Sunday, April 27, 2014

The zing of Zambales: cove exploring and island hopping

Note:  This photo-essay appeared in the 25 Apr - 01 May 2014 issue of the FilAm Star, 'the newspaper for Filipinos in mainstream America,' which is published weekly in San Francisco, CA. This blogger/author is the Philippines Special News/Photo Correspondent of the said paper.

The Zambales Mango Festival was held earlier in March but for true-blue Zambaleños, the feast of the golden yellow kalabaw or piko varieties comes around Holy Week.  Between San Narciso and San Marcelino towns is the diversion road informally called the Mango Highway, and at this time, the fruit stalls there are teeming with green and golden ripe Zambales mangoes. The sweetest variety is called Santa Elena grown in Sta. Cruz town, but the supply dwindles fast especially after the choice picks have all been packed for the export market.  It is very seldom though that the locals and the out-of-town visitors specifically ask for this variety.  

 There is more fun in Zambales though than looking for Santa Elena mangoes.  This has something more to do with geography.  The province is hemmed by the West Philippine Sea, and all but two of its 13 towns lie along the more than 100 miles of coastline. On the eastside is the Zambales mountain range with its famous peaks, Mt Pinatubo, which blew its top almost 25 years ago, and Mt. Tapulao, which hosts endemic flora and fauna with new species discovered a few years ago.  

The rugged coasts include beautiful beaches and coves that have become popular destinations of local and foreign tourists and nature explorers these recent years. 

Beach resorts can be stringed from Subic to Sta. Cruz.  Busloads of beach lovers from Manila and nearby provinces usually stop at the Subic resorts.  Surfing aficionados though flock to Pundaquit in San Antonio, La Paz in San Narciso, and some more resorts further north. 

Zambales takes itself as a major surfing area in the country. The almost linear beaches are wont to be rough during some months of the year, creating big waves that surfers love to ride on. Surfing tournaments have been held here.  In the Crystal Beach Resort of San Narciso, surfing tutorials have attracted a growing clientele of this water sports. 

The hub of cove explorations is Pundaquit, the fishing barangay (village) of San Antonio town whose coastal boundary turns around Sampaloc Point, the western tip of the terrestrial arc of Subic Bay.  From here, the explorer can select his cove destination going southward from the nearest,  Anawangin, to the farthest and biggest,  Silanguin.  Between them are Talisayin, now privately-owned, and Nagsasa.  The boatride to Anawangin is 30 minutes; to Nagsasa is roughly one hour; and to Silanguin almost two hours. 

We have gone on a family trip to Nagsasa, going around rocky formations to get there, and getting a distant view of the white sands of Anawangin and Talisayin coves set against verdant green forests, predominantly of agoho trees, on the low mountain sides.

According to the Aytas who manage Nagsasa, there was no sandy beach before Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991.  The lahar that deposited on Nagsasa and other coves became their white sand beaches.

The coves were in fact forbidden territory before 1991 when there was the US naval facility in Subic-Olongapo, and a US naval communication center in San Antonio. The mountainous stretch along the coast was the target practice area of the US armed forces, and it was dangerous even for fishermen to come near the shore during military exercises.  Mt. Pinatubo hastened the termination of the US bases in Subic and Clark, but it created new touristic coves along the coasts of San Antonio, Zambales. 

Except for variations in their terrestrial structures, the coves are very pristine:  the sea in varying degrees of blue, white sandy beaches, and rugged low brown mountain walls with curtains of green agoho trees.  In Nagsasa, there is a very shallow stream that curves as it flows to the sea, thus breaking the monotony of the white sandy shore. 

The coves do not have the amenities one expects in places like Boracay or El Nido. In Nagsasa, there are comfort and bath rooms; and huts or tents can be rented.  The Aytas maintain a store for basic necessities, and operate a power generator for a limited time during the night. Definitely, there are no mobile phone signals. 

Nagsasa and the other coves are best for camping.  The waters are definitely clean for swimming being so far away from the sewerage of population centers.

The coves can be accessible to hikers and mountain climbers.  For Nagsasa, the starting point for the guided mountain trek is a fast food restaurant in Subic town, and this would, according to the Ayta guides, take from three to four hours because of frequent rests and photo-ops of the trekkers.

Pundaquit is also the most convenient jumping-off place for the Camara and Capones Islands.  A boat ride may not take half an hour to get there.  Camara is all rock, hence, Capones is the preferred destination for camping, picnicking and snorkelling. 

From our beachfront in San Narciso, one has to depart for Capones very early in the morning, preferably before the sun is up.  It takes almost an hour to get there.  The joy of the landing comes in seeing live corals, sea weeds and small colored fishes swimming around, through the clear and calm sea water.   

The early hours are good for swimming and snorkelling.  Capones is a rugged island with sparse vegetation, white sandy beach and rough rock formations.  It’s a must that first-time visitors climb the old lighthouse, more than a century old, built by the Spaniards in the early 1890s. 

Late hour departure from Capones is not advisable since the sea gets rough.  In our experience, we boarded the boat for home as soon as we have finished our lunch.  The better course is to camp overnight, and depart after breakfast and the morning swim. 

Our most recent venture is in Magalawa Island, neighbor to San Salvador and San Miguel Islands, all of them between Palauig and Masinloc towns.  All three are inhabited fishing villages. They have public elementary schools and San Salvador has a high school. 

Magalawa is the perfect destination for beach lovers.  It can be reached from Palauig town by boat in 30 minutes.  One can drive to barangay Luan for the boat that can take you there in about 10 minutes.    

This island is still pristine:  white sandy beach and green vegetation along the coast.  Visitors have a choice between the public swimming area and a privately-owned resort.  

Being a fishing village, there is plenty of sea food to buy for lunch picnics.  At the resort, boats are for hire for whole-day leisurely rides around the island or out at the open sea.  

Definitely smaller than Magalawa Island of Palauig is Potipot Island of Candelaria town.  It is said that it’s sandy beach is whiter than Boracay’s, and that it would take about an hour to explore the whole of Potipot. 

It’s summer, and it’s the best time to explore the coves in southern Zambales, and hop from one pristine island to another starting from Capones in mid-province to Potipot in the north.  May be it’s also time to get a surfboard, learn the rudiments, get thrown off every now and then until the art of riding waves is fully mastered.

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