The Camotes Islands: Quiet Waters, Deep Roots

Vegetable, Mineral, Natural

Tell someone that you’ve just been to the Camotes islands and the likely comeback is their asking you if you got to eat any camote. Ironically enough, on our “Suroy-Suroy” (Cebuano for “pasyal-pasyal” or touring) to the Camotes, the locals organized a grand fiesta celebrating their most important crop. No, not camote, but cassava. Who’d have thunk?

The Camotes may be tiny and unassuming, sleepy satellites dwarfed by the economic, political, and cultural might of neighboring Cebu, the mother planet. But to the islands’ 70,000-plus residents, there just isn’t a more blessed spot on earth than what they’ve got. The Camoteños are fiercely proud of every little scrap of history, progress, and natural beauty that they can show off, and one just can’t argue with that kind of enthusiasm.

Their pride is well-deserved. It’s easy to lapse into gemstone-inspired metaphors when describing the archipelago. Imagine a string of four emerald islands, ringed with sparkling crystal beaches, strewn across a bed of aquamarine. Then right in the middle of one emerald isle rests the deep dark opal of Lake Danao, one of the country’s largest, cleanest, and most beautiful lakes. Legend has it that an entire town lies submerged beneath its depths. That’s just one of the many tall tales that blows through the islands, which include a ghost ship laden with cacao, a river that runs upstream, a giant lapu-lapu fish living in a sunken bell, and an enchanted palace lost among the rainforest. The Camotes has been the site of many a priceless archaeological find, and it has been posited that the momentous battle between Magellan and Lapu-lapu may have been fought in the waters off Poro and not in Mactan. There are even rumors that a Japanese war veteran or two may still be toughing it out deep in the jungle. Mysterious caves, pools, and waterfalls dot the interior, further challenging the adventurous.

Four islands comprise the Camotes group: Pacijan island with San Francisco town connected by a causeway that runs dramatically through a mangrove forest to Poro island, which contains Poro and Tudela towns, across the Camotes Sea lies Ponson with Pilar town and tiny Tulang, an island barangay of San Francisco. The snorkeling around the islands may not attract much notice, but the dive outfits from the mega-resorts on Mactan and Cebu bring their clients all the way to the Camotes to check out the marine life. There is no dive shop on the islands as of yet, but like other signs of progress, it may be just around the corner. The cellphone service providers have begun blanketing the area with ads and towers, and satellite dishes are not an uncommon sight.

Past The Horizon

Yet there’s still a very strong sense of this being a pastoral community of farmers and fishermen, with everybody knowing everybody else and going about their lives as they have for generations: gathering shellfish, planting coconuts, corn, potatoes, and cassava (and yes, some camote). Although several resorts, big and small, have sprouted up around the Camotes over the past few years, tourism appears to have not yet made a major impact on the local consciousness. Visitors seem to be treated with keen fascination by the locals, and more as a source of amusement than of profits. When the local kids wave and smile at you, they’re not expecting a hand-out, but talk to them in English or Tagalog, and they’ll laugh at you in Cebuano.

What now makes these islands most charming for us visitors is also what may be easily ruined if too many come to visit. Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia assures us that the development and promotion of the Camotes islands as a tourist destination shall be carefully implemented according to the strict guidelines set in the tourism master plan for the entire province. But once discovered, it’s not hard to imagine the delicate ecosystem of the archipelago being swamped by traveling hordes. Via the Ocean Jet fast craft, it takes only around 300 pesos and an hour and 45 minute ride to cross the 30+ nautical miles from Pier 1 in Cebu City to the port on Poro town. So by sea it’s actually faster and cheaper getting to the beaches on Camotes than by land to the other beaches around Cebu. And the stretches of sand and palm that you’ll find around here, still practically free for all to enjoy, can easily top those at other islands that charge top dollar for the privilege of getting your feet wet. The story goes that a bigshot mega-resort on Mactan wanted to cart off some fine Camotes sand to fill their artificial beach with. The Camoteños said “hell, no” to whatever price, proof that their sense of protectiveness runs deep. In this case, insularity is a good thing.


detailed map of camotes islands

detailed map of camotes islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hammock Hotspots

Santiago Bay Garden and Resort features 19 comfortable rooms tucked into 2.5 hectares of lush landscaping overlooking Santiago Bay’s wide, white sand beach and clear blue water.

Mangodlong Rock Resort rests on 2 hectares of extensive coconut-shaded gardens right beside a private white sand beachfront. Connected by a sand bar from the beach, separated from the resort by a few meters of sparkling sea, stands a coral islet with tropical huts.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines magazine, 2006.

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  1. Swimming with the fishes at Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort « Cebu Live!

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