The famous lanzones being off-season was a blessing in disguise during my trip, because I discovered that Camiguin was more than the golden fruit with its sweet, succulent flesh. Camiguin is a thing of beauty: under the sea, on the surface, along the beaches, atop hills and towering mountains and volcanos.
The fascinating trip began at the port of Balingoan in Cagayan de Oro. The one-hour trip to the ferry landing at Benoni could be both an exercise in relaxation or thrill, the former as a result of the gentle rocking of the ferry boat, the latter as a result of the appearance of frisky dolphins which accompany sea vessels plying the Balingoan-Benoni route.
It was an early morning trip so I had the chance to snooze while on the boat. I walked groggily onto the roll-on, roll-off dock at Benoni where I attempted a weak joke about the place sounding Italian. The Department of Tourism (DOT) regional and local team drove me to a nearby lagoon where bamboo huts on stilts were perched near the shore beside fishing pens. Inside these fishing pens are crabs and a wide variety of fish which can be scooped by nets, steamed, deep fried or sautéed by J&A Fishpen’s seasoned seafood cooks. I’m a bacon-and-eggs breakfast guy, but this seafood day starter was one of the tastiest I’ve experienced.
Bahay Bakasyunan is one of the most prestigious hotels and resorts in Camiguin and it served as our base for the next two days. It is a collection of finely crafted villages flanking a grass and stone path leading to a swimming pool and the shining sea beyond. Swaying coconut and lanzones trees keep the resort cool and shaded from the hot sun. One of the most impressive sights was that of the main lobby’s ceiling which is covered with split coconut husks as well as the walls which were tastefully decorated with bamboo and coconut shells. And there’s Café Cecilia, complete with a grand view of the Mindanao sea.
We didn’t stay long at Bahay Bakasyunan because we had to rush to the Paras Beach Resort in Yumbing and catch the boats plying between the resort and White Island. Well, it’s not really white nor it’s an island but actually a sandbar made from thousands of shells and fine sand. Measuring only about 200 meters long and 15 meters at its widest, the crescent-shaped sandbar is a perfect place to enjoy the cool, clear waters or shoot photographs with Mount Hibok-Hibok and Old Vulcan as backdrops.
A delicious lunch of freshly-caught fish, fern salad, and fruit juice was just the right answer to the hunger and the heat we all felt after spending an hour or so at White Island.
Behind the tranquility, the verdant land, and stunning land and seascapes is a tragic past that shaped Camiguin. The island’s main settlement in Spanish times was Catarman. In 1871, Mount Vulcan erupted and destroyed the whole town as it washed the cemetery to the sea. Today, the silent ruins of Old Gui-Ob Church in Bonbon and the Sunken Cemetery nearby are testaments to the fury of the volcanic island. There are several volcanos dotting the island, the most famous being Mt. Hibok-Hibok, with Mt. Timpoong being the highest. Mt. Guinsiliban, Mt. Uhay, and the Tres Marias tower in the island’s center. Camiguin has flourished on its fertile volcanic soil. The thickly wooded forests, hills and backyards are planted with millions of coconut, lanzones and other fruit-bearing trees, with some flatlands serving as rice fields. Like any similar terrain, it offers dozens of natural springs and waterfalls such as the stunning Katibawasan, a 250-foot pillar of water cascading down to a pool surrounded by ferns and rocks. Katibawasan Falls is also a favorite jump-off point for trekkers and mountaineers in search of adventure in the slopes of Mt. Hibok-Hibok.
Alongside its waterfalls are the island’s hot and cold springs. The DOT team brought me to one of the most unusual water formations I have visited, The Soda Water Spring. It was an immense pool of natural carbonated water, very similar to softdrinks but without the sugar and acidity. The natural soda water is fed by nearby springs and is reputed to have medicinal and therapeutic effects. I tasted a sample from a nearby tap and it felt like drinking bottled mineral water. Down the circumferential road and we found ourselves at the Sto. Nino Cold Springs, a sprawling complex of pools at the foothills of Hibok-Hibok. The water is really cold, yet refreshing, but the biggest treat is the presence of cleaner wrasse in the water. The tiny fish swim in groups and once you dip your feet in the pool, they would start nibbling on your toes and sole. It was a ticklish experience and amusing as the tiny critters darted in and out as they gave me one of best foot cleaning I ever had!
My hosts figured that a dip at the Ardent Hot Springs in Tagdo would be an ideal wrap to a long day of sightseeing and trekking. They were right. After depositing my bags in a nearby cottage, I proceeded to the pool which contains the hottest water in the resort. There are four kinds of pools in Ardent, categorized according to the water temperatures from very hot to mildly warm. I chose the pool that is fed directly from the bowels of Mt. Hibok-Hibok with water temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius. It was hot! Very slowly, I sat down until the water reached my neck and placed my back right at the nozzle where the hot water was coming from. Aahh … the pains and aches of the past few days just washed away, the heat penetrated skin and muscle and enveloped me in a soothing, flowing and steaming womblike embrace.
A good hot bath can make me hungry. Great thing the DOT guys ordered ahead while I soaked in the pool. After the required cold shower that’s supposed to close the pores, I stepped onto Ardent’s dining area for a sumptuous dinner of seafood, soup and hot sticky rice.
Back to Bahay Bakasyunan and my soft bed. In seconds, I was fast asleep, the state of unconsciousness immediately settled in as a result of all the trekking, the hot water soaking and all that food that I enjoyed throughout the day.
It took no less than three attempts by the DOT staff to wake me up the following morning. I didn’t want to get up: the bed was so soft, my body was begging to stop and the cool morning air enhanced by the chirping of birds was just too much. Finally, I stepped into the shower and the cold water woke me up. Down the path to the seaside café and I was spooning eggs and sausages from the breakfast buffet. I slowly sipped my coffee at the outdoor bar and gazed at the early morning surf and breathed in the clean air that I know I’d never experience back in Manila.
The DOT team insisted that we take home some Camiguin goodies, albeit without the usual basket of lanzones. They took me to the town center and the legendary Vjandep Bakery for its famous pastel. No, these are not the milk candies I’m familiar with. Vjandep pastel is a freshly-baked bun with filling made from milk, cheese and a variety of fruits from mango to langka. There was a long line in front of the bakery, a daily occurrence from the huge demand for the buns that are sold in leading malls as far as Davao City. I thanked the DOT team for the souvenirs that came with a small bag containing a t-shirt, board shorts and a pashmina shawl. Lightweight, priceless, and very Camiguin!
Then it’s time to board the ferry back to Cagayan de Oro and the salt mines of Makati. I stood on the shore and said a little prayer for those who perished in the volcanic eruptions of Camiguin and those who survived the series of calamities and are now moving forward, making Camiguin one of the world’s most pristine and delightful destinations. Daghang salamat!