Situated between the eastern island of Ormoc and Cebu, Camotes Island is a string of 3 islands bound together by an underwater land trail. Divided into 4 major municipalities – San Francisco, Poro, Tudela, and eastern-most island of Pilar. Camotes is a place that time almost forgot.
Though tourism is starting to weave its merchandising spell, a lot needs to be done. There is a newly asphalted road that stretches around the islands – one lane encompasses the other, thus oncoming vehicles are forced to stop at the almost non-existent shoulder of the road to let the other vehicle pass. Cell phone signal is intermittent at best, although your chances of making calls improve as you go westward, somewhere in San Francisco. I had no-bar with my Smart phone, and my mother had to endure sending failures with her Globe. A few messages reached me the morning after messages were sent.
However, the most daunting of a Camotes visit is the total absence of public transportation and the lack of basic amenities for that matter. There are no public jeeps or tricycles. There’s hardly a store that sells toiletries. No restaurants. The only available means were hired “multicabs” and motorcycles which all asked for a hefty sum. The only gasoline stations were derived from make-shift stores that sell gasoline in empty Coca Cola bottles. In fact, for the whole duration of our 5-day stay, we paid for almost P5,500 for all the transportation needs. A motocycle ride from the port going to Tudela would fetch P150 per person. A multicab ride (pakyaw) from the port to the small barangay of Puertobello fetched P700 – for a 30-minute ride! These rates are highway robbery, to say the least, but you do not have a choice unless you venture to hike your way around, which really isn’t feasible, unless you have several months to stay in the island.
From Cebu City, we took a cab to Pier 1 (“Pier Uno”). This port services OceanJet crossings to Tagbilaran (Bohol) and Camotes Island! These days, there are twice daily trips pegged at P340 per person (one-way). This includes the departure tax of P20. We bought return tickets the day before the trip, although I am almost sure you can buy your ticket on-site. There was a buzz flowing through my nerves. I was anxious about a lot of things. Bottled mineral water, steady flow of electricity, local transportation, and accommodations – they were all viable concerns.
The OceanJet ride was what everyone would call “fast-craft”. “Nag fast-craft ka?” and so on… There is another ride, from the Aznar Shipping that leaves from Danao City (1 hour ride north of Cebu City) and takes 4 hours! We opted for the 2-hour OceanJet Fast-track that reaches the town of Poro, instead of the wee-bit-more-progressive San Francisco. The air-conditioned ride was comfortable. Inside, they were selling snacks – Chippy’s, softdrinks, etc. There was the expected action-comedy DVD fodder playing on the screen, Jacky Chan travelling around the world!
As we near Camotes, my mother points to a lighthouse sitting on top of a hill. She quips, “It’s still there!” The pier had nothing else but its rampway. A bare port with no shelters, no shipping offices to speak of. As we stepped out of the boat, there were a few multicabs and motorcycles hailing passengers for a ride. We had to negotiate and succeeded in bringing down a ridiculous P1,200 to P700 to get to Puertobello, some 30 minutes away. The asphalt road was seamless but “thin”, and the way south was dotted by idyllic sceneries of the coastal villages lined by hundreds and hundreds of mangroves. The opposite sides were mostly hills with rough-and-spiky stones jutting out of the soil. It felt like I was not in the Philippines at all! My job had taken me to almost every nook and cranny of this archipelago, but this terrain, this atmosphere felt err…foreign! I felt more at ease travelling around the backroads of Vietnam. We instructed the driver to take us to any guesthouse. It was a no-brainer there would be no hotels in the vicinity. We were eventually brought to a seaside locale, just a stone’s throw away from the Hagutapay port. It felt like I was in the land of the living dead. The asphalt turned into an uneven muddied road. We stopped at an unmanned gate. Minutes later, a friendly neighbor offered us seats outside the gate, while they made a production number of calling the caretaker’s attention.
This was R&N Beach Resort and Pension House, owned by the beleaguered mayor, Roger Baquerpo (N stands for Nanette, the first lady). It was an isolated compound that had seen better days, but the landscaping and the plants dotting the establishment were witnesses to a not-so-distant era of opulence. These days, the incumbent mayor is skirting an assassination attempt. Just a week ago, a bodyguard got hit by a gunman’s bullet. The alleged perpetrator mistook the bodyguard for the mayor - and shoot the wrong guy. Haha! What an idiot! These days, the mayor and his wife stay in Cebu City and just visit his municipality a few days a week – just to be on the safe side. This is an offshoot to a hotly contested electoral seat between the soft-spoken mayor – who won just by 8 votes! – and the previous mayor who lost his bid. Both candidates have had the privilege to serve as mayor in the past! Now, you talk about elections and every Camotes resident is a passionate supporter of either one of the candidates. In this far-off town –that time forgot, I should remind you! – politics casts a fatal spell!
Once we got hold of the caretakers named Jimmy and Mario (Nanette’s brother), they had to ask permission for the mayor if we could indeed stay. This was way before we knew about the political rift and the tight rope we were treading – just by being there! I was personally grateful that we were allowed. This was a guesthouse, afterall, and we were gonna pay P1,000 a day for an airconditioned room. There were 4 aircon rooms, and 4 fan rooms. There was no television. The Olympic-sized pool was drained and dry. There were 4 dogs roaming around – legendary for their brutal hunting habits (one of them allegedly killed a grazing goat the other day!) There was a problem though. There’s no restaurant anywhere within or outside the resort. This was somehow solved by giving Mario P500 to buy a neighbor’s live chicken and some eggs and a canned corned beef for breakfast.
We were to relax from there. As I stood by the veranda, I was greeted by the surreal view of the very calm seas. Crystal blue, as though a sparkling canvas. You could stare at it for hours and derive your relaxation from the scenery. Somewhere in the serene blues, stands a lone guardhouse, solitary and enthralling, surrounded by the waters. In the midst of all these, it makes you stand in silence just admiring the natural beauty that’s making this trip all worth it! It was a fitting start to a sentimental homecoming for my mother – and I was grateful to be there.
Ocean Jet has a local number. I am not sure though if this works since i didn't call from here, but you can give it a try. It is 255-7560. I don't have the area code of Cebu though, but if you are calling from the city proper, then just directly dial that number! Area code won't be needed then.
Comfortable, convenient Fastcraft aka Ocean Jet seats to Camotes Island from Cebu City's Pier Uno.
The Poro Port
Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis aka Gumamela blooming large and proud
R & N Beach Resort - this was just the accommodations area, situated far from the double gates.
The view from the veranda.
Local residence circa 1940's. It hasn't been lived on for years mainly due to the owner's wish to keep it unoccupied - plus the several ghost stories that has befell the 4 succeeding dwellers some years back - this included a nun.
Port of Hagutapay, Barangay Puertobello. This port services boats that travel the northeastern island of Pilar as well as some pumpboats that brave sailing to Ormoc.
A little "store" that sells boiled eggs, some sweets and mineral water - situated at the edge of the port.