Maritess Garcia-Reyes shares why this province in the Eastern Visayas owns a spot in her heart
“What keeps you going back to Biliran?” asks Santi, a descendant of the Sabitsanas who own the unassuming Agta Beach Scuba Resort in Brgy. Talahid in the town of Almeria. It was our last night in the resort, and we were having drinks since sunset to combat the chilly sea breeze brought by the storm. Sure, we were under the influence of alcohol, but his question drew back vivid memories in my mind. It’s a good question anyway. So I asked myself back, why do I keep coming back to Biliran?
My husband, dear friend and I had celebrated our birthdays in Biliran last year, three days before the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that crumbled most of Bohol and Cebu, and three weeks before the horrifying wrath of typhoon Haiyan. For those reasons alone, our journey was obviously unforgettable.
I was invited by Antonio, another one from the Sabitsana clan. What started as a sort of cold call on my fan page turned out to be an interesting story lead. When he asked me to feature his hometown in my blog, I Googled “Biliran” right away and was surprised to see photos of amazing beaches and underwater sceneries. That’s it. Deal.
The initial plan was to go during the summer months as the beaches and islands are at its best during this season. The sea is also flat and calm during this time. However, our schedules were unanimous and we only had a window for a trip in October. It was habagat (southwest monsoon) season already but we figured it might work nonetheless.
Reaching Biliran is not as easy and as fast as going to popular destinations like Boracay and Cebu, but the one-hour flight to Tacloban, the three-hour road trip from Tacloban to Naval and another 30-minute ride from Naval to Almeria is all worth it. After all, what matters most is not how you get there; rather, it’s what’s in there.
There is an instant feeling of homeyness as soon as you get to Agta Beach Scuba Resort. The endless view of the sea and with Dalutan Island just across, the place resonates pure serenity, and thanks to the warm hospitality of the Sabitsanas and their staff, as it made us feel at ease right away.
Our first day was spent trekking the unpaved paths to Ulan-Ulan Falls in Brgy. Sampao. Walking the trail took us more than the usual 30 minutes as we were still groggy and exhausted from our early morning flight. It was a fair mix of concrete walkways and rocky cliffs, of lush greenery and picturesque views. When the forceful waters of the falls came into view, we couldn’t help but rush down to have a closer look. The sound of the raging cool waters was so rejuvenating as if melting our fatigue away. For a while, we felt like we were in a different dimension. We felt like we were in some kind of fairy tale.
We went back to the resort just a little before sunset and were surprised to see the sun painting the skies over Dalutan Island with hues of purple, orange and blue. The sun was not at its perfect sphere, but the kaleidoscope of colors it had given the horizon was indeed jaw-dropping. It was a great backdrop to cocktails and nibbles that even if you get drunk, you will still remember how beautiful the skies were the day after. No exaggeration, that’s how striking it was.
That night, I had the best, deepest sleep ever, and before I knew it, it was already time to get up again as we were about to depart for Sambawan Island on our second day. A sub-island of Maripipi, the island was in fact what had convinced me to go to Biliran in the first place. The photos on Google showed verdant rolling cliffs, cerulean waters and an impeccable white shoreline. It is perhaps the most photographed island in Biliran.
The two-hour bumpy boat ride from the wharf in the town of Kawayan was one of the scariest I’ve had, thanks to whirling winds brought about by the southwest monsoon. I was almost sure I wasn’t breathing at some point when our boat was juggling in between the Biliran Strait and the Samar Sea. But all my fears vanished when the crystal clear waters of Sambawan Island unfolded before our eyes. It was love at first sight.
After settling our stuff under a big tree, Melo, our guide who is also part of the Sabitsana clan, took us to the viewing deck which promised a spectacular view of the island from an altitude. The climb to the view deck seemed easier than that of Ulan Ulan Falls but the occasional loose rocks made it a bit challenging. Landing at the stairway to the view deck already commands a fantastic view, but going up to the quaint nipa hut gave us a better 360-degree vantage point. It was blue and green everywhere we looked. Even from where we were, we could see a glimpse of what’s beneath its waters. The rocks gave an interesting accent to what was already an idyllic piece of land. It was breathtaking. No wonder it is the most popular island here. I can live, and die here. Believe me.
When we went down for a swim, we were greeted by strong currents, so we had to wait a while before we submerged ourselves into the water. The wait was worth it nonetheless, as beneath the azure surface were stunning corals and a panoply of colors brought about by the island’s rich marine biodiversity. I was told that dive sites here are astounding, and if you’re lucky enough, you might be able to sight some turtles, sharks, or dolphins along the way. “The first bull shark sighting in the Philippines was here,” says Melo.
After lunch, we boarded our boat again to go to our next destination – Dalutan Island. The sea was choppier and the ride was a bit uncomfortable that it lulled me to sleep. The descending noise of our boat woke me up and as we set foot on the island, we could see the bright sun strikes upon the white pebbly sand, making it look lighter than what it really was. We did not waste a single second, geared up and went into the water again. The island usually serves as a training ground for intro divers in Biliran as the snorkeling and diving sites here are closer to the shore, so it is easier to swim back anytime you feel panicky or if there is a need to adjust your gears. We were amidst the snorkeling site when Melo pointed at something into the water. When I looked down, I immediately swam away at the sight of a long, black-and-white striped creature that he later confirmed as a pipe fish and not a sea snake. I heaved a sigh of relief.
We capped the day with another round of drinks at the resort’s restaurant while watching the sunset over Dalutan Island. What surprised us was the fiery horizontal cloud formation that seemed to envelope the entire width of the island. It was again an awe-inspiring sight.
Six months later, my second time in Biliran, I came back with a different set of companions – most were first-timers – and with a different purpose. Our team’s goal was to extend help in the form of school supplies to some students of Caucab Elementary School, a public school near Bayombong Falls. We formed the outreach with hopes of making the children happy especially after the typhoon Haiyan. The damages in this part of the world were nothing compared to what happened in Leyte and the rest of the Visayas, but one realization of our team was that there are more issues outside of the flattened areas that need to be addressed, too. And this school is only one of many schools that need attention. “We badly need school supplies. Students here come from less-fortunate families and they have little capability to support the needs of their children,” says the school principal.
We arrived in Agta early morning, and despite lack of decent sleep, we pulled our strings to assemble the stuff we need for the outreach. It was already afternoon when we went to Caucab Elementary School. On our way, we couldn’t help but noticed the lush rice terraces and the steep trail towards the school.
When we got there, there were a lot of students lining up already, waiting for us. Our team was nervous as we only prepared a hundred packs and it seemed like there were more students than what we expected. But at this point, there’s no way we could turn aback. We started giving out our small presents and we were moved by the sight of children smiling with joy as they opened the red bags. For once, we were sure we did the right thing! It was the best trip ever – traveling with not just photos to take home but with the gratification that somehow, we made them happy.
The following day was stormy despite the summer season. There was a typhoon in Eastern Samar, and it seemed like it had no plans of moving elsewhere at all. We almost thought that we wouldn’t be able to go to Higatangan, an island almost halfway from Biliran to Malapascua in Cebu. When the rain stopped and the wind mellowed, we took it as a signal to push through. The waves were furious that we had to slow down a bit. Covered in dark clouds, our destination seemed to have disappeared into thin air. We carried on until alas, we reached the island safe and sound. It was freezing cold as we were all wet and the breeze was blowing like a big bad wolf.
The historic island is said to be where the late Ferdinand Marcos took refuge when his boat capsized during the World War II. He was rescued by a local fisherman named Fidel Limpiado, Sr., father-in-law of Agta Beach Resort’s founder Clemencio “Mesyong” Sabitsana, Sr. When Marcos became president of the Republic; he went back to Higatangan Island with his wife Imelda and daughter Irene to visit Limpiado. Grateful as he was to Limpiado for saving his life, he had given the island infrastructures such as a school, a nine-kilometer circumferential road, post office, clinic and four windmill-powered water systems. To date, a hill on the island still remains to be called “Marcos Hill.”
Moving forward, Melo and his friend, Jonah, showed us the island’s makeshift kitchen, and there, we tried to make a fire where we could cook the food for our boodle fight. Nothing beats eating on banana leaves with bare hands and sharing a feast with new friends. It was indeed our best meal in Biliran!
The next two days were stormy still. Our trip to Dalutan Island was a blast despite having to swim with tiny planktons and going home dotted with red itchy stings. Our boat ride to Sambawan Island was calmer than when we went to Higatangan but the sun did not dare show up. Nothing much had changed since the last time I was here. Thankfully, everything was spared from the fury of typhoon Haiyan.
Going back to Santi’s question, I guess what brings me back to Biliran is not just pure wanderlust. For one, I love the fact that it is less-explored, unspoilt. The beaches are not crowded. There’s deafening silence at night made me feel detached from the chaotic world.
Second, each island has its own character: laid back Dalutan Island; adventure-packed Sambawan Island; and adrenaline-inducing Higatangan Island.
Lastly, the locals have a unique charm that makes guests feel at home. Besides the beautiful sights, the best part of our days in Biliran are the nights when we would have drinks and recap the day that was. It was always full of laughter; each one in the group has something new to share; each has a story of its own.
It may not be as popular and as pristine as the other destinations in the country, but one thing is for sure — in Biliran, I don’t need a loud party to enjoy, nor a modern resort to stay in. I can indulge in its purest, natural wonders. The fresh air, the sea, and the company of good friends are more than enough reasons to go back.
To me, one thing is certain — in Biliran, I found my happy place.