Enchanting Sohoton Cove of Bucas Grande

>> Saturday, September 20, 2008

By Alfred A. Yuson

We’ve all heard of how Siargao has been attracting surfers from all over the world, along with their groupies, and in their wake, photographers, sporting aficionados, waterworld freaks and trendy spectators who can’t be caught far behind whenever a fresh recreational haunt is spoken about.

Why, Cloud 9 has entered the globetrotter’s lexicon as a famous surfing spot in Siargao — certainly an elevation from its original status as a brand name for a local chocolate bar that’s chewy but holds up well in tropical heat. After frequent forays to a sari-sari store that sold Cloud 9, some surfers appropriated the name for the area where they loved the breaking waves.

Siargao takes pride of place in the view of Surigao del Norte’s officialdom. It’s certainly a distinctive tourist come-on, and has only just begun a sunrise industry that also relies on white-sand beaches and a wondrous environment, other than surfing delights that are but seasonal.

Still relatively unknown is another island that also bids fair to wondrous discovery and enchantment. Off the northeastern coast of Surigao del Norte, a two-hour boat ride south of Siargao, lies Bucas Grande Island, officially under Siargao’s aegis but often overshadowed in the latter’s favor. Its main town of Socorro is home to a population of 21,000 farmers and fisherfolk. All around are clusters of isles and islets beckoning with lovely beach strips, lustrous coves and hidden lagoons.

From the air, as a promotional poster sports its bird’s-eye-view attractions, Bucas Grande appears as an emerald maze of inlets and verdant forests.

Accessibility poses a hindrance, keeping visitor volume low, thus far. Come July 21 2008, however, PAL Express restores its direct flights to Surigao City ’s airport, making both Siargao and Bucas Grande within easier reach from Manila .

Last week, we still had to take the afternoon flight to Butuan, then motor for 2.5 hours to Surigao City, where we lodged at the Tavern Inn — still being rehabilitated and expanded, but boasting of a fine restaurant, free WiFi, and capacious rooms that overlook a coastal boulevard with the sea right across, thus privy to splendid views of sunrise and sunset.

It wasn’t until the following morning that we motored back down the highway to Claver, where a junction marker claims “The World’s Biggest Iron Mineral Deposit.” It takes 90 minutes by road from Surigao City to Bgy. Hayanggabon of Claver, from where the pumpboat ride to Bucas Grande takes only half an hour. A morning flight to Butuan would allow one to motor from the airport to Bgy. Bad-as of Placer town, only a 90-minute ride, and which also offers a proximate takeoff point for the island.

As luck would have it, our mid-morn crossing rewarded us with a close encounter with a baby butanding or whale shark that was frolicking lazily along with a school of escort fish. As its fin suddenly came to view, the 10-foot-long gentle giant with the familiar white speckles met our boat headlong. We tried to slow down. It actually grazed the side of our boat, right under the outrigger, giving us a close-up view of its full shape. But the opportunity came too quickly and briefly for any image documentation. The fascinating creature simply moseyed along.

Entering Sohoton Cove, the island’s major attraction, assured us that we were coursing into an idyllic habitat, with forested limestone mounds rising on all sides in a welcome embrace.

Dominating the lush greenery were stands of a variety of agoho or casuarina that I’ve seen only in Mindanao , with curling leaf clusters that differentiate it from Luzon ’s agoho or the Benguet pine. Plentiful, too, was the Philippine ironwood, locally called magkuno, which is known to defy ordinary saws. When successfully cut, it makes good, hardy furniture. I hadn’t known that this remarkable tree sported radiant red flowers, not too many and quite small, until we glided close to some overhanging branches.

Sohoton Cove has 13 inland lakes, with three of these considered accessible. They’re all part of the Sohoton Ecotourism Park , which is covered by a Protected Landscape and Seascape fiat. Awaiting us at the Robert “Bobby” Z. Barbers Visitors Center, a docking station on stilts on the water’s edge, was park rangers’ head Roger Pimentel, who welcomes visitors and collects all entrance and docking fees.

He tells us how the eco-park’s splendiferous flora meet their match in the endemic exotic fauna, which include tarsiers, two kinds of hornbills or kalaw, the serpent eagle and white-breasted eagle, green sea turtles, and 19 kinds of fruit bats!

Visitors can choose among three types of boat and trek tours. Tour A, for seeing all the lakes and lagoons, costs P1,500. An additional P500 or P700 allows participation in Tours B and C, which include trekking through forest trails.

The prime attraction is the elongated and seemingly endless Sohoton Cove, which leads to a point where a transfer is necessary from the large pumpboat to a smaller, low paddleboat. This allows entrance, but only during low tide, through a cavern opening to get to the Hidden Lagoon.

Primeval is the look and feel of this extended maze of placid waterways that wind around limestone islets and outcroppings, with robust stalactites dropping towards the water’s calm surface. There are caves galore. One allows an intrepid swimmer to barely make it through a low-ceilinged opening and walk up a rocky passageway to a skylight that leads to a wooden platform, right on a ridge cleared of underbrush, for a dive back into the lagoon.

Skimming around the water maze to marvel at crystal-clear waters, subterranean prospects and florid greenery takes about an hour, before the boatman finds another way to the same single entrance at low tide.

Another come-on, this time man-made, officially opens next month. The high-end Club Tara Resort nestles at yet another cove’s end, where a breakwater creates a private blue lagoon. A row of 10 newly-built suite-cottages stand at the lagoon’s edge, with balconies of wooden flooring featuring see-through glass for peering into the waters lapping at the concrete stilt-posts underneath.

Each suite, which will go for about P10,000 a night, has a large air-conditioned bedroom that is elegantly finessed, with a California King-sized bed, a ref, cable TV and DVD features. The bathroom is strikingly charming, with flat black rocks covering the entire floor. At one end is a jacuzzi pool for two, bordered by a three-sided bay window that looks out into the blue lagoon. Majestic seduction is clearly spelled out.

Eighteen-year-old Deven Joe Baculpo, nicknamed Jojo, is currently the resort’s all-around facilitator. He serves as a conceptualizer, designer, crafts artist, and when the resort opens, an entertainer. Influenced by the Talaandig tribe of Bukidnon, Jojo formed an indigenous percussion group called Kalsanon (meaning “native wildlife”) that used to perform at bars in Surigao City and Butuan. A fellow everyone calls Mr. Kang, a Korean visitor, was so impressed with his music and artistry with bamboo and wood that the young boy was pressed into service as a design consultant for the resort.

Where Club Tara now stands used to be the modest resort Kwaknitan (a large bat), which had been set up by Dr. Potenciano Malvar and the Gen. Miguel Malvar Foundation. A friend of the good doctor, Mr. Kang offered to help upgrade the resort into a honeymooners’ getaway, presumably for Korean couples. There are plans to build more modest family cottages that will go for P2,500 a night.

A divemaster is all set to open a dive center and chart the best diving sites around. A five-minute boat ride or 20-minute trudge up and down a green hill leads to Kanlunes Beach of fine, shimmering white sand.

We had dinner and a long conversation with Governor Ace Barbers on our second and last night. The young, amiable fellow of striking good looks (nearly a dead-ringer for movie actor Albert Martinez, especially now that he sports more than a five-o’clock shadow), was both earnest and avid in sharing his plans for the province.

Traditionally beholden to mining, Surigao del Norte has now embarked on an environmentalist thrust to promote eco-tourism. How can the two co-exist, we ask Gov. Ace. His answer is forthright. A balance can be struck, he confidently avers, provided that the provincial officials, led by him, do their part.

The grand enchantment provided by Siargao Island and Bucas Grande Island alone, in particular the natural marvels of yet little-known Sohoton Cove, is guaranteed to keep Surigao del Norte on the good map as reflected on any global radar.


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