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11 May 2016

Calaguas, Camarines Norte: "Better Than Boracay but for How Long"

Calaguas, Mahabang Buhangin Beach
Travel Review

As the saying goes, you get what you paid for. For the first time, we went on vacation using a travel agency. The trip to Calaguas Island, Camarines Norte is around 10 hours, give or take, and so we felt that we might be wasting time if we opted to do a D.I.Y. trip. We were only available on Saturday and Sunday.

The verdict: Calaguas Island is beautiful indeed but the tour package that we availed was moderately satisfying. But then again, for 2,300 pesos, we get what we paid for.  This amount did not include the transportation cost. Other tour companies include transportation service and their overall cost is around 2,900 to 3,000. Mostly, you would be sharing a van with other tourists. We chose to rent our own van because we wanted to get a deluxe one that is more spacious and comfortable. We do not want to be stuck in a crowded van for 10 hours. That would be torture. We could have taken the bus but the van would take us directly to the port, and we do not have to run to the bus station to get a bus back home to Manila. The van that we rented is affiliated with the tour company.

In hindsight, a bus ride might have been better. Next time we decide to return to Calaguas, we might opt for D.I.Y.

Calaguas, Balabag Malaki
Calaguas, Mahabang Buhangin Beach
Calaguas, a view of Balabag Maliit
Calaguas, Top of Balabag Malaki

Calaguas is like Boracay in its early days. The sand is not powdery white but it is white enough and equally beautiful. The beach is clean and the azure water that sometimes turns aquamarine is clear. There is still no sign of pollution caused by the heavy influx of irresponsible tourists. I also just saw one hotel-like resort operating on the island. Most of the tour operators just offer tent accommodations and they offer other activities such as snorkeling, trekking, and kayaking. The quality of these services depends on the tour company so I suggest being meticulous and doing extra research before deciding on a tour package. Aside from asking the tour manager himself, I also contacted past customers, and this was very helpful because they revealed something tour companies did not.

Calaguas, Panorama view at Balabag Malaki
Calaguas, Panorama view at Sitio Tanaga


The best time to visit Calaguas is during weekdays. Weekends can be very crowded and a two-day stay is not enough. Aside from the beautiful beach, you can also go island hopping. The trip to Balabag Malaki was amazing. Once you climbed the top of the hill, you have a breathtaking view that is reminiscent of Batanes. The snorkeling in Pinakpakan beach is middling and I suggest you skip it unless your tour guide will bring you to a better site.

To make things brief, here are the bad and good things about visiting Calaguas.

THE GOOD
  • The beach is amazing. The water is clear and not too deep so even non-swimmer can enjoy.
  • An overly serious barangay tanod, with a megaphone, reprimands boatmen who park their boats on the beach, thus, depriving swimmers of space to swim. He does it in an almost Duterte-like manner. Good job! Calaguas is one of the few places where I have seen this done.
  • The food is mostly seafood and fresh. Good luck to those with seafood allergy. We did ask a representative from our tour company to provide at least one non-seafood dish, and all they gave us was a piece of fried chicken. I suggest take antihistamine for those with seafood allergies.
  • The people are very friendly and accommodating, especially the locals.
  • The main beach and other islands are clean, and relatively free of trash.

Fresh fish
Side dish, mashed santol with chili


THE BAD
  • The commute is long, about 10 to 12 hours by bus or car so prepare. If you have the budget, you may choose to take a plane.
  • The boat ride to the island may be bumpy depending on the weather condition. We were lucky enough to go when the water was relatively still.
  • You have to share the toilet with many visitors so at certain hours, there is a long line. There is a 10-peso fee to use the bathroom. In our case, the bathroom fee was already included in the package. Unfortunately, sometimes the line was long so we had to use other paid toilets. I heard some tourist opted to pee on the beach when the lines to the bathroom were long and these people could no longer hold their bladders. If there is no improvement regarding the toilet facilities, eventually, the water will be polluted with human waste.
  • Sleeping inside the tent can get hot, especially if you are camped away from the beach. Unfortunately, for us, it was hot even at night so some of us decided to forgo the tent and sleep on the open cottage. I also saw some people sleeping on the beach.
  • There is no cell phone signal on any of the islands except on top of the hills. Bring your phone when you climb any of the hills so you can call or post pictures online. Then again, having no cell phone signal can also be a good thing. 
Trekking Tanaga Hill
Calaguas, on top of Balabag Malaki


BEST CALAGUAS TOUR
We chose Best Calaguas Tour based on the recommendation of one of their former customers. Overall, the package was worth it, although calling their tour the “best” is overrated. Our van service was also recommended by Best Calaguas Tour


THE GOOD
  • Our contact person regularly communicated with me via text before the actual trip. He was nice and he answered most of my questions. He could not reply immediately when he was in Calaguas because there was no signal in the island.
  • There is no advance payment but once you confirm your booking; your slots are secured. They only ask that you inform them in advance if you will cancel.
  • The dishes that they serve were delicious and the servings were ample. There were 10 of us and, sometimes, we were not able to eat all of the dishes.
  • The people who served us our food were nice, and I hope they are not underpaid.


THE BAD
  • Before we got to the island, I texted the contact person of the tour company. I asked them if we had to bring our own snorkeling gears or if there was a charge to use their snorkeling gears. He said, and I quote from his text reply, “wala pong charge yung gear.”  However, when we got to the snorkeling site, there were not enough goggles for snorkeling, and some were broken. When I asked the guide, “Sir wala na pong goggles na may snorkeling tube?” He simply answered, “Prino-provide lang po namin iyan sa walang dala. Hindi sa lahat.” There were about 15 of us on the boat and only one opted not to go snorkeling. None of us brought any snorkeling gear. What if they had 20 people on the boat and they only had 10 working snorkeling goggles? Does that mean the other 10 would just sit on the boat and mope? It would have been better if they had informed us in advance that snorkeling gears were free but limited so we would have at least brought some.
  • Kayaking is part of the package but apparently, good customer service is not. When some of us wanted to go kayaking, I asked the tour guide, “Sir, gusto po nila mag-kayaking.” He just answered, “Sige kayaking kayo,” and then he left. He did not even point where we would get the kayaks. There were some kayaks on the beach but we had no idea if those belonged to our tour company because the kayaks had “Camp Calaguas” painted on the side. Plus, there were no paddles around. Eventually, some of us just assumed the kayaks were for everyone. One of my friends asked somebody from our tour company for a paddle, and my friend was given only half a paddle. Nevertheless, since my friends did not want to spoil their fun, they just took the half-paddle and went kayaking. Needless to say, they still had a blast. Luckily, I was not the one who asked for the paddle because I would have thrown a hissy fit a-la Duterte if I were handed half a paddle.


Regarding the van that we rented, the driver was all right but he overtook many vehicles on the way to Calaguas. This is bad considering we were travelling at night and in most cases, on roads that had no streetlights. In many instances, he was quite reckless. I also learned that he and the other drivers in our convoy had been driving non-stop. For example, prior to driving us to Camarines Norte, our driver had drove all the way from Quezon so he barely had time to rest for our 10-hour trip. In addition, they also had another pick-up in another place, which explained why they were driving so fast. On our way to Manila, we also discovered that they had to pick up another batch of tourists going to Sagada. Yes, after a tiring 10-hour drive, they would immediately head to Sagada. There was no time for our driver to rest. In fact, at times, he was sleepy. I bet he was even underpaid. Certainly, the safety of their passengers and the welfare of the driver was not the priority of the owner of this transportation company. One of my friends who sat next to the driver also could not sleep because she had to talk with our driver so that he would not fall asleep. Luckily, they bonded well.  

We also paid for 11 passengers so we were expecting a van that can accommodate 11 people. One of us cancelled but I did not inform the van owner because we paid for 11 people anyway. To my surprise, the van could only accommodate 10 people. When I complained, the van owner simply said that our van was a deluxe VIP Toyota Grandia. The van was all right. My point was that the van was not big enough for 11 people. In a way, they cheated us. Unfortunately, there was no time to rectify the situation so I had to give way and sit on the fold-able seat for 10 hours. And yes, as agreed, I still paid for 11 people. I kept my word. They did not.

Bottom line, be more careful in choosing a tour company. You should also visit Calaguas before it becomes overly commercialized like Boracay. I hope that Calaguas stay pristine or the country will soon lose another piece of paradise. I hope the local government will make policies on a long-term basis and not be lured by quick profit. Most importantly, I hope the local will benefit more than big businesses and seedy public officials. On our part, all of us visitors should take care of these group of islands and not cause any further damage. In instances where we see environmental and social abuses, we should protest in our own way. 




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