Amazing natural beauty awaits you in the town of Sta. Ana in Cagayan, the northeasternmost tip of Luzon.
Having experienced the wonders of the Philippines in the summers past, I am convinced the country is an honest-to-goodness tropical paradise. Floating just above the equator, four seas surrounding its 7,107 islands and islets, a 36,289-kilometer coastline and a diverse ecosystem with endemic flora and fauna—the Philippine archipelago with its unparalleled loveliness is truly one gem of a country.
As an intrepid traveler, I was never lured into the tried and tested popular destinations. Those short plane rides from the city to the beaches are too safe for me, too photographed and too described to the point of cliché, thus the thrill that comes with the unpredictability of trudging through new territory is stripped away. Avoiding touristy places, I venture into off-the-beaten tracks, often surprising myself amidst sheer beauty wrapped beneath mist-wreathed mountains, past glimmering seas.
This summer, I literally went to the edge of the country. Whoever coined the phrase “mula Aparri hanggang Jolo” (from Aparri to Jolo) to describe the expanse of the archipelago has not gone far enough. The town of Sta. Ana in the province of Cagayan is still way north, located in the northeasternmost tip of the Luzon peninsula.
Enveloped by the Sierra Madre Moun-tain ranges and washed by the Philippine Sea, Sta. Ana is a rural locale of mostly fisherfolks and farmers. What it lacks in cosmopolitan proximity, its rugged coastal mountains, hidden coves and solitary islands make up for it with unspoiled provincial charm.
About 600 kilometers and a 16-hour bus ride separate Sta. Ana from Manila. My anxiousness over a long, tortuous road trip was quickly appeased when I looked outside my bus window, past the sweeping panorama of fields and rivers of the provinces of Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela. The sheer beauty of nature left me waxing praises to our Creator, a prelude to the prayers I would eventually utter of the pastoral paradise that would captivate me in Cagayan Valley.
Good Morning, Sta. Ana!
By the time I reached Cagayan, the leisurely pace had already caught up with me. And what fitting way to welcome a new discovery than with a sunrise. From the port in Barangay San Vicente, I took a 15-minute banca (motorized outrigger boat) ride to Crocodile Island, named such because of its shape. At 5:30 in the morning, sitting in the small island of beige grains of sand smudged around a huge mass of limestone rocks, just me and two fishermen out for a morning catch, staring out into the open sea as streaks of sunlight peek through the reddish-blue clouds, embracing the calm wisps of the misty breeze against my face—I believe this is how life should be welcomed everyday, a moment of pure bliss.
When the sun came up, I took the banca ride again and sailed for 20 minutes to the island of Palaui, located farther northeast from the mainland. Docking at Punta Verde, it’s an hour’s trek up and down the island’s hills. A trail has been blazed by mountaineers who have set out before me; but with the changing terrains caused mainly by locals who cut the trees for firewood, even my local Agta guide had to retrace his steps before we finally found our way into the woods.
With a stunning landscape on a cool morning, it felt natural to hum Julie Andrews’ “the hills are alive with the sound of music…” And as the air was getting thinner and the forest giving way to a spectacular bird’s eye-view of the Philippine Sea, I knew it was just a few more steps to reach the top.
Up To the Lighthouse, Down To the Sea
Perched atop a hill, the Faro de Cabo Engaño or the Cape Engaño lighthouse is literally the pinnacle of my trek. Built in December 21, 1862, the 100-meter tower is aged by years of neglect and natural calamities. Paints chipping off the walls, collapsing beams, distressed floors, dilapidated roofs and a cracked wall where the stolen marker used to be—it’s not surprising that the lighthouse has a depressing feel to it. Without a caretaker, the route up to the light beams is padlocked. The rusty spiral staircase ended on a deck of open windows where to my east is a view of the Dos Hermanas islands, sticking out as two clumps of rocks over the aquamarine waters.
I found myself staying in the lighthouse compound for quite a while, long enough for me to take in, and quite ironically enjoy its enigmatic and mystical vibe. I heard others have camped here for the night. But with no lights, an illusive phone signal and a sense of already having immersed in the island’s esoteric draw, I opted to go down the hill and take a refreshing dip in the sea.
As the hours passed, my guide took me sailing with him a few miles from shore, as he had planned to hunt for pugita or octopus which he’ll bring home to his family. It’s one amazing sight to witness someone literally diving into the unknown, just armed with a pair of rusty goggles, makeshift plastic fins and an unrelenting mission for the day’s catch. It wasn’t a quick sail, I was left floating on the banca to sunburn while manong was in search for food. This is how life is in the province and I would never trade this discovery for anything else.
With a renewed sense of appreciation for what I have and, at the same time, a regard for the daily toil of Filipinos, I leave Palaui Island to explore more of Sta. Ana and the rest of the Philippines.
Jacqueline L. Ong is a free-lance writer and photographer based in Manila. Spreading the word on the country’s beauty is one of her advocacies in life.