As our ferry puttered toward the island of Camiguin, Philippines, it felt as if we were sailing toward a lost world. Set amid the cobalt sea, the untamed oasis felt worlds away from the crowded beaches of Boracay and Bohol. Fringed with lush palms, lime green rice paddies, and pebbled beaches, its appearance was deceptively tranquil. Also known as “the island born of fire,” Camiguin is actually composed of seven volcanoes. Jutting from the center of the island is Mount Hibok-Hibok – Camiguin’s sole active volcano. It’s towering peaks are constantly shrouded in clouds, adding to the dramatic beauty of this island paradise. Perhaps it was Camiguin’s rugged good looks, but there was something that immediately drew me to the island. No matter what it was, it was apparent that Camiguin was going to be the perfect place to do some prime exploring and to get an authentic glimpse into local island life.
For most travelers, Camiguin isn’t necessarily a go-to destination in the Philippines. Although, those who do make the effort to reach this slightly remote island will be handsomely rewarded by its natural beauty, plethora of outdoor activities, and genuinely friendly locals. Camiguin is located just off the coast of Northern Mindanao, Philippines. And the lack of regular ferry transport makes it somewhat difficult to reach. I suppose its remoteness was something that attracted Aaron and I to the small island in the first place. We wanted a place that was going to be quiet, a place that wasn’t overrun with tourists and touts. But really, we just wanted someplace to ring in the New Year without the inflated hotel room prices of more touristy destinations in the Philippines.
It was December 31, 2013. The following day the world would celebrate the commencement of a new year. But Aaron and I deliberately chose to lie low. If there’s one thing I learned during my time in the Philippines, it’s that Filipinos take their holidays very seriously. Whether it’s Semana Santa (Holy Week), Christmas, or New Year’s you can expect non-stop celebrations, lots of karaoke, and major crowds. During the holidays there seems to be a mass exodus from the metropolitan hubs of Manila and Cebu City, as residents head to more tropical locations like the beaches of Boracay and Bohol. I’d heard plenty of stories of hotel room prices increasing tenfold or travelers forced to all but camp out on beaches because of the lack of accommodation. So Aaron and I decided to heed the warnings and deviate just a little from the backpacker circuit.
We booked a slightly rundown standalone bungalow in the middle of the bucolic village of Yumbing. Our neighborhood was a sleepy one, set right on the ocean and surrounded by neighbors with modest homes and yards inhabited by chickens, roosters, and skinny pups. Our room consisted of nothing more than a bed and a bathroom with a simple wet shower. But it had a private terrace, it was cheap, and the setting seemed peaceful.
But it soon became painfully obvious that Camiguin wasn’t going to be the quiet sanctuary we had envisioned. Like I said, Filipinos take their holidays seriously. While I like to spend New Year’s toasting with friends and family with a glass of champagne, apparently Filipinos prefer to gather en masse to sing karaoke and set off homemade fireworks. Nothing against either of these things, but I admit that I had a slight panic attack when I realized that each family on our block had rented their very own professional karaoke machine for the occasion. Aaron and I spent the first few minutes at our new temporary home sitting on our porch, staring at the house across the street, and listening to our not-so-sober neighbor sing passionately – and off key – to Psy’s Gangnam Style. At that moment, I wasn’t sure whether to curl up in the fetal position and cry or double over in laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation. Ultimately we both shrugged it off and embraced the idea that this was going to be an interesting couple days. And – in the very best of ways – it was.
Given that the bass from the surrounding sing-alongs was literally rattling our room’s walls, we quickly noted that holing up in our hotel room wasn’t going to be an option. So, we opted to go explore instead. After having such a blast motorbiking to Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, renting scooters on Camiguin was a no-brainer. Measuring only 23 km long and 14 km wide, Camiguin is the second smallest island in the Philippines. This lush island is the perfect size to explore by motorbike and it’s more than feasible to lazily circumnavigate its perimeter in a day.
I can’t say that Camiguin is blessed with perfect white sand beaches like those I witnessed in picture-perfect Boracay or during my island hopping tour around El Nido. That being said, Camiguin makes up for its lack of beaches in spades. Dozens of attractions dot the island’s perimeter – old church ruins, White Island (a picturesque sandbar off the coast), and the sunken cemetery are among the most popular. But my favorite sites are hidden in the island’s interior. In my opinion, waterfalls, hot and cold springs, and stunning vistas are what Camiguin specializes in.
Motorbiking around Camiguin was a special experience. We spent the afternoon coasting along the island’s streets. And since most locals were at home (presumably singing karaoke) with their families, it felt like we had the roads all to ourselves. As we rolled along, we saw just how simple life is on Camiguin. We were stared at by curious families as we passed through rural villages, we had to stop periodically for herds of goats and stray dogs, and whenever we got lost we were offered directions by Camguin’s friendly locals.
We ended up stumbling upon a natural soda spring, which is cold and naturally carbonated thanks to the island’s volcanic activity. Since the entry fee was only 20 pesos, we decided to go for a dip. The park boasts water so natural you can actually drink it – though I refrained. And while the facility pretty much looks like a concrete public pool, it was a refreshing escape from the heat. And it was fun to just float in the bubbly water, watch families mingle and kids dive-bomb into the pool, and ponder the temperamental Mount Hibok-Hibok which was perched above the springs.
While we still had a couple hours of daylight left we ventured to check out Katibawasan Falls. As we rode along, groups of kids gathered on the sides of the road, waving enthusiastically and shouting “Hello!” The look of disappointment on their faces when I failed to wave back was heartbreaking. But I’m no master at riding motorbikes, and I was far too scared to peel my right hand from the bike’s handle. As the day progressed I eventually I learned how to wave back while still maintaining control of my bike. Much to my amusement the kids cheered jubilantly at my simple gesture.
As it turns out, the kids of Camiguin are also big fans of homemade firecrackers. And given the festivities they were setting them off with loud bangs as Aaron and I passed along the narrow village roads. The sound rattled me so much I thought I was going to run right off the street. And I was more than terrified a firecracker would end up exploding right in my path.
Dangerous fireworks aside, we managed to make it to the falls without hassle. This sliver of a waterfall descends 76 meters into a small green pool. With its edenesque setting, in the middle of Camiguin’s jungle, Katibawasan Falls is a truly magical place.
Dozens of Filipino families lounged around the lagoon, picnicking and drinking San Miguels. Aaron and I were the only foreigners and all eyes were focused on us as we approached the lagoon, which made me more than a little self-conscious. But as I waded into the chilly water and swam toward the stream I was in absolute heaven. Aaron and I swam as close to the waterfall as we could, but the wind from the force of the cascade was so strong it inched us back. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget.
After spending a perfect New Year’s eve exploring Camiguin by motorbike, our day culminated with a good old-fashioned street party. We spent the last hours of 2013 watching more and more islanders gather in the already crowded streets. The locals broke out some seriously impressive homemade fireworks – way better than the little bombs the kids had been exploding all day. San Miguels in hand, Aaron and I stood amid the crowd, eyes fixed upward, and watched as the sky explode with streaks of color. The Tanduay (local rum) flowed freely, music blared from boom boxes, and karaoke parties were in full effect.
A few minutes before midnight we were invited to join the party of our karaoke-loving neighbor. Jovial, and more than a little inebriated, our host introduced us to his huge extended family, and plied us with food. He even opened a bottle of champagne in our honor to toast to the new year. As the clock struck 12, we watched as his entire family broke into song. Everyone from toddlers to teens to grandparents sang along to Gangnam Style, and they even mimicked Psy’s dance moves. Aaron and I were doubled over laughing. It wasn’t quite the lowkey New Year’s we’d been searching for, but it was by far the most memorable I’ve ever had.
Have you ever spent the holidays abroad? What’s your best holiday travel moment?