Choosing Cagayan Valley was a hasty decision for a Holy Week destination. I can no longer remember what convinced us to choose the province of Cagayan but I'm certain we almost did not push through because of the long lines at the terminal. Luckily, Victory Liner now has an online booking and reservation system for trips to Tuguegarao. Several airlines offer flights to Tuguegarao with a travel time of 1hour but if you plan to take the bus, prepare your arse for a long-haul journey! Or, if you're like me who can doze off anywhere, it's a perfect excuse for a 12-hour long sleep.

Where to Stay:

In Palaui: Bayanihan Hall 

Nothing beats homestays where one can experience living in a local community. When in Palaui, consider staying in Bayanihan Hall. Room rate is P200/head. If you plan to pitch tents, rate is P150/head for setting up tents in the yard. 
Charlie and Jenny also served freshly cooked meals. For PhP150 per meal, we were served with a huge bowl of steaming, hot sinigang na isda, several varieties of fish fried to a crisp, a plateful of rice, and a cup of coffee. The fish served was fresh from the morning's catch. If you plan to bring food, Kuya Charlie and Ate Jenny can cook them for you.

To inquire for the availability of the room, contact Charlie Acebedo at 63906.845.54.72. 

In Tuguegarao: Pensione Joselina

We stayed for a night at a creepy hotel no longer worth mentioning. Good thing we went around Tuguegarao and spotted a fairly new pension house with rooms priced at a cheaper rate as compared to that squeaky hotel. The double room was priced at PhP600 per night.

The place is at Aguinaldo St. Centro 6, right smack in the center of Tuguegarao City and near grocery stores and fastfood chains.

Contact them at numbers 078.844.7318 or 63906.930.1313.

Day 0: 
3PM - Board the bus to Tuguegarao

Day 1: Palaui Island
4AM -   Arrive at Tuguegarao - Breakfast by the road - Walk a few meters away from Victory Liner Terminal to Brickstone Mall and wait for van to Sta.Ana
10AM - Arrive at Sta. Ana - Once you get to Sta. Ana, ride a tricycle bound to the port. At the pier, take the boat to Punta Verde, the jump-off point for trekking to the lighthouse.
11AM - Check in at Bayanihan Hall
12PM - Brunch courtesy of Bayanihan Hall
1PM -   Trek to Cape Engano Lighthouse
4PM -   Boat ride back to Bayanihan Hall
7PM -   Dinner

Sta. Ana Port

Note:  For boat rates to Palaui and nearby islands, contact Berly at 63927.785.4547. Boat rate to Punta Verde is P750 (round trip) , up to a maximum of 8 persons per boat.

8AM -  Breakfast courtesy of Bayanihan Hall
9AM -  Trek to falls
11AM - Boat back to Sta.Ana
12PM - Lunch at the van terminal
1PM -  Catch the last trip back to Tuguegarao at 1PM. First trip from Sta.Ana-Tuguegarao is at 3AM.
6PM -  Walk around Tuguegarao

Note: There are also vans bound to Aparri from Sta.Ana Terminal. See schedule above.

Day 3: Tuguegarao/Penablanca
12PM - Brunch at Budyok's
1PM -  Found our way to Penablanca Terminal
2PM -  Visit Callao Cave
4PM -  Back to Tuguegarao
7PM -  Dinner

Day 4:
3PM -  Ride bus back to Manila

Here's my expense notes for the Cagayan Valley Trip (all in PhP):

My total expenses amounted to PhP 5500 for a 4-day Holy Week trip to Tuguegarao. It could have been cheaper but considering that Cagayan Valley is a hot, hot city, I did not pass up on the chance to get a huge cup of halo halo and I did guiltily stock up on bottles of soda. 🙂
Tips to get cheaper rates: 
- Visit Callao Cave a early in the day to ensure that there will be traysis waiting for you at the other side of Pinacanauan River. The traysi will charge the same PhP60/head rate. If you go late in the afternoon like we did, chances are there will be no available traysis and you will have to rent the whole traysi for PhP300.
- Do not check in at the first hotel you see 🙂 I know it's hot but just a few blocks away are cheaper and nicer accommodations.
- Tuguegarao is a traysi city. If possible, always go to the traysi terminal to get cheaper rates. 

Spelunking is a highly challenging activity, but the awe-inspiring experience I get in return is more than enough a reward. The stalactites and stalagmites that meet to form a column, the life inside the cave, and the thought of vast connections underneath the land that we walk on never fail to amaze me. That is coming from someone who has only done spelunking twice, both in the famous Lumiang and Sumaging Caves in Sagada, and watched Discovery Channel's Planet Earth's Final Frontier: Caves in HD.
Cagayan, with more than 300 caves, is aptly named as the Caving Capital of the Philippines. The original plan was to visit Sierra Cave, as recommended by Ivan Henares during the Asia Society Philippine Foundation lecture. I called them up prior to going to Cagayan but I was informed that it is necessary to secure a permit from the DENR office to explore the Sierra Cave. Unfortunately, we were going to visit on a holiday and government offices were closed.
We decided to visit Sierra's more popular neighbor instead, Callao Cave. This is probably one of the most visited caves in the country. From Tuguerarao City, we hired a traysi (the usual tricycle) to the Penablanca Traysi Terminal and from there, we waited for 4 more passengers to load the traysi bound to Penablanca.  A traysi can fit up to 7 passengers.
Penablanca is almost an hour's ride from Tuguegarao City. We were cruising half of the time along a national road and the next half was spent on a dirt road. We passed by the Pinacanauan River, packed with families taking their sweet time swimming in the river. The driver took us to the Callao Caves Resort. 
Callao Cave is located across the Pinacanauan River. Boats take guests from both sides of the river for P20 per way. Across the river, guests are met by tour guides of the Callao Eco Tourism Zone. 
Hiring a tour guide is optional, but is highly recommended, to benefit both the local industry and the guests as well. Our tour guide was Wilber Bancud (Contact No: 63926.378.44.79), an eloquent and very accommodating one. We climbed a flight of stairs going up to the cave's huge opening. It felt like entering a stadium.

Enormous entrance
Callao Cave is composed of seven chambers (domes) and five skylights (open ceilings). Right at the entrance of the cave is the excavation site where archaeologists found a 67,000-year-old foot bone, possibly the oldest fossil found in the entire Asia-Pacific region. 
Here are photos of the most photographed area of the cave, the Chapel Chamber:
                           The altar up front                                                                                      First skylight
Beyond the Chapel Chamber are magnificent formations, all splendidly lighted by the cave's skylights. See a human skeleton, Singapore's Merlion, a lion turned towards the light, a rocket ship, and a calcite stalactite to name a few.

Now this one right here is not a natural wonder formed over thousands of years. It would have been nice to see writings on the wall by our ancestors but to see something like "Magat Family" etched in the wall is just too frustrating. 
Callao Cave, magnificent and huge as it is, is still under the mercy of men. The walls of the cave being green does not necessarily mean you could write on it like you did on a board in elementary. It pisses me off just thinking about the vandals on the wall again.
Exploring the Callao Cave is as easy as a walk in the park, with occasional uphill climbs and moderately steep descends. It is a good thing that the cave is easily accessible to everyone because adults and kids alike can learn and marvel at nature's work, but what would make it better is if someone takes the responsibility to educate and let the people know that it takes thousands of years for something amazing to come to life but all it takes is a few seconds to ruin it. As Wilber said, the government of Cagayan is working its best to promote and preserve the cave at the same time.

Believe the weatherman when he says that the temperature is highest in Tuguegarao.  

We woke up early morning in the island of Palaui and after a quick breakfast, we proceeded to see the falls. The falls is easily reachable by a short 30-minute trek from the Bayanihan Hall.  
A few photos here and there then we made it back to San Vicente port. We decided to eat lunch at the carinderia near the van terminal. It is interesting how there is a pancitan (noodle shop) in every corner. Cagayan is one of those places where there is a widespread love for a particular food, much like Iloilo, where I marveled at how manukan/inasal (grilled chicken) businesses prosper with each of them sitting side-by-side in every nook.

We were eating Pancit Batil Patung when a family came in. When it was time to order, all the 4 kids screamed "Pancit! Pancit!". Cagayan really is a Pancit Country!

Pancit Batil Patong

I am sure pancit lovers would enjoy both Pancit Batil Patong and Pancit Cabagan, but for someone like me who loves nothing but a good, old, moist Pancit Bihon, a huge plate is more than enough. My companion likes Pancit Canton so let's just say that our first taste of the Batil Patong made us yearn for our usual favorite pancit variety.

The first trip from Sta.Ana to Tuguegarao is at 3AM, with a van leaving every 30mins. Last trip is at 1PM. We were just in time for the last van to the city. Unfortunately, the van's AC was not working. It was filled up to its capacity of 14 persons, so imagine how hot and humid it was inside. I tried to sleep the 3-hr ride away but I kept waking up in sweat. 
Finally, we made it to Tuguegarao! We checked-in at the first hostel we saw. We asked to view the rooms first but the man-in-charge said "Ok naman ung mga rooms." We should have taken that as a sign! In an attempt to quickly take shelter from the scorching hot sun, we said yes. This hostel was not the spookiest I've ever stayed at (the one in Surigao tops my list) but it was definitely creepy. I have no qualms in basking under the sun or sleeping in a non-AC room but it was unusually hot in Tuguegarao and all I wanted was to lie down and turn the AC on, full blast.
The next day we decided to check-in at Pensione Joselina. It was cheaper than the first hostel we stayed  at plus it did not have a haunted house appeal to it. After watching American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance? marathons, it was time to finally brave the hot, hot weather.
First Agenda: Give the Pancit Batil Patung and Pancit Cabagan a second chance.
There were 2 suggestions for the best panciteria in town. We first went to Gretchen's but too bad it was closed on a Black Saturday. Next stop: Budyok's. Luckily, it was open for business.

                                Welcome to Budyok's!                                                         Very affordable!

We had a huge lunch of Super Special Pancit Cabagan, Super Pancit Batil Patong, halo-halo, and longsilog. 

Pancit Cabagan
Pancit Batil Patong
So what's the difference between the two? Sadly, I do not have taste buds made to dissect food. I liked the itlog pugo, chicharon, and lechon. Batil Patong uses miki noodles while Cabagan is made of canton noodles. Naturally, Aaron liked the Pancit Cabagan while I stayed fiercely loyal to my beloved pancit bihon. I gobbled up all the toppings though. The Vigan longganisa was terrific. It made me wish I could take a kilo of longganisa goodness home.
Budyok's Halo-Halo is reminiscent of that of Razon's. There were only a few toppings (mango slices, corn, leche flan, and 2 Pandan Stick-Os) but the dessert was refreshing and perfect for getting through the summer heat.
It took us a while to finish our lunch. The servings were huge. Our stomachs were full until the end of the day.
By 1PM, we went off to complete the day's second agenda: visit the famed Callao Cave.
Budyok's Panciteria is located at  corner Legaspi and College Avenue Extension, Centro 8, Tuguegarao City. Ride a traysi from any point in the city. Fare is P10 per person.
The long bus rides to and fro Tuguegarao were reminiscent of the nights we spent on the bus going around Myanmar. This is by far the longest bus ride I ever took in the country. Various airlines offer flights to Tuguegarao but because the trip was a last minute decision (meaning no seat sales), we chose to take the bus instead. I have no trouble catching sleep on the bus so the 13-hour trip was not a biggie. Scoring the bus tickets proved to be a challenge though. The lines in Victory Liner were too long 2 weeks before the Holy Week.

Thank goodness Victory Liner now has online reservation and booking system for trips going to Baguio and Tuguegarao from all terminals in Manila. I reserved seats, paid at Metrobank, and had the tickets delivered to my office. No sweat!

We laid out 2 possible itineraries. Plan A was to check first if there was a ferry bound to Calayan (part of Babuyan Islands) from Santa Ana to join Ed of Eazytraveler. Plan B was to proceed to Palaui Island and visit the famed Cape Engaño lighthouse. This is Plan B.With that set, we exited Manila along with the majority of the population who wanted to spend the 5-day weekend in the provinces.

After 13 hours, we finally walked the streets of Tuguegarao. I enjoyed a cup of coffee on the sidewalk while we waited for a couple of hours for the first trip of the van to Sta. Ana. The 3-hr ride to Santa Ana was brimmed with views of endless rice fields coupled with mountain ranges as backdrops, plus occasional glimpses of the vast Cagayan River.

The last kilometer marker up north is found near the San Vicente port (or SanV as the locals call it) in the municipality of Santa Ana. 642km from 0 point in Luneta!

The Coast Guard at the SanV port informed us that  M/V Eagle Ferry bound to Calayan has not yet returned since it left two days ago. Apparently, Eagle Ferry leaves Sta.Ana in an irregular, weather-permitting schedule. The only way to reach Calayan from San Vicente Port is to hire a boat for a whopping price of P10,000. Due to budget constraints, we scratched off Plan A. Plan B it is then!

From the port, we hired a boat to take us to Punta Verde where the local fishing community in Palaui Island is situated.  Punta Verde is the jump-off point for trekking to Cape Engaño and also, where the 3 homestays in the island are located.  Upon reaching Punta Verde, we signed up with the Coast Guard and got ourselves a guide who also led us to the Bayanihan Hall.

                                                                                                             Bayanihan  Hall          

We were welcomed by the homestay's most gracious caretaker, Charlie Acebedo. The homestay has one room with 1 double-deck and 1 double sized papag equipped with mats, pillows, and mosquito nets. There is no commercial electricity in the island and the community relies on solar power. You can bring food and have Ate Jenny cook them for you, but since we didn't bring anything with us, they agreed to take care of our meals. It was a good thing we didn't bring canned goods! We got to eat a plentiful of fish (in a variety of dishes -- fried, sinigang, paksiw) all fresh from the morning's catch.

Palaui Island has been declared by the government as a Protected Landscape and Seascape Area since 1994. The small community has taken a huge part in maintaining the pristine condition of the island and formed a group called Palaui Environmental Protectors Association. The island's population is more than 600, and all are living in the Punta Verde area. Aside from fishing, the community also generates income from tourism.  All the guides are residents of the island and unlike other guide associations, they do not operate on a my-contact-my-income policy. Instead, all the collected fees are divided equally among the guides, regardless of how many guests they took for the day. The women of Punta Verde also prepare meals for large groups (6 persons and up).

After a filling lunch prepared by Ate Jenny, we braved a high noon trek. Luckily, the trees in the forest provided roof for us. According to our guide Alfredo, a number of wildlife inhabitants like deers, monkeys, and wild boars are found in the island's forest. I wanted to spot one but we were walking way too loud. It was great hearing the bird calls though.

Kasukalan at its finest 
The trail is indistinct, if you plan to to find the way to Cape Engaño yourself, stop and get a guide!
And then the trail broke off to a nice clearing.
The next thing we knew, we were walking on the seashore, under the scorching heat of the sun.

It was a cycle of finding our way through the forest, coming out under the sun at scenic clearings, and going back again into the cool, lush forest.
One of the clearings
After 2.5 hours of letting the island engulf us in its beauty, we finally saw a glimpse of the Cape Engaño lighthouse.
Lighthouse up on the peak
From the bottom of the hill, we took a flight of stairs going up to the lighthouse.  I stopped, caught my breath, and took in the amazing view from above the hill. On the right side is the calm and refreshing strip of white sand beach facing the Babuyan Channel.
On the left, the waves were crashing on the rocky formations facing the Pacific Ocean.
Finally, the lighthouse up close! 
We went up the lighthouse and from the window facing east, the Dos Hermanas Island provided a spectacular view. Outside the lighthouse we saw birds with colorful beaks flitting from tree to tree.

After taking turns in having our photos taken, we descended the hill and went towards the white sand beach.   We rested for a while and chatted with the Coast Guard and the group of Navy personnel assigned to patrol the island. It was 4PM and I was afraid that we won't be able to make it back to Punta Verde before night time if we traveled on foot. We weren't prepared for a night trek (actually, we weren't ready for any kind of trekking!). Fortunately, one of the guides agreed to take us with him on the boat back to Punta Verde.

We came home to Bayanihan Hall, with Kuya Charlie and Ate Jenny waiting for us with a huge bowl of steaming, hot sinigang na isda, several varieties of fish fried to a crisp, a plateful of rice, and a cup of coffee.

It took a total travel time of 16 hours to the northeasternmost island in Luzon. The whole unspoilt island of Palaui in itself was lovely, but staying for a night under the care of Charlie in the homestay made the experience even more pleasant and worth the long hours.

**PS: The Coast Guard called me on Tuesday April 10, and informed me that Eagle Ferry has arrived and was scheduled to leave for Calayan on Wednesday April 11. By that time, I was already back to my regular programming 🙂

Photos taken by me and Aaron Arvin Manila.

For a detailed itinerary, refer to this link.

- To inquire for the availability of the room at the Bayanihan Hall, contact Charlie Acebedo at 63906.845.54.72. Room rate is P200/head for the room. For guests bringing tents, rate is P150/head if they wish to set-up a tent on the yard.

-  For inquiries for the availability of the M/V Eagle Ferry to Calayan and for the rates of the boats to Palaui and nearby islands, contact Berly at 63927.785.4547. Boat rate to Punta Verde is P750 (round trip) , up to a maximum of 8 persons per boat.