Calayan Island is a dream, a bucket list destination for many travelers, including me. The towering rugged yet lush hills and cliffs carved by the impossibly blue sea, the picture-perfect 360-degree views from these cliffs, and the idyllic white beaches with powdery white sand – these are what I saw in photos and what I heard from other travelers gushing about their Calayan experience.
And yet, anyone who has researched about Calayan knows that getting there is a challenge. A group of islands in northernmost Philippines, Calayan is separated from the mainland by an open sea – and thus, unpredictable waves. The journey is also long. You take a 12-14 hour bus to north of the Philippines, then ride the local outrigger boat lampitaw for five hours – probably more, depending on the waves. Rides can get canceled if the waves are too strong; passengers have died in the past. And yet, the travelers who braved the waves and came back all agree that the trip was worth it.
Flights are in the island’s future, though, as its airport just opened last year. The locals, some experiencing either get stranded or cross the perilous sea, see this as a blessing. I was privileged to be on the first flight to Calayan. There are no regular flights yet at the moment, but this is in the works.
When I was finally able to set foot on Calayan for the first time, it was more beautiful than in photos, as those photos captured just a portion of its raw beauty.
We took a boat, then a raft amid the waves, to Sibang Cove, a stretch of creamy white barefoot-friendly sand lined with lush hills and lapped with mesmerizingly clear turquoise waters. While many beaches have been described as “unspoiled,” this is the beach that truly embodies this word.
It was just our group on that beach that morning, and probably one or two souls I saw walking along the beach, a tiny speck amid the expanse. The beach would have been more perfect had the waves been calm like a lagoon, as I heard from other travelers, but Calayan’s waves can be unpredictable, and so this is understandable. Our flight was actually delayed because of the rain. For some moments, our flight organizer thought we would not be able to fly. So the sun and rain goddesses were actually kind to let the sun shine on the day of our arrival, albeit the waves were a bit rough on our way to Sibang Cove.
After walking along Sibang Cove’s stretch, we had a seafood feast – lobster is cheap and abundant in Calayan!
Even though the waves were quite strong, one of my friends and I managed to take a quick dip at Sibang Cove.
We then passed by Caniwara Cove, and trekked up to Nagudungan Hills, which can easily take five to ten minutes only, depending on your strength – and your picture taking.
Nagudungan Hills, Calayan’s main draw, is more expansive than I thought, with many, many hills and many, many picture-perfect views of cliffs, sea, and sky. It is a vast playground. I could easily spend a day there, though we only had a few hours.
Also hauntingly beautiful in the grassy and rocky landscape of Nagudungan are the spindly pine trees that have survived against strong winds and typhoons.
I heard sunrises and sunsets are best in Nagudungan. I am glad we were able to catch the sunset at least.
The next day was an exciting outdoor adventure. We took a 45-minute boat ride to Lusok Cave, a cave with a lagoon perfect for swimming – and jumping! Nature also seemed playful when it carved Lusok’s unique cave patterns.
Swimming to the end of Lusok Cave’s tunnel, I was pleasantly surprised to find a tinier cave to the side, and it had brightly colored rocks!
Next stop was Bataraw Falls, a short boat ride away from Lusok Cave. It was a small yet refreshing waterfall.
We had lunch, another feast mostly from the sea.
We then trekked to Caanawan Falls, which would have taken longer had we not taken a motorbike part of the way. The natural stairway down, shaded with trees, takes around 10-15 minutes.
Caanawan Falls is three beautiful cascades of water falling into a shallow pool, so it is easy to get under one of the cascades and let the water wash away your worries.
We returned to our accommodation, Apollo Homestay, in time to catch the sunset. It was a beautiful ending to an already beautiful day.
We flew onward to Batanes the next day. I would have liked to stay longer in Calayan; even so, my heart was already full from its breathtaking sights and experiences.
How to get to Calayan Island:
Ride a bus to Claveria, Cagayan, from Sampaloc, Manila. RCJ Lines leaves 7 pm daily. Florida Bus has more trips daily. Travel time is around 12 hours or more. Upon arriving at Claveria, take a tricycle to the port then ride a lampitaw to the island. Travel time varies depending on the weather and the waves, but the lampitaw ride takes five hours on average.
Alternatively, you can ride a bus from Manila to Aparri. There are also lampitaws going to Calayan via Aparri.
You can also significantly cut your travel time by taking a flight to Tuguegarao, then taking a van or bus to either Claveria or Aparri then take the lampitaw.
The fastest way, though, is to fly to Calayan. Our travel group and I were able to ride the first flight, a chartered one, but regular flights are still on the works. I will update this blog post once a regular flight becomes available. A flight route is also significant to locals because they themselves get stranded when the waves are too strong. Some have lost their lives at sea during lampitaw crossings. (Read about the first flight to Calayan and its significance here).
Important notes for planning your Calayan trip:
- The weather can be unpredictable and the waves choppy, as mentioned above. Best time to come, when the waves are mostly calm, is April to May. Still, the weather can change, so make an allowance for unexpected circumstances like being stranded for one day at least. Always check the weather forecast as well. Best to contact your accommodation ahead of time to ask the condition of the waves in Calayan.
- Water can splash into the lampitaw; it is best to bring raincoat and rain cover to waterproof your backpack and belongings. Even on a sunny day, waves can get huge. But, if you’re lucky even as you get soaked, you might actually see a pod of dolphins, as some travelers have experienced in the past.
- Contact your accommodation or the lampitaw ahead of time to check if there will be trips on the day of your arrival in Claveria or Aparri as trips can also be canceled in case of bad weather. Contact details are: M/V Eagle Ferry (+63 9395680817), M/B Macarra (+63 9214779167), and M/B Romina (+63 9196634954).
- Bring your usual medications, and motion sickness medication or natural remedies like herbal balms, in case the lampitaw ride makes you dizzy. You will be at sea for around five hours or more, after all!
- Bring enough cash, with extra for emergencies, as there are no ATMs in the island.
- Bring fully-charged power banks and extra batteries. Electricity usually just runs 12 am to 12 noon.
- There is no Globe signal in the island. You might want to buy other sim cards if you have to be connected during your trip.
- You will be on travel for at least four to five days – one day for the trip going to Calayan (17-20 hours), two full days for the itinerary (What we did was Nagudungan Hills, Sibang Cove and nearby attractions on Day 1, and Lusok Cave and Bataraw and Caanawan Falls on Day 2), and another day for traveling back.
Where to stay:
Accommodation usually starts at P250 per person per night. TPS Homestay (+63929-8375737) charges this rate.
Our group stayed at Apollo Homestay (+63999-7151-283).Rate is P300 per person.
Calayan Island estimated budget and expenses:
It may be a challenge planning this trip, but Calayan’s raw beauty is worth it. Enjoy!