Remembering Caramoan

When it was still largely unknown to local tourists, the Caramoan peninsula was featured in the 2004 edition of an international travel guide book. It was described as a rugged, pristine and beautiful landscape only accessible by boat. Caramoan burst into the scene in 2008 when the French version of the TV series Survivor featured the place. It soon began attracting local and international visitors.

Less than two years after returning from a work stint in the US we visited Caramoan. At that time (2010) we had to take a 2-hour boat ride from Sabang Port in Presentacion town to Guijalo Port in Caramoan. From Guijalo Port a multi-cab was waiting to take us to a resort in Paniman Beach which we had chosen as our place of stay. These days it is now possible to drive all the way to Bikal Port in Caramoan for island-hopping tours. One can also take a 30-40 minute boat ride from Codon Port in San Andres, Catanduanes to Caramoan.

Located in Camarines Sur province, the Caramoan National Park has caves, waterfalls, an islet lake, a subterranean river and a ruggedly beautiful coastline with sandy beaches, limestone karst formations, serene lagoons and clusters of islands. Visitors can go on island hopping, snorkeling, diving, trekking, rock-climbing, kayaking, camping and spelunking. Our primary interest on this trip was to visit the islands off Caramoan and its numerous white sand beaches and karst formations. The following is a rundown of the places we toured and then some:

Matukad Island
Matukad Island. All photos by the Shoestring Travelers.

Matukad Island. A favorite location for the Survivor series, this island is ideal for swimming with pinkish-white fine sand beaches and crystal-clear waters that are shallow out to several meters from land. Karst formations cover several parts of Matukad and it is possible to climb some of them at one end of the island to see a hidden green lagoon below surrounded by the limestone rocks. Matukad is the largest of the first group of islands that we visited on our first day and we could have easily spent the whole afternoon here but there were other islands nearby that clamored for our attention.

Lahus Island. Just a few minutes boat ride away from Matukad, Lahus (or Lahos) Island is another popular destination in Caramoan. Two clusters of karst formations separated by a narrow strip of sloping white sand beach make up the island. Calm waters on that side of this strip of beach facing Matukad Island make it perfect for swimming while a strong surf pounded the opposite side facing an open sea.

Lahos Island
Lahos Island

Cagbanilad Island lies to the south of Matukad Island and is also a few minutes boat ride from the latter. It is similar in composition to Matukad and Lahus Islands with limestone rock formations (albeit taller and more imposing) and white sand beaches. The beach resort at Hunungan Cove is easily visible from across the channel here.

Cagbanilad Island
Cagbanilad Island

Tinago Cove. As its name suggests, this cove is hidden from view when traversing the length of the Caramoan peninsula coastline, unlike the more popular Gota and Hunongan beaches. It is however accessible from the sea via a narrow passageway among the huge limestone karst formations dotting the coastline. This was our third stop on our first day of island-hopping after Matukad and Lahos Islands. Tinago Cove is actually a lagoon, being completely surrounded by the familiar tall karst cliffs. There are two small sandy beaches inside Tinago where boats can dock, making them ideal for picnics.

entrance to Tinago Cove
Entrance to Tinago Cove

We only passed by Hunongan Cove and nearby Gota Beach, both on the Caramoan mainland, on the way to a snorkeling site. There are established resorts in both beaches even during our visit here 10 years ago with the one at Gota Beach developed from cabanas made for the staff and participants of the 2008 Survivor episode. (Gota Beach was off limits at that time because the crew of Survivor Israel were preparing for shooting.) Minalahos Island lies to the southwest of Matukad and from which one can get a good view of Gota Beach. We did not get to visit Minalahos on our first day of island-hopping. All of these locations are situated close to and east of Paniman Beach.

Our second day of island-hopping took us to another group of islands northeast of the first group of islands and took a 2-hour boat ride from our resort at Paniman Beach. First on the itinerary was Lahuy Island. Cruising along the turquoise waters off Lahuy Island’s eastern side we saw several groups of flying fish skimming the waves, their silver bodies glistening in the morning sun. Because we started so late in the morning our boat nearly got stuck among the reefs at low tide and our boatmen had to use long bamboo poles to get the boat moving again.

Manlawi Sandbar and Cotivas Island
Top, bottom and center right: several views of Manlawi Sandbar. Center left: Cotivas Island. All photos by the Shoestring Travelers.

Manlawi Sandbar. After more than 30 minutes of sailing along Lahuy’s eastern coast our boat slowly glided into the shallow waters of Manlawi Sandbar. It was a remarkable sight, with surrounding crystal-clear waters and fine white sand with long ripples that stretched far into the horizon, inviting us into this tranquil paradise. Our friends remarked that all the hassle we went through to get to Caramoan was worth it when they saw Manlawi. Perhaps the only problem was the lack of any shade in the sandbar except for a few open native huts. This would be an issue during weekends when the place would be full of visitors according to our boatmen. But on this week day we had Manlawi Sandbar all to ourselves. Lunch would be taken in one of the huts just as the tide was coming in with water running up to our ankles and resulting in a unique dining experience.

Cotivas Island. Located just east of Manlawi, Cotivas Island has the distinction, for us at least, of possessing the “real” pink sand in Caramoan. While the sand is not as fine as in other beaches in Caramoan it has a more unique color. The beach on one side of the island where our boat docked was shallow out to several meters and characterized by gentle waves but on the other side facing the open Philippine Sea, the beach was rocky and the waves were much stronger.

Sabitang Laya
Sabitang Laya. Top and center photos courtesy of Tuderna, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0. Bottom photo by Shoestring Travelers.

Sabitang Laya. Given the exceptional places in Caramoan it was hard to select our favorite but Sabitang Laya on Bagieng Island could very well be the one that tops them all. About an hour’s sailing time from Manlawi Sandbar, the triangular-shaped island is surrounded by creamy white sand beaches on 2 of its 3 sides with a cluster of towering limestone rocks at its eastern tip. The sand here is fine though not as fine as Matukad’s but we could not resist lying down to rest on it. The waters offshore are shallow making them ideal for swimming. There are several spots close to the fortress-like limestone rock cluster that have practically become salt-water swimming pools. Sabitang Laya has also become a favorite spot for Survivor. During our visit we chanced upon the crew of Survivor Israel preparing props for their coming shooting.

Other Destinations

Tayak Cove. This place was supposed to be on our itinerary for the first day but somehow our boatmen had a strange case of amnesia that infected us so we all ended up forgetting about the place. Located on the Caramoan mainland, Tayak is probably not as great as the other places we’ve visited but has towering limestone crags and a hidden, mysterious lagoon further inland.

The Grotto in Mt. Caglago. Climb the more than 500 steps to the grotto atop Mt. Caglago (it’s actually a hill) in Tabgon and be rewarded with panoramic views of Caramoan and its surrounding waters and islets.

Lantangan Beach, Pitogo Island
Lantangan Beach, Pitogo Island. Photo courtesy of Tuderna, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.

Lantangan Beach, Pitogo Island. Caramoan’s beaches and coves are not all fine sand. At Lantangan Beach in Pitogo Island, round pebbles provide a change of scenery. We had wanted to visit Pitogo but when we asked about it, the resort people smiled and said Pitogo was already too far out from Paniman Beach. It’s actually situated off the northeastern side of Caramoan Peninsula.

Would we go back to Caramoan again? In recent years a few more destinations have opened up in the peninsula and its adjacent islands. And then, of course, we have yet to set foot on Gota Beach, Hunungan Cove, Tayak Cove and Minalahos Island. So yes, there are several more destinations waiting for a visit and improved roads make a second tour attractive. We’ll see…

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