A seaside Shangri-La awaits
No two beaches in the world are alike. I came to that conclusion after visiting Surigao del Sur more than once.
On my first visit, I found out that white beaches are ubiquitous in this part of the world. Their beaches are about a hundred meters long, with sands as white and fine as Boracay’s. But it’s the Pacific Ocean that sets Surigao del Sur’s coastlines apart from the other beaches I visited. The seascape changes mood during the course of the day. I like the deep-blue water glowing under the blazing sun; it’s both fascinating and intimidating. When the sea turns tranquil during the afternoon, I mused and savored the view.
On my second visit, I learned that the beach isn’t the province’s only attraction. There are waterfalls and caves as well. Eye-catching isles are not uncommon either. Some coastlines may be darker but are not less attractive.
On my third visit, I came to the conclusion that “Shangri-La by the Pacific” may be an apt description for Mindanao’s eastern province.
Three days seems enough to see Surigao’s best tourist spots.
Day 1: Into the Blue
I arrived in Tandag, the provincial capital, one Saturday morning. Baby Ambray and Bong Luna, both of whom I met and befriended in my previous trips, took me to the pier. Besides it is a hill where a grotto is perched. We ascended the 70-plus steps in order to relish the panorama of boats and nipa huts dotting Tandag's coastline.
We didn't stay long as we needed a couple of hours to reach the southern municipality of Hinatuan. About 20 kilometers away from the poblacion (town center) is an unusual river. Locals call it the "Enchanted River" because the water is deep-blue, the fishes look like they came from the sea, and the riverbed is a canyon. My guide told me that the river is a hundred feet deep, and there’s a partially-submerged cave nearby. They surmised that fresh water and sea water meet somewhere inside. We also wondered if the Enchanted River is the sea's outlet, the river and the ocean being a few kilometers apart. Visitors don't bother to find out though as they rather frolic in the river's clear waters.
By afternoon, we reached Barobo, which is the province's midpoint. The town offers two unusual islands, namely Cabgan and Turtle. The former is shaped like an alligator and the the latter, what else but a turtle.
Cabgan has a lovely sandbar, which Baby and I rested on while admiring Turtle Island. Cabgan is uninhabited, and knowing this made the trip more exciting. It felt like we were the first to set foot on the island.
Turtle Island's figure became imposing as we ventured closer to it. There is an islet at the rear that has a gorgeous archway. There are neither coastlines nor inhabitants on Turtle but it hardly mattered. I wondered then and there if there were any isles in the Philippines, or even in any part of the world, that have islands as perfectly reptile-shaped as these. Only in Surigao del Sur, maybe.
The sun was about to set when our boat left Cabgan. Streaks of white sands were all over my legs and arms. I didn’t shake it off. I like how the white granules looked on my legs and arms, and I rubbed my fingers on them.
On our way back to Tandag, I asked Bong where I could buy souvenir items in Surigao del Sur. The answer came the next day.
Day 2: Souvenirs, Anyone?
It was mid-morning when we reached Cagwait, which is not far from Barobo. The town comes alive when it celebrates Kaliguan Festival. On this occasion, we stopped by the home of Venustiano Lambo, a member of Cagwait's Tourism Council. He produces magcono furniture and furnishings. When Mr. Lambo started furniture making in 1974, he chose magcono as his raw material. The wood is abundant in Surigao and is noted for its smooth texture and durability. He had learned about it when he was a logging superintendent at Aras-Arasan Timber Company.
The former engineer accompanied us to the shop, which is besides his house. We saw tables and chairs that would be sold at future trade fairs. A cabinet stored cups, pen cases and paper weights. I noticed that VG Lambo Enterprises’ products look more like display items. I eventually settled for a pen case, which would be a nice addition to my glass cabinet.
After a quick look at Cagwait's U-shaped beach (which is the site of its annual festival), we proceeded to the northern region to visit Lanuza. Baby and Bong brought me to Magkawas Falls and the Marine Sanctuary, both of which are a few meters away from each other and several kilometers away from the poblacion.
Magkawas is no eye catcher when compared to Mindanao's stunning falls (such as Lanao's Maria Christina), but residents came up with a brilliant idea. They constructed a rocky wall two feet high. The structure resulted in a pool being formed in which visitors can bathe, and another tier of falls that greatly improved the scenery.
On the other hand, the Marine Sanctuary houses some shells and marine species that are only found in Lanuza's shores. It also has a viewing deck that allows visitors to admire Surigao's breathtaking coastline.
We have to travel a few kilometers more in able to visit the Lanuza Agsamcraft Development Cooperative (LADC), which is located in Barangay Nurcia. Handbags, belts and accessories made up of agsam, a vine only found in Surigao del Sur, are available for sale. Agsam has to be buried deep in mud for days in order to acquire a brownish color. Originally worn by natives as a talisman against evil spirits, this native fashion accessory become one of Surigao del Sur's top souvenir items. Visitors won't have any problems purchasing in bulk; many residents in Nurcia weave agsam products. It's not only traditional but a means of livelihood as well.
As I clutched a few wrist bands I had bought, I saw more islands and beaches on the way back to Tandag. I wondered if the municipality of Cantilan, which is last on the itinerary, would be any different. What a pleasant surprise it would turn out to be.
Day 3: More Island-Hopping
Iron Mountain looms above Cantilan. It’s covered in pine-like trees and its brick-red soil glistens when the sun is high in the sky. From an elevation of about a thousand feet, the islands and the sea look spectacular, with some of the peak's dramatic structures impossible to ignore.
It took us two hours to reach Cantilan’s wharf. Four islands - Ayoke, General, Huyamao and Casarica - are nearby. Our guide, Tony Areo, noted that Cantilan has a varied range of natural attractions similar to Bohol's, but it's on these islands where visitors can find the best the municipality has to offer. With limited time, we could only visit General and Casarica.
General Island, the largest of the group, looked like a reptile on slumber. The isle’s darkly-verdant landscape covers any attractions it would otherwise offer visitors. Our boat headed towards a particular side in order to see a small chapel. The church is nestled atop a hill overlooking a lagoon and General's picturesque coast. Heading towards the lagoon, I gaped at the emerald-blue waters and was amazed as our boat passed the striking rock formations that lined up General’s other coastline.
Islets of various sizes greeted on our way to Casarica. Its white beach was our final destination. While relaxing on the fine sands, I wondered whether this short strip of white sand may be the 20th white beach I saw. I had lost count. What I'm sure of though is that beach and the others I visited combined to make lasting memories I'll always have of Surigao del Sur.
(First published in Zest Inflight Magazine on August-September 2009)
(First published in Zest Inflight Magazine on August-September 2009)