(UPDATED APRIL 2019) “What’s the best beach for you?” I asked an adventurous blogger friend, who was known to just pick a place off the map and go. If he spotted a promising strip of white sand via Google Earth, he would make plans to go there.
A few years have already passed since he gave his answer to my question, but I never forgot it, and I vowed to go to his favorite beach one day. The other weekend, I finally set foot on the island he had so raved about, and it was everything he had told me, and more.
Alibijaban is an island located at the southernmost municipality of Quezon, San Andres, and is around 30 kilometers by boat away from Masbate’s Burias Island. At over 400 hectares, Alibijaban is blessed with stretches of pure white sand sand, clear waters, and lush mangroves. Its 140-hectare mangrove forest is a protected wilderness area. The island is fringed by seagrass beds and coral reefs, and neighboring waters are said to be visited by whale sharks and manta rays, which is not surprising, as the island is relatively near Bicol’s Donsol, known for whale sharks, and Ticao Island, known for manta rays.
The island has a slow and laidback atmosphere, the people open and friendly. Locals smiled and greeted us with ease. Given how Alibijaban is relatively near Manila (at least seven hours of travel time) and how it is just 20-30 minutes away from Quezon’s mainland, I was surprised how much it nostalgically felt like the small islands I love in Visayas, like Higatangan. Alibijaban has a small population (1,643 as of 2015), and has two elementary schools, though not a high school. Its waters are drawn from natural wells, and while its electricity is limited and runs only on solar panels and generators, its people’s smiles seem to be in infinite supply. The last one is my favorite in Alibijaban and the other islands that remind me of it. This was also what my adventurous traveler friend who recommended Alibijaban loved about the island.
Small wonder, though, that Alibijaban reminded me of some of Visayas’ islands, as I found out later that the people here speak a mixture of Bisaya and Tagalog. The origin of the name of the island has little to do with either language, though, as our host shared me a story from the island’s elders – that the name came from the combination of a couple’s names who visited the island – “Alibi” and “Jaban.”
Getting to the island is a manageable overnight trip. In our group’s case, our rented van left Quezon City around 1 am on Saturday, stopped for our breakfast at Lucena before 5 am, and arrived at San Andres around 10:30 am. Here, we were welcomed by our local guide and host Ronnel Lirasan, and we went shopping together at the public market for ingredients for our meals on the island.
While the skies were gray, the sea was calm, and our boat ride took less than 30 minutes. Even from afar, the stretch of white sand visibly stood out like a promise, and we were more than happy to set foot on the island, where we immediately saw children walking or playing by the shore.
I planted my feet on the sand, and I was surprised how the latter easily molded itself to my sandals. I took off my sandals and realized that the sand was powdery fine there. Other parts had crushed coral, but were still easy to walk on barefoot.
I noticed some, but not overwhelmingly many, tents pitched by the shore. There were also hammocks tied to some trees.
Passing by the activities at the shore, we then made our way to our host and guide Ronnel’s family home, also our home during our overnight stay on the island. We dropped our bags inside their humble hut accommodations and had lunch.
Our meals were usually a generous spread of fruits, rice, fish, seafood, and meat, with some of the fish and seafood fresh from the island’s waters, in addition to what we bought at the mainland’s public market. Ronnel’s mom Nanay Genine prepared all our meals, sometimes with the help of her husband, also a kagawad (a local government official) of Alibijaban, and other sons.
After our first meal on the island, we were ready to explore.
We walked along the shore line generously shaded by trees with leaves that looked like tamarind leaves and came to a spot where the white sand curved into the waters, forming what looked like a sand bar. It was at this point that I noticed the sun coming out and the gray sky brightening into blue, making the scene paradisical.
Some of us walked farther along the shore, while others were contented with swimming and taking photos.
The noonday heat and the feeling of fullness after our lunch, though, prompted some of us to spread out and lie on mats, and others to rest on benches under the trees. I easily fell asleep under one of the tamarind-like trees, which I recently found out were locally called aroma.
When I woke up, the tide had retreated closer to the horizon, and locals – many of them children – were gathering shellfish and other seafood.
As I saw a woman and two children approaching the shore, I walked toward them, curious what from the sea’s bounty had they harvested in their pails.
The woman, Ate Neneng, gamely showed me their pails, and I was happy to find sea urchins, a favorite of my childhood summers in my father’s hometown in Ilocos, as well as a variety of edible shellfish.
When Ate Neneng saw my excitement upon seeing the sea urchins, she immediately offered – and insisted – that I take them. I was touched by her generosity, easily extended without a second thought.
I carefully carried the three sea urchins before I resumed collecting shells, which would be part of the simple mandala my partner and I were making, our meditation and prayer for peace in Marawi, which had recently been attacked, and other areas in conflict.
I usually only get to make shell mandalas in quiet and laidback beaches where time seems to pass slowly, and Alibijaban was perfect there.
After making the mandala, we basked in the afternoon’s sunset, still beautiful despite the clouds.
Our dinner was another hearty meal, made extra special by fresh shellfish painstakingly prepared by Ronnel’s family and gathered earlier during the day. With a hammer, Ronnel’s dad Ronnie pounded one shell after the other from a sack full of shellfish, while Ronnel’s mother Genine and his brother Ronald sliced the springy meat and later cooked it with coconut milk.
After a delicious meal of rice, grilled fish, sinigang (sour fish soup), and the lovingly made shellfish, we went to where our tents were by the sea, played games my partner and I led, and laughed and bonded over stories. Afterwards, some made their way back to their tents, while some of us lied down under the stars and slept after seeing shooting stars. The Milky Way was in full view in the dark sky, making the night more magical.
I woke up around 5:30 am and tried to catch the sunrise, or what could still be seen of it. Mang Ronnie led us across the island on a shortcut. The sun was already up a cloudy sky, though, but it was still beautiful in that quiet morning.
One of my trip mates woke up earlier and was able to catch a spectacular sunrise, though. Below is his photo.
After breakfast, we rode a boat that would take us around the island. The ride was breathtakingly peaceful, with the sea clear and mirrorlike in some parts of the trip.
Several times we saw colorful corals and starfish, and I felt a twinge of regret not bringing my snorkeling gear.
The tide was already rising when we docked at the sand bar, a usual spot visited by travelers, so the sand bar looked smaller.
Even as the tide rose, though, I appreciated the white sliver of sand still obvious beneath the clear waters, especially as I moved farther away in the water.
Next, we made our way to the neighboring mangrove forest, my favorite place on the island. Lush, green, and some parts glowing golden in the morning sun, the trees shaded us, sometimes even forming beautiful natural tunnels above us. And with the skies brilliantly blue above us, the mangroves’ greens looked more vibrant.
On our way back, some of us jumped into an expanse of clear blue waters that looked like a swimming pool in the middle of the sea and marveled at the visibly white sand at the bottom “shining” with the occasional starfish.
Upon reaching the shore, I took one last dip near the shore before we ate another hearty lunch, washed up, said goodbye to our friendly hosts, and road the boat back to the mainland.
Even though time seemed to go on forever in that island, it felt terribly short when it was time to say goodbye. While I had fully savored what I could during our more than 24 hours there, there was that feeling of still wanting more – more time to walk around, more time to have a relaxed conversation with locals, more time on the island. And yet, the experience also felt complete. Anyhow, this was always the feeling I had with islands that have captured my heart.
How to get to Alibijaban Island:
Ride a bus bound for San Andres. Fare is usually P500.
Alternatively, you can take a bus to Lucena. There are buses at Cubao-EDSA, Buendia-Taft, and Alabang, among other places. From Lucena, ride a van or bus to San Andres. Total travel time from Manila is around seven hours or more. Walk or ride a side car to San Andres port and then a boat to the island. Boat ride usually takes less than 30 minutes. Those traveling alone or in a small group have usually succeeded asking to ride with a local boatman, at a fee usually of P100 each. But, if you have a big group, better to rent a boat.
Alibijaban tour guide and homestay:
I highly recommend Ronnel Lirasan ( +63999-5733706) and his family, as we experienced warmth and overwhelming hospitality. Their homestay prices are also quite low and affordable (P1000 for rooms good for 4), and they go the extra mile when it comes to preparing food, offering fresh catch from the island if available too.
Sample budget and expenses:
Below is a sample budget for 14 people, assuming the standard costs in the island, though. 14 people is Ronnel’s recommended number for optimal cost, as boats can usually fit 14-15 passengers. Vans also usually fit up to 14 passengers. We were 13 people, and thus, we paid a bit more.
Van – P14,000 (including toll fee and gas) –>April 2019 updated rate. Some vans charge higher (Bus from Manila to San Andres is around P500, so van rate per person is about the same)
Overnight parking – P100
Driver’s food – P600 (optional, but we chose to pay for driver’s food)
Port fee – P56 (assuming P4 per person)
Environmental fee/entrance fee – P1820 (P130 each)
Rooms & tents – P1,900 (1 room, 3 tents) Best to get one room (also to leave stuff) and 2-3 tents to sleep near the stars! 1 room at P1,000 is good for 4-5 people, and 1 tent (P300) is good for 3-4 people. Both times I was in Alibijaban, I slept outdoors!
Boat to and from Alibijaban Island – P2,500 (good for 15 people. Boat rates start at P600 for 2 people)
Boat to sand bar and mangroves – P500 (Tip: You can actually walk across the island to see the sand bar and mangroves. But, if you want to go around the island via boat, snorkel, and swim in clear waters reminiscent of swimming pools but in the middle of the sea, I recommend taking the boat. At P500, it’s not a bad price)
Ingredients for meals from the public market – P4,500 (assuming your group of 14 has a healthy appetite like ours. Our group of 13 spent a little less than this amount)
Suggested cooking fee/tip – P1,000 (We had four generous meals of usually three ulam (dishes) + rice)
Suggested tip for host and tour guide – At least P1,000 (especially if he is as friendly and as hospitable as ours!)
Bathing water – P280 (assuming each person of the group of 14 bathes twice, and at P10 per pail)
TOTAL: P28,256 (approximately P2,018.3 per person)
Suggested weekend itinerary:
10 pm – Depart Manila, preferably via van
5:30 am – Arrive at San Andres. Breakfast and shopping at the public market for meals at the island
7:30 am – Depart San Andres port by boat
8 am – Arrive at the island. Leave bags at homestay. Walk around, swim, relax in hammocks, talk to the locals.
12 nn – Lunch and nap
4:30 pm – Resume exploring the island, swimming, and talking to locals
6:30 pm – Wash up then dinner
8 pm – Talking, bonding, stargazing
5 am – Wake up and walk along the shore to the other side of the island to catch the sunrise
6:30 am – Breakfast
7 am – Ride a boat to sand bar, mangrove forest, and coral reefs for snorkeling or clear “pools” for swimming (Also check ahead or ask your host the time of low tide to maximize the sand bar. This part of the tour might be done the day before, depending on when low tide is)
12 nn – Wash up and lunch
1 pm – Ride boat back to mainland then depart San Andres
8:30 pm – Estimated arrival time in Manila
Hope you enjoy your time at Alibijaban Island as we did! Take a dip in its clear waters, visit the sand bar and mangroves, sleep under the stars, and talk to the friendly locals. And, help keep the island beautiful by disposing of your trash properly, among other things. Sharing with you also what I wrote about responsible travel, with tips from researchers and environmentalists.