Dinagat: Caraga’s Unpolished Gem

It has numerous deserted coves, pristine white-sand beaches and verdant islands wrapped in dense jungle foliage and colossal rock formations. It’s the second newest province in the country and possesses an abundance of natural resources including minerals such as nickel but is also one of the nation’s poorest. And despite being adjacent to its eastern neighbor Siargao – and nearer to Surigao City by boat compared to that popular destination – it rarely gets visited.

sunset view from Jmalls Island Tourist Inn, San Jose

Sunset view from our resort at San Jose

So when we arrived at San Jose town, the capital of Dinagat province, we were thrilled at the prospect of enjoying unspoiled island destinations and having them all to ourselves. We were not to be disappointed for the most part and even had many of our expectations surpassed.

Crystal Sea

Many of the beaches and island destinations are on the western side of the main island of Dinagat. We stayed at an inn in San Jose proper (Jmalls Island Tourist Inn) which organized our island-hopping and land tours. The town proper is located on a hillside facing Melgar Bay, giving magnificent panoramic views of the islands in the bay. Curiously these islands are part of Basilisa town, the municipality further north.

rock formations at Bitaog Beach’s western section

Rock formations at Bitaog Beach’s western end

Basilisa

The nearest island to San Jose is Unib Island, more popularly known as Lalaking Bukid, translated as “male mountain” in the local dialect. There are at least 5 white sand beaches on this island alone: Bitaog Beach, Duyos Beach, Gealan Beach, Pagkawasan Beach and Cabacungan Cove.

rock formations at Pagkawasan Beach

Pagkawasan Beach

Bitaog Beach is often cited as the best beach in Dinagat with its fine white sand, towering karst cliffs and rock formations. Nearby is Gealan Beach which is not as popular as Bitaog but still beautiful nonetheless. About a kilometer east of Bitaog is Pagkawasan Beach with its twin white sand beaches and more interesting rock formations.

coconut palms at Duyos Beach

Duyos Beach with its white sand beach, coconut palms, curving sandbar and turquoise waters

On the northeastern face of Lalaking Bukid is Cabacungan Cove with its imposing karst cliffs. The cove is also home to sea eagles and horn bills but was off-limits to us at the time of our visit either due to questions about ownership or government regulations. In contrast Duyos Beach, on the southwestern tip of Lalaking Bukid, was brimming with visitors when we arrived, obviously a favorite among locals for picnics.

boats docked at Bababu Beach, Babas Cove

Boats docked at the white sand beach at Babas Cove; this beach is where the trek to Lake Bababu begins

On the mainland of Dinagat is Babas Cove and Bababu Beach. A trail starting from the latter and winding its way through rock-filled inclines leads to mysterious Bababu Lake, an emerald body of water surrounded by white limestone cliffs and dense jungle foliage.

Lake Bababu

Babas Cove and its surrounding waters make for a picturesque scenery with its lucent aquamarine and turquoise waters revealing corals and marine life underneath. We climbed up a karst cliff and had a grandstand view of more beaches and coves in the peninsula jutting out from the mainland opposite Babas Cove.

view of Babas Cove from the top of a karst formation

The entrance to Babas Cove

Just to the northwest of Babas Cove are still more islands and beaches – too numerous for us to visit. Part of the itinerary used to include Sundayo Beach at Hagakhak Island with its long white sand beach and beautiful rock formations. Alas this beach is also closed to visitors like Cabacungan Cove. As an alternative we headed off to Little Hagakhak Island to explore its colossal sedimentary rock formations.

sedimentary rock formations at Little Hagakhak Island

Rock formations at Little Hagakhak Island

Also located in the cluster of islands northwest of Babas Cove and east of Hagakhak Island is Isla Aga, a cluster of massive karst cliffs with a small white sand beach on its western face. A vacation house with huts and a hanging bridge have been abandoned to the elements here. You can actually spend a whole day just touring the cluster of islands, beaches and coves around Isla Aga but there are more destinations further north that clamored for our attention.

view of the islands off Basilisa from Isla Aga

Coastal scenery viewed from atop a karst formation at Isla Aga

Libjo

That brings us to the islands and coastal spots at Libjo, the town north of Basilisa. As our boat passed along the coastal barangays of this town with its collection of numerous coves and white sand beaches, karst cliffs and islets we couldn’t help but compare it with the landscape of Coron, El Nido and the Caramoan Peninsula.

view of the Blue Lagoon from a karst cliff

View of the Blue Lagoon from a karst cliff

Again you can spend a whole day exploring this largely unspoiled landscape but we could only pass by the stunning scenery and head straight for what must be the most striking destination in Libjo: Panabangan Island and the Blue Lagoon. The remarkable blue-green tidal pool, best viewed by climbing up one of the surrounding karst formations, is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen and we’ve seen a lot of this kind before.

Punta Villa Beach and karst islets offshore

The beach at Punta Villa with karst islets in the background

South of Panabangan is Punta Villa. This resort is probably better known as the starting point for the trek to Quano Cave, a massive cave housing a large number of bats in its limestone formations. But it also has a fine white sand beach, several karst islets offshore, beautiful corals easily visible through crystal-clear waters and a panoramic view of nearby islets from a villa on a hill that is open to visitors.

view of karst islets from a villa atop a hill on Punta Villa

View of karst islets from a villa atop a hill on Punta Villa

Two other destinations in Libjo are worth mentioning even if we did not get the chance to visit them: Jelmar Resort which is often called the Maldives of Dinagat for the stunning colors of its crystalline waters and Punta Buena Suerte for its remarkable marine life including sea turtles.

a rainbow breaks out over Melgar Bay, San Jose, Dinagat

View of Melgar Bay from our resort at San Jose town

San Jose

Our base for island-hopping and a subsequent land tour is Dinagat’s capital town. If you’re searching for nice beaches in town San Jose has Cab-ilan Island with its white sand beaches as well as Stingray Islet and Puyo Islet. Our tour of San Jose, however, was an inland tour of the hilly town starting with a visit to the provincial capital.

view of Melgar Bay, San Jose town and nearby islands from the DPWH Office at Pulang Yuta

View of Melgar Bay, San Jose town and nearby islands from the DPWH Office at Pulang Yuta. Note the red soil in the foreground.

Afterwards the van from Jmalls Tourist Inn drove us to a vantage point called Pulang Yuta at Barangay Cuarinta. Pulang Yuta, which means red soil in the local dialect, has a good panoramic view of the town, its surrounding hills and Melgar Bay. The red soil, abundant in these parts, is indicative of the presence of nickel, which happens to be Dinagat’s primary export product. (Here’s hoping that irresponsible mining does not damage this beautiful island province.)

view of Melgar Bay and nearby islands including tiny Puyo Island

A view of Melgar Bay and nearby islands including tiny Puyo Island from the view deck at the PBMA Shrine

Another excellent vantage point is at the Philippine Benevolent Missionary Association (PBMA) shrine located on a hillside facing Melgar Bay and the islands mentioned earlier. A Disney-like castle set on a hill and easily visible when approaching San Jose by boat is the Islander’s Castle, the residence of the Ecleos, the most prominent family in the province and head founders of PBMA.

the PBMA Shrine, San Jose

The PBMA Shrine on a hillside at San Jose

Cagdianao and the Rest of Dinagat

The three previous towns all lie on the western coast of Dinagat Island. Cagdianao lies on the opposite eastern side. We missed visiting this town and its beaches, especially Tagbirajan and the deserted, powdery white-sand Hinabyan Beach. Cagdianao also has beautiful Sayaw Island which lies just off the town proper.

Further north is Tubajon with beaches on both the eastern (Sangay Beach) and western (Talisay Beach) sides of the island. There’s also a bat sanctuary at Tubajon. Loreto is the northernmost town of the province and is home to the Bonsai Forest, said to be the largest of its kind in the country and Higusong Island. Mining operations are in full swing here (Cagdianao also seems to have its share). There are even hotels here that cater to mining operators and clients. You can see scarred surfaces at some of the towns in Dinagat on Google Maps – a grim reminder that, although the coastline of the province is unspoiled for the most part, the same cannot be said about some of its interior parts.

Getting There

Our first response upon encountering Dinagat’s numerous island destinations was puzzled amazement at how this place could be so hidden from prying tourist eyes. We encountered very few visitors and the few we saw all came from the nearby Surigao provinces. Perhaps it’s the lack of tourism infrastructure – which of course works both ways as it serves to protect the pristine beauty of the province. However most signs point to a changing trend. Tourist arrivals are starting to pick up beginning last year according to our local hosts. It’s probably an offshoot of the increased popularity of neighboring Siargao.

While tourism activity is still in its infancy here you might want to pay Dinagat a visit and experience its relatively unspoiled beauty. Here’s how to get there:

The nearest airport – if you’re coming from Metro Manila/Luzon or Cebu City/Visayas – is at Surigao City. There are several daily flights to Surigao City from both cities. From the airport take a trike to Pantalan Dos then take a ferry boat to San Jose in Dinagat province. Boats leave as early as 5 AM. The ride can take anywhere from 1 to 1.5 hours. Since we got a fast craft for this ride we made it in less than an hour. (IMPORTANT: You must look for the boat that goes to San Jose town in Dinagat. Others have made the mistake of taking the boat to Dinagat – without knowing that this refers to Dinagat town, another town south of San Jose.)

You can also take a flight to Butuan City (where flights are normally cheaper), board a van from the airport to Surigao City or take a bus. Once in Surigao City just follow the directions above.

Trying to remain true to our Shoestring Travelers identity but at the same time avoiding extended travel times we flew to Cebu City (it’s easier to get discounted fares on flights to Cebu) then took a Cokaliong Shipping Lines ferry to Surigao City at Pier 1 in Cebu (the pier near Fort San Pedro). The ferry ride is overnight – about 8 to 9 hours. Once in Surigao we followed the directions above. We won’t recommend this route if you’re pressed for time though.

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