Imagining Camiguin

This is not paradise. “It is the island of your imagination,” says Gov. Pedro “Loloy” Romualdo rather poetically. With its colonial ruins, turnof-the-century homes, rustic coastal villages, awesome sunrises and sunsets, and varied geological formations, Camiguin is definitely imaginable as the setting for many a magical-realist novel or historical film.

But, on my first visit to this fabled island off the coast of Misamis Oriental, my mind is far from literature or history. I am lost in my own imagining, and I am seeing Camiguin as the Pacific equivalent of the Isle of Man, a quiet sleepy place in the Irish sea, which comes alive once a year as the motorcycle world’s most challenging circuit for the fastest sportsbikes.

This small pear-shaped island on the Bohol Sea between Visayas and Mindanao is ringed by 64 kilometers of the finest coastal roads I have seen anywhere.  On a rented 125-cc. dirt bike, I circled the whole island in over two hours, taking leisurely detours into twisty mountain trails and stopping a few times to view the sea from various vantage points.  I imagined that on my Ducati S4, I could take the island in less than an hour, allowing its classic 916 engine full play and leaning close to the ground around some tricky bends.  The Isle of Man racers would probably do it in less than 30 minutes.  The course could be made longer and even more exciting (i.e. dangerous) by including existing loops that go up and down the hills of the island’s sleeping giant, the deadly Mt. Hibok-hibok.

This idea will sound outrageous if not sacrilegious to Camiguin’s residents and visitors who value the peace and quiet of this idyllic island. Yet, the roar of the motorcycle mixing with the chirping of birds is a familiar sound in these parts.  Camiguin seems to be a natural home to motorcycles. Residents rent out their motorbikes to visitors who wish to explore the place on their own. There are hardly any passenger jeeps or buses on the island.

I have been meaning to visit this island province for the last ten years. Lured by reports of its healing hot springs and endemic wild life, I thought of bringing my entire family during the October lanzones festival. But the absence of an easy direct route to the island plus the difficulty of getting a reservation during that special week in October dissuaded me from taking the trip.

Outsiders know Camiguin principally for its active killer volcano and sweet lanzones.  Mt. Hibok-hibok, which last erupted in 1951, looms over the island like an apocalyptic presence, and the lanzones tree, around whose fruit an annual grand festival has grown, does seem to thrive everywhere.  The island’s economy used to be fueled by copra, but the market for this commodity has shrunk over the years and the island’s coconut trees have grown old and tall.  To Camiguin’s local officials, tourism seems to be the last card available to perk up a dormant economy.

But what can the island’s prime selling point be?  Surely it cannot be its beaches.  While its waters are calm and clear, its shoreline is not sandy like that of Bohol, Boracay, or Palawan. Its waves do not have the same power that draws intrepid surfers to Siargao.  There are no fabulous dive sites here as in Anilao or Tubbataha.  Why would tourists come all the way to Camiguin?

I think Gov. Romualdo had the beginnings of an answer.  Camiguin is not your usual sand, sea and sun holiday destination, he says.  It is an old settled community with a distinctive history, beckoning to visitors to stay forever.  The ruins of the Guiob Church in Catarman stand as a mute witness to a thriving Spanish settlement that suddenly vanished in the 1871 volcanic eruption. The walls of the church are overgrown by trees and ferns but the charm of a not-sodistant past is palpable.  A whole heritage awaits excavation.

Because a live volcano dominates it, the island has a geological significance that gives it its unique character.  Unlike many small islands, Camiguin is blessed with an abundant supply of fresh water. Hot and cold springs flow everywhere and with so much force that in some places faucets must remain open to prevent pipes from bursting.  There is an old house in Agoho in the capital town of Mambajao that has been able to tap a source of what locals call natural “soda water”.  The clear liquid is slightly sweetish, subtly sparkling, and is possibly laced with sulfur.  The octogenarian couple who live in the house say they have drunk this water all their lives and have never had any stomach trouble.

The whole island may itself have been formed by a volcanic eruption from underneath the sea.  I can imagine the wide range of plant and animal species inhabiting this fertile land.  On my first day at the resort, I was mesmerized by an emerald green lizard that I had not previously seen anywhere.  In the lush vegetation surrounding the majestic Katibawasan Falls, I spotted an unusual-looking frog that leapt out of the mist like Spiderman.  I hear all kinds of birds everywhere on the crowns of coconut trees and atop ancient molaves and lauans.  And I become convinced that Camiguin’s drawing power is not so much its historic coast but its mysterious interior.

I can imagine a variety of futures for Camiguin, all of which are easily within reach when the long shadow of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings finally lifts from the islands of this beautiful archipelago.  It is certainly ironic, if not sad, that a tranquil place like Camiguin, whose jails have never held more than ten law-breakers at a time, should be on the avoidance list of foreign travel advisories just because the island happens to be located off Mindanao’s northern tip.


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