Six years ago it was a relatively unknown travel destination. But with its white sand beaches, turquoise waters brimming with marine life, pristine waterfalls tucked away in tropical rainforests and verdant rice terraces carved from gently rolling hills, the island province of Biliran could not be hidden forever. So when a chance came to visit a friend from college who had gone back to his native Ormoc in Leyte, I suggested we meet at Biliran’s capital of Naval and see what the province had to offer.
(Leo went on this trip alone to meet an old friend from Leyte.)
Biliran’s Rice Terraces
First on our itinerary was one of the province’s waterfalls in Almeria town. On our way to the falls from Naval town, we drove through the green rice fields along the coast which gradually gave way to the rolling hills of Iyusan, a district in Almeria. Somewhat unexpectedly we came across Iyusan’s terraced fields of golden yellow rice stalks ready for harvest, much of it easily visible from the road.
We later learned that Biliran has the highest yield per hectare in rice production in the Eastern Visayas. This was surprising since much of Biliran is hilly or mountainous. It gave us an insight into the industrious nature of the people here who made the most of what natural resources they have to be self-sufficient in rice production.
After admiring Iyusan’s rice terraces we drove farther north in our habal-habals (rented motorbikes) until the concrete road ended just before a forest clearing. After trekking down a steep, narrow trail made slippery by mud from the previous day’s rain we headed towards Bagongbong Falls. At the bottom of the trail we had to cross a cold stream on moldy rocks to get a better view of Bagongbong. Like a shy maiden this waterfall made us grind and sweat before we got to enjoy her beauty.
The second waterfall we visited was much easier to explore. We first headed back to Naval, had lunch there, then headed east on a cross-country road to Caibiran town. Expecting a rugged, unpaved road we were surprised that it was completely concreted all the way to the entrance of Tinago Falls. The ride itself was a pleasant one through beautiful scenery of terraced rice fields, gently rolling hills, sleepy villages and cool rainforests. Our motorbikes parked at the entrance of Tinago and it was a very short walk from there to the falls. The name Tinago (hidden in Filipino) is really a misnomer for this 90-foot waterfall as it’s the most accessible falls in Biliran.
There are many more waterfalls in the province. Besides Bagongbong Falls are Ulan-ulan, Recoletos and Sampao Falls – all in Almeria. Our guide Zaldy said these last three are much more difficult to reach but that Ulan-ulan is probably the most beautiful in the whole of Biliran. Having seen pictures of Ulan-ulan before, I couldn’t agree more. Tomalistis Falls in Caibiran has reportedly made it to the Guiness book of records for the “sweetest” water. And then there’s the Casiawan and Kasabangan Falls, both in Cabucgayan town. Both falls are located in dense jungle undergrowth and the hike to get to them is an adventure in itself. There are at least 10 known waterfalls that are accessible but locals say there are more hidden in the forests that may still be reached via long treks.
After visiting some of Biliran’s waterfalls and rice terraces we were looking forward to an island-hopping adventure. First on our list was Sambawan Island. The boat ride going there though was pretty expensive and our guide told us that after a typhoon had battered the island the previous year, much of Sambawan’s white sand had been eroded away. We decided instead to head first to Higatangan Island which was closer to Naval than Sambawan.
Although a part of Naval, Higatangan Island is actually closer to the northern tip of the main island of Leyte. After a 45-minute boat ride from the port at Naval we arrived at a snaking white sandbar in Higatangan. Extending 200 meters out into the sea like a giant snake, this white sandbar is said to shift directions every two months or so, bowing to the whims and waves of the open Visayan Sea.
Rounding the southeast corner of the island just a short distance from the sandbar, we came across several white sand beaches between rugged cliffs and huge rock formations. Coconut palms lined the beaches, making for a typical tropical paradise. We continued on to the western side of the island, an area which, a few years before the time of our visit, was hardly frequented by tourists.
The western side is even more beautiful with its immaculate beaches, turquoise waters, coral gardens, lush coconut trees and imposing rock formations. The crystal-clear waters and abundance of easy-to-see corals indicated the richness of marine life here. We wanted to snorkel right away but were warned that reef sharks were lurking in the vicinity. We knew that these sharks had to be small and not that aggressive but we decided to heed the locals’ warning.
A little while later we were rounding Higatangan’s northern face and heading off towards our next destination. Along the way we were greeted by a number of big tambakol fish or skipjack tuna performing aerial acrobatics (hence its name) – a sure sign of the abundance of marine life in these parts.
Our next destination, Dalutan Island, is located just 15 minutes by boat from a resort in Agta Beach, Almeria in the main island of Biliran. Dalutan is much smaller than Higatangan but it boasts a nice strip of white sand along an otherwise rocky shoreline framed by coconut palms and trees serving as nesting places for exotic birds.
Dalutan’s major attraction, however, is its marine life. We saw various species of fish in the shallow waters around the white sand beach and the rocky shoreline on the beach’s right side. Just a few meters from shore there is a sudden drop-off as indicated by the deep turquoise color of the waters. Trying to be extra careful with potential undercurrents, we refrained from exploring this part but our guide said that during low tide we could safely explore it including its many corals, sea anemones and clown fishes.
I mentioned before that getting to Sambawan Island on a rented boat is expensive but it’s also possible to go there by taking the ferry to Maripipi Island then renting a boat from there to Sambawan. This island has gotten a lot of attention in recent years and you’ll see several pictures of it online. From what we’ve seen recently in other blogs and in social media it seems that Biliran is not as off-the-beaten track as it once was. Here’s hoping visitors and local hosts are able to preserve its beauty and charm.