Delicious food, natural and manmade wonders, charming locals, and its innate simplicity—this combination makes Camiguin the perfect escape from the urban jungle, as Mike Saycon discovers
Written and photographed by Mike Saycon
For city-dwellers, the usual default weekend means a drive out to the beach or the hills, but everyone seems to be doing the same thing and taking the same route. If you’re wedging your own island count in the Philippines’ 7100+ archipelagic challenge, there’s one tiny spot down south that promises a weekend of pure nature and bliss.
Never mind the flight, hours of sitting in a shuttle/bus and another hour on a ferry; what awaits is an island-wonder historically born out of fire (thanks to its volcanic topography) but ironically gives one that much-needed inner peace. That’s because being in a place like Camiguin also takes one back to appreciating the most basic of basics.
START THE DAY RIGHT
No-fuss breakfasts in the middle of dewy greens overlooking the ocean at Casa Roca, for example, preps one up for an easy day ahead with a breezy way to wake up. Its dining veranda overlooking the ocean extends to little huts that make for airy cliffside dining by the sea. Careful with this scene, though, as it can easily drag you on to lunch. It’s as if time stops while you sip your coffee.
Then again, who’s complaining? Everyday they have specials—always a toss between the freshest catch from the sea or succulent steaks—that make casual dining as special as fine. Ask for the tanigue (Spanish Mackarel) grill, which comes with a salad and a choice of rice (of course, this is Asia!) or mashed potatoes. Top it with their house wines and you’re good to go…to the lounge sofas, ready to ask for a pitcher of frozen margarita. Before you know it, you’re already asking for the dinner menu.
The family house of the owner, Casa Roca only has five rooms to keep the place as quaint and quiet as possible; its backyard doubling as open space for their children to play afternoon games at and a mini-park surrounded by well-trimmed bushes and green ornaments. Ironically, this little inn sits on a massive private property embedded in canopies of shade—which is perfect to warm the day up with a morning walk after that massive carbo-loaded breakfast you just devoured.
IT’S AN EASY STROLL
Ideally you go to Katibawasan Falls in the morning, when the water is cool enough to perk you up. The 75-meter waterfall is high enough to amaze you but drops quietly onto a small pond perfect for a lazy morning dip. If you’re the hot water type, head to Ardent Hot Springs and soak in lukewarm water all you want. In both places you can bring your own feast and rent a booth for lunch. While you’re at it, make friends with the family next to you and prepare to be given a share of their barbecue.
Walking around the town’s little alleys for a mid-afternoon stroll is also a good way to learn a bit of its history and marvel at the well-preserved ancestral homes and Spanish-era churches—most of which survived the earthquakes that had shaken the island in the past. The center of Mambajao, the province’s capital town, is teeming with local shops and a public market where, again, it is best to get your dose of local food: from your main course lunch to desserts. (October is the season for its native lanzones, the lychee-sized tropical fruit celebrated in a week-long festival each year.)
If you’re up for a different kind of snorkeling, head out to the Sunken Cemetery and marvel at the coral formations on real graves. (Yes, graves!) Interestingly, when Mount Vulcan was just taking shape a few centuries ago, a part of the town sank—including this cemetery—and is now marked only by a massive cross. How’s that for a different experience?
After all that walking,flipping, and eating, cross over to the White Island, a tiny patch of fine white sandbar one kilometer off the coast of Mambajao accessible only via small boats from town. There’s literally nothing on the sandbar; but you’re free to bring your own food, drinks, a book, your own barbecue gear, a tent or even a kite-surf—just about anything! There’s also nothing that separates you from the tranquility of dusk so stay a little after everyone else has left. No one seems to bother much of the sunset so you get a solo seat to it and watch the clouds dance around the tip of Mount Hibok-Hibok and the setting sun.
THEY KEEP IT SIMPLE AND FUN
The biggest surprise of Camiguin is still the people. When we hired a van to take us around the island, the driver decided to bring his wife along. She turned out to be a firecracker, making jokes about her stretchmarks from the recent birth of her first child, her and her husband’s occasional fights over the most mundane things, how they easily confuse all Caucasians to be Americans, and even poked fun at my European friends’ funny accents.
Back at the little neighborhood eateries, local fisher-folk who had just come from the day’s work dared us to eat their local delicacies, and jokingly promised to strap us on their bikes if we needed to be rushed to the hospital for allergy attacks. We happily paid for all the remaining dishes served for the day to help the matron sell, but hungrily ate more than half of what were on display: squid adobo, fish paksiw, menudo, pork giniling, achara, and loads of rice. (No strapping happened, as we did not get any allergies after all.)
In return, they egged us to join them at that roadside karaoke joint. Singing being the Filipinos’ first talent, my friends felt like they were in an instant concert of pop rock, old-school punk, classic ballads, and local rap—notwithstanding drunken tones and innocently mispronounced lyrics. But that’s what happens after an early dinner on any given night: booze and microphones seem to be a match made in heaven.
Humor aside, the locals still have that disarming charm that makes any newcomer feel welcome in their midst over time. They are not very shy, can always entertain you with stories (including local legends and their version of the island’s history), and are ever ready to share their bottle of local gin or whiskey and pulutan while strumming their guitars and singing local folk songs. All these happening by that little shop off the bay, while the sun slowly drifts into the horizon and the eager moon takes over.
So off-the-beaten-track as Camiguin can be from the usual route, it gives that rare harmonizing balance to the busy, fast-paced life many of us choose to pursue. One only needs to breathe deep while idly driving a bike or walking through its tree-lined streets to finally get what fresh really smells like. This little island yields that energizing atmosphere of quiet, simplicity over everything, and a knack for fun devoid of any rush.
Seeing the simple, local life in Camiguin is a healthy reminder of the kind of peace people choose to live away from chaos of urban jungles. And for a visiting outsider, what Camiguin makes one do is to just stop and sit, watch the little pieces of life we might have been missing, and see these in a much fresher view. Just don’t forget to take good pictures, even if you’re using the classic point-and-shoot film shutter. The view won’t change any bit..