Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Camotes Island - In the Land That Time forgot

From the start, I have always been reluctant to visit Camotes Island. It has been a lifetime away since my mother last stepped on the craggy lands that I have only heard in mythical anecdotes and endearing recollections. The stories date back from when the Japanese forces reached the shores of its fertile lands – so distant that it might as well be at the far ends of the earth. These were stories from my lolo (grandfather), while the later recollections were from my mother. For her, it has been ages since she sailed away the legendarily tempestuous seas that separate the island from Cebu City. Back then, she just met my father who was wooing her - by braving the seas twice! Back then too, a boat ride to the islands from Cebu City was once every 2 weeks. And when the weather doesn’t allow, you find yourself stranded in never-never land for a month.
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.
Additional Information:

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.

At dawn, the guardhouse casts a solitary figure in the middle of the serene ocean.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


cagayan de oro resorts said...

Great article and thanks for the tips. Now I am really pumped-up and ready to go there. I cannot wait already!

eye in the sky said...

Hey. Thanks. I am green with envy. I loved Camotes and I've been wishing to visit again. It's so "distant" from "civilization" and the general attitude is laidback, relaxed. I do hope it stays like that. Chances are, it wouldn't.

Camotes blogposts in this blogsite have been, for a long time - despite not having a lot of comments here - one of the most read pages (sitemeter). You'd be surprised where these readers come from: mostly Europe! Several other tourists are too shy to write or ask here so they have emailed me in the past instead - half a dozen actually. This should mean that manual traffic in that part of the country is starting to pick up.

I am glad you get to see Camotes. Every wanderlust should!

Cool website too -

Have a safe trip! :->

Anonymous said...

Hi! It's great to see a fan of Berlin Calling! Would like to ask regarding the travel times of the fastcraft from Cebu port to Camotes? Thank you!

eye in the sky said...

I am not sure I got the reference to "Berlin Calling", which is a DVD title I have seen in the past.

As to the travel times, you have to remember that my visit there was 2 1/2 years ago, and things (and schedules) could have changed (although I reckon they are the same). During that time, there were 2 rides available that day, one at around 7:30AM, and another at 11 AM. No fastcrafts run in the afternoon because of the condition of the seas. The trip takes 2 hours to reach Camotes.

I am also aware that another shipping (Aznar Shipping) line services sea vehicles like the fastcraft departing from Danao City (1 hour north of Cebu City proper) and though travel is smoother (calmer area of the sea), it takes longer at 4 hours.

It used to cost P340 per person (one way ticket). I doubt if they hiked it up by much since then.

I don't have updated rates or schedule. There's a photo somewhere here in one of our Camotes posts that has the phone number of fastcraft if you want to be sure.

Have a safe trip! And have fun!

Anonymous said...

I've been doing a lot of research about camotes island. Never been there but looking forward to experience what you had 3 yrs ago. I had so much fun reading your story. It reminded me in all my traveling around the globe...what an adventure!!

eye in the sky said...

Thanks. The wonderment about the island is mostly because it is unspoiled and not much of civilization has reached it, especially the eastern part.

It sometimes feels like getting marooned because, unlike the rest of the country, phone signals, internet, transportation and electricity are intermittent or close to non-existent. And the beauty of the islands is unparalleled.

Good luck with your travels.