Words and Photos by Lester Sotelo
Contributor Photos: Gids Torollo
At the northern part of the Philippines, between Batanes and mainland Cagayan, are five small islands called the Babuyan Group of Islands. One of them is Calayan Island, which can be reached in four to six hours of sea travel from Claveria, Cagayan. This town is larger than Siquijor, and a bit larger than two islands of Batanes or two islands of Camiguin. It has rolling hills, rugged cliffs, a vast area of unspoiled forests, and one of the most stunning seascapes in the Philippines.
After Christmas of 2015, my friends and I decided to backpack to Calayan Island. It was a dream come true for all of us. The plan was a three-day getaway, but by some twist of fate, three days became seven. We got stranded–something that almost always happens to anyone who visits Calayan.
But don’t freak out. Playing castaway in this island can be one of your best moments away from the busy metro. It’s worth it. And here’s why you wouldn’t want to leave once you get there.
Caniwara, Cibang, and Cababaan are three of Calayan’s coves in Barangay Dadao. Each of these coves are unique, only separated from each other by beautifully sculpted rock formations.
Nearest to the town’s poblacion is Caniwara Cove, the cove nearest to Nagudungan Hill. Viewing it from Nagudungan, it appears to be a tidal flat with seaweeds and coral-like stones.
A huge, sentinel-like rock formation separates Caniwara and the next cove: Cibang or Sibang. It has the finest sand and more peaceful waters, a reason why it draws more visitors than the others.
The farthest cove is Cababaan, which has stronger waves. For me, this is the most pristine and also the most charming. At the far end stands a stunning rock formation called “puraw”, which easily brings to mind Kapurpurawan of Ilocos Norte, only bigger and grander. We decided to call it Dadao Rock.
The Hills of Nagudungan
If you want to see all three coves, the best vantage point is Nagudungan Hills. You’ll be mesmerized by the beauty of the sunset from this side of the island.
Having seen several hills across the country–the Vayang Rolling Hills of Batanes, the verdant Quitinday Hills of Albay, and the Chocolate Hills of Bohol—Nagudungan, for me, is the most beautiful and romantic, and perhaps one of the most picturesque landscape-seascape in the Philippines.
Definitely, this is my favourite spot in Calayan. I was speechless when I saw it the first time. Like love at first sight.
The easy trek to the windy hill was one of my most treasured experiences. On top of the hills, you’ll see the spectacular view of three white-sand dotted coves, the rock formations, a simple lighthouse that adds charm to the place, and a number of Australian pine trees that have battled with strong winds for many years.
Don’t miss climbing the rocks. One of my favorite spots is a humongous hollow space resembling like a pit. Looking down, one will be captivated by some naturally formed nooks, striations, and indentations.
The first time I visited Calayan I was totally anxious about the travel time, the unpredictable weather and the big waves. But that was quickly gone because of the overwhelming beauty of the island. Probably one of the most pristine destinations I’ve been to. Until now, I still long to go back to this paradise. If I can visit a place once or twice a year, that would be Calayan.
My Calayan trip was one of the best adventures I’ve ever had. I was blessed to see Calayan’s wonders: clear blue waters, pristine beaches, splendid coves, beautiful caves and waterfalls. But I was more blessed to be with a diverse group of people during that trip. We were stranded for several days in the island, and we enjoyed the whole time we were together!
Snorkeling at Punta Magsidel
We were greeted by a small, old church. It didn’t look like a church at first, until we walked to the back and saw the cross on its roof. This church stands on a cliff, and behind it is a coastline strewn with rock formations.
Punta Magsidel is not frequented by visitors, although this is also good for snorkeling and sunsets. My friends decided to take a swim in the shallow pool while I opted to walk along and take as many photos as I could. Despite the gloomy weather that day, the craggy beauty of the place was still undeniable.
Waterfalls and Caves
If the weather and the waves permit, you can trek to the waterfalls of Malangsi, a cascade of freshwater at the mouth of a cave right in the open sea. A thrilling adventure awaits cave lovers at Malangsi, which also has a white pebble beach. Bataraw Falls is on the west side of the island. You get to this part by boat, and then an easy trek that can last for a few minutes. I learned that Cabudadan and Caanawan also have beautiful waterfalls, but we didn’t have time to check it.
How to Get to Calayan Island
There are two popular entry points to Calayan: Aparri Port and Claveria Port. I heard there are more trips from Claveria than from Aparri. Also, in terms of distance, the closest to Calayan is Claveria Port. Sea travel can take 4 to 6 hours, although it can change depending on the circumstances (some travellers encountered large waves, the boat had engine problems, etc.)
1. GET TO CAGAYAN
By plane: There’s no direct flight to Calayan Island. From Manila, take a plane to Tuguegarao, Cagayan or Cauayan, Isabela which is closest to Aparri Port. You can also fly to Laoag, Ilocos Norte which is closes to Claveria Port.
By bus: There are several bus lines in Manila that have direct trips to these locations. GV Florida in Sampaloc has direct trips to Claveria while Victory Liner in Kamias has trips to Tuguegarao. Fare is about P700 and travel time can be 13 to 15 hours.
2. GET TO THE PORT
If you’re coming from Tuguegarao, you’ll need to take a van to Aparri Port which can cost about P200. If you’re taking the Claveria route, the port is within walking distance (about 10 minutes) from the bus terminal.
3. GET TO CALAYAN
From Aparri Port: There are vessels coming from this port that usually leave early morning. Fare to Calayan is P500.
From Claveria Port: Outrigger boats called lampitaw usually leave between 5 AM and 9 AM. Often used as cargo vessels, these boats offer limited space for passengers and their availability is also not guaranteed. It’s best to have your contact in Calayan (get help from your homestay contact) reserve you a space in the lampitaw. Fare to Calayan is P500. If you miss the trip and you’re willing to rent a whole vessel, be ready to spend between P8, 000 to P15, 000.
It’s hard to name what one thing I liked the most in Calayan. You’ll understand when you get there. Be sure that you have a very long list of adjectives for this island. That long, heart-thumping, and wet boat ride—it was a like a Robinson Crusoe adventure.
What I liked most about Calayan? Everything! Every piece of the island. Every bit of the experience was worth remembering. The most thrilling part was enduring the butt-numbing 14+ hours of bus ride and almost 7 hours out in the rough sea.
Of course, the beauty of Nagudungan Hill and Sibang Cove, that laidback atmosphere was the best. I also love the community in Calayan. Sobrang bait ng mga locals, they treated us like a family. Everyone was so friendly and willing to help especially when we got stranded for more than a week. We lived in a house like a Big Brother House and got really close with everyone.
Going Around Calayan Island
- Since most roads are unpaved, land travel can be long and difficult. Some tourist spots are best reached by boat. You can hire motorized boats at the port from P2, 000 to P3, 000. This works best if you’re with a big group, so you can split the cost. Some destinations can be reached by trekking or an easy bicycle ride.
- You may also want to just rent a motorcycle or a tricycle. Motorcycle rental can start at P200, not including gas and fees for the driver. Tricycle rental varies depending on your destination. From Poblacion, we paid P1500 going to Cibang Cove and Nagudungan Hill. When we went to Punta Magsidel, we paid P800. Of course, this can change if you put your haggling skills to work.
- Rent a bicycle from the locals and explore the town. You’ll be surprised how friendly the people are. If you are lucky enough, you might even get invited to some lunch or “merienda”.
Where to Stay in Calayan Island
There are no hotels in island, but there are several homestays.
San Jose Inn
Also known as Ate Connie’s
Rate: P250 per guest per night
Contact Connie @ 0907-544-7692; 0921-534-9231
- There are two big rooms that can fit 8 guests, plus three other rooms that can fit two guests each.
- There are two shared bathrooms. They have a sari-sari store, which sort of serves as the village’s grocery store.
- Ate Connie also serves breakfast at P60 per guest. Lunch and dinner at P70 to P80 per guest, including rice, ulam, and buko juice.
Cosidered the first homestay in the island, TPS is owned by Tessie Pimentel Singun, a long-time councilor and now tourism head of Calayan. Rooms can accommodate 2-4 guests.
Rate: P250 per guest
Contact Tessie @ 0939-915-8667; 0929-837-5737
Apollo Beach Resort
This resort has native huts and cottages. It’s located in Barangay Dadao, a short walk from the poblacion, and is also close to Sibang Cove. Rates start at P500 for hut accommodation.
Contact: 0999-7151-283; 0947-8939-619
Villa Innocencia Inn
This inn is also located in Barangay Dadao. It’s a two storey-house with three rooms per floor. Each room can fit up to three guests.
Rate: P700 per room per night
A five-minute walk from the beach, this homestay offers both accommodation and meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) for P1, 500 per person per day. They have two dorm-type rooms that can accommodate 10 guests each. They have three private rooms, too.
Contact Jimmy @ 0998-510-0621
Where to Eat in Calayan Island
There are no restaurants in Calayan Island. Usually, the homestay prepares your meals for a minimal fee. Expect a bountiful serving of seafood, especially lobster, fresh fish, and crabs. There are several sari-sari stores around the town where you can buy your other needs, but there’s no upsize public market.
Other Helpful Tips
- Rainy season or not, the sea condition is quite unpredictable, and getting stranded in the island is a big possibility.
- There are no ATMs or credit card machines. Budget your expenses and bring extra cash.
- Mobile phone signal is very patchy, with only Smart and Sun as reliable networks.
- The boat ride to Calayan is not a comfy ride. If lucky, you can get there in 5 hours. If not, probably 7 or 9 hours. Waterproof all your belongings in dry bags or garbage bags. Bring sunblock, caps, shades and everything you can use for cover in the open sea.
- Electricity is not 24 hours, usually only from noon to midnight. Charge everything at night.