Long famous for the whale sharks of Donsol Bay, Sorsogon is finally getting recognition for its treasure trove of natural wonders spread out over 14 towns. Lying at the southernmost end of Luzon in the Bicol peninsula, Sorsogon was once so remote that its long stretches of pristine beaches, unspoiled springs, rivers and lakes, lush rainforests, numerous waterfalls and unexplored caves were largely kept away from prying eyes.
In 2004 Time magazine’s feature of whale shark-watching as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia opened up the province to visitors. Our main interest in visiting Sorsogon a few years ago, however, lay in its southernmost town: Matnog.
Matnog’s “Pink Sand” Beaches
At the time of our visit Matnog was a sleepy town although its port is one of the busiest in Bicol, serving as the jump-off point to Northern Samar and the rest of the Eastern Visayas. There were very few tourist accommodations and no fancy cafes or restaurants in town, just a few dining places in the public market and at private homes at the time. The town’s relatively underdeveloped state offered a clue about the pristine nature of the attractions in the area.
Lying off Matnog’s coast are two islands renowned for their pinkish-white sand beaches. The first island we visited – Calintaan Island – was the farthest one from Matnog’s port and features the twin beaches of Subic.
Subic Beach is divided into two adjacent sections. The locals call these Subic Laki (Subic Big Beach) and Subic Liit (Subic Small Beach). Our outrigger boat glided slowly through the beautiful cyan waters off Subic Laki and docked at the sandy beach. Viewed from a distance, the sand here has a pinkish-white hue (it’s often referred to as pink sand). Upon closer inspection it was easy to see why. Interspersed among the fine grains of white sand are crushed particles of crimson red coral. This pinkish-white sand is the unique trait of the islands here in Matnog.
At the time of our visit there were already signs of impending commercialization of Subic with several huts and cottages sprouting up along the beach front. The whole area however, was still relatively pristine. We spent most of our time at Subic Laki and only decided to pass by its smaller twin, sailing close to the shore on our outrigger boat. Subic Liit appears less developed than its bigger brother but is just as gorgeous.
Less than 30 minutes by boat from Subic Beach and Calintaan Island is privately owned Tikling Island. Back then the owner allowed visitors here for free. Except for a caretaker’s hut there are no accommodations on the almost-deserted island, something that we relished as we roamed around the beach and swam in its remarkably clear cyan waters.
Like Subic Beach, the beach on Tikling Island has a pinkish-white hue. We were looking forward to snorkeling in its crystalline waters but the strong waves limited us to swimming not too far from shore. Tikling Island is just 20 minutes away by boat from Matnog port.
Normally included in the island-hopping itinerary for Matnog is a visit to the Juag Lagoon Marine Sanctuary. Juag Lagoon is less than 30 minutes sailing time from Matnog port and is sheltered from the strong waves of the San Bernandino Strait by a thin circular strip of land enclosing the whole lagoon. It’s the perfect place for a private marine sanctuary owned by Alex Geneblazo.
Clustered near the owners’ hut in the middle of the lagoon are several fish pens, each containing a wide variety of marine life. In one of the pens we could swim with several colorful reef fishes. The water is so clear that you might not even need masks and snorkels. Many of the fishes are substantially large with a rare Napoleon Wrasse – easily the star of the sanctuary – the biggest in the first pen. Another pen houses huge groupers and bigeye jacks. There are also giant clams, huge sea cucumbers, spiny lobsters and even a sea turtle in the other pens. The owners do not raise these creatures for commercial purposes (except the lobsters); it was out of their fondness for the marine animals and their desire to preserve them.
Bulusan Lake and Volcano
On the way to Matnog from Sorsogon City one can easily make out the dominating heights of Mt. Bulusan, the 4th most active volcano in the country. The area surrounding this volcano was classified as Bulusan Volcano Natural Park, a complex that includes the volcano, 2 other peaks (the Sharp Peak and Hormahan), Lake Aguingay and Bulusan Lake.
Bulusan Lake is an elevated body of water – located on the slopes leading up to the volcano – and is surrounded by a lush tropical rainforest thickly endowed with flora and fauna. We took a boat ride to explore the lake and its calm emerald waters while colorful kingfishers would zoom every now and then past our boat. Later we hiked a paved trail along the banks of the lake. This pathway took us through the pristine rainforest surrounding Bulusan Lake and into an encounter with rare and endangered species of vines and orchids, huge ferns, centuries-old trees, wild fruit-bearing trees, wild flowers, colorful butterflies and varieties of insects and lizards that we’ve never seen before. We later learned that there are quite a number of threatened animal species here including the large Golden-crowned flying fox, the Southern Luzon giant cloud rat, the Philippine warty pig and the Luzon Tarictic hornbill.
While staying in Bulusan town for the visit to the lake, we were expecting to find hot springs since the town lay at the food of an active volcano. However we were told that Bulusan had none; the hot springs are in the town of Irosin, on the opposite side of Mt. Bulusan which we had passed on the way from Matnog to Bulusan. Irosin is the only town in the province without a coastline but is home to several natural springs including the Mateo Hot and Cold Springs and the Mapaso Spring.
On our way back to Sorsogon City from Bulusan along the scenic coastal road, we passed by the town of Barcelona. The town reminded Spanish colonizers of their home and they named it after the Catalonian city. Old churches, heritage houses and ruins from colonial times may be found in Barcelona, Juban and other towns in Sorsogon. After Barcelona is Gubat with its long stretch of powdery beige sand beach and turquoise waters easily visible from the main highway. This is Rizal Beach, a favorite destination of surfers.
Detouring north and away from the National Highway after Gubat town would have brought us to Prieto Diaz with its caves and mangrove eco parks but we had to return to Sorsogon City and on to Legaspi, Albay, for our flight home. Adjacent to Prieto Diaz is the Bacon district of Sorsogon City, famous for the Paguriran Lagoon, a huge natural aquarium formed by large coral rocks a short distance from shore. Sea turtles have been known to make this a nesting place in the past until it was frequented by people. Not too far from Paguriran is Pagol Beach which features huge and fascinating rock formations in shallow water. Also part of Bacon is the PNOC Eco Park which includes a sprawling forest reserve with caves, hot springs, lakes, diverse flora and fauna, and picturesque Botong Twin Falls. Situated between the boundaries of Albay and Sorsogon provinces, the park crosses over into Manito town in Albay and is an outdoor enthusiast and trekker’s paradise.
We almost forgot this one but Donsol’s whale shark encounter is the one attraction that placed Sorsogon on the world tourist circuit. A few other spots in the country have seen its share of whale shark encounters such as Oslob in Cebu but Donsol stands out as the one destination offering responsible, eco-friendly encounters with these gentle giants of the sea. Incidentally, over a hundred new whale sharks have been sighted in Donsol’s waters in the first half of 2019 – the “largest number” of the endangered species sighted in the area in years according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Magallanes and Castilla, the two towns above and below the entrance to Sorsogon Bay are both relatively unknown tourist destinations but contain a small wealth of natural attractions. Magallanes has the white sand Parola Beach and a 19th century lighthouse overlooking a scenic white beach at Bagatao Island. Inland are the Malijao and Bucal-Bucalan Springs and Pitong Busay Falls. Accessible from Magallanes pier but a part of Castilla is Malawmawan Island and its white sandbar. Other attractions in this town include Caparos Peak with its amazing rocky seascape and multi-tiered Canjela Falls.
There are other attractions in Sorsogon – too many to mention here – that are potential destinations but have yet to make their appearance on the tourism radar. All these just goes to show the huge potential of the province as a leading tourism destination and one that deserves a visit as soon as travel restrictions due to this pandemic are eased.