tree house said to belong to the island’s owner.

The citadel-like treehouse cottage

Normally, at day’s end, visitors are treated to a stunning sunset along the beach but, as a low pressure area was in the day’s forecast, it was already starting to rain.

Dusk at Potipot Island

This small but pristine and breathtaking beach bumming paradise, also known as the Little Boracay of the North, has shores surrounded by creamy white sand (the island’s name is derived from the native words puti po meaning “it’s white”), and turquoise blue water and offshore coral.

Potipot’s white sand beach

A good beach camping destination, it also has a lush array of trees to provide much-needed shade.  The different kinds of trees found here include mahogany, talisay, coconut, kamachile, guava, mango, duhat, suha, kamias, etc.

Grassy area at the center of the island

The center of the island is a grassy plain with another huge “Isla de Potipot” sign and a children’s playground.

Second Isla de Potipot sign

Children’s playground

There’s no potable water source in Potipot so we bought our water supply at the jump-off. The island has a number of clean and decent public shower rooms and toilets (one conveniently located just across from our cottage) so freshening up wasn’t much of a problem.

Public toilet

However, the water supply can lose pressure if a lot of people are taking a bath at the same time. Lighting on the island is provided by a generator so it is not totally dark at night. They also offer charging services, via solar panels, for any electronic gadget.

Early morning breakfast.  L-R: Cheska, Bryan, Jandy and the author

Kyle sleeping in a hammock we brought and slung between the concrete stilts of our cottage

The stay-in caretakers were friendly and more than willing to help you if you ever need anything. For a minimal fee, we could also ask them to cook our food.

“Leave No Trace Only Footprint” sign

They’re strict about cleaning up and bringing your trash with you when you leave (“Leave No Traces Only Footprints signs are everywhere). Segregated (plastic, leftovers and other waste) waste bins can also be found.

Segregated waste bins

Also nearby is a small sari-sari (convenience) store where we can buy bread, soft drinks, coffee, noodles, bottled water, snacks, canned goods, etc. as well as souvenirs, goggle and other knickknacks. Some vendors also sell foodstuff.  However, to avoid inconvenience, it is still advisable to bring your own food and water when you go there. Liquor or alcoholic beverages are prohibited.

Convenience store

It was sunny the next day (I missed out on the beautiful sunrise) and, after breakfast, we were supposed to hop over to Hermana Menor Island, a 2-hour boat ride away.  However, heavy waves made this impossible.  Instead, Jandy, Bryan, Cheska and Kyle went swimming along the nearby shoreline.

Kyle, Bryan and Cheska savoring the warm, crystal clear waters of the island

Though calm, the crystal clear, warm waters here can get, within a few steps, from knee deep to neck deep.  At the back part of the island (the part not facing the main shore of Zambales), you also have to be careful with sea urchins. Later, Cheska, Bryan and Kyle went kayaking around the island (PhP300/hour).

An array of tandem kayaks for rent

Bryan, Cheska and Kyle try out kayaking

Or my part, I decided to circle the island and my leisurely walk took about 30 mins. On the opposite side of the island, facing the West Philippine Sea, is another campsite for those who want peace and quiet. The sand seems to be finer here and the waters clearer.

Pre-nuptial photo shoot atop a sea wall

A photo booth for couples

Along the way I passed a couple having a pre-nuptial photo shoot. There are also rock formations on the other side of the island (where the sun sets). The famous, iconic driftwood, located in a slightly rocky portion of the beach on the southwestern part, is the site of an obligatory photo shoot for tourists. At the northern side, sea grass are clearly visible underneath the clear waters.

The iconic driftwood, a site for obligatory photo shoots

The feel and ultimate charm of this relatively unknown and undiscovered little gem of an island was like Boracay during its pre-development years. Here, every now and then, you can bathe in its turquoise waters and stroll under its arboreal ceiling without bumping into boisterous tourists.

Hermana Menor Island as seen from Potipot Island

We left the island by noontime, again boarding Joel’s boat for the return trip back to the mainland.  After a late lunch, gain prepared by Bryan, at Joel’s place, we left Uacon by 2:30 PM and proceeded on our return trip back to Manila, making stopovers at the Church of St. Monica in Botolan, a viewpoint in Subic and dinner at a Pancake House outlet along NLEX.  We were back in Manila by 10:30 PM.

Check out “Church of St. Monica

Isla de Potipot: Brgy. Uacon, Candelaria, Zambales. Mobile numbers: (0905) 456-7243 (Globe) and (0920) 499-9134 (Smart).  Look for Arjay, Jamie or Flor. E-mail: isladepotipotmarketing@gmail.com. Instagram: www.instagram.com/isla_de_potipot. Facebook: www.facebook.com/isladepotipothotelandbeachresort.

How to Get There: To get to Brgy. Uacon, Candelaria by car (a 5-6-hour drive), take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) all the way to the Dau/Mabalacat Exit. For speed and ease of travel, travel the length of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) to the Tipo Exit (the shorter route, through San Fenando – Lubao in Pampanga, passes through narrower roads and congested town centers).  Upon exiting, pass through the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA), on to Subic town and then take the national road all the way to Candelaria, passing the towns of Castillejos, San Marcelino, San Narciso, San Felipe, Cabangan, Botolan, Iba, Palauig and Masinloc before Candelaria. 

Sta. Cruz-bound Victory Liner buses also pass by Candelaria, the town just before Sta. Cruz). Get off at the Uacon Barangay Hall and, from there, take a tricycle (or even walk) to the nearest resort or the beach where you can get a boat to Potipot Island.

Guyam Island (Gen. Luna, Surigao del Norte)

Guyam Island

After lunch at Daku Island, we again boarded our respective boats for the short trip to our third and final island in our tour – Guyam Island.  Located just few hundred meters north of Daku Island, this small, 4,300 sq. m. (46,000 sq. ft.) tear-drop shaped island is 84 m. (276 ft.) long, 64 m. (210 ft.) wide and has a 230 m. (750 ft.) long coastline which one can walk leisurely around in a little more than 15 minutes. The island is unpretentious but is equally interesting as Naked and Daku Island.

Check out “Naked Island” and “Daku Island

PDI writer Amadis Ma. Guerrero makes landfall on the island

This picturesque, privately owned island has resident caretakers that collect a PhP10 entrance fee from every visitor. This islet has a small stretch of powdery to coarse, ivory to white sand and is home to a small grove of coconut, talisay (beach almond) and pine trees that have thrived there for years. It also has interesting coral rock formations that are perfect for snorkeling.

The small grove of talisay and coconut trees

The part of the island facing the the Philippine Sea is littered with boulders and hard corals that protect the island from storm surges and from constant tidal terrain movement.

The author walking along the rocky part of the island (photo: Ms. Louise Santianen)

A few meters away from this miniature tropical paradise, tourists can enjoy surfing, fishing and swimming. Supposedly, the island also offers a nice view of the raging surfing waves that Siargao is best known for.

The author doing an Oblation pose …… (photo: Ms. Louise Santianen)

The island, located around 2 kms. (1.2 mi) south-southeast of General Luna municipality, can be seen when you are in General Luna boulevard.

Guyam Island seen from General Luna boulevard

Two to three wooden cottages are available for rent. If you wish to stay overnight, you can pitch your tent for a small fee. Bring your own food and water.

The best feature of the island is its stunning view of the sun setting in the west but we weren’t going to experience this as we had to return to the mainland, just a 10-min. boat ride away. Despite being small, this  island has quite a lot of charm for island lovers.

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator)

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: sales@skyjetair.com. Website: www.skyjetair.com.

Daku Island (Gen. Luna, Surigao del Norte)

Daku Island

After our short stopover at Naked Island, we again boarded our boats for the short trip to Daku (or Dako) Island, the biggest among the three popular island destinations in Siargao. Named after the Visayan word for “big,” it’s unlike the other two islands (Naked and Guyam Islands) as it is inhabited, with a village of 300 residents, mostly fisherman, grouped in less than a hundred families.

Check out “Naked Island” and “Guyam Island

This unheard of paradise, with its cool vibe and breathtaking, picturesque scenery, has one of the finest best beaches in the Philippines, with a long, powdery white sand beach sprinkled with countless tall coconut trees (the best sweet-tasting fresh coconuts are a-plenty here) and surrounded by superb crystalline waters. Seaweeds are non-existent here. Locals also say that the beach area changes every season.

Our boodle lunch

The island was our longest stopover as we were to experience a boodle lunch, prepared by Chris G. Estrella (husband of Siargao Tourism Coordinator Donna Grace T. Estrella) of Mayambago Catering Services. The fare included grilled chicken, squid, tambakol (yellow fin tuna), ganga (spider conch) and hot dogs; steamed rice; and a dessert of ripe mangoes, bananas and sliced watermelon; all washed down with fresh buko juice and soft drinks. For a first timer like me, the cleanliness of the place was etched in my memory and I found it unbelievable at how the locals managed to maintain the place, with no plastic or other waste materials scattered along the beach.

The two huts we occupied

With its fine white sand, very clean surroundings and pretty cool winds coming from the Pacific Ocean, I was enticed to swim in such a place. The island is also ideal for surfing. During the amihan (southwesterly wind), there are fun right-hander that breaks during large swells.  Its waves, small and great for beginners, break on the protected eastern side of the island.

Aside from swimming, other activities on the island include snorkeling (around the southern end of the island), fishing, skim boarding, beach bumming and kayaking (you can rent a double kayak at an affordable price and kayak as long as you want).

Ideal for a family or group picnics, you can rent a centerpiece cottage lined up on the western side of the gorgeous beach for a day for PhP250. For PhP50/kg. cooking fee, you can also have your rice and fish cooked for you. Additionally, tourists and visitors alike can experience the cool vibe and island culture as well as feel the serenity and tranquility of the place with an overnight stay in simple beachfront native huts for as low as PhP700.

Keep in mind, though, that there is no electricity on the island. The community has a tiny chapel, a small community center, a day-care center but no commercial establishments (just a single, small sari-sari store where you could buy some snacks and drinks). Still, secluded Daku Island is certainly a truly wonderful destination to visit.  For me, it is even more beautiful than Boracay Island (minus the maddening crowd and the hustle and bustle of city life), making it a perfect getaway for those who want to have an unspoiled vacation.

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator)

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: sales@skyjetair.com. Website: www.skyjetair.com.

Naked Island (Gen. Luna, Surigao del Norte)

Naked Island

After our short visit to the Cloud Nine boardwalk at Gen. Luna, we again boarded our respective vans as we were scheduled to go on an island hopping tour sponsored by Surigao del Norte District I Cong. Francisco Jose “Bingo” Matugas II.  When we arrived at the port, we had to wade the shallow water, as it was low tide, to get to our two motorized outrigger boats moored some distance away.

General Luna Port at low tide

Offshore are the three white sand islands we were to visit – Naked Island, Daku Island (the biggest of the three) and Guyam Island (the tiniest).Once on board, we proceeded on our 25-min. boat ride to our first destination – Naked Island.

Check out “Daku Island” and “Guyam Island

A lone palm tree amidst sparse vegetation

Also called Pansukian Island, Naked Island is, in fact, only a bare, 200 m. long sandbar with no trees (just some occasional patches of bushes), no structures (save for a wooden bench), no nothing. It’s just a tiny speck of pristine, powdery white sand (with some patches of rock) in the horizon, surrounded by a deeper, crystal-clear lagoon between the blue sky and the turquoise sea, similar to the more famous White Island of Camiguin, only smaller. And, just like White Island, this sandbar also changes positions depending on the tide.

Check out “White Island

Patches of rock on the island

It was a good thing we arrived during low tide as this island submerges significantly during high tide.   With not a single tree in sight for you to rest under, Naked Island is a perfect place to get a tan without getting bugged by the crowd (though some take the “naked”” in the name too literally by posing naked). However, attempts have been made to green the island as some plants have now been growing in the sand.

Daku Island seen from Naked Island

For those afraid of getting a sunburn, it is advisable that you visit the island early in the morning to somehow avoid the peak of the sun’s heat. If you intend to stay longer, bring your own beach umbrellas, sunscreen lotion and mattresses. You can actually own Naked Island for a day and do whatever you like by actually renting it but you have to reserve it ahead of time.

L-R: Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella (Siargao Tourism Coordinator), Mr. Donald Tapan (noted photographer) and the author

Aside from swimming with a school of fish, snorkeling and sunbathing, you can also take pictures of migratory birds such as terns who frequent the island or or just relax by the shore, with a book and a tall, cold glass of juice, while enjoying the great view of the neighboring islands. Additionally, it is also a perfect spot for surfing because of the large waves.

The author, with Mr. Pete Dacuycuy, seated on the lone wooden structure on the island

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator).

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: sales@skyjetair.com. Website: www.skyjetair.com.

Cloud 9 Boardwalk (Gen. Luna, Surigao del Norte)

Cloud 9 boardwalk

After our Sugba Lagoon tour, we returned to Del Carmen’s port and then boarded our respective vans for the 38 km. (45-min.) drive to Gen. Luna, arriving at the town’s iconic Cloud 9 boardwalk by 4 PM.  This wooden boardwalk was built for the hundreds of spectators, judges, VIPs, tourists, non-surfers, competitors and photographers, during the 2014 Siargao International Surfing Cup in September, so that they can be very near where the waves are at Cloud 9.

Cloud 9’s white sand beach

One of Siargao’s most famous landmarks, many world-renowned, champion surfers like Alana Blanchard, Paul Fisher, Chris Zaffis, John Mark Tokong, Philmar Alipayo, Philippa Anderson (Australia), Sandon Whittaker (Australia) and Piso Alcala have strolled its length. We too would pretty much walk up, on the same wooden planks these world’s top wave riders walked on, to the area where the large waves form.

The 3-storey observation deck

The third storey

At the end of the 100-m. long boardwalk is a 3-story observation deck on stilts where surfers can relax after a hard-day’s practice , watch their fellow surfers riding out the waves or while the cool afternoons away. During every Siargao International Surfing Cup (the country’s most-awaited surfing event), this observation deck is laden with colorful banners of different surfing-related brands (RipCurl, Stoked, Fluid Surf, Billa, etc.).

The author

Surfers with their surfboards (photo: Donald Tapan)

As we arrived during high tide, surfers of all ages, genders, and nationalities, beginner or professional, were already starting to enjoy the waves of Cloud 9. This famed surf spot, in the country’s southeastern Pacific seaboard, was so-called after the popular chewy chocolate bar that can keep your glucose level high until those with sweet tooth can get their next meal.  In the 1980s, foreign surfers subsisted on this candy bar when the obscure surf spot was yet a best-kept secret. Today, because of the heavenly feeling it brings, riding its 16-ft. high waves is much like walking on Cloud 9.

This dramatic and powerful reef break, which crashes onto shallow, razor-sharp coral, offers right and left death rides to daring surfing buffs. In 2012, CNNGo, the travel news web site of the Cable News Network, listed Cloud 9 as No. 8 in the World’s Top 50 Best Surf Spots. Its surfing areas are categorized as Jockeying Horse for the beginners, Quicksilver for the intermediate class and Cloud 9 for the professionals. For beginners, surfing lessons are offered by local surfers at Php300/hour, while surfboard rental is at Php200/hour. Children as young as 8 years old are allowed to take lessons.

A selection of surfboards for rent

Surfers paddling towards Cloud 9

Even during high tide, the area is not really for swimming since a large expanse of it is shallow, waist-high waters.  Locals say that waves start to pick up in August to September when the southwest wind (habagat) is prevailing, the beginning of the surfing season.  Even during our third week of July visit, sun-baked local boys and pro surfers who can teach you the basics of surfing were everywhere. The waves look small in our photos but they’re actually quite big and powerful. Everyone was having the time of their lives experiencing this ethereal out-of-this-world emotional journey.

Surfers strutting their stuff at Cloud 9 (photo: Mr. Pete Dacuycuy)

Siargao Tourism Office: Paseo De Cabuntog, Brgy. Catangnan, Gen. Luna, Siargao Island. Mobile number: (0921) 718-2268 (Ms. Donna Grace T. Estrella – Siargao Tourism Coordinator)

How to Get There: Skyjet Airlines has daily, 100-min. direct flights from Manila (NAIA Terminal 4) to Siargao (Sayak Airport). ETD Manila at 6 AM (M8-421), ETA Siargao at 7:40 AM. Return flights: ET Siargao at 8:10 AM (M8-422), ETD Manila at 9:50 AM.

Skyjet Airlines: Manila Domestic Airport, Parking A, Terminal 4, NAIA Complex, Brgy. 191, Pasay City, Metro Manila. Tel: (02) 863-1333 and (02) 823-3366. E-mail: sales@skyjetair.com. Website: www.skyjetair.com.

Calinawan Cave (Tanay, Rizal)

Calinawan Cave

Calinawan Cave

This natural, multi-level cave, part of several series of caves in the area, was said to have been discovered in 1901 (by a grandfather of one of the cave guides).  It was used as a local hideout by refugees during the Philippine-American War and by the Japanese during World War II.

Calinawan Cave (2)

Media group

We detoured to this cave before proceeding to Daranak Falls. It’s a long and bumpy ride getting there since most of the road isn’t paved yet and the cave isn’t signposted that well.

Calinawan Cave (8)

The author at Level 1

This cave is mostly dry and many of the stalactites and stalagmites, though still impressive, are dead. The cave’s name was derived from the word linaw (clear).  During the 15th-18th century, opposing parties used to convene inside the cave to settle disputes.  It’s a long cave system with different levels and openings.

The cave opening

The cave opening

This cave has 7 levels but most visitors only explore the first two levels. The less visited and seldom explored Levels 3-5 are more challenging to explore as you may need to get your hands dirty.

Calinawan Cave (23)

An eerie column

It also requires squeezing your body to fit inside the narrow and small cave openings.  It can only be explored during summer as, during the rainy season, they’re flooded and muddy. Levels 6-7 are closed. Our tour took about 30 mins.

Calinawan Cave (5)

Our guide Jason told us that one path leads to as far as the town of Montalban (others say that there are those that lead to the neighboring towns of Baras and Pililia).

Calinawan Cave (29)

The local TV fantasy series “Encantadia” was filmed here and, more recently, the Coco Martin TV series “Ang Probinsyano.” The TV series “Imortal” disturbed level 1 with silver and gray paint and glued glitters on the cave walls and other indelible and irreversible damage.

Calinawan Cave (14)

In case you get hungry or thirsty after the cave exploration, small sari-sari stores in the area sell sandwiches, soft drinks, halo-halo, mais con yelo, and biscuits.

Calinawan Cave (31)

As a spelunking experience, this is a relatively easy cave to explore, requiring no technical or special skills, especially for the first 2 levels. Well suited for first timers with no previous spelunking experience.  Levels 3-5, taking about half a day to explore, are just satisfying enough for the veterans.

Calinawan Cave (36)

Calinawan Cave: Calinawan Road, Brgy. Tandang Kutyo, Tanay, Rizal. Admission: PhP20. Tour guide fee: PhP 200 (good for 10 pax). You are provided with safety helmets and LED flashlights (however, these are very weak and you won’t be able to take great photos inside) as the second level of the cave has zero visibility. For that mandatory picture taking, use a camera with low light function. If you wish to explore layers 3-5, the guide may ask you for a consideration fee.

How to Get There: Calinawan Cave can be reached by tricycle (PhP200) from Tanay Market. For those with cars, there’s a parking area in front of the cave entrance.

Tanay Tourism Office: G/F, New Tanay Municipal Hall, M. H. del Pilar St., Tanay, Rizal 1980.  Tel: (02) 7361059 and (02) 6551773 loc 212-213.  Mobile number: (0998) 988-1590. E-mail: tanaytourism11@gmail.com. Website: www.tanay.gov.ph.

Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone (Bantay, Ilocos Sur)

Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone

Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone

The Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone (ISAZ), an adventure center at the boundary of the towns of Bantay and Santa, near the postcard-pretty Old Quirino Bridge, is the newest attraction in this side of Ilocos Sur.  Owned, built and operated by the provincial government, it was fully operational since  December 22, 2011.

Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone (8)

With its climbing and rappelling walls, kayak center, zorb balls, giant swing and its 400 m. long zip line that crosses the Abra River, it mostly caters to adrenaline junkies and adventure freaks and is perfect for local and international tourists wanting a bit more than visiting museums and the cobble streets of nearby Vigan City, a 15-min. drive away.

Zipline tower

Zipline tower

They also offer rock climbing and rappelling at the rocky mountains of Banaoang.

Giant Swing

Giant Swing

Adventure Zone: Brgy. Banaoang, Bantay, Ilocos Sur. Rates: zipline (Php250, one way, sitting; PhP300 each, one-way, superman; PhP500,  two way), rappelling (PhP150, 2 attempts), wall climbing (PhP150, 2 attempts), kayaking (PhP150, 30 mins.), giant swing (PhP180, single; PhP300, twin).

How to Get There: Sta. Maria-bound buses (fare: PhP25) from Vigan City pass by the area.

Kampong Ayer (Brunei)

Kampong Ayer - The Water Village

Kampong Ayer – The Water Village

This Water Village (MalayKampung Air), along the banks of the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), is an area situated over Brunei Bay that is home to a sizable population of 39,000, representing roughly 10% of the nation’s total population.  The district, a culturally important part of Brunei that preserves the nation’s river dwelling origins, has a unique architectural heritage of wooden homes with ornate interiors.

The mainland jetty

The mainland jetty

Built entirely of stilt houses and wooden walkways, it is the world’s largest water village and the most famous water settlement of Southeast Asia.  One of the most important centers of trade in Borneo, people have lived in Kampong Ayer for over 1,300 years. When the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan visited in 1521, Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta dubbed it the “Venice of the East.” Kampong Ayer has been the capital of the Brunei Sultanate for hundreds of years.

The modern-looking, 20-pax bot penambang (covered water taxis)

Boarding our modern-looking, 20-pax bot penambang (covered water taxi)

The author (right) with members of BEAT

The author (right) with members of BEAT (led by president Mr. York Virtucio at left) on board our water taxi

The establishment of the land town, acting as a population magnet, did not lead to its depopulation and arrival of new residents and natural increase maintained the population balance. Most of Kampong Ayer had survived heavy World War II bombardment. Around 2013-2014, smart new, two story stilt houses made of concrete were built in the center of the Kampong Ayer and given to the people in need of a new house but not wishing to live on land. Even today, many Bruneians still prefer the lifestyle of the water village to residency on dry land.

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View of the mainland

The villages on the river’s north bank (the same side as the city center) used to cover a much larger area, but many of the stilt houses have been razed to spruce up the waterfront area around the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

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Entering the narrow waterway

We were to have a personal experience of this heritage as we took one of the many 20-pax bot penambang (modern-looking, covered water taxis) that provide rapid transit daily between the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, in the center of town, and the water village itself. Our private water taxis resembled a long wooden speedboat. Before leaving the jetty, we all wore life jackets.

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A foot bridge

The Water Village is really made up of a cluster of 42 small, contiguous and relatively cramped stilt villages (kampongs) linked together by more than 29,140 m. of foot-bridges.

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This self-contained, close-knit community consists of over 4,200 structures, including homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools and a hospital, all interconnected by maze of 36 kms. of boardwalks. All of the six water village mukims (districts) are collectively known as the water village (Kampong Ayer) but, for administrative purposes, are identified as separate mukims.

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One of two mosques

fire-department

The marine fire brigade

From a distance the water village looked like a slum but it actually enjoys modern amenities. The government, through the District Office, has provided it with numerous facilities including foot-bridges, concrete jetties, piped water, plumbing, electricity, telephones, schools, two mosques, clinics, seafood restaurants, a police station, a museum and a marine fire station.

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A colorfully painted house on stilts

Many of the houses also have air conditioning, satellite television and internet access. Some of the residents even keep potted plants, in container gardens, and raise chickens. They even say that if you look at the main roads on the banks opposite the village, you’ll see luxury cars lined up on the shoulder of the road.  Many of these cars belong to water-village residents.

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A village jetty

The wooden, sun-bleached houses, painted with shades of green, blue, pink and yellow, have not been done-up for tourists. From afar, we could see the 30 km. long Temburong Bridge, which is still under construction (it is expected to be completed in 2019), and the golden roof of the largest residential place in the world, the Sultan’s Istana Nurul Iman.  We made our first and only stopover at a village jetty.  Getting off the boat was an adventure on its own as we had to climb some worn-out concrete steps.

A second mosque

A second mosque

The unfinished Temburong Bridge

The unfinished Temburong Bridge

Upon reaching the top of the jetty, we walked along a treacherous, banister-less boardwalk, some with loose or missing planks, again another adventure by itself. Walking along these planked walkways (a bit of balance is required) while observing the various homes is probably what draws visitors here. However, while the houses were far from squalid, we noticed rubbish floating or carpeting the inter-tidal mud at low tide. For an apparently affluent country like Brunei which could afford to tidy it up, it was disgusting and disappointing.

Climbing the stairs up the jetty

Climbing the stairs up the jetty

We finally arrived at a local concrete home which was way too nice to be anything close to an authentic village house. The entry hall even had a chandelier. Just like in a mosque, we had to remove our shoes before entering.  Inside, there were lots of tourists like us. Obviously, it’s part of the tourist trail.  There, a good refreshment was served – 3 kinds of colorful kuih bingka, a local traditional sweet cake, plus tea. Our snack here capped our Water Village tour and we again made our back to our boat for the trip back to the mainland.

Traversing the wooden boardwalk

Traversing the wooden boardwalk

Removing our shoes prior to entering

Removing our shoes prior to entering

Our tour of the nondescript Kampong Ayer wasn’t really a visit into the past. Rather, it was just a peek into the everyday lives of some very friendly Bruneians while seeing some of the changes that has taken place over the last thousand years or so. Interesting but not amazing. Venice it isn’t by a mile.

Three different kinds of kuih bingka

Three different kinds of kuih bingka

Kampong Ayer: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.  Kampong Ayer is accessible by boat or land bridges. To get across the river, just stand somewhere where a water taxi can dock and flag one down (the fare is B$1, one way). To get to these villages from the Yayasan Complex, itself built on the site of a one-time water village, follow the plank walks, behind the Hua Ho Department Store, that lead west, parallel to the river.

Baluarte Zoo (Vigan City, Ilocos Sur)

Baluarte Zoo

Baluarte Zoo

It was our last day in Ilocos Sur and, as we still had a whole day for sightseeing prior to our evening departure for Manila, Melissa, Almira, Albert, Jandy and I, together with Cora, Melissa’s sister, and her two grandchildren, decided to visit Baluarte Zoo, former Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson’s home in Vigan City and one of the top tourist destinations in Ilocos Sur.  Along the highway in Napo, Magsingal, we took a bus or the 13-km./25-min. ride to Vigan City proper.

Zoo entrance

Zoo entrance

From the city proper, we all boarded two tricycles for the 10-min. ride to Baluarte. As it was Holy Week, there was a traffic queue as we neared the entrance so we alighted, paid our fare, and walked the rest of the way.  Prior to entering, we had lunch at an eatery just outside the zoo. Entrance to the zoo was free.

Zoo rates

Zoo rates

Zoo Map

Zoo map

The approximately 80-hectare Baluarte Zoo, where Chavit’s numerous pets can be found, sits on a hill that provides an awesome panoramic view of Vigan City. This interactive free-roaming animal sanctuary is home to albino and spotted deer; miniature horses; impalas; one-humped camels; goats; zebras; ostriches; monkeys; llamas and buffalo plus a slew of bird species, from the common African love birds, ducks, swans, midget chickens and parrots to the more exotic hornbills.

Spotted Deer

Spotted Deer

Zebras

Zebras

For caged animals, they have some reptiles like snakes, iguanas, monitor lizards, pythons, crocodiles and then there’s Bengal tigers and birds such as eagles, owls and peacocks.  Baluarte also features live daily animal shows (three times a day, 10 AM, 2 PM an 4 PM) and tell times when audiences are introduced to the animals.

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Free roaming ostriches

There’s also a petting zoo, a butterfly garden inside the garden where one can observe and have a more serene interaction with thousands of butterflies, some endemic to the Philippines; a track or horse riding; a skeet shooting range and a chapel, among others.

Chapel

Chapel

Singson's gold-clad resthouse

Singson’s gold-clad resthouse

The gold-clad building (called by locals as the “Golden Building”), topped with a burning bush sculpture up its roof, is Chavit’s personal multi-storey rest house which has a grand view of Vigan and the West Philippine Sea.

Singson's "Yellow Submarine"

Singson’s “Yellow Submarine”

Zoo golf cart shuttle

Zoo golf cart shuttle

Within the grounds, we had a glimpse of Chavit’s personal and functional one-man mini-submarine with its iconic yellow color (one can easily hazard a guess on what its name is), said to have been used by Chavit to track treasures during his free time. Kids will definitely enjoy the Jurassic Park background because of those life-size concrete dinosaurs. There was also a safari tour, using a long-seater golf cart, with a minimal fee of Php20 per person.

Life-size concrete dinosaurs

Life-size concrete dinosaurs

Melissa interacting with an anaconda

Melissa interacting with an anaconda

To interact and get a close encounter with the animals you can, for a price, also ride some ostriches, horses and ponies and can touch or carry an anaconda (PhP20) and iguana (PhP20). For a closer encounter with parrots and hornbills, visitors may choose to openly approach and feed them with bananas and seeds in a more open area. Each animal has there own designated attendant. The place also has souvenir shops (T-shirts, key chains, ref magnets, etc.) and food outlet.

Souvenir shop

Souvenir shop

The climax of our visit to the place is the Safari Gallery perched on top of the hill.  It houses a collection of deer heads (and other few animals) hanging on the wall; the collection of stuffed animals such as a lion, Bengal tiger, wildebeasts, bison, bear, buffalo, gazelles, elephant, sheep, and so many more killed in his safari adventures (paintings and photos of Chavit beside the dead animal are also posted).

Safari Gallery

Safari Gallery

Some are just skins of these wild animals. While I do not like the idea of killing these animals, it still looks awesome looking at them preserved and mounted. It is also well maintained with properly labeled items.

Stuffed animals at the Safari Gallery

Stuffed animals at the Safari Gallery

Melissa and Albert also tried out the Water Walking Ball (PhP50/pax/15 mins.), a large inflatable sphere that allows a person inside it to walk across the surface of a pool of water. Before leaving, Almira and Jandy tried out the tiburin ride, a rickshaw driven by a miniature horse. It allowed them a close-up view of the free roaming animals.

Water Walking Ball

Water Walking Ball

From Friday to Sunday, 6 – 9 PM (last entry 8:30 PM) there is a Night Zoo. Admission: (Discovery Trail): PhP50 for adults, PhP20 for children and PhP40 for senior citizens and persons with disability.  Tram on Tour:  PhP100 for adults, PhP40 for children and PhP80 for senior citizens and persons with disability. On weekends, from 7 – 8:30 PM, there’s  a Sala ti Darang (The Art of Fire Dancing) show.

Almira and Jandy's tiburin ride

Almira and Jandy’s tiburin ride

Baluarte Zoo: Brgy. Salindeg, Vigan City, Ilocos Sur.  Tel: (077) 722-7186. Open daily, 8 AM – 5 PM (last entry 4:30 PM).

Onse Reef Off Road & Sandboarding Adventure (Paoay, Ilocos Norte)

Paoay sand dunes

Paoay sand dunes

One of the highlights of our Holy Week sojourn in Ilocos Norte was our Onse Reef Off Road & Sandboarding Adventure.  From Pamulinawen Hotel, Jandy, Melissa, Almira, Albert and I had to take a 17-km./25-min. jeepney ride to Paoay town proper.  From there, we all boarded a tricycle for the 20-min. drive to the sand dunes. As we neared the dunes, Albert and I had to alight as the tricycle had a hard time climbing up a dune. Upon arrival, we met up with Mr. Jake A. Texon, the Operations Manager.

Onse Reef

Onse Reef Off Road & Sandboarding  Adventure

Ilocos Norte is the only place across the Southeast Asian region where one can find a desert environment. Technically known as the “Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes,” it spans four Ilocos Norte towns. In 1993, due to its superlative natural beauty, geological uniqueness and scientific relevance, the sand dunes have been declared as a National Geological Monument (NGM) in the Philippines (other NGM sites include  the Hundred Islands National Park off  the coast of Pangasinan, the Taal Lake and Volcano Protected Landscape in Batangas, and the Chocolate Hills in the island of Bohol). The dunes have been used as the setting for the desert scenes in for Mel Gibson’s “Mad Max” (1979), Tom Cruise’s “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) and local blockbuster flicks such as Nora Aunor’s “Himala” (1982), the “Ang Panday” series and “Temptation Island” (2011).

The desert-like terrain

The desert-like terrain

The sand dunes of Ilocos Norte, a one of a kind “extreme adventure” destination in the Philippines, is also ideal for 4 x 4 rides, similar to dune bashing in the Emirate of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (a booming tourist attraction in the Middle East), and sandboarding. Dune bashing has the feeling and excitement of riding a roller coaster because of the up and down route of the off-road vehicle through the very high and very steep terrain and mountain-like features of the dunes.

A lone tree

A lone tree

The Paoay Sand Dunes, 88 hectares of wide expanse of sand, has the vast sandy characteristics of the Dubai desert (though the sand there is considerably pure because it doesn’t have particles like twigs, barks, stones and leaves), making it suitable for dune bashing and sand boarding.  However, the vehicles used in Dubai (such asToyota Land Cruisers) have roofs while the jeeps in Paoay are open-air and only have a single roll bar.

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In 2011, during our Lakbay Norte Media Tour, we tried the dune bashing and sandboarding at La Paz in Laoag City.  However, it is widely accepted that Paoay boasts the best terrains there are to find in the sand dunes complex and, recently, an outdoor group discovered an area in the village of Bacsil that is a good addition to the options present for sand dunes safaris.  This I wanted to find out.

The West Philippine Sea

The West Philippine Sea

How do the sand dunes of Paoay differ from earlier established commercial areas in the sand dunes complex? For one, it was only recently discovered so its terrain is as pristine as they can get plus not many tourists have visited the place. Also, the combination of wide sandy plains, clusters of closely-formed dunes, several oases and outlying vegetation plus a good view of the coast towards the West Philippine Sea, and the height of its dunes (some at 70 m. high) will surely not disappoint anyone visiting Bacsil. Aside from Onse Reef Off Road & Sandboarding Adventure, there are two other registered 4 x 4 operators at the Paoay sand dunes – Suba Sand Dunes and Culili Point Sand Dunes Double-Extreme-Adventure.

The staging area

The staging area

Onse Reef Off Road & Sandboarding Adventure, according to Jake, was established on October 28, 2014 as a 15 member club whose members pitch in their time, talent and treasure to build the place. It has 21 4 x 4 units – five locally-manufactured Wrangler-type jeeps, 14 Toyota Land Cruisers and two modified Toyota Surfs, all diesel-powered and tuned for dune bashing by being equipped with large tires (underinflated to 10 psi) and heavy duty suspension systems.  Conversions usually cost PhP400,000 per unit.

Some of Onse Reef's 4 x 4s

Some of Onse Reef’s 4 x 4s

All units are manned by 25 drivers and 40 guides (who also teach sandboarding). The drivers and guides have to strictly adhere with safety nets for their passengers who are standing in open jeepney vehicles. Drivers also stay on existing tracks and areas, and do not create new ones in the limited vegetation, so they are caring for the area. For the site to become globally competitive, without disturbing the natural ascent, descent and curbs of the place, the trails were designed in consultation with expert adventure builders in the U.S.A., with names such as the “Snake Pit,” the “Devils Ride,” the “Blind Drop,” the “Triple Fall,” the “Roller Coaster,” etc.

Wrangler-type jeep

A Wrangler-type jeep

We tried out the dune bashing first. We hopped on the back of our blue Toyota Land Cruiser and, in a standing position (you can also do it seated but it is less fun), were asked to hold on tight to the roll bar. No seat belts, harness or head gear at all. Our 4 X 4 ride was more thrilling and enjoyable than any roller coaster ride I have ever experienced and we all felt a different kind of rush as we watched the road from above and screamed for our lives during the times when we felt like the vehicle would topple over.

Boarding our Toyota Land Cruiser

Boarding our Toyota Land Cruiser

You must have strong grip to prevent being thrown out, plus a strong heart to last the trip.  The drive on bumpy routes and very steep 45 degree angle downward slopes were very exciting. The driver knew how to give us an adrenaline rush. We soon learned how to move with the vehicle, especially on high deep hills and side-winding curves. It’s literally like riding a wild horse and surely an experience I’d be glad to do again.

On our way ......

On our way ……

We made a stopover on top of the dunes for some photo shoots. As we arrived during the long arid dry season, the dunes before us were barren and brown, with only wild grasses, shrubs and some sturdy trees. The beautiful, late afternoon sunset here, along the crimson skyline, is also said to be indescribable.  We also learned that offshore is Onse Reef, a 12-hectare-protected marine sanctuary and a beautiful diving site located within the territory of Barangays Bacsil, Mumulaan and Nagbacalan.

Stopover for photo shoot

Stopover for photo shoot

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After our 4 x 4 ride, the others tried sandboarding, an insane sport which, though so much harder than surfing and a little easier than wakeboarding and skiing, was still worth trying. All you need here is body balancing. You need to squat in order to balance and properly surf. Each tried to keep their balance on the stretch of roughly 10 to 15 m. run with the board still on their feet.  The board is geared up with oil to make it glide smoothly over the sand but still they tumbled. Good thing the sand is soft, with no rocks.

Jandy getting ready to surf

Jandy getting ready to surf

However, falling from the sand boards would get lots of sand in your pants. Only Melissa made a successful run while seated on the board. Though you would tumble down at first, you’ll get the hang of it after two or more tries. You will have to walk up the slope every time you surf down and the hard part is just climbing up the sand hill again as it does get very tiring.

Albert bends to balance himself

Albert bends to balance himself

A very nice place to test your nerves, don’t leave Paoay without trying dune bashing and sandboarding! It’s both exhilarating and scary and good for adrenalin junkies. It also gives you the authentic feeling of being in the Middle East as you do not have to travel to Dubai just to experience this. The drivers and the guides all make sure that you get a thrilling ride going up and down the sand dunes. It’s absolutely fun. At the staging area, there is a store that sells snacks, halo-halo and souvenirs.

Melissa makes it down the hill on her butt.....

Melissa makes it down the hill on her butt…..

It is best to try dune bashing when the sun’s not too punishing. As they operate as early as 5 AM, you can try out dune bashing either very early in the morning or late in the afternoon (to also view the nice sunset) as the really fierce heat of the noontime sun can burn your skin. Don’t go there between 10 AM and 4 PM. Bring bottled water with you, as it does get dry and tiring, bring sunblock lotion, a small towel plus wear sunglasses, rubber shoes (because the sand is hot) and a hat that won’t blow off.  Also make sure to have extra clothes and be prepared to get dirty. For those who want to take videos, better use a small camera that you can attach to its stand and hold it in front of you, since it will be hard to hold on to the big cameras while your ride is going down fast.

L-R: Melissa, Jandy, Albert and Almira

L-R: Melissa, Jandy, Albert and Almira

The 4 x 4 ride and sandboarding is not for the faint hearted, anxious, nervous, pregnant, the newly operated, have high blood pressure, fractures, epilepsy or heart disease. Only children 10 years old and above are allowed at the back of the vehicle.  Participants have to sign a waiver.  Peak season is summer, weekends and December.   Rates: PhP1,500 for a 30- minute ride and PhP2,500 for a 1- hr. ride. Maximum number of people is 5.

Posing with Jake A. Texon (in light blue shirt)

Posing with Jake A. Texon (in light blue shirt)

Onse Reef Offroad & Sandboarding Adventure: Brgy. 23, Bacsil, 2902 Paoay, Ilocos Norte. Mobile numbers: (0919) 650-4633 (Smart), (0917) 503-9543 (Globe), (0921) 738-0616 (Smart) and  (0999) 710-2779 (Globe). Email: Paoay.sandunes@yahoo.com. . Website: www.onsereef.com. Open daily, 5 AM – 7 PM.