Why this low-key, undiscovered island in central Philippines is the new buzzword in adventure?
by Marco Ferrarese.
With a choice among a staggering 7,000 and more islands, it can be easy to overlook beautiful atolls in the Philippines. But when it comes to Ticao, a brushstroke of emerald thickets and white sand ringed by intense blue, the mistake is too appalling to continue staying under the radar.
Ticao is one of Masbate province’s three major rural, off-the-beaten-path, islands and floats between the more famous shores of southern Luzon and Cebu. Rather than pristine beaches, the region is known for the cowboy hats and leather lassos of the Rodeo Masbateño that is held here every April. Besides cowboys and cattle, Ticao Pass’ constant currents and plankton-rich waters lure in a variety of sea giants in the calibre of manta rays, hammerheads, thresher, and whale sharks.
The island’s only tourist fame is the Manta Bowl, an underwater atoll that offers five different divesites ranging from 19m to 24m in depth. Divers flock here on boat-trips from Donsol, an hour-and-a half north across the Ticao Pass in Sorsogon province, Luzon. Between November and June, tourists-laden bumboats rock by in search of whale sharks.
Regardless of these attractions, visitors rarely stay on the island to explore. That’s quite a pity because apart from the divesites, the rest of Ticao’s coast still remains almost untouched. Shores dotted by local fishing communities and a jungle-clad, waterfall aspersed interior are the perfect springboard for adventure seekers.
Ticao Island Resort’s (room for two including all meals starts at PHP3400) romantic beach cabanas are the ideal setting to overnight under a carpet of blazing stars, keeping toes constantly tucked in the sand, and without sacrificing comfort. The resort also offers an onsite SSI-accredited diving center, and free kayaks to paddle out at sea and explore.
Ocean activities aside, there’s much more to discover on Ticao if one is willing to follow the rhythms of nature. We discover it by accepting a friend’s invitation that sounds too alluring to our forever-adventure-seeking ears. “Come visit me in the southern tip of Ticao,” my friend wrote in an email. “I stay in a house that faces the sea alongside a village of local fishermen and their families.”
Getting there, however, turns out to be quite an adventure. After an overnight boat from Cebu to Masbate, we take local transport to a small village where we sit and wait among bemused locals for our friend’s cousin. When he finally arrives, he takes us to his very small dingy. We must jump in it for a one-hour ride across the pass’ waves.
Gulping down and not moving to keep the dingy in balance, we cross an emerald blue sea, spotting a solitary but gorgeous manta ray along the way, and finally disembark on a beach that’s so desolate and white we can’t believe our luck.
The next day we rise before the first sunrays paint the horizon purple to take a stroll on the beach and observe how the sea rules the ebb and flow of local life. It’s easy enough to convince a group of young, energetic fishermen to let us charter their bangka, a traditional Filipino wooden boat that balances over waves using four curvy outstretched poles. They welcome us on board but business comes first: we agree to wait quietly as they complete their morning fishing expedition to the southern tip of the island.
The bangka glides over the turquoise ocean like a spider floating on glass until we moor at the tiny village of Gibraltar to unload the morning’s catch. For the occasion, the beach has turned into a bustling early morning market where everybody, children included, smiles and sings away participating to the daily fishing chores. As soon as the catch has been sold and nets have been pulled back on board, one of guides turns to us, ready to keep his promise. “I’ll show you Rock Island,” he says, as we gain speed over gentle waves.
Originally called Minalayo, this tiny atoll emerges like a stony forehead topped with green, unkempt hair right across Ticao’s southernmost tip. Our boat glides into the fresh, shady embrace of its caves.
“Lookout for snakes before jumping in,” our guide warns us. It was here, in fact, that famous Filipino TV host, Dr. Nielsen Donato, spotted yellow-lipped sea kraits, among the most poisonous sea snakes in the world. We look around carefully scanning for scales, but all we see is alluring transparent water. Standing in the rocking bangka, the corals underneath look as if they were sealed under a crystal screen.
We bite on our snorkels and dive in, hoping that any sea snakes would tap into the wriggling reef underneath for their breakfast, instead of us. As expected, the only shock we receive is the amazement of swimming into some of the most crystalline waters we have ever jumped in.