MERCEDES, CAMARINES NORTE, PHILIPPINES — Whoever bestowed the coastal town of Mercedes with the title of Belle of the Pacific must be given a token of gratitude. Mercedes will mesmerize you with her seven majestic islands that are perfect for that off-the-beaten, island-hopping, beach experience.
I’ve been to many places since the time that I took up traveling as a monthly hobby. When Calaguas has become social-media famous, I started wondering why I haven’t explored much of my home province yet — not even to Calaguas, as of this writing. Thus, I have pledged to myself that whenever I’d go back home, I would try visiting at least one of the “hidden” jewels of our province and help in promoting its tourism potentials.
For the Holy Week vacation of 2016, after a long & congested traffic in Calabarzon, we packed up our bags for a daytour in the Mercedes Group of Islands in the town of Mercedes. The town is divided in two parts (like Sarangani province in Mindanao), separated by San Miguel Bay and the town of Basud. The seven islands are grouped with the northern part of Mercedes. The main attractions are the four largest islands: Caringo, Canimog, Apuao Grande & Apuao Pequeña. Only two of the seven islands are inhabited by residents: Caringo & Apuao Grande.
If you’ve been to Bagasbas Beach in Daet, you might’ve already seen Canimog Island from a distance. The crocodile-like island you’ll see in Bagasbas Beach is actually Canimog Island. Also called Bundok Buwaya and/or Crocodile Island by the locals, the largest of the seven islands houses the Canimog Island Lighthouse, a minor lighthouse erected in 1927. The sole resident of the island is the lighthouse keeper and his dogs.
Aside from the lighthouse, the island have the following features: trekking terrain, a small islet viewable from the lighthouse, a boulder beach and a cream-white sand/pebble beach. The fruit-bearing bats that once inhabit the pine trees of Canimog have transferred to Apuao Pequeña Island. From the lighthouse, the Calaguas Islands can be seen very faintly.
Quinapaguian, named after the manta ray, is an uninhabited island surrounded by white sand beaches that are ideal for camping and swimming. Recently, there was a local beach resort constructed in the island.
Aside from its white sand beach, Caringo Island have a 17.17-hectare of marine sanctuary where you can snorkel. Since the motorized boats are not allowed in the sanctuary, you need to hire a paraw (a paddle boat) for P100/head. You can rent goggles for P50 if you forgot to bring your own. The corals underneath are mostly Acropora that seems to be laid continuously on the sea bed. The island also offers one of the best views of Mt. Man-asupre, Mt. Balagbag, and Mt. Manrisik-risik (Susong Dalaga). Yup, CamNorte has a Mt. Balagbag and Susong Dalaga too.
APUAO GRANDE ISLAND
There was once a lavish resort in Apuao Grande, privately owned by a foreigner. However, after a strong storm and a subsequent pillaging by bandits in 2006, the former grandeur of the resort have faded. In the past years, the remnants of the resort have developed a rustic appeal to the outdoor-type of travelers. From the accounts of Biyaherong Barat and Spotlight on Jamie, you’d see how Apuao Grande outshines the rest of the islands.
However, during our visit in March 2016, the tourism office informed us that the owners of the resort have built fences near the side of Brgy. Apuao and on the sandbar that connects the two Apuao islands (starting 2016). Security personnel, who prohibits entrance within the fenced perimeters, have also been deployed around the island. Well, it was private to begin with. For now, we can only look at it from a distance.
APUAO PEQUEÑA ISLAND
Connected by a sandbar (that usually sinks during hightide) to Apuao Grande, the smaller Apuao Pequeña is a good spot for setting up tents or hammocks amidst the agoho trees near the beach. The sandbar however doesn’t sink recently and already has grown vegetation. The mini rain forest, that you can hike, also houses fruit bats and a few wild boars.
Also called as “The Rock”, this island boasts of its rock formations, unexplored cave, mangrove forests and craggy shores. Locals are afraid of the cave because it was still unexplored and is near the shore. If you’re a speleologist wishing to explore this cave, better contact and inform the Tourism Office.
The smallest among the seven islands of Mercedes, the island offers both rocky and white sand beaches. Although docking here is quite difficult, camping is still possible if you wish. The name of the island is derived from the local term for parrotfish.
TRAVEL GUIDE / TIPS
- PRE-ARRANGEMENTS. Get in touch with the Mercedes Tourism Development Operation Center at (054) 444-1261 to pre-arrange your boats. Riza from the Tourism Center guided us during our daytrip (+63-999-870-1407).
- HOW TO GET THERE.
- To get to Daet, ride a bus from Cubao (Superlines, DLTB, Amihan or Philtranco) bound for Daet (~P520/pax AC; 8-10 hours travel time). Alternatively, Cebu Pacific have Manila-to-Naga flights. You can reach Daet or Mercedes from Naga within 2 hours.
- Hire a tricycle and ask to be dropped off at the jeepney terminal bound to Mercedes. The small terminal is near the new Jollibee (the one with the drive-thru, which is just a walking distance from the old Jollibee) and is beside Mercury Drug. If the barker is shouting “Cedés!“, then you’re on the right path.
- Ride the jeepney and wait for other passengers (P10/pax, 15-20 minutes).
- Alight at the town center and walk a short distance to Mercedes Municipal Fish Port, and look for the tourism development center. That’s where your pre-arranged boat (inclusive of the guide from the Tourism Office) will fetch you (P3000/boat for daytour, up to 8 pax, 7AM-4PM). If you’re planning an overnight, the boat is pegged at P4500 (7AM to 12NN of the next day). Quite pricey, honestly.
- ENTRANCE FEES.
- Caringo Island. Entrance fee is P15/pax. Cottage rental is P300-500. If you’d be snorkeling at the sanctuary, a paraw ride is necessary (P100/pax). You can rent a goggle mask for P50 in case you forgot to bring one.
- Quinapaguian Island. Entrance fee is P25/pax (daytour), double that if overnight.
- Apuao Pequeña Island. Entrance fee is P300/group. If someone asks you for another P20/head, don’t pay for it. It should already be covered by the group payment. Not sure of the price for solo travelers.
- Canton Island. Entrance fee is P10/pax.
- You may also check Cayucyucan Beach in mainland Mercedes, or try hiking Mt. Man-asupre to see the famed Colasi Falls. Or Bagasbas Beach in Daet for some surfing lessons. Baybay Beach, a walking distance around Mercedes town proper, is also a decent spot for surfing and sandboarding.
- Although boats are rare, it is possible to do a Mercedes-to-Calaguas itinerary. Of course, travel time from Mercedes will be significantly longer and tougher compared when coming from Vinzons / Paracale. Riza, our guide from the Tourism Center, knows someone that offers a tour. Contact her at +63-999-870-1407.
- If you’re on a really tight budget, there are passenger boats from the port that are bound to the community-sides of Caringo Island and Apuao Grande Island. The boat schedule varies.