Camarines Norte: A Balancing Act

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Yin and yang—the Chinese concept of the balance, harmony and cycle of opposite forces. It’s something you’d expect in the Forbidden City or even in Manila’s Binondo. But in many ways, yin and yang is what Camarines Norte exemplifies.

Take the provincial capital as an example: At the center, it is abuzz with commerce and trade. Yet the coast, long known as a destination for surfing enthusiasts, offers a tranquile respite. This so-called ‘gateway to Bicolandia’ harmonizes excitement and calm, making any visit to this part of Southern Luzon varied and worthwhile. But there’s more to Camarines Norte than city lights and water sports. It boasts a rich culture, especially a celebrated culinary heritage.

Where Bicol Begins

The town of Daet lies more than 360 kilometers from Manila, and whether you take the plane, the train or the bus, there’s no stopping anyone from having a great time in the capital. In the city of Naga in Albay, domestic flights land daily from the country’s major airports. The grand, old railway system also passes through Albay’s boundaries in its journey from the northern parts of Luzon. From there, it’s a two-hour from Albay to Daet. I, on the other hand, opted for the longer ride and took the bus, which took eight hours of giddy excitement.

Lunch in Daet wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Bicol Express—a stew of long chilies, pork, coconut milk and shrimp paste— and Laing—a well-seasoned dish of taro leaves cooked in coconut milk. Something new to my palate, though, but eerily familiar, is Tinumok. A mixture of shrimp, fish, coconut meat and other spices is wrapped in wet taro leaves, then cooked the same way as the Laing. It was a melange of salt and spice, combining the earthy flavors of the taro with the produce from the sea.

While the provinces of the Bicol Region are known for dishes that are spicy and cooked in coconut milk, Daet prides itself in cultivating its very own kind of pineapple, the ‘Queen’ Formosa. Every year, the municipality celebrates its Pineapple Festival mainly to showcase this cultivar known for its unique and sweet, subtle flavor. Besides the fruit, craft materials and textile are made out of its leaves, making the Formosa a true ‘Queen’ of the pineapples.

There was one piece of history, though, that had to be seen. On the corner of Iraya and Lukban streets stands the first ever monument the Filipino people erected in honor of the National Hero Jose Rizal. Built two years after the hero’s death through the initiative of two revolutionaries, the ‘Bantayog’ stands as a simple obelisk with no semblance of the man for whom it was made. According to Jeffrey Gahol, a local guide and teacher, the time was not yet ripe for a full tribute. “The country was still in the midst of war, and the Spanish hadn’t given up control yet, so the townspeople of Daet had it made without a statue of Dr. Jose Rizal. It was a clean, white monument bearing the hero’s name, the year of his death, and the novels which started the revolution.” He said that for the celebration of Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary, the statue was made a part of the Heritage Trail, and visitors could have their Rizal Passports stamped at the local tourism office.

A Wave of Change

A 10-minute, one-dollar tricycle ride from the town is Bagasbas Beach, a long stretch of fine, gray sand facing the Pacific Ocean, with majestic waves arriving continuously on its shores, much to the delight of swimmers and surfers. Local tradition maintains that long before Pagudpud and Siargao became famous as surfing hubs, events and competitions were already being held on the beach, making the destination by that very fact the country’s first surfing hotspot.

I arrived in Bagasbas at the beginning of this year’s Summer Surf Festival, held annually during April. Though waves are at their wilder limits from September to January, the consistent winds entering the beach assures surfing enthusiasts of regular but powerful waves to ride. However, those normal, April waves were enough for me as I braved through two hours of salty water intakes just so I could stand properly on my board. Much crazier than I expected, preparing for the right wave had me holding on for dear life as the board stood up at the command of every ebbing swell. Then, in less than 30 seconds, a second wave emerges, prompting me to propel my way towards the shore and make an attempt to jump up and glide graciously as the wave weakens. Like any beginner, I had many embarrassing falls and failed attempts, but thanks to a dedicated instructor and the cord that attached my foot to the board, I successfully beat the odds and managed to make the organizers proud a couple of times.

One of the men behind the event is outdoorsman Joey Cuerdo. He’s seen Bagasbas transform from the notorious red light district it was to the surfing destination it is now. “Even as the beach became known for its surfing conditions, many dingy bars stood along the stretch of the boulevard, catering to locals and visitors alike. We’re now on our fifth year celebrating the festival, and with the help of the local government units, we’ve changed the way tourists and locals see Bagasbas, now the face of surfing in Camarines Norte and the country.” Aside from surfing activities, Joey and his team have brought equipment for bouldering, frisbee and other beach sports which the participants can enjoy for a small fee.

The bars that Joey previously referred to now hang up signs offering lodging for weekend surfers and lessons for beginners. Accommodations in the area range from as low as $5 a night for a dorm-type bed to $25 for a slightly more-upscale room in a posh resort. Surfing lessons are available for $30 an hour, while lessons for kite-surfing, slowly gaining popularity in Bagasbas are offered for $50.

Lights of at Calaguas

I’d never really tried camping outdoors, much less sleep in a tent, but from what I’ve heard about Calaguas, I was willing to lay a blanket on its shores and sleep under the starts ’til the morning. Calaguas is a group of islands located north of mainland Camarines Norte, and is a two-to-three-hour boat ride from any of the ports of Daet, Vinzons or Paracale. For my adventure, I set out for Calaguas’ Tinaga Island early in the morning for a glimpse of the famous long beach locally known as Halabang Baybay, and more commonly called Mahabang Buhangin.

The first view of the island captivates one’s mind and soul as trees in full bloom and clear, blue waters cascade before your very eyes. And while the sands of Bagasbas possessed that dark black hue, the sands in Calaguas were of a magnificently white color, with a fine consistency which rivals those of Boracay and Panglao. Across the beach, tents occupied by families and groups of friends were set up, as the island is as virgin as anyone can get: no hotels, no restaurants and no beds to occupy.

On the island, I was taught by my companion, Francisco Narido, how to cook Sinantulan. Grated santol fruit is sauteed in garlic, onion and ginger along with pieces of pork, dried fish and shrimp before everything is simmered in coconut milk. “The secret is not just in the seasoning, but in the preparation. For example, the skin of the ginger must not be removed because there’s much flavor in it.” The result is an exquisite dish that would steal the limelight off of any other viand. A perfect tropical meal for a summer destination.

As the sun prepared to set that afternoon, and everyone was pitching their tents for the serene evening, I swam to the edge of the cove protecting the beach, the cool water upon my skin a welcome sensation. Upon the rocks, I watched the sky turn orange, the sun giving off its final rays for the day. Camarines Norte has been blessed with this wonder to share with the rest of the world, for after the busy movement of prior days, there’s a hidden spot waiting to be seen. We can only pray that it remains what it is: a safe, pristine coast that complements the development of the rest of the province.

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