Open Google Earth. Type Caramoan, Camarines Sur, Philippines. See those deep green bumps? They’re thick forests in rolling hills. See those white strips? They’re pocket white-sand beaches. It’s interesting to see Caramoan from space; it’s more gratifying if you experience it up close and personal. I did.
Caramoan is a peninsula that straddles Maqueda Channel on the east, the Pacific on the north side and the Lagonoy Gulf on the south. It is home to unspoiled, uninhabited islets and white sand beaches partially hidden by rock formations sculpted to interesting shapes by wind and waves.
Accompanied by my photographer Justin and our trusty guide and coordinator Joseph Palo, we took a van from the Camsur Watersports Complex to the port of Nato for the one-hour RORO (roll-on, roll-off) boat trip to the Guijalo wharf in Caramoan. I took advantage of the boat ride and surrendered to the gentle rocking of the sea and slept for the rest of the trip. I figured I needed the energy for a day or two of trekking, island hopping and exploration. The boat’s horn signalled our arrival and woke me up. Another van awaited us in Guijalo and we took a winding road that meanders through fields thick with coconut groves and flanked by heavily-forested hills. We arrived at the main gate guarded by regular security personnel and augmented by a detachment of army troopers plus a handful of local militia, one of them armed with a vintage Second World War 30-caliber carbine rifle. I felt safe knowing that the resort is secure, courtesy of these gentlemen with M16s and old but trusty carbines.
We arrived at what is branded as the Gota Village Resort, a collection of pinewood cabanas built along the natural contours of the location. Similar to the accommodations in CWC, the cabanas of Gota Villlage feature comfortable beds, hot showers and are linked with stone covered pathways. Seen from above, the cabanas are grouped in circles with a towering, tree-covered hill in the background, watching over the occupants like a mother hen guarding her brood.
While lunch is being prepared, Joseph invited us to try the newly-built wooden walkway that serves as a link between the main resort to a satellite location called Gota 2. Made from sturdy lumber, the 370-meter walkway goes through thick mangrove and hillsides thick with vine and fern. Hundreds of birds, insects and water creatures greeted us with shrieks and song, reminding us that we’re mere visitors and they are the real owners of the place. Jubai said that if we’re lucky, we’ll see monitor lizards and the butaan, a komodo crawling among the mangrove growth. No lizards. Maybe because it was a hot, sunlit day and the critters preferred to hide in cool nooks and crannies at this hour.
After a hearty lunch cooked in coconut milk and spices, we enjoyed cups of brewed coffee with Gota’s resident naturalist, photographer and project officer Jose Vicente Villareal or Jubai as the staff fondly calls him. Jubai is an interesting character. A former mountaineer and photographer, he works for Governor LRay Villafuerte as point man and explorer, having been with Gota since its inception. The governor usually asks Jubai to investigate a location including nearby islands, coves and caves, and make recommendations that would lead to further development of these places. Jubai also handles coordination work for the television production group whose base camp is one of the well-kept secrets of the Village.
Jubai credits the development of Gota Village Resort—and Caramoan—to the hit reality television competition series Survivor. In 2007, producers of Survivor’s French edition explored Caramoan and asked Governor Villafuerte that if the provincial government could develop the resort and beach facilities to house the television production, Survivor would sign a contract that guarantees revenue for the province and a perfect set for the reality series. The rest, as they say, is history. Gota became the home of Survivor France, followed by Israel, Bulgaria, Serbia and Sweden. “A lot of the locals were employed by the production team as laborers, set construction crew members, suppliers and boatmen,” Jubai recalled. “What used to be marginal fishermen who sometimes use dynamite fishing methods evolved as responsible workers who found a safe and secure profession as support and service personnel.” The nearby fishing grounds were almost devoid of catch due to overfishing, and dynamite and cyanide fishing. ” The sea enjoyed several years of respite as a result of the locals shifting from fishing to working for Survivor,” Jubai noted. ” I believe corals and fish have begun to populate the coves again and we hope that it continues until the sea is teeming with growth.”
The governor pushed the effort further in reviving the sea by initiating the breeding of giant clams and sea urchins. Dozens of these clams now sit at the bottom of the sea, gradually growing until they reach sizes of at least two to three meters across. Efforts to build artificial reefs are also underway. On shore, villagers are encouraged to plant mangrove from a nearby nursery in a work-for-food program that includes a crab-fattening project. So instead of losing fingers and limbs, fishermen are now gaining self-reliance and confidence by working with a world-class television production team,” Jubai said as he accompanied me on a tour of the beach and village facilities while saying hello to work gangs completing the wooden walkway, putting up a structure for a gym and refurbishing the facilities of the village while keeping the rot caused by salt water from eating into the wooden structures.
A lovely dinner of freshly-caught and deep-fried maya-maya or red snapper with a vinegar, garlic and chili dip, accompanied by hot steaming bowls of rice and ice-cold orange juice awaited us at the Resort’s coffee shop. Dusk was settling in and I can feel the cool ocean breeze wafting in while the forest’s nocturnal creatures began their nightly calls. Then it’s back to our cabana. I was pleasantly surprised that I could easily fall asleep in these parts, unlike in Manila where stress and anxiety keep me tossing and turning. In minutes, I was in dreamland.
The islands of Pitogo, Matukad, Sabitang Laya, Cotivas, Minalahos, Lahuy, Tinago, Tayak, Lahos and Catanuan can be characterized in two ways. First, all are unpopulated. Second, each island has a white sand beach flanked by coral and limestone, most of which are covered by thick growths of wild plants, coconut and other varieties of trees.
for a 15 to 40-minute trip to any of these isolated pieces of paradise, among them Hunongan. Hunongan is actually a part of the main Caramoan peninsula and is separated from Gota by a series of steep hills. It’s just less than five minutes by boat but it feels like a hidden getaway complete with a white sand beach, a cluster of comfortable cabanas, bar and restaurant manned by full-time cooks, waiters, housekeepers and maintenance personnel. Matukad Island is about ten minutes away. Its tranquillity is only disturbed by the crashing of the surf and the cries of seagulls. A strip of white sand beach is flanked by limestone and coral, artfully carved by nature through the ages.
As I sat on a rock worn smooth by the sea, I imagined guests spending a day or two on one of these secluded beaches. They can arrange for food and beverage service and sleeping tents with the Gota Resort. They are free to enjoy themselves as they see fit without social pressure and anxiety. Wear your skimpiest bikini. Sunbathe. Play tag with the waves. Nobody will disturb you or ogle at you. It’s your own private paradise.
Compared to Boracay with its mad mix of bars, rowdy crowds and gawdy establishments, the islands of Caramoan with their pensive lagoons, mysterious caves, limestone outcrops covered in lush foliage offer the traveller a relaxing, invigorating and hassle-free island sojourn free of anxiety, commercialism and mind-numbing noise typical of today’s beach resorts.
I indulged in two of the resort’s outdoor activities: island hopping and forest trekking. With more time, I could have enjoyed snorkelling and cave exploration, two of my favorite island hobbies. Guests can bike, hike, or for the experienced rock climber, try the challenging vertical stone walls and cliffs that abound in the vicinity.
There are rumors of underground caves that can only be reached by technical divers; huge caverns that are accessible by clambering down vertical sinkholes and recesses that can be found in hillsides. It’s a huge playground for spelunking enthusiasts who love to squeeze and crawl into narrow passageways and emerge in cathedral-like caverns deep inside these limestone behemoths. Jubai himself led the exploration on one of these caverns and he ordered the construction of wooden steps that lead down to the floor of one of these caves
The people of Bicol are known for their warm hospitality, love of festivals and a passion for life as well as hot and spicy coconut-milk laced dishes. Their laughter is deep and genuine and there’s a certain lilt in their dialect that promises romance and heartfelt love for anyone lucky enough to hold a romantic relationship with a Manoy or Manay, as the men and women are affectionately called. I saw and heard it in Gota and the nearby villages and islands. A love of life and its pleasures. Maybe it’s also the result of rediscovery: they realized that there is always a better alternative to destructive ways of making a living. The people of Caramoan found in Survivor the true meaning of the television program’s namesake: that it takes courage, enthusiasm and the typical Bicol passion to survive and rise above sheer poverty. They have the land, the forests, the sea and the islands at their disposal. All they need to do is to keep their natural assets as pristine and renewed for as long as possible. And to be ready when the rest of the world discovers this hidden piece of paradise.
In 1996, the provincial government of Camarines Sur set up a breeding farm and stocked it with 60 heads of Australian deer. Today, the farm in Sta. Cruz, Ocampo town boasts of more than 300 heads of Blackbuck Antelope, Fallow, Chital, Red, Elk and Philippine deer.
When I entered the fenced grazing area, I waded in a sea of antlers and walked among frisky bucks and their doting mothers who gazed at me with suspicion. Compared to other herds, these animals have gotten used to human beings feeding and petting them. Little kids hug the bucks while teenage girls giggle as they pose for photographs with the deer and Mount Isarog in the background.
I was hoping to take back to Manila some deer meat, a popular delicacy among beer drinkers, but was told that the farm is still on its breeding stage. Eventually, they will supply deer meat to gourmet restaurants and probably some antlers to pharmaceutical companies. Their hide can be made into bags and purses, among other products.
In the meantime, Rudolph and his friends will continue to romp and graze among the fields, and pose with their characteristic oomph, head and antlers up, legs spread. They even learned how to look at the camera on cue.