Dinagat Islands is not yet known to most travellers as a tourist destination. And the Filipinos who have heard of it, often associate it with the mining industry as well as stories of a mysterious religious sect and its fugitive leader. But there is so much more to this province, its jaw-dropping moments of natural beauty and its gentle, welcoming people. We spent almost 2 weeks exploring the islands, finding out why it is, for the most part, ‘undiscovered’.
From Surigao City to San Jose
A one hour plus banka trip from Surigao city takes you to San Jose, Dinagat Islands’ capital and main hub. Here is where you’ll find Bahay Turista, the islands’ tourism office, run by its charming and friendly Mayor, Danilo “Danny” Bulabos. The house offers basic accommodation (500 Pesos per room) as well as information on the island’s various points of interest and how to get there. Bearing in mind Dinagat’s status as a relatively new destination to travellers, the tourist office is an invaluable starting-off point.
Mayor Danny told us about the young history of Dinagat Islands and outlined the most interesting sights of San Jose. We opted to leave a tour of the capital for the end of our trip and instead headed South to Cagdianao, riding our bicycles along bumpy roads and over the kinds of hills that mountainbikers revel in. After around three hours and 25 km of heavy cycling with two short stops to fill our water bottles, we finally reached the Tagbirayan Beach Resort. Located in Barangay San Jose, Cagdianao, we found the place well into the night with help from a local guiding us on his motorbike to the hidden brown sugar beach.
Cagdianao: backpackers’ heaven
There are three basic resorts along this beach and, having arrived in the dark, we chose to stay in the first one (rates are 350 Pesos for fan-room and 600 Pesos for aircon-room). Dirty, sweaty and hungry from our bike ride, we opted to shower (Filipino style tabo-tabo), eat (a lovely simple meal of grilled fish and rice) and sleep in our cosy but clean cabin, leaving the exploring for the following morning.
At first light we were greeted by the pretty, tranquil scene of a protected cove. Coconut trees sprout from the brown sand leaning into the calm waters of the bay.
As the day progresses however, you can’t help but be slightly bothered by the occasional noise of motorcycles on the road right next to you. And unless you are still charmed by the sounds of karaoke while relaxing on the beach, you might want to avoid coming on weekends. (Something to bear in mind with regards to most public beaches in the Philippines, actually.)
The municipality of Cagdianao is along the southern and eastern region of Dinagat Islands. The Barangay of San Jose (not to be confused with the capital where we began our journey) where Tagberayan Beach is a laid-back, small town on the eastern side of Dinagat Islands. With barely any internet service and the most unreliable of phone connections, it’s no wonder that this remote place is still a secret-ish destination, known only the more intrepid of backpackers looking to get away completely.
It can be reached by jeepney from the capital, but probably the best way to get to this part of Cagdianao at the moment is on motorbike, in order to discover the place as independently as possible. Keep in mind that the non-coastal roads throughout Dinagat Islands can be tricky and, especially during the rainy season from November to June (different to other areas in the Philippines), it might sometimes be difficult to use the still unfinished roads.
After some quiet beach time and ok snorkelling, we decided to head back to the municipality of San Jose, stopping by Dinagat town along the way. This is the oldest town on the islands and seemingly poorer than the others. It’s obvious not many travellers come through here as our visit to the sari-sari store for lunch drew some interest from the locals. We went from alone upon arrival to surrounded by the time we left.
Realising that most of these roads are bicycle-unfriendly, we decided to ride back to San Jose, the capital, and leave the pedal-powereds there for the rest of our Dinagat Islands adventure. We found no official motorcycle rental agencies so just asked around and struck up a deal with one of the locals. Tip: bring a motorbike along from the mainland if you can, or if you do manage to rent one on the island, make sure its capable of handling hills and rocky and muddy roads.
The next day, we took off and headed north through Basilisa and into Libjo. It was a long, tiring journey but with many pretty sights along the way.
Basilisa is known for Lalaking Bukid, the man shaped land formation incorporated into the legend of how Dinagat was born. Also of significant interest here is Lake Bababu which we did not get to go to this time around but look forward to seeing on our next visit.
The central road goes from being brand new in some parts to almost non-existent in others. Construction is evident throughout, and guesses as to when the approximately 80km long north to south highway will be completed vary depending on who you ask.
Libjo – Kisses Islets
The town of Libjo itself is not exactly a tourist destination, more a jumping off point to get to the Kisses Islets and the secluded beaches surrounding them. It’s a relatively comfortable pump boat ride from the dock by the public market, depending on the season, and easy enough to organise with any of the local fishermen. Having visited during the Habagat season, our trip across was wavy enough to keep most other small vessels on shore. But once cruising through the waters that these jaw-dropping limestone formations project from, it was certainly well worth the one hour plus trip.
The scenery here reminds you of El Nido and even Koh Phi Phi, Thailand with one important exception…you are almost completely alone. Alone in the sense that there are no other tourists around, only the very occasional one man fishing boat or lone caretaker on a private beach. You get the feeling that you’ve discovered something special.
The shallow turquoise waters protected by these gorgeous little islets are calm and inviting. You can barely wait to jump off the banka and soak into the welcoming aquamarine. And perhaps if this were more developed, like El Nido, kayaks would be the ideal way to explore the islets. But for now, the easy swim (in some places) from one to the next with mask and snorkel isn’t bad either.
Accommodations available in Libjo include H2 Your Place Inn & Resto and Seaview Inn, both located on the main road of the town. And apart from the odd barbecue stall (which won’t be operating if it’s been raining), there isn’t much choice for food in Libjo. The locals mostly eat at home and the place is not yet set up for tourists. Don’t let the word “Resto” fool you into assuming that food is served at H2 Your Place; it isn’t or at least wasn’t at the time that we were there. With regards to accommodation though, we would recommend this over Seaview. There is no menu at Seaview Inn but the proprietors can prepare you an over-priced, highly seasoned, fatty meal, if you like. Other attractions in Libjo include the Quano Cave and Blue Lagoon.
The next day, it was back on the motorbike and again heading north. We rode through Tubajon and straight into the town of Loreto.
Upon arriving in Dinagat Islands’ northernmost municipality, you get a sense that here is a town more accustomed to visitors than other parts of the island. The mining industry is very evident here. With their head offices often in Manila and their buyers from China and Japan, it makes sense that there is an infrastructure set up to receive visitors at their base of operations. It has considerably more accommodation options – a couple of boarding houses and hotels that receive guests regularly, as well as Cups and Plates, a decent restaurant also offering rooms above it. It is a long tiring ride to get here as the roads, like in other parts of the island, are under construction.
Loreto’s main claim to fame from a tourist perspective is the Bonsai Forest, thought to be the largest in the Philippines. However, a very important point to note before you make the trek out there is that it is not normally accessible to tourists. The mount that the forest sits on is owned by a few different companies actively mining chromite from it’s depths. As we learned when we arrived, special written permission has to be applied for and granted through the mining company’s head office in Manila in order to obtain access; a process which would take days. So the next few hours consisted of locating the local council officials and negotiating a way into the forest so that the arduous trip to the north of Dinagat would not be in vain.
By evening, after calls between officials and their contacts within the company, it was agreed and organised that we ‘d be picked up and driven to the forest the next morning. Sure enough and exactly on time, our chariot arrived and we were escorted by the barangay captain himself, along with company employees through the mining operations and onto the mountain top.
To be honest, after all the trouble it took to get here, I was initially a little disappointed. For a novice like me, it just looked like a pretty landscape covered in knee-high bushes. It wasn’t until after closer inspection that these “bushes” revealed themselves to be perfect miniature versions of the same full grown trees we’d seen at lower altitudes. That’s when I thought: “impressive!”
There was some fog that hid much of the scenery that morning but it was still worth the look.
Tubajon: adventures on a sub-standard motorbike
We left Loreto, started to head back down south through Tubajon intending to check out its Bat Sanctuary when we got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. With not a house, let alone vulcanizer in sight, we were extremely lucky to stumble upon a group of miners who took time out of their lunch break to repair the tire with makeshift tools, expecting nothing in return. And on top of that, they were kind enough to invite us to share in their food.
After that 2 hour plus break, we were on our way again, opting to forego the bat sanctuary and negotiating our way down the rocky roads, fingers crossed that the temporary repair would hold, when suddenly we were struck by some heavy rains.
At this stage, we realised how an off-road motocross bike would have been more appropriate than the one person city bike with bald tires that we hired for the very hilly and now slippery clay roads. But hey, beggars can’t be choosers and as, on many occasions, one of us had to get off the bike while the other negotiated it though super slippery hills, we had to laugh and remind ourselves that it is all part of the adventure.
The laughing stopped when the rain and roads got so bad that we decided to find some accommodation and bunker down for the rest of the day and overnight. Finding out that our list of available accommodations was out of date, it was back to Libjo for the night. At this stage, the bike’s chain also decided to give way, so the overnight stay became a necessity.
The next day, we got on the road again heading back to San Jose for our last days on Dinagat Islands. The laughing resumed when we had to buy this bright blue plastic children’s raincoat for the ride.
On our third and final time in the capital, we managed to get to know it a little better and gained some affection for it’s hilly roads, panoramic views and friendly people. Signs of the PBMA (the Philippine Benevolent Missionary Association) are more prevalent here than anywhere else on the islands. With their founder’s shrine and castle dominating the vista, its hard to ignore. But despite the air of mystery that shrouds the secret handshakes, members’ signet rings and ceremonial whites, they are open and happy to talk about their beliefs if you are interested enough to ask.
Mayor Danny took us on some pleasant walks through the town at night and to a couple of good eateries. Habal-habals are also available though and recommended if you struggle walking up the steeper roads.
Tourism on the islands
Tourists are still somewhat of a novelty in Dinagat, but this is slowly changing. And although the locals can initially be shy, we found them to be friendly and even eager to invite us to meals at their homes.
The infrastructure to cater to visitors is far from set up and in some areas completely non existent, which of course lends Dinagat the charms that adventurous travellers are in search of. However, the tourism office is actively working on plans to welcome more tourists and encourage investment in an ecologically balanced manner.
And with Dinagat Islands’ abundance of appealing destinations, the well-received triathlon it hosted last year, and the eventual completion of its main road, it won’t be too long before this gem is ‘discovered’.
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[This article was originally published on May 1, 2014 and last updated on January 17, 2017.]