There's something mysterious and enthralling about Dinagat Islands, its lush wonders comparable to the last frontier of Palawan.
A province located on the south side of Leyte Gulf, Dinagat Islands is once a part of Surigao del Norte, and is now the fifth and newest province in the Caraga Region. When it was launched as a tourism destination years back, issues notwithstanding (it was stripped and then bestowed back its provincial title), it has a moniker that teases: Mystical Island Province of Love.
Dinagat is a four-hour trip by pump boat from Surigao City (longer and farther than the renowned Siargao Islands), but its picturesque rock formations and seascape divert your attention from the tiring journey.
Adventures are in store for those who do not seek the comforts of luxury hotels, posh restaurants and 24-hour convenience stores. What you have waiting for you are lodging rooms (sometimes built on stilts), homestay accommodations from hospitable villagers, and fresh, crawling seafood catch from the wet market dropped right on your table. Crabs and prawns were inexpensive, so we bought by boxes to bring back home with us.
The more daring will love the hired boat trips to mushroom islets, white beach islands, mountain lakes, caves, and will likely take a long dip in the clear waters, either by snorkelling or diving. Picnics on the shore are a normal routine here.
According to records, the most historic Battle of Surigao Strait during World War II occurred here. Loreto, the northernmost municipality of the province, was said to be the entry point of the American and Filipino Liberation Forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur before going to Leyte in order to fulfil a promise to return and liberate the islands from the Japanese Imperial Army.
A few years back, we used to spend our Holy Week in the municipality of Tubajon. Our friend was the only resident doctor in the island, so we stayed in his home by the sea, affording us a breathtaking view of the sunset dipping into the horizon every night. We also used his clinic, thankful that no serious patient needed the emergency room during our stay. One instance, though, our island hopping was interrupted when he was called to deliver a baby.
In those years that we frequented Tubajon, we were escorted by the accommodating former Mayor and family, and we visited remote areas that were potential tourism spots, yet still hidden under radar of visitors. Imagine Bababu, an enchanted hidden lake up in the mountains, where we swam in pristine, cool waters while nearby we were ignored by a group of long-haired folks performing silent rituals with nature (yes it is true, cults do abound in these mysterious isles).
Once, we found ourselves caught in the tempest of huge waves that almost battered our fragile banca as we attempted to land in a God-forsaken remote area said to be occupied by a cult. The Mayor wanted to investigate and we thought it fun to accompany him (that was before one of us nearly drowned). We were able to land on the beach after risky attempts, and were greeted by old folks who didn't have the means and energy to move out past the tidal coast (the young ones who braved the power breakers didn't come back anymore and started new lives elsewhere).
This mysterious place was home to these folks who still believe in the mystical lore. The leader who welcomed us had on a long dress with full length jet-black hair, and a warm, infectious smile that welcomed us all. She spoke in straight English. While she eagerly took us around the area, we noticed eerie trees with branches that bore no plants or leaves. Everything was devoid of life, even down to the dried patch of earth filled with rocks and manmade cobblestone pathways. Warning bells started ringing in my ears when the leader (we called her "Mama Gums" because of the way she smiled) told the mayor enthusiastically, "We have long prepared a room for you," even when she didn't even know we were arriving. Then with a sweeping gesture of the cobbled clearing, she said, "This is where the UFO will land." (Bells ringing loudly)
Of course, we were too engrossed with the strange environment to take heed. An old man pulled me aside to tell me that right in the heart of this place seemingly squeezed by hills was an enchanting waterfalls that no one can capture. The last visitor who took pictures discovered his films to be mysteriously destroyed. I didn't try to explain the power of a digital cam. Instead we all lost track of time, swimming and jumping in the hidden beautiful cascading waters. I recall these vivid memories but didn't write about this place until now. I used to call it Island Who Must Not Be Named, simply because it was named after the female genitalia.
Another fascinating area was the abandoned Pig-ot Island, once constructed by a politician as a high-end resort in the middle of the sea. Now the dilapidated cottages lay witness to its once glorious status, footpaths interconnected from islet to islet now broken and dangerous, but its state of decomposition did not diminish its stunning appeal.
There are regular flights from Manila to Surigao City daily, where you can book a ferryboat at the pier and sail to the islands at intervals regularly. For more information, visit www.dinagatislands.gov.ph (right now it's not functioning, though). Bring lots of bottled water for precaution and cash since there are no ATM machines here.
You will find yourself busy with an itinerary of hidden waterfalls, virgin mangroves, bonsai forests, historical houses lined up, bat sightings, and the most unforgettable romantic sunsets by the ocean.
In my mind and heart, Dinagat Island's claim as the "Mystical Island Province of Love" is absolutely true.
(Jojie Alcantara and Rhonson Ng are both travel photographers and staunch advocates of Philippine tourism. Their adventures are in www.pbase.com/jojie_alcantara and www.pbase.com/rhonson_ng.)