March 29, 2014

Travel Bites: The smiling land of beauty

THE province of Cagayan is known as a spelunker’s and game fisher’s paradise.

It has a number of caves that attract the adventurous who bravely go into their deeper recesses to gaze at formations that took millions of years to shape by dripping water.

With the waters from the Pacific Ocean swirling in to meet the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), a mix of fish species can be caught off the municipality of Santa Ana and Palaui Island, which sports fishers say can rival even Hawaii’s best fishing areas.

Tourists will also likely enjoy visiting Cagayan’s historic churches, hiking through its lush mountains, or just chilling by the beach.

Palaui Island is a declared marine reserve and features a white beach, rugged terrain, and an ancient lighthouse. (Photo from
Its most celebrated time of the year is the Aggao na Cagayan held in the province’s capital of Tuguegarao City every year  from June 23 to 29, with the last day having been declared a non-working holiday since then-President Ferdinand Marcos’s time. This year will be the festival’s 430th year, which will likely be observed with beauty contests, sports tournaments, street dancing, an exhibit of local art and indigenous products and a trade fair.

Also during the month of August, Tuguegarao residents gather for their annual Pav-vurulun Festival. The weeklong affair features a variety of activities in honor of its patron saint, Saint Hyacinth, whose feast day is on August 16.

While in Cagayan, one must not miss its famous dish called Pancit Batil-Patong, made up of miki noodles and topped with minced carabao meat, pork chicharon, bean sprouts and other vegetables and a sunny-side up egg. It is usually mixed with a sauce of vinegar, soy sauce and calamansi with chopped onions.


FIRST stop in a tour of the province should be the Cagayan Provincial Museum and Historical Research Center (Capitol Hills, Tuguegarao City). It features extensive research on the Callao Cave, where the fossilized remains of the so-called Callao Man were discovered in 2007. While research is still ongoing on the Callao Man’s origins, some believe he could antedate the 47,000-year-old Tabon Man and could be the ancestor of the Atis, who were the first indigenous tribe in Cagayan. The museum also houses antique pieces and religious artifacts.

The Callao Cave (municipality of Peñablanca) with its seven chambers is probably the most popular tourist spot in the province. It has magnificent limestone rock formations, which look like an elephant’s head, an angel, a dog’s head, a lion’s head, etc. Shafts of light illuminate darker recesses of the cave through natural crevices in the rocks. Locals have turned its first chamber into a chapel.

One must climb about 190 steps to get to the cave’s main entrance. Local tour guides are available to take visitors into the cave. (Getting there: From the city’s main terminal, take a jeep or tricycle going to the town of Peñablanca—you can ask the driver to drop you at the dock where bancas ply the clean and scenic Pinacanauan River, which will lead you to the Callao Cave. Local entrance fees apply.)

With some 300 caves that can be explored in Cagayan, it’s best to consult professional spelunkers to guide you. Contact the Sierra Madre Outdoor Club (078-844-2359/0917-2726-494. Look for Francisco Battung).

Pinacanauan River itself is a tourist attraction and visitors can pay the boatmen a fee to take them around the river. By 6 p.m., there is a particular spot on the river where one can marvel at the scores of bats flying out to look for their first meal of the day.

The Basilica Minore de Nuestra Señora de Piat (The Basilica of Our Lady of Piat) is dubbed the Pilgrimage Center of the North as thousands of devotees go there to pray to the over 400-year-old Black Virgin Mary. There is a stairway that leads to the back of the Lady, where devotees can touch her dress through small windows. The feast of the Lady is on July 2. (From the Tuguegarao City terminal, take a bus or jeep going to Piat.)

The Basilica of Our Lady of Piat, above, 
and its most venerated resident, below. 
(Photos from
One should also drop by the Saints Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral along Rizal Street, Tuguegarao City,  famous for its five-story belltower. White columns frame the structure built from red bricks. Another must-visit is the Iguig Church and the nearby Calvary Hills, whose main attraction is the life-sized 14 Stations of the Cross. (From Tuguegarao, take a passenger van to Iguig, then a tricycle to Calvary Hills.)

If you’re into game fishing, check out the municipality of Santa Ana, on the north coast of Cagayan. (Take a passenger van from Tuguegarao to San Vicente—about three hours away). The waters are home to the Pacific sailfish, Pacific black and Pacific blue marlin, Giant Trevally, Sailfish, Wahoo, King Mackerel, Dorado and the barracuda. The Philippine Game Fishing Foundation (PGFF) ( hosts regular local and international game fishing competitions there. Planes may be chartered to land at the Philippine Navy Camp where the PGFF maintains its own fishing camp.

Some local anglers also make the 12- to 14-hour trip from Manila to Santa Ana, dragging their own light boats for deployment in waters. April to June are the usual months for sailfishing, but other anglers are known to catch fish even during the monsoon season.

From the port in San Vicente, one can also take a boat trip to Palaui Island where a centuries-old lighthouse still stands. (Supposedly the Cagayan Economic Zone Authority is undertaking its rehabilitation.) Located on a hill in Cape Engaño (a 30-minute hike), the lighthouse and its environs provide a panoramic view of the rolling terrain and the surrounding waters, the same overwhelming raw beauty one can see in Batanes.

Santa Ana is also home to the pristine Anguib Beach with its creamy white sand perfect for lying around under sun. Its waters are quite shallow but so transparent, one can see through straight to the sea floor. There are no beachfront resorts here, which probably explains why it remains to be in relatively immaculate condition. There are small huts for rent where you can store your stuff and eat. There are grilling stations where you can cook freshly caught seafood by fisherfolk. (Either take tricycle ride from town proper or a boat ride from the San Vicente pier.)

Another beach that shouldn’t be missed is the remote Centinela Beach in the town of Claveria, with its fine sand and tranquil waters. (Take a passenger bus from Tuguegarao to Claveria, then a tricycle to the beach.)
Check out the Department of Tourism’s web site for other interesting sights in Cagayan.

Where to stay
IN Tuguegarao City, try out the newly opened Hotel Lorita (67 Rizal Street, 078-846-2565) with its inexpensive rooms, and a courteous staff that go out of their way to make each guest’s stay very memorable. It’s also located strategically in the city proper, and has its own café.

In Santa Ana check into Jotay Resort ( with its clean rooms, swimming pool and Internet access. It also offers boat trips for sport fishing or beach tours. It has a shuttle bus service from Tuguegarao.

Getting there

PHILIPPINE Airlines and Cebu Pacific fly daily to Tuguegarao.

You can also take the bus from Manila to Tuguegarao via Victory Liner from its Pasay City terminal or Florida Bus from its Sampaloc, Manila, terminal (T# 743-3809/912-5354/781-5894).

By private vehicle, from the North Luzon Expressway passing San Fernando, Pampanga, drive along the national highway all the way through Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija; Bayombong City, Nueva Vizcaya; then taking the Santiago-Tuguegarao road in Santiago, Isabela, and arriving in Tuguegarao. The trip takes about  seven to10 hours depending on your car speed and the number of stops you make along the way.

(This piece was originally published in the BusinessMirror on May 27, 2013.)

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