We spent a couple of hours in Sabitang Laya swimming and getting sunburned in the noontime sun. After eating another packed lunch bought from Bigg's at the mainland (that food came a long way!), we packed up our makeshift picnic and prepared to move to the next destination.
Our late night finally caught up with us during the boat ride to our next stop - the island of Basud. Despite the narrow confines of the boat, we were all nodding off, lulled to sleep by the wind in our faces and the boat's gentle bobbing. It was low tide as we pulled up on one of Basud's beaches. It was not as beautiful or as inviting as Sabitang Laya, but our guide, Nene, told us snorkeling was good here just a few feet from the shore.
However, we unanimously vetoed the idea. Instead, we picked a spot under the trees and proceeded to have an afternoon beach bum siesta, as we lay cooled by the brisk breeze off the water. And we were all treated to fresh buko on the island before we set off for our last stop.
We only had enough time for another island because we had to head back to Caramoan before dark, and Nene decided to take us to the shrine of Our Lady of Peace. The shrine is located on top of a high hill - 526 steps high, to be exact - on the island of Tabgon. Even from afar, the alabaster white figure of the Virgin Mary beckoned to travelers - and promised of a full view of the entire peninsula from that vantage point.
As we approached the island of Tabgon, it was apparent that this was not going to be one of Caramoan's white sand paradise islands. Tabgon is more an agricultural center, with its crab farms, fish pens, and rice fields. Our boat was soon surrounded by murky brown waters as we approached the island pier, its concrete steps leading straight into the water. We all thought we were going to dock there, but the low tide forced our boat to stop several meters away from the shore. We would have to walk the rest of the way - in mud.
Comforted by the presence of my slippers, I plodded uncertainly through the knee-deep water, the mud sucking at my flip-flops. Unfortunately my flip-flops had other ideas, and one gave way halfway through. I spent the rest of the walk barefoot and trying to ignore the image of all sorts of unthinkables I could be stepping into.
The 526 steps leading to the shrine are carved on the steep hillside and was an impossibly long way up. Last Holy Week, the island had been overrun by pilgrims who had come to pay homage to Our Lady by making the climb. When we got to the foot of the steps, we were stunned to see the people of Tabgon of all ages making the climb with sacks of earth on their backs to help with the completion of the shrine at the top.
I am ashamed to say that no amount of persuasion could get me past step 260-something, roughly halfway though. The view at halfway up was already quite impressive, but even the enticing call of the panorama at the top wasn't enough for me to overcome my fear of heights. Even from below, I could see there were some flights with no banisters. Given how steep the steps were, how could I not look down and be terrified - with nothing to hold on to? Out of the question.
My other travel buddies had no such qualms and plodded on. With frequent rests in between flights, they managed to make it to the top and were rewarded by an amazing view of the islands spread before them in a breathtaking vista. They stayed to watch the sunset over the bay before painfully making their way back down - which was pretty hard on the knees.
We headed back to Caramoan town in the dusk. Dark was falling inexorably over the islands, with no electric lights to counter it anywhere along the shore. We were as far removed from the city as we could ever be, and I marveled at the simplicity of a life so one with nature. As we pulled into Bikal Port just as the last light of the sun was fading, I was stunned at the magnitude of the silence that fell once the boat's motor was shut down. It was a quiet that begged for whispers, the faint sounds of a videoke machine playing in the distance notwithstanding.
Starving from the day's activities, we went straight to dinner at nearby Camalig Grill, just a few steps away from our motel. We wanted to end the evening with a hearty drinking session, but our tired bodies were not up to it. After a single beer each outside our rooms, we all gave in to exhaustion and went straight to bed.
The next morning, the early risers heard Sunday mass at 6AM in the beautiful red brick church of Caramoan. After a heavy breakfast, we were on the road again - back to Guijalo port where we would were to catch the 9AM boat going back to Sabang. The weather, which had been nothing but sun the previous day, took a turn for the worse and we were once more greeted by rain.
We missed the 9AM boat by five minutes - and had to wait for two hours before a passenger boat would arrive from Sabang and make a return trip. Local authorities discouraged us from chartering a small boat to travel such a long distance given the weather. In one of those funny coincidences, after our boat finally arrived, it was carrying a group of our former interns, who were also exploring Caramoan for the first time.
Thankfully, the rain stopped on our way back, and the ride was surprisingly quite smooth. We decided to do as the natives did and rode outside the boat, all the more easy to watch the beautiful scenery. The green was cooler to the eyes this time, the sea was a cobalt blue, and the forest was shrouded by mist. But our luck didn't hold for very long, and the rain came pouring down again right before we docked at Sabang.
After a short stop at Camsur Watersports Complex so that Queenie could try the kneeboard and the rest of us could try the incredible laing pizza, we were finally on our way back to cosmopolitan Manila - and arrived in the wee hours of Monday morning. How's that for cutting it close?
Was it worth the trip? Most definitely! Living up to its hype, Caramoan is truly an untouched, barely discovered paradise that is worth visiting again and again and again. What can I say? I am completely in love - twelve hour trip be damned.
Note to self, though (and to anyone else who is interested in going) - next time we plan a trip to this incredible place, we should make block off at least three days to really make the most of our stay. But, yes, there is definitely going to be a next time!
So, are any of you free this coming May? Let me know if you have plans - I would love to tag along.