When in Manila, ask any urban-dweller about the best beach in the country and you are guaranteed a popular answer: Boracay. And why not? Boracay’s blindingly white powder-fine sand and its clear, azure waters have spoilt us Filipinos. The Philippines’ top tourist destination has set the bar for beach-goers who cannot help but compare other beaches they visit with that of Boracay’s sand quality and the clarity of the water.
However, Boracay’s popularity comes at a price. With throngs of tourists flocking to the beach, it has been called “Manila with sand,” capturing the essence of what Boracay is like during peak seasons where the beach is so crowded that running into someone you know from Manila is a regular occurrence. With the influx of more and more foreign tourists due to the Kalibo airport now an international gateway, and the degradation of the beach due to unsustainable tourism practices, people have started looking for alternatives. Fortunately, with over 7,000 islands to choose from in the Philippines, there are plenty, and you don’t even have to fly from Manila to get to some of them.
These are the easy and obvious choices: drive down south of Manila for the beaches in Batangas, a destination known for scuba-diving. A little further south of Batangas and a boat ride away is White Beach in Puerto Galera, Mindoro. Go north of Manila and there’s Anawangin Cove in Zambales, where you can camp on a beach fringed with pine trees.
But if you’re willing to go further and off the beaten path, away from the crowds, lying off the coast of the province of Camarines Norte is a group of pristine, virgin islands called Calaguas, a reward for those who make the time and the effort to journey into the typhoon-battered region of Bicol.
Calaguas is a collective group of islands and islets, one of which is Tinaga Island where there’s a cove of clear, turquoise waters and an approximately 1-kilometer stretch of white sand called Mahabang Buhangin (long beach). In recent years, it has gained a bit of a cult following among beach aficionados, thanks to travel blogs and the adventurous ones who seek out the island and write about it, but mention Calaguas to just about any other person and 3 out of 5 times, you will be asked, “Where’s that?”
We set off for Camarines Norte from Manila at 10 PM, arriving in the gold-mining town of Paracale at 7 AM the next day after a few gas and restroom breaks along the way. From the port of Paracale, Calaguas is an often rough and choppy 1 1/2-hour boat ride into open seas, which can be dangerous when there’s a low-pressure area or approaching storm (of which the region encounters a lot due to its location as a battering ram for typhoons coming in from the Pacific). There was a low-pressure area that had just barely left the day we sailed off to Calaguas, and we felt its effect on our boat’s outriggers, its tips and ends dipping alternately into the sea, rocking our boat back and forth, splashing salt water on our faces.
Near the island of Tinaga, on which Mahabang Buhangin lies, are a handful of other islands with lush vegetation, fringed with beautiful beaches and rock formations, all looking perfect and surreal as if they were manicured and groomed on purpose to convey the idea of paradise to approaching visitors. And paradise it is. We landed on Mahabang Buhangin, its warm waters as clear as gin, our feet sinking into silky, soft sand.
For a beach that’s so unimaginatively-named, Mahabang Buhangin (quite a mouthful to say, so people have resorted to simply calling it as Calaguas) is an unspoiled and undeveloped destination that awaits the traveler who dares make the long and uncomfortable journey. That particular beach is often thought of as the Boracay of several decades ago, before Boracay became what it is now. With white sand just as fine as Boracay’s and water that’s as clear and as blue, it’s easy to see why. But the comparison stops there.