When planning a vacation in the Philippines, we normally tend to overlook places that are out of the common tourist radar. Given the popularity of local destinations such as Palawan, Boracay, Cebu and Bohol, it’s understandable why travelers prefer to spend their holidays at these well-established vacation spots.
But if there ever comes a time you get the urge to discover new frontiers and go somewhere undeveloped, rustic, wild or maybe even mysterious.
Read on to find out why Dinagat Islands should be on top of that list.
Formerly a part of Surigao del Norte, Dinagat Islands is the second youngest province in the country — with its creation officially declared constitutional by the Supreme Court on March 2011.
The hilly town of San Jose serves as the provincial capital and along with 6 other municipalities: Cagdianao, Dinagat, Basilisa, Libjo, Tubajon and Loreto, they comprise a set of dreamy islands tucked in the middle of Samar and Surigao.
And to say that these islands are untouched, rustic, wild and mysterious is probably an understatement, because above all these remarkable qualities, Dinagat Islands is more than just a secluded province; it is PARADISE waiting to be discovered.
San Jose, Dinagat Islands
A visit to Dinagat normally begins in the capital town of San Jose. A quiet and charming town pegged on a hillside that faces Surigao Strait, here is where the iconic PBMA Shrine can be found.
PBMA, which stands for Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association, is a non-sectarian and non-profit organization founded in 1965 by ‘Divine Master’ Ruben Ecleo Sr. His tomb lies in the shrine, a site frequented by PBMA members.
Approaching San Jose by boat, one will notice a castle standing on top of a hill which overlooks the entire town. Also known as “White Castle” or “Islander’s Castle,” it serves as the official residence of the Ecleo family, the most prominent people in Dinagat. Located just a few meters from PBMA Shrine, you may take photos of the Disney-like structure at the gate.
From the town center of San Jose, a short motorcycle ride leads to an elevated spot called Pulang Yuta in Barangay Cuarinta. “Pulang Yuta” means red soil, practically pointing to the red color of the lateritic soil found in the southern parts of Dinagat. This type of soil is rich in iron and aluminum, also a primary source of nickel – the biggest export in the province.
Watching the sunset from the balcony of Bahay Turista is probably the best time to hear the legend which tells the origin of Dinagat.
There was once a prince named Gat who fell in love with Dina, a princess from the opposing tribe.
To save their relationship from criticisms, they eloped and sailed to the sea. Their lack of knowledge in navigation unfortunately led to their death. One day, the locals noticed an island shaped like a man, while in the mountains they saw the profile of a woman — and coming from the belief that these are the bodies of their beloved prince and princess, to honor them they called their place, “DinaGat.”
Basilisa, Dinagat Islands
Lalaking Bukid, which means “male mountain” in the local language, is the name of the island bearing the form of a sleeping Prince Gat. One of the larger islands in the town of Basilisa, it is surrounded by a number of mesmerizing beaches with Bitaog and Kabakongan being the two most popular.
Located at the southern end of the island, the water surrounding Bitaog perfectly describes what turquoise is all about. With a small pocket of fine white sandy beach hiding under the shade of coconut trees, bordered by limestone formations on both sides, this spot is truly one of nature’s masterpieces.
Heading north still on the same side of Lalaking Bukid leads to an enchanting cove, Kabakongan. At the edge lies a long strip of white sugary beach which opens to the calm shallow waters serving as home to a variety of corals and other marine organisms. Here, expect to see a flock of hornbills nesting beside a tall limestone cliff. Hovering sea eagles are also a common sight.
An island not too far from Lalaking Bukid, Sondayo is host to a wide expanse of sand lined with coconut trees and decorated by limestone boulders dotting the coastline. If you’re looking for clear waters, expect this island to blow you away.
Just north of San Jose still in the town of Basilisa, another bewitching cove effortlessly casts a spell to anyone who lays sight on it. Bababu, as the locals call this paradise, serves as the portal to a mystical lake hidden in the lush forest.
Meromictic is how marine scientists refer to the phenomenon when layers of saltwater and freshwater do not intermix even if they are both contained in the same basin.
Lake Bababu has an underwater channel linked to the sea, feeding it with salt water from below. But the lack of wind action on the surface results to its striking stillness, allowing the freshwater layer above to maintain its low salinity despite the continuous input of seawater.
A private island northwest of Bababu, Isla Aga is famous for having one of the most scenic hanging bridges in the country. With the crystal clear water directly under your feet, the warm tropical breeze pampering your face and the verdant shrubs delivering relaxation to your eyes, standing at the middle of this hanging bridge will surely make a person fully appreciate the idyllic beauty of Dinagat.
Libjo, Dinagat Islands
In Libjo, expect to see a myriad of deserted islands with glorious beaches sequestered in serene coves of various sizes.
Coming either from San Jose or Basilisa, anchoring the boat at Oasis Islet allows a visitor to gaze into the spectacle of the surrounding limestone islands jutting out from every corner of the sea. It will take less than a minute to circle around this tiny piece of land, but the priceless views of nature visible from here are definitely worth the stop.
Another attraction in Libjo is Quano Cave, a massive chamber accessible through a narrow trail connected to a beach called Punta Villa. Quano Cave is so big and eerie that it will easily dwarf anyone who enters it. One’s creative imagination will also come in handy as the guide points out to several limestone formations resembling almost anything you could think of.
A brief stop at Barangay Magsaysay, one of the most populous barangays in Libjo, will give a person an idea what it’s like to have a house with a front yard vista of the enthralling sea.
Pangabangan, an island just a quick 15-minute boat crossing from Magsaysay serves as a perfect picnic ground for locals. If you visit during weekends, you’re likely to find family gatherings along its tranquil shore.
Spending the evening in Barangay Albor, the main barangay of Libjo further north of Magsaysay, ushers just another gratifying panorama of the setting sun. Eat along the ihaw-ihaw stands near the basketball court with a view of the sea to sample delectable seafood menu offered in outstandingly affordable ‘turo-turo’ prices.
The Rest of Dinagat Islands
Dinagat Islands has plenty of other attractions that it will take at least 5 days to explore roughly all of them. A bat sanctuary can be found in the town of Tubajon while a bonsai forest serves as the main attraction in the town of Loreto. Countless beaches grace the coastline of Cagdianao and the town of Dinagat just south of San Jose. A number of waterfalls are also scattered within the interior of Dinagat Island.
The young province, though relatively small in size, is undoubtedly blessed with immeasurable natural wonders just waiting to be explored. And behind all the fantastic scenery, it is also the warmth of the people that will surely make a trip to Dinagat an unforgettable one.
How To Get There
From Surigao City Airport, hire a tricycle to bring you to Surigao City Seaport.
From Surigao City Seaport, there are boats and ferries going to San Jose between 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM. Trips beyond 2:00 PM are occasional. The travel time from Surigao City to San Jose is around 1.5 hours. The fare on the bigger ferry is ₱50 while ₱200 on the smaller boat.
Where To Stay
Bahay Turista in San Jose has air-conditioned rooms for ₱500 per night. For reservations at Bahay Turista, boat rentals and island tours, please contact Dinagat Islands Tourism Officer Sir Danilo Bulabos at +63 946 828 3761.