Virtually underrated and rarely visited by most travelers, Camarines Norte hides its spectacular secrets of undiscovered caves, exquisite and unspoiled postcard-perfect beaches and rich coral gardens, promising dive sites and world-class surfing, elegant looking bays that open into the Pacific, misty mountains and charming towns throbbing with Bicolano warmth and hospitality – all of this under a veneer of quiet, genteel simplicity.
bout 7-8 hours by bus southeast of Metro Manila, the province of Camarines Norte often serves as one of the main gateways to the Bicol Region. And most often, to most travelers, it often just serves as that – another mere stopover to the other destinations in the region. For most of Bicol which is just about getting used to the idea of tourism, Camarines Norte tends to get overlooked by travelers to the recently popular wakeboarding in Pili and island hopping in the Survivor islands of Camarines Sur, the perfect cone volcano of Mayon in Albay and the whale sharks of Sorsogon. Of course never mind that the wet and wild Pacific frontier province of Catanduanes is also home to one of the most famous international surf breaks called the Majestics. Where does this leave Camarines Norte then?
Photo by Melvic Briñas
Spanish explorer Juan de Salcedo marched into Camarines Norte after subduing Taytay, Cainta, Laguna, and Tayabas. Obsessed with the stories of gold mines in the area, he visited the towns of Paracale and Mambulao (now called Jose Panganiban). Later on, when Francisco de Sande took over as the new Spanish Governor General of the Philippine Islands, the wave of the Hispanic influence in the region started to be felt as he established a permanent garrison in Naga (called Nueva Caceres then) to repulse Muslim and Chinese pirates raiding the area. Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, Camarines Norte had towns like Daet, Capalonga, Mabulao, Indan (now called Vinzons) already flourishing but Paracale was the crowning jewel because of its gold mines.
The history of Camarines Norte is inextricably linked to that of its southern counterpart. From 1573-1829, the two Camarines provinces was only known as one political unit – Ambos Camarines. And after years of splits, reunification and more separation and more unions which eventually led to the final segregation of March 3, 1919 when American Governor General F.B. Harrison separated Camarines Norte from Camarines Sur and later appointed Don Miguel R. Lukban as its first Governor. . At present, the province has 12 towns – Basud, Capalonga, Daet, Jose Panganiban, Labo, Mercedes, Paracale, San Lorenzo Ruiz, San Vicente, Sta. Elena, Talisay and Vinzons.
We didn’t have any high expectations then when we rode the bus all the way to Daet, (the provincial capital) from the Camarines Sur capital Naga. We were on a rusty and rickety mini-bus with no air-conditioning, and dirty floors – although we really didn’t mind the two young girls behind us singing presumably all of what seems to be an entire album of the pop singing group Pussycat Dolls. From Naga it was 2-3 hours by our bus. We finally got into Daet around 8PM and a local restaurateur whom we met on the bus whisked us to the city center as the bus station was too dark and a tad unsafe (according to her). Contrary to what a popular guide book was saying, we actually found the capital town quite charming (save for the thousands of tricycles – Daet has gained the notoriety of having the most number of tricycles in the country). At night, rows and rows of street food stalls line its main drags and it was quite fun to go around and have our yummy fill of Filipino street food. We reserved our initial comments for the town until daylight the following morning to see if we still had the same vibe of the town. And still, we found Daet as charming as it was at night: a buzzing beehive of small-town activity.
Being the provincial center, most of the province’s hub of commercial, political, religious and educational activity is in the town of Daet. Whilst it is true that it seemed like the town was swarming with tricycles, it still did maintain that provincial and charming feel that we had experienced the night before when we arrived. The people were generally friendly and warm. The first Jose Rizal monument that was ever built was built in Daet which stands at the corner of Magallanes and Justo Lukban streets which faces the Daet Municipal Hall. This monument was erected in 1898 in honor of the Philippine National Hero and consists of a three-tiered stone pylon with a square base supporting a triangle in two stages, the last one tapering to a point. It was believed that the foundation was made of mortars and boulders from the Old Spanish Jail where many Filipino patriots died, further magnifying its historical and cultural significance. Lt. Col. Ildefonso Alegre and Lt. Col. Antonio Sanz of the Philippine Revolutionary Army initiated the construction which was eventually inaugurated on December 20, 1898.
A few meters away from the Rizal monument is a wall honoring the brave sons of Camarines Norte who died fighting the Spaniards during the country’s fight for its independence. With these interesting monuments, we kind of found the area not very carefully maintained despite its great significance. Aside from monuments, Camarines Norte folks are quite proud of their Provincial Capitol whose 12 columns represent the 12 towns of the province. Whilst in the Provincial Complex, don’t miss the Museo Bulawan which provides a window into the province’s rich history and culture. In Vinzons town, the Baroque-style, coral-stone façade St. Peter the Apostle Church is considered to be the oldest church in the Bicol Region whilst the stone church of the Our Lady of Candelaria (Our Lady of Candles) merits a visit especially during its feast day which is every 2nd of February, Shrines to local heroes – Wenceslao Q. Vinzons Shrine (Vinzons, Camarines Norte) and Jose Maria Panganiban Shrine (Jose Panganiban, Camarines Norte) – are also a must visit.
Photo by Melvic Briñas
Another top-drawer to Daet is of course the world-class surf action off the wide and long gray sand beach of Bagasbas (sand break) which opens out to the Pacific Ocean. Locals claim that Bagasbas is the real cradle of Philippine surfing – of course that is still open to debate. One thing is for sure, we were not disappointed by the waves of Bagasbas. Certified surf instructors as well are available and boards are for rent at competitive prices. Look out for rip tides though as the place was quite notorious for them as well – we didn’t seen any that time, but if you are on your own, make sure to be on your guard. Kite-boarding, another growing sport, is another popular activity in the area. In February 2009, Bagasbas hosted the First International Kiteboarding Competition in the region. Having the surfer ambience going on, Bagasbas has a very laidback feel, the shacks of restaurants/karaoke bars and tiny backpacker resorts line a tiny strip fronting the beach. Save for the loud singing from the karaoke bars, overall Bagasbas was an awesome place.
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Just on the San Miguel Bay and about 20-30 minutes (via Bagasbas) and 30-45 minutes (via Mercedes town) by motorboat are the gorgeous Mercedes Group of Islands. Composed of 7 islands, it was such a pleasant surprise how beauties like these have been kept from the national tourism spotlight for so long. First, there is the dramatic lighthouse on Canimog Island which is considered to be the oldest in the entire Bicol Region. Canimog Island also boasts of coral gardens, rich and teeming with huge and healthy coral growth and marine fauna. On several occasions hundreds of flying fish would do their aerial acrobatics around our boat while we were cruising along. By the lighthouse on Canimog (where you also camp), you will have such sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, the beautiful cliffs and rock formations, as well as an eye on the thousands of huge bats literally hanging out in the island’s lush foliage.
Photo by Scott M.Allford
Next to the island of Canimog are the stunning islands of Apuao Pequeña and Apuao Grande (the two islands are connected by a white sand bar and you can actually walk between the two islands during low tide) whose long stretches of white sand beaches lined with pine-like agoho trees similar to the overrated Anawangin Cove in Zambales (only a million times better – cleaner, significantly less people, and definitely has a white sand beach). Apuao Grande used to be the home of once a high-end resort which fell into disrepair. Now, most of the villas are leased to many expatriates who decided to settle on the island. The coves of Canton Island also beg to be explored either by swimming, or rappelling. The rest of the islands – Malasugui, Caringo (Australians and Germans have been frequenting this island) and Quinapaguian all have white sand beaches, and beautiful sand bars and almost no tourists! Island-hopping is from PhP 1800-2000. Be responsible and demand a working life vest all the time.
Aside from the Mercedes Group of Islands, the Calaguas Group of Islands is slowly making its way to one of the most promising beach getaways in the Philippines and possibly around the world for its white sand and aquamarine colored waters. Currently, the island does not have any running water, no resorts, no toilet, and of course no electricity – which means, be prepared to camp out as a return daytrip by boat can cost a hefty PhP 6,000.00 at the latest rates – it’s really a cheaper option to gather your friends and camp out instead.
Our contact, the affable and extremely helpful Melvic Briñas (+63.909.2944444/ +63.922.2472111/ +63.906.5144444 melvicbrinas.multiply.com) organizes trips to the Calaguas Islands, Mercedes Group of Islands and Bagasbas (surfing and kite-boarding) area.
Another must-see island is the island of Quinamanucan which is 20-35 minutes by boat from Vinzons town. The island has spectacular wall dives with drop offs shooting up from 1000 meters down as well as having impressive underwater gardens that count stony, whip, soft corals, black corals and many others.
Back on the mainland, Camarines Norte has heaps of unexplored caves and mountains and waterfalls. 18 kilometers west of Daet is the Mananap Falls in San Vicente (requires a hike of 2 kilometers uphill) and the 70 feet tall Colasi Falls in Barangay Colas, Mercedes (one hour from Daet town centre by jeepney and 3 hours hike to the waterfalls). Other notable waterfalls in Camarines Norte are Pag-asa Falls, Binuan Falls, Maligaya Falls, Malatap Falls (almost equidistant from the towns of Labo, Jose Panganiban and Capalonga) as well as the Twin Falls near Sta. Elena town. 30 kilometers south of Daet in the town of Mercedes, you can also find the soda spring in Barangay Lanot.
Amongst the local festivals, the biggest is the Bantayog Festival where the twelve municipalities of the province celebrate the foundation of Camarines Norte which features the various practices, folklores, and beliefs and as the name suggest (Bantayog means monument in Tagalog), it centers on the first Rizal monument built and is commemorated around the dates running up to April 15th of every year. Activities include parades, sand sculpture contests, exhibits, fireworks display and fairs.
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Why Not Go
If you are on the lookout for classy hotels and efficient tourist infrastructure then Camarines Norte is sorely lacking in these factors. However, if you are out to laze around on a beach and you can do without the annoying touts or you want to explore rugged mountains, Camarines Norte is a great place for you.
Camarines Norte is mostly off the traveler’s list mainly because of a dearth in local tourism promotion. This means that it is not overrun by hordes of tourists and you would have a good feel of the local culture and its many beautiful places not usually advertised widely. What it lacks in tourist numbers it makes up for with the numerous beautiful places that a person with the spirit of adventure would truly appreciate.
Best Time to Visit
Camarines Norte is a great year-round destination. During the typhoon season when the swells grow bigger in Bagasbas, it only means that it’s time to head out to surf. Otherwise, even during long weekends, the islands (at least at the time of this writing) rarely get any visitors even during notorious long weekends
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Where & What to Eat
What we missed in Camarines Sur was more than made up for in Daet. The nice lady we met on the bus heard our quest for the great Bicolano fares and was more than happy to oblige to treat us to the authentic and absolutely delectable Bicol Express, Tuna Express, Sinantol (dish made from santol fruit), Laing and Kinunot. Heavy use of coconut cream and chili peppers are basically the trademarks of Bicolano cuisine. Mrs. Doyet Garcia’s Lutong Bahay, a small eatery on Mercedes Road in Daet whipped up the best Bicol fare we ever had in living memory. If you are ever in the area, contact her (Doyet Garcia- +63.928.5011821) in advance so she can prepare these dishes at very, very good prices. Our most favorite among the dishes is of course the Bicol Express and Tuna Express whilst we had a dilemma with the Kinunot. Not because of its taste, but what it was actually. We were informed that this mashed meat dish mixed with coconut cream and chili was from a hammerhead shark which even after several reassurances from well-meaning locals, was still a little bit difficult to swallow considering that hammerheads which are abundant in the San Miguel Bay (off Bagasbas), are actually an endangered species. In other versions of the dish, Kinunot is made out of stingrays instead hopefully none of them are endangered too (there are at least 5 stingray species that are currently listed as endangered). Overall though, we’d want to take a trip to Daet if only to have another go of Mrs. Garcia’s super yummy Bicol Express!
Thanks Mrs. Doyet Garcia for these yummy treats!
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Another great place for good eats is Alvino’s right in Daet town, which has more mainstream Filipino choices and some more treatment of the Filipino style of eating. Set meals are wrapped neatly in banana leaves and paper and the presence of disposable plastic gloves means that the meals are eaten by hand.
The diner at Surfer’s Dine-Inn in Bagasbas was as expected a little overpriced and the La Paz Batchoy was far from authentic.
Another must-try in Camarines Norte is the Camarines Norte Queen pineapple as the province cultivates this pineapple variety extensively. The province was ranked 4th in the entire Philippines in terms of area planted.
Camarines Norte nightlife centers in its capital town Daet which includes laidback cafes and restaurants. A similar tropical island vibe can be gleaned on Bagasbas, a stretch of tiny resorts and restaurants and karaoke bars catering mostly to locals and visiting surfers.
My to do List
1. Take a bottle of beer or two and go island hopping!**
2. Explore the caves of Canton Island.**
3. Laze around the sand bars of Apuao Pequeña and Apuao Grande.*
4. Take photos! *
5. Visit the oldest Rizal monument ever built.*
6. Check out the food stalls of the Daet Streetfood Night Market.*
7. Surf at Bagasbas.*
8. Hike and take a dip at the Colasi Falls.**
9. Camp out at the Calaguas Group of Islands.**
10. Take a slice of the famed Camarines Norte pineapples.**
11. Dive off the Quinamanucan Island.**
12. Chill out at the lighthouse on Canimog Island.**
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Drowning – Learn to spot rip tides and make sure you wear a working life-vest!
3. Getting wet, take Ziplocs with you for your gadgets and valuables.
4. Protect yourself from UV rays by putting on a sunblock. (see a more complete list below for island camp-outs).
Things to Bring
1. Appropriate and comfortable beach attire
2. Hat to protect from the sun.
3. Tents (unless you come with a tour group, our contact Melvic has tents too)
5. Sleeping Bags
6. Flash lights/torches
7. First Aid Kit
8. Camera with ample battery power/memory cards.
9. Waterproof pouches or Ziplocs.
10. Moist towels and rolls of tissue paper
11. Huge garbage bag to protect gear while on boat as well as to put your trash back whilst on the island.
12. Waterproof jacket/raincoat
13. Snorkelling gear.
Camarines Norte can be reached by land travel from Manila by buses. Amihan (Daet -054 7213787; Manila (Pasay) – 02 8543735, 02 3855025) , Superlines (Daet – 054 5712225; Manila (Cubao) 02 4143319), and Philtranco (Daet- 054 7212030 , 054 7214350; Manila (Pasay) – 02 8515420, Manila (Cubao) 02 7227567)- buses ply the Manila-Daet route and vice versa.
Alternatively, one can fly into Camarines Sur, through the Naga Airport in Pili (45 minutes ride). Zest Air, Philippine Airlnes and Cebu Pacific from Manila and vice-versa and then it takes about 2-3 hours by bus/van from Naga to Daet. SEAIR (http://flyseair.com) used to fly the Manila-Daet route but this has proved to be seasonal, check out their website if they have flights for that route on the dates that you will be visiting. A more comfy ride through the Philippine National Railways is set to commence at the end of 2009 as well (+63.2.2549772) but can be a very, very slow way to reach Camarines Sur. If you are driving, make sure that you pick up a map and follow the scenic but sometimes hair-raising Pan-Philippine Highway.
Boat rental from Vinzons-Calaguas (day trip or not with a tour group- 2 hours boat ride) – PhP 6,000.00 and jeepney fare from Daet-Vinzons is PhP 15.00 per person; Paracale-Calaguas (1 ½ hours boat ride) by van is PhP 55.00. Tricycles in Daet is about PhP 7.00 per head for the first kilometer.