Islets of beauty and delight
There’s a site down south called The Untold Islands that need to be told to everyone. Those who think that Pangasinan’s Hundred Islands are one of a kind are in for a surprise when they set their eyes on the islets of Britannia.
Our sojourn to Britannia took roughly four hours, but I unfortunately forgot to ask the origin of the name during that time. My forgetfulness was due to being constantly distracted by the fascinating sights, but it did cross my mind that Britannia rhymes with (Encyclopedia) Britannica.
Britannia is one of the many barangays of San Agustin, a municipality located in the central region of Surigao del Sur. This province in eastern Mindanao is gifted with isles of various sizes along its coastal area but the ones in Britannia are the most enticing.
There are 24 islets in existence but only 11 remain surrounded by the waters of the open sea. Some of them are semi-spherical in shape and have a slight resemblance to Bohol’s Chocolate Hills. A number of them are partly surrounded with white sands that glisten under the bright sun. However, we weren’t able to appreciate that view at first because dark clouds hovered above the islets when we arrived.
Provincial Tourism Officer Clara Ambray and Mercy Alameda, wife of San Agustin Mayor Manuel O. Alameda, opted to stay in the mainland while our group of five—guide Ace Orcullo, Bong Luna, Kim Mantilla, his friend and I—set off to our destination. I imagined what it’s like to set foot on that patch of white sand in the distant background while our boat plowed through the bluish-green sea but it turned out that our first stop was Boslon, the largest islet in the group.
Its beach may be less than 100 meters in length but walking on it felt heavenly—the sand was fine and powdered and the drizzle transformed its hue to cream. It was quite crowded with a few boats on the shore and locals frolicking or lazing around.
On the rightmost side of the beach was a grotto with the statue of the Virgin Mary. I was unable to go near it because a small circle of people on the other end distracted us. We found out that they were fussing over a mound of small sea urchins that were just picked up from the sea. A fraction of the urchins were ripped open. We didn’t get the chance to find out how its meat tastes like because Ace pointed us to a pile of boulder-sized corals a few meters away. There was a narrow passage in the middle of it, where we squeezed our bodies a bit for a few minutes to able to set foot on the opposite side of Boslon.
I preferred this side of the islet, as a couple of other islets are not more than 200 meters away. They’re called Panlangagan. The mass of white sand—known as “Naked Islet”—can be seen better. It’s not the farthest from the Surigao mainland as I first thought, as Ace pointed his left forefinger to another islet a few kilometers to the left of Boslon. It seemed as big as Naked Islet but has vegetation in the middle. It’s called Bonbon, which is privately owned.
I was starting to enjoy the scenery when we noticed a few locals staring at us. They thought that some of us were Japanese tourists. There wasn’t enough time to reflect on that remark because we detected a lean, semi-circular path that connects Boslon to one of the Panlangagan islets. No one has an idea how long it is but our guide told us that it can be crossed during low tide and it’s during those moments that adventurous souls can explore Panlangagan. There is no white sand to look forward to but there’s a cave beneath the thick vegetation.
Our next stop was Isla Verde, which was located a few hundred meters northwest of Boslon. Among the vegetated islets, Isla Verde seems to have the longest stretch of beach (about 150 meters). Curiously, there were no visitors around when we arrived. Just like Boslon, Isla Verde offers a lovely view of the other islets and the mountainous Surigao terrain. To the left, I noticed an islet with a house, and I pointed this out to Ace. He said that it’s called Panas, but we couldn’t drop by anymore because it was nearly lunchtime.
The weather turned sunny when we returned to the small fishing village. We feasted on kiwali and alimasag while admiring the islets from afar. The low tide exposed about 200 meters of muddied sand, which complemented the view while the irregular-shaped clouds made a perfect backdrop. I thought that we would call it a day but our itinerary wasn’t over yet.
We went to that coastal area where the islets no longer surrounded by seawater are located. Hidden within these lush surroundings is Davisol. Stone-carved structures made this community quite attractive. It looked like it was being developed as another tourist destination in San Agustin—there was a huge, rectangular-shaped hollow that could be a swimming pool in the near future. It was siesta time when we arrived there, which might be the reason why there were hardly any locals around to entertain us.
I headed toward a hill about 150 meters in height and that has a wooden house on its summit. The rest of the group declined to join me since they were already tired. Ma’am Lala offered me her hat to shield my slightly sunburned face. She brought me to a middle-aged man who would guide me on my way up. It was amusing that he neither talks nor understands Tagalog while I was still struggling to comprehend Bisaya. What we have in common was the dusty trail ahead of us.
I simply followed my guide as we slowly made our winding ascent to the top. Athletic bodies would take 15 to 20 minutes to reach the house but in my case, it was nearly twice as long. Hiking up wasn’t very difficult but the view below made me pause a number of times. I gazed around slowly after we made it.
The scenery was spectacular: the Britannia islets can be appreciated a lot more from the top. My only disappointment was that Naked Islet turned out to be a small patch of sand after all. The house was a resting hut for visitors and I stayed inside for a minute only, as I found out that the entire landscape below could be viewed better by standing on the rocky gate that surrounded the hut. It was quite risky taking photos while maintaining my balance and not letting the gusty winds knock me off.
I thought of lying inside the hut after I was done taking pictures but I sensed that my guide didn’t like to stay long. The descent was quicker and afterwards I declined an invitation from Ma’am Clara to visit a lanky house a few meters away from the hill. I wanted my sightseeing at the top of the hill to be my last image of my visit to Britannia.
It was “Next time!” instead of “Goodbye!” when we left the premises of San Agustin. We didn’t do any more swimming or islet-hopping—we’ll do all of that on our next visit.
(First published in Manila Times on November 13, 2003)