Masbate: Bicol’s Underrated Getaway

Masbate has always been known as the cattle capital of the Philippines, its gently rolling hills providing an excellent setting for cattle ranching. In the 1990s, Masbateños launched an annual rodeo festival in Masbate City – the Rodeo Masbateño – and the event has been roping in tourists ever since. But cattle ranches and rodeos are just a miniscule portion of what this underrated province has to offer.

Porta Vega beach scene
Porta Vega Beach Resort in Dimasalang Masbate Island, is a paradise hidden from the usual tourist crowd

Most travelers know relatively little about this unheralded province in Bicolandia beyond the ranches and rodeos. Part of the reason might be its comparatively difficult accessibility. Three major islands make up the province of Masbate. In our two visits we’ve had the rare opportunity to visit all three – Burias, Ticao and Masbate Islands.

fiery sunrise at Coolis Beach Resort, San Fernando
Sunrise at a beach in Ticao Island

Burias Island

Burias is the northernmost of Masbate province’s islands and has only 2 municipalities: Claveria and San Pascual. Going here was no walk in the park. It involved an 8-9 hour bus ride, a 45 minute van ride, a 2-hour ferry ride plus a few more van and tricycle transfers in between. We chose to visit San Pascual for its beautiful islets lying offshore. The first of these – Animasola Island – possesses fascinating rock formations, crystal-clear waters and a natural swimming pool.

inside a natural pool formed by a rock enclosure
The natural pool at Animasola Island

Tinalisayan Island is an islet of white sand beaches, rust-colored sandstone cliffs and a gorgeous white sandbar, all surrounded by crystal-clear turquoise waters. The last island we visited was Sombrero Island with its white sand beach, shallow lagoon and a hat-shaped rock outcrop lying just offshore.

turquoise waters off Tinalisayan Island
Turquoise waters off Tinalisayan Island

Back at San Pascual town we got to visit a unique phenomenon: the Balinsasayaw House and its nesting swiftlets – around 80,000 of them.

close up of swiftlets nesting
Swiftlets nesting at the Balinsasayaw House in San Pascual town

There are two other islands off San Pascual worth visiting: Dapa Island which lies closest to Sombrero Island and Taguingui Island which is visible from Tinalisayan Island. The island also has 15 cattle ranches on scenic rolling hills and expansive mangrove areas that are being turned into tourist destinations.

Ticao Island

Lying to the southeast of Burias Island is Ticao. Besides the usual white sand beaches, rock formations and crystalline waters, Ticao has some extraordinary features that set it apart from most destinations in the country. Check out Monreal’s Burubangkaso Island and its stack of huge monolithic rocks that was probably the handiwork of tectonic activity.

stack of rectangular boulders at Burobangkaso Island
Burubangkaso Island’s stack of monolithic boulders

A short distance away from Burubangkaso is the most unique attraction of Ticao Island: the Catandayagan Falls. This 100-foot cascade plunges down an almost vertical cliff straight into the blue-green waters of the Masbate Pass below. Our only regret was visiting in the summer or dry season when the volume of water flow isn’t that dramatic.

Catandayagan Falls, San Jacinto, Ticao Island
Catandayagan Falls

Ticao’s raw beauty became even more apparent when we sailed into the northern part of the island to tour the rock islets and gorgeous Halea Nature Park at San Miguel Island in Barangay Guinhadap, Monreal town. Halea’s crystal-clear turquoise waters, stunning marine life, attractive white-sand beach coves and interesting rock formations quickly won us over.

turquoise waters at Halea Nature Park, Monreal, Masbate
Halea Nature Park

Even with plenty of time on our hands we had to pass up a few more destinations just off Monreal town including Cagpating, Puro and Mababoy Islands. The marine life in other areas along the coast of Monreal town also deserves a look. If you’re into diving the Manta Bowl at Ticao Pass offers an opportunity to see huge manta rays feeding on plankton as well as other pelagics – whale sharks, hammerheads and thresher sharks among others.

rock island at Bgy. Guinhadap, Monreal, Ticao Island
One of the huge rocks outcrops off the northern tip of Ticao Island, sometimes referred to collectively as Guinhadap Rocks.

For another intriguing wildlife encounter one can visit Minalayo Island just off the coast at Batuan town. Otherwise known as Snake Island, Minalayo is home to a collection of venomous but otherwise shy and reclusive banded sea kraits.

Minalayo Island, also known as Snake Island
Minalayo, the Snake Island

Ticao Island has many other beaches scattered liberally among the towns of San Fernando, San Jacinto and Batuan – too many for us to visit in one trip. There are reportedly waterfalls and pristine streams in the interior that have yet to be uncovered.

early morning at Coolis Beach Resort at San Fernando
Early morning at paradise in San Fernando, Ticao Island

Lastly, the discovery of what look to be prehistoric cave paintings at Ednagen and Camilo Caves – all in Monreal – could possibly turn this town and the rest of Ticao into archaeological destinations as well.

Masbate Island

The largest of the 3 islands that make up the province, Masbate Island, has its own share of stunning tourist attractions. We’ve already mentioned the rodeo festival at the province’s capital – Masbate City – which happens annually in April. If you’re not able to make it to that festival you can still tour the various cattle ranches scattered in the island and get a feel of ranch life. For instance Sese Brahmans Ranch in Balud will teach you how to crack a bullwhip, ride a horse and how to lasso and drive livestock. And since this is cattle country, you can buy excellent beef tapa for pasalubong at various outlets in Masbate City.

clouds over Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary and Sandbar, Masbate City
Buntod Reef Marine Sanctuary and Sandbar in Masbate City

Beaches? Masbate Island has a proliferation of them. You won’t even have to go far from the city. Just a 15 minute boat ride away from Rendezvous Beach Resort or from Tugbugan in Masbate City is the marine sanctuary and sandbar of Buntod Reef. Previously damaged by illegal fishing methods, Buntod Reef has since been restored and guests can now enjoy its rich marine life, fine white sandbar, crystal-clear aquamarine waters and prolific mangroves.

Porta Vega Beach Resort, Dimasalang
Porta Vega Beach Resort in Dimasalang

Also a short distance away – a 40-minute van and trike ride from Masbate City proper – is Bituon Beach in Mobo town. The scene-stealer in this part of Masbate, however, is stunning Porta Vega Beach Resort in the town of Dimasalang. Its dwarf coconut trees and Roman Catholic chapel make Porta Vega yet another extraordinary destination in the province. Visible in the distance from Porta Vega are the islands of Deagan and Hamorawon, the latter known locally for its pink sand beach.

dwarf coconut trees at Porta Vega Beach
Dwarf coconut trees at Porta Vega Beach

The destinations mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg that is Masbate Island’s tourism potential. Further south from Dimasalang are the towns of Placer, Pio Corpuz and Esperanza with gorgeous islands and beaches: Nagarao, Naboctoc and Olutaya Islands in Placer, Balangingi Island in Pio Corpuz and Manoc-Manoc Island in Ezperanza.

South of Masbate City is the town of Balud with beautiful, powdery white sand Palani Beach and Jintotolo Island and Lighthouse. Some of these beaches and islands are already beginning to make a name for themselves on the local tourism scene. But probably the most unnoticed attractions are from the western town of Aroroy. This town offers a plethora of destinations including Tinigban Beach, Gato Islet, Buntod Island and sandbar (not to be confused with Buntod Reef in Masbate City), Bugui Point Lighthouse, Majaba Island and Bagupantao Point.

The sheer volume of attractions that Masbate Island offers makes it a location we can keep coming back to, with its relative anonymity (for the time being) providing an added incentive.

Getting There

There are Cebu Pacific daily flights to Masbate City from both Manila and Cebu (just one flight per day from both cities). From Masbate City you can take a bus or van to other towns on the island. If traveling to nearby Ticao Island you can catch a ferry at the port of Masbate City to Lagundi Port in Batuan town.

Alternatively you may fly to Legazpi, take a van to Pilar town in Sorsogon, then ride a ferry to Masbate City (there are fast crafts that also ply this route).

Ticao Island can be reached via ferry from the ports of Pilar and Bulan in Sorsogon; these boats head to San Jacinto. Boats from Bulan can also head directly to San Fernando town.

To reach Claveria in Burias Island, take a plane or bus to Legazpi, take a van to Pio Duran in Albay, then ride the ferry to Claveria. It’s almost the same for San Pascual: a bus or plane to Legazpi, a van to Pasacao port in Camarines Sur and a ferry to San Pascual.

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