Rising from the sea just off the coast of Northern Mindanao, is the volcanic island of Camiguin with its lush and formidable mountains, natural springs, sandbars and dramatic ruins that reminds all of the savage beauty of its tumultuous natural history.
Camiguin’s moniker had always been “Island Born of Fire” and the local tour guides on the island could haven’t mastered their tourism manual more as this is what they told me when I asked them what the island is known for. The branding could not have been more appropriate as the island has the most number of volcanoes per square kilometer than any other island in the world – as it is more evident in the fact that there are more volcanoes (7) than towns (5) with more than 20 cinder cones over 1000 meters with the active stratovolcano Mount Hibok-hibok (1,552 metres) as the most prominent. Aside from Hibok-hibok and Vulcan, there is also Mambajao, Ginsiliban, Uhay, Carling, and Tibane as well as the hills of Campana, Minokol, Tres Marias and Piyakong where there are also domes and cones – put them together in a tiny island and you have the most extensively volcanic island in the world.
Photo by Erick
It was said to be that Camiguin got its name from a native tree called “Kamagong” which thrives by Lake Mainit in the province of Surigao del Norte. With the original inhabitants of the islands being Manobos who migrated from Surigao, it is no wonder that the name of the province was derived from something where the first settlers came from.
The first Spanish settlements were built in 1898 in the area presently called Guinsiliban, which came from an old Kinamiguin word “Guinsilipan”, meaning to look out for pirates from a watchtower as evidenced by an old Spanish watchtower still standing in the area. It wasn’t until 1679 when the first major Spanish settlement was established in Katagman (now called Barangay Bonbon) of Katadman (now known as Catarman). When Mt. Vulcan Daan erupted on May 1, 1871, the town was destroyed and all that remained of the old town were the ruins of the ancient Spanish church, a convent and a bell tower called the Guiob Ruins.
Photo by storm-crypt
It was in 1855 when the sleepy town of Mambajao was established. The town which became the busiest port in Northern Mindanao during the early 1900’s, was coined from “Mamahaw”, a Visayan term meaning to start breakfast and “bajao” which meant leftover rice.
It was in 1901 when the Americans took control if the island and the public school system was established in Mambajao in 1903, with the first public school as well as a water system the year after. The presence of well preserved American-era schoolhouses in Camiguin proved the enduring legacy of the Americans in the island up until today. The island was also the site of fierce skirmishes between Philippine forces and guerrilla units against the Japanese Imperial Army which resulted to the liberation of the island during the Battle of Camiguin in 1945. After the Second World War from 1946 until 1958, Camiguin was ruled as a part of the province of Misamis Oriental and eventually 10 years later became a full-fledged province with Mambajao standing in as its capital.
However, whilst Camiguin’s political history moved with the rest of the country, it was nature that basically defined its entire character. A visit to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology Hibok-hibok Monitoring Station reveals the turbulent natural history of this tiny island province of only 20 kilometers in length and 15 kilometers in width. Photos of the destruction and loss of life are displayed in the monitoring station, offering a glimpse of the maelstrom of liquid fire that hides underneath the island. For the years between 1948 until 1951, Hibok-hibok slept fitfully with constant rumbles and smoke being spewed which caused little damage and loss of life. The volcano became more violent in 1949 when its eruption killed 79 people from landslides. The worst, however, happened on the morning of December 4, 1951 when Hibok-hibok unleashed its fury of molten lava, poisonous gases that destroyed 19 square kilometers of land and claimed over 3,000 lives. Today one can hire guides from resorts for a trek up Hibok-hibok which can be a steep climb but you may have to check with the local DENR office in Mambajao for a permit.
Near the Guiob ruins in Bonbon is the sunken cemetery – one of Camiguin’s most famous landmarks. The sunken cemetery which used to be a part of the old capital of the province was sunk by the successive eruptions of Mount Vulcan. The eruption of 1871 eventually sunk Cotta Bato and its cemetery under the sea, and the volcanoes fourth recorded eruption in 1948 buried the remnants further by about 20 feet. To remember the cemetery, a large cross was built in 1982 on the solidified lava.
Photo by paw_con
Because of the volcanic nature of Camiguin, it is no surprise to find a lot of natural springs around the island, the most popular of course is the Esperanza Ardent Hot Spring, 6 kilometers southwest of Mambajao, a hot spring which is heated by the vents of Hibok-hibok swarms with people around night time (different levels purportedly have different temperatures) and the Sto. Niño Cold Spring, 4 kilometers south of central Catarman, which has doctor fish in its cold pools. There is minimal fee for admission. Aside from these two popular springs, there are other springs in Camiguin as well, like the Tangub Hot Spring (12 kilometers west of Mambajao), which is a volcanic hot spring below the sea bed with water temperatures running from cold to lukewarm to hot depending on the tides. Off shore, about 10-20m, there is scuba diving with a gradual drop off. In the town of Mahinog, one can find the Macao Cold Spring and the Bura Soda Water Swimming Pool in the town of Catarman.
For those on the lookout for white sandy beaches, there are two most notable – the beaches and the dive spots of Mantigue Island which is located about 3 kilometers offshore from Mahinog. The island has a 4 hectare forest with white sand beaches and corals as well as a deep drop off for snorkeling and diving. The most famous strips of white sand in Camiguin, however, are the two white sandbars (called White Island) about 2 kilometers offshore from Agoho and Yumbing with the prodigious Hibok-hibok looming as a backdrop. The white sandbar was quite strange to us seeing that just 2 kilometers on the Camiguin island jump off point is a beach made out of volcanic grey-black sand. The sandbars are popular destinations for locals and tourists for their picturesque and graceful arcs in the middle of the sea. We also spied a flock of birds resting on one of the ends of the sandbars. Boats to and from and White Island are about PhP400-PhP500. Demand a working life vest as the waters between the mainland and the White Island can be very rough. There is no shade on the White Island, so bring heaps of sun protection as well. Camping overnight is not allowed because of the danger of waves. The island used to have structures; however, according to our guide- Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who went to Camiguin for a surprise visit, had them dismantled as the threats of uncollected trash were imminent. Now the White Island is being carefully managed by the local government to preserve its beauty. A minimal entrance fee is also required.
Photo by storm-crypt
Probably one of the most graceful looking waterfalls that we have ever seen – Katibawasan Falls (about 5 kilometers southeast of Mambajao) is a clear stream of water dropping 70 meters down into a rock pool with gorgeous tropical foliage framing this beautiful waterfall. One can rappel down this waterfall as well and take a plunge in its cold water afterwards. There is a minimal fee required and picnic tables are available in the area. Another waterfall worth your trip would be Tuasan Falls, 6 kilometers east of Catarman that can be accessed by a scenic hike.
Why Not Go
Camiguin’s main drawback is the relatively high cost within the island. Accommodations and transportation costs are the main problem. Whilst costs can be contained, so far, Camiguin has been one of the most expensive destinations we’ve ever visited.
A sunken cemetery which can probably never be seen anywhere in the world? Gorgeous white sand bars with a towering volcano as a backdrop? Or the graceful Katiwabasan Falls? These are some of the things that convinced us to pack our bags and head out to Camiguin. The sheer lush scenery and the laidback island vibe of Camiguin is a top drawer.
Best Time to Visit
Camiguin is largely spared from typhoons that continually plague the northern part of the Philippines during the wet season. With mostly great year-round weather, probably the best time to visit Camiguin, like any Camiguin local would tell, you is during their yearly Lanzones Festival usually around the third week of October. If you want to skip the rush of tourists however, any day of the year is perfect to visit (it goes without saying that in the Easter Season as well as summer breaks, hordes of tourists come to visit this lovely island).
Photo by paw con
Where to Stay
Fancy staying on a really quirky, spacious and maze-like trippy accommodation on top of a hotel wrapped around a century old acacia tree? We did when we ended up staying in the uber-charming, environmentally friendly Enigmata Treehouse (also known as Ecolodge and Sculpture Garden). There are four types of accommodation – the Eagle’s Nest which sits at the treetop and has a great view of the mountains, and forests of the island, a wide hammock, canopy beds (2), a dining area, a toilet and shower. Materials are basically made out of recycled materials, bamboo, found materials and designed with Mandalas art, bamboo wind chimes, and probably the most number of dream catchers of every size I have ever seen. Nevertheless, whether from the sheer exhaustion from travel or from the dream catchers- we had a pretty good, relaxing, dreamless sleep that night accompanied by a friendly house cat in our bed. Eagle’s Nest accommodation costs PhP950 a night for a minimum of two guests. PhP 200 for extra person). Other accommodations in the tree house is the mid level Shell Garden Suite, a midlevel honeymoon suite costs PhP950 a night for a minimum of two guests. PhP 200 for extra person). The thing though is, the tree house is not entirely sound proof, so coupled with the pretty quiet nights in Camiguin, you may have to reconsider to put off THAT honeymoon activity. There is also a backpacker’s dorm (PhP500/night, minimum of two) and the bartender’s dorm (PhP 400/night, minimum of two) both at the ground level. We absolutely loved Enigmata Treehouse especially with its eco-friendly practices and the very restful stay we had. As we support sustainable and eco-friendly travel – Enigmata gets our absolute recommendation when traveling to Camiguin. You may contact them through their website at – Enigmata – Camiguin Lodge
Photo by Dave Ryan
Where & What to Eat
Camiguin is synonymous with the beige colored fruit with sweet, fleshy meat called Lanzones which grow abundantly on the island. It must be from the highly fertile volcanic soil of the island that previously Lanzones non-lovers like our expat writer Scott M. Allford was easily converted to a big Camiguin Lanzones fan. Camiguin Lanzones are quite distinct from other Lanzones we have tasted from other parts of the Philippines as they are consistently sweet. The people of Camiguin love their Lanzones so much that they even have a Lanzones Festival celebrating them every third week of October.
Another Camiguin gastronomic trademark would be another one for the sweet tooth. The Pastel Bread of Camiguin, delicious, soft buns with moist candied milk filling is never ever to be missed whilst traveling to Camiguin. It also comes in different fillings like Durian and many others. You may want to grab a couple of boxes just in case, we finished our box the moment we got home to Manila.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Lanzones and the Pastel Bread can be easily had at the Benoni Port and in Mambajao.
Photo by Dave Ryan
For vegan/vegetarian visitors, Enigmata Treehouse has a restaurant with a decent vegan/vegetarian menu.
Signs of Camiguin nightlife are concentrated on some of the resort bars as well as some karaoke bars in Mambajao. During our brief stay there, we probably heard locals belting out songs in at least 3 karaoke bars around town. We haven’t checked it out, but just for kicks and some chuckles, Jewish travelers might want to head out to the Bar Mitzvah and Restaurant located along a coastal highway on your left on a drive from Benoni to Mambajao.
My to do List
1. Sunbathe on the sandbars of White Island. *
2. Visit the Guiob Ruins and the Sunken Cemetery. *
3. Dive by Mantigue Island. **
4. Try the Pastel Bread and Lanzones. *
5. Have doctor fish nibble at your toes at Sto. Niño Cold Spring. **
6. Soak in warm water at Ardent Hot Spring.*
7. Catch the local artists vibe at Enigmata Treehouse.
8. Check out Katibawasan Falls.*
9. Climb Mount Hibok-hibok.**
*- Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
Contrary to what most travel advisories say about Mindanao, Camiguin is a very safe place for travelers (local or foreign).
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.
There are several ways to go to Camiguin. One can either fly to Cagayan de Oro or Butuan and then take a bus to Balingoan and then a ferry to the island. All the major Philippine airlines fly to these cities. From Cagayan de Oro, one can take the Paras Sea Cat (about 2 hours) directly to the Camiguin port of Benoni. The town of Jagna in Bohol also has a ferry service heading to Benoni as well. Whilst there are three ports in Camiguin (Balbagon, Benoni and Guinsiliban), Benoni is the busiest. There is an airport north of Mambajao but flights are seasonal. From Balingoan to Benoni, the trip takes about 1 hour depending on weather conditions, and if you get lucky like we did, you could even see dolphins swimming alongside your ferry.
Photo by Dave Ryan
Colorful motorellas are the primary forms of transport in Camiguin, but multicabs are easier and more convenient to hire and should be able to catch at almost all points on the island within the day. Prices, like almost everything in the island, are stiff at PhP1,800- PhP2,000 for 8 hours with an additional couple of hundred of pesos for every excess hour afterwards. Arrange for a pickup with your hotel/resort for your convenience, although we ended up having to hitchhike with a very friendly family in their tiny van just to save a few pesos- which was pretty cool too.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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