Why howling Catanduanes always shines through

[This article was published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on June 20, 2010. I am reposting it now – 10 years after –  in light of the recent devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Rolly on my province.  I want to share memories of how beautiful the island was before it was brought to its knees by the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit the country. Catanduanes had sprung back from similar crises in the past, and the rebound may take longer this time, given the extent of the damage. Yet, with the strong faith and character of its people and with help coming from all sectors, there is no doubt that it will show its “Happy Island” face to the world in due course.]

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I have ambivalent feelings about my province, Catanduanes, being called “Land of the Howling Winds.” On one hand, I’m helpless because the unflattering moniker rings true. Catanduanes lies in the typhoon belt and is often talked about in the same breath as inclement weather.

On the other hand, I’m in denial because the description is, after all, only half-true. On warmer days, when the winds whisper rather than howl, Catanduanes shakes off this tag and transforms itself into the idyllic place that it truly is. This emerald isle lying east of the Bicol Peninsula is the perfect hideaway; the place to be to savor nature in its largely unspoiled state, reconnect with one’s historical and religious heritage, and experience the rustic charm of island living, plus the true Bicolano zest for life.

Life is a beach

Getting to Catanduanes by plane from Manila takes less than an hour. Shortly before touchdown at the Virac airport, one gets a visual treat from thousands of feet above sea level: a glimpse of the western coastline makes one giddy at the prospects of living it up on this island with its stretches of amazing beaches. Catanduanes may have earned its merits primarily as a surfing destination, but there are countless other possibilities for the less daring. From the capital town of Virac, a roughly 11-kilometer drive through tertiary roads to the southern tip of the island brings one to the oft-visited resorts in Igang, Antipolo, Balite, or Marilima.

Twin Rocks Resort in Virac
Time and tide conspired to form this arch in Batag, Virac. Locals call this Pier of the Encantos.

Twin Rocks Resort in Igang is known for its postcard-pretty scenes and classy amenities, while Mamangal Beach in Balite offers perhaps the most stunning sunset view on that part of the island. The gentle waves here are ideal for skimboarding and the powdery white sand compels you to take off your flip-flops and stroll barefoot. Off the beaten path, it is quite likely that you’ll discover an undeveloped beachfront where the only footprints you’ll see on the sand are your own. No hawkers, no curious onlookers; just the peace and quiet you need to recharge your tired body and weary soul. A hammock and a book will make excellent buddies. Remember to bring your snorkeling gear because it will be hard to resist the urge to explore the beauty that lies beneath the crystal-clear waters.

Sunset in Mamangal
A skimboarder calls it a day at Mamangal

Other parts of the island beckon with their own beach attractions. You’ll run out of fingers counting the exciting options. We were told to allot more time on our next visit to check out Amenia and Pasa Tiempo Resorts in San Andres, Toytoy Beach in Caramoran, Soboc Beach in Panganiban, and the different resorts in Puraran, the surfing area located in Baras town.

Nature’s gifts

The province is dominated by a mountain chain – a rugged terrain that is a great come-on to adventure-seekers. From Virac, we headed towards Bato and dropped by Maribina Falls where we found early-morning picnickers already enjoying the cool waters gushing from the multi-tiered cascades. Again, the decision was prompted by the proximity of the place; otherwise, we would have wanted to explore other well-known waterfalls such as Binanuahan or Nahulugan Falls in Gigmoto.

Maribina Falls

The Virac–Bato route is accessible by jeepneys or tricycles, which are the readily available public commutes on the island. There are also private vans for hire, but my personal choice for navigating this picturesque route is the motorbike. Nothing beats a leisurely ride while taking in the cool mountain air coming from one side and getting a panoramic view of the sea on the other—and feeling the wind against your face, blowing all your urban cares away.

Taking the opposite direction to the town of San Andres, the sceneries are just as enchanting. The winding trail approaching Lictin is lined with lush vegetation and is a favorite stopover for spelunkers who usually visit the Luyang Cave.

From here, one can drive farther west to the Agojo Fish and Maritime Sanctuary. A boat ride around the protected area allows visitors to view colorful species of fish and corals. In Codon, the development of a RORO port holds great promise. When completed, it is expected to boost tourism in Catanduanes through a shorter link to Camarines Sur.

RORO port development in Codon, San Andres

A short distance from Codon is the Munagbunag Cave located along the road near Mayngaway. Camera buffs will have a grand time capturing the mystifying images found in the various chambers of this cave. The cliffs outside the cave offer a great view of the Codon Point and nearby Camarines Sur, which should not be missed.

Exploring Munagbunag Cave
View from a cliff outside Munagbunag Cave

When the sun sets and night creeps in, it is time yet for a unique sensory experience during your island visit. If you find yourself somewhere near Hilawan or the densely forested area near the Luyang Cave in Lictin, San Andres, pause and enjoy the symphony of crickets and the dance of fireflies – luxuries that are not quite possible in places that are choked with pollution. Your knowledge of asterisms will also come in handy when you do a little game of connect-the-dots as you try to trace the patterns of the flickering diamonds in the clear night sky. These memories will go with you anywhere, long after you’ve left the island.

Hispanic heritage

It has been centuries since the Spanish conquistadores set foot on Catanduanes, but the Hispanic influence still runs deep into the Catandungan character. Words of Spanish origin have found their way into the dialect, Castilian-sounding family names are common, and islanders are known to be deeply religious. Most barrios have chapels or ermitas, which folks use for religious functions. People can keep track of time through the tolling of church bells.

In the town of Bato, for example, folks wake up at the crack of dawn to the pealing of the Bato church bell. The Baroque-inspired church is an imposing structure by the riverside, its thick walls built with mortar and coral stones that have withstood the ravages of time and the elements. It took more than 50 years to build and was completed in 1883.

St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
Moss-covered detail of the St. John the Baptist Church in Bato
A secret hideaway in Barrio Bote, Bato

About 15 minutes away is the Batalay shrine, which houses the first cross erected on the island. It marks the burial site of Fr. Diego de Herrera, an Augustinian priest who led an expedition in 1576 that was shipwrecked off Batalay and who was later martyred by the natives. On the same site, a spring flows with water that locals believe can cure certain illnesses.

Barrio Batong Paloway in San Andres is another popular pilgrimage site owing to a stone image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Different stories related to the image and its miracles are being floated to this day. The common thread, however, is that the stone has grown in size but the image embedded in it has not been distorted. Details like Mama Mary’s hair and her thumb peeping through her blue mantle which, in the past, reportedly required a magnifying glass to see, are now clearly visible to the naked eye.

Fiesta Island

Perhaps, the most evident trace of Spanish culture here is the observance of fiestas. After completing the novena to their patron saints, townsfolk pull out all the stops in merrymaking. No town fiesta is complete without a civic parade and marching bands, local beauty contests, and the vesper ball. The latter is where the locals and homecoming guests prove they can be hot at cha-cha (the ballroom staple, not the political maneuver), which appears to be the favorite beat to show off their innate sense of rhythm.

The usual fiesta fare includes gulay na gabi or laing, dinuguan, humba, grilled tuna or other fishermen’s catch, and steamed crabs locally known as an-it. I, for one, always leave room for dessert. The other temptations I can resist, but not santan (coco jam with pili nuts) and latik, the Bicolano version of the suman, which comes with a to-die-for sauce made of sugar, coconut cream, and anise flavoring. The best part about fiestas here is that they don’t come with RSVPs. Be bold and invite yourself. You will be treated like a much-awaited guest.

One might wonder how the Catandunganons who experience the wrath of the monsoon winds as if on schedule can be so warm and gracious. I used to ask the same question too, until I met an old man who quipped, “ga tullo man sana pag ga ullan” (it only leaks when it rains). He didn’t even know it, but his wisdom and the unique way by which he articulated his words had hit home. The double “ll” in the dialect is sounded like a vowel somewhat similar to, but not exactly like the Spanish pronunciation of “pollo”, a curiosity that’s a spot-on clue to a person’s island roots.

Tess Herrmann, a Virac-based resort owner, shares a related perspective. While showing me around her beach property, she pointed to the coconut saplings at different stages of growth and started to relate them to the storms that hit the island, “These younger ones here came after Reming, while those taller ones after Loleng,” and pointed to others as the sprouts after similar destructive storms. “They remind me not to lose hope, but to rise up to the challenge by building and planting even more than what had been destroyed,” she added.

Indeed, the howling winds may blow away roofs, flatten crops, and make life difficult at times on this side of the archipelago, but resilience seems to be one word coined especially for Catandunganons. Theirs is a lesson in accepting things we cannot change and in viewing the glass as half-full — mindsets that make a world of difference when things get a bit too complicated.

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