Monday, January 9, 2017

Hopping to Sambawan Island and Heading Back to Biliran After 9 Years

Sambawan Island's northwest side and Maripipi Island towards sunset
The first and last time visited Biliran was in the cusp of 2008, almost nine years ago, when Sambawan was an uninhabited island off Maripipi northwest of the main island.  I had pleasant impressions of the place and wondered why such a beautiful destination seemingly attracts so very few tourists.  Maybe it was because of news/hearsays/whispers of insurgency something the locals refuted then and refuted up to the present.  That almost a decade has passed and Biliran it seems is under the radar of most people; case in point: people who ask me where I'm going would likely not know where the province is if I say "I'm headed for Biliran" so the inclination is to instead make a pronouncement "I'm headed for Leyte."  Well, Biliran used to be a sub-province of Leyte until 1992 but over two and a half decades later, it seems Biliran is yet to step out of Leyte's shadow.

Riding the Van Van transport from Tacloban, we alighted in Naval town center that seems busier (more prosperous) from what I remembered from before.  There were mini-malls, branches of national store chains (Cebuana Lhuillier, Monterey Meat Shop, Mercury Drug) and banks (Landbank, Metrobank).  Still, I get this impression that out-of-towners are still few.
Southeast side of Sambawan Island glowing in the late afternoon sun
There were several ongoing road repair and construction work enroute to Naval.  That and a half-filled van meant our land trip took over three hours; we missed the ferry boat headed for Maripipi where we planned to board another boat for Sambawan/Sambauan, our first day destination.  Famished from the early flight and road trip, we repaired to Casa Salas before finding Ronald who would be our guide/tricycle driver for the next few days.  So off to Kawayan we went, up the northern provincial road some 35-40 minutes away.  

On one hand, it was commendable that the Kawayan LGU has standardized boat hire fees for visitors to the outlying islands.  But on the other hand, the rates are suited for large groups (not that this is unique, just a lament from someone who usually travels solo or in really small groups; well even most accommodations seem to penalize the solo backpacker).  We took a look at the sea (a bit wavy) and the sky (cloudy blue) and decided to make a go for it, opting to stay overnight and arrange a pickup next day (P3000/around US$61).
Atlas, Sambawan Island's sentinel canine manning the shore
The amihan (prevailing northeast winds) was blowing against our boat's direction so it took over an hour before we landed on Sambawan Island's eastern coast, greeted by a most friendly canine who we later found out go by the legendary strongman name, Atlas.  Forgive me for not taking a picture of our hut (the bed was put to good use within a half-hour of arrival) but it's a bamboo and wood affair, cool and rest/sleep-inducing to say the least.  That the power only comes on from 6pm to 6am was something reduced to trivial given the ambiance and mood of the place.  Who needs a fan when the sea brings in a constant breeze?

Approaching the sunset hour, we hiked up 130 steps to the highest point on the island with a thatched hut providing a 360 degree panorama -- Masbate to the west, Almagro, Camandag and Limbangcavayan islands farther northeast.   Earlier in the day, it was drizzling in Tacloban when we landed but out here, we were gifted with post-card pretty cloudy blue sky and a turquoise sea.  The island's undulations were glowing where the setting sun touched the land, rocks, vegetation.  Standing on the view deck, the wind seems to blow from here or there, sometimes seemingly from all directions all at once.  We caught sight of a swift that floated playfully on the air currents, hanging suspended in the air without flapping his wings for long stretches -- it was that windy.
It's 130 steps to the island's highest point, a hut with a 360 degree sweep of the seascape
While we had brought packed dinner and drinking water all the way from Naval, we bought soda at the island's canteen and got to know Nanay Sally who turned out to be Atlas's human.  There were only a handful of other guests that day, pastor-friends of owner Engineer Nestor Macurol, who was also there we would find out that following morning. 

Desperately craving sleep, we skipped shooting the night sky (it turned cloudy later anyway), and ate kamayan-style on the bamboo ledge that fronts our hut.  It's not like me to fall asleep before 8:30pm but the lapping waves just lulled me to sleep.  Waking up at 3am and stepping out to gaze at the sky, the sea was quietly murmuring.  Apart from that and the bleating of goats on the easternmost islet, it was quiet; the distant islands veiled by mists.  Standing later on the view deck hut in the dark, it's easy to fall into a meditative state.  Given more vacation time, it would've been swell to stay for days.

How to get to Sambawan/Sambauan Island:  Short boat ride from Maripipi; a ferry leaves Naval around 11am daily • From Kawayan, it's a 45 minute to 1-hour boat ride

Accommodations available:  There are huts/enclosed cottages for groups of 5-6 (P1,500/night) and 10-12 pax (P2,500/night) both with toilet and bath.  As fresh water has to be shuttled from Maripipi, the small huts get a 100 liter allowance per day, the bigger hut 200 liters; extra consumption is charged per liter thereafter.  There are five (5) small open cottages that can sleep 3-4 people (P500/night) and six (6) newer and larger open cottages that can sleep 6-8 people.  There are also 2-3 person tents for rent (P350/night).  The open cottages and tent renters share a common toilet and bath.

Entrance fee: P100 visitor fee

Where is Biliran Located in Eastern Visayas, Biliran is accessible by air via flights to Tacloban (45 minute to 1 hour) and land transport to Naval (around 3 hours) • There are also ships that ply the Naval - Cebu port route.

For more on Biliran, visit 


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