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Lands High Above: My Isabela and Cagayan Valley Adventures

I do not write much about my travels, but the recent one I made to the North I feel was worth writing about. It was one trip I would like to remember when I’m old and forgetful.

Sand, shells, seawater and boats

Isabela and Cagayan Valley are two of the Northernmost provinces in the Philippines.They are humble provinces of crops, fisheries, clean breeze and kind people. What we originally planned as a one-destination trip turned out to be one full of great exhibition of nature’s masterpieces, all thanks to my work colleague and a dear friend, May Valiente, who generously toured us around, and whose family welcomed us to their home very warmly. She, my girlfriend, Joan, two of our friends, Bel and Mike, and I started off on a hot Tuesday afternoon at the Victory Liner bus terminal in Manila. After about 3 hours of waiting, we boarded the bus heading Tuguegarao. Three stopovers, one slasher bus movie with a bad ending, and 11 sleepless hours later, we reached Cabagan, Isabela where May’s family lives. That was where we would “station” for the next 5 days. At the house, we were greeted very kindly by May’s brother, her 95-year old grandpa (still reads on his leisure hours), and her mom, Auntie Rosie, who fed us with great, authentic meals all throughout our stay. A satisfying meal of pansit Cabagan (yellow, sticky noodles sautéed with vegetables and meat) and pandesal (literally means salted bread) jump-started us to a 3-hour car ride to Sta. Ana Free Port, where we would ride a boat to the beautiful Palaui in the Northern neighboring province of Cagayan Valley.

In Sta. Ana, we were greeted by the surprisingly cold weather. It should be almost summer in the Philippines but our rattling knees helped us realize our thin clothes, tank tops and swimsuits were a little too early for the summer heat. A “bangkero” (boatman) waited for us at the port, which we pre-contracted for PHP 3,500, for a tour from island to island around the vast Palaui area. There’s also an admission fee of PHP 50.00.

a view of the cove from the hill of Cape Engaño
a view of the cove from the hill of Cape Engaño

Our first destination was Cape Engaño. The wobbly boat ride took almost 1 hour but so much worth it. Atop a lush, green hill, which we hiked for about 20 minutes, were the ruins of the historic, Cape Engaño Lighthouse. From the hill, we had a good view of the green grass lands below with carabaos scattered, feeding around; the dancing blue ocean, swiftly blown by the wind; the luster white sands surrounding the island. At the far North, at the backside of the Cape Engaño Lighthouse, is the twin islands of Dos Hermanas.

the historic lighthouse of Cape Engaño
the historic lighthouse of Cape Engaño
The beach on the other side of Cape Engaño - This could be viewed from  behind the lighthouse on top of the hill.
The beach on the other side of Cape Engaño – This could be viewed from behind the lighthouse on top of the hill.
"Dos Hermanas" is Spanish for "two sisters".
“Dos Hermanas” is Spanish for “two sisters”.
the lush grasslands down below the Cape Engaño hill
the lush grasslands down below the Cape Engaño hill

The exhaustion brought us to the place where we stayed for the night, Punta Verde. That tookanother 1 hour or so boat ride from Cape Engaño. Punta Verde had a very narrow beach lined with stones, seaweeds and seashells. While the beach wasn’t as inviting as the others around Palaui, the guests area was more than apt for camping. When we got settled in at the guests area, we unpacked our stuff, built our tents (my girlfriend and I brought our own, but three of us had to rent theirs for PhP 250.00), cooked our meal (grilled fish and pork, and rice), ate, rested for a short while then headed to our next destination: Angib Beach.

the mangroves of Palaui
the mangroves of Palaui

Angib Beach has a pristine, powdery, white sand and a an amazing view of the refreshingly blue waters. It was perfect for swimming as the waters were not too deep and the waves were less aggressive. We stayed there for about an hour, taking pictures and playing around, then we decided to head back to Punta Verde before sunset. On our way to and from Angib, we passed through a gorgeous maze of bakawan (mangrove) where our bangkero expertly maneuvered through.

Angib Beach's white sand and blue waters
Angib Beach’s white sand and blue waters

We had some drinks before then slept at the completely dark campsite (strictly lights off at 11:00 PM – by this, I mean, energy generators are shut down to conserve electricity). I woke up at 5:30 AM to have a glimpse of the sunrise and here are some of my shots:

We afterwards headed to a small piece of land at the middle of the ocean called the Crocodile Island. No, we didn’t see any reptile of such kind but only a 360-degree view of the ocean and around. The tiny island, which practically was composed of one huge plateau rock was surrounded by smaller rocks that look really sharp and made the beach not ideal for swimming or camping. The view at the top, however, was spectacular!

the Crocodile Island beach
the Crocodile Island beach

We said goodbye to Palaui at the Sta. Ana Free Port at around 8:00 AM and we then hunt for food on the way to our next destination. We found a small “carinderia” (small, non-fancy restaurant) which served good Tocilog (sweetened pork, served with fried rice and fried egg) for less than PhP 75.00, and a good bottle of soda. We’re instantly replenished and ready for the day.

Crocodile Island jumpshot
Crocodile Island jumpshot
the Crocodile Island plateau
the Crocodile Island plateau

Caves, rivers, bats and stones

Welcome to Callao Caves
Welcome to Callao Caves

On Day 2 of our journey, we found ourselves in the Callao Caves. The smooth car ride alone along the Pinacanauan River and the Sierra Madre mountain ranges at the far west aptly satisfied the thirst for great sightseeing, but the caves that await us at the top of the 184-step hill was even more breath-taking.

Callao Caves in Peñablanca (Spanish for “white rock”), Cagayan Valley is a nature park which asks for mere PHP 20.00 for a tour inside its 7

the Callao Cave chapel
the Callao Cave chapel

limestone chambers. These caves housed stalactites and stalagmites ranging from tiny to enormous that the caves sculpted for hundreds of years. The smallest chamber and the one nearest to the main opening sheltered a small church set up with several rows of pews and an altar supporting Catholic statues of the “Sto. Niño” (Child Jesus) and Mary. Our guide, an 18-yr old student-volunteer, shared that during the Holy Week, a great number of Catholic devotees and pilgrims climb and hold vigils in the caves and there would not be enough room for all.

The final and largest chamber
The last and largest chamber

As we went further inside the, the cave chambers become larger and larger, each with a huge hole on its top that let us peek to the skies. I lost myself taking pictures and I found that i was alone in one of the chambers hearing only my friends’ echoing voices. I eventually caught sight of them at the far and last chamber that didn’t dare to go to (I didn’t admit was creeped out by the feel of the caves!)

Callao Cave 5th chamber
Callao Cave 5th chamber

Also, the Callao Caves were once a home to the so-called “Callao Man” whose bones were discovered buried just by the entrance way by some explorer.

It was lunch time when we went to a picnic spot via the Pinacanauan River, just at the foot of the mountain that hold the caves. The water is really clear and clean and the river is a spot for those who would like to swim, raft, kayak or fish. We had an authentic Peñablanca pansit (delivered by a boat from the banks), which is a Chinese noodle dish topped by crushed pork liver and vegetables. It was real tasty and only for PHP 250.00.

Pinacanauan River
Pinacanauan River
The Bat Cave
This cave is home to millions of Callao’s bats.
Pinacanauan River
a cave-like formation on the Pinacanauan River

The most exciting part, however, was when we watched about 5 million of insectivorous bats as they excitedly soared out of their cave from a small hole at the side of the mountain. This is part of their daily feeding routine; every day at twilight, after a long day’s sleep, they rapidly delve through the trees in a synchronized way for mosquitoes and many other yummy insects. Those little creatures were so much fun to watch!

Sierra Madre and Pinacanauan River
a peek of Sierra Madre from Pinacanauan River

The cave where these bats live is one of those they have not evacuated – many locals harvest  their “guano” (bat poo) for fertilizer from other nearby caves, and bats do not appreciate such kind of intrusion.

We went home at evening in May’s house in Isabela, ate bulalo (beef bone marrow soup) and stewed bichuelas (white beans) courtesy of Auntie Rosie, and the day finally ended in a snore-infested room.

A Swarm of Bats
the synchronized swarming of the Callao bats at dusk

Corn, crops, cows and dusts

along Cabagan Centro, Isabela

The 3rd day of our adventure trip happens to be Valentine’s Day. For people in far off provinces like Isabela, the day is nothing but another day and if they are to celebrate something, it is the that they are together and living.

Cagayan River
Cagayan River

We woke up early in the morning, ate a filling breakfast as usual, and head off to Cagayan River, which we would cross to get to Sto. Tomas where May’s family’s farm is to be found. The Cagayan River is the longest and largest in the entire Philippines. It travels across the provinces of Cagayan Valley, Isabela, Qurino and Nueva Vizcaya.

We rode a “kalesa” (carriage pulled by a horse) to the boat terminal, getting a good glimpse of the streets of the quaint Cabagan. The boat that could accommodate 15-20 people, awaited us and a few other commuters at the bank. Owned and being driven by an old bangkero, the boat travels to and fro the other side to transport people going to work or elsewhere. For many years, that same boat had been the main means of transportation for people who need to cross the mighty Cagayan River.

The Sto. Tomas banks were lined with sand the quality that of the sand found on a desert. Just a few yards were vast arrays of corn crops. Through the field, we rode a pink “kuliglig”, a vehicle that closely looks like the famous jeepneys, only it had three wheels like a tricycle. We painfully sat through a rough, bumpy road until we reached the farm.

A Rice field in Sto. Tomas, Isabela
A Rice field in Sto. Tomas, Isabela
a flowering cornfield in Sto. Tomas, Isabela
a flowering cornfield in Sto. Tomas, Isabela
hot day at the farm

We reached one of nipa shades around and took some rest, watching May’s family converge and chat loudly like they had not seen each other in decades. I watch them catch up with each other through laughter and stories they rapidly shared in Ibanag (the vernacular used by people of Isabela) and I admired their fondness towards each other. This moment, I thought, was something I would remember for a long time. Travelling brings us places we never saw before but it

a sumptuous dish of pinakbet
a sumptuous dish of pinakbet

also gives us an opportunity to see how other people interact with each other, which more priceless.

We roamed around some of the rice fields after regaining our energy. The soil were just being readied and loosened before rice stalks are planted and this process is called “araro”. We

also went around the prairies hunting for ripe guavas and other stray fruits, and by one of trees we rummaged for some tamarind erected a water pump bringing quenching water to the surface. The day was particularly hot and every tree yielded amazingly cold shades.

Satisfied with our finds, we headed back to our shade and ate lunch consisted of pinakbet (squash, string beans, eggplants, sautéed with shrimp paste), papaitan (soup made from boiled heart, kidney and liver or a pig), estofadong bibe (stewed duck with sugar and soy sauce) and rice. I’ve never had lunch so gratifying.

Back at May’s, one good meal of crispy pata (fried pig’s legs), a bottle of brandy, and about 20 sticks of pork barbecue soaked in spicy vinegar set us off to a late sleep.

Churches, candies, farewells and planes

the San Pablo Church.Isabela
the San Pablo Church.Isabela
A church within a church
A church within a church

The 4th day was the saddest. We all knew we were leaving for Manila at 2:00 PM and none of us wanted to do home, if not for the job that await us. We started off early to pack (most difficult part of any trip, I know) and we head off to the famous San Pablo Church (or the ruins of) in the neighboring town of San Pablo, Isabela. This church was built about 400 years ago with a tower which was said to be the tallest in Cagayan. The church has this beautiful Gothic façade but on the inside is the real, modern-looking church – it’s a church within a church!

quick pasalubong stop
quick pasalubong stop

We bade the church goodbye and headed back to Cabagan to buy goodies as “pasalubong” (stuff one brings home from trips). We stopped at a small retail store to buy roasted peanuts and on our way to the Tugueraro Airport, we stopped at Pasalubong Centre to get packs of “chicharabao” (carabao skin, deep-fried and salted) and carabao milk candies.

Two hours later, we’re boarded flight 5J507 from the calm North back to the hectic Manila. Twenty-thousand feet above ground, through the clouds, I silently said my thanks down to the multi-colored fields, the grand Cagayan River, the long Sierra Madre mountain ranges, and most of all, to the kind and hardworking people of Isabela and Cagayan Valley.

the mighty Cagayan River from 20,000 feet
the mighty Cagayan River from 20,000 feet

There are travels that change people and some of them is poignant enough to last one’s memory for a lifetime. After the trip, my body is sore, my skin is sunburned, I had rashes all over my body and I think gained pounds more than I imagined I would, but in the raucous neighborhood I went back to, I found myself wishing to go back. I will miss the great food I knew of but never had them such way they were prepared. I saw places that made me fall in love with nature all over again. And most of all, I met good people who made our stay worth reminiscing.

Special thanks to May, her mom Auntie Rosie and her family for welcoming us very warmly to their home.

Daughters, Mothers
“God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.”
― David C. Gross

PS: I plan to post all of the pictures I took of gorgeous places we’ve been to in the coming weeks (I have a good pool of 2,200 images I compulsively took to choose from!)

Please let me know of your thoughts on my travelog. If you have questions about the destinations we visited or just about anything, you may leave your comments below or send me a private message:

Missing You

Uncle Dave II

We all want to be free.

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Rara Avis

Silent Growl



Guide to a happy life #23: Forgive the darn mutt for chewing on your sandals as many times as you can. He often doesn’t mean it and his eyes tell you how sorry he is.

Many Feet


Guide to a happy life #11: Walk a thousand miles with your own tiny steps.

Dying Jelly

Guide to a happy life #10: Wish a dying jellyfish an awesome journey to heaven.


He's the only critter in Avilon Zoo who actually took time to greet us. Such a friendly fella. Avilon Zoo, Rizal, Philippines Aug 2013
He’s the only critter in Avilon Zoo who actually took time to greet us. Such a friendly fella.
Avilon Zoo, Rizal, Philippines
Aug 2013

Uncle Dave

Photo by Jano Boscher
Makati, Philippines
June 2013