Christmastime in Catanduanes goes beyond its famous white sand beaches, majestic surfing waves and mountainous terrains.
I met Owen during my first job. She was this spunky girl who was your definition of a “strong, independent woman”. Owen is currently taking up her Master’s in International Studies and recently transferred to a field only for the brave – national defense. What’s more is that she hails from Catanduanes, an island at the east of the Philippines typically known for raging typhoons.
Back when we were officemates, I was already eager to come home with her. December was her homecoming month, but with Christmas parties and holiday reunions, it took us years to finally get on the bus together. 2015 was that year. Here’s what made a difference in our pre-Christmas Catanduanes trip:
We took the bus to Catanduanes
It is a much easier option to purchase flight tickets to Catanduanes than endure the chilly, pain-in-the-arse bus ride and the seasick-inducing ferry ride to the island. A total of 38 hours of our lives was spent on a road trip, back and forth.
Still, we chose land travel for the adventure, and also because local flights during the holidays are hardly reliable. Owen related how a number of her kababayan almost missed Christmas last year because of delayed flights. Our reward? We got a short before-sunrise tour to Tabaco Church and got to see Mt. Mayon!
Stayed with a family
From day one, Owen’s dad picked us up from our bus stop using his decades-old tricycle, which once had served as her sisters’ school ride. The main means of transportation around the island is via this three-wheeled ride. It’s quite actually difficult to get around Catanduanes by commute, making it an imperative to hire a tricycle for a tour. In our case, and in his excitement to entertain holiday guests, Tito already prepared the logistics and an itinerary for us — one that even Owen isn’t aware of!
The Tatads also let us stay at their own house, allowed us to help in the kitchen, and toured us around like homecoming VIPs. Tito even invited us for dinner at their relatives’ house, while Owen let us to tag along her high school reunion. I was really thankful for them. Our Catanduanes trip wouldn’t have been this unique if they didn’t open the doors for us.
Listened to Simbang Gabi (even if we didn’t understand a word!)
In our short stay in Bicol Region, we witnessed two Simbang Gabi’s a row. Also known as “Rooster’s Mass”, the Simbang Gabi is part of the Philippine tradition to attend nine Catholic masses before Christmas Day. The masses are usually celebrated before sunrise.
Our first Simbang Gabi was in Albay. Since our bus arrived at 4AM and our ferry boarding isn’t until 6AM, we hailed the sikad-sikad (pedicab) outside the Tabaco Port to take us to Tabaco Church. The plaza was teeming with young and old people. Not to mention, with food stalls in which we bought street pancakes and taho.Our second Simbang Gabi was in Virac Cathedral. Tito woke us up promptly at 3:30AM and took us with his tricycle to church. Tagalogs like us didn’t understand a word, of course. But I listened keenly to hymns sung in a new language. On our way home, we bought a bag of freshly baked pandesal.
Another tradition we witnessed was kagharong, a Christmas carol sang door to door. The holy family knocks on houses and asks to have a place to stay, while the choir of villagers sing to them that they are not allowed in the place. These are also sung in the local language.
Attended the Christmas Cheers
The Christmas Cheers is a weeklong annual event participated in by students from all over Catanduanes. They usually perform song and dance numbers, and other creative shows for the audience. There are also food stalls and bars set up on the opposite side of the plaza (Thus, the “cheers” in Christmas Cheers?).This event was where the balikbayan, locals who have just returned to their hometown, meet and drink. Owen introduced us to her high school friends, who likewise reminisced the rite of passage that is to perform at Christmas Cheers, and noted the improvements in their hometown. Though they have careers in the city, these young breed of Catandunganons always make it a point to be home for the holidays.
Gone on a Roadtrip to Balacay Point
On our second day in Catanduanes, Tito surprised us by arranging for his nephew-in-law to drive us to the highest point in the island located in Baras town. The van was a comfy customized five-seater in which we sat back and enjoy the view from the windows. The town of Baras was a long drive from Virac, but it was also their first time to go to Balacay Point. On our way, we stopped by Bato Church, the oldest church in the province built from coral stones, and passed by PAG-ASA Radar Station which monitors the weather in the east-most coast of the Philippines.
Balacay Point has a newly constructed concrete road. What welcomed us at its peak was a sight similar to the rolling hills of Batanes, only with the Pacific Ocean at the horizon stretching to infinity! At this vantage point, we also saw the famous “majestic” waves of Puraran Beach.
Warmed up the December winds at Puraran Beach
Our final destination was the Majestic Puraran Beach. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to surf because the swell wasn’t that good at the time, and we were literally the only ones on its beige shores. Puraran Beach sands are white with a mixture of fine and rocky sands, rockier at the shallow parts of the beach. A wannabe Puraran surfer needed to get a bit farther to catch the waves.
Instead of surfing, we waded in chest-deep water, having fits of laughter over rolling waves, trying to learn how to duck-dive and relishing the mild currents of the Pacific Ocean. We also allowed ourselves to get a little tanned by the floating buoy-dock. By the time we climbed ashore, our home-cooked lunch was already laid out, together with bottles of beer.
Our road trip to Catanduanes was worth it, even if we stayed only a total of two days. Catanduanes was a beauty to come home to, with its mountainous islands and its sandy beaches, rolling hills and howling winds. Best of all, the Catanduangon Christmas spirit and hospitality made our trip a lot more special. No wonder its locals, no matter which cities the travel to, keep coming back home.
How to commute to Catanduanes: Purchase tickets in advance at RSL Bus Line (PHP 825). It’s important to remember your bus number, as there will be about three stop-overs before you arrival at the port. Upon arrival at Tabaco Port in Albay, line up to purchase your ferry tickets (PHP 220) and pay the terminal fee (PHP 30). Wait for the boarding of your bus to the ferry. Upon arrival at Catanduanes, look for your bus and ride until you get to your place of stay.